The Bible indicates that Abraham, Jacob, and others of the Lord’s servants had multiple wives (see Genesis 16:1–3; 29:23–30; 30:4, 9; Judges 8:30; 1 Samuel 1:1–2). Joseph Smith asked God why He had permitted this practice and was told that God had commanded it for specific purposes. One reason given by the Lord for plural marriage is mentioned in the Book of Mormon: “If I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall [have only one wife]” (Jacob 2:30; see also v. 27).
After God revealed the doctrine of plural marriage to Joseph Smith in 1831 and commanded him to live it, the Prophet, over a period of years, cautiously taught the doctrine to some close associates. Eventually, he and a small number of Church leaders entered into plural marriages in the early years of the Church. Those who practiced plural marriage at that time, both male and female, experienced a significant trial of their faith. Latter-day Saint converts in the 19th century had been raised in traditional, monogamous homes and struggled with the idea of a man having more than one wife. It was as foreign to them as it would be to most families today in the western world. Even Brigham Young, who was later to have many wives and children, confessed to his initial dread of the principle of plural marriage. For example, Brigham Young later explained how he felt at the introduction of plural marriage:
Some of these my brethern know what my feelings were at the time Joseph revealed the doctrine; I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin, knowing the toil and labor that my body would have to undergo; and I have had to examine myself, from that day to this, and watch my faith, and carefully meditate, lest I should be found desiring the grave more than I ought to do.
The practice was so foreign to these individuals that they needed and received personal inspiration from God to help them obey the commandment. They followed because they knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that this was the Lord’s will.
When the Saints moved west under the direction of Brigham Young, more Latter-day Saints entered into plural marriages.
What was it like to be part of a plural marriage?
The more I’ve learned about plural marriages, the more I’ve realized personally that they were much like other marriages. You can find numerous examples of dysfunctional or unhappy relationships. On the other hand, you can find many examples of men and women who experienced great joy and happiness in their marriages.