Polygamy is clearly the most attention grabbing aspect of Mormon history. I’ve read biographies that includes discussions on polygamy and three books that tackle the subject head on (like this one). In More Wives Than One, Daynes is more interested in an analysis of the practice in Utah rather than offering a judgement call on the morality of polygamy. She gives us an academic overview of polygamy and a thorough analysis of the doctrine, justification, motivations, and lived experiences of those who preached and practiced polygamy. The book offers both anecdotes of “in the trenches” lived polygamy that you may have not heard before but also a great deal of statistical analysis that show us how the practice changed over time and what factors increased or decreased obedience to the principle. I enjoyed the entire book but the final chapter was worth the purchase price itself as she synthesizes the social norms was that were abandoned and then replaced with new norms (polygamy) then forcibly abandoned again. She ends with a few pages on fundamentalist splinter groups that seem to go through similar periods of anomie (normlessness) but in an age when it is increasingly difficult to live separate from wider society.

Before I spend the majority of this post on the last chapter, since an overview of the entire book can be found in the podcast I just released here) I’d like to just mention a few things that were really interesting.

Many Types of Marriages

Daynes’ research led her to identify seven different types of marriage arrangements encountered during the Mormon polygamy period in the west. There are normal civil marriages, time and eternity marriages, time only marriages, eternity only marriages, proxy marriages (also know as levirate or biblical marriages wherein a brother marries his dead-brother’s widow out of obligation), postponed marriages and marriages of convenience. The last two examples show the importance of the temple and marriage as an exaltation granting religious rite as well as the role that having children plays in the Gospel according to Orson Pratt and Brigham Young.

In one example a story is shared of very young children (aged 12 and 11) being married in Nauvoo, IL (just prior to leaving for Utah). The was a deep concern that a temple (the holy place in which Mormon marriages are performed) would not be available for a very long time and in order to account for this loss marriages were arranged for young people. In the case Daynes discusses, the boy and girl were instructed  to not live as a married couple until the ripe old age of 16. They were to continue to live with their families until the postponement was ended. The hardships of life caused the boy and girl to drift apart and the marriage between them was never realized despite the religious rite being carried out and promises made.

In another anecdote the most rare marital solution was provided to a family that converted to Mormonism while being trapped in Utah during the winter on their way to Oregon. The family was baptized and took an assignment to live in and help settle Manti Utah. One problem was that this couple was not able to produce children. The father was sterile, by virtue of being a eunuch.


Emile Durkheim developed the concept of anomie which means a sense of or state of normlessness. According to Durkheim humans differ from other biological organisms by having insatiable appetites for all things and not bowing to the physiological feedback loops that tell us that we are indeed full, or are satisfied sexually. We humans will look for and find more and more stimulation of all kinds without being impeded like other animals. It is social norms in Durkheim’s view rather, that corral our passions and excessive behavior. Jacksonian America, the time in which Mormonism was first formed is characterized as a period of anomie which “accelerated the loosening of the authority of the patriarchal family and it’s replacement by the middle-class family, with the mother as a central figure in the home and in her children’s lives.” [1]

The relaxed restraints of the time allowed for new ideas of marriage and family to be entertained and embraced, which in another era would not have been tolerated by even the practitioners themselves. The disruption and disorientation caused by the anomie of the time was countered in Mormonism with “a sense of communitas and emotional unity, intense egalitarianism, and submission to the authority of of leaders” [1] It a appears that polygamy erupted out of anomie and was solidified for more than 50 years by a stabilizing reaction to the very anomie that spawned it.

The authority used to uphold polygamy as a virtuous way of life is the ultimate authority, a claim of divine mandate to adhere to the practice. From a modern perspective polygamy seems so strange as it also appeared to the non-Mormon 19th century Americans. There was a great concern on both sides of the divide regarding the purity or virtue of women. While Mormons acknowledged the sexual desire of women as real and good they still maintained that the expression of that desire must be within the bonds of matrimony, whether through plural marriage or monogamy. In demonstrating a shift in thinking on the existence of female sexual desire Mormon leaders also held that the desire of men was much greater than that of women. Polygamy satisfied the demands of nature while the monogamic system did not and fostered prostitution. Non-Mormons obviously did not agree with this view and countered that prostitution should be avoided and pleasure actually mximized through men taming their “sexual indulgence” to occur no more frequent than the “lunar months” in the  year.[2]

As Daynes illustrates and as Mormon leaders at the time observed the increase in plural marriage during the year of 1856 was due to the fiery rhetoric of the Mormon Reformation, which is part was a response to the seduction of Mormon women by men of the federal army in the preceding years 1854-55. The pioneering saints obeyed the principle as best they knew but apostle Amasa Lyman admitted the “many crooked paths” they took while practicing it (perhaps a reason why 7 different forms of marriage emerged from the practice) and following the reformation a wave of divorces indicated that perfection or even long term adherence to the principle was not sustainable. [3]


Beginning with legislation and prosecution on the part of the United States government in the 1880s and followed by incremental practice and doctrinal changes on the part of church leadership starting with Woodruff’s 1890 manifesto, we see polygamy begin to die a slow death.  One might argue that a new anomie was created with the abandonment of polygamy at the turn of the 20th century. The resolution of the new found confusion was found for the Utah based faith through assimilation with the wider American culture and greater agreement with American protestant religious values. Mormon splinter groups composed of members espousing more fundamentalist worldviews retreated from the mainstream and set themselves apart from the world by circumscribing their people in the southwest deserts and remote mountain ranges of the west to continue the practice underneath the radar of the law.

Despite the practice being abolished from the mainstream LDS church for over a century, continued doctrinal claims and apologetic arguments defending the strange marriage and sexual behavior of the faith’s founder as well as the persistence of the practice’s source being claimed to be divine (despite historical sources for the claims standing on shaky 2nd and 3rd hand accounts), creates anxiety over eternal polygamy for faithful members of the church. Often stories of polygamist pioneers are not told, or shared in a devotional light in order to avoid thinking of the pain and hardship that the practice caused many. This an inextricable part of the Mormon story. It will always be with us and must be reckoned with rather than ignored and swept under the rub. Some are able to read the stories of Mormonism’s polygamist past and find faith and divine sanction for it while others find fingerprints of humans developing doctrine in the name of God to serve nefarious purposes or delusions confused as revelations.

I think that Dayne’s book provides a way to learn of the practice without being forced into a devotional or polemical positoin with regard to the practice or those who lived the principle. Rather the work situates the reader in a position to observe it as a human experience as real as any other.


[1] Kathryn Daynes More Wives Than One, 2001, pp. 190

[2] William Alcott The Physiology of Marriage, 1859, pp. 116

[3] Kathryn Daynes More Wives Than One, 2001, pp. 204-205


One thought on “More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910

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