As I researched the principle of plural marriage, I realized that continuing revelation played an essential role as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced this controversial principle. One of the most misunderstood aspects of this doctrine is not only the implementation but also the cessation of it. But both are the result of revelation through modern prophets. The Lord speaks through His prophets and tells them what they need to know and do today. It is in this spirit that the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another” (History of the Church, 5:135).
The practice of polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ is an excellent example of the doctrine of revelation, and the role that it plays in the Church both collectively and individually.
What is Revelation?
Revelation is, in a nutshell, how God speaks to men (and women) on the earth today. The Church of Jesus Christ is founded upon this principle—that the heavens are opened and that God does, indeed, speak to His people through His prophet. President Henry B. Eyring said:
The very existence of the Church stems from a young boy knowing that was true. Young Joseph Smith knew that he could not of himself know which church to join. So he asked of God, as the book of James told him he could. God the Father and His Beloved Son appeared in a grove of trees. They answered the question that was beyond Joseph’s power to resolve.
Not only was he then called of God to establish the true Church of Jesus Christ, but with it was restored the power to invoke the Holy Ghost so that revelation from God could be continuous.
But revelation is not limited to the prophet of God. Each person can, in the sphere of his or her own responsibilities, ask God and receive revelation. President Boyd K. Packer taught:
Revelation continues in the Church: the prophet receiving it for the Church; the president for his stake, his mission, or his quorum; the bishop for his ward; the father for his family; the individual for himself.
As such a new concept, the pattern of revelation was sometimes misunderstood by members in the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ. But revelation was essential in the implementation, practice and discontinuation of plural marriage, so it’s important to understand what it is and how it works for the Church collectively as well as for individuals.
Only the living prophet of God receives revelation for The Church of Jesus Christ as a whole. This is the pattern that the Lord has set for His organization on the earth. The late general authority Elder A. Theodore Tuttle said:
It is an easy thing to believe in the dead prophets. Many people do. For some mysterious reason there is an aura of credibility about them. It is not so with the prophet who lives among us, who must meet life’s everyday challenges. But it is a great thing to believe in the living prophets. Our salvation is contingent upon our belief in a living prophet and adherence to his word. He alone has the right to revelation for the whole Church.
For some, the Prophet Joseph’s teachings on plural marriage tested their faith and trust that God was truly speaking through him. The prophet is entitled to revelation for the Church as a whole, but each individual member is entitled to confirmation that what the prophet is saying is true. When Joseph presented the doctrine of plural marriage to individual members, he then sent them home to obtain their own revelation on the matter. Many Saints received visions and others sacred assurances through direct revelation in response to their sincere questioning.
An Answer to a Question
Revelation often comes as an answer to a question. Indeed, many of Joseph Smith’s revelations came after much prayerful study and pondering of a question. This is how he received the revelation on plural marriage. In 1831, Joseph Smith was studying the Old Testament. Latter-day Saints understood that they were living in the latter days, in which the revelations called the “dispensation of the fulness of times” (Doctrine & Covenants 112:30) where the restoration of all things would occur. This included ancient principles such as prophets, priesthood and temples.
It was during his study of the Old Testament that the Prophet Joseph prayed to know why ancient patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses were justified in having more than one wife. In response, the Prophet Joseph received what is now known as Doctrine & Covenants 132. In this revelation, the Lord taught that families can be sealed together, by the proper priesthood authority in the proper place (the holy temples) and, if they are faithful to their covenants, the unions can last forever.
Included in this vision on families was the revelation on plural marriage. The Lord has declared that His standard for marriage is monogamy. However, at times He will, for His own reasons, command the practice of plural marriage. (See Jacob 2:27-29.) And at that time, the Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith that he and others would be commanded to live that law.
However, as The Church of Jesus Christ outlined in one of its recent articles on polygamy:
The revelation on marriage stated general principles; it did not explain how to implement plural marriage in all its particulars. In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith married additional wives and authorized other Latter-day Saints to practice plural marriage. The practice was introduced carefully and incrementally, and participants vowed to keep their participation confidential, anticipating a time when husbands and wives could acknowledge one another publicly.
The concept of polygamy, while practiced anciently and in other cultures, was neither practiced nor considered acceptable in our Western society. In addition, the Lord commanded His people to practice plural marriage—but didn’t outline in detail how to accomplish and live the principle. Thus, the implementation and practice of polygamy evolved throughout the nearly half-century it was observed through revelation.
Why Would Anyone Agree to Practice Plural Marriage?
Plural marriage was controversial from the very beginning of the modern Church of Jesus Christ. The Prophet Joseph knew this and, consequently, was reluctant to widely teach and implement the practice. Historians record that Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842, commanding him to begin the practice of plural marriage. During the angel’s third and final visit, the messenger came with a drawn sword and threatened Joseph with destruction unless he was obedient to the Lord and fully implemented the practice of polygamy. (See Brian C. Hales, “Encouraging Joseph Smith to Practice Plural Marriage: The Accounts of the Angel with a Drawn Sword,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 69–70.)
Other early Church members were equally reluctant to participate in plural marriage. Polygamy historian Lawrence Foster said:
In almost all recorded cases, initial presentation of the belief in plural marriage to either men or women produced shock, horror, disbelief, or general emotional confusion. Those who eventually accepted the principle almost invariably went through a period of inner turmoil lasting from several days to several months. [Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 153]
Indeed, Brigham Young—at the time a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who became the second president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ, said:
My brethren know what my feelings were at the time Joseph revealed the doctrine; I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin. [Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 3:266 (July 14, 1855)]
Apostle John Taylor, who also later became president of The Church of Jesus Christ, said:
[At] the time when men were commanded to take more wives. It made us all pull pretty long faces sometimes. It was not so easy as one might think. When it was revealed to us it looked like the last end of Mormonism. For a man to ask another woman to marry him required more self-confidence than we had. [John Taylor, Report of the dedication of the Kaysville Relief Society House, November 12, 1876. Women’s Exponent 5 (March 1, 1877): 148]
But each person had to receive his or her own witness—or personal revelation— that the law of plural marriage was given by God, not by Joseph Smith. Brigham Young said [Brigham Young, Discourse, June 18, 1865, George D. Watt Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, transcribed from Pitman shorthand by LaJean Purcell Carruth; see also Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 11:128.]:
I had to pray unceasingly and I had to exercise faith and the Lord revealed to me the truth of it and that satisfied me.
Apostle John Taylor said [“Sermon in Honor of the Martyrdom,” June 27, 1854; Papers of George D. Watt MS 4534, box 2, disk 2, 1854 images 151–52, Sermon not in Journal of Discourses or in CR 100 317, Transcribed by LaJean Purcell Carruth, 1 September 2009.]:
I remember being with President Young and Kimball and I think one or two others with Brother Joseph soon after we had returned from England[.] He talked with us on these principles and laid them before us[.] It tried our minds and feelings[.] We saw it was something going to be heavy upon us[.] it was not that very nice pleasing thing some people thought about it[.] It is something that harried up our feelings[.] Did we believe it[?] Yes we did[.] I did[.] The whole rest of the brethren did but still we should have been glad to push it off a little further[.] We [would have] been glad if it did not come in our day but that somebody else had something to do with it instead of us.
I would imagine that this sentiment was common among early members of The Church of Jesus Christ. Through their faithfulness, many early members received their own powerful spiritual witnesses of the truthfulness of the practice. Elizabeth Ann Whitney, wife of Newel K. Whitney, said of plural marriage:
My husband revealed these things to me; we had always been united, and had the utmost faith and confidence in each other. We pondered upon them continually, and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us; He revealed unto us His power and glory. We were seemingly wrapt in a heavenly vision, a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own minds that God had heard and answered our prayers and intercedings before Him.
Not all were asked to practice plural marriage, but all were asked to accept it as doctrine. Many had faith in Jesus Christ and in his living prophet (at the time Joseph Smith). Their acceptance of plural marriage was a show of this faith, as well as a trial of it. However, there were other members who would not accept plural marriage. Some remained faithful but others left the Church because of it.
The Law and Plural Marriage
Plural marriage was implemented carefully and incrementally in the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ. During the years in Utah, the practice became more widespread and publicly acknowledged. Each person had to decide for himself or herself whether to enter into a polygamous marriage or a monogamous marriage, or even to marry at all. Some estimate that possibly half of Mormons living in Utah Territory in 1857 experienced life in a household where plural marriage was practiced either as a husband, wife or child at some point during their lifetime.
However, as The Church of Jesus Christ more publicly acknowledged the practice, persecution against it became more severe. Beginning in 1862, the U.S. government began passing laws against the practice. Although many Mormon women defended plural marriage and said they were participating in it by choice, outside opponents continued campaigning against the practice. Mormons defended their practice but, eventually, in 1879 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the laws as constitutional and the government began prosecuting those who practiced polygamy.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ believed that the laws were unjust and were determined to follow their prophet and obey their God, and thus engaged in civil disobedience by continuing to practice plural marriage and attempting to avoid arrest.
The End of Plural Marriage
A storm was brewing against The Church of Jesus Christ, and some members were unprepared for what happened next. The Lord’s standard for marriage is monogamy unless He commands otherwise. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ believe that at that time in history, the Lord was commanding otherwise. They were ready to continue fighting for their religious freedom to practice plural marriage. But the Lord had other plans for His people and His Church.
The antipolygamy campaign was taking a toll on Mormon families and the Church. Some husbands went into hiding, leaving behind their wives and children to tend to farms and businesses and causing economic hardships. Pregnant plural wives sometimes went into hiding in rural areas, living under assumed names with their children. Between 1885 and 1889, most of the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ were in hiding or in prison. In addition, the government began seizing Church property, all of which made management of the Church increasingly difficult.
Despite these challenging times, The Church of Jesus Christ dedicated two temples during the antipolygamy campaign. Many Latter-day Saints testified of the blessings that came from this adversity and saw it as God humbling and purifying His covenant people, like He had done with ancient Israel.
The Church of Jesus Christ had been fighting the antipolygamy laws through the courts. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legislation, paving the way for the United States to seize the property of the Church—including its sacred temples. At this time, then-Church President Wilford Woodruff prayed and asked God what the Church should do. He later said [“Remarks Made by President Wilford Woodruff,” Deseret Evening News, Nov. 7, 1891, 4; and excerpts accompanying Official Declaration—1, Doctrine and Covenants.]:
The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. All the temples [would] go out of our hands. [God] has told me exactly what to do, and what the result would be if we did not do it.
The time had come for The Church of Jesus Christ to stop practicing plural marriage. However, just as the beginning of the practice came incrementally, so did the end.
Why Did the Practice Continue?
President Woodruff and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued the first Manifesto in September 1890. The carefully worded statement read, in part:
Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.
There was a mixed reaction to the Manifesto. Some were relieved, others sad. Others thought that plural marriage was only suspended for an indefinite time period. Some felt that the Manifesto ended the practice in America, but not in Canada or Mexico. Although there were some plural marriages performed in Utah after the Manifesto, it is unclear what the exact approval process was. But, according to an LDS Church article, the understanding after the Manifesto was this:
The Manifesto removed the divine command for the Church collectively to sustain and defend plural marriage; it had not… prohibited individuals from continuing to practice or perform plural marriage as a matter of religious conscience.
But in 1904, then Church President Lorenzo Snow felt that it was time for a change and to clarify the Manifesto. He issued a Second Manifesto, in which harsh penalties were imposed for members of The Church of Jesus Christ who entered into new polygamous unions.
Each member of The Church of Jesus Christ had to accept that the repeal of plural marriage came from God, just as the implementation of it had. Any Mormons who continued to enter into new plural marriages were disciplined and, if they did not change, excommunicated from the Church.
Speaking soon after the first Manifesto was issued, President George Q. Cannon, a counselor in the First Presidency, reflected on the revelatory process that brought about the changes:
The Presidency of the Church have to walk just as you walk. They have to take steps just as you take steps. They have to depend upon the revelations of God as they come to them. They cannot see the end from the beginning, as the Lord does.
The End of an Era and a New Beginning
The end of plural marriage has caused almost as much speculation and controversy as the beginning. Some have said that The Church of Jesus Christ gave into the pressure from the government. Others felt the need to continue the practice and were excommunicated from the Church. Some of those groups still exist today.
But the truth is that the Lord does see the end from the beginning, and The Church of Jesus Christ is His Church, run His way. Regarding the Manifesto, President Woodruff said:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)
The cessation of the law of plural marriage was the end of an era for The Church of Jesus Christ and its members. But it also marked a turning point and a new beginning for the Latter-day Saints. No longer a fledging organization, the Mormon Church had a foundation of devout members whose faith had been forged in the fires of adversity. Latter-day Saints had come to see themselves as a unique, “peculiar” people, who would obey the commandments of God no matter how fierce the opposition. And they were ready to begin the next phase of the Restoration.