Who Owns The Term Mormon?
Polygamy is a touchy subject for many Mormons. Mention the word polygamy to a faithful Mormon and you will observe an almost universal knee-jerk reaction – an explanation that Mormons do not practice polygamy and that polygamist groups covered in mainstream media are not Mormon. To counter the image of polygamy, Mormon authorities made an unsuccessful attempt to trademark the term “Mormon”, as an attempt to prevent fundamentalist Mormon groups from using the term. Members are also instructed to refer to themselves as members of the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, LDS for short, as a way of combating the stigma of polygamy associated with the term Mormon, although in an ironic twist, the latest attempt to improve the image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been an expensive ad campaign titled “I’m A Mormon”.
What I find interesting about this reaction is the fact that polygamy was an integral part of early Mormonism. Joseph Smith – the founder of the Mormon Church and considered to be a modern-day Prophet, Seer, and Revelator – married an estimated 33 women. His successor, Brigham Young, had an estimated 55 wives. The third leader of the Mormon Church, John Taylor, had seven wives. In 1882, when the U.S. government began cracking down on polygamy in Utah, there was a lot of confusion within the church. John Taylor – leader of the church at the time - wrote a document in 1886 that fundamentalists argue affirms the permanency of plural marriage. In 1890 the Mormon president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto disavowing the practice of polygamy. Polygamy was still practiced in secret, with some Mormons choosing to move to either Canada or Mexico to continue the practice of plural marriage. Eventually, after much controversy, the President Joseph Fielding Smith issued the Second Manifesto in 1904, which once again disavowed the practice.
Fundamentalist Mormons still believe in and practice polygamy. The difference between fundamentalist Mormons and mainstream Mormons is that fundamentalists do not believe the 1890 Manifesto was a divine revelation. Instead, they point to the 1886 revelation by John Taylor that re-iterates the permanence of God’s commandments, one of which they argue is the practice of polygamy. In a nutshell, the only difference between mainstream Mormon and fundamentalist Mormons is the fact that fundamentalist Mormons believe in a literal interpretation of the past Mormon leaders, rather than following the leaders that came after John Taylor. When Martin Luther split off from the Roman Catholic Church, he did not lose the right to call himself a follower of the Bible and Jesus Christ; neither should fundamentalist Mormons lose the right to call themselves followers of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
Furthermore, LDS members do believe polygamy exists in Heaven – they just don’t believe in practicing polygamy on Earth, where the laws of the land prohibit the practice. Growing up, I was taught that if a man was widowed, he could be sealed in an eternal marriage to another wife. When he went to Heaven, he would be reunited with all of his wives. Mormons believe that only married people can gain access to the highest level of Heaven. We were assured that if we didn’t receive the opportunity to be married in this life, then we would have the opportunity to get married in the next life. There was, however, no assurance that the celestial marriage would be monogamous.
This begs the question – what defines the term Mormon? Are the members of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the only people who can lay claim to the term Mormon? Or does this term extend to all the sects that follow the teachings of the early leaders and the Book of Mormon?
Even those who still practice polygamy?
Rachel Velamur is the author of the blog "A Post-Mormon Life", where she writes about what life was like as a Mormon and what her life is like after leaving the Mormon Church.