Plural marriage is as old as the Bible. Abraham and Jacob each had more than one wife. King David had six. King Solomon had 700 (not to mention 300 concubines).
Solomon lost God's favor when he married women who did not give up idolatry, David when he sent a woman's husband to the front lines so he could marry her.
Whether ancient or modern, polygamous or monogamous, marriage has rules. There may be ages and genders to consider. In early America, there were races to consider. Often, those considerations draw on religious beliefs: The Quran allows a man to take up to four wives. In Fundamentalist Mormonism, there is no set limit to the number of wives in one marriage. Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet who first delivered God's directive that Mormons practice plural marriage, ultimately took dozens of wives.
In the United States, Fundamentalist Mormons are the most common groups to practice polygamy (although some Neopagans, Liberal Christians and some others also do). For Mormons, polygamy is the Divine Principle, reflecting God's wish that his people are "fruitful and multiply." Mainstream Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), officially stopped practicing the Principle in the late 1800s. Those who continued forming plural marriages were eventually excommunicated and became the Fundamentalist Mormons, which include various sects including the FLDS, the AUB, the Priesthood Work and the Independent Fundamentalists not associated with any particular group.
There are actually quite a few different sects that fall under the heading "Fundamentalist Mormon," and distinguishing between them can be helpful in understanding how polygamy is practiced by the group. The lines connecting the sects can be a bit difficult to sort out…
By various estimates and definitions, there are anywhere from five to more than a dozen different sects within the Fundamentalist Mormon community, each with its own Prophet and living space. At one point, they were all one group of Mormons excommunicated for maintaining a polygamous lifestyle, and many of the break-off sects are still connected financially in one way or another, sometimes via land rights or corporations.
Fundamentalist Mormons are spread out around the American West and in parts of Mexico and Canada. Their numbers are hard to pin down due to the secretive nature of their polygamist lifestyles, but most estimates are between 30,000 and 50,000.
The largest of these sects is the FLDS, or Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (primarily in Arizona and Utah). With about 10,000 members, it comprises perhaps 25 percent of Fundamentalist Mormons. The next largest is the AUB, or Apostolic United Brethren, also known as the Allred Group (primarily in Utah). Its numbers are in the area of 7,500.
Other, smaller sects have anywhere from a hundred to about 1,500 members. They include the Centennial Park Group (Arizona), the Davis County Cooperative Society (Utah), the Church of the Firstborn (Mexico), the Bountiful Groups (Canada), the Confederate Nations of Israel (Utah), the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (Utah), and the Missouri Community (Mormons settled in Missouri after Joseph Smith revealed the Second Coming would take place there).
While it's true that some of the wives in polygamous marriages receive government support (only the first wife is legally married -- the others are single mothers), Fundamental Mormons also run farms and have construction companies. They work on construction projects -- legitimate ones -- all over the West and Mexico, and, with a few exceptions, interact with those outside their sects. In most cases, the people they work with outside their communities simply look the other way on the polygamy issue. It's illegal, but in many areas, particularly in Utah, outsiders practice a certain degree of lenience toward the religiously sanctioned plural marriages.
Polygamy, while invariably illegal throughout North America, is still a form of marriage. As such, there are guidelines regarding the way Fundamentalist Mormons form their commitments and carry them out. Perhaps the most basic one is this: Only a specific form of polygamy is sanctioned.
To those on the outside, Fundamentalist Mormon polygamy may look like a free-for-all, all those women and children, and children holding younger children. In fact, there are rules guiding polygamy just like there are with any other type of marriage. There's no "Polygamy Rule Book" to refer to -- these are outlaw societies, after all -- but some of the guidelines are clear.
Only polygany is allowed.
Fundamentalist Mormons are not simply polygamous. Polygamy means "plural marriage" and includes polyandry, between one woman and multiple men; group marriage, between more than one woman and more than one man; and polygany (with an "n"), between one man and multiple women. The latter is the most common type of plural marriage in the world, and it's the one Fundamentalist Mormons practice. There are no polyandrous or group marriages in these communities.
The Prophet must agree.
Each Fundamentalist group has a Prophet, and that Prophet, as God's messenger, grants the right to marry. In most sects, members will ask his permission to form a marriage, and he will allow it or not.
In the FLDS, which is the Warren Jeffs Community, it is believed that Jeffs actively arranged marriages, placing women (or, as is charged, young girls) with husbands according to God's determination.
Righteousness is required.
In order to be worthy of marriage and family, a man and his wives must be in good standing with God. Prophets have the power to "reassign" a man's wives and children if that man is deemed unrighteous. This is believed to be a rare occurrence in most sects.
The Divine Principle begins with fruitfulness. Having many children is at the core of the practice, and men and women are expected to multiply. The more wives a man has, the more children he will father.
While there certainly are differences between the various sects in the details, it is within these basic guidelines that Fundamentalist Mormons practice polygamy. It's ordered by God, guided by the prophet, and for the overarching purpose of producing children.
Although, most of those practicing the principle will tell you that it is also, as much as any other marriage, about love.
- Llewellyn, John R. "Polygamy Under Attach -- From Tom Green to Brian David Mitchell." Utah Books.http://utahbooks.com/Polygamy_Groups.htm
- Wilde, Anne. "Fundamentalist Mormonism: Its History, Diversity and Stereotypes." Principle Voices.http://principlevoices.org/about/board-of-directors/remarks-papers-by-anne-wilde/paper-fundamentalist-mormonism-its-history-diversity-and-stereotypes
- Winston, Kimberly. "Analysis: Fundamentalist Mormons stress polygamy above all." USA Today. May 30, 2008.http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2008-04-17-polygamist-mormon-sect_N.htm