Polygamy Numbers

24 Oct

Ben Park shared this critique of the popular misconception that only 3% of Mormons practiced polygamy:

[In early August], FAIR went live with their Mormon Defense League website.[1] Among the “false claims” the website seeks to debunk concern the LDS Church’s current relationship to polygamy. In an effort to distinguish the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from polygamous groups in the western United States, the MDL emphasized that plural marriage was a limited practice that had been officially stopped over a century ago. (Including perpetuating the unfortunate rhetorical battle over the label “Mormon”–a battle of deep irony when considering our frustration of others refusing us the label “Christian.”) To answer the question of the number of Mormons who practiced polygamy, it replied that “modern estimates of LDS members practicing polygamy prior to 1904 range between 2% and 20%.” While the website does admit that it is tough to get an accurate number, and that it depends on who you count within the statistics, their final number (2% to 20%) is unfortunate in that it is not only false but misleading.

The MDL shouldn’t be blamed as the first organization to present this number. The 2% figure, which has been perpetuated for over a century through many sources, probably originated with the Utah Commission in the mid 1880s, which in turn was probably received from the LDS Church itself in hopes to downplay the practice of polygamy in the era of federal prosecution. It was then echoed in the Reed Smoot Trials from 1904-1907 as the Church sought to distance itself from its polygamist past. The figure appeared in many public venues–most notably LDS-owned newspapers–in the 1930s as LDS Leaders worked to put distance between themselves and the growing fundamentalist organizations. It still crops up today, most notably in President Hinckley’s interview with Larry King where it was presented that “between two percent and five percent of our people were involved in [polygamy].”[2] If only 2% of Mormons practiced polygamy, this reasoning tends to argue, then it wasn’t nearly as bit a role within the Church as detractors would like to claim.[3]

The biggest problem with this number is that it is demonstrably wrong. Demographical work done by Kathryn Daynes and others that shows that the number of Mormon individuals living in polygamous households was closer to 20 to 30%, with variations over time and region.[4] One would have to take some seriously narrow parameters to get anything close to 2%, and some very optimistic framing to have a top number of 20%. Granted, there were decades and areas that had lower percentages, but there were plenty of times and periods that made up for it.

The second major problem with these statistics is that it emphasizes only the male acceptance or practice of polygamy. The only way 2% could be anywhere close to valid is if it were only counting husbands. The only way 20% could be in anyway close would be not to count children. Such a perspective overlooks the far-reaching grasp of polygamy–and indeed the fact that “women and children” would be considered a “far-reaching grasp” should cause one to pause. This framework perpetuates the male-centered nature of the LDS past, where women (and in this case, children) are merely props on the Mormon stage or pawns in the LDS chess game. By focusing on men, polygamy becomes a “duty,” an extension of “obedience,” and a lesson in “stewardship.” If it were looked at from a woman’s or child’s point of view, however, it is a much more poignant sense of sacrifice and in many cases, loneliness. The male-centered perspective can mesh with the contemporary emphasis on priesthood diligence and patriarchal order; the female- and child-centered perspective fails to match modern-day emphases on love and familial closeness. We all eagerly await Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s volume on this topic.[5]

The third and final problem is the very assumption that giving a percentage can quantify the importance of polygamy to 19th century Mormonism. These statistics are generally given to prove that plural marriage was not as bit as critics like to proclaim; in reality, the importance of polygamy before the manifesto cannot be quantified. It was at the center of LDS theology, it was emphasized within Mormon practice, and it was exemplified by all ecclesiastical leaders. The fact that it was at the center of the Mormon ideal image transcends demographics. A few examples help provide a glimpse: Plural wife Esther Romania Bunnell Penrose proclaimed polygamy as “the platform on which is built Endless Kingdoms and lives and no other or all combined principles revealed can be substituted as a compensation.”[6] Brigham Young’s counselor Daniel W. Wells, when under oath in the Reynolds Trial, explained that if Mormons “failed to obey it [polygamy] they would be under condemnation, and would be clipped in their glory in the world to come.”[7] Joseph F. Smith in 1878 protested against the “false idea” that monogomy was enough for the highest glory, and that “whoever has imagined that he could obtain the fullness of the blessings pertaining to this celestial law, by complying with only a portion of its conditions, has deceived himself. He cannot do it.”[8] As late as 1884, Apostle Moses Thatcher declared polygamy was “the chief corner stone in the hands of [God].”[9] That same year, George Q. Cannon emphasized that he “did not feel like holding up his hand to sustain anyone as a presiding officer over any portion of the people who had not entered into the Patriarchal order of Marriage,” and that everyone who is capable “must have more than one wife at a time in order to obey that Law.”[10]

Now I am not saying that polygamy still holds a prominent position within LDS theology, because I am not. (Though I do admit that remnants remain within our teachings, culture, and especially, and most unfortunately, parts of our temple worship.) Polygamy has nothing to do with my understanding of Mormonism as I believe and practice it. I also agree that, in public relations, there should be a clear difference made between the LDS Church and other fundamentalist Mormon sects. I just don’t think we should downplay 19th century Mormon conceptions of polygamy, misconstruing history and possibly insulting the thousands who dedicated their life and belief to the principle, to do so.


[1] Hopefully it is modeled after the Anti-Defamation League rather than the similarly-named Jewish Defense League. Also, the MDL should be commended for being frank and honest about post-manifesto polygamy leading up to 1904.

[2] President Hinckley Interview with Larry King, 8 September 1998, text found here.

[3] David G. kindly provided me with information on the 2% figure, which he received from conversation with B. Carmen Hardy.

[4] Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One : Transformation Of The Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001), esp. 91-115.

[5] A preview can be found in Ulrich, “An American Album, 1857,” American Historical Review 115 (February 2010): 1-25.

[6] Esther Romania Bunnell Penrose, Memoir, LDS Archives, in B. Carmen Hardy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2007), 112.

[7] ”The Reynolds Trial,” Deseret News, 15 December 1875.

[8] ”Discourse Delivered by Elder Jos. F. Smith,” Deseret News, 11 September 1878.

[9] ”Remarks by Apostle Moses Thatcher,” 4 April 1884, Deseret News Weekly, 7 May 1884.

[10] Charles Lowell Walker, Diary, 26 April 1884, in The Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, ed. Andrew Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, 2 vols. (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:629; Wilford Woodruff, diary, 9 March 1884, in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, ed. Scott Kenney (Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1983), 8:235.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 24, 2011 in History, Marriage


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: