By Zuzanna Mietlińska
Polygamy, polygyny, and polyandry. Three different terms that embrace the same phenomenon – plural, inter-human relationships. Polygyny is when one man is in a relationship with more than one woman. Similarly, polyandry is when one woman is in a relationship with more than one man, and polygamy is relevant to both terms in general.
While, in the XXIst century, there are plenty of societies (and religious groups) that tolerate polygyny, polyandry is highly unpopular, and criminalized in most of the Western countries. Polygamy, in turn, is permitted on certain conditions in such minorities as the Mormons in the state of Utah.
It is important to note, however, that it would be a hasty, unfair generalisation to say that, in general terms, Mormons in the US still practice polygamy. In fact, the occurrence of polygamous families has only existed until 1904, in the Latter Day Saint Movement (LDS Church). After Joseph F. Smith’s “Second Manifesto” declaration, marrying multiple wives at the same time would result in excommunication from the Church. Ever since, smaller religious groups, often called the Mormon fundamentalists, would continue to marry according to this tradition, and these include the modern Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church) and Apostolic United Brethren (AUB).
One may ask, why is there a particularly high percentage of Mormon believers in today’s North-Western America? Historically speaking, present-day Utah, Wyoming and Idaho were particularly attractive for the Mormon population due to the states’ agricultural, and deposit prospects. In addition, 2020’s state of Utah has passed a law that lowers the penalty for polygamy. The Senate Bill 102 determines that one can have multiple spouses at the same time, if all of the spouses have “entered the union voluntarily”. In other words, without the use of force or deception.
But with every religious practice that contradicts the beliefs of the majority, there comes strong opposition. The FLDS’s opponents, such as the Sound Choices Coalition, have coined a written response to the “problem”. For such people, “polygamy is (…) seen as a form of oppression and slavery for women and children”, or, in other terms, it poses a threat on basic human rights. What is interesting, the Sound Choices Coalition called the Bill 102 “anti-American” and “anti-liberty” – though, for the others, the possibility and logic of marrying multiple people (usually women) is very “pro-American” and “pro-liberty”.
Hence, legal complexity aside, the intriguing case study of FLDS Church in Utah, raises the following question – What are the burdens of religious freedom? Should the (religious) majority intervene in (religious) freedom of the minority, if it discerns a possibility of human rights violation?
The general public believes that plural marriage in the United States should not be legalised. This is because it might be harmful for individuals, especially if the marriages are between adults and underage (usually) girls, eventually giving birth to multiple children, as a part of religious belief.
On the other hand, for FLDS Church followers, it is the religious freedom to choose their spouses (as the practices show, despite their age and number), and remains a requirement to “enter the highest level of celestial kingdom”. Thus, it should be legalised and not eradicated by the authorities, both religious and governmental.
It is important to take a closer look at the arguments of the opponents of today’s plural marriage practices.
Multiple historians have studied both the pre-1904 LDS Church, and the modern FLDS Church. The studies show that, among the families, there were instances of underage polygyny – with girls aging from 10 up to 16 years old. An extreme example, although it is important to note that it comes from the pre-1904 era, is Lorenzo Snow, one of the LDS Church fathers. At the age of 57, he married a 16-year-old Sarah Minnie Jensen, with whom he had 5 children (see the bar chart below). This, even today and for the public opinion, is a great argument towards criminalisation of such marriage practices – for them, underage girls do not marry consciously, which, in turn, stands in contradiction to the neoteric Bill 102.
For FLDS followers, underage polygyny is tolerated, as such individuals, in their eyes, are mature enough to decide upon themselves, and choose to follow the path of God.
The ardent opponents of plural marriages often point out another argument – that marrying multiple wives, especially young ones, is to “satisfy male immoral needs”, and that such practices “continue to serve as a screen for adultery”.
This argument is, of course, contradicted by the Mormons themselves. Documentaries about the followers of FLDS Church show that men in such communities are committed to treating all of their wives in the same way – “satisfying not only their sexual, but also spiritual and emotional needs”. So, it is the religious duty of a man to consider each wife as an estimable individual. This can be further confirmed by the fact that the man in most, if not all, Mormon families, is treated as a spirit guide, a religious authority – which poses both threats and chances for the family itself. On one hand, if the man is righteous and fair, he will treat his wives (and children) as good as he can. On the other hand, if the man is vicious and violent, it is obvious that he would harm many individuals at once.
Some may consider if, within such closed, devoted communities, the concept of free will even exists. The controversial, socio-philosophical question, whether the children brought up in a certain environment “see something above the horizon” enforced, both consciously and unconsciously, by their parents? In other words, how “decisive” is our early childhood, in the formation of our beliefs?
The opponents of polygamy would probably come up with a quick answer to the dilemma “girls in the FLDS Church are indoctrinated from their earliest childhood, and thus do not disobey polygyny”, as if the concept of free will was not inherently “embedded” in humans, but was taught and was related to cultural patterns.
The proponents of polygamy, on the other hand, would disagree with the abovementioned statement. It is a rational, conscious decision of each individual to choose his or her romantic partner, and their constitutional free will allows for such instances.
It is also important to note that there are also many religious apostates, also in the community of Mormons, which one day have decided to change their fate and continue to live outside of the religious burdens. One can imagine the possible reasons to do so – such as the personal restraint or domestic violence – but is it really that different from the reasons one would bear in mind, when stepping out of a toxic, monogamous relationship? Or, another rhetorical question arises – does being a religious apostate contradict the “lack of free will”, as discussed above?
The truth is that, even if we asked in-depth questions to FLDS Church followers, or to religiously-devoted individuals in general, it would be impossible to answer the questions and dilemmas that happen to arise repetitively, when discussing the burdens of religious freedom, and the free will concept. The truth is, despite a psychological/ religious-studies degree, one can never fully understand the fellow human, as if we all were beyond rational recognition.
It’s both tragic and beautiful, in a way.
Recommended documentary on polygamy in Mormon societies:
Edited by Joanna Sowińska
Artwork by Oscar Laviolette