Articles from the 1860s to the present point to polygamy's persistent appeal in American life

In August of last year, a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper arrested Warren Steed Jeffs, a powerful Mormon splinter-group leader wanted by the FBI for collecting underage brides and “reassigning” his married followers to new partners. This week, a Utah jury found Jeffs guilty of acting as an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl. Law enforcement officials hope that the verdict will be the first step in ending polygamy and forced marriages throughout the United States. But

The Mormon Church renounced plural marriage in 1890, but it is estimated that nearly 37,000 fundamentalist Mormons still practice polygamy today, most of them living in isolated communities in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. Articles from The Atlantic shed light on the controversy and allure that plural marriage has held for numerous generations of Americans.

In “Among the Mormons” (April 1864), Fitz-Hugh Ludlow declared Brigham Young’s polygamous community to be “anomalous” and “one of the greatest psychological problems of the nineteenth century.” On meeting a polygamous family for the first time, Ludlow’s reaction was shocked and bewildered: “I stared,—I believed I blushed a little,—I tried to stutter a reply; ‘How can these young women sit looking at each other’s babies without flying into each other’s faces with their fingernails, and tearing out each other’s hair?’” The Mormons said nothing in response except that, perhaps, it was “a triumph of grace.” Ludlow observed that these polygamists believed, with worrisome determination, that they would soon take hold of the United States:

Before I left Utah, I discovered that, without a single exception, all the saints were inoculated with a prodigious craze, to the effect that the United States was to become a blighted chaos, and its inhabitants Mormon proselytes and citizens of Utah within the next two years,—the more sanguine said, “next summer.”

In the late nineteenth century, however, polygamy became punishable by law. No one practicing polygamy was allowed to act as a juror, hold office in courts, or vote in elections. Unfortunately for existing polygamists, the law lacked a grandfather clause that would allow them to maintain the families they’d already created. Those unwilling to give up their families were to be arrested or banished from their communities. But as Rollin Lynde Hartt noted in his article “The Mormons” (February 1900), Mormonism continued to thrive even in the face of such difficulties, and its adherents continued to practice polygamy.

To-day the appeal of Mormonism is less doctrinal than material. It dangles loaves and fishes before hungry mouths. But the main cohesive force is polygamy. With an appalling uniformity, it is polygamists who rise to ecclesiastical eminence. Such can be trusted. Such will stay put. This Mormon Church binds its adherents with the strongest bonds known under heaven. It is at once a religion, an empire, a fraternity, a trust, and a partnership in crime.

In “Are Americans Polygamous?” (August, 1947), David L. Cohn considered the question of whether marriage is a failed institution in America. Because divorce rates had increased six hundred percent since the Civil War, Cohn speculated as to whether polygamy might be what Americans were looking for. He suggested that it was monogamy and not polygamy that bred instability—leading to divorce and leaving broken families in its wake. The rising divorce rate inspired Cohn to wonder whether monogamous marriage might be subtly evolving into something else:

Monogamous marriage, as we have known it, is challenged. For if repetitive divorces are permitted for capricious reasons … we are tacitly establishing a legal halfway house between monogamy and polygamy.... What is important is that the law permits men to skip into and out of marriage at will, and the law is the expression of the will of the people.

Half a century later, in “One Man, Many Wives, Big Problems” (April 2006), an essay for The Atlantic's sister publication National Journal, Jonathan Rauch discussed the potential dangers of polygamy. He criticized Big Love, HBO’s fictional take on a Mormon family living in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. The show paints a benign picture of a Viagra-popping husband happily juggling three wives and seven children. Rauch criticized the show for only skimming the surface of what is a very complicated and hazardous social practice. “Because a marriage license is a state grant,” Rauch argued, “polygamy is a matter of public policy, not just of personal preference.”

Those who don’t marry, Rauch suggested, would suffer most from widespread polygamy. Monogamy gives everyone an equal opportunity to marry, he argued, but plural marriage skews the market. He observed that  “the real-world practice of polygamy seems to flow from men’s desire to marry all the women they can have children with.” If polygamy were legalized, polygynous marriages (one man, many wives) would undoubtedly outnumber polyandrous ones—and when one man married four women, three other men would be left spouseless. This inequality would create a subclass of poor, unskilled, and uneducated men:

In a polygamous world, boys could no longer grow up taking marriage for granted. Many would instead see marriage as a trophy in a sometimes brutal competition for wives. Losers would understandably burn with resentment, and most young men, even those who eventually won, would fear losing. Although much has been said about polygamy’s inegalitarian implications for women who share a husband, the greater victims of inequality would be men who never become husbands.

Rauch conceded that, historically speaking, monogamy is an aberration—polygamy has been the most common form of marriage since biblical times. But given that polygamists today run the risk of landing in a jail cell, with no spouse in sight, perhaps it is wisest to come around to the perspective that monogamy is, in fact, the true “triumph of grace.”

—Jennifer Percy