Single Men: Let’s Keep Polygamy Forbidden and Illegal

I’m asking the single men of the Church to step up and help out in keeping polygamy illegal, or at least forbidden. Let me explain by pointing out why that practice might not have been so crazy after all, in terms of one interesting explanation Brigham Young offered. The forbidden part is easy: if you’ll follow inspired guidance from the prophets, we’ll be OK. (The illegal part might be a bit more difficult as our nation increasingly revises laws and definitions of marriage to support alternative lifestyles – and soon it will be hard to tolerate everything except polygamy. Well, I’ll settle for forbidden.)

Here’s my wordy explanation:

It has often been argued that polygamy may have been instituted in part to help provide for women and ensure them the blessings of marriage, when otherwise it might not have been possible. It’s easy to shoot down some of the associate legends about large numbers of Mormon men being killed by mob persecution, creating a need for men to care for more than one wife: the numbers of men killed were pretty small, and in general there were actually more men in Utah during the time of polygamy than there were women. (And polygamy began during a time of peace before the real trouble in Missouri and Illinois began.) But there may be some support for the idea that polygamy helped provide marriage opportunities for women to faithful males, when the women otherwise might have been unable to find a suitable mate. See “Single Men in a Polygamous Society: Male Marriage Patterns in Manti, Utah” by Kathryn M. Daynes, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 24. No. 1 (Spring 1998), pp. 89-111. (The link is to an 8 MB PDF file for entire edition, including Daynes’ article.) This article points out that when one looks at the distribution of men and women of prime marrying age in Utah, there was often a surplus of women. And if one factors in the non-LDS segment of the population, which was overwhelmingly male, and the relative lower rate of men who received their endowments versus women, then there was a significant shortage of qualified men for temple marriage during the time when polygamy was in force. This shortage is examined using the population in the Manti area as a case study.

Interestingly, Brigham Young indicated at least once that a key reason for polygamy was to compensate for the tendency of many men to not marry, thus providing an opportunity for more women to enjoy the blessings of marriage. Here is a fascinating quotation from a talk given in 1868, parts of which are also quoted by Kathryn Daynes:

There is a little matter I want to speak upon to you, my sisters. It is a subject that is very obnoxious to outsiders. They have given us the credit for industry and prudence; but we have one doctrine in our faith that to their view is erroneous, and very bad; it is painful to think of. Shall I tell you what it is sisters? “Oh,” says one, “I know what you mean, my husband has two, four, or half a dozen wives.” Well, I want to tell the sisters how to free themselves from this odium as many of them consider it. This doctrine so hateful and annoying to the feelings of many, was revealed from heaven to Joseph Smith, and obedience is required to it by the Latter-day Saints,-this very principle will work out the moral salvation of the world. Do you believe it? It makes no difference whether you do or not, it is true. It is said that women rule among all nations; and if the women, not only in this congregation, Territory and government, but the world, would rise up in the spirit and might of the holy gospel and make good men of those who are bad, and show them that they will be under the necessity of marrying a wife or else not have a woman at all, they would soon come to the mark. Yes, this odious doctrine will work out the moral reformation and salvation of this generation. People generally do not see it; my sisters do not see it; and I do not know that all the elders of Israel see it. But if this course be pursued, and we make this the rule of practice, it will force all men to take a wife. Then we will be satisfied with one wife. I should have been in the beginning; the one wife system would not have disagreed with me at all. If the prophet had said to me, “Brother Brigham, you can never have but one wife at a time.” I should have said, “glory, hallelujah, that is just what I like.” But he said, “you will have to take more than one wife, and this order has to spread and increase until the inhabitants of the earth repent of their evils and men will do what is right towards the females. In this also I say glory, hallelujah. Do men do that which is right now? No. You see travelers-young, middle-aged, or old-roaming over the world, and ask them where their families are, and the answer will generally be, “I have none.” You go to the city of New York, and among the merchants there I doubt whether there is one man in three who has a wife. Go to the doctor and ask him, “where is your wife and family?” and, “thank God I have none,” will be his reply. It is the same with the lawyer. Ask him about his wife, and his reply will be, “O bless me, I havn’t [haven’t] any, I say it to my praise, I am not troubled with a family.” You to the parson, and were it not for his profession, the cloak of religion that is around him, not one in a thousand of them would have wife or children.

Do not he startled, my sisters; do not be at all afraid; just get influence enough among the daughters of Eve in the midst of this generation until you have power enough over the males to bring them to their senses so that they will act according to the rule of right, and you will see that we will be free at once, and the elders of Israel will not be under the necessity of taking so many women. But we shall continue to do it until God tell us to stop, or until we pass into sin and iniquity, which will never be. . . .

Now, sisters, I want you to see to this. I advise you to have faith and good works; be fervent in spirit and virtue, and try to live so as to bring the men to the standard of right, then we shall have no trouble at all. I believe that in Massachusetts they have only 27,000 more women than men; but that is not many. There is a cause, perhaps, for this. A good many young men go into the army, or go here or there. What is done with the daughters of Eve? In many countries they stick them in the factories, into the fields, the coal mines, and into the streets-as I have seen hundreds of them-gathering manure, &c., working all day and getting a penny at night to buy a loaf of bread with. They stick some of them down into the iron works, under the ground to pack the ore, or into the building to lug off the iron. But the young men are sent to the wars. When England and the rest of the nations learn war no more, instead of passing a law in this or any other nation against a man having more than one wife, they will pass a law to make men do as they should in honoring the daughters of Eve and making wives of and providing for them. Will not this be a happy time? Yes, very fine. If you will produce this to-day, I’ll tell you what I would be willing to do, I would be willing to give up half or two-thirds of my wives, or to let the whole of them go, if it was necessary, if those who should take them would lead them to eternal salvation.

–Brigham Young, Discourse given at the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Aug. 9th, 1868, Journal of Discourses, 12: 261-262.

Daynes notes that the number of women receiving their endowments points to a significant imbalance in the sex ratio:

In every year sampled from the Endowment House records listing endowments of the living, however, women who received their endowments outnumbered men who did so. During the year preceding 5 May 1856, only 82 men were endowed for every 100 women. Four years later-during the year from 20 August 1850 to 15 August 1860–the number of men endowed for every 100 women dropped to 76. Ten years later . . ., it had dropped even further to 73. A decade later, by the year ending 3 June 1880, it had risen to 83 but fell again to the nadir of 73 ion the last full year endowments were given in the Endowment House, 15 October 1883 to 16 October 1884.

Daynes then turns to Manti, a settlement about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City, using it as a crucible for more intensive investigation of marriage and gender ratios. Manti was small enough to permit detailed investigation of the records while being a significant population center and the first place in Utah outside of Salt Lake to be designated for a temple. As in other parts of Utah around 1880, Manti had about 25% of its total population living in polygamous family units, and was within the mainstream of the Utah polygamy experience based on other indicators as well, though there were relatively fewer men in Manti than in other parts of Utah. Interestingly, what polygamy did was shift the advantage from men to women when it came to finding a spouse. The relative abundance of women of marrying age in Manti would have put them at a disadvantage, but with polygamy in place, the balance shifted such that there were many more single men than single women of marrying age. At one point, around 1860, there were about three times as many single men between ages 15 and 29 as there were women in the Manti area. Nevertheless, nearly all men who wanted to marry eventually did. The competitive pressure drove bachelors to marry somewhat younger than normal, and to also compete for wives younger than them, or, in some cases, by seeking wives among widows or older women. Daynes notes that the competition for women to marry improved the position of women by giving them more options and the ability to be more selective. Also, when a marriage did not work out, “Women in unsatisfactory marriages could expect opportunities for remarriage if they divorced their husbands, and thus they would not necessarily feel trapped in unhappy unions by economic pressure” (p. 110). Thus, women had more bargaining power than men in the marriage market.

Another interesting observation from Daynes:

Like many traditional societies with a high sex ratio, Mormons fostered a protective morality towards women, and women were most valued as wives and mothers. Mormon leaders’ insistence on patriarchal authority thus becomes more explicable. On the one hand, it showed a protectiveness toward women. On the other, the emphasis on patriarchy reflected a desire to maintain authority over women because high demand for them increased their value and hence potentially increased their power. Plural marriage thus not only affected marriage choices for everyone who lived in Utah but also altered the relationships between the sexes. (p. 111).

So, in terms of the allowing more women to marry, many polygamy wasn’t such a terrible idea after all. Maybe the Lord wasn’t crazy in having this temporary practice during the early days of the Church. But I’m still glad it’s over. And let’s keep it that way: come on, you single men who aren’t planning on marriage, quit wasting time! If you don’t shape up, there’s a risk that – gasp – polygamy will come back to take up the slack.

2012 Update: The link to Daynes’ article has been updated. The new site for the Journal of Mormon History, by the way, is a tremendous resource with all editions now available as PDF files. Courtesy of the Mormon History Association.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

26 thoughts on “Single Men: Let’s Keep Polygamy Forbidden and Illegal

  1. Ok, that is a new twist on polygamy that I have yet to hear, but it is just as weak as all the refuted excuses. So the Lord is going to convince men to get married by forcing women into immoral unions? Fat Chance.

    The reality is that Joseph Smith wanted relations with multiple women and dreamed up a way to make that happen.

    And he lied to the mormon population in doing it. You know that, and so does everyone else.

    Polygamy is not of God, it is of men, for men, and never did anything to advance the status of women despite the opinion of men. Please point to a woman with that same lame opinion.

  2. I am a woman and I think that this is perhaps one of the most valuable things I have read on polygamy. It makes complete sense to me as a woman. Thanks for the great post!

  3. ruadamu2,

    Your argument is as weak as it is erroneous. Next time, try backing up such broad claims with fact, citations, and logic.

    Your blanket statement “polygamy is not of God” discredits several biblical prophets that were known to have polygamous relationships as well, just as it discredits modern prophets called of God.

    Simply opining that it is a practice of men doesn’t make it so. Then again, if such is your paradigm then nothing I say will change your misguided beliefs.

  4. What is the hurry in getting married? If I were king of the world, nobody would get married until at least age 25 – and even then 30 is better. It’s important that young unmarried adults find themselves during their 20s. I would not trade my unmarried college years for anything in the world.

    I first got married at age 29, and it was way too soon. I finally did it right at age 36 and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  5. I’m curious about your choice of words “forbidden” and “illegal” in this title. The posted content explained, for the most part, why polygamy happened, not why it ought to be forbidden or illegal.

    In a free society why should polygamy be forbidden or illegal? Shouldn’t we allow others to worship “how, when, or where they may”?

    Just because you or I don’t want to be in a polygamy relationship (and claim that our God doesn’t want this either) doesn’t give us any authority to deny this to others.

  6. Conner,

    You are right about one thing. Me saying that polygamy is not of God does not make it so. Now Joseph Smith saying it is of God equally does not make it so. That is the whole problem with religion. It is a topic that cannot be disproven even though there is absolutely no evidence to support it, it can’t be refuted on the whole because you will just come back with an unfounded statement like, God doesn’t want us to know what is in the sealed plates, or we’re not ready yet.

    Come on. When will we be ready?
    I know, I know, in God’s time. Give me a break.

    Not everything you read in the Bible is true either.

  7. Well, I to am a woman, and I think that nothing mentioned in Jeff’s post makes sense. Polygamy was/is a disservice to women.

  8. Anonymous, the primary reason that the church is opposed to same-sex marriage is that they feel it would pave the way to other forms of “non-traditional marriage”. Oh, they pontificate about “the sacredness of family”, but deep down there is a fear that one day polygamy would be made legal. And given its history, the church does not want to open THAT can of worms.

    Personally, what any consenting adults do with other consenting adults as to their relationship is none of my business.

  9. I verilly testify to the veracity of Brigham Youngs words.

    I know too much of the spiritual and familial imbalance in which males tend to the deficient end.

    I don’t know as to polygamy returning in our life times. But the words sound of truth and feel of truth.

  10. As a YSA female approaching the end of my college years, it is beginning to look less and less likely that I’ll be getting married. I’ve been thinking about polygamy lately, and wondering: if I had the choice between it and remaining single and childless, which would I choose? I find polygamy absolutely revolting, and my personality type is probably the worst possible type for it, but I still am not sure which I would prefer.

  11. The plea about keeping it illegal was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Just my way of introducing the interesting issue of the effects that polygamy had on the marriage market.

    I think most will agree that polygamy was tough on everybody. Even if it helped women have more options and more market clout in the phase of getting married, I didn’t mean to imply that it made marriage any easier for the women or for anybody. A very challenging system indeed, in any dispensation. (With monogamous marriage as a close second. Being single is up there, too.)

  12. If it were all up to me, I would require a special license for plural marriage that only women over 28 could apply for. Thus only women 28 and older would be entering into polygamous unions. As for its alleged “immorality” that is a profoundly arrogant statement considering that many prophets, such as Jacob had multiple wives. To make such a pronouncement is to declare oneself the source of moral authority.

  13. Brigham seems to be suggesting that the polygynous marriage market operated competitively with the monogamous one–I’m not sure that’s true. When you look at the average age of the first wife, how did it compare to successive wives? I know in the case of Wilford Woodruff, he was 30 when he married his first wife, who was also 30. Then he married a handful of teenagers, including a 2-week-past-15-year-old. His oldest confirmed plural wife was 19! So, unless BY is suggesting that 15-year-old boys should be getting married, this doesn’t really make sense. (Then there was that whole “castration of competitors with lesser Priesthoods” kerfuffle in Manti…)

    Brigham’s closing statement is wonderfully revealing and consistent with discourses throughout his life. He clearly views wives as chattel, not partners. Of course, women cannot be true equals to men in a polygamous system, so this kind of attitude isn’t suprising; what’s amazing is that Mormonism taught (and now is silent on, as opposed to teaching otherwise) that this was the Celestial order of things. Not only do we practice it here, but God practices it and so did Jesus.

    A final thing that is interesting here is that the church is still very female-heavy when it comes to faithful members. Given that polygyny is still practiced in the event of death or “temporal divorce,” it seems like once the system becomes legal the church will be stuck in another awkward bind, at least among those who hold it to any kind of standard. Well, to give the church credit, they are consistent in their duplicitous nature around the issue, decrying it publicly while practicing it privately, just like the good ol’ days of the 1830’s.

  14. I have long speculated along the same lines as Bro. Brigham regarding polygamy, but was never sufficiently motivated to do the research. Thanks, Jeff.

    Ruadamu2 says, “…religion…is a topic that cannot be disproven even though there is absolutely no evidence to support it…”

    Well, there is evidence, and plenty of it. I think what he meant to say was “proof”. There’s quite a big difference between “evidence” and “proof”.

    My point being, that those who are willing to exercise the faith to follow the bread crumb trail make amazing discoveries. The faith that must be exercised is not to believe in some intellectual concept, but rather to obey God’s commandments and to seek him diligently. Don’t mistake Jeff’s interesting posts as an attempt to prove anything.

    One good thing that Warren Jeffs has provided for us is the “signature” of someone who uses religion as a front for evil purposes. I can’t say that it resembles the pattern or products of Joseph Smith’s life in any meaningful way.

  15. Of course MOST Americans believe in polygamy and polyandry–they just do serially, not parallel (re: divorce and remarriage). -cp

  16. And then there are those who condemn LDS for (previous) polygamous marriage, all the while going merrily from partner to partner without marriage at all.

  17. I am a woman who sometimes wishes Polygamy were still the way of the church. I would rather share a righteous man than have my choice of all the unrighteous ones. I am a 3-year convert to the Church and have been single for a long time. I always wanted a man with ‘Mormon’ standards but didn’t know where to find one. Now I know but the righteous ones are taken!

  18. I have doubts about the statistics put forward by ujlapana. In any case many plural wives were past 30 at the time of the marriage.

    the list goes on.

    Another curious fact is that some women were married to Joseph Smith after he was dead. Presumably, this must have been with his permission.

  19. I agree with the entire idea of Polygamy I mean love is love yes or no? How can it be cheating if everyone knows everyone else. I believe there should be rules such as there are with nrmal marriages and such as being of legal age and things. I personally think that the image of a few dictate how the mjority feel as they are either followers or misguided. I for one would like to see people have more open mindedness and I would like to see more love in this world. I believe there is far too much hate and maybe if we all loved one another like it says in every writing “from” God’s (gods’) words it says to love one another adn such. If your not for sharing then by all means find someone who isn’t into that either how ever if you are into it, in the words of Nike “Just do it.” I mean what happens in the bedroom should stay there, unless your invited to join my wife and I stay the hell out of my bedroom.

  20. Doug, did you read my post?

    #1) I didn’t present any statistics, only instances from one man’s life.
    #2) That man was Wilford Woodruff, not Joseph Smith.

    I could have made a mistake, but correct what I said, don’t go off on something totally unrelated. Joseph Smith did marry a wide range of ages, but he also did it on the sly (i.e. he actively lied about it to many people, including his wife). Once it went mainstream, what were the average marriage ages like? That’s the question.

  21. I think in the time from the 40-60s men where looking to get married, but where I come from today you often hear of women complaining that men just dont want to get married,

    but you also have a turning of times where women are refusing to marry also.

    another thought on the matter of polgamy is Muslims in Ireland whom practice such things seem to be able to do so with ease without punishment from the Goverment

    prehaps this is to do with not wishing to offend Muslims, in the poltically correct world that we live in today,

    if the same where applied to LDS in their time frame my guess is we would still be a people whom practise polygamy,

    now the question would be is that such a bad thing..

  22. I see no problem of it being legal or the lord restoring it. It is only a western idealogy that is is taboo. Threw out the bible people had many wives crist had more than one as well. Read the journal of discourse is you dont belive me. There will be a time in the not so distant time that it will be reinstated. See teachings of j.s. he said that the time of 7 women taking hold one man had not been fulilled he said that after he anounced polygamy. Im all for it if the man can suport more then one wife in all aspects of life. As for me one is enough work.

  23. Before converting, I studied and studied on the subject — anti materials, church materials, historical, etc. I unfortunately agree with the first poster. Joseph Smith although a wonderful tool for Heavenly Father was a man – a flawed man. Unfortunately, like many men of God, he had a weakness for women, and there is no valid historical perspective that supports polygamy. That fact that it was kept secret at onset, and that many members were not spritually convicted of the practice, to me proves its falsity

  24. The male female birth ratio is 106 male births to 100 female births, there is already a built in imbalance. Men however, die younger than women but the numbers do not begin to equalize until middle age, then women begin to outnumber men. Aggregate numbers of males/females indicate more women than men but the women are older and past their reproductive years.
    Add the factor of polygamy with a natural imbalance and you get a lot of single bachelors with no opportunity for marriage. Do the math, one man with 3 wives means 2. something single men. These men shouldn’t be marrying or pursuing underage girls and don’t want to marry 60 + year old women.
    Bottom line, polygamy is a way in which certain men in a good old boys type network can have multiple women while unfairly cutting other men out. I guess it’s a good deal if you’re one of those boys in good with the inner circle but if you’re not then you’re a fool for buying into it.

  25. Just a thought. God loves his daughters. His marriage plan is so his daughters can be Mothers and wives in an honorable marriage with an honorable man that will treat her with love and respect.
    After one marriage and several years with the adult singles, I found that honorable man and that full life. Too bad a woman has to leave the LDS church to find the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the joy the fullness of it can bring.

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