The Faith and Fear of Polygamy by Ken Verdoia

Program Notes for Nico Muhly & Stephen Karam's Dark Sisters


One man…many wives.

Seven generations of Americans have been simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by polygamy as a shadowy practice of religious faith on the rough edges of our society.

Heralded by practitioners as the fullest expression of religious liberty, plural marriage is just as frequently accused of enslaving women – often at desperately young ages. Through the years hundreds of arrests have been made, courts decreed…an army even marched within the borders of the United States in 1857 to crush a perceived rebellion that held polygamy as one of its core values.

And, yet, the practice endures.

Estimates vary wildly. But a good guess is that more than twenty thousand men, women and children are part of plural marriage gatherings that stretch across at least eight states and spill into Canada and Mexico. In some western cities, the enormous families live thinly veiled lives in suburbia. Larger gatherings are easily found in small, remote towns cloaked in secrecy and a self-imposed determination to remain distant from the prying, judgmental eyes of mainstream culture.

Old Testament examples aside, polygamy first edged its way into the nation’s consciousness and headlines during the 1840s. The leader of a harried yet determined religious movement on the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois confided to his most trusted associates that a divine revelation instructed him to take multiple wives as a means of exalting the family and creating the framework for an eternity of union and happiness.

To say the words of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith flew in the face of religious and social convention in mid-nineteenth century America is a breathtaking understatement. Smith’s own trusted lieutenant, Brigham Young, said the instruction to take a second wife “…made me desire the grave.” But, ever stalwart in his confidence in Smith, Young would rise to his religious calling and eventually be sealed (married) to more than fifty women.

As word leaked of the practice, lurid charges of “harems” and sexual profligacy would follow. Mormons were increasingly viewed as being at odds with conventional society. Ill will boiled over, and Smith was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois.

When Brigham Young led a desperate exodus to the lightly charted American West in 1847, polygamy was part of the doctrine carried by the Mormons to their promised land. In 1850 federal officials arrived to become part of the governance of the new Utah Territory, prompting a defiant Young to drop any pretense of secrecy and publicly proclaim the sacred nature of a goodly man taking many wives. He claimed the right of his co-religionists to the free exercise of every aspect of their religion as Americans under the First Amendment to the Constitution. It was the opening salvo in a debate that lingers to this day.

Congress passed a series of laws designed to crack down on the perceived Mormon theocracy thriving on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. The U.S. Supreme Court joined the fray by closing the door on claims to constitutional right to polygamy by ruling a person can believe whatever they might, but they may not practice beliefs substantially at odds with an ordered society. Polygamy, the Court said in 1878, was not protected.

Eventually legal, economic and political pressure forced a breaking point, and in 1890 the Mormons (now formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) announced the end of plural marriage as a tenet of their faith. For more than a century the LDS Church has forcefully affirmed that position and worked to excommunicate members who practice plural marriage.

But the 1890 announcement gave birth to a determined subculture. A small number of self-identified Mormons refused to abandon polygamy, claiming Church leaders had broken faith by abandoning a divine instruction to take plural wives. A handful of men claimed to have authority to sustain polygamy, regardless of the scorn, persecution or excommunication that might come their way. They considered themselves the true spiritual heirs of the full teachings of Joseph Smith. One of the largest gatherings of current day polygamists proudly calls themselves Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints (FLDS).

Members of fundamentalist groups believe their leader is a living prophet of God, blessed with an ability to receive divine guidance through revelation. A belief that their leader holds the “keys to the kingdom,” along with an unquestioned, singular ability to be directed by God, has served as glue to bind followers together through internal and external strife. When a fundamentalist leader begins a lesson with “Thus Sayeth The Lord…” it is as if a new commandment is being shared with the faithful. It is a message to be obeyed. Any voice challenging the teaching is considered blasphemous.

It is this environment, this subculture, which provides the fertile ground for the explorations and expressions of Dark Sisters.

In a curious mixture of publicity and isolation, plural marriage communities have survived police raids through the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and the first decade of the twentieth-century. Talk to the polygamist veteran of a raid, and they wear the event as a badge of honor. A mortal price they were willing to pay, a test faced in the name of their religion. They have returned to the fold hardened in their beliefs.

If faith is a fortress in such settings, it also offers evidence of creating a prison. First person accounts abound of women involuntarily assigned to marriages at the dawn of their puberty. Variance with the dictates of leadership can be dealt with harshly. The isolation offered as a simple request to be left alone to follow their faith can be used to control thought and action. The leaders, once portrayed as avuncular patriarchs at the head of a like-thinking family, are increasingly characterized as sinister and manipulative.

The questions seem endless. Is it faith? Is it coercion? Is it the path to Heaven or Hell? Do our laws reach into the sanctity of the human spirit and bedroom, or do they offer a protective arm to victims of an aberrant social order? And how do we define victims in any setting which begs the consideration of fundamentalist or orthodox beliefs when those beliefs might be viewed by others as unorthodox?

These questions are in the hearts and minds of each of the women who populate the landscape of Dark Sisters.

— Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian, documentarian, and journalist.