“Plurality of Wives was an Incident, Never an Essential”: James E. Talmage on Polygamy

By December 14, 2007

Historians can learn a lot about a people by examining the stories that they tell about themselves to others. When people wish to communicate something about themselves, they will usually pick some elements from their past to share. These narratives are highly selective, not only in the elements that are chosen but also in the language used to describe them. Present concerns normally shape what people share about their past, leading to the axiom that memory usually has more to do with the present than with the past.

In the years and decades following Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto of 1890, the Latter-day Saints were challenged not only to transition doctrinally away from polygamy, but also to deal publicly with their polygamous past. It was also necessary to address the question of whether or not plural marriage had been considered necessary for salvation at an earlier date, especially in the time of Joseph Smith. As SC Taysom has shown, Latter-day Saints during much of the nineteenth century equated celestial marriage with plural marriage, and considered polygamy to be essential for salvation.[1]

In 1894, just four years after the Manifesto, James E. Talmage was invited to the University of Michigan to lecture on the history of Mormonism.[2] The lecture was later published serially as “The Story of Mormonism” in the Improvement Era and also as a book.[3] In the lecture, Talmage narrated much of the history of the church, waiting until his conclusion to address polygamy. Talmage’s statement shows how at least one prominent Latter-day Saint at the time publicly represented Mormonism’s polygamous past to others.

But perhaps you censure me for having forgotton or for having intentionally omitted reference to what popular belief regards as the chief feature of “Mormonism,” the corner-stone of the structure, the secret of its influence over its members, and of its attractiveness to its proselytes, viz: the peculiarity of the “Mormon” institution of marriage. The Latter-day Saints were long regarded as a polygamous people. That plural marriage has been practiced by a limited proportion of the people, under sanction of Church ordinance, has never since the introduction of the system been denied. that plural marriage is a vital tenet of The Church is not true. What the Latter-day Saints call celestial marriage is characteristic of The Church, and is in very general practice; but of celestial marriage, plurality of wives was an incident, never an essential.[4]

As a touch of irony, 1894 also saw the Temple Lot Case, where other prominent Mormons such as Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith testified publicly that Joseph Smith had been a polygamist, illustrating that while some Mormons were downplaying their polygamous past, others were emphasizing its importance in other contexts.

[1] Stephen C. Taysom, “A Uniform and Common Recollection: Joseph Smith’s Legacy, Polygamy, and the Creation of Mormon Public Memory, 1852-2002,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 113-44.

[2] John R. Talmage, The Talmage Story: Life of James E. Talmage, Educator, Scientist, Apostle (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1972), 132.

[3] James E. Talmage, The Story and Philosophy of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1914), preface.

[4] James E. Talmage, “The Story of ?Mormonism,'” Improvement Era 4, no. 12 (October 1901): 909.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation From the Archives


  1. David, is Talmage responsible for creating this “plurality of wives was an incident, never an essential”-type discourse among the general membership of the Church? His reasoning is strikingly similar to explanations one would hear in any given LDS Sunday School today.

    Comment by Christopher — December 14, 2007 @ 4:33 pm

  2. Chris: I think it would be hard to prove that Talmage is responsible for creating the discourse. I do think that Talmage shaped to a degree how later Mormons remembered their polygamous past, but he wasn’t the only Mormon talking like this in the years after the Manifesto.

    Comment by David Grua — December 14, 2007 @ 4:38 pm

  3. Thanks. I guess I should’ve been clearer. I meant to ask if he was responsible for popularizing that sort of discourse among the Saints.

    Comment by Christopher — December 14, 2007 @ 4:42 pm

  4. I think Widtsoe, Talmage, and Roberts shaped all of mormonism in their time period

    Comment by Matt W. — December 15, 2007 @ 12:43 am

  5. “I think Widtsoe, Talmage, and Roberts shaped all of mormonism in their time period”

    I hear a good book from that idea. However, I think it would be innacurate if you don’t add Joseph Fielding Smith to that list. He was influencial long before he became Prophet.

    Comment by Jettboy — December 15, 2007 @ 11:50 am

  6. Brigham Young stressed an acquiescence to the doctrine, not that all would have to practice it, but should accept it as a true principle. He also said plural marriage was not a requirement of the Celestial Kingdom. He didn’t preach it publicly, to my knowledge, but in his personal letters he mentioned it to a man whose wife would not consent to live the principle.

    “A man can be saved in the Celestial Kingdom with but one wife,” (Brigham Young Letterbook II:735)

    Comment by BHodges — December 17, 2007 @ 11:52 am

  7. BHodges: All Mormons were enjoined to enter into the practice, but, as Daynes notes, Church leaders were aware that not all Saints had the capacity to do so. If a Mormon was impeded from practicing plural marriage, then being a polygamist at heart was considered sufficient (Daynes, More Wives than One, 71-76; see also Hardy, Solemn Covenant, 54).

    Comment by David Grua — December 17, 2007 @ 11:56 am

  8. While it is true that being “a polygamist at heart” was considered sufficient, it was not (during the official practice by the Church) to be used as an excuse for failing to comply when possible:

    “Some people have supposed that the doctrine of plural marriage was a sort of superfluity, or non-essential, to the salvation or exaltation of mankind. In other words, some of the Saints have said, and believe, that a man with one wife, sealed to him by the authority of the Priesthood for time and eternity, will receive an exaltation as great and glorious, if he is faithful, as he possibly could with more than one. I want here to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false. There is no blesssing promised except upon conditions, and no blessing can be obtained by mankind except by faithful compliance with the conditions, or law, upon which the same is promised. The marriage of one woman to a man for time and eternity by the sealing power, according to the will of God, is a fulfillment of the celestial law of marriage in part?and is good so far as it goes?and so far as a man abides these conditions of the law, he will receive his reward therefor, and this reward, or blessing, he could not obtain on any other grounds or conditions. But this is only the beginning of the law, not the whole of it. Therefore, whoever has imagined that he could obtain the fullness of the blessings pertaining to this celestial law, by complying with only a portion of its conditions, has deceived himself.” (Joseph F. Smith, 1878, JD 20:29)

    Do we know whether Joseph F. Smith changed his views to be more in accord with Elder Talmage’s 1894 statement after the Manifesto?

    Comment by Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) — December 17, 2007 @ 7:23 pm

  9. Along the lines of privately affirming plural marriage wasn’t necessary for exaltation, the Church recognized that the calling and election of some monogamous individual’s had been made sure.

    More publicly, George Q. Cannon helped promote vicarious work for the dead towards as a means for helping those without opportunities.

    Comment by Keller — December 18, 2007 @ 3:02 am

  10. […] of the twentieth century and how they wanted the world to perceive them. One strategy, highlighted here, was to downplay the significance of plural marriage in both practice and in doctrine. However, at […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » A Divinely Ordered Species of Eugenics — March 5, 2008 @ 12:40 pm


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