Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Polygamy by Numbers: How Many Mormons Were Really Involved?


A polygamous family in early Utah

Last week I discussed the question of polygamy’s role in Mormon theology and whether the LDS concept of heaven still suggests it will involve plural marriage. I’m intrigued by the apparent gender breakdown of the comments on this post, on Twitter, and especially on Joanna Brooks‘s Facebook link, which had 92 comments as of this morning. In general (insofar as gender can be ascertained here), it seems that many Mormon men have very little problem with imagining a polygamous heaven; Mormon women, not so much. As one woman tweeted, “I’d rather stay telestial if that’s what they’re offering.”


I’m with you, sister.

Today’s post concerns another aspect of polygamy that bothers me, as it clearly bothered the blog reader whose story I discussed last week. Remember that an important aspect of this woman’s disaffection was that she felt betrayed—lied to by a bishop who swore to her that polygamy was a non-issue when she could discover for herself through basic research that polygamy has been accorded a far higher place in LDS theology and history than her bishop led her to believe. I’m inclined to give her bishop the benefit of the doubt and assume he simply didn’t know Mormon history very well, which is all the more likely given the untenable and misleading statements about polygamous history that we sometimes hear from high-ranking church officials in Salt Lake City. Therein lies a problem.


For example, in a 1998 interview on Larry King Live, LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley assured King that polygamy was only ever practiced by 2% to 5% of the Saints. Unfortunately, that’s an error—and because it was stated by a living prophet, it’s an error that has been repeated over and over as gospel truth.

President Hinckley did not pull the figure out of thin air. The single-digit figure comes from just over a century ago, when Joseph F. Smith had to testify in the Reed Smoot hearings about polygamy’s persistence. Smith said that “3 to 4 percent” of men were practicing polygamy at that time, some 14 years after the Church had officially disavowed the practice.


However, Hinckley’s conversation had been about when the Mormons “came west” in the 1840s, a completely different marital landscape. Hinckley asserted that polygamy had been permitted “on a restricted scale” during this time, and trotted out the 2 to 5% figure.

But not only was that figure describing a situation more than a decade after Mormons weren’t supposed to be practicing polygamy anymore, it was an estimate of the men involved with plural marriage. Obviously any percentage which included women would be significantly higher, and estimates of children living in polygamous families would be higher still.

The question remains: How widespread was polygamy in the 19th century? Professional historians put the figure for polygamy at a low of one-fifth for the late nineteenth century and a high of nearly one-third, with practices varying considerably from community to community and decade to decade. Historian Tom Alexander says:


At present, perhaps the best estimates of the number of polygamous families among late-nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints range between 20 and 30 percent. Nevertheless, studies of individual communities show a wide variation in the incidence of plurality. Using 1880 census data, geographer Lowell C. “Ben” Bennion found the lowest percentage of polygamous families—5 percent—in Davis County’s south Weber and the highest—67 percent—in Orderville. He found 15 percent in Springville. In a study of St. George, historian Larry Logue found nearly 30 percent of the families polygamous in 1870 and 33 percent in 1880. (Alexander’s centennial history of Utah, quoted in Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity, 65 and 192)


I spoke with a historian last week about these numbers, and was reminded that statistics themselves are fungible (and that the actual numbers for polygamy were likely higher in the late 1870s and 1880s, when many polygamists went underground to avoid arrest). The real issue is: what question are we trying to answer with the number?

Numbers don’t tell the whole story. “I think the answer that explains more is to say that polygamy was always practiced by the elite, though that’s an unfortunate term,” said this historian. “Consequently, the statistical number across the board for Mormons may be relatively few, but that belies its importance. Religiously, it was a very big deal.”

Almost all of the highest-ranking leaders of the Church were polygamists in the late nineteenth century. Polygamy was at the center of LDS society, sermons, political lobbying, and soteriology. To downplay its historical significance is disingenuous.


I’m reminded of the late 1990s, when we were all given the new Relief Society and priesthood manuals that dealt with the teachings of the prophets. The first year’s prophet was Brigham Young, and if you looked at his timeline, only his first wife, Miriam Works, and his second wife, Mary Ann Angell, were mentioned. And Miriam had died before he married Mary Ann. So, if you were looking at the Young timeline and had no other historical information to go on, you would naturally assume that Young had been a monogamist who married again only after he became a widower, and that he only ever had two wives.

Such a sanitized presentation is simply wrong, both factually and morally. Mormons don’t need to dissemble about our history. We can acknowledge the past honestly without feeling defensive.


  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment chris

    So wait, is it accurate that around 5% (or less) of marriage age men had multiple wives?

    I understand there is another, and no less important perspective, which includes women and children who were within a plural marriage culture. And the point, “Religiously, it was a very big deal” is pretty banal. Of course it was a big deal, JS was likely killed in part by it, an army sent west to oppress because of it, disenfranchisement, imprisonment, etc. etc. Observing it was a big deal, is like stating that families grieve when a loved one dies.

    But was the point of both Prophets that most Mormon men are not out gathering up as many wives as possible? — I think that was the point. And it was in fact a small minority at that.

    Unless those numbers are wrong, but I don’t see that being disputed here unless I am not reading clearly.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Peter

    In the history of the world, there has been only a few instances that I can think of when God commanded polygamy. At least that is what I see in the bible. The Doctrine and Covenants seems to indicate that the purpose is to raise up children unto the Lord.

    Most people use section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants to show that polygamy is essential to salvation. However, a careful reading of that section shows that it never says any such thing. It is about eternal marriage, not polygamy.

    I suppose that there is some polygamy in the eternities. We worry about this in our finite world. But in the eternities, things are not the same. God is capable of loving billions of people perfectly. So it seems to me that an infinite being could love additional wives without sacrificing any love for the first wife.

    The trick for us is to maintain sufficient faith in the fact that Gods plan (whatever it is) will be perfectly fine.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Since Joseph F. Smith (whose family is in the picture), Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow are going to have their polygamous families in the eternities, then regardless of whether any new polygamous marriages are performed in the future (such as during the Millenium when Christ reigns on earth), there are always going to be polygamous families in the eternities.

    Even if polygamous eternal marriages are available to us in the Millenium or thereafter, there is no reason to think that anyone is going to be forced to enter a polygamous marriage against his or her will. Assigning women to be plural wives to a man they have not themselves chosen is an abuse carried out in various apostate sects that rejected the LDS Church, and I have never seen any indication of any such practice in the historical, sanctioned LDS polygamy of the 19th Century.

    So we are going to have some neighbors in the Celestial Kingdom who are polygamists, like those past Church presidents, not that we are going to be involved in such relationships ourselves. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to avoid association with Young, Smith, Woodruff or Snow, in the eternities, just because of their multiple wives.

    I was just reading an article in in which Ugo Perego, a geneticist, reported that DNA testing had once again shown that a person who had been rumored to be the child of a Joseph Smith with a woman sealed to him in eternal marriage was not in fact a Smith descendant. It looks like the typical senior drug dealers in our modern inner cities have more kids with multiple women than Joseph Smith did.

    Most of what I have read about the difficulty of living as a plural wife in LDS-sanctioned 19th Century polygamy was a result of the Federal laws that criminalized it and made it difficult for families to stay together and support each other. The kind of weird hybrid of polygamy that has been created by various splinter sects is notable more for the ways it differs from the LDS polygamy of a century past.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment BH ROBERTS IV

    I would imagine that the same percentage of LDS that actively hold temple recommends is close to the percentage that practiced polygamy back in the day. A decade ago when I had access to such info, my California Stake ran about 18% of membership with active recommends. I suppose some stakes in Utah run higher percentages because of social pressures. Makes me think the 20% to 30% of membership practicing polygamy at the end of the 19th century is about right, because overall activity rates were probably higher too. (contrasted with the current activity rate of about 40% or less)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment chris

    Can you clear something up? The numbers get labeled misleading, but now it seems BH Roberts above is being mislead by the numbers you gave. Either that or I am misunderstanding something.

    When it’s said there were 20-30% polygamous families, I do not take that to mean 20-30% of all married ages males were polygamous as Roberts comment re: temple recommends suggests.

    Or is it the case the 20-30% of males were married to two or more women?

    My understanding is, that figure is calculated by taking the total population of women and children and men and determining which of them were in a polygamous family. That is certainly a valid perspective, and adds to the picture, but no more valid than the 2-5% figure in that case. To me it’s like debating over the mean, median, and mode and saying it’s misleading to use the mean when someone else used the median. It’s good to understand both to get the whole picture.

    Naturally, if 2-5% of men had multiple wives, then you’d see the numbers of children raised in polygamous families increase. I suppose you could say the children were “practicing” polygamy in that sense, but it conveys a very different meaning. So even when you throw out some numbers seeming to refute one thing, I’m not sure if you are doing it, but instead just showing another half of the picture. Clarification please?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment aka_me

    it is important to note, according to the LDS church…

    God has never banned polygamy OR slavery.

    the ban on polygamy resulted in humans deciding it should be done in order to become a state of the union.

    the ban on slavery resulted in the hard fought American Civil War.

    which opens the possibility BOTH are being practiced in the Celestial Kingdom.

  • Sarah Collett

    I just want to say that I am a Mormon woman who seriously considered leaving the church and decided to stay simply because I am a Christian who loves the Christ that I encounter in the BoM. However the decision was the culmination of eight years of study and inquest. I have read enough to know that the only way anyone would stick to the doctrinal veracity of polygamy is if they were under the opinion that JS was incapable of making a mistake. The doctrine of polygamy is questionable on so many levels. To start it is in direct conflict with the doctrine of the BoM. It’s history is sordid and hard to take. I’m obviously in the dark on how God will sort out this mess but I fill confident that our view of eternal relationships is so inadequate on every level that I can trust what my own relationship with God dictates: Women are equal in every way to men and will not be forced into some patriarchal order to gain salvation. What ever happened to Christ’s teachings? Are we really supposed to believe that he came to the earth to teach the doctrine of salvation to all men and women only to pull the rug out from under us with a “Oh ya and I forgot that you all have to form polygamous family units to live with me in heaven? Seriously.

  • Sarah Collett

    And one more thing. Please nobody give me the Salvation vs Exaltation spiel. If the Book of Mormon contains the fullness of the Gospel how come we feel the need to add to it. JS was a choice Sear who was called to translate the BoM, not take on plural wives.

  • Antonio


    you mentioned the Teachings of the presidents of the church series. Let me just add that they apparently tried to sound a little more sincere with the John Taylor volume, where it said the timeline would ommit some events such as his marriages. But then when the last volume came out … it couldn’t be any different this time – Joseph Smith was also turned into a monogamist.

  • Pingback: The Sounding Board: Mormonism & Polygamy – a Call to Honesty « The Accidental Atheist

  • Pingback: Mormons can now say the P word -- polygamy -- at church | Flunking Sainthood

  • iloveit

    Do not take my word as gospel, I am just brainstorming here. I’ve always wondered what would happen if a child who had died and was never married still had a soul mate. I always thought every one had one soul mate. I still do. Plural marriage was absolutely necessary for the building of the Church. I believe that each of the small percent of men who practiced polygamy had one of their wives as their true soul mate. As a women, I believe the other wives are not forgotten, and they have their one soul mate as well. If you believe in the millenium, then wouldn’t it be a place where people got married for eternity by their soul mate? I think the women will find their true soul mate in the millenium. In their time on earth, they must have really believed that this church was true, or do you really think that they would go through what they went through? They weren’t FORCED to be married to a married man, but they knew that this was their duty. They must have been strong women back then. And men. What faith!

  • http://glassesgirl glassesgirl

    Actually, there are no soul mates. I looked it up… But I still think that those women who practiced polygamy were called to, like the men were. I’m sure they were not forced to ever be married to an already-married man. I’m sure that was their choice and that they will be happy in Heaven. I’ll look more into it!

  • Ron Neesum

    Uh, what’s your point? This collection of sentences was sufficiently mushy as to negate an usefulness it might have otherwise had. Yes there was polygamy. We don’t exactly know to what degree it was practiced, but everyone agrees it was a minority. We might be better served by looking at the progeny it produced and the effect it had on today’s membership numbers. One simple fact you people all seem to ignore is that given eternal marriage and what it means, the Church is still today authorizing and performing plural marriages in Temples all around the world. Gasp! One thing is for certain, though, Mormon doctrine is clear that the highest degree of glory is available to worthy monogamous couples – no one will be forced into a marriage they don’t want. Another point is clear. Everyone in the Celestial Kingdom will be married. Horrors! Don’t try and stir up the troops – try to give them truth and they will be happy and more than content.

    • B McD

      This article did a lot in clarifying a discussion I was having with my husband. He said very few, an insignificant number, practiced polygamy. I believe he was quoting the Gordon B H interview, JUST as described here.

      I asked if I could offer a challenge to his premise. He said I could, and this article was sufficient to convince him that 20-30% is a much more responsible number than 2-5%. Was the number meaningful or significant? Yes. 20-30% cannot be called insignificant.

      As far as an increase in progeny, there weren’t enough women to go around according to many quotes, PLUS it is a false assumption that polygamy automatically produces more children. A assumption I have seen challenged and defeated.

      People don’t gasp over plural marriages that only take place ‘in the next life’. Just like they needn’t worry about which planet they will rule over.

      Mormon doctrine (according the the Journal of Discourses) was NOT always so clear about monogamous Celestial marriages. According to Brigham, you may not be a polygamist and still receive salvation, but then you won’t enter the highest level of the CK either.

      “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.”

      – Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 11, p. 269

      Read bunch more of these lovely quotes, and ‘learn’ yourself a bit more.

Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Flunking Sainthood. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Fellowship of Saints and Sinners Happy Reading!!! ...

posted 3:12:01pm Jul. 05, 2012 | read full post »

Thank You, Flunking Sainthood Readers!
OK, I admit it. I have a Google Alert on the title Flunking Sainthood, so that the search engine lets me know when there are new reviews or discussions about the book. In the last few weeks it has been exciting -- and humbling -- to see the many ...

posted 12:41:10pm Jan. 25, 2012 | read full post »

NYC Conference on Mormonism & American Politics, February 3-4
"First Mitt won Iowa, then he lost Iowa? That's a classic Romney flip-flop." --Stephen Colbert     Working with the theory that there hasn't been nearly enough attention to Mormonism and politics this year, what with it being ...

posted 11:09:19am Jan. 23, 2012 | read full post »

Writing Retreat
Friends, I will be offline until January 23 for a writing retreat. I'm bringing my computer, ...

posted 8:47:20pm Jan. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Fun with the Book of Lamentations
Actually, no. That title was just a ...

posted 11:33:13am Jan. 13, 2012 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.