Topic(s): History of the Church: Late Nineteenth Century, 1878–98
When and why did the Church once practice polygamy?
Plural marriage, popularly known as polygamy, is the practice of a man marrying more than one wife. Plural marriage was taught and practiced in the Church for a relatively brief period. Joseph Smith received the revelation about plural marriage as early as 1831 in answer to his inquiry concerning the appropriateness of revered prophets and patriarchs who had more than one wife. Joseph was reluctant to introduce the practice and did so only after divine warning. He first taught the principle privately in the 1840s. The Church began teaching it publicly in 1852. Plural marriage brought public hostility against the Church and eventually federal antipolygamy legislation that stripped Latter-day Saints of their rights as citizens, disincorporated the Church, and permitted the seizure of Church property. Plural marriage challenged those within the Church also. Early participants first wrestled with the prospect and then embraced the principle only after receiving personal spiritual confirmation that they should do so. Studies suggest that a maximum of 20 to 25 percent of Latter-day Saint adults were members of polygamous households during this era. Again by revelation, Church President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto in October 1890 announcing an official end to the Church practice of plural marriage. Since 1904, it has been uniform Church policy to excommunicate any member either practicing or openly advocating the practice of polygamy.
Written By:
Ronald K. Esplin -
Dr. Ronald Kent Esplin is the managing editor of The Joseph Smith Papers project and the former director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University.
Danel Bachman -
Danel W. Bachman has worked for the Church Educational System in Salt Lake City.
  • "Plural Marriage," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1091–95.