Cultural Overview

Mormon polygyny is based on the writings and teachings of Joseph Smith who, in the 1820s, advanced the idea that God is married and the heavenly family is a polygynous or plural family. God is a polygynist who loves all his children but confers on men, and not on women, an elevated spiritual essence which insures that "righteous" living men will obtain a higher spiritual standing. Men occupy leadership positions in their families and on the church council, and have the potential, in the next life, to become a godhead with dominion over all their descendants. Women are not capable of Godhood but can elevate their status through marrying a would-be God. Salvation can only occur if people create in their earthly life God's ideal family—a patriarchal organized plural family. This vision was further expanded upon under the leadership of Brigham Young, and then later under the leadership of John Taylor. In response to Taylor's insistence on following Joseph Smith's mandate to form plural families, numerous fundamentalist communities were formed in remote regions. Today, Morman fundamentalists do not consider themselves members of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (L.D.S.), but rather as authentic Mormons who follow the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith. They differ further from the L.D.S. Church in their belief that Adam is not a man but rather the Father or God of the planet earth. Fundamentalism rests on the presumption of infallibility in scripture as the ultimate source of moral truth. For Mormon fundamentalists this means that the Book of Mormon, the Book of Covenants and Ordinances, and, where deemed appropriate, the Bible are the primary sources.

In the early 20th century Mormon fundamentalists broke with the L.D.S. Church to form an underground church. In various remote geographical regions throughout the Rocky Mountain ridge people sought to pool their financial resources and create a United Order through the development of strong affective solidarity sustained by cooperative exchanges of food, money, labor, and daughters.

Each community is governed independently and maintains only nominal contact with the others. The populations range from around 350 to over 10,000 (Salt Lake City and its surrounding suburbs). The largest and oldest polygynous settlement in North America is located in three separate geographical locations known as Hildale-Colorado City-Centennial Park (until the 1960s the region was referred to as Short Creek).

Each settlement is an intentional community where its members live, or expect to live, in a polygynous or plural family. The percentage of contemporary fundamentalist families with more than one wife range between 85% and 35%, depending upon the community and historical era. This is a higher percentage than the 15-20% reported for 19th century Mormons. To date, most communities are able to hold on to most of their daughters, who continue to reside in the community, and thus they have increased in population (Quinn, 1991).

Although mandated by scripture to live a polygynous life, there is no consensus as to how best to achieve this ideal. There is a lot of variation within and between communities. For example, some communities tolerate firstcousin marriages (e.g., Montana, Mexico, and Colorado City), while Centennial Park is adamant in its disapproval. Certain families have a history of child sex abuse; others do not. There is variation in living arrangements.

"Big House" polygyny, whereby a man and all his wives live together in a single dwelling is common among the elite families in Colorado City and Centennial Park. The other fundamentalist communities overwhelmingly practice "hut" polygamy, whereby each wife has her own dwelling with the man rotating between residences. Rotation systems range from a fixed schedule to allowing the husband to follow his personal preference. In the latter case, some wives have infrequent sexual relations.

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