Question: Was the reason Mormons practiced polygamy to look after widows and orphans, make sure more children were born and because there were "extra women" in Utah?

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Question: Was the reason Mormons practiced polygamy to look after widows and orphans, make sure more children were born and because there were "extra women" in Utah?

These reasons are not accurate or supportable

I've been told that the Church practiced polygamy for such reasons as:

  • to look after widows and orphans
  • to make sure more children were born
  • because there were "extra women" in Utah

I've been told these reasons aren't accurate. Has the Church been lying to me?

Reasons such as the above are not accurate or supportable

Sometimes those who are not informed about the history of plural marriage offer reasons for its introduction. Reasons such as the above are not accurate or supportable. They were not and are not offered by the Church as reasons for practicing plural marriage.

Church leaders and historians have long rejected these "folk explanations," but some critics continue to act as if they come from the Church, rather than members who have simply not studied the matter in detail.

The only reason for plural marriage which we know for certain is that the Saints believed the command came from God

John A. Widtsoe wrote about several "reasons" that are not true:

Plural marriage has been a subject of wide and frequent comment. Members of the Church unfamiliar with its history, and many non-members, have set up fallacious reasons for the origin of this system of marriage among the Latter-day Saints.

The most common of these conjectures is that the Church, through plural marriage, sought to provide husbands for its large surplus of female members. The implied assumption in this theory, that there have been more female than male members in the Church, is not supported by existing evidence. On the contrary, there seem always to have been more males than females in the Church. Families -- father, mother, and children -- have most commonly joined the Church. Of course, many single women have become converts, but also many single men.

The United States census records from 1850 to 1940, and all available Church records, uniformly show a preponderance of males in Utah, and in the Church. Indeed, the excess in Utah has usually been larger than for the whole United States, as would be expected in a pioneer state. The births within the Church obey the usual population law -- a slight excess of males. Orson Pratt, writing in 1853 from direct knowledge of Utah conditions, when the excess of females was supposedly the highest, declares against the opinion that females outnumbered the males in Utah. (The Seer, p. 110) The theory that plural marriage was a consequence of a surplus of female Church members fails from lack of evidence.

Another theory holds that plural marriage resulted from licentiousness of the Church leaders. This is refuted by the evidence at hand. The founders and early leaders of the Church were reared under the strictly monogamic system of New England. Plural marriage seemed to them an unholy and repellent practice. Joseph Smith has told that he hesitated to enter the system until he was warned of his destruction if he did not obey. (Jenson, Historical Record 5:222) Brigham Young said that he felt, when the doctrine was revealed to him, that he would rather die than take plural wives. (Life Story of Brigham Young, Gates and Widtsoe, p. 242) Others of the early Church leaders to whom the principle was first taught have related their feeling of resistance to the practice. Undoubtedly the women felt much the same about the practice. However, numerous plural wives have testified to the high moral tone of their relationship with their husbands. Not only was every wife equal in property rights, but also treated with equal deference, and all children were educated and recognized equally. Mormon plural marriage bore no resemblance to the lewd life of the man to whom woman is but a subject for his lusts. Women were not forced into plural marriage. They entered it voluntarily, with open eyes. The men and women, with very few exceptions, who lived in plural marriage, were clean and high-minded. Their descendants, tens of thousands of whom are living, worthy citizens of the land, are proud of their heritage. The story of the Latter-day Saints, fully available, when read by honest men and women, decries the theory that plural marriage was a product of licentiousness or sensuality.

There is a friendlier, but equally untenable view relative to the origin of plural marriage. It is contended that on the frontier, where the Church spent its earlier years, men were often unlettered, rough in talk and walk, unattractive to refined women. Female converts to the Church, coming into the pioneer wilderness, dreaded the possible life-long association with such men and the rearing of their children under the example and influence of an uncouth father. They would much prefer to share a finer type of man with another woman. To permit this, it is suggested that plural marriage was instituted. The ready answer is that the great majority of men who joined the Church were superior, spiritually inclined seekers after truth and all the better things of life. Only such men would be led to investigate the restored gospel and to face the sacrifices that membership in the Church would require. Under such conditions, since, as has been stated, there was no surplus of women in Mormon pioneer communities, there was no need of mating with the rough element, which admittedly existed outside of the Church.

Another conjecture is that the people were few in number and that the Church, desiring greater numbers, permitted the practice so that a phenomenal increase in population could be attained. This is not defensible, since there was no surplus of women.

The simple truth and the only acceptable explanation, is that the principle of plural marriage came as a revelation from the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith for the Church. It was one of many principles so communicated to the Prophet. It was not man-made. It was early submitted to several of his associates, and later, when safety permitted, to the Church as a whole.

The members of the Church had personal testimonies of the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. They had individually accepted the gospel as restored through the Prophet. When he announced a doctrine as revelation coming from above, the people, being already convinced of the reality of Joseph's prophetic calling and power, accepted the new doctrine and attempted to put it into practice. Members of the Church who were permitted to take plural wives, did so because they believed that they were obeying a commandment of God. That faith gave them strength to meet the many problems arising from plurality, and to resist the encroachments of enemies upon their sacred right of freedom of religious belief and practice.

We do not understand why the Lord commanded the practice of plural marriage. Some have suggested that it was a means of trying and refining the people through the persecution that followed. Certainly, one must have had faith in the divine origin of the Church to enter it. Another suggested explanation is based upon the doctrine of pre-existence. In the spirit world are countless numbers of spirits waiting for their descent into mortality, to secure earth bodies as a means of further progress. These unborn spirits desired the best possible parentage. Those assuming plural marriage almost invariably were the finest types in the community Only men who were most worthy in their lives were permitted to take plural wives; and usually only women of great faith and pure lives were willing to become members of a plural household. (It should be remembered that permission to enter the system was granted only by the President of the Church, and after careful examination of the candidate.) However, this is but another attempted explanation by man of a divine action.

It may be mentioned that eugenic studies have shown the children of polygamous parents to be above the average, physically and mentally. And the percentage of happy plural households was higher than that of monogamous families.

The principle of plural marriage came by revelation from the Lord. That is the reason why the Church practiced it. It ceased when the Lord so directed through the then living Prophet. The Church lives, moves, and has its being in revelation. [1]

As Elder Widtsoe taught, the only thing which we know for sure is that the Saints believed the command came from God. Other possible "benefits" are discussed elsewhere in the wiki.

For a detailed response, see: Possible benefits of plural marriage


  1. John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day, arranged by G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 390. GL direct link