(General questions about fundamentalism & polygamy)

What is the relationship between Mormon fundamentalism and the mainstream LDS Church?

Officially there is no organizational or legal tie between any of the Mormon fundamentalist groups and the mainstream Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). However, Mormon fundamentalist groups are nearly all considered offshoots or breakaway sects off of the mainstream Church.

In 1890, under pressure from the US Federal Government, the mainstream LDS Church issued a declaration abandoning the practice of polygamy. This outraged many Mormons, many of whom continued to practice polygamy in secret. A few decades later, the Mormon Church took a more active stance opposing polygamy, and began excommunicating anyone who were found to be engaging in the practice. This eventually led to the formation of breakaway groups of "fundamentalists," some of which formed early on, and others of which organized much later. (Many of these groups make the claim that the legitimate priesthood authority of Mormonism rests in their group alone.)

The mainstream LDS Church vigorously disavows any connection with the fundamentalist sects; LDS President Hinckley has even gone so far as to declare publicly that "there are no Mormon fundamentalists." This statement is misleading, however, as the fundamentalist groups clearly consider themselves to be Mormon (although not members of the LDS Church); these groups follow the Mormon scriptures and the teachings of the early Mormon prophets. Fundamentalists argue that their practice of Mormonism more closely reflects the "faith once delivered" by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young than does the mainstream LDS Church.

How are the Mormon Fundamentalists and mainstream Mormons alike and different?

The mainstream LDS Church tries to distance themselves from the Mormon fundamentalist groups because, in short, they are an embarrassement to the mainstream Church. The mainstream Church is anxious to disavow themselves of the subject of polygamy, and try and turn it into a purely historical issue. However, when the fundamentalist Mormon groups make the news, the LDS Church fears that they will somehow be confused with the fundamentalists. And to some degree their concern is warranted; there are still those who mistakenly believe that the mainstream LDS Church practices and promotes polygamy.

However, in their efforts to disavow themselves of polygamy in modern times, the mainstream LDS Church is often guilty of misleading the public (and even their own membership) concerning their historical and doctrinal ties to polygamy, which are undeniable.

Doctrinally, there are not many differences between mainstream Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists. They uphold the same books as scripture; they revere the same early prophets, such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, as prophets of God. And generally speaking, the historical doctrines of Mormonism are held and taught by both groups, including the doctrines of polygamy. (While the mainstream LDS Church has stopped the practice of polygamy in the here and now, it is still taught that it will be practiced in the afterlife, and possibly may even be re-instated in the future.)

Functionally, the Fundamentalist groups are different organizations, and do not answer to any of the mainline LDS authorities, or vice-versa. Most groups have their own prophet or leader, many of whom claim some right of succession from the early Mormon prophets. Different groups often emphasize different doctrines, but generally hold to the core teachings of historical Mormonism. Many fundamentalist groups view the mainline LDS Church as being in a state of apostasy, because of their rejection of the practice of polygamy and other historic practices. They view the LDS Church as having compromised for the sake of acceptance by mainstream society. Likewise, the mainline LDS Church views the fundamentalist groups as apostate, because they do not submit to the authority of the mainline LDS Church.

Does the mainline Mormon Church really condemn polygamy?

Yes and no. The LDS Church officially mandated the end of the practice of polygamy in the late 19th Century, and began excommunicating members who practiced it in the early 20th Century. However, it puts them in the awkward position of having to condemn something that had been so crucial to their historical development. As a result, the historical aspect of polygamy tends to be downplayed, to the point where the newer generations of Mormons have very little understanding of the doctrinal and historical aspect of polygamy.

Nevertheless, the mainstream Mormon Church still accepts it on a "spiritual" level, meaning that they believe it is the order of Heaven and required for exaltation. In addition, mainstream Mormon men can be "eternally sealed" to more than one woman. If, for example, a Mormon man is eternally sealed (married in the temple) to a woman, she is considered his wife for eternity. If that wife dies, and the man remarries a woman, and is sealed to her as well, then it is believed that both wives will be his wives in heaven. A woman, on the other hand, cannot be sealed to more than one man; if she is widowed and wants to remarry, she can marry, but not be sealed to her new husband, while remaining sealed to her former husband. Upon her death, it is believed, she will revert to becoming the wife of her first husband in the afterlife. Therefore, polygamy is still an aspect of even mainline Mormon thought and teachings, even if not overtly practiced.


Why is polygamy so important to Mormon fundamentalism?

Polygamy was a teaching originally developed by Joseph Smith and further propagated by Brigham Young upon the Mormons' migration to the Utah Territory in the mid to late 19th Century. Polygamy is as much a doctrinal issue as it is a matter of practice. According to Mormon doctrine (Doctrine & Covenants Section 132, and others), the practice of polygamy was required for exaltation to godhood. That is to say, a man was required to have more than one wife, presumably in this life, if he were to obtain the status of godhood. The mainstream LDS Church, following the abandonment of the practice, maintains that the requirement of polygamy need only be met in the afterlife. Fundamentalists maintain that it is necessary to be practiced in this life, and therefore shun the mainstream LDS Church's anti-polygamy stance.

Isn't polygamy illegal in the United States?

Absolutely. Polygamy, according to the US Model Penal Code (230.1), is a third-degree felony. Polygamy is defined by the law as someone "marrying or cohabitating with more than one spouse at a time in purported exercise of the right of plural marriage." The polygamy that is practiced by the Mormon Fundamentalists clearly falls into that definition and is therefore a felony offense.

Why are not more polygamists prosecuted?

This is a matter of some debate. Practically speaking, if all the polygamists in the United States were prosecuted, it would overwhelm the justice system, courts, and prisons, not to mention the child welfare services. In Utah and the so-called "Mormon Belt" of the Intermountain West, there are tens of thousands of polygamists.

The State of Utah, for example, has all but issued "de facto" grace to all the polygamists, stating that they will not pursue prosecutions related to polygamy unless they involve abuse.

There are other factors involved in why more aren't prosecuted, especially in the Mormon Belt. For one, the mainstream LDS Church hold significant sway over local politics and policy. Many speculate that their reluctance to prosecute is less about wanting to protect the polygamists, or conserving state resources, and more about wanting to avoid a public controversy that could draw unwelcome attention on Mormonism's polygamist history.

So prosecutions of polygamists have generally centered on cases of child sex abuse, or such things as fraud and tax evasion. But even on these charges, many states, including Utah, have been criticized for a failure to aggressively pursue prosections.

Shouldn't the polygamists be left alone, to practice their own religion in freedom?

While religious freedom has always been a high value to the United States, there is no provision in freedom of religion for any illegal activity. If polygamy is ever legalized in the United States, then and only then can polygamists freely engage in the religious practice of polygamy without the danger of prosecution.

Secondly, all too often, polygamy is not religious freedom, but rather, religious enslavement, particularly of women and children. These victims of fundamentalism, particularly in the more oppresive groups on the fundamentalist continuum, are not free. They do not have choices. They cannot easily leave on their own, or even display any disagreement with the authorities, without facing serious repercussions. Fear of reprisal from leaders or fear of displeasing God (portrayed as a demanding, spiteful ogre), is what keeps most people "towing the line."

Thirdly, the controlling and authoritarian structure of many fundamentalist groups lends itself to very elevated levels of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of women and children. In some cases, this abuse is not just a by-product, but an actual working component of the fundamentalist lifestyle. We, both as Christians and citizens, have a moral obligation to speak out against these atrocities, and do whatever we can to protect those who have been victimized by this abuse.

What is the typical lifestyle of a polygamist or fundamentalist?

There is no one typical lifestyle; some polygamist families live entirely under one roof, others live in multiple houses (in some cases duplexes or tri-plexes). Some polygamist families live in compounds or small towns that are entirely or almost entirely composed of members of their sect; others live scattered among the general population (and generally work hard at keeping their lifestyle a secret).

A few of the polygamist men are substantially wealthy businessmen (or are high-ranking officials in their sect), and so therefore can afford to maintain several wives with reasonable comfort. The majority of polygamist families, however, live very frugally, and many live in utter poverty. Some polygamist wives go on welfare (applying as single mothers) in order to survive. Some fundamentalists live an almost Marxist lifestyle, in which everyone works for the sect's industries and no one owns any personal property, while others may have their own property and jobs in the secular world. So there are many different "brands" and degrees of control that a fundamentalist sect has over the day-to-day lives of their membership; nevertheless, the adherence to polygamy and other early teachings and practices of Mormonism are what they all have in common.

I've heard that many fundamentalists are white-supremacists. Is this true?

To the best of our knowledge, there is no connection between any of the Mormon fundamentalist groups and any organized neo-Nazi or white supremacist group. However, the Mormon fundamentalists almost universally condemn the Mormon Church's decision in 1978 to allow men of African decent to hold the priesthood. In fact, for many fundamentalists, this was the "straw that broke the camel's back" as it were, and the final evidence that the mainstream LDS Church was apostate.

So Mormon fundamentalists as a whole tend to take a very dim view of non-white races; however, this is simply keeping in line with the racist teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (for example, that blacks cannot hold the priesthood, that intermarriage with non-white races is an abomination, etc.)

What about the HBO series, "Big Love"? How accurate is its portrayal of polygamy?

We are asked this question frequently and have reviewed a number of episodes of this series. First of all, Big Love is a work of fiction and entertainment. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the producers and writers have a thorough knowledge of many of the cultural, historical, and doctrinal aspects of Mormon fundamentalism, and many of these are represented quite accurately. Many of the story lines are inspired by (but do not portray) real events and headlines.

The program revolves around a fictitious polygamist family living in a Salt Lake City suburb--a successful businessman, his legal first wife, and two younger polygamist wives, and all their children. They live in adjoining houses in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, where they attempt to practice their lifestyle as discreetly as possible. The husband and one of the wives has ties to a fictitious fundamentalist group that is patterned after the real-world FLDS polygamist group. Their struggle to maintain their lifestyle secretly in the context of mainstream society, as well as their struggle to break free from the sometimes oppressive (and dangerous) ties with the fundamentalist group, often form the basis of much of the plot.

What it gets right: Most references to the doctrines of Mormon fundamentalism and many aspects of the polygamist culture (especially where it concerns the fictitious fundamentalist group) are reasonably accurate. Polygamy is clearly presented as a doctrine of exaltation (as opposed to merely a lifestyle choice), which is a distinction that is often lost or misunderstood by the general public. While not representative of all fundamentalist groups, the dangerous power struggles, the absolute authority of the "prophet", the spiritual and religious manipulation, the jealousy and strife, the subjugation of women and abuse of children, etc., are represented in the program (though often in a highly sanitized fashion).

What it gets wrong: In addition to the somewhat sanitized portrayal of the very real hardships of polygamy, the program often tries to differentiate between "healthy" polygamy and "corrupt" polygamy. Now, in reality, there are certainly likeable, kind-hearted people in the fundamentalist groups(like some of the characters in "Big Love") but we at Shield and Refuge maintain that there is no such thing as a "good" or "healthy" polygamist lifestyle (though granted some are worse than others). Many of the harsh realities of the lifestyle are ignored or glossed over in the program. For example, unlike the "Hendrickson" family, the vast majority of polygamist fundamentalists do not live an upper-middle-class lifestyle, and in many cases, live in squalor.

Do we recommend watching the program? We don't take it as a calling to try and dictate anyone's television viewing choices. Big Love does have high production standards, but it addresses many moral themes in a way that is contrary to biblical principles. Nevertheless, our chief objection to Big Love is that it glamorizes and even validates a lifestyle and religious practice that has been responsible for the oppression and misery of countless people throughout Mormon history.

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