A recent Pew survey of Mormons found the majority of Mormons, 87 percent, consider polygamy immoral. Mormons believe one wife is God’s normal standard, but that polygamy is acceptable when called for by God for His purposes.
In addition, 25 percent believe divorce is immoral. Officially, Mormons (a nickname for the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) believe that divorce is immoral except under certain circumstances, such as abuse or infidelity.
54 percent of Mormons believe drinking alcohol is immoral. Mormons practice a health code, called the Word of Wisdom, long admired by experts which includes avoiding alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, and illegal drugs. It encourages eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and advocates the sparing use of meat. It does not, despite common belief, prohibit caffeine, although many Mormons do avoid it as a matter of heath and a desire to avoid addictive substances. It also does not prohibit herbal teas, which are not actually tea. While these are common sense suggestions today, they were considered entirely odd in the time the Word of Wisdom was first revealed and most people treated meat as their primary food and tobacco was no more than an untidy pastime. While Mormons do not drink, they seldom have negative feelings about others who do, when done so responsibly. Their feelings about alcohol concern how they choose to live their lives.
74 percent of Mormons consider abortion immoral. Mormons do not approve of abortion as a form of elective birth control, although it is permitted, when prayerfully considered, after rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.
Sex between unmarried adults is considered immoral by 79 percent of Mormons. Mormonism has strong rules regarding the sanctity of marriage and concerning how we show respect for our bodies, which are a gift from God and are made in His image. They teach that we must dress modestly (a standard which still allows them to shop in ordinary stores and blend in, but which covers the body responsibly). Mormons also reserve intimacy for marriage.
65 percent of Mormons feel homosexuality should be discouraged. Officially, the Church differentiates between homosexuality and homosexual practices. It is not a sin to be a homosexual, but practicing homosexual behavior is. In a similar vein, it is not a sin to be an alcoholic, even though it is a sin to drink alcohol. The Church takes no stand on what causes homosexuality because it makes no actual difference in the eternal scheme of things. Mormons do not believe homosexuality will exist after death, which is one reason they oppose homosexual marriages. Mormons believe marriages are meant to last eternally, not just for this life.
Polygamy was discontinued more than 100 years ago. It was always a minority practice, with a small number of members practicing it. Just as Protestants are not Catholics just because they are a breakaway sect of the Catholic religion, modern polygamists are not members of the mainstream church. Some polygamist sects broke away from the mainstream church, but the Church today has no control over them and anyone practicing polygamy today is excommunicated.
It should be noted the survey involved those who self-identify as Mormons, but who have differing levels of commitment, religious activity, and testimony. Some who took the poll accept all the teachings of the church, and some do not.
Polygamy is the part of this survey which seems to most interest people. In 2 Samuel 12:8, we learn that God himself gave David multiple wives, but warned him he had done wrong in the case of one of his marriages. However, the other wives were not the result of sin, since God Himself gave David those wives. Abraham, of course, had a number of wives, and we know God considered him a highly righteous man. His several marriages fulfilled prophecies. Other prophets also practiced it under commandment.
“There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. (Luke 13:28.) This demonstrates God did not find fault in the polygamy of His servants, who were practicing it in a time God gave instruction to do so. However, practicing polygamy when it is not commanded is a sin, even if it is legal in the person’s country.
Polygamy, as practiced in Mormon history, is very different from the polygamy we see in today’s breakaway sects. In the Bible, Abraham’s wife chose the second wife. Polygamists in Mormon history were not allowed to take on additional wives without the permission of the Church and without permission from the first wife, who also had approval of the woman chosen. Some Mormon women were actually the instigators, convincing their husbands to take on another wife and sometimes even choosing the wife they felt would fit best into their family. Brigham Young did not select wives for men unless asked to do so. Every family chose its own members.
Women were not required to enter into polygamy and members were not taught that refusing to participate would prevent them from being saved after death. It was a voluntary program for both men and women. A woman who chose polygamy and then realized she couldn’t cope with it after all was nearly always given a divorce by Brigham Young. Men, however, were told to return home and work on their marriages. If they asked a woman to marry them, they were expected to make the marriage work.
Thirty percent of women in polygamous marriages were previously married. In the 1800s, women had few legal rights and many were not prepared to support themselves or their children if their husbands died or abandoned them. Polygamy offered protection and legal security for many of these women. Most Mormon marriages involved only two wives, and only one-third of all Mormon women who were of marriageable age were in polygamous marriages.
It should be noted that in a time when women felt a need to be married, polygamy offered more choices to do so. There were more Mormon women than men. Men, now having to compete for the available women, had to demonstrate they would be good husbands. Prospective brides were able to look at how a man treated his first wife and to decide if she was comfortable in that sort of relationship. Women had full control over their choice of husband, and men had to demonstrate they were good choices.
Mormon women objected to the idea that they were victims in these relationships. They—and blacks—had the right to vote in Utah and in previous Mormon communities. They were allowed to own property. Brigham Young encouraged them to take up careers normally held by men, saying there was no reason at all they couldn’t be doctors, bookkeepers, or even politicians. The first female state senator was a Utah women, a doctor, who ran against her polygamist husband and won. Women who were in polygamous marriages were encouraged to return to school or take up a career if another wife was prepared to care for the home and children.
When the federal government took over Utah, it removed all those legal rights. Mormon women lost the right to vote and other aspects of suffrage. They fought strenuously to regain these rights, running their battles through the Relief Society, an official Mormon auxiliary for women. This battle was led by one of Brigham Young’s wives. Some traveled to Washington DC with the support of their husbands to work with Susan B. Anthony and other leaders. Once women’s suffrage became legal, Utah was the second state to give it to women.
To read more about the Pew study on Mormons, visit Deseret News’ analysis of the morality portion of the study.
Mormons say polygamy morally wrong, Pew poll shows, by Amy Choate-Nielsen, Deseret News, Published: Sunday, Jan. 15 2012 7:00 p.m. MST.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.