Quantifying Polygamy

By August 8, 2011

This last week, FAIR went live with their Mormon Defense League website.[1] Among the “false claims” the website seeks to debunk concern the LDS Church’s current relationship to polygamy. In an effort to distinguish the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from polygamous groups in the western United States, the MDL emphasized that plural marriage was a limited practice that had been officially stopped over a century ago. (Including perpetuating the unfortunate rhetorical battle over the label “Mormon”–a battle of deep irony when considering our frustration of others refusing us the label “Christian.”) To answer the question of the number of Mormons who practiced polygamy, it replied that “modern estimates of LDS members practicing polygamy prior to 1904 range between 2% and 20%.” While the website does admit that it is tough to get an accurate number, and that it depends on who you count within the statistics, their final number (2% to 20%) is unfortunate in that it is not only false but misleading.

The MDL shouldn’t be blamed as the first organization to present this number. The 2% figure, which has been perpetuated for over a century through many sources, probably originated with the Utah Commission in the mid 1880s, which in turn was probably received from the LDS Church itself in hopes to downplay the practice of polygamy in the era of federal prosecution. It was then echoed in the Reed Smoot Trials from 1904-1907 as the Church sought to distance itself from its polygamist past. The figure appeared in many public venues–most notably LDS-owned newspapers–in the 1930s as LDS Leaders worked to put distance between themselves and the growing fundamentalist organizations. It still crops up today, most notably in President Hinckley’s interview with Larry King where it was presented that “between two percent and five percent of our people were involved in [polygamy].”[2] If only 2% of Mormons practiced polygamy, this reasoning tends to argue, then it wasn’t nearly as bit a role within the Church as detractors would like to claim.[3]

The biggest problem with this number is that it is demonstrably wrong. Demographical work done by Kathryn Daynes and others that shows that the number of Mormon individuals living in polygamous households was closer to 20 to 30%, with variations over time and region.[4] One would have to take some seriously narrow parameters to get anything close to 2%, and some very optimistic framing to have a top number of 20%. Granted, there were decades and areas that had lower percentages, but there were plenty of times and periods that made up for it.

The second major problem with these statistics is that it emphasizes only the male acceptance or practice of polygamy. The only way 2% could be anywhere close to valid is if it were only counting husbands. The only way 20% could be in anyway close would be not to count children. Such a perspective overlooks the far-reaching grasp of polygamy–and indeed the fact that “women and children” would be considered a “far-reaching grasp” should cause one to pause. This framework perpetuates the male-centered nature of the LDS past, where women (and in this case, children) are merely props on the Mormon stage or pawns in the LDS chess game. By focusing on men, polygamy becomes a “duty,” an extension of “obedience,” and a lesson in “stewardship.” If it were looked at from a woman’s or child’s point of view, however, it is a much more poignant sense of sacrifice and in many cases, loneliness. The male-centered perspective can mesh with the contemporary emphasis on priesthood diligence and patriarchal order; the female- and child-centered perspective fails to match modern-day emphases on love and familial closeness. We all eagerly await Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s volume on this topic.[5]

The third and final problem is the very assumption that giving a percentage can quantify the importance of polygamy to 19th century Mormonism. These statistics are generally given to prove that plural marriage was not as bit as critics like to proclaim; in reality, the importance of polygamy before the manifesto cannot be quantified. It was at the center of LDS theology, it was emphasized within Mormon practice, and it was exemplified by all ecclesiastical leaders. The fact that it was at the center of the Mormon ideal image transcends demographics. A few examples help provide a glimpse: Plural wife Esther Romania Bunnell Penrose proclaimed polygamy as “the platform on which is built Endless Kingdoms and lives and no other or all combined principles revealed can be substituted as a compensation.”[6] Brigham Young’s counselor Daniel W. Wells, when under oath in the Reynolds Trial, explained that if Mormons “failed to obey it [polygamy] they would be under condemnation, and would be clipped in their glory in the world to come.”[7] Joseph F. Smith in 1878 protested against the “false idea” that monogomy was enough for the highest glory, and that “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. He cannot do it.”[8] As late as 1884, Apostle Moses Thatcher declared polygamy was “the chief corner stone in the hands of [God].”[9] That same year, George Q. Cannon emphasized that he “did not feel like holding up his hand to sustain anyone as a presiding officer over any portion of the people who had not entered into the Patriarchal order of Marriage,” and that everyone who is capable “must have more than one wife at a time in order to obey that Law.”[10]

Now I am not saying that polygamy still holds a prominent position within LDS theology, because I am not. (Though I do admit that remnants remain within our teachings, culture, and especially, and most unfortunately, parts of our temple worship.) Polygamy has nothing to do with my understanding of Mormonism as I believe and practice it. I also agree that, in public relations, there should be a clear difference made between the LDS Church and other fundamentalist Mormon sects. I just don’t think we should downplay 19th century Mormon conceptions of polygamy, misconstruing history and possibly insulting the thousands who dedicated their life and belief to the principle, to do so.


[1] Hopefully it is modeled after the Anti-Defamation League rather than the similarly-named Jewish Defense League. Also, the MDL should be commended for being frank and honest about post-manifesto polygamy leading up to 1904.

[2] President Hinckley Interview with Larry King, 8 September 1998, text found here.

[3] David G. kindly provided me with information on the 2% figure, which he received from conversation with B. Carmen Hardy.

[4] Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One : Transformation Of The Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001), esp. 91-115.

[5] A preview can be found in Ulrich, “An American Album, 1857,” American Historical Review 115 (February 2010): 1-25.

[6] Esther Romania Bunnell Penrose, Memoir, LDS Archives, in B. Carmen Hardy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2007), 112.

[7] “The Reynolds Trial,” Deseret News, 15 December 1875.

[8] “Discourse Delivered by Elder Jos. F. Smith,” Deseret News, 11 September 1878.

[9] “Remarks by Apostle Moses Thatcher,” 4 April 1884, Deseret News Weekly, 7 May 1884.

[10] Charles Lowell Walker, Diary, 26 April 1884, in The Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, ed. Andrew Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, 2 vols. (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:629; Wilford Woodruff, diary, 9 March 1884, in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, ed. Scott Kenney (Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1983), 8:235.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Current Events Memory Popular Culture


  1. Taking Tom Alexander’s Utah history class at BYU, he talked about the numbers in the way you have and then added that 30% was roughly the same as the percentage of men who serve mission and as the percentage of those married in the temple. Thus, it seems to be the percentage of orthodox adherence within the Church throughout its history.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 8, 2011 @ 11:40 am

  2. I’m sure these people are sincere, but I personally favor a Less Defense/More Charity approach. I think Gamaliel was, for the most part, correct: If this Kingdom be of God, misinformation will not overthrow it.

    Comment by larryco_ — August 8, 2011 @ 11:51 am

  3. This was wonderful. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — August 8, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  4. That’s a great point, Steve.

    I agree, Larry, that the MDL is likely sincere in giving those statistics. They are just repeating facts that have been common in our culture.

    You’re welcome, Hunter.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 8, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  5. Ben, Thanks for this. I had similar thoughts when I read their web site. 2% of what and when? Daynes and Bennion count households in a given community in a given census year, something of which they should be aware because they refer to Daynes’ book at one point.

    I still don’t know why we are so afraid of our polygamous past? As you indicate, it was preached as the ideal marriage system and essential for the highest degree of Celestial glory. The more interesting question then becomes why did the vast majority of Mormons still choose monogamy? (Even if we use the higher, more accurate percentages, most Mormon households in most towns in most census years were monogamist). I think Steve is correct, that it is similar to percentages of Mormon two parent households sealed in LDS temples today.

    I would just hope that a group designed to defend Mormonism in the public sphere would be more up to date on current scholarship to do so.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — August 8, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  6. You’re exactly right, Paul, and make an excellent point. I think the “voting with their feet” dynamic that Daynes points out, where many saints go against the polygamous counsel, is fascinating and needs more attention.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 8, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

  7. I think 30% is also the percentage of full-tithe payers (again a high-demand orthodox practice).

    Polygamy brings up a lot of tricky issues: why did it start and why did it stop? There aren’t simple answers to these questions so many have opted for minimizing it. I like your approach though, Ben.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 8, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  8. Nicely done, Ben. Needless to day, the MDL has done little to raise my opinion of FAIR and I’m having a tough time understanding the need for such an organization to begin with. But if they’re going to do what they do, I’d appreciate it if they would at least be more careful in fact-checking their attempts to correct the misstatements of others.

    To your larger point re: polygamy. I think you’re exactly right that attempting to quantify its practice in percentiles, while important, can distort the nature and importance of polygamy in the Mormon past. Steve’s comparisons to tithing and temple marriage are intriguing as well in making the point, as well.

    Comment by Christopher — August 8, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  9. Ben,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I think, however, that you are missing the mark. Here’s the full statement on MDL, in context, relative to percentages:

    Q. What percentage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy?

    A. There are a number of statistics on this. And as with all statistics, it depends on how you count members involved in polygamous relationships. Do you count the number of men? Do you count the number of men and women? Or do you count the number of men, women, and children? The statistics given tend to be unclear on who is being counted, so it is hard to nail down an accurate number. But modern estimates of LDS members practicing polygamy prior to 1904 range between 2% and 20%.

    Note that the statement indicates how hard it is to find accurate figures and provides a few reasons why. It is the low end of the quoted spectrum (2%) with which you find fault. While I personally disagree with such a low figure (and thereby agree with you), it doesn’t change the fact that it is an estimate that has been cited by various sources. Additionally, while the figure may be “demonstrably untrue” (as you say), it is in the demonstration where the rub actually lies, as the MDL statement makes clear.

    As we all know, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Anyone who quotes statistics opens themselves to the way-too-easy criticisms of others. To state that the MDL is misleading people when all it is doing is summarizing for a lay audience the work of others seems, at best, uncharitably nit-picking and, at worst, misleading in a different vein.


    Comment by Allen — August 8, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  10. Great post, Ben, and amen to Chris’ comment.

    Allen, thanks for showing that it’s not Ben that’s missed the point. You know, “various sources” say that there was no holocaust. I suppose that the responsible thing when discussing the holocaust is to mention that the estimated number of Jews (ah, again with the Jewish comparisons) killed in the holocaust should be shown to be 0-17 million since, you know, I don’t agree with 0 as a figure, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is an estimate that has been cited by “various sources”.

    No, Ben’s not missing the mark, he’s calling out lazy research and, pointing to deeper problems in taking such an approach. Your response is at least as troubling in, again, making excuses for not doing good work, normalizing erroneous work, and being disingenuous about what FAIR purports to do. Go back and read the post as it’s clear you didn’t. Ben recognizes the larger paragraph and also takes issue with 20% as a high figure not just 2% as you say.

    Comment by Jared T — August 8, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  11. Thanks for the quote, Allen. Not all statistics are created equal and in this case 20-30% is simply more accurate than 2-20%.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 8, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

  12. Allen: while I sincerely appreciate your comment, and truly sympathize with your cause, I still hold to my argument. The fact is, that to give 2 percent as a possible statistic is blatantly false, which you agree with, and has no logical reason to even be present in the explanation. This in itself is terribly misleading. Second, to give a 20 percent as the “high” number, rather than the “low” number, is demonstratably false as shown in all relevant scholarly work. Thus, I still maintain the statistics are misleading. And, most importantly, to give statistics as a way to capture the importance of polygamy is, I believe, misleading. You admit that, but the fact is that the explanation still puts a lot of importance on the numbers. This is misleading, as I explain above, even if it presented in a sincere way.

    I really appreciate you stopping by, however, and I wish the MDL the best of luck in presenting correct information in the future.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 8, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

  13. Allen, I don’t think Ben is doing nit-picking here (of course he can speak for himself). The MDL was a jumping-off point for a discussion of these stats. That they are misleading is apparent. But that is just the beginning here. A major point is that our historical tendency to minimize the importance of polygamy in 19th century Mormonism simultaneously does a slash and burn job on the righteous core of the Church in the same period.

    Comment by WVS — August 8, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

  14. Nice write up, Ben. Any additional thoughts on the update?

    Q. What percentage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy?

    A. There are a number of statistics on this question. As with all statistics, it depends on how you count members involved in polygamous relationships. Do you count the number of men? Do you count the number of men and women? Or do you count the number of men, women, and children? Are the number of those practicing to be compared to all Mormons, all adult Mormons, all married Mormons, or just all men? Differences in calculation have, then, led to widely varying figures.

    A ?low-end? value of 2% was commonly cited in the late nineteenth century. This was the percentage of Mormon men who were polygamous (and thus at risk for prosecution by federal government?s anti-polygamy laws) compared to all Mormons. This figure was commonly used to demonstrate the injustice of denying the right to vote or serve on juries to all Mormons during this period, regardless of whether they personally practiced polygamy. [2] A value of 2%, however, underestimates the impact of plural marriage on LDS culture.

    Probably 15 to 20 percent of Latter-day Saint families were polygamous, ?with variations from place to place and from decade to decade.?[3] While this means that plural marriage was not universal, it nevertheless had a profound impact on the LDS experience on the Utah frontier: among active Mormons, ?over a third of all husbands? time, nearly three-quarters of all women-years, and well over half of all child-years were spent in polygamy before 1880.?[4]

    Much of the Church leadership also practiced polygamy, although that wasn?t a universal rule.

    Comment by Randy B. — August 8, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  15. Ben: Certainly not a criticism, one of your sentences and Steve’s first comment have me thinking about something. You gave Cannon’s position this way:

    “and that everyone who is capable ‘must have more than one wife at a time in order to obey that Law.’? (last sentence of second-to-late paragraph, citing Kenney’s Woodruff, 8:235)

    Reading Woodruff’s report of the Cannon comments, it seems that Cannon was quite a bit more liberal in his interpretation than Joseph F. Smith’s. I ignore the background argument they were having for the sake of space, but Woodruff goes on to summarize Cannon:

    “But He said He believed there would be men in the Celestial Kingdom that had but one wife and Some who had no wife and some who had several wifes would not get there at all. For good Men died without having the Privilege and men would be Judged according to their desires as well as their acts and those men who died without the gospel and would have received it if they had a Chance will receive it hereafter & be saved in the Celestial Kingdom. So with those who would have received the Patriarchal Order of Marriage if they had a Chance will be saved in the Celestial Kingdom.”

    Apparently Cannon said “if they had a Chance,” and you summarize this as “everyone who is capable” (which is a fair restate). My question then is what would have prevented someome who had the desire from being “capable” or “[having] a chance”? Is this, as Steve cites Tom Alexander as saying, an indicator of devotion? This seems a likely factor, but I would love to know the relationship of plural marriage participation and economic status, for instance (didn’t William Clayton discuss the relationship between number of plural wives and financial stability?). Being a novice in the area of post-Illinois plural marriage, I assume studies have been undertaken to look for a relationship between geographic proximity to Salt Lake and participation in plural marriage (in either direction–would those willing to accept mission assignments to remote colonies have been more willing to follow the principle)?

    Anyway, I really apologize for the length of this–just some thoughts.

    Comment by Alex — August 8, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

  16. Thanks Ben. This is excellent work.

    Comment by Mark Brown — August 8, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

  17. Randy: It’s a good change, and they should be commended for making a change. It’s wonderful that they showed how the 2% statistic should be disregarded. While I still hold that their percentage of 15-20% is dated (Daynes’s work has supplanted that of Bitton and Ivins), it is now a question of debatable scholarship rather than a question of being misleading.

    And while I’d challenge their statement that polygamy among leaders wasn’t a universal rule–since John Taylor made it mandatory in the 1880s–that would be more nit-picky and less substantial than my original critiques.

    The new statement does a much better job capturing the importance of polygamy in Utah.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 8, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

  18. Alex: fantastic question. There is some definite tensions between statements that polygamy was required for exaltation–a belief that was definitely present at times and preached more vigorously in some decades than others–and the desire to make it possible for monogamous saints. The “if they had a Chance” clause definitely had some wiggle room. It seems they wanted to make it a law as much as possible, but understood real constraints like economics (like you mention) and demographics (always implied) allowed. Kathryn Daynes’s book probably does the best job at looking at these questions, though there is still a lot to be done, especially in other geographic regions. Hopefully her upcoming books will answer the questions in more details.

    Here’s hoping you pop up out of the woodwork more often with these great contributions, Alex!

    Comment by Ben Park — August 8, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

  19. It is inherently misleading to use men to calculate the prevalence of polygamy as a percentage. In a society with roughly equal numbers of men and women, it is impossible for all men to practice polygamy. The statistic should be constructed so that the maximal polygamy is 100%. In other words, the denominator should consist only of women, or perhaps marriages.

    For example, consider a hypothetical society with 100 men and 100 women, in which all the women are married to the leader as one big harem, and the other 99 men are single. Then the percentage of polygamous people is 50.5%, the percentage of polygamous households is only 1%, and the percentage of polygamous women (or marriages) is 100%. Only the last figure captures the total domination of polygamy in this society.

    P.S.- wonderful post.

    Comment by wondering — August 8, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

  20. Here’s the kind of statistic I would like to see: of the cohort of women in their twenties living in Salt Lake valley in 1870, what percentage were in a polygamous marriage at sometime in their lives?

    I suspect the answer would be over 50%. If so, the idea that polygamy was “a limited practice” is so misleading that I would go so far to call it a lie.

    Comment by wondering — August 8, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

  21. Good post. The 30% figure also seems more accurate to me, though one could fairly wonder why it was not even higher, given the dominant beliefs of the era under which polygamy = exaltation. I suspect part of the issue – in addition to wondering’s point above – may have been related to the rather limited number of men who could have economically supported multiple families. Perhaps being a polygamist-at-heart would have been enough… 😉

    Comment by DanG — August 8, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

  22. Wondering,
    I’m skeptical of your cohort coming in at over 50%, but you may be correct. You suggest 1870 as your starting decade. Daynes found her highest level of polygamy following the 1856 Reformation which included polygamy as a central tenet. Daynes’ work on Manti shows polygamy declining over time:
    1850 24.9 %
    1860 43.1%
    1870 36%
    1880 25.1%
    1900 7.1%

    One study by Ben Bennion found a low of 5% in 1880 at South Weber and a high of 67% in 1880 at Orderville.

    But remember these are households. The type of study you describe would be incredibly difficult. One would have to locate the cohort in the 1880s census, a difficult task itself, and then attempt to account for marital status in 1880, realizing that divorces and remarriages could have occurred over the previous decade. Ben Bennion once described to me the very tedious and meticulous research in which he engages in an effort to yield a simple number like 5% of households in South Weber were polygamous in 1880. That one sentence in a published article could take months of research to yield. We are all in debt to Ben and Kathy for their efforts.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — August 8, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  23. Excellent. The 2% figure really stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise decent write-up at MDL.

    Comment by Aaron B — August 8, 2011 @ 10:57 pm

  24. I should add that the MDL’s racism page is superb. It reproduces a Q&A document with Armand Mauss, and is a frank and candid examination of racism within Mormon history. MDL should be commended for that, as well as for taking out the 2% statistic on the polygamy page.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 8, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

  25. Paul Reve,thanks for the info.

    I haven’t read Daynes’ book, and you are probably right that the 1870 cohort I mentioned wouldn’t represent the peak; I merely chose it as an example of the kind of statistic one would really want to have, even if it is difficult or impossible to accurately determine.

    I still think looking at the percentage of households at a given time will be misleading, though. For one thing, it counts some people as monogamous who might have polygamous relationships in the past or future. More importantly, polygamous households have more women, and should get more weight in the average.

    To give yet another example, imagine 6 people divided into 3 households: a man with two wives, a man with one wife, and a single man. Only 1/3 of the households are polygamous, but 2/3 of the women are. Can Daynes’ work be used to estimate an average by women, rather than by household?

    Comment by wondering — August 9, 2011 @ 12:58 am

  26. Also, I see in comment 14 the claim that “nearly three-quarters of all women-years…were spent in polygamy before 1880.” Can this be right? Actually sounds implausibly high to me, since even many polygamous women might have spent many years either single or in monogamy, either as a first wife or after the husband or other wives died.

    But if this is anywhere close to right, polygamy was even more dominant for women than I imagined. Why is the church still claiming it was a “limited practice?” I suppose this is true in some technical sense, that all human endeavors are limited in some ways, but still highly misleading.

    Comment by wondering — August 9, 2011 @ 1:05 am

  27. A comment got lost in the ether somehow yesterday.

    I was working on a paper on this with a mathematician years ago, trying to get at the issue that 100% polygamy is impossible because men will be left out, particularly if there are super-polygamists. I think we estimated that the theoretical upper limit, especially with the ratio of men to women > 1 that existed in Utah, was probably somewhere around 70% (this will be very sensitive to assumptions, but remember that every extra wife going to a super-polygamist means another man outside polygamy and potentially another woman outside polygamy if a monogamous couple was contemplating a new wife but could not because the candidate married the local stake president instead). In other words, “30%” polygamy may actually be compatible with 50% or more of all LDS fervently desiring to participate in polygamy but unable because of the sex ratios and the emphasis on polygyny exclusively.

    But the question of the (in)frequency of polygamy is a question for social historians and demographers in any case. It shouldn’t be one for apologists because, as Ben notes, it leads one down a primrose path of historical obtuseness.

    What we should be working on in terms of apologetics is a useful narrative that allows us to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors without having to buy I HEART Warren Jeffs t-shirts. Let’s put the energy there rather than on trying to use unstable or wholly implausible demographic estimates to deny that polygamy mattered to our ancestors. In my brief section on polygamy in the book, I tried to suggest the beginnings of that kind of narrative, though the book is self-consciously quite far from apologetics.

    Comment by smb — August 9, 2011 @ 7:35 am

  28. Ben, I agree with you about the 2% number. I think the original use of that number was a failure of process and vetting, not knowledge within the organization, for a brand new enterprise. My understanding is that the original author of the piece used the 2% figure based on the Gordon B. Hinckley quote. I’m not directly involved in MDL, but I saw a backlist critique of the original draft by Craig Foster, which among other things warned not to use the 2% number. I assumed those revisions would be incorporated and did not give it a second thought. But those suggestions were made in a backlist e-mail, not directly on the website, and the backlist is very high volume and apparently the revision was not seen or made. Also, we failed to have the article vetted by Greg Smith, who is our in-house specialist on polygamy and who is thoroughly familiar with the literature. Neither Craig, nor Greg, nor I, nor I’m sure some others would have used the 2% number, but somehow that slipped through.

    I see the article has now been revised on this point, adopting Davis Bitton’s approach. So it was a service to flag this number for correction (we’re all about collaborative editing!) Thanks for pointing out that we had incorrectly repeated the old 2% canard; it is much appreciated.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 9, 2011 @ 7:56 am

  29. Kevin — so is MDL a PR site or a reliable site? If the in-house experts don’t write articles in their area … who does?

    Comment by Dave — August 9, 2011 @ 9:06 am

  30. Great points, smb.

    Kevin: like I said, I am very pleased with the change, even if it is not as far as I would like. (Daynes work has definitely supplanted Bitton’s, for example.) The MDL should be commended for being willing to make a change, and like I mentioned in comment #24, I really like how they handle some of the other topics on the site. I hope they can continue such an approach.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 9, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  31. Very interesting. I remember learning the 2-5% at BYU and always figured it was number of households not number of people, I guess, because if it was total # of people, you’re right, that would be so low! The higher #s make more sense for total #s involved in the practice.

    Question for you polygamy experts: I also remember learning that polygamy was considered a calling, and if you practiced it without being asked (and also taking more wives without the approval of the first wife), it was wrong. Is that really true? We just have an ancestor who took a 2nd wife and it doesn’t appear that it was in response to any directive, and the first wife was ticked, which shows she didn’t give her permission (I guess).

    So, I’d suppose that maybe one didn’t need “permission” nor did he really have to ask his first wife. I’ve always wondered if there’s some list of people “called” to practice polygamy. Any light here?

    I always feel like an imposter here being a hobby historian, but I enjoy your posts. Thanks.

    Comment by Emily — August 9, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

  32. You heard 2% at BYU? When I was at BYU I always heard the 20 – 30% figure since even back in the early 90’s (when I was at BYU) several demographic studies of polygamy were out. (Reprinted in Quinn’s New Mormon History for those interested in somewhat dated papers)

    I don’t doubt that some in the CES quoted the 2% figure simply because of the names of those quoting it. (Some CES seem to have no trouble quoting false things so long as at least one significant GA quotes them) However by and large my teachers didn’t quote the 2% figure including my CES religion teachers.

    None of this is to deny that the 2% figure is still out there. While some might justly attack the 2% figure I think it does reflect the American view of marriage in the late 19th century in which marriage was primarily about men. Indeed a lot has been written on how the debate about polygamy intersected with these “patriarchal” views of marriage by the greater society. Remember that in most of the US at this time women couldn’t even vote. Some of the rhetoric by the Relief Society leadership for polygamy is interesting in those terms. (Even if the women in question in private may not have liked polygamy) However women really were not considered as significant in these late 19th century discussions so the 2% figure is understandable. It’s taking it out of that context into the modern senses of marriage that is far more egalitarian that leads to trouble.

    Comment by Clark — August 10, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

  33. The reason I’m so attuned to the 2% figure is that I actually recited it once in a talk over the pulpit when i was a young man. I got it from a book I found in the trunk of my friend’s car. I don’t recall the name of the book, but it was something like Mormonism in the Modern World, and I found out later that the book was not something one should use as a source for a sacrament meeting talk!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 10, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

  34. This is a helpful corrective, Ben. I heartily second you in expressing anticipation for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s forthcoming book, which I think everyone hopes will bring new clarity. Daynes’ work is, is, as you note, the best available but limited in scope, and it is hard to assertively revise without solid data underfoot. But I also find it interesting that Daynes’ work, important as it is, perpetuates the emphasis upon the quantification of polygamy. Personally I (and you seem to agree, Ben) would like to see a rich and balanced humanistic approach that focuses on the particularities of experience. If the past is any indication, I certainly expect Ulrich’s book to do that. And it would be okay with me if the issue of prevalence weren’t in the foreground. It’s important, but not for polemical reasons it has been in the past.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 10, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

  35. Yeah Clark, it was probably 1997 (odd that it was the late 90s, huh?) and it was Ron Walker’s Utah History class. Maybe I’m just remembering wrong, though, and ought to check my class notes — yes, I still have them!! eek.

    Comment by Emily — August 12, 2011 @ 11:49 pm

  36. I polled my family ancestors and came up with a number of 33%–6 polygamous marriages of 18 eligible ancestral couples.

    I can’t say I was exact in establishing the criteria. For example, do I count my gentile GGG father who died and my GGG mother who remarried into a polygamous relationship? I did. Do I count ancestors who were married just a few years before the manifesto and really didn’t have time for the husband to enter a second marriage? I did.

    Comment by jose — August 13, 2011 @ 7:54 pm


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