Talking about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy with Your Kids: One Dad’s Experience

By December 1, 2014

With the new polygamy essays out, I’ve heard and seen a number of comments along the lines of “we can maybe wrap our brains around this, but how in the world are we supposed to explain this to our children?” Good question. I, like probably a lot of bloggernacle folks, have tried to make it a point to go over various often undressed points of early Mormon history my my kids (like the seer stone) but I had neglected polygamy. This neglect was brought to my attention one summer after my then twelve-year-old son had returned from a trip to California to spend a week with his non-Mormon friends. He informed us that they had been razzing him about polygamy, something he knew nothing about. My wife and I started into a basic explanation of how we used to practice this but no more when he cut us off by asking, “But it was wrong, right?”

Good question. Many might have answered that question “yes,” but that isn’t my personal view. So I pulled him aside and gave him an overview of this: an idea that I’ve now expanded in my dissertation. I basically said, “Originally Joseph Smith married married women. Men and women could have multiple spouses as a way to be bound to each other and as a way to have all things in common. But there were problems. People didn’t like it, so they switched to polygyny or just men being able to have multiple spouses. That lasted a while until the government really cracked down and we stopped.  Though we continued to practiced it a little bit after that.” (I wanted to cover all my bases). After I pause I asked. “So what do you think?”

He nodded sort of knowingly and said, “Yeah, that makes sense. People don’t like to share. They’re always messing things up.”

I then apologized that I hadn’t discussed this with him earlier and he said “No, that’s okay. Just as long as you’re available to explain things when I have questions.” I felt pretty good about the exchange.

But I never had any more discussions with my kids about polygamy after that until the new essays came out. Then I thought I had better make an attempt to discuss this with my thirteen-year-old daughter. So I asked her if she knew anything about the church practicing polygamy and she said, “I know it’s something that misinformed people will bring up about the church.” I told her that the church did used to practice it but not any more.

“Oh,” she said nonchalantly.

“Do you have any questions?” I asked.

“No.  I know the church doesn’t practice it any more.  I know the church says that women are equal.” And then she shrugged as though that was all that mattered.

“Are you sure?” I continued.

“Why are you pushing this?” she asked.

“Because we used to practice it, and so people usually have questions.”

“I don’t,” she said and that was the end of it.

Good enough?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Nice to see your approach. I took a similar approach with my 11 year old son (who said: “now that’s just weird!”). I agreed. I did add that it was a huge sacrifice and struggle for Emma. That led us to more talks about Rlds, Joseph III, etc. but he took it well!

    A lot easier to talk about the hat and the stone!

    Comment by n8c — December 1, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

  2. I find it slightly disconcerting to brush aside inconvenient historical facts. Nevertheless, I will admit that devoted mormons seem to be acting on what is logical. If in fact your God actually exists and ordered Joseph Smith to do those things then there is little point in explaining anything, because God can do what he wants and is infinitely more intelligent than us. Abraham was commanded to kill his son; I don?t think he could have come up with any good reasons himself other than the fact he needed to obey God. Followers of dictators throughout history have had the same mindset. If Hitler is our supposed divine leader and is going to make the world better for us in the end why not do what he and his regime order (an extreme example, I admit)? Its just logical to obey any divine source of authority. Unfortunately for those of us who don?t think there is any divine authority except, perhaps, commonly held moral beliefs, then it all becomes very disturbing. Putting obedience before moral values has an incredible knack for causing disaster (think religious extremism- suicide bombings, terrorism, murder, rape, adultery?) I?m sorry, but I do not believe in your God. Joseph Smith committed, by all moral definitions, adultery with many women including teenagers. To try to explain it away is either meaningless or, what I believe, an insult to those he took advantage of. What I tell my children is this: Chose what is moral. (CWIM, if you are going to make a ring out of it).

    Comment by Jose Suarez — December 1, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

  3. n8c, interesting and I agree that the seer stone is a lot easier.

    Jose, I did mention to my son that when the practice shifted away from married to single women the ages of the wives dropped. That’s when JS married teenagers. Like I said, I cover all this in my dissertation. And for the dissertation, the question of what JS’s rationale was central. And there I argue what I told my son: utopianism and being bonded together.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 1, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

  4. Polygamy is, “by all moral definitions, adultery,” Jose?

    Try telling that to a Muslim.

    Nice post, Steve.

    Comment by Amy T — December 1, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

  5. Oh goodness. As I reread my post I realize I came across as very argumentative. Honestly I don’t know much about Mormonism. I have a few friends/acquaintances that are Mormons and as far as I can tell they are excellent people. So with the recent movie “Meet the Mormons” coming out and an article on the front page of the New York Times I thought it was time to delve into it a little bit. The polygamy of Joseph Smith didn’t upset me in the least. It seems like it is never mentioned in your church meetings and has little to do with what you currently believe anyways. However, knowing that your founder possibly had sex with several other women unbeknownst to his first wife in the name of his religion raised the eyebrows a little. Also, from what I have read, it seems that his first wife, Emma, was thought of as being his only wife for many members of your church, which seems to be causing some confusion among you guys now. I really do not mean to offend but at the very least can’t you see that as raising a red flag. We are all aware that there are many ideologies out there, in fact so many that we can’t possibly get to know them nearly as much as their adherents would like us to. Sometimes I have to make a quick judgement on which ones I am willing to spend more time on. Not to sound stuffy but I will often choose to listen to what a respected philosopher or intellect has to offer over say, Scientology (I apologize, it just is the case).

    In regards to your members I can only say what I have observed, which is nothing less than good, gracious people. As I read more about your ideology I am not too concerned personally because it seems to be consistent with what most of us want; freedom from fear, understanding, peace, etc. In terms of actually believing it though, what do you suggest I do?

    Also I apologize for taking over your post with unrelated content. If you guys are worried about your kids I would just offer that you keep them away from the internet or at least monitor where they go on it and they will probably absorb religious traditions, no questions asked.

    Comment by Jose Suarez — December 1, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

  6. Steve, I think you handled it very well. We’re really missing the boat by not having these kinds of conversations with our children. As awkward as it may seem to us, it’s actually far easier to broach these things now than much later in their lives. They can absorb it just fine.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — December 1, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

  7. Thanks Kevin and Amy.

    Jose, kids (at some point) are asking plenty of questions and this post is about dealing with that.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 2, 2014 @ 7:02 am

  8. Steve, thank you for sharing this.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — December 2, 2014 @ 9:57 am

  9. I agree that this conversation needs to take place, as do conversations about a number of ‘difficult’ topics. But am I missing part of your conversations with your children? Where is the part that starts out with something akin to, “For whatever reason, that we may not understand, Heavenly Father commanded Joseph to take more than one wife. It was terribly difficult for him and, I imagine, for everyone (husband and wife)who was equally commanded. Some of these marriages involved sexual relations and subsequently children and some may have been ‘only’ a temple sealing.” I’ve never seen any church/historical writings or publications about Joseph’s (and others) polygamy experience that did not start out with the “Thus saith the Lord” approach. If God truly did command Joseph and others to pursue the practice (and I believe he did), then wouldn’t the principle of obedience play a big role in any ‘conversation’?

    Comment by Doug — December 2, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  10. Thanks, Mark.

    Doug, keep in mind that this was a conversation that occurred 2 or 3 years ago (so it isn’t an exact transcript). Further, I think when a lot of Mormons discuss JS’s actions with each other, revelation is implied. Finally, while I agree with your point about obedience, wanting to know what the rationale was is a natural question.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 2, 2014 @ 11:56 am

  11. It is good that you are talking to your kids Steve. I understand the new seminary and institute lessons will be much more open and inclusive about the statement on this and other subjects, so the kids will get them.

    My concern is that when the kids get this in seminary, their unquestioning parents may hear it for the first time and deny it or be affronted themselves.

    I don’t think most members are even aware of this stuff. I raise the question of racism with regard to the priesthood and was shouted down by those who said there was no racism, from the church or the prophets. Certainly not in outposts like Australia.

    Comment by Geoff - Aus — December 2, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

  12. Geoff, no doubt bringing these issues out in the contexts you mention will be tricky.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 3, 2014 @ 7:54 am

  13. I have always brought up old testament men marrying multiple wives. Also, during the election we laughed about ROmney’s polygamists ancestors not being an issue since Obama’s ancestors were too.
    So my 8 year old kid once gave a primary talk where she talked about people in the past being allowed to marry more than once, but now God says you can’t marry more than once and it is wrong. Since what she said sounded like she was condemning legal second marriages I anxiously scanned the children who were present and then apologized to the couple whose children/step-children might have heard that their dad’s recent remarriage was not allowed by God. Yeah, good times. They didn’t seem upset. They were pretty sure their kids weren’t paying attention.

    Comment by jks — December 6, 2014 @ 12:59 am


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