Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Episode 17: "She wasn't a wife for me": Polygamy in Mainstream Mormonism

Right click to download the mp3.

Polygamy has been a part of the Mormon church almost from the beginning. Current church policy prohibits the practice of marrying and living with multiple wives, although there are still men who are sealed to multiple women.

This episode is the story of a woman who grew up in mainstream Mormonism and how she and her husband searched for a way to practice the doctrine of the plurality of wives inside the dictates of the church and the law of the land.

Michelle will be watching the comments so she can respond to questions and discuss issues brought up in her story. 

As you leave comments, remember that Daughter of Mormonism seeks to provide a safe place for women to share their stories. This is a real story from a real person. Please see the Comment Policy for further details.

If you would like to learn more about polygamy in the early Mormon church, here are some resources.



  1. This is the best one yet! I really enjoyed this podcast! I appreciate Michelle's honesty! This is a fascinating topic! It sounds like a very painful experience for you. I'm sorry for you. I wish you luck on your journey!

  2. Michelle's experience reminds me of Eve's choice to take the forbidden fruit. The act was sanctioned of God to accomplish His desire for us to really understand what to value, yet, it is the hardest and most "evil" thing to come upon mankind. Polygamy is like the fruit. Michelle was absolutely led to "partake" of it, as her experience in the temple is obvious, but it was the most painful and "damaging" experience of her existence as well. Loved the insights and the deep, profound honesty I found in Michelle's experience. Thank you for posting!

  3. This was fascinating to listen to. I am really grateful to Michelle for sharing her experience. While I was listening, I was thinking about a Cross-Cultural class that I took in which we discussed different types of marriage arrangements around the world. I was very surprised at the vast diversity of types of marriages around the world (beyond just monogamy and polygamy with one man and multiple women). I think that we often have the idea that a monogamous marriage is the ideal type of marriage and the most likely to lead to happiness for the people involved.

    However, one of my good friends has been living in a threesome (one man and two women) for several years now. All the partners have equal standing in the relationship and all have a sexual relationship with each other. I was skeptical of this relationship at first, but they seem to be very happy. My friend has told me that jealousy does arise in the relationship at times, but they have ways of addressing those feelings when they come. However, one of the biggest challenges of their relationship is that they feel they must keep it hidden from most of their friends and family members.

    A philosophical question that arises from this is whether or not there is an ideal form of marriage. Furthermore, should we only legally support the form of marriage that we believe to be ideal, or should we support other forms of marriage as well?

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  5. I have a question for Michelle--if the deception had not happened (if John had never lied about his relationships, or the level of intimacy happening in them), and also if he had, in fact, been chaste during dating, do you think you'd feel differently about it all?
    In other words, if it had gone down like you'd talked about--with the dating and the marriage etc (and appropriate dating behavior as per *your* definition), might things have gone differently, or might you feel differently about it all?

    I am particularly curious because my husband and I have had some of those conversations, and we have speculated about what polygamy might look like for ourselves (also within legality/church activity), and we have seen some appeal in the idea. We have always thought that--since we're both on board--that we could make it work and everybody would be happy. Your experiences are very interesting and informative, because obviously my perspective is all speculation.

    I absolutely agree that deception will ruin anything. But I wonder if you think polygamy might work out ok if it could be free of deception...or do you think it's even possible for this kind of thing to be free of deception?

    I really appreciate your insights onto scriptural polygamy. Good calls on all that.

  6. Great podcast!!

    "I can't imagine a loving God asking or requiring his people to live something that is so onerous." Me neither.

    I honestly think that polyamory is an orientation, just like being gay or straight. This is why I think that when you try to say monogamy or polygamy or polyamory is the only good way to be for everyone as a part of a religious doctrine, that's when all this misery happens. But I see women like Polly on this blog ( and I can see how, if it truly is your orientation, you can be ecstatically happy in a poly relationship.

    I really see a big difference between your story, with how your husband and others practiced polygamy as a duty to God's law, rather than others who get into non-monogamous relationships just an expression of their internal identity and needs.

    It's really great that you shared your experience, because I feel like people don't hear enough of the diversity of experiences in the subject of non-monogamous marriage, and think that open relationships or polyamory really is for everybody when it's not at all. I want to reiterate Jenni's question though - if there hadn't been so much deception in your situation, do you think it could have gone another way?

  7. I appreciated the raw emotion and honesty in your interview, Michelle. I am so glad you are in a good place and that you've emerged a stronger person from your experiences.

    I think you must have some real insight into how the women in the early church must have felt. Apparently they were quite vocal about their unhappiness. I hope you don't mind if I post some longish quotes of Brigham Young addressing women unhappy about polygamy.

    "Now for my proposition; it is more particularly for my sisters, as it is frequently happening that women say they are UNHAPPY. Men will say, 'My wife, though a most excellent woman, has NOT SEEN A HAPPY DAY SINCE I TOOK MY SECOND WIFE,' 'No, NOT A HAPPY DAY FOR A YEAR,' says one; and another HAS NOT SEEN A HAPPY DAY FOR FIVE YEARS. It is said that women are tied down and abused: that they are misused and have not the liberty they ought to have; that many of them ARE WADING THROUGH A PERFECT FLOOD OF TEARS,..."

    Brigham Young then invites unhappy women to leave their husbands and families within two weeks or else quit whining...

    ""I wish my women, and brother Kimball's and brother Grant's to leave, and every woman in this Territory, or else say in their hearts that they will embrace the Gospel -the whole of it....say to your wives, 'Take all that I have and be set at liberty; but if you stay with me you shall comply with the law of God, and that too WITHOUT ANY MURMURING AND WHINING. You must fulfil the law of God in every respect, and round up your shoulders to WALK UP TO THE MARK WITHOUT ANY GRUNTING.' "Now recollect that two weeks from to morrow I am going to set you at liberty. But the first wife will say, 'It is hard, for I have lived with my husband twenty years, or thirty, and have raised a family of children for him, and it is a great trial to me for him to have more women;' then I say IT IS TIME THAT YOU GAVE HIM UP TO OTHER WOMEN WHO WILL BEAR CHILDREN. If my wife had borne me all the children that she ever would bare, the celestial law would teach me TO TAKE YOUNG WOMEN that would have children....

    "SISTERS, I AM NOT JOKING, I do not throw out my proposition to banter your feelings, to see whether you will leave your husbands, all or any of you. BUT I KNOW THAT THERE IS NO CESSATION TO THE EVERLASTING WHINING OF MANY OF THE WOMEN IN THIS TERRITORY; I am satisfied that this is the case. And if the women will turn from the commandments of God and continue to despise the order of heaven, I will pray that the curse of the Almighty may be close to their heals, and that it may be following them all the day long....

    "Prepare yourselves for two weeks from to morrow; and I will tell you now, that if you will tarry with your husbands, after I HAVE SET YOU FREE, YOU MUST BOW DOWN TO IT, and SUBMIT yourselves to the CELESTIAL LAW. You may go where you please, after two weeks from to-morrow; but, remember, that I WILL NOT HEAR ANY MORE OF THIS WHINING."

    (Sermon by Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4., pp. 55-57; also printed in Deseret News, Vol. 6, pp. 235-236)

    While some may have been happy, I wonder how many stayed because they believed the church was true, for the sake of their children and for the limits on supporting themselves. But they did not seem happy.

  8. Thanks for all of the comments.

    Beatrice: My answer to your philosophical question is that people need to do what works for them. I have become a big proponent of people choosing to do the things that make them truly happy. If the adults are really consenting then I don't think it's anyone's business what their relationship is like. I do not believe government has any business regulating marriage in any way, shape or form.

    Jenni and Macha: That is a very good question. I have tried very hard to separate my feelings about the deception and infidelity and my feelings about polygamy. I honestly feel like no matter how good the intentions...the relationship will destruct over time. I do not think it is possible to overcome those feelings of jealousy. I loved Laura like a sister in the beginning and the idea of her spending any intimate time with my husband even just cuddling or whatever made me sick to my stomach. Over time I began to hate her for it. I think that because sex is part of a husband/wife relationship and sex is such an intimate, personal thing there will always be huge messy issues in a polygamous type relationship.

    Lotus: Thanks for posting those quotes. It sure doesn't sound to me like those women were "free to leave." I know that I stayed for much longer than I wanted to because I didn't know how to leave. I had been taught that a temple covenant was not something to break. Finally I just decided that I would rather go to hell than live the life I was living...even if it meant that I lost everything including my children. Interesting how he refers to polygamy as "the order of heaven" and that he would pray that the Almighty curse them if they turn from it. Thanks, but I would rather take the curse than that kind of attitude.

  9. By the way, I heartily agree with what you said about polygamy always being about sex. I too have heard other arguments, but I don't agree. In our case, sex is the main reason we've talked about it--we have a massive libido differential and at times I have thought it might be a relief if he had someone else to spend some of that energy with.

    I am sure I would feel jealousy or insecurity (or both). My husband was married and divorced before we met, and I spent our entire engagement and the first couple years of our marriage worried that he was comparing the two of us. I started relaxing when our marriage had passed the length of his prior one, but still there are moments when I wonder if he's thinking about her.
    On the other hand, on the day I married him I already knew that I was not and could never be his 'only one' sexually. So while I did/do go through some struggles over that issue, I wonder if perhaps it would be easier to deal with a concurrent other wife, since I've already dealt with a former other wife.

    I like what Macha said about poly maybe being an orientation--some people are heterosexual and some are homosexual, some are monoamarous and some are polyamarous. That kinda makes sense to me.

    So much food for thought.

  10. Jenni I can understand where you are coming from especially since John and I were more of an intellectual couple than a sexual couple. I thought it might be nice for him to have someone he really connected with sexually. I can't be too hard lined that poly is bad because I do believe that people have to do what works for them. I would truly be interested to see how it would work out for you. In my opinion "concurrent" is much more challenging than "former other." Those feelings you had of comparison with the former wife I bet would be amplified by someone who was around and having a relationship with your husband. Maybe if she had her own household that you didn't really have to be a part of... ??

  11. Oh and along those same lines I find it really interesting watching the show "Sister Wives." Until they moved from Utah they were living all in one big household (except for the latest wife cause there wasn't room for her.) When they moved to Las Vegas there just wasn't any kind of home that could accommodate them all so each wife had to get a separate house. The husband is very frustrated by this because he feels like it is tearing his family apart. The wives however are really enjoying it because it makes them feel like they have their own special time with him and their own little families. Almost as if it feels good and natural to pretend like they are a "normal" family when he is with them.

  12. I'm not saying I want to sign up for polygamy. If anything, hearing your story has made me less interested (which, I don't think it's likely to ever happen anyway cuz I don't want to try to 'figure out a way' I'm more of a 'won't do it unless the church changes policy' and you know how likely THAT is! LOL) Anyway, it's just very interesting to talk with someone else who seems like they started from a place kinda similar to where we are.

  13. D&C 132 and The Story of Helen Mar Kimball:

    “In 1843 Apostle Heber C. Kimball had an important talk with his only daughter, fourteen-year-old Helen Mar. She wrote: "Without any preliminaries [my Father] asked me if I would believe him if he told me that it was right for married men to take other wives...The first impulse was sensibilities were painfully touched. I felt such a sense of personal injury and displeasure; for to mention such a thing to me I thought altogether unworthy of my father, and as quick as he spoke, I replied to him, short and emphatically, 'No I wouldn't!'...This was the first time that I ever openly manifested anger towards him...Then he commenced talking seriously and reasoned and explained the principle, and why it was again to be established upon the earth. [This] had a similar effect to a sudden shock of a small earthquake."

    Then father "asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph...[and] left me to reflect upon it for the next twenty-four hours...I was sceptical-one minute believed, then doubted. I thought of the love and tenderness that he felt for his only daughter, and I knew that he would not cast her off, and this was the only convincing proof that I had of its being right. I knew that he loved me too well to teach me anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous and exalting in its tendencies; and no one else could have influenced me at that time or brought me to accept of a doctrine so utterly repugnant and so contrary to all of our former ideas and traditions." Unknown to Helen Mar, Heber and Joseph had already discussed the prospect of Helen Mar becoming one of Joseph's wives. Heber now sought her agreement. Helen recalls, "Having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet's own mouth. My father had but one Ewe Lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter"

    The next morning Joseph visited the Kimball home. "[He explained] the principle of Celestial marrage...After which he said to me, 'If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father's household & all of your kindred.['] This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God & his angels could see my mother's bleeding heart-when Joseph asked her if she was willing...She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older & who better understood the step they were taking, & to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come...; but it was all hidden from me." Helen's mother reluctantly agreed and in May of 1843, Helen married Joseph Smith.”

  14. We claim that the Book of Mormon contains the FULNESS OF THE EVERLASTING GOSPEL. Christ clearly stated his gospel in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 27). Christ's Gospel is FAITH, REPENTANCE, AND BAPTISM OF WATER AND FIRE! This is the path to Salvation (Salvation = Redemption = All the Father Hath = Heirs of God, Joint Heirs of Christ = Eternal Life = Exaltation).

    Again Christ stated that “whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them (3 Nephi 11).”

    D&C 130-132 changes/adds to the salvation equation: “And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it.

    (For a biblical based understanding of the New & Everlasting Covenant:

    In the story of Helen Mar Kimball, Joseph Smith clearly changed the path to salvation. Salvation is no longer achieved through 'Christ' but through 'obedience to polygamy'.

    That is “Another Gospel” (Gal 1:6)!

  15. Katrina and I have been having an interesting conversation about this. I think that until the Church disavows polygamy, there will always be people who consider this a viable option--perhaps even an ideal that most of us are not ready to live.

    One of the difficulties is that despite our theology to seek spiritual confirmations and seek whether or not principles are true, we are conditioned to swallow Mormonism whole, rather than discerning the beneficial from the harmful.

    We have disempowering rhetoric such as "God's ways are not humans' ways" and "I don't understand it and it is hard, but that must be a problem with me, not God". I think even leaders are so invested in the institution that it is uncomfortable and even dangerous to their faith to take a "cafeteria approach" and select what seems true and what does not.

    So we either need to remain in ignorance, accept the whole messy picture with all the ethical implications, or leave. Or take that "cafeteria approach" of confirming to ourselves what feels true and good, but once again, that is a slippery slope from the institutional perspective.

  16. Very fascinating interview! Thanks for sharing your story, Michelle. Gave me a lot to think about in regards to the way the Church does and does NOT deal with this issue. Makes me wonder if the high ups really do all believe this is a law for exaltation. Cause if they do, I have serious problems with that. I also loved your point about how even with Abraham, polygamy was not a pleasant thing.

    And Lotus, those are some crazy quotes! Man, I feel for those women. As if they actually had a choice. Not at all.

  17. A quick note for Anonymous of "D&C 132 and The Story of Helen Mar Kimball" and "We claim that the Book of Mormon contains the FULNESS OF THE EVERLASTING GOSPEL."

    First of all, thank you for taking the time to comment.

    While you are making some interesting points, please remember that Daughters of Mormonism is a place open to many points of view along the Mormon Spectrum. What this means is that there is no “right” answer; in other words, while I can see what you're saying in your comments, you put them forth as the correct answer. In future comments, please share with us your experience as it relates to the ideas you want to bring forth. You can still present your same ideas, just be sure to couch them in language that reflects them as a part of your experience rather than as a declaration of the absolute.

  18. Frankly, I would VERY much like to hear the church come out with an official statement one way or the other. Reinstate it, or disavow it. Pick a side already!

  19. In reference to the Helen Mar story I find it extremely disturbing that she was told "If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father's household & all of your kindred." How is it possible for another human being to "purchase" salvation and exaltation for anyone else?

  20. From the poster of "D&C 132 and The Story of Helen Mar Kimball"

    Sybil, thank you for your gentle critique.

    I was born in the late 70s to a large, orthodox LDS family. I have 4 great-great grandparents who were polygamists. In my family, polygamy was spoken of fondly and regularly. Yorgason’s “The Bishop’s Horserace” was read to me as a young child and was a repeated family favorite. I was taught that polygamy was a true and eternal principle. Polygamy would be reinstituted and I once fully expected that I would someday participate.

    I first heard the story of Helen Mar Kimball on my mission from Truman G. Madsen’s “Joseph Smith the Prophet” lectures. In the lectures, Madsen shares Helen’s story as an example of faith. A decade later I learned the details of Helen’s relationship with Joseph.

    Helen’s story was the drop of water that melted away my foundation of sugar cubes (I love this analogy used in a previous podcast). Helen’s story taught me that polygamy was never a true principle. To me, the world seems brighter with this knowledge!

    I'm now rebuilding my foundation. To me, the Book of Mormon is still pretty sweet (in spite of its gender bias). Also, I have just discovered the New Testament and I find it remarkable (someday I hope that Daughters of Mormonism would analysis gender and the New Testament. Example: The Church is the Bride). Most important, I have learned that my foundation can directly be built upon Christ and not on men.

  21. Anonymous, thank you for sharing your experience in learning Helen's story. I think it is so interesting how it came to you in sections, first as an example of faith, and then as something you could no longer reconcile. Perhaps this is part of what it means to learn line upon line? I would like to do a podcast on gender and the New Testament, specifically on how Jesus used gender in his parables. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  22. I recently read "No Man Knows My History" (a biography of Joseph Smith). It's written from an outsider's perspective, with the assumption that Joseph made everything up...but I did find the chapters about his polygamy particularly interesting. I believe the story of Helen Mar was in there, and there were a couple of others as well--girls who were told their salvation depended upon this, girls who went ahead, and also a couple of girls who refused.

  23. Polygamy has been a problem for me since I learned of the history my great great great great (?) grandmother who crossed the plains.

    She joined the church as a youth in the 1830s and lived through all of the Mormon history. While at Nauvoo she learned about the principle of polygamy. She and her husband discussed it and he, being very much in love with her, said he swore he would never practice it. She believed him. Her husband was called on a mission just prior to the Nauvoo exodus.

    She was faithful and spent several years raising her young children while traveling. My family still has copies of the letters they wrote back and forth during those long years. When the time came for him to return, she was ecstatic. Unfortunately, her happiness changed to desperate sadness and depression as he had returned with not one but two much younger wives. She was devastated, as is evidenced from her journal. She died less than 10 years later in her very early 40's having been "ill" since her husband's return.

    I'm sure there are those who would thrive in polygamy just as there are those who enjoy monogamy or any other arrangement, but as I read D&C 132 I cannot believe a loving god would require something that causes such pain to a large number of their daughters. If there is a heaven and polygamy is a requirement it would be more like an eternal hell to me.

  24. Thanks for a great pod cast.

    It seems to me that any inequality in an intimate relationship is abusive. To completely share your self with someone you are on unequal footing with is deeply invasive. I believe the idea of is the logical extension of the patriarchal order. I believe as long as the church clings to the patriarchal order they will not disavow polygamy. I see the root of Michelle's unhappiness is the inequality of the relationship. I see any patriarchal relationship is unequal, but polygamy is the extreme end of that.

  25. Wow, thank you for sharing your story Michelle.
    I was interested to hear that you gave up custody of your children. It reminded me of this article by Lea Goldman on women who give up custody of the children and how society stigmatizes them.

    Here's a link to the article.

    And here's a link to an interview with the author on NPR.

  26. I just wanted to comment and let you know how much I enjoyed this podcast. I even talked about it with my husband, paused and shared some of your words with him. Thank you.

  27. Michelle!!! Fantastic story!! I'm so sorry I missed this when it first came out. I'm VERY behind the DOM podcasts.

    I'm sorry that your polygamous arrangement didn't work out for you. I disagree with you though that it is a nasty thing. It is difficult for sure and it takes A LOT of work. I can't speak though, from your point of view however. My view would be more from your husband's point of view. The reason is because I'm living a polygamous type lifestyle but from a polyandrous perspective. (I know weird right?) I think my husband can relate your your perspective more than me. Our situations are VERY parallel in many ways but so far our outcome has been different, at least so far. I would LOVE to talk to you in a more private setting and learn to understand your situation and feelings more. :)

  28. "How is it possible for another human being to "purchase" salvation and exaltation for anyone else?"

    It isn't. But it was a very convincing lie that worked several times. I honestly can't understand how anyone, learning the true details of Joseph Smith and polygamy in the early church, can't see plainly that plural marriage was nothing more than men justifying committing adultery. I mean seriously, an angel with a flaming sword making him marry other men's wives? Teenagers (eight in one year)? Could there be a less convincing story?

    I feel so sorry for Michelle that she ever believed this duplicitous man. That isn't to say that I don't recognise her part in the choices made, but he was clearly learning from the master how to lie your way into having your cake and eating it, too.

    I don't think polyamorous relationships are inherently evil, but I do think that polygamy as practiced in the early church pretty much matches the way it is portrayed amongst the fundamentalist Mormons in the TV show Big Love. In fact, if you watch that and then read D&C 132, it is upsetting to realise how many of their terrible laws and practices are right there in the scriptures, plain and clear.

    Plural marriage is absolutely an LDS doctrine today. If not, being sealed to more than one spouse at one time would not be possible. Temple marriage is seen as 'real' or 'higher' marriage. And I also know a man who is sealed to two living women. The fact that he is civilly divorced from his first wife is just a technicality - in terms of LDS doctrine, he is married to two living women right now and for eternity.

  29. Chosha, you make a lot of good points in your comment. However, please watch out for passing judgement on those from the interview (for example: "he was clearly learning from the master how to lie your way into having your cake and eating it, too"). Your implication over-simplifies those involved. Thanks!

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  31. Sybil: Fair enough. I think it was brave of Michelle to tell her story so honestly. I think in that comment you quoted I was judging her ex-husband and that is something I should have left out of my comments here.

  32. Thanks, Chosha. I look forward to more comments from you!