Today, drive State Street in downtown Salt Lake City or the Interstate-15 corridor through Utah County and there are cryptic billboards advertising, "Plural Marriage: A Sacred Pioneer Heritage."
They are the work of Shane and Rhonda Whelan, a devout and monogamous Mormon couple from Davis County whose new book about appreciating Mormonism's polygamist roots, More Than One, has become a bit like the "Victoria's Secret" lingerie catalog that gets stashed in the clothes hamper when the home teachers visit.
"When we first started promoting this book, we had many members of the church tell us they were afraid to let anyone know they had looked at it or read it, that it was like having a dirty book in the house," said Shane Whelan.
Like their book, the Whelans' billboard campaign targets members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who may struggle with conflicting feelings toward polygamy. It may be outlawed by the church and state of Utah, but it is an ancestral fact of life for many heritage Mormons.
"We launched the billboard campaign to counter any feelings of shame about having ancestors and emphasize polygamy was not a dirty word but a sacred pioneer heritage," said Rhonda Whelan. "That's why we used pictures of these great Mormon ancestors on the billboard. We figured, who is going to call the billboard company and complain, 'I don't approve of my pioneer heritage'?"
While the Whelans have fielded some complaints about the topic and the ad campaign, they attribute the criticism to people who have not read the book and believe it simply promotes polygamy.
The book's preface does praise polygamy as a "true and pure principle that will once again be practiced among the Saints as part of the restoration of the fullness of the gospel and in preparation for the Savior's Second Coming."
"If you are an active Latter-day Saint you sustain the prophet, whether it is 1860 or today," he said. "We believe in sustaining the prophet and are saying plural marriage should not be practiced when it is against the law of the land and is against the mandate of the prophet."
President Gordon Hinckley condemned the practice in a 1998 CNN interview, saying it was neither doctrinal nor legal: "It's behind us."
Nevertheless, by emphasizing the difference between the modern practice and what they call the "promise for tomorrow" of polygamy, the Whelans have made some inroads in making the book acceptable to mainstream Mormons, including local ecclesiastical leaders.
Brigham Young University's bookstore ordered 30 copies of More Than One to stock on its shelves, and the church-owned Deseret Book store chain is reviewing the content, although Shane Whelan is not holding his breath about getting an OK.
"We took this project to every LDS publisher out there and they all rejected it because the topic was too controversial, which is why we created our own publishing company and mortgaged everything to get this story out," said Whelan, a former marketing executive who left his job two years ago to work on the book. He said the book sold out the first run of 3,000 and is in a second printing.
Only one of three billboard companies hesitated when the Whelans came to buy space. Young Electric Sign Co. in Salt Lake City, which last year rejected Wasatch Beer's campaign promoting Polygamy Porter beer, signed them on after company officials reviewed the book and found it met company standards.
Others are more leery.
"The roots of the patriarchal polygamy we see today are from the Mormon religion and the LDS Church has never condemned the principle of polygamy, only its practice," Prunty says. "That sort of leaves the door open and we are concerned this book could mislead more Mormons into polygamy. We don't need to relive our past mistakes anymore."
The Whelans say they are not trying to entice active Mormons to embrace a polyfidelity lifestyle, only to encourage acceptance and appreciation of ancestors who lived the principle in the turbulent context of Utah territorial times.