The Church’s practice of Plural Marriage has been the source of curiosity, scorn, humor and head-scratching for the majority of the history of the Church. With the focus on Warren Jeffs and the FLDS, same sex marriage, TV shows like “Big Love” and “Sister Wives,” and two Mormon presidential candidates, the terms Mormon Church and polygamy are never very far apart.
Thus we have a love-hate relationship between the Church and its former polygamous roots: the ultimate contradiction.
I say this because the church cannot deny the impact polygamy has on it. It is one of the things about the Church that most people know something about; all of the presidents of the Church from Joseph Smith to Heber J. Grant were practitioners and advocates of the practice in secret and in public (As well as many high ranking leaders of the Church from that time); a great number of people now living in Utah and the western United States are directly descended from polygamous families including both Mormon presidential candidates.
It was also the source of great trouble for the Church as the United States Government outlawed the practice and legally pursued Church members who practiced it and attempted to disenfranchise the entire Church because of it. As a result, the Church suspended the practice of polygamy in 1890 and finally put an end to it in 1905. Ironically, the US Government seems to have had little interest in pursuing those who practice polygamy since that time and even today, outside of the efforts toward the FLDS and Warren Jeffs. The states of Utah and Arizona have turned a mostly blind eye as well.
The Church’s position on living plural marriage is quite emphatic. In the words of President Hinckley:
“I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. They know they are in violation of the law. They are subject to its penalties. The Church, of course, has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter.
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. An article of our faith is binding upon us. It states, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (A of F 1:12). One cannot obey the law and disobey the law at the same time.
…More than a century ago God clearly revealed unto His prophet Wilford Woodruff that the practice of plural marriage should be discontinued, which means that it is now against the law of God. Even in countries where civil or religious law allows polygamy, the Church teaches that marriage must be monogamous and does not accept into its membership those practicing plural marriage.” (“What Are People Asking about Us?” Oct. 1998 General Conference).
This is where the “hate” comes in regarding the practice of Plural Marriage. We want to be disassociated with those groups that practice it today in spite of the fact that their roots are the same as our roots. We want to be disassociated with the practice because it is distasteful to most people, particularly women. We want to be taken serious as a modern, progressive Church and the practice of polygamy seems archaic, old fashion, and, in the minds of many, perverted. The reported practices of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS do not make that last point any easier to dispute.
But, while the living practice of polygamy has ceased, the deceased practice lives on. A man, in particular, but also a woman, can be sealed to all of their deceased spouses plus one living spouse. These sealings, of deceased spouses, for the most part, are done by proxy. The rules for living men and women do differ.
A woman can only be sealed to one living man. So, if she divorces a spouse, having been sealed in the Temple, she must have that sealing cancelled if she wishes to be sealed in the Temple to a current spouse. But, a man, who is divorced from a sealed spouse, must receive a “sealing clearance” but does not have to have the prior sealing cancelled. But he must receive a sealing clearance even if the sealing was cancelled or if the divorced spouse is deceased.
So, in that regard, the practice does live on. This is the “love” part of the relationship.
What remains a mystery is since the practice was suspended because it was going to be detrimental to the Church and violated the law of the land at that time and is, President Hinckley stated, against the “Law of God,” what will happen when and if it is no longer a violation of the “law of the land?”