The Validity of Social Welfare Explanations of Polygamy

When asked about polygamy, a common answer given by modern-day Mormons is that polygamy acted as a social welfare mechanism, providing financial and social security for otherwise single and poor women. I know that my own family’s lone polygamy story stresses this aspect. My great-great-grandmother was orphaned on the way to Utah, and wound up marrying my relatively well-off and already married great-great-grandfather because she had no other way to survive. If I remember correctly there was a significant age difference between the two. They wound up settling in a small community in Cache Valley. Her relationship with the first wife was quite rocky, and when my great-great-grandfather left town, this much younger second wife would clean out the chicken coop and move herself and her children into it until he returned.

I have a theory, but considering my lack of historical resources, no way to test it right now. So I invite your comments and evidence, anecdotal or otherwise. I think that the social welfare explanation of polygamy has grown over the last century as the church has officially distanced itself from the practice. I think that to our modern ears, it is the most palatable explanation of a practice that we find foreign and distasteful. I wonder how many other polygamy stories have evolved to include a social welfare explanation. I wonder if those accounts can be compared to primary sources. I wonder how often, if at all, primary sources included this particular apology. I imagine that primary sources (one account can be found on the Emmeline B. Wells thread below) more often stress the faith/salvation aspect of polygamy. I also imagine that neither primary nor evolved stories include much about love matches.

So, what are your thoughts? Do your families’ stories include economic excuses for polygamy? Do you have primary sources to compare these stories to? Do you have any evidence to refute or support my theory?


  1. To me polygamy was about exaltation and adoption into holy families. The social benefit (or curse) is secondary.

    But Karen, you know that the real reason was that there were more women than men, right?!

  2. Also, only 3% of Mormons were involved in polygamy, so it hardly matters. It was a peripheral practice in 19th Century Mormonism, much less doctrinally significant than, say, anti-Communism or avoiding R-rated movies.

    Aaron B

  3. My family wasn’t involved in polygamy, although I am a sixth generation Mormon on one side and fifth on the other, so I don’t know about the economic impact.

    But my first husband’s ancestor was a Gardner who had five wives and countless descendants today. My personal opinion is that it helped to populate Zion.

    Or maybe God just let it go and figured He could use it as a testing situation for the future (ie now). See if we could be faithful to a church that was less than perfect.

  4. The social welfare explanation seems, to me, to founder on the evidence that a meaningful number of Mormon men during the polygamy period were unable to find wives — that there was a shortage of marriageable women, not of men.

    In any case, plural marriage is certainly not the only, or even most obvious, solution to the problem of providing economically for widows or orphans.

  5. Anne, the populating-Zion explanation seems to also suffer from the evidence of faithful single Mormon men who couldn’t find wives in the Utah area. A lot of evidence has shown that polygamous wives don’t have more children each than monogamous wives — and may, although may not, actually have fewer. So if potential plural wives had instead married Utah’s unwilling bachelors, that should on average have populated Zion as effectively as what actually happened.

  6. Karen, I have no evidence either way, but I think you are right to point out that the idea that we should marry for love is a relatively recent development. Arranged marriages, or marriages for the purpose of consolidating two families’ fortunes or power are common, even today. Marriage has traditionally been used for all kinds of things, survival, division of labor, regulation of sexuality. So, while I don’t disagree with your theory, I think social welfare as a motivation in marriage was a bigger consideration for everybody 175 years ago than it is now. Therefore, I would not be surprised to learn that it was a primary motivator among our people, too. Following one’s heart is something of a luxury that people can indulge when they are not thinking about keeping the wolf away from the door.

  7. And after re-reading your post, I realize I didn’t even address your question.

    As far as the institutional practice of polygamy and social welfare, I think you are probably correct. I see no evidence to suggest that the church had the welfare of widows and orphans in mind when it started the practice.

  8. Kathryn Daynes’ More Wives Than One looks at economic issues.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    The social welfare claims appear to be largely bunk– that said, there are plenty of anecdotes which suggest otherwise (witness EBW).

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Karen, I don’t have any actual evidence for you, but in the case of my own ancestors social welfare was not a big consideration.

    I agree with you that the social welfare angle is among the more palatable ones to our modern tastes, which probably lends itself to a tendency to read that in to the 19th century practice.

    A number of years ago I home taught a young family where the husband died of a heart attack, leaving his widow and three children. She was from another country and did not have a support system other than the Church and her in-laws. She was able to get social security benefits, which was her economic salvation. At some point the thought occurred to me, What would have happened if there were no SS and her in-laws weren’t alive or able to help? It would have been a dire situation. And the thought did occur to me that I could see the value of a little polygyny in that sort of a situation for the temporal salvation of the little family. (She is now happily remarried, but that wouldn’t have happened so easily if she hadn’t moved to Utah and still lived here.)

    So I think that experience squares with your perception that in our 21st century culture, we probably are able to see a social welfare explanation as the most palatable rationale, even though the actual participants seemed to have a more religious approach to the practice.

  11. People today sometimes get married for economic reasons. I supposed some people did in the 19th century as well. I don’t see how this rationalizes polygamy, though. Ploygamy began before the migration of the saints to Utah. Any post migration rationalization doesn’t hold water.

  12. I believe that in the case of my ancestors the reason was purely religious. God commanded it and they obeyed (both the men and the women involved). My sense is that they viewed marriage as about having children and raising those children to the Lord. I think that the social welfare theory is just an attempt to try to offer further explanation than merely to say “God commanded it”. Karen is right that the strangeness of the practice to our minds causes us to engage in looking for an explanation that sounds reasonable. Even to us, the genetic products of early Mormon polygamy, we tend to avoid the simple and only answer: God commanded it. We also shouldn’t forget that polygamy isn’t just strange and weird to our modern minds but it was also strange and weird to the minds of those immediately asked to practice it. Even the much reviled polygamist Brigham Young famously stated that when polygamy was commanded of him, he envied a corpse in a casket, which to his puritanical worldview was a better position to be in than to practice polygamy. How ironic that one of the things that is principally known about him today is that he practiced polygamy.

  13. The question here I think is what motivated women to enter into polygamy? Was it religious or economic? Paula Harline found in her study of the culture of polygamy that by and large it was religious. Certainly, for many women of the pre-Raid period polygamy did have economic benefits, as it allowed a 20 year girl to marry an already-established husband who more than likely was economically self-sufficient and prominent in the Mormon community. But this economic incentive never overshadowed the belief that polygamy was necessary for salvation (Paula Kelly Harline, “Polygamous yet Monogamous: Cultural Conflict in the Writings of Mormon Polygamous Wives,” in Old West-New West: Centennial Essays, ed. Barbara Howard Meldrum (Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1993), 115-29).
    For those women, such as Annie Clark Tanner, that entered into polygamy during the 1880s and later, there really was no economic benifit, since new plural wives needed to live in hiding in order to protect their husbands from prosecution. Annie’s motivation was primarily religious, although she did explain that she was attracted to her future husband, Joseph Tanner, because he was a prominent educator (Annie Clark Tanner, A Mormon Mother).
    In the post-Manifesto period, as the Church moved away from polygamy and prepared to assimilate into American society, church leaders and others engaged in a complex effort to reconstruct the Mormon image. This was also stimulated by the desire to distance the Church from emergent fundamentalism. With this reconstruction came a reformulation of Latter-day Saint memory of polygamy. The total percentage of polygamous families was consistently deemphasized and the motivations for entering into polygamy were reconcieved to include (false) notions such as unequal gender ratios and poverty. I remember my mother telling me as a young man that because persecution had killed off so many men that the widows needed to marry polygamously in order to be cared for. As a historian I now recognize that as good and useful collective memory, but terrible history. It would be difficult for us to embrace a narrative that acknowledges the religious motivations given our current policies of excommunicating polygamists. Economic explanations fit much better with our own self-perceptions as a law-abiding and monogamous people.
    I realize that this is a complex issue today, as some decendents of cohabs are very proud of their polygamous relatives that were willing to be imprisoned for polygamy. But in general, I think that the official memory of polygamy would love it if everyone else just forgot about it.

  14. endlessnegotiation says:

    In my own family history polygamy has always been explained as stemming from a religious motivation. I think that explanation has stuck because making an economic argument would be completely indefensible given the relative poverty of those ancestors both before and after the polygamous unions.

  15. Last Lemming says:

    JNS wrote:

    the populating-Zion explanation seems to also suffer from the evidence of faithful single Mormon men who couldn’t find wives in the Utah area.

    I think you are conflating “populating Zion” with “populating Utah Territory.” If there was a surplus of faithful single men, we must assume that women had a choice whether to be the sole wife of one of those men or the plural wife of one of the more prominent members of the community. That many chose to be plural wives is consistent with the “populating Zion” hypothesis if the women figured that their offspring by prominent polygamous men were more likely to advance the cause of Zion than were their offspring by less prominent monogamous men. If, on the other hand, their motivation had been populating Utah Territory, the choice to be a plural wife rather than a sole wife would have been irrational.

    Has anybody done a study of the single men in Utah during the polygamy period?

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    There is a study of Utah’s bachelors in the 19th century. I can’t remember whether it appeared in BYU Studies or JMH, or perhaps elsewhere.

  17. Karen,

    The numbers don’t tend to bear out the widows-and-orphans theory particularly well. There’s an essay by Stanley Ivins that runs some of the numbers, it’s reprinted in New Mormon History.

  18. Daynes has looked at single men in Manti.

    Single Men in a Polygamous Society

  19. JA Benson says:

    All of my family lines have been the Church since 1860. Of my eight great grandparents 6/8 were from polygamist families at least once. In DH’s family whose family lines have been in the Church since 1873 5/8 were from polygamist families. I do not think that any of our forebears practiced plural marriage in Nauvoo. While in Winter Quarters or the other camps a few begin another wife. It appears that the reasons given were strictly taking care of widows, orphans etc.. Later after they settled in Utah I think the reason was to raise up righteous families with men who were bishops, patriarchs etc… When they loosened up the rules to let more men take on wives I think that often the reasons were less righteous.

    I do think that Polygamy was more widespread than we want to admit. For example my grandmother who died recently at the age of 98, was proud to state that none of her ancestors were involved in Polygamy. Looking at familysearch I can see that one set of her grandparents did not practice plural marriage, but the other set did.

  20. Last Lemming says:


    Thanks for the link. That is exactly what I was looking for.

  21. If economic factors were requisite, then one would suppose that elderly widows who became plural wives would have been more prevelent than younger plural wives, and yet they weren’t. We’ve got to remember that they were living in an agri-society and young women who had strong backs would have been more economically valuable than the elderly and sick.

    Also, if economic factors were important and the poor were prioritized, then why was Eliza R. Snow a plural wife? She was an educated school teacher, talented writer, had an extended LDS family to provide for her, etc. She could have provided for herself. She’s just one of several other very highly talented plural wives (of yesteryear and the present) who are/were actually quite independent. Might I hypothesize that plural wives were/are acquired for THEIR value (spiritual, economic, and/or physical, etc.)

  22. I think that the social welfare theory is just an attempt to try to offer further explanation than merely to say “God commanded it”…. Brigham Young famously stated that when polygamy was commanded of him, he envied a corpse in a casket, which to his puritanical worldview was a better position to be in than to practice polygamy. How ironic that one of the things that is principally known about him today is that he practiced polygamy.

    I think if there’s any irony here it’s not that a prophet overcame his sensibilities to become known for following God’s commands, but that a man who would rather be dead than follow those commands is venerated as a prophet.

  23. Peter,

    Like Abraham?

  24. JMH has a whole issue devoted to polygamy ca. 1980. As I recall one of the articles discusses historical apologetics of polygamy. Social welfare, as well as an inverted Victorian moralism (it prevents men from using prostitutes or committing adultery), and an Old Testament primitivism seem to have been the main reasons invoked by early apologists. Internal explanations were clearly related to establishing the celestial society (heaven on earth), but it is worth remembering how crucial Christian communism (projected back onto the immortal patriarch Enoch) was to that project.

    So long way of saying, I think your impression is probably wrong. I believe that social welfare was implicated in early understandings of polygamy, although it was not maintained as the sole or primary reason. The reason it seems to prominent now is that the other explanations have been deemphasized.

  25. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    As far as polygamy and family stories of it go:

    My great-great-great grandparents left Denmark with a family of 11. This included both parents and numerous children. Many were lost on the journey: one son was lost on the boat (washed overboard by a rogue wave), a baby born on the plains was then buried on the plains and the father also died on the planes. By the time the family finally reached Utah there were only four left: the mother, two adult daughters and one young daughter. The eldest daughter married the wagonmaster who had saved her from drowning as they crossed the Platte River. The other three were unable to make it on their own, so the wagonmaster married the other grown-up daughter and they all (mother and youngest sister included) made a family compound of it.

  26. Ardis Parshall says:

    The social welfare explanation seems, to me, to founder on the evidence that a meaningful number of Mormon men during the polygamy period were unable to find wives — that there was a shortage of marriageable women, not of men.

    I would be exceedingly interested in being directed to this evidence. One of my colleagues is making a study of Mormondom’s single men, and childless married men, during the 19th century. He has asked me to watch for examples.

  27. I think the reasons of Polygamy will never fit into one box. Why JS & BY did it was very different from the young girls who left Liverpool in 1863 for Salt Lake when they lost their jobs in the garment mills when the North cut off the South’s export of cotton to England. I have at least five of this girls in my family. I can show you another five, who left the poverty of Sweden for the ‘riches’ of Utah.

  28. ardis, mostly people are going off that comment from wilford woodruff that no girl over the age of 14 was left. i would also be interested to see diaries involving complaints about lack of marriage options. it’s certainly been an assumed feature of polygamy, probably mostly during the retrenchment/reformation

  29. My great-great-grandmother was a second wife of a much older man. By all accounts she was a faithful, hard-working and dedicated Saint. She lived in a separate house with her children; the first wife lived nearby. There were 22 children between the two wives. What’s always interested me is what happened to her when polygamy ended– as the second wife, what was her status in the community and that of her children? Any insights?

  30. I agree that social welfare is probably not at all an explanation for why Mormon polyandry began. However, I think we can safely say that it was continued at least partly for social welfare purposes. My one plural wife ancestor was a widow with many children who married her married brother-in-law for the explicitly stated reason (from her own statements in her diary) that she felt that as their uncle he could be counted on to support her children. Their marriage produced one child who is one of my great-great-grandmothers.