"Polygamy" = Having more than one spouse at a time

Who practices polygamy?
Although polygamy is against the law, it is practiced by 30,000-50,000 people in North America.  Polygamists are mostly from various fundamentalist sects based on the Book of Mormon, since the mainstream Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) bans the practice.  In the Middle East and Asia, up to four wives are allowed by the Islamic faith, although strict rules govern the practice and are supposed to prevent abuse.

What do they do?
In Mormon polygamy, one man is "sealed" by a sacred ceremony with several wives--but wives never have multiple husbands.  Polygamists usually lead an isolated, communal life, with the multiple wives and children of one husband living together under the same roof.  But sometimes the various wives live in separate houses, or even separate towns.  Separation from mainstream society is encouraged or enforced by distinctive hairstyles and clothes for the women and girls.  Men may dress conservatively, or often dress in conventional styles. Some fundamentalist sects are said to indoctrinate girls and force them into underage marriages.  And in a few sects, the leader has the right to assign wives to a man, and even to reassign them to another man if the first husband falls out of favor.

Where do they live?
Primarily in the great basin of the US, Canada, and Mexico.  Some towns are virtually 100% polygamist, such as Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado TX, Colorado City, AZ, Hilldale, UT, Bountiful (Canada), and Centennial Park, AZ.  Polygamy is growing in Texas, because they have no anti-polygamy law, the age of marriage is younger (17), and it's sparsely populated.

When did it start?
Polygamy has probably always existed, and the Christian Bible supposedly condones it.  The Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, introduced the practice to some Mormon leaders in the 1830s, but it remained a secret practice until his successor, Brigham Young, pronounced it to be official doctrine of the Mormon Church.  But congress passed a law against Polygamy in the late 1800s, and nearly went to war with the Mormons in order to enforce the law.  Finally, in the early 1900s, the mainstream Mormon Church gave up polygamy, to smooth the way for Utah to join the Union.  Fundamentalist Mormons continue to practice polygamy, asserting that they alone are faithful to the original doctrines of the Prophet.

Why do they practice polygamy?
Mormon fundamentalists believe that practicing polygamy brings glorification in heaven, where they will become a god-like being, surrounded by and ministered to by their descendants. 

Beyond religious reasons, polygamy is also an economic system, whereby several wives usually work together to maintain the household.  Often the various households of  polygamous communities work together in other cooperative ways, and may shop at a community co-op.  During pioneer times in Utah, the communal side of polygamy helped Mormons settle the hostile desert.  It allowed families to function when the men were away on missions, and helped rapidly populate the Mormon territories.

Arguments for polygamy
  • Essential for salvation
  • If some love is good, more love is better
  • Wives have companions in one another
  • It's an economic system--there's more help for the household
  • Suited to a harsh environment, or to a shortage of males
  • Many polygamous wives say they are happy and feel free to choose that lifestyle.
  • Polygamists say the priciple of religious freedom gives them the right to practice polygamy without interference.
Arguments against polygamy
  • Illegal--and people living outside the law become subject to other abuse.
  • Often very hard on the first wife, who may not have bargained for more wives.
  • A paternalistic system--women are not equal to men.
  • Unnatural, some say, leading to jealousy and stress for all wives of a husband.
  • Children don't get enough attention from fathers.
  • Frequently leads to abusive practices--and "religious freedom" is no excuse for abuse
Abuses and problems said to occur in polygamist communities
  • Underage girls are forced into marriage
  • Marriages between relatives occur--because communities are small and family trees can be very complex.
  • Teenage boys are forced out of communities, so they won't compete for brides with the older men.  They are called "lost boys."
  • Welfare fraud--polygamous wives sometimes pretend to be single mothers, collecting welfare payments.
  • Poverty
  • Children may receive inadequate education, and are kept isolated from mainstream society.
  • Sexual abuse occurs within families--fathers against daughters, or older brothers against younger sisters.
  • Concealing polygamy leads to other problems, such as keeping children out of the hospital when they become ill.
  • The patriarch may gain absolute power over the private lives of other community members, even reassigning wives and children of a man to a new husband.  More on abuse.
Should polygamy be legalized?
Because of these kinds of abuse, citizens like Ann Eliza Webb Young campaigned against polygamy in the 1800s, claiming that, like slavery, it was one of the great evils to be banished from society.  But laws against polygamy are nearly impossible to enforce, and whenever the government cracks down, it's a disaster for both the authorities and the families (the famous Short Creek raids).  Making it illegal forces polygamists underground, where the abuse festers--and making it harder for social agencies to help.  For these reasons, the Canadian government produced a controversial study proposing to make polygamy legal there.  Jump to law section