Social and Political Reactions to Mormon Polygamy

April 29, 1996

Social and Political Reactions to Polygamy
“We are a peculiar people,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie once said (McConkie 25).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of a few “odd” Christian religions.
Many of its practices have created much persecution and political reaction, polygamy
being one of these. It created much social and political persecution of the Mormons.
Most of this persecution had come from anti-polygamist Christians. This is ironic
because the anti-polygamists believed in the Bible, but not polygamy, one of its teachings.
Many of God’s righteous followers in the Old Testament practiced polygamy. Abraham
married Hagar, Sarai’s handmaiden (Genesis 16:1-3). Jacob was married to Leah,
Rachel, Billah, and Zilpha all at the same time. In the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of
modern revelation used as scripture by the LDS church, it states that “in nothing did they
[the Old Testament prophets] sin save in those things they received not of me
[God]”(132:38). Quickly one sees that God gave those women to the prophets of old
because they were righteous.
So what exactly is the justification and reason for polygamy? Mormons believed
that when a couple or family is sealed in the temple of the Lord by one holding God’s
priesthood keys of sealing, that the bond is not “until death do us part,” but rather for all
eternity. If this is true, then when a man is widowed and he marries a second wife, he
then has two wives. The Mormons believe that if a man can have multiple wives in
heaven, then the same should be true on Earth. “According to the Lord’s law of marriage,
it is lawful that a man have only one wife at a time unless by revelation the Lord
commands plurality of wives in the new and everlasting covenant” (McConkie5770). If a
woman who is sealed in the temple is widowed, she not allowed to be resealed: only a
man is allowed a plurality of spouses.
Before the founding and organizing of the LDS church and introduction of
polygamy, Joseph Smith received bitter persecution. He was tarred and feathered by a
mob, but this was nothing compared to the treatment the saints received when their
practice of polygamy became well known (Arrington JS 26-7). In order to escape the
torture, Joseph Smith led one hundred and fifty or more saints from New York to
Kirtland, Ohio in 1831 (Arrington JS 21). After living in harmony with the native Gentiles
for several years, the town of Kirtland became a prosperous city. In 1843, the local
Gentiles found out that Joseph Smith and many other church members were practicing
polygamy. When questioned, they confessed to the act, but from then on they hid it from
the Gentiles (Newell 66-7). The news spread quickly, and the persecution returned at an
even greater intensity.
Social persecution quickly turned into political persecution. On October 30, 1838,
Governor Lilburn Boggs issued the Extermination Order in which he wrote “that the
Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if
necessary, for the public good.” (Benton 787) A few days later at Haun’s Mill, 17
Mormons were killed and many others, including women and children, were severely
wounded (Benton787). In October 1838, the Missouri state militia was marching toward
the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio:
Anxious to avoid bloodshed, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. Pratt,
Lyman White and George Robinson went to negotiate with state officials
under the flag of truce. Instead of treating the group with respect,
however, militia officials seized the group. An order was issued to have
Joseph and the others shot, but Colonel Alexander Doniphan, a secondary
Missouri officer, courageously refused to carry out the order. Instead of
court-martial and execution, the prisoners were taken on November 2 to
Jackson County for Prison and trial.”(Arrington JS32)
After spending six months in prison, the group escaped with the help of the jailer
(Arrington JS 32). Joseph then purchased a large amount of land in Jackson county,
Missouri to which the Mormons could flee for safety.
There Smith founded the city of Nauvoo, to which approximately 2,500 Mormons
fled, from Ohio and New York. “At first the Mormons were