Mormon’s and the Polygamy Debate

Mormon’s and the Polygamy Debate

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the practice of polygamy among Mormons. In the past, the Western society and the church had been at the forefront in voicing their opposition to this practice (Abanes 12). Prior to 1890, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abolished polygamy, the republican platform had publicly criticized polygamy, referring to it as the height of barbarism. In particular, they classified two “relics of barbarism”, namely polygamy and slavery. It is prudent to know that for 60 years prior to abolishment of polygamy, Prophet Joseph Smith Jr, the founder of the Mormon faith had instituted it as a private practice (Embry 34). 22 years latter, polygamy was publicly practiced and defended by Elder Orson Pratt, one of the Council of the Twelve Apostles as an express order from the then church president, Brigham Young.

It took about 40 years of tussling with the federal government for the Mormons to abolish polygamy. The church during this period argued that the practice was part of exercising their religious rights while the government was under pressure from the public to rein in on the practice. The passing of the Morrill Act in 1862 did not dissuade Mormons from practicing polygamy. They believed that this law was obsolete as they were protected by the First Amendment. The Reynolds v. United States ruling in 1879 upheld the Morrill Act stating that “while the law cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinion, it may with practices”. Even after the church publicly denounced polygamy, there are members who did not adhere to this directive.

In 1998, the prior president of the LDS church, Gordon B. Hinckley, made this statement on the position of the church in regards to polygamy…

“This Church has nothing whatsoever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church…. If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church.” (Garff 6)

He went on to point out scriptures where God had commanded his most faithful followers from Abraham to Solomon to have multiple wives and then from Jacob onwards where people were required to be monogamous. This direction, interpreted by the Mormon faithful, meant that the Lord had commanded the earlier saints like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball to practice polygamy which they obeyed and then commanded the latter saints to practice monogamy, of which they should adhere. This interpretation has not been popular among some Mormon faithful, who still practice polygamy. This group is referred to as fundamentalist Mormons.

HBO (Home Box Office) featured a TV series from 2006 to 2011 named ‘Big Love’. The series depicted the lives of a Mormon family. The family comprised of a husband, his three wives and their children. The show stirred up a wide range of debates even before its first episode was aired. The latest controversy was due to an episode that depicted a Mormon Church ritual that usually occurs behind closed doors. Some of the member of the LDS church asserted that there should be some corners within the religious landscape that Hollywood should not be allowed to depict. The depiction of this ritual was opposed by both the fundamentalist and modern Mormons. Anne Wilde, who has been a plural wife for over 33 years until her husband died and who is a co-founder of Principal Voices, an advocacy group for plural marriages asserts that many religious rituals are not for public view as they are sacred to those who believe in them (Brachear pp.3). She admitted that she was irked by the choice of ceremony to be publicly depicted. “Of all the parts of the temple ceremony that ‘Big Love’ could have depicted, they selected absolutely the most sacred and confidential!” she wondered (Brachear 4). What is interesting to note is that the fundamentalist Mormons are as angry with the depiction as are mainstream Mormons despite them not being allowed into Mormon temples as they are cast out due to their plural marriage practices. Many Mormons have admitted that the depiction of the ceremony was a very accurate one, right from the wording, to the priesthood handshake and going through the veil of the temple. Their argument is that that depiction did nothing to enrich the plot of the show and that it was not relevant, thus unethical.

The show creators on the other hand feel that they wanted a true depiction of how those who are cast out by the Mormon faith feel. They say that Barb, one of the sister wives in the show had been conflicted about her faith for the past three seasons of the series and that the excommunication that promised to throw her into the ‘outer darkness’ was something that she struggled with since she had been born. She had grown up in the Mormon faith and felt that her belief in plural marriages which was a cornerstone of the early Mormon Church should not restrict her from going to sacred ceremonies. Therefore, she was deeply upset that the church that she loved had tossed her out. Given the chance, she would have run back to it in a heartbeat. The creators thus say that to depict her staunchness to the faith and also her conflicted nature, they had to depict a ritual which she would not be allowed to attend.

Most of the critics of the show argue that the series is a depiction of a minority of Mormons that ran the risk of stereotyping mainstream Mormons as a plural marriage practicing culture. The show has struck a cord with Mormons practicing plural marriages, like Anne Wilde, who admits that it is a pretty accurate recantation of how sister wives relate to each other (Brachear 4). Anne admits that she likes the solidarity that is shown by the plural wives, that even though they have disagreements, they usually support each other over the long haul. She further states that the show has served to dispel the stereotypes that associate plural wives as being uneducated, dependent on government assistance and that they dress in a certain manner in isolated communities. This is because the Hendrickson family in the show lives in an upscale neighborhood in the full view of mainstream society, where they make an honest living just like everybody else.

While there are many accurate depictions in the series, Wilde feels that there are too many instances where the show creators have ‘pushed the envelop’ (Brachear 6). She gives an example of when Bill Henrickson, the main character, surreptitiously pursues a fourth wife. She says that it is not acceptable in fundamentalist Mormon faith to pursue another wife without the knowledge of the existing wives (Hardy 219). She was also confounded by the fact that Bill slept with the prospective fourth wife prior to a formal marriage, which is immoral.

Wilde claims that depicting the conflicted character, Barb, using deception is not acceptable. She says that the Mormon faith does not allow deception in any of their endeavors and that depicting Barb as both a staunch Mormon and a deceptive character did not paint an accurate picture of Mormons. She was also angered by the pattern of the temple aprons as she said that the pattern was wrong and that the colors used should have been green and not blue.

Olsen and Scheffer, the show creators, while apologizing for offending some viewers assured them that they had a responsibility to depict accurate events and which they feel they did (Brachear 8). They asserted that they had a consultant who was a practicing Mormon and was familiar with temple rituals and practices as he had taught them for a long time prior to his resignation some eight years before the show was aired. They admit that since the show had elicited various reactions from Mormons around the country, they had the responsibility to ensure that they depicted accurate events that did not further any stereotypes that may have been associated with Mormons.

This controversial episode led to boycotts and cancellations of subscriptions to HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, by some mainstream Mormons. However, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not adopt an official position on the matter. It instead condemned the depiction of sacred rituals and avoided advising boycotts, citing that such actions would only help fuel controversy which would in turn lead to media attention that would increase audiences for the show. Wilde however encourages more people to view the show as she feels that it will sensitize people so that they realize that both polygamous and monogamous families are similar except that the former is constituted of more people to love and to be loved back.

The controversy surrounding this singular episode, depicting the endowment ceremony, was perhaps more intense than that which stirred before the show was aired. Both mainstream Mormons and fundamentalists argue that the ritual of faith affirmation is only open to members of the church who are in good standing. There is an argument that there are certain sacred rituals that should not be depicted by the media for mass consumption. The problem here lies in the fact that religious leaders and artists do not know where these lines are. In comparison, there was a controversy between the Muslin faithful and artists over depiction of Mohammed in cartoons. To what point are the secular masses allowed to follow the laws of the faithful? Where does art and religion converge and diverge? The answers to these questions are not simple, but arguments can be made for either side. For the Mormon faithful, the ritual is a reserve of those that are outstanding members of the church. In the first place, Barb, the character deceiving her way into the ritual, is a polygamist who according to the church is outcast. In this instance, according to the church, three wrongs occur. First, Barb should not be allowed into the ritual. Two; the ritual should not be depicted in public and three; the depiction of the ritual was not accurate. In analyzing these scenarios, it is prudent to consider why the opposition occurs. The church argues that depiction of these rituals will only lead to misunderstandings about the faith and serve to further stereotype their beliefs.

Before the show premiered, there was opposition from mainstream Mormons that the show would brand all Mormons as polygamists and that it should not have been aired in that regard. The fundamentalists were also opposed to the show since they thought that it would not give an accurate account of their culture. The show was aired regardless of this opposition. However, due to the earlier opposition, instead of the show depicting all Mormons as polygamous, it has gone on to widen the rift between fundamentalists and mainstream Mormons. The mainstream church did not have any justification for their opposition. On the other hand, fundamentalists have encouraged non-Mormons to watch the show as they feel that, despite some inaccuracies, it gives a good account of their beliefs (Poniewozik 6). For the most part, according to both Mormon factions, the show has encapsulated the fundamental teachings of their faith. There is an opportunity for the church to put its message out there, to the masses, in order to break down the yoke of stereotyping that has burdened the church for a long time. It is obvious that HBO will continue airing future programs that depict the Mormon faith since the reception of Big Love and the subsequent show Sister Wives has been immense. It is therefore in the best interest of the church to work with future productions so that accurate accounts are given in their depictions.

One of the reasons that Big Love has been so well received by the secular masses was because it was a representation of what is largely regarded as a closed society that has absolute and strict religious traditions and teachings. This is logical since their main aim of religion is to guide people in their daily lives and empower them for a higher purpose. Religious teachings serve to foster cohesion between groups of believers that distinguishes them from outsiders. The controversy surrounding polygamy has created a wedge between fundamentalists and mainstream Mormons that has played out in public and which has extended beyond the original topic (Hales 79). The arguments between the factions and their opposition to Big Love are not from a common standing and therefore only serve to divide them further.

Islam broke its rules regarding depicting prophet Mohammed in cartoons (Poniewozik 4). This liberated artists who now felt that they had a responsibility to accurately depict the prophet in the most ethical way that would not in any way offend Muslims. The artistic sphere is a better place due to this decision and it has helped to breakdown the stereotype of Mohammed and Islam. In the same breath, it is prudent that the Mormon community steer away from controversies with Hollywood as the artists do not have an obligation to adhere to the teachings of the faith but do have an obligation to make sure that they give accurate depictions so as not to be offensive to a majority of believers. The only way that this can be achieved is desisting from pointing fingers at each other and to collaborate in order to give viewers and believers a platform for peaceful and mutual coexistence.


Works Cited

Abanes, Richard. One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003

Brachear, Manya. ‘Big Love’ in big trouble with Mormons. Chicago Tribune 2009. 23 November 2013

Embry, Jessie L. Polygamy. in Powell, Allan Kent. Utah History Encyclopedia. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1994

Garff, Melinda T. Gordon B. Hinckley: Fifteenth President of the Church. Salt Lake City, Utah: Brookcraft, 1998

Hales, Brian C. Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations After the Manifesto. Greg Kofford Books, 2007

Hardy, Carmon B. That ‘Same Old Question of Polygamy and Polygamous Living:’ Some Recent Findings Regarding Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Mormon Polygamy. Utah Historical Quarterly 73.3(2005): 212–224.

Poniewozik, James. Big Love Re-Offends Mormons. Do They Have a Point? Time Entertainment 2009. 23 November 2013

Reynolds v. United States “The History of the Supreme Court”


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