Brigham on “Why Polygamy?”

There has been a lot discussion as to the reasons behind the plural marriages of 19th century Mormons. Common in such discussions is reference to Jacob’s ardent proclamation on the godliness of monogamy and his associated caveat for raising up seed unto the Lord. The thought is that if the Lord wants a lot of Mormon babies, he’ll command the Saints to engage in polygamy. Without fail, one or more individuals will raise the fact that more children were born in monogamous marriages than in their polygamous counterparts (on a per marriage basis). I recently stumbled on a discourse by Brigham Young that spells out quite plainly his reasoning for polygamy, which corresponds well with Jacob and yet defies the modern criticism.

Brigham spoke in the Tabernacle on April 7th 1861 (JD 9:31) and offered an explanation of polygamy that contradicts many of his statements as to the eternal nature of its practice as well as his conflation with Adam-God. After complaining that many Mormons seem to want plural wives for reasons of “passion” he states:

If the plurality of wives is to pander to the low passions of men and women, the sooner it is abolished the better. "How far would you go in abolishing it?" I would say, if the Lord should reveal that it is his will to go so far as to become a Shaking Quaker, Amen to it, and let the sexes have no connection. If so far as for a man to have but one wife, let it be so…The time is coming when the Lord is going to raise up a holy nation. He will bring up a royal Priesthood upon the earth, and he has introduced a plurality of wives for that express purpose… And were I now asked whether I desired and wanted another wife, my reply would be, It should be one by whom the Spirit will bring forth noble children.

Here we see that Brigham places a heavy emphasis on the “royal Priesthood.”  The ecclesiastical elite of nineteenth century Mormonism were all ordained Kings and Queens (with the highest leaders having the greatest kingdoms) and it was through this royal lineage that the Lord was to raise up his leaders.  Young continues, highlighting again the utilitarian views of marriage by the early saints:

[To the Sisters]…Are you sealed to a good man? Yes, to a man of God. It is for you to bear fruit and bring forth, to the praise of God, the spirits that are born in yonder heavens and are to take tabernacles on the earth. You have the privilege of forming tabernacles for those spirits, instead of their being brought into this wicked world, that God may have a royal Priesthood, a royal people, on the earth. That is what plurality of wives is for, and not to gratify lustful desires–Do you look forward to that? or are you tormenting yourselves by thinking that your husbands do not love you? I would not care whether they loved a particle or not; but I would cry out, like one of old, in the joy of my heart, "I have got a man from the Lord!" "Hallelujah! I am a mother–I have borne an image of God!"

From this perspective we see that even though monogamous marriages had more children, the parents in such marriages were not yet “noble.” The best way to ensure the maximum progeny of royal lineage was to increase the amount of wives of those destined to reign on thrones in Celestial glory.


  1. harpingheather says:

    You said that monogamous marriages had more children on a PER MARRIAGE basis. All that means is that monogamous couple A had three children to polygynous couple B’s two. Add in the children from polygynous couple Bb and there are more children in the polygynous family than in the monogamous.

    I’ve done my genealogy and seen the polygynous families with a total of thirty children. While there was a Russian woman who had 65 children in her lifetime, I think you’ll find that most women can’t produce anywhere near that thirty.

    Besides, the text in the Book of Mormon speaks cleary about raising a righteous generation unto the Lord. From where I’m standing, I’d say it worked.

  2. Despite Brigham’s sermon, I imagine plural wives were still “tormented” by the thought that their husbands did not love them (at least not like a monogamous husband would). His dismissal of that concern seems out of character for Brigham, who usually took the practical side of life into full consideration. Divorcing love from marriage seems extreme even for the 19th century.

    Of course, the fact that he needs to denounce something in a sermon suggests what he is denouncing is, in fact, the view held by many of the Saints. If that’s true, what his remarks suggest is that men took plural wives because of their passions and women disliked it because plural marriages undermined the love men originally felt for the first wife (or the first couple of wives — it’s not quite clear what the magic number is). That seems quite consistent with my understanding of human nature.

  3. Bob Caswell says:

    Honestly, these are the types of discussions I hate having. While sort of interesting, I wish this type of stuff had less affiliation with me than the little it already has.

  4. The right thing to look at would be children per woman, not per family (counting all wives). Women are the scarce resource involved in reproduction, not men.

    In fact it occurs to me that polygamy could increase fertility by lowering the fraction of women who never marry, even if the number of children per married woman is fewer.

  5. Ed, children per woman is the stat that J. Stapley is referring to. That statistic seems to be lower in polygamous marriages than in monogamous ones. However, evidence from modern polygamous societies in Africa seems to suggest that this difference may be largely due to the fact that wives after the first wife are often older and not on their first marriage–which leaves them in a different fertility situation. As far as I know, research on Mormon polygamy has not yet evaluated this new hypothesis.

    The issue with respect to making sure that there weren’t many women who didn’t marry is that polygamy apparently created a substantial surplus of lifelong bachelors in Utah Territory. (Hence the famous “menace to society” speech. Ironically, the church’s policy of supporting polygamy and the church’s policy of encouraging men to marry ran into the demographic fact that there aren’t a limitless supply of women per man…)

  6. HarpingHeather:
    Bb is one family, but two marriages, as J Stapley implied.

  7. The problem with what Brigham said is that sometimes even he couldn’t make up his own mind. There’s no evidence he knew why the Saints were practicing polygamy; so far as the records indicate, Joseph never told him his reasons (or presumably God’s reasons) for it. Like other doctrines, Brigham expounded on what Joseph had left, seemingly inventing his own reasons for it along the way.

    It’s ironic that Brigham’s doctrinal disputes with Orson Pratt usually resulted in Orson’s censor, since it appears the Brigham may have won the battle, but Orson won the war. Today’s Mormon doctrines resemble the beliefs of Orson Pratt far more than the beliefs of Brigham Young.

  8. I find Brigham’s first sentence quite interesting:

    “If the plurality of wives is to pander to the low passions of men and women, the sooner it is abolished the better”

    To me, it is quite obvious that one could make the argument that polygamy could pander (meaning gratify or indulge a person) to men’s lust, but it is interesting to me that Brigham mentions women’s “low passions” here as well. I can see polygamous marriages working for some women because they provided financial stability, some independence, companionship of sister wives,etc.

    But which lower passions did plural marriage pander to in women? Was it gratifying? Could Brigham mean such emotions as jealousy and possessiveness here?

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Kris, it’s obvious that the early Saints should have taken their cues from bats instead.

  10. Steve, that is very interesting. What I really want to know is who presides in the bat church?

  11. Steve Evans says:

    Kris, as I understand it the bat church is run by Batman. Batgirl can speak in meetings, but may not officiate in bat ordinances or throw the batarang.

  12. It seems there is no room for an infertile woman in Brigham’s view of the polygamous ideal.

    Too often bereft of love from husband, barren of children, how clearly marginalized they must have been–B.Y. is clearly suggesting that motherhood (and possibly the woman’s relationship with the Lord) should supplant, should *stand in place of* a loving marital relationship.

  13. The second quote is interesting relative to the politics of reproductive strategies. It would seem that if Mormons having children is to prevent children from being born among less righteous families that we ought be encouraging, as much as possible, the use of birth control by non-Mormons.

    I’d add that if BY was right with regards to polygamy, that it was a dismal failure due to the birth rate by women within polygamy versus monogamy. Monogamy is demonstrably a better system for children to be raised by righteous women.

  14. I’ve seen this polygamy rationale before (though not with Brigham attached as the source) and find it more than a little offensive. It implies that the “righteousness” (or royalness, if you will) of offspring is primarily determined by the genetic characteristics and ongoing influence of the father. If the genetic material and child-rearing skills of a mother were of primary importance and could trump those of a father, then would it really matter which man was the father of a child? Royal Priestess A could mate with Non-Royal Drone B and create Royal Child AB. The “Quality Chidren through Polygamy” program assumes that Daddy’s the most important parent.

    And if that’s not why I don’t like it, mayabe this is…

    The argument that polygamy results in increased spiritual quality in the offspring of polygamous relationships devalues both women and men. It assumes that there are so few righteous men around that in order to raise a holy nation a few men must couple with a multiplicity of women. It’s the same rationale that pops up every now and again for why polygamy must be practiced in the afterlife: there will be so many good women deserving of exaltaion and so few good men that sheer numbers will dictate the necessity of polygamy. Ugh. This smacks of predestination and the false (in my opinion) notion that men are by nature more fallen than women.

    I wish I had a good explanation for polygamy, but I fear one is not to be had in this life.

  15. Alan (#14), Based on my observations I would have to agree that in general, men are more fallen than women.

    Kris: (#8) “But which lower passions did plural marriage pander to in women? Was it gratifying?”

    Even though, in general, men are more fallen than women, women lust too. BY’s statement caused me to think that some women may have wanted a studly polygamous husband to share on a 1/3rd basis, than a dudly husband without sharing, (or than no husband at all.) Or for those women who may have been materialistic, some may have wanted 1/3rd or 1/4th the wealth of a rich polygamous husband, then 100% of a poor husband.

    I read something (in a pro-mormon book) about BY’s marriages, and he married both women in their post-child-bearing years and women in their child-bearing years. His plural marriages were not completely only about baby-making.

    Alan #14, there is something about pre-destination or fore-knowledge in the linkages of children to parents. Paul talks about the “bounds of our habitations”, IE., where, when, and to whom we are born. Those things are worked out in the pre-mortal existance.

    Because that God is in control over which spirits are put into which babies (or embryos if you will), in that sense it is pre-determined by God. Two people commit an act which “calls down” a spirit to inhabit the body they’ve created. But it is God who determines which spirit.

  16. GreenEggz, I’m going to have to disagree with you in one area particularly. The idea that women wanted to be married polygamously for financial reasons is saddly crushed by the realities of post Nauvoo life. Especially at this time (1861), even the most wealthy (if you could even call them that) of the leaders didn’t have enough to provide shelter and food for their plural wives and children. To be a plural wife, especially of high church authorities at this time, was a life a poverty. These women supported themselves financially and cared for their children as single mothers.

  17. There is a great article in the latest Utah Historical Quarterly by Carmon Hardy of Cal State Fullerton addressing much of the new demographic information on “the practice.” Specifically, regarding fertility rates in mono vs. poly relationships, she states, “. . . from at least as early as the eighteenth century, writers discussing polygamy said that polygamous wives tend to fall behind monogamous wives in the number of children they have. Anthropologists and others writing about non-Mormon polygamous peoples in the twentieth century, confirmed this, finding that, as a generality, plural marriage actually depresses the fertility of additional wives in such homes. This led some to suggest that Mormon patriarchs would have collectively enlarged the kingdom more rapidly had they remained monogamous. But now, in just the last few years, evidence is emerging that in some communities, specifically St. George and Cedar City, polygamous wives displayed a fertility pattern fully on a par with and in some instances greater than that of their monogamous neighbors. And Professor Daynes, in her study of nineteenth-century Manti, shows that because polygamy was encouraged, numbers of marginalized women who would likely never have married at all became polygamous wives and mothers thus further enlarging the census beyond what it otherwixe would have been.”

  18. I’m decended from a man with four wives and 35 children. I recently came across his headstone in the Salt Lake cemetary. On the back of the headstone was a list of 18 children, in addition to the 35, which had not made it past the age of 1. A total of 53 children from 4 wives. Mortality rates were staggering. Any research out there on the average moratlity rates among polygamous familes in early Utah hist.

  19. Alan (14), Brigham’s statement doesn’t even imply that the father is a more important influence. He’s saying that children are more likely to be raised up unto the Lord when the righteous mother marries a righteous man, rather than if a righteous mother marries an unrighteous one. There’s nothing genetic about it. In a modern example, who is more likely to serve a mission: the child of an active mother and inactive father, or the child of two active, faithful parents?

    It does certainly imply that there were more righteous women in Utah at the time than righteous men. I didn’t live there at the time, so I don’t know whether it’s true, but I certainly don’t have a problem with the idea on its face.

  20. Seth Rogers says:

    I’m not sure that Brigham Young really knew what polygamy was for either.

    I’ve heard others try to downplay polygamy, by saying that people did solely out of a sense of duty, merely for children, to provide for the womenfolk, etc. They then claim that sex had nothing to do with it.

    Human nature being what it is, sex couldn’t have not had anything to do with it. It most certainly was about sex for those who practiced it.

    Brigham’s statement that women should not expect affection from their husbands, only children seems to me to be as outdated as his comment that if women cannot bear to be away from their children for more than a couple hours they should stay home, but don’t bring the kids to church meetings.

    Obviously, the modern church takes a different view of what sex is for than Brother Brigham.

    Still, I honestly don’t see what the big deal is about polygamy. If you compare monogomous practices with polygamous practices of the 19th century, I expect you’ll find just as many problems with both, and just as many benefits.

    Everyone gets all worked up about polygamy and forgets that monogamy today and yesterday has never been exactly a bed of roses either. Spousal abuse is RAMPANT today, and this despite the fact that the victims and abusers are in morally sanctioned monogomous relationships.

    Sorry, I just don’t see 19th century polygamy as a big social problem comparatively.

  21. Bob Caswell says:

    Seth Rogers-

    Interesting comparison… Your words, however, don’t comfort me as much as I’d wish. When you say spousal abuse is RAMPANT today, I’m guessing it’s still a minority in comparison to, you know, non-spousal-abuse-monogamous relationships. I think, regardless of the possibility of spousal abuse each time a monogamous relationship starts, it has potentially WAY less issues than its polygamous counterpart on a marriage to marriage comparisons overall. But I really have no idea, as I haven’t had much experience comparing monogamous and polygamous marriages

    And then, of course, for those who consider being in a polygamous relation spousal abuse from the beginning, well, then your comparison is totally pointless (I’m not saying I’m necessarily one of those people).

  22. Seth Rogers says:

    Bob, there’s a few problems with those assumptions:

    1. You assume that the abuse rate is higher in polygamous relationships than in monogamous relationships. Specifically, you assume that spousal abuse is the minority today.

    The spousal abuse rate even in Utah county is surprisingly high. I wish I could remember the statistics. In the end I’d merely point out that while abusive relationships are still a minority, that minority is so large that we can derive little comfort from its status as a minority. The numbers are big enough that I’d feel comfortable saying that American marital relations have a huge disfunctional component.

    Secondly, you’re lumping all polygamists in with Tom Green. These cases get the headlines. But at least one study I ran across postulated that there are over 10,000 polygamists currently living on the Wasatch Front and quite a few of the case studies were pretty normal folk.

    Since I can’t cite or identify this study, you are free to dismiss it as pure hogwash of course.

    2. Whatever, the abuse rates, you are assuming that polygamy itself is the cause of abuse.

    I disagree. Let’s assume abuse is more prevalent among polygamists than among monogamists. I would attribute this not to the nature of polygamy, but to the culture of secrecy that accompanies modern American polygamy. The practice is illegal. This necessitates a culture of secrecy. It is this culture of secrecy that promotes abusive patterns, not the polygamy itself.

    It is for this reason that I do not favor the modern practice of polygamy. I think it has morphed into something quite different than what was practiced in the 1800s.

  23. Bob Caswell says:


    Your assumptions of what I assumed aren’t quite accurate either. My larger point was that the very nature of polygamy is more likely to be considered “abuse” (a term, which we haven’t defined explicitly here).

    I’m sure polygamy advocates (is this you?) might be able to argue otherwise. But when I think of sharing my wife with another man, for example, I’d most likely feel abused sooner or later. But that’s just me trying to be empathetic; perhaps polygamy is truly the way God intended men and women live through the eternities. If so, what can I say?

    And your second point is interesting… However, I’m curious as to why polygamy itself IS, in fact, illegal if it’s so rosy when not disturbed by illegality…

  24. Seth Rogers says:

    Well, to answer one question,

    I’m not really a polygamy advocate. First, I think that our modern context (culture of secrecy, as explained above) makes the feasibility of appropriate polygamous practice rather dicey.

    Secondly, even if you remove abuse from the picture, I have a hard time picturing at least, how I’d get a polygamous relationship to work. The very thought of trying to walk the tightrope between the emotional needs of TWO (or more) women scares me more than a little. I also agree that I personally don’t like the idea of sharing my wife either.

    Nah … Best leave well enough alone in my opinion.

    Now, addressing your question of why polygamy is, in fact illegal.

    Well, my knee-jerk response is that it’s illegal because Congress and the Supreme Court, historically, have rarely deviated much from the conventional Protestant ethic when it comes to religious freedom cases.

    You can read the Supreme Court case that decided the polygamy issue in the 1800s and judge for yourself whether I’m full of it or not.


    Just in case anyone would like to read the case (Reynolds v. United States)… it’s an interesting read. One wonders how the court would handle the issue if it were considered today.

  26. At the very least, what we see in BY’s explanation is the primary importance of men and the subordination of women in the Church. The purpose of women is to have babies (and if they cannot??) with no rights to expect love and affection from their husband. This is not only institutional endorsement of martial abuse, but is in stark contrast to the advice Church leaders give to couples today on the dynamics of a successful eternal marriage.

    From a group dynamics perspective, the idea of such imbalance is inherently abusive to women. As Bob Caswell shared: “But when I think of sharing my wife with another man, for example, I’d most likely feel abused sooner or later.” Why should women have been expected to feel differently? Or were they even given the dignity of such an expectation?

    As Carol Lynn Pearson has been fond of pointing out: “Men are that they might have joy, and women are that they might provide it.”

    I am not asserting that men’s lust is the cause of the institution of polygamy–I honestly do not know. But Mormons still have not rejected it. I’ve recently attended large Mormon family reunions and historical commemorations where the number of wives are spoken of as a badge of honor. Imagine attending such events in the South and hearing the number of slaves lauded! Perhaps this happens there–but the thought is repulsive indeed.

    I find that many Mormons still embrace polygamy in their past and in eternity (where it is still not rejected by the Church). There is no sense of apology or embarassment. Some Southerners persist in thinking that slavery is defensible, as well–much less something to be embarrassed about.

  27. OOPS! I meant MARITAL abuse, not martial abuse. Obviously I still have Abu-Ghraib on my mind!

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