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A Study Of The Mormon's Practice Of Polygamy

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My audience consists of African American women from the “Bible Belt,” that were born and raised in the Baptist Church. When it comes to Mormons, my audience believes that they all believe in polygamy and practice such. Anything different from the King James Bible is a gift from hell, and those who follow other religions are soon to be sent there. My culture knows little to nothing about the different types of Mormons there are, however, they assume that every Mormon is a fundamentalist Mormon. Therefore, my audience does not care about Mormons, especially not in a positive way. If my audience were to read my paper, they would argue that the creation of Mormonism tarnishes the history of Jesus Christ, despite Mormons being Christian as well. They would also not view fundamentalist Mormons as normal people with normal lives. Unknown to my personal culture, Mormons, whether fundamentalist or not, have values and beliefs in common with us. Along with a shared Protestant belief, Mormons also believe in charity, family, and worship.

Mary, Misty, Maya, and Marleen Are All Mine

Four wives, seventeen children, and one man are all living under one roof, living day to day in a polygamous marriage. Reality TV shows that enhance the stereotypes of fundamentalist Mormons like TLC’s Sister Wives is the entertainer’s view on their way of life. However, not all Mormons believe in polygamy, and the few that do are called Fundamentalist Mormons. Despite their controversial beliefs, they are still a part of the Christian denomination and share some values with some of the mainstream religions. What led to the creation of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (also known as FLDS) was the difference in their teachings and rules which were based on the community’s shared values of dedication to their cause, understanding the role of family, missionary work in and out of the church, and the practice of polygamy to please God.

The Mormon faith began in the early 1840s, and Joseph Smith was the founding father (see figure 1). Richard Wagoner argues that Smith privately advocated that polygamous marriages were “the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on earth,” and it was not until 1852 that Mormons publicly announced to the world their advocacy for polygamy (IX). However, Wagoner says that because of public outcry, the United States government banned the practice of polygamy in 1890 (IX). In fact, Wagoner addresses that the practice of polygamy continued on until 1904 when the Joseph F. Smith, president of the religion, was under immense pressure to begin excommunicating those who continued (IX). Refusing to change, certain Mormons still continued on to practice their polygamy as well as the teachings of the broader Mormon religion, and Wagoner believes this led to the creation of the FLDS (IX). Today, many people still believe that Fundamentalist Mormons and the Church of Latter-Day Saints are the same. Therefore, other religions, including those of the Christian faith, have assumptions about polygamy being an important part of the Mormon faith. When Wagoner finally published his book in 1949, there were around one million Mormons in the world, and 30,000 Fundamentalist Mormons(IX-X). In 2009, the Census Bureau calculated that there were six million Latter-Day Saints and less than three percent were Fundamentalists (Section 1 Population). However, Fundamentalist Mormons still hold the traditional values of Protestant beliefs close to them, just with the addition of polygamy.

Being dedicated to one’s religion through belief is a small value that the FLDS church holds close. Believers think that the Fundamentalist Mormon faith will not work unless the members want to be there. Volunteer work, mission trips, and charity are done by people who want to do it, for the work is hard and has little reward. Conducting an interview to properly understand the dedication of missionary work in the FLDS, Nate Tabak introduces Daniel Harlow, a young man from Europe, who spent many months in Kosovo, with limited communication back home (“The Mormon Missionary”). Harlow’s dedication to his faith pushed him through the isolation and distance from the people he knew and loved. Richard Foltz reveals that at age twelve, Fundamentalist Mormons allow their male children to work to become priests and encourage them to spend two years of their life to either missionary work or studies (5). Foltz also shows that all Mormons believe that there are lost “souls” that are waiting to be born, and that parents dedicate themselves to bringing them down to earth (5). This is why Fundamentalist men take on so many wives who bear them many children: to bring back the lost souls. The Book of Mormon’s Mosiah tells his people “Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have” is the reason why the fundamentalists are so dedicated, for God is the reason why humans are here (Mosiah 4:19). However, Foltz discloses that some believers think that through much devotion and dedication that they, themselves, can become gods (5). Therefore, fundamentalist Mormons give their all and dedicate themselves to their faith for fulfillment and bright afterlives.

Having large families that consist of more than a man, his wife, and his two children is why the importance of family is a strong value in the Fundamentalist Mormon culture. The more people in the family, the more sacrifices have to be made. Members of the FLDS understood that and added their own special religious spin. “Any sacrifice we made for each other was rewarded tenfold. We learned to worship together, sorrow together, play and rejoice together, to unselfishly pool all our resources for the good of the family” is a quote by a polygamous wife (qtd by Wagoner in 94). The wife is a symbol of the love one had for their family and the importance it had on their everyday life. Parents of these large polygamous families sacrificed for the entire family, and wives sacrificed for the other wives children as well. Once entered into the sanctity of the first, second, even third marriage, Wagoner emphasizes how men were obligated to take care of their wives and children even if they divorced (48). Wagoner continues on and quotes Apostle George Cannon, who explains that “not only is the man bound to respect the expressal of her wish to that effect,” meaning divorce, ‘but he is bound also to give her and her offspring a proportionate share of his whole property” (qtd in 93). The Polygamy and its Impact Journal says that in polygamous marriages, the man may have one wife who is infertile and others that can bear many children (“Polygamy and its Impact”). Therefore, the couple does not have to look at divorce as an option. William Jankowiak says that the “sister wives” believe that the family bond extends beyond the grave, and that the entire family should have one mind (166). Jankowiak brings more research to the table by explaining that the father-son relationship is the most crucial in the Fundamentalist Mormon culture (166). This is how the social and cultural rules of the faith are passed down through generations. An example Jankowiak gives is Abraham passing down the keys to the kingdom to his son Isaac, who passed them down to his sons and so forth (166). Families are valued in that everyone has a purpose and a role in the family. Fundamentalist Mormons show that dedication to family is not an option but a full time responsibility, no matter what happens.

The FLDS believes that all members of the church should involve themselves in missionary works, to model after the Lord. Consequently, missionary work is a massive value that is shared within this culture. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord commands his people to “proclaim my gospel from land to land, and from city to city… bear testimony in every place, unto every people” (Doctrine and Covenants 66:5). From this, members of the fundamentalist faith send out missionaries to spread the word of the Mormon faith as well as to increase the population. Missionaries usually are dressed in business attire and are never seen in casual attire while on the job (see figure 2). Tabak’s interview with Daniel Harlow recounts the young missionary saying “Our purpose is to invite others to come to Christ. We don’t force anyone to try to do things” (“The Mormon Missionary”). Although most mission trip consist of handing out flyers and talking to people about converting, missionaries from the FLDS church find charity work to also occupy the months or years they spend away from their family. When going on the mission trips, the Tabak captures how missionaries have limited contact with friends and family and are trained to be very focused on their job (“The Mormon Missionary”). Harlow, only 19-years-old, has to wake up at six thirty in the morning and must be asleep at ten thirty at night, Tabak records. He is only allowed weekly emails and two calls per year to his friends and family back home. Tabak says that Harlow is only allowed to speak to a woman if it is about his missionary work, for he is not allowed to date as well. Another example of the importance of missionary work would be in the early 1830s, at the start of Mormonism. Kim Ostman says that the missionaries of the church who traveled from North America to Europe and from Europe, migrating to Finland and Sweden, began to have civil disputes with the authorities in these locations (268). Ostman writes about the civil authorities threatening missionaries in order to remove them from their land. Missionaries refused and Ostman pronounces that they continued to hold meetings in house to speaking to citizens about converting to the FLDS church (269). Willing to risk jail time and their lives, Fundamentalist Mormons genuinely believe in missionary work in order to make the world, as they see it, a better place.

The biggest value that is associated with the faith of Fundamentalism in the Mormon religion is polygamy. Polygamy is defined as the practice or custom of having more than one wife at the same time (usually wives). The most popular modern polygamy practices have been turned into hit TV shows like Sister Wives, Big Love, and Escaping Polygamy (see figure 3). However, the original Church of Latter-Day Saints banned polygamy in the mid-1800s, and Wagoner exposes the few radical believers who decided to go their separate ways and form their own church, the FLDS. Joseph Smith was a believer in polygamous marriage but only in private (29). O’Kendall White and Daryl White explain that after his death, Joseph Smith had private journals that were published outing his private lifestyles, as well as a book that erased the damnation of polygamous acts (166). Wagoner adds to this by recalling Joseph Smith realizing that in the Old Testament, polygamy was okay to practice, therefore he decided that it was a “true principle” for his people (107). Fundamentalists took this new book and held on to it, therefore earning their name as Fundamentalist Mormons. Jankowaik reports that since the majority of Fundamentalist Mormons are now living in the western part of the United States, there has become a tolerance for them (164). The “public secret” of western communities that is polygamy shows the continued practice. Because polygamy has become illegal and rumors of sexual abuse and assault were around, Jankowaik says that the government raided towns and arrested men, but later made a deal that they would stop if there were no more reports about sexual abuse (164). This type of negative connotation led to another decrease in members of the FLDS church. Instead of using the decrease in the number of members that practice polygamy to separate, the Fundamentalists built communities to stick together. Colorado City/Centennial Park is a city, Jankowaik says, in which forty-five percent of households are polygamous (165). The town has little to no contact with the outside cities and towns therefore being left alone to practice their beliefs in peace. The Fundamentalist Mormon’s belief in polygamy never dwindled, and they adapted to every obstacle in their way to continue their faith.

Fundamentalist Mormons do believe in polygamy, but they value so much more than that. The FLDS church also believes in dedication and the understanding of the role of family. The members who complete missionary work in and out of the church understand the previous values, and put them into action. The FLDS church is not just a part of its beliefs, it is the sum. The entire Latter-Day Saint population is increasing and has been called the fastest growing religion, beginning with a million members and increasing to fourteen million in thirty years, however the Fundamentalist Mormon population is slowly dwindling. However, they are working hard to prove that they are much like the rest of the world and are not the sexual deviants that they are made out to be. Despite having a house of one man, four wives, and seventeen children, they are still people who are trying to survive in the world, just like anyone else.

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