Don't we have visions of harems of scantily clad beautiful young women lounging on pillows who are kept just to satisfy the lust of some man? Shocking!
Mark Twain shattered this titillating fantasy of polygamy with these words when he visited Salt Lake in the 1800's, "the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence." (Roughing It)
Not very flattering about the women, but it does bring us back down to reality. We are talking about marriage; about real human beings with feelings and needs; about having to provide for more than one family. I don't think many men want to do this. My husband told me this morning, "With my relationship skills; one is all I can handle." I really don't know of any man who wants to have more than one wife. Some men have mistresses, affairs, and playmates, but few have or want several wives.
So why did some early Mormon's have more than one wife? They were obeying God's commandment and believed they would be blessed for doing so. They believed this was a principle of the Gospel which the Lord was restoring in the latter days. As it says on the LDS.org site Plural Marriage
Latter-day Saints believe that the marriage of one man and one woman is the Lord’s standing law of marriage. In biblical times, the Lord commanded some to practice plural marriage—the marriage of one man and more than one woman. By revelation, the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to institute the practice of plural marriage among Church members in the early 1840s. For more than half a century, plural marriage was practiced by some Latter-day Saints under the direction of the Church President.
I know that many Mormon men were murdered in the mid 1800's in Missouri and Illinois by mobs. Also, when the Mormons fled to the Utah territory there was a good part of the west to quickly settle. Having nearly all the women married not only helped to populate the western territory, but provided for their support.
I also know that the ancient patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all had more than one wife. (Hanna's husband had at least one other wife) As recorded in the Bible, all did not run smoothly. Wives were sometimes jealous of each other. Rachel and Leah, Jacob's wives, even had a son-producing contest. In the Bible it explains how a widow whose husband had died was to be married by his brother and he was to raise up seed for his brother. The Lord provided a system where women was cared for and given status in their society.
An important principle to know is that the wife had to approve of any other wives.
The revelation on marriage required that a wife give her consent before her husband could enter into plural marriage. Doctrine and Covenants 132:61. In Utah, the first wife was part of the plural marriage ceremony, standing between her husband and the bride and placing the hand of the bride in the hand of the husband. “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer 1 (Feb. 1853): 31.
In 1862 the Congress of the United States made plural marriages illegal. The Church tried to fight this decision, but finally in " September 1890, Church President Wilford Woodruff felt inspired to issue the Manifesto. “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages,” President Woodruff explained, “I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.”
Many of the people who had been involved in plural marriages would not disavow their marriages. They refused to abandon their wives and children. Some went to jail or hiding. Both men and women fought for their marriages. I remember seeing a picture of a large building that some group built in Salt Lake City in the mid 1800's for the "poor oppressed Mormon women to flee to" -- it remained empty.
Were the women in the polygamist marriages timid and subservient?
History, however, paints a different picture. Nineteenth-century Mormon women, in both plural and monogamous marriages, were not just interested in raising families and blindly following their husbands. They were politically active and participated in territorial elections. Many were well connected with national women's organizations. These women also taught school and were active in publishing and literary activities. Some even served their communities by going to medical school and becoming skilled physicians. Because of their competence and level of self-reliance, they did not have to resort to public assistance.
"At the April 1904 general conference, Church President Joseph F. Smith issued a forceful statement, known as the Second Manifesto, making new plural marriages punishable by excommunication."
"Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints."
In other words, the standard of the Lord’s people is monogamy unless the Lord reveals otherwise. Latter-day Saints believe the season the Church practiced polygamy was one of these exceptions.
And people are cautioned to realize that :
Polygamous groups and individuals in and around Utah often cause confusion for casual observers and for visiting news media. The polygamists and polygamist organizations in parts of the western United States and Canada have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the term "Mormon" — widely understood to be a nickname for Latter-day Saints — is sometimes misleadingly applied to them.
President Gordon B. Hinckley stated the following about polygamy in the Church's October 1998 general conference: "If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose."
(I'll address some questions about Joseph Smith and polygamy next)