As the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon or LDS Church) enters the media spotlight more and more, especially surrounding the 2012 election of Mitt Romney, many questions arise concerning the rumors of polygamy. Did the Mormon church practice polygamy before, and does it practice polygamy now?
The short answer is that, yes, the Mormon church did practice polygamy until 1890. Since that time, the Mormons have not practiced polygamy. In fact, even in countries where polygamy is legal, polygamists cannot join the LDS Church. If a member of the LDS church is caught practicing polygamy, they are excommunicated (are no longer members).
The Real History of Polygamy and Utah’s Statehood
The LDS church began the practice of polygamy in the 1840s under the direction of its Prophet, Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith had 24 documented wives according to familysearch.org, a Website powered by the LDS church. This practice continued after Joseph Smith was killed, and the new Prophet, Brigham Young, lead the church west to Utah in 1847. It wasn’t until 1862 that some sort of polygamy law was attempted by the United States.
Due to persecution (including enduring harassment, physical abuse, robbery, rape, superfluous charges/imprisonments, and even murders), the Mormons were forced to move on multiple occasions. The Mormons were taught by top church leaders that the Constitution of The United States is inspired of God; yet, it didn’t protect the Mormons from mob violence and constant provocation.
Utah, at the time, was largely uninhabited, and was still considered Mexican territory (see 1847 map of Mexico). Once claimed by the United States in 1848 as a US territory, the US federal government began trying to dictate the practices of the church. In the 1850s, the president sent someone to Utah with 2,500 troops to replace the mormon leader, Brigham Young, as the governor, which resulted in the Utah War.
A Quick Note About Mormon Polygamy
The Bible contains Old Testament prophets practicing polygamy as early as Genesis. Within the Book of Deuteronomy (in the Bible), laws governing polygamy can also be found. In Christianity in general, many churches practiced polygamy at least up through the 1500s.
The government in Germany encouraged it’s citizens to practice polygamy in 1560, following a war in which many male citizens were killed – leaving many women husbandless, and a very large women-to-men ratio. In the United States, polygamy was also practiced among other people outside the Mormon church.
Mormons became known for being predominant promoters of the practice, and often had very large families. Male church members were often assigned to marry widows who had children, to women who would otherwise not be wed, and to other women in order to ensure greater posterity. Other members were not assigned to marry polygamously, but did so for various reasons. Needless to say, a large percent of polygamous Mormon homes parented and raised many children in the 1800s.
…and Back to The History of Utah/Mormon Polygamy
Many Mormon men had families with two wives by the 1860s, and the church was not going to give up its freedom of religion in order to become a state. When a new law called The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (which was criticized of being very poorly written and full of holes) went into effect, it specified that Bigamy meant having two wives. In order to keep two-wife families together, the law essentially required the Mormons to either ditch one of their wives and children or to take a third wife to avoid being held in violation.
So, by the time the law was “fixed” in the 1880s via the Edmunds Act and the Edmunds-Tucker Act, many families now had three wives. The new law required polygamists to abandon their families and wives beyond one wife or else face felony charges, prison time, loss of all property, and loss of the right to vote. Their wives and children would be forced to live in separate homes from them, and to survive without spousal support.
Many Mormon men who were the soul provider for very large families were thrown into prison. Many church members fled south to Mexican territory (outside of US jurisdiction) in order to keep their families in tact, and to avoid punishment of the law. The United States had effectively threatened to annihilate the Mormons if they didn’t abandon the practice of polygamy and become a state. I bolded the word “and” to denote that the Mormons of Utah were constantly petitioned and pushed into statehood, but refused until threatened with the punishments outlined in the Edmunds-Tucker Act. The Mormons did not desire statehood unless they could continue to practice their religious beliefs.
Wikipedia states that,
“The final element in President Woodruff’s revelatory experience came on the evening of September 23, 1890. The following morning, he reported to some of the General Authorities that he had struggled throughout the night with the Lord regarding the path that should be pursued. The result was a 510-word handwritten manuscript which stated his intentions to comply with the law and denied that the church continued to solemnize or condone plural marriages. The document was later edited by George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency and others to its present 356 words. On October 6, 1890, it was presented to the Latter-day Saints at the General Conference and approved.” (Also see 1890 Manifesto)
Mitt Romney’s Pedegree
Many Mormon families that did not flee to Mexico were broken apart – leaving many men in jail for several years, and many more of their wives and children forcefully abandoned. One of the men who refused to abandon his family of multiple wives and children was Miles Park Romney.
Miles Park Romney’s son, Gaskell Romney (born in 1871) met up with his father in Mexico, married an American Mormon living in the colony, had a few children (including George W. Romney), and moved back to the US during the Mexican Revolution in 1912. Gaskell Romney only married one woman (as this was after the 1890 Manifesto and the Edmunds-Tucker Act). After Gaskell’s first wife died in 1926, he remarried in 1927.
Gaskell’s son, George W. Romney, eventually left the US to serve a mission in Great Britain for the LDS church, came home, and married his wife in Salt Lake, UT. In 1947, the couple had their fourth child, Mitt Romney.
Several sects of the Catholic Church have broken away due to doctrinal differences or diverging practices. Most of these are considered Protestant churches. The Catholic Church does not claim any Christian sect as part of its fold. Likewise, several LDS doctrinal differences or other issues have lead to the break-away of several sects from the Mormon church. A few of these sects fell away based on the fact that they would not give up polygamy, and based on their rejection of their church leaders.
Mitt Romney doesn’t belong to any of these sects, and never has. Mitt was born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has always kept his membership in the church. Like many generations before him, Mitt served a two-year mission for his church. Also like every other young missionary, he didn’t pick where he served his mission – that’s a decision left to the top leaders of the church. Mitt Romney was assigned to serve his mission in France. To view Mitt Romney’s views on faith, and to find out how his religion has impacted his life, check out the speech he gave in 2007. To learn more about Mitt’s Presidential platform, check out his official campaign Website at http://mittromney.com.