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When the Latter-day Saints come marching in
A lot on his plates
White and black
“Although polygamy is no longer practiced…no account of the Church’s history can be complete without some discussion of the practice,” says Truth Restored, a short history of the church published by the LDS themselves. “It was first announced by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo in 1842.”
Understandably, Smith’s first wife, Emma, chaffed at the notion, so much so that on July 12, 1843, Smith felt the need to go before the Heavenly Father, who then dispensed some divine revelation concerning the plurality of wives. Recorded as the 132nd of the Doctrines and Covenants, it says in part that “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified. …And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.”
Although it was not publicly taught until 1852, the practice took little time to galvanize the rest of the nation in opposition. Ten years after its introduction, Congress passed a bill against plural marriages. And 10 years later, another one specifically proscribing the practice of polygamy. A few years later, in 1878, the law was upheld by the Supreme Court and in 1882, the Edmunds Act was passed by Congress, making polygamy punishable by fine or imprisonment. States increasingly took action too, disenfranchising those who admitted belief in polygamy and even throwing a thousand men into jail because they had plural families.
When it came to these last measures, the Mormons finally relented. On September 24, 1890, the then president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a divinely received proclamation that concluded, “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.”
Thus ended the sordid practice of plural marriage, at least officially. Henceforth, anyone who practiced it would be excommunicated like the so-called Fundamentalist LDS church that still operates a polygamist community in the side-by-side towns of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. On November 20, 2007, sect leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced to five years to life in prison for his role in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin in 2001. Convicted of rape as an accomplice for his role, Jeffs also has an upcoming trial in Kingman, Arizona, on eight charges involving marriages that he performed in 2005 of two teenage girls and older men who were the teens’ relatives.
The media focus on that, plus Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, have maintained a focus on the Mormon practice of polygamy even though it was outlawed more than a century ago. A certain HBO series starring Bill Paxton hasn’t helped. “Thanks to that show ‘Big Love,’ a lot of people think members of the church still practice polygamy,” says Gretchen Patterson.