Prevalence of plural marriage in Utah

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Prevalence of plural marriage in Utah

Gospel Topics: "Although some leaders had large polygamous families, two-thirds of polygamist men had only two wives at a time"

"Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah," Gospel Topics on

Still, some patterns are discernible, and they correct some myths. Although some leaders had large polygamous families, two-thirds of polygamist men had only two wives at a time. Church leaders recognized that plural marriages could be particularly difficult for women. Divorce was therefore available to women who were unhappy in their marriages; remarriage was also readily available. Women did marry at fairly young ages in the first decade of Utah settlement (age 16 or 17 or, infrequently, younger), which was typical of women living in frontier areas at the time. As in other places, women married at older ages as the society matured. Almost all women married, and so did a large percentage of men. In fact, it appears that a larger percentage of men in Utah married than elsewhere in the United States at the time. Probably half of those living in Utah Territory in 1857 experienced life in a polygamous family as a husband, wife, or child at some time during their lives. By 1870, 25 to 30 percent of the population lived in polygamous households, and it appears that the percentage continued to decrease over the next 20 years.[1]

Question: What was the prevalence of polygamy in Utah and how many wives did most polygamist males have?

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

About 15-20% of families were polygamous, and most had only two wives

G. D. Smith’s desire to correct underestimates in some Latter-day Saint publications should not be license to exaggerate the norm—whether in reference to groups or individuals (such as Johnson)—in the other direction.

Most polygamists in Utah had only two wives. About 15-20% of families were polygamous, though the impact on the LDS experience was profound:

Excluding inactive men, “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.”[2]

G. D. Smith provides considerable statistical information, but he exaggerates even there. Benjamin F. Johnson, “representative of the mainstream in LDS practice,” he tells us, “eventually married seven wives—a few short of the model of ten talents” (p. 166). Is seven wives really the “mainstream” for the Latter-day Saint practice of polygamy?

Both Stanley Ivins and Kathryn Daynes have made estimates of the number of plural wives with Utah polygamists. Their data are summarized in the table below:

Number of wives Ivins (%)[3] Daynes (%)[4]
2 66.3 66
3 21.2 21.3
4 6.7 8
5 3 4.7
6 or more <3 Included in "5"

The claim that seven wives represents some type of “mainstream” is erroneous

The claim that seven wives represents some type of “mainstream” is erroneous—such prolific espousers were well below 5 percent overall. He later claims that “since institutional [Church] histories have minimized the incidence and profile of polygamy . . . , it is easy to imagine that most men who entered polygamy did so in a cursory way. In reality, the typical Utah polygamist whose roots in the principle extended back to Nauvoo, had between three and four wives” (p. 289; see p. 286). G. D. Smith’s analysis disguises, however, that polygamists with Nauvoo roots were a tiny minority. “Most men who entered polygamy” had only two wives, and a large majority (>80%) had no more than three. Even these would probably not think of their participation as “cursory,” since a majority of men never practiced plural marriage at all. Probably 15 to 20 percent of Latter-day Saint families were polygamous, “with variations from place to place and from decade to decade.”[5]

G. D. Smith even knows about these data from Ivins (though he ignores Daynes) but places them several chapters away, in a completely different context (see p. 535–536).

Johnson exceeded even the average of Nauvoo’s “early adopters,” who had far more wives, on average, than the vast majority of Utah polygamists. Johnson may have been “mainstream” among polygamists at Nauvoo—but polygamy was restricted to a relatively small core in Nauvoo. It was not “mainstream” for the entire church at all. And most Utahans never approached the number of wives achieved by those men who began the practice in Nauvoo. Any attempt to extrapolate patterns in Nauvoo to the rest of Latter-day Saint history is fraught with pitfalls.

In short, Johnson was extraordinary except among the highly selected group of Nauvoo-era polygamists. G. D. Smith insists elsewhere that before 1890 “the number of [polygamy] practitioners had expanded exponentially.” In support of this, we are told that Orderville, Utah, had 67 percent of its members in plural households (pp. 535–36). Mathematical quibbles about whether the adoption of plural marriage was truly “exponential” aside, this figure is misleading. G. D. Smith leaves unmentioned the study’s observation that Orderville was somewhat unique because “one suspects that membership in Mormondom’s most successful attempt to establish the United Order may have required a commitment to plural matrimony. Unlike the pattern that usually prevailed in Mormon towns, many young men of Orderville entered the celestial order when they first married or soon thereafter.” Nearby Kanab was less successful in its communal economy and had less than half as many polygamists. Furthermore, all of southern Utah was more likely to be polygamist than Utah as a whole, for similar reasons.[6]


  1. "Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah," Gospel Topics on (2013)
  2. Larry Logue, “A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 25; cited by B. Carmon Hardy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2007), 143–44.
  3. Stanley S. Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” The Western Humanities Review 10 (Summer 1956): 229–30; reproduced “exactly as it appeared” in his “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” Utah Historical Quarterly 35/4 (Fall 1967): 313–14, 316. See the anonymously authored article “Tribute to Stanley S. Ivins,” Utah Historical Quarterly 35/4 (Fall 1967): 307–9.
  4. Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840–1910 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 130.
  5. Davis Bitton, Historical Dictionary of Mormonism, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000), 147.
  6. Lowell “Ben” Bennion, “The Incidence of Mormon Polygamy in 1880: ‘Dixie’ Versus Davis Stake,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 34–36.