Mormon Issues -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

I would venture to guess that a great many people know that back in the day polygamy was practiced by members of the Mormon faith. If you go to Salt Lake City and visit the Beehive House and the Lion House next door you will learn about Brigham Young's multiple wives. Although polygamy was officially set aside in 1890 in the United Sates by Latter Day Saints President Willard Woodruff.  There have been a few TV shows that explore modern plural marriage, but all my LDS friends over the years, while they highly valued marriage and family, showed no interest in reviving this old practice.  One area of debate has been over whether polygamy went back to Joseph Smith and whether he had multiple wives.  His original wife, Emma Smith, always denied it and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ) always denied it.  Recently, as Martin Marty notes, the church in the desire to be transparent is admitting that he had up to forty wives.  Now this isn't new news.  I read Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History years ago and she documents as many as fifty-two wives.   In any case, it is interesting that one of the few growing religious movements in America is wrestling with its own past.  Take a read.  

Mormon Issues
Monday | Nov 17 2014
The Melchizedek priesthood is conferred to Joseph Smith                 Photo: More Good Foundation
Sightings has sighted and commented on trends and travails among standard-brand faith communities this fall: Jews, Protestants, “The Mainline,” “Evangelicals,” “Southern Baptists” and more. Most of them report on or envision down-trends in matters of affiliation and participation.

Who’s left? We get asked: “Why don’t you report on an up-trending group, a set of winners, for a change? Answer: we are not political scientists (or book reviewers) and have to wait until something of public consequence beckons.

Suddenly, in the particular case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), out of a clear (well, “partly cloudy”) sky, these Mormons obliged us, with one action of their leaders hitting front page and top on-line status. Most-quoted and cited was Laurie Goodstein’s front page story in the New York Times (Nov. 10), “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had up to 40 Wives.”

The endorsement and practice of “plural marriage,” a.k.a. “polygamy” or, better, “polyandry,” was old, old news, since it came in the early years of the Mormon Church, thanks to a revelation received by prophet Joseph Smith. Old news? Battles against and persecution of Mormons was common, even lethal, in the 19th century, and polygamy was at issue when the LDS stronghold, Utah, was bidding to enter the United States.

Courts, lawmakers, public opinion, and wising-up from within the church led to changes in policy, if not always in theology. You don’t likely or lightly alter or abandon a doctrine. But the Church changed, Utah was accepted, and Mormons prospered there, in many places in the United States, and around the world.

Is it old news, new news, news at all? Whoever reads histories of American religion, newspaper records, folk-tales, and fiction knows that virtually no “doctrine,” certainly none other native to America, matched Mormon “plural marriage” in the public mind.

Historians well knew and told stories of Joseph Smith, his sad first wife Emma, the polygamy (on a vast scale) of his successor Brigham Young, and much more. Many of these historians were members of the Church, though this was not their main topic.

But evidently millions of the Mormon faithful were not up on it, and Church leadership engaged in what their critics called cover-ups. Then, this autumn, church leadership on the highest level of hierarchy and history writing, deliberated and went very public.

Will this news contribute to LDS decline? The Church was long observed and advertised as a success story (along with that of Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses). An expansive literature now has called that story of dramatic growth into question. Some say that while many joined the LDS, just as many left it, and that the Church was and still is subject to many of the cultural and social trends that affect participation in almost all religious communities.

While all this is being sorted out, we pick up just two signals. First, the religious leaders in this case use the same concepts or words that political and corporate leaders must use: transparency. Second, the great, acknowledged basis for the need to be transparent, again spoken of by Mormon church and thought leaders is the internet. Responsible leaders feel a need to act because the on-line stories are often simply sensational, as in “Up to 40 Wives,” and shock the newly aware Saints—who get no other context, interpretation, or cushioning.

We stress: the key words are “transparency” and “internet.” The realities coded by those words also compel other faiths to ‘fess up’ on many long-hidden fronts and reveal what many of the faithful already suspect.


Goodstein, Laurie. “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives.” New York Times, November 10, 2014, U.S. Conversation thread with links to supporting census websites and newspaper articles: “Mormons are departing from the faith as fast as converts are joining.” Accessed November 15, 2014.

Stack, Peggy Fletcher. Collection of Salt Lake Tribune articles about “Mormon Church Growth Myth.” Truth and Grace blog, Accessed November 15, 2014.

Stack, Peggy Fletcher. “LDS essay: Mormons practiced polygamy after Manifesto.” Salt Lake Tribune, December 27, 2013.

Religious Studies Project. “Ryan Cragun on Mormonism, Growth and Decline.” January 28, 2013.

Lawson, Ronald. “Examining Trends (Especially Decline) in Religious Groups.”Spectrum Magazine: community through conversation, August 23, 2013, Blog.

Craig, William Lane. “Is Mormonism in Decline?” Reasonable Faith blog, July 13, 2014.

Johnson, Eric. “Mormon church admits founder Joseph Smith had about 40 wives.”Reuters, November 11, 2014, U.S.

Image Credit: More Good Foundation (creative commons).

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

To comment, email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at
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