Why Did The Mormon Church Stop Polygamy?

In the fascinating history of the Mormon Church, there was a time when polygamy was an accepted practice. However, one question often lingers in people’s minds: why did the Mormon Church ultimately decide to cease this controversial tradition? Through an exploration of various factors and pivotal moments in the Church’s evolution, we can uncover the intriguing reasons behind the Mormon Church’s decision to abandon polygamy. Join us as we delve into this captivating journey of transformation and discover the key factors that led to this significant change in the Church’s beliefs and practices.

History of Polygamy in the Mormon Church

Early Practice of Polygamy

The history of polygamy in the Mormon Church dates back to the early years of the church’s establishment in the 19th century. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, introduced the doctrine of polygamy and began practicing it himself. Smith believed that God had revealed to him that the practice of plural marriage was necessary for the salvation of mankind. This early adoption of polygamy set the foundation for its future growth and controversy within the church.

Growth and Controversy

As the Mormon Church expanded and gained followers, so did the practice of polygamy. Many church leaders, including Brigham Young, embraced and practiced plural marriage. Polygamy became an integral part of the church’s teachings and an important marker of one’s faithfulness. However, this growth in the practice of polygamy also attracted public attention and scrutiny.

Legal Challenges

The practice of polygamy faced significant legal challenges in the United States. As the Mormon Church grew and its followers migrated to the western frontier, they brought their practice of polygamy with them. This directly conflicted with the prevailing societal norms and the laws of the land. The government’s attempts to enforce monogamy led to a series of legal battles that would ultimately have far-reaching consequences for the church.

Reasons for Implementing Polygamy

Religious Beliefs and Doctrines

The Mormon Church justified the practice of polygamy based on their religious beliefs and doctrines. They believed that God had commanded the reinstatement of the ancient practice of plural marriage, just as it had been in biblical times. The church taught that polygamy was necessary for the progression and exaltation of families, as well as the fulfillment of certain divine purposes.

Expansion of the Church

Polygamy played a crucial role in the expansion of the Mormon Church. By allowing a man to have multiple wives, the church could rapidly increase its membership. This was especially important during the early years when the church was still establishing itself and faced opposition from mainstream society. Polygamy helped the church grow both in numbers and influence.

Pioneering the West

The practice of polygamy also played a key role in the church’s westward migration and establishment of Mormon settlements. Through polygamy, the church aimed to create a self-sustaining and tightly knit community. The wives and children of polygamous marriages formed the foundation of these communities, providing the labor and support needed to build a new life in the frontier.

Shift in Public Opinion

Negative Perception and Misunderstandings

Polygamy was met with a negative perception and a great deal of misunderstandings from the wider society. Many saw it as immoral and a threat to the traditional institution of marriage. The idea of a man having multiple wives was seen as a breach of societal norms, and Mormons were often stigmatized and misunderstood because of it. This negative perception fueled hostility towards the practice and the church as a whole.

Hostility and Violence

The controversy surrounding polygamy frequently led to hostility and occasional outbreaks of violence against the Mormon Church and its members. Mormons in polygamous relationships faced discrimination and persecution, with some even being driven out of their homes and communities. This hostility further deepened the divide between the Mormons and the rest of society.

Political Pressures

As the Mormon Church grew in size and influence, it also faced increasing political pressures to abandon the practice of polygamy. The issue of polygamy became intertwined with broader political debates, with opponents arguing that the practice threatened the sanctity of marriage and the social fabric of the nation. The government exerted pressure on the church through legislation and legal actions, forcing the church to confront the issue head-on.

United States Government Intervention

Edmunds Act of 1882

In response to the ongoing practice of polygamy, the United States government passed the Edmunds Act in 1882. This act targeted polygamists by disenfranchising them, making polygamy a criminal offense, and imposing harsh penalties on those found guilty. The act also targeted individuals who believed in the principle of polygamy, even if they were not actively practicing it.

Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887

Building upon the Edmunds Act, the United States government passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887. This act aimed to dismantle the hierarchical structure of the Mormon Church by disincorporating the church and confiscating its assets. It also specifically targeted the practice of polygamy, making it even more difficult for polygamists to retain their property and social standing.

Supreme Court Rulings

The legality of polygamy faced further scrutiny and legal challenges. In 1878, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. United States that polygamy was not protected by the First Amendment as a religious practice. This opened the door for further legal actions against the practice and set the stage for the government’s ongoing intervention in the matter.

Legal and Social Consequences

Confiscation of Church Property

The enactment of the Edmunds-Tucker Act resulted in the confiscation of significant church property. The Mormon Church lost control of valuable assets, including buildings, land, and other resources. This loss severely impacted the church’s financial stability and forced the leadership to navigate a new reality.

Imprisonment of Members

Polygamists within the Mormon Church faced the risk of imprisonment for their religious beliefs and practices. Many individuals, including church leaders, were arrested and sentenced to prison terms for practicing and promoting polygamy. The imprisonment of these individuals not only disrupted their lives but also strained the church’s leadership and its ability to function effectively.

Excommunication and Shunning

The practice of polygamy brought about division within the church itself. Those who refused to adhere to the church’s abandonment of polygamy faced the threat of excommunication. This led to the isolation and shunning of individuals and families who continued to believe in and practice plural marriage. The consequences of this division were deeply felt within the Mormon community.

Leadership Changes and Revelation

Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto

Facing mounting pressure and legal challenges, Wilford Woodruff, the president of the Mormon Church, issued the Manifesto in 1890. This document officially renounced the practice of polygamy and called on all members to abide by the laws of the land. Woodruff’s Manifesto marked a significant shift in the church’s stance on polygamy and set in motion a period of transition and change.

Official Declaration 1

In 1890, a few months after the issuance of the Manifesto, the church submitted an official declaration, known as Official Declaration 1, to the United States government. This declaration reiterated the church’s abandonment of polygamy and expressed a commitment to obeying the laws of the land. It served as a legal document for the government to acknowledge the church’s compliance with its laws.

Acceptance of Manifesto by Members

Although the leadership had officially renounced the practice of polygamy, its implementation and acceptance by the members of the church was met with varying degrees of resistance and discontent. Some members struggled to reconcile their deeply ingrained beliefs with the sudden shift, while others embraced the change and sought to follow the new direction set by the leadership.

Reaction and Transition

Resistance and Discontent

The abandonment of polygamy was not easily embraced by all members of the Mormon Church. Some individuals and families who firmly believed in the practice felt disillusioned and betrayed by the church’s shift in policy. This resistance and discontent within the ranks of the church created a period of tension and internal strife.

Gradual Discontinuation of New Polygamous Marriages

While the church officially denounced the practice of polygamy, some individuals continued to enter into new polygamous marriages even after the issuance of the Manifesto. However, as time went on, the church made a concerted effort to discourage and discontinue such marriages. The leadership understood that the complete eradication of the practice required a gradual transition.

Promotion of Monogamy

With the discontinuation of polygamous marriages, the Mormon Church shifted its focus towards emphasizing and promoting monogamy as the only acceptable form of marriage. Church teachings and programs began to stress the importance of strong, healthy, and committed monogamous relationships, reinforcing the church’s new stance on marriage.

Modern Church Stance on Polygamy

Official Declaration 1 and 2

The official declarations issued by the Mormon Church in the 19th century, namely Official Declaration 1 in 1890 and Official Declaration 2 in 1904, firmly established the church’s stance on polygamy. These declarations reasserted the church’s commitment to monogamy and explicitly prohibited its members from entering into or supporting any form of plural marriage.

Excommunication of Polygamist Groups

While the Mormon Church has officially abandoned the practice of polygamy, there are still splinter groups and individuals who continue to practice it. These groups and individuals have often been excommunicated from the main church as their beliefs and practices are not in accordance with the church’s teachings. The church maintains a strict stance against the practice of polygamy within its ranks.

Mormon Fundamentalist Movements

The discontinuation of polygamy within the mainstream Mormon Church led to the formation of various fundamentalist groups that continue to practice and advocate for plural marriage. These groups are not affiliated with the official church and are considered separate entities with their own doctrines and practices. The mainstream church distances itself from these groups and their controversial beliefs.

Shift towards Mainstream Acceptance

Integration into Society

In the early 20th century, the Mormon Church made a deliberate effort to integrate and assimilate into mainstream society. This involved distancing themselves from the practice of polygamy and actively participating in civic and social affairs. Through this integration, the church aimed to dispel misconceptions and foster greater acceptance and understanding of their faith.

Emphasizing Family Values

With the abandonment of polygamy, the Mormon Church placed a renewed emphasis on strong family values. They sought to showcase monogamous families as the cornerstone of their faith and as examples of righteous living. This emphasis on family values helped the church find common ground with mainstream society and reinforced their commitment to the traditional institution of marriage.

Focusing on Spiritual Worship

As the issue of polygamy became less prominent within the church, the focus shifted towards other aspects of spiritual worship and personal growth. The Mormon Church directed its efforts towards strengthening religious education, engaging in charitable work, and promoting spiritual well-being. This shift allowed the church to demonstrate its dedication to living a life of faith and service beyond the controversy surrounding polygamy.


The history of polygamy in the Mormon Church is a complex and multifaceted one. The early practice of polygamy was deeply intertwined with the church’s religious beliefs and doctrines. However, the growth of the church, public perception, legal challenges, and a desire for integration into mainstream society led to the eventual abandonment of the practice. The Mormon Church underwent a significant shift in its stance on polygamy, navigating legal battles, internal tensions, and changes in social attitudes. Today, the church firmly upholds monogamy as the only acceptable form of marriage and has distanced itself from the practice of polygamy.