The idea of polygamy first appears in the historical record of Mormonism in 1829, as part of the Book of Mormon narrative and prior to the formal organization of the Church of Jesus Christ in 1830. Not until a dozen years later, however, did Joseph Smith possess sufficient social stability to permit adoption of this final element of his biblical restorationism, the family patterns of the ancient patriarch Abraham adapted to the patriarchal ambiguities of the Early Republic. The practice began to end when Church leaders announced their intention to counsel against the practice, in light of inescapable statutory mandates for the Church’s dissolution and confiscation of temples in 1890. The practice did not finally end until a generation later, when members who persisted in performing new plural marriages began to be excommunicated.
Though plural marriage has a much longer history in Mormonism, the analysis of it here covers only its first two decades: the decades in which the Latter-day Saints were taking biblical models, as elaborated on by Smith’s revelations, and turning them into a mid-nineteenth-century modern, social practice. These years are between the production of the Book of Mormon and the removal of the main body of church members to and settlement of the Rocky Mountain West.
As suggested by the above map, these years were characterized by dramatic historical and extensive environmental change. Thus, identifiable historical contingencies, too, not merely Bible reading and doctrinal precept, shaped the practices and meanings of plural marriage as a form of lived religion. Please note the numerical sums identified in each stage of development are subject to change as we continue to gather data.
Phase 1: 1829-1839 Origins
From the translation of the Book of Mormon to the founding of Nauvoo, Illinois.
During these years, Joseph Smith began to articulate his belief that marriage was an eternal covenant, not only lasting forever but having salvific significance. The historical record is confusing at best, but it is generally accepted that he attempted to begin the practice of plural marriage by 1835, at the latest.
Phase 2: 1840 – mid 1844 First Families
From Smith’s first recorded plural marriage to his death in late June, 1844.
By the time of Joseph Smith’s death, twenty-seven families had adopted the practice of plural marriages.
Phase 3: Mid 1844 – Late 1845 The Anointed Quorum
From Smith’s death until the completion of the Nauvoo temple.
Senior Apostle Brigham Young assumed Joseph Smith’s executive functions when he was murdered in June, 1844. This included the authority to license and perform sealings, whether monogamous or plural, and leadership of an informal quorum comprised of many already sealed by Smith. The group was generally called “the quorum of the anointed,” in reference to one of the temple rites but also to signify the superior spiritual rights and duties of its members. This group marked the first move from an intensely private, even secretive practice of plural marriage to the experience of it as a shared phenomenon central to the operation of a church organization.
Phase 4: Winter 1845 – 1846 Temple Sealings
From the opening of the Nauvoo temple to the exodus from Nauvoo
Joseph Smith built and dedicated his first temple in 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio. Its ordinances and intentions were limited to preparing the male membership to proselytize the world with the message that God was again speaking through prophets to fulfill the ancient promise of sanctifying a people. Another ten years and two failures in Missouri would pass before a second temple was completed in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1845. Smith did not live to see it done. He had, however, sufficiently inspired his successors with the necessity of the endeavor that they continued, notwithstanding local resistance, to get the walls up and roof on sufficient to perform the new ordinances he had designed for it. This time not merely men and their missions, but women and their families were the focus of its sanctifying intentions.
Phase 5: Spring, 1846 – Summer, 1852 Crossing and Dwelling
From the forced evacuation of Nauvoo to the public announcement of plural marriage.
On February 4, 1846, the wagons began to roll out of Nauvoo and across the Mississippi ice, headed west to a destination unknown, but generally assumed to be the other side of the protective wall of the Rocky Mountains. Our present data indicates that approximately 600 sealings were performed in the period between the exodus from Nauvoo and the arrival of its last evacuees to what would become Salt Lake City, in late summer of 1852. With all plural marriages out of reach of their antagonists, the church formally and publicly claimed a constitutional and divine right to practice plural marriage.