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The Origins of Mormon Polygamy—and Its Spiritual Loophole
Polygamy has been denounced by the Mormon church for more than 100 years. So why does the stereotype persist?
Sex has never been easy for humans. In practice, perhaps, but add in a layer of ethics and suddenly how, when, and with whom we share our bodies with has long been contentious. Some argue that promiscuous primates reveal our true nature, while others declare that monogamy is the godly way. In his behavioral tour-de-force, Behave, neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky says we’re actually somewhere in between: animals that spread and receive seed broadly, and animals that devote themselves to only one other.
Makes sense that religion would take up the role of how we use our bodies, even if certain mandates put more emphasis on suppression over exploration. Humans are curious animals. Tell us an act is prohibited and you ensure participation. Much confusion has resulted from this intersection between faith and desire.
The Mormon church has long dealt with this conundrum. Shortly after Joseph Smith founded the religion in 1830 he had a vision of his deceased brother, Alvin, prancing around in heaven. Due to this vision, he invented the concept of “sealings” in 1836, which states that family members reunite in heaven by undergoing certain rituals during life. It just so happened that in its early days Mormonism appealed to men more than women, so the rules favored that gender.
Enter polygamy. Smith used the Bible whenever it served his purposes, as most offshoots of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith do to this day. He turned to Abraham for guidance. Since men were the drivers of early Mormonism, Smith figured that women and children could be “sealed” through them. As Mormon scholar (and Mormon herself) Joanna Brooks writes: "Smith taught that a righteous man could help numerous women and children go to heaven by being “sealed” in plural marriage." The more women a man could seal, the better.
By 1843 Smith privately overlooked plural marriages among church leaders even as the 1844 edition of the faith’s Doctrine and Covenants explicitly supported monogamy. Smith always publicly denounced plural marriages. Yet after his death it was revealed that he had between 29-48 wives besides his public wife, Emma. Emma swore none existed. Plenty of evidence shows otherwise.
In 1844, Smith was murdered. His successor, Brigham Young, took up the cause. His stated reservations did not stop him from taking multiple wives—51 in total, having 56 children with 16 of them. Other leaders partook in what they termed “spiritual wifery.” In 1852 polygamy became an official Mormon Church practice, and the shift was announced in the group’s new home, Salt Lake City. In 1876 polygamy was included in the Doctrine and Covenants.
In the years between 1852 and 1890, somewhere between 20-30 percent of Mormons practiced polygamy. In 1890, the church’s fourth president, Wilford Woodruff, expressed concerns. Just like Joseph Smith supposedly received a divine revelation in the form of golden tablets, which led to the formation of Mormonism, Woodruff claimed he had his own discussion with God, resulting in the church’s “Manifesto.” Polygamy was out:
The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for ... any of the men in this temple ... for all (temple sacraments) would be stopped throughout the land. ... Confusion would reign ... and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice.
Mormons had always faced social and political persecution, but things really ramped up in 1856 when the Republican party platform related polygamy with slavery. Mormons were in a bind. Church leaders wanted to stay true to Smith’s teachings, but they also wanted to not be persecuted. Behavioral rules, such as a ban on smoking and drinking and a conservative view on sexuality, became required of the faithful to save face.
Then, in 1878, the Supreme Court banned polygamy across the United States. By 1887 the government was seizing Mormon church assets for their continued practice. Woodruff officially abolished the practice upon realizing his church was in danger of being shut down.
Portrait of Mormon polygamists in prison, at the Utah Penitentiary, circa 1889.
Some men were not happy. Polygamy wasn’t new to the world. Historically plural marriages were social contracts. If a man had enough resources to support multiple wives, it made sense that he would look after them. By the 20th century, views on women’s roles at home and in the workforce were rapidly changing. Many echoed the sentiment that polygamy was in fact a form of enslavement.
A rogue group of Mormons fled to Mexico to escape what they perceived as ungodly regulations. A wave of fundamentalism kicked off around the time of the Great Depression that persists today. If polygamy was good for Smith, it certainly is good for these believers. In 1904 church president Joseph F Smith disavowed polygamy in front of Congress, issuing yet another manifesto. This created an even larger schism in his church.
Today, the LDS Church continues to promote monogamy, and while polygamy is illegal in the United States, small pockets of Mormons exist in the Rocky Mountains, where they freely practice what they refer to as “the Principle.” These groups of fundamentalists believe they’re staying true to Joseph Smith’s revelation.
Earlier this year, Lyle Jeffs, at the time leading one of those 1930s era offshoots, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was arrested for a food stamp fraud and money laundering. His brother, Warren, was convicted of child sexual assault in 2011 after marrying 12- and 15-year-old girls. Warren had dozens of wives, while Lyle was tamer, marrying just nine times. In both of these cases their polygamy dominated headlines.
So while the Mormon Church publicly denounces polygamy, it lives on. Joanna Brooks says this is in part because the doctrine supporting it was never officially changed. In a kind of spiritual loophole, it is a mainstream Mormon belief that polygamy is part of the afterlife.
The LDS Church publicly renounced the practice of polygamy in 1890, but it has never renounced polygamy as doctrine, as evidenced in LDS scriptures. It has always permitted and continues to permit men to be married in Mormon temples “for the eternities” to more than one wife.
As long as this rift between public banishment and private winks and nods continues, the question of plural marriage will continue, regardless of what laws are being enforced. Old habits are hard to break.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."