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Summary Article: Mormon Fundamentalists
From Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World's Cultures

There are numerous polygamous communities located in the western United States: the Allred group in Salt Lake Valley and Montana (Bennion, 1998; Young, 1954), the Johnson-Barlow group in Colorado City (Bradley, 1993; Quinn, 1991); the Timpson-Hammon Group in Centennial Park (Jankowiak & Allen, 1995; Jankowiak & Diderich, 2001); the Blackmore group in Canada and the Kingston Group in Salt Lake Valley (Quinn, 1991); the Manti Community in Manti, Utah and the Le Baron group in the Chihuahua Valley of northern Mexico (Jankowiak & Woodman, 2002).


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 first-cousin 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.


Men's and women's characters are believed to be inherently different. Women are thought to be subservient to males. This is due to males receiving God's blessing or the “priesthood” after puberty. Within the home, gender identification begins with boy and girl infants wearing gender-specific colors and clothes. In the toddler stage (2 years old) it is common to see a boy sit next to his father when he drives to the store, while young girls sit next to their mother when they travel somewhere. In the youth stage, dress style is designed to uphold an image of modesty. Therefore tight-fitting clothes are taboo. Females wear two pairs of panty hose under their dresses. Boys and men also follow a conservative dress code. Many men wear the specially designed Mormon underwear (long johns coded with religious insignia), are clean shaven with short hair, and wear long-sleeve shirts to cover their arms even when playing a round of golf or a competitive game of basketball.

Ideally, attractiveness is based upon spiritual concerns that are centered on a person's character. Kindness, loyalty, patience, and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good are considered admirable qualities. In practice, people recognize female beauty as having physical aspects that closely mirror mainstream American culture. Women with symmetrical faces, youthful complexion, large eyes, and full lips are considered to be more attractive. Men are regarded as attractive if they are tall (over 5 feet 11 inches [1.8 m]) and hold an important position in the religious hierarchy or have a significant source of income.


The names for the stages passing through the life cycle are similar to those in mainstream culture. There is an infant stage, with the “age of reason” beginning around the age of 7. Baptism, which takes place at the age of 12, marks the transition to young adulthood. For girls, it is a time to think about marriage, while for boys it signifies that they are no longer children but spiritual adults of the church.

After marriage, motherhood marks the next transformation in a woman's social identity. Young women often become more assertive in stating their needs and desires. They will also, especially if they are from nonelite households, more readily complain about their husband's shortcomings in providing for his family. During this stage many women will seek employment to support themselves and their children. The increase in income enables some women a greater voice in determining how family resources are allocated.

The next transformation stage is when a husband takes a new wife. Women have to learn to accommodate another woman's needs and interests. Men also have to adjust, albeit it in different ways. The final stage is old age. It is a time that women will readily acknowledge they enjoy. The community tends to idealize those grandmothers it regards as exemplary. Given their newfound status, the senior women are reluctant to criticize either the religion or the experience of living in a plural family. Men, especially if they are from elite families, seldom embrace the grandparent stage of life. These men usually have younger wives who are reproductively viable and thus remain fathers until almost the end of their lives. Their interaction with their grandchildren tends to be perfunctory. Only the nonelite men appear to be able to make the transition from a husband to a grandfather. With the exception of funerals, most of the life-stage ceremonies are conducted in secret.

Socialization of Boys and Girls

There are distinct differences in parenting style in every fundamentalist community. Some styles are more laissez-faire, others stress a discipline- or obedience-oriented approach, while others employ a more hands-on instructional approach. Women in elite households usually have large families and thus a more obedient approach is favored, while uneducated women living alone, or in a household with one or two cowives, tend to adopt a laissez-faire approach. College-educated women, living alone or with a number of cowives, overwhelming prefer a more hands-on instructional approach.

Young boys and girls are taught in very similar ways. Although boys have higher religious status, in daily interaction boys and girls are equally valued. There is no evidence of female infanticide in any of the Mormon fundamentalist communities. At the age of 5, children are expected to be obedient. At the age of 7, children are instructed to memorize scripture, do well in school, if they go (many are home schooled), and be able to sing songs (Bennion, 1998, p. 82).

In large families much of the daily childcare duties are overseen by older siblings who tend to be less sensitive to the needs of younger siblings. Boys commonly play with toy guns, watch football on television (especially in Centennial Park), and engage in rough-house games of tag. Girls prefer to play with dolls, coloring books, and household items. Both genders enjoy watching cartoon videos and jumping on large trampolines.

Young girls tend to “work inside at cooking, cleaning and sewing and outside at food producing tasks such as tending the gardens and canning fruit. Daughters help mothers with washing, ironing, and other chores” (Bennion, 1998, p. 82). Fathers instruct sons in caring for animals, carrying firewood, moving heavy machinery, construction, carpentry, auto repair, and, at times, babysitting (Bennion, 1998).

All children eat and play together in a common family room that may or may not be supervised by their birth-mother, while an infant will sleep with his or her birth-mother. Young children (3-9 years old) often hang out in their birth-mother's bedroom. Thus, children from different birth-mothers often pass the day in close geographical proximity, while spending the early mornings and late evenings with their birth-mother and thus their other full siblings. Children evaluate a comother's favoritism, which serves to reinforce a sense of separateness. Teens can readily recall instances when their non-birth-mother discriminated or showed favoritism (e.g., giving more candy, or letting house rules slide for their children, but not for comother's children). In addition, birth mothers established borders by taking their children to their own bedroom and reading to them, watching television together, or talking with them. All these small, yet noticeable, activities communicate a distinct sense of differences and thus contribute to the formation of a separate family identity within the larger family.

Puberty and Adolescence

There is a strong continuity between puberty and adolescence. Prior to the 1990s young women (14-16 years old) were immediately placed, that is, married. Usually this was to a man who already had wives. The young bride was referred to as a plural wife. Young men, especially those from nonelite families, had to wait significantly longer, and in many cases forever, to prove that they were worthy to marry. Under this system females tend to mature more quickly. By the 1990s the marriage age in the Salt Lake and Centennial Park communities had moved back to 17 or 18 years, with some women waiting until they were in their early twenties before marrying.

Until recently, and then only in some communities, a young woman's marital choices were limited. She could finish high school and then get married, or leave the community, which resulted in disgracing her family while also condemning her to eternal damnation (Bennion, 1998). In the Colorado City and Centennial Park communities a kind of underground support system has emerged whereby youth who leave the fundamentalist community can connect with other individuals who have also left.

Boys obtain deacon status at 12, teacher status at 14, and priest status at 16. At 19 a male has become an elder and can now participate in the weekly Melchizedek priesthood meetings.

Unmarried boys from elite families who decide to stay in the community often participate in local missionary work for a few years (e.g., weeding, repairing roads, building homes, and clearing drainage ditches). Because the communities fear condemnation from the outside world, they do not, like the mainstream Mormon church, send their youth to live outside the community.

Middle Age and Old Age

Middle age (i.e., the forties) finds women less reproductively viable and thus focused on their youngest children. Having more time, they can provide them with something they could not give the middle children—attention. Middle-aged women discover the pleasures of being a grandmother and assisting their oldest daughters with daily chores. Middle-aged men, on the other hand, are focused more on obtaining a new wife with which to continue their reproductive careers. Men enjoy telling homage tales of elderly men (over 70) who father a child. As long as a woman's husband remains alive, she will remain in his home. After her youngest child has moved out, she will often be asked by religious leaders to move into a smaller apartment so that a younger family may have room to expand. The leaders are also the administrators of the religious trust that controls the distribution of all community property. It is in old age that many men come to appreciate how much they are mutually dependent upon their wives and children. In this stage even fiercely independent and patriarchically inspired men often become less assertive and more tolerant of their own lives and others around them.


The Mormon polygynous communities share many of the gender stereotypes found among other American fundamentalist groups. Men have greater strength and are thought to be “more logical, assertive, physical aggressive, competitive” (Bartkowski, 2001, p. 40), whereas women are regarded as more interested in reproductive concerns which makes them more “nurturing, relational, emotionally expressive, gentle, … and [inclined toward] humble obedience” (Bartkowski, 2001, p. 40).

During the 19th century, women's natural callings as wife and mother were prominent themes in leading fundamentalists sermons. “The patriarchal family [therefore] envisioned a divine hierarchy that featured, in descending order of authority: God, Christ, man/husband/wife, children” (Bennion, 1998, p. 28). In every way women's role was perceived to be that of a supportive wife and self-sacrificing mother.

There is a striking difference between men and women concerning risk-taking. Young men are overwhelmingly prone to take chances that have resulted in serious bodily injury and death. These risky behaviors range from taking illegal drugs, binge drinking, recklessly driving a vehicle, flying a small one-man airplane with two men on board, to having sex with a married woman.


Every patriarchically organized community is based on theological axioms which uphold men as the religious and scriptural authority in the family. In addition, the social dynamics of polygynous family life make men, as fathers and husbands, the pivotal axis around which wives and children organize attention and internalize family identity.

Although church leadership actively discourages clanism (or the ranking of families into hierarchies of relative social worth), status competition flourishes unofficially. Family members strive to advance their father's or brother's reputation and thus, indirectly, their own standing. There is an ongoing struggle to heighten and diminish certain male reputations within a family and within the community as a whole. This dynamic is at odds with religious ideals.

High-status families continue to hold periodic gatherings in which men and women socialize while discussing family or clan business, and other related concerns. These family gatherings also reveal the value placed on family unity and loyalty, stressing cohesiveness. The value of family solidarity is further evident in the formation of family schools, named after a founding family ancestor, and dedicated to teaching local family history as well as the basic skills of reading and writing. Clanism has undermined community unity and resulted in social fragmentation.

Given the community value placed on purity of blood lines, there is a strong incentive to trace descent to famous men who founded the community or the fundamentalist religion. This pragmatic concern encourages a bilateral orientation and, when combined with the absence of private property in the community, effectively undercuts the patriarchical impulse to form a patrilineal descent system. People raised in polygynous communities know to whom they are related and are readily able to articulate their relative position within their father's and mother's genealogical line. The primary reference point is the birth-mother's family, with the larger father-centered family forming an important, albeit secondary, frame of reference.

When women marry, they move to the home of their husband or they build a new home. If the woman is widowed and takes a new husband who does not have a house, he will move into her house. Although the patriarchical ideology insists that once a woman is married she is no longer to have frequent contact with her natal family, this is an ideal that is upheld in theory more than in practice. Most polygynous families are in constant need of resources so that bilateral networking is tolerated, if not encouraged.

Compared with men, women interact more often with friends and relatives. Once the father dies, adult siblings are less inclined to eat together but, instead, preferred to hold “family” gatherings at their birth-mother's home. In contrast, men's friendships are more isolated and fragmented. Apart from their children and favorite wife, many men have no true friends they trust.


There is a clear-cut sexual division of labor. Women are in charge of upkeeping the home and thus take turns cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, and vacuuming floors. Men will chop wood and bring it into the house, take out the trash, do yard work, and repair things around the house that are broken. Ideally, men run the financial side of the family but in practice mature women actively monitor household income. If women are employed outside the home, they often have a voice in how the family's income is spent. If they are on public assistance they tend to have a diminished voice in family affairs.

Different communes are better off depending upon the overall development of the region. Outside the home men work in construction, metal-working, education (as teachers and administrators), retail business, finances, and in the insurance industry. In every plural family, with the exception of the truly wealthy, husbands cannot always feed and clothe their families. Women are compelled to find employment outside the home, often working in nearby towns to which they commute daily.

Given the limitation of finance, there is strong incentive for women to do most of the work themselves. Therefore, women will can fruit and vegetables, stitch quilts, sew bedding and clothes, and buy bulk foods and goods whenever possible (Bennion, 1998, p. 29). In some families, men are absent from home for a long period of time, and to cope with this women form a support system among themselves (Bennion, 1998). This is especially true for women living in the Le Baron and Allred Montana communities.


Because cowives are often in competition for their husband's attention, they contribute to the idealization process of the husband by vying with each other for predominance. In this struggle, the children are often used as a means to an end—becoming the desired object of their husband's attention. This can be deliberate as well as unconscious. Because the wives focus their attention on their husband, their children, wanting to please both their mother and father, follow suit. By cultivating father adoration, a mother hopes to demonstrate her superior worth among the cowives. A mother instructs her children to love and cherish their father, while at the same time she strives to fulfill his expectations of her. This effort, along with the child's own desire to bond with the father, enhances the father's stature and esteem. The cultural emphasis on the spiritual and administrative authority of the father serves to promote family solidarity. It is in “the name of the father” that cowives and their offspring are told to suppress their rivalry and come together as a cohesive family unit.

In daily socialization there is an emphasis on corporal punishment (e.g., using the belt or stick on a child that misbehaves) and religious training. Women who live alone with their children tend to be more actively engaged in rearing them. Women living in plural families tend to prefer an obedience approach to child-rearing. There is an idealized ethos of “children are to be seen and not heard.” Cowives care for each other's children. However, there is a tacit fear that a cowife might retaliate against another wife by punishing her children. Thus, a mother pays a great deal of attention to a cowife's treatment of her child.


Women are excluded from the most important spheres of social power and knowledge. The Church is the central institution in the community, and it is organized around an exclusive male leadership that justifies as natural female inferiority and the male's right to assert their opinion. In some communities women form associations that celebrate female autonomy and female interdependence (Bennion, 1998, p. 129). In the Allred groups in Salt Lake and Montana, as well as in the Le Baron community in Mexico, there are women's prayer circles where women meet to pray for one another's requests. Other all-female meetings also take place during Sunday school, the Sacrament Relief Society, and morning community prayer (Bennion, 1998, p. 10). These associations are absent in the Colorado City-Centennial Park communities which tend to be more adamant in applying patriarchical axioms to ordinary life. In every polygynous community pain, suffering, and pioneer struggles are constant themes that are told and retold to heighten motivation and uphold commitment to the religion.


There are several nonnegotiable tenets at the core of Mormon theology that provide an ideological foundation for promoting and securing family unity. The first holds that the father is charged with the duty of managing and expanding his kingdom here on earth, and ideally in the hereafter, by entering the institution of plural marriage (Musser, 1944).

A second tenet asserts that the father-son relationship is the core axis for the transmission of cultural and spiritual essence (Clark & Clark, 1991, p. 286). It is based on the belief of a Melchizedek priesthood whose lineage, extended back to Adam, is the only legitimate religious authority. It is also the primary legitimization of men's insistence that the only acceptable foundation of religious expression is a patriarchal social organization.

A third tenet holds that a man's celestial rank is determined primarily by his ability to live righteously and to adhere successfully to God's will, with the highest rank of virtue reserved for those who enter into a plural family. In contrast, women achieve salvation through obedience, first to their fathers, and then to their husbands by becoming a sister-wife (i.e., a cowife) within the plural family that is also a celestial family. Because the family unit extends beyond the grave into an eternal world, it is believed that everyone, especially cowives, must learn better interpersonal skills and increase cooperative behavior in order to achieve family harmony in this world and the next.

It the Montana Allred community it is believed that women have unique revelations not given to men (Bennion, 1998, pp. 51-53). In this community women believe in the idea of an exalted spiritual sisterhood. Moreover, they also believe in a “deity” called Mother Eve who was the mother of all living things and thus, because of her, women also formed a complementary relationship with all living things. This idea is not found in other polygynous fundamentalist communities.


In most fundamentalist communities recreational activities revolve primarily around religious events and activities. It is common for men and women to join the church choir, engage in long-distance telephone conversations, and attend an occasional community dance. Events that appeal primarily to women are attending prayer groups, quilting bees, and family gatherings. In the privacy of their home many people listen to the radio and CDs, and watch television (a favored activity in the Salt Lake and Centennial Park communities). The Centennial Park community is the most liberal of all the fundamentalist groups; they conduct monthly lecture series where outsiders are invited to speak on various topics. The community also produces theatrical plays with the actors selected from the local community. Men form softball leagues, participate in an occasional pick-up game of basketball, a round of golf, or the annual married versus unmarried Thanksgiving Day football game. The more liberal families will travel to nearby city and watch the latest film release or rent a video to watch together at home. In both the Colorado City and Centennial Park communities, a woman expects to be taken somewhere special on her birthday and wedding anniversary.


The community is organized around principles of hierarchy and submission. In many ways it mirrors a small corporate or military organization with its focus on obedience to appointed authorities. In this arena, males dominate all forms of public leadership. God holds men accountable for exercising familial leadership in keeping with biblical principles (Bartkowski, 2001, p. 55). The Prophet, or leader of the community, plays a “strong role in arranging marriages, sometimes without consulting prospective partners or families” (Bennion, 1998, p. 89).

As young infant males are treasured above females, but upon entering their teenage years most young men are held in less esteem, due in large part to their being regarded as potential competitors in a highly restricted pool. In every polygynous society, women are a limited good. In the 1960s local law enforcement officers in Colorado City routinely harass nonelite young men into leaving the community. Today this is no longer practiced and there is a growing pool of unmarried men who continue to live in the community.

Women do control their sexuality. Many women do not want to become pregnant and thus refuse to have sex with their husbands. Moreover, women know that if they leave their husband, they will become available for marriage to other men, who want to elevate their religious status through having numerous wives. The drive to gain greater celestial glory is an added incentive for men to accept women into their family. This is not true in every case; some men, especially if they have a good working family, will hesitate in bringing in a new wife as it may undermine the harmony of the home.


The Mormon concept of true love closely resembles that prevalent in 19th century Victorian England. In practice, however, sexual love in fundamentalist Mormon society is often highly eroticized, as it was in Victorian society. Sexual pleasure is an appropriate desire provided that it is the by-product of spousal affection and marital love. Most fundamentalists, while disapproving of premarital sex, firmly believe that sexual pleasure should be an enjoyable aspect of every marriage. This attitude is stronger among the younger generation than among their grandparents.

Ideally, women should never use birth control. Rather, they should use self-control or abstinence. In the Montana community it is forbidden to have “sexual activity during lactation, pregnancy or menstruation” (Bennion, 1998, p. 81). In Colorado City and Centennial Park some women continue to have sex long after they are pregnant or lactating. Many women and men engage in sexuality as a communicative and pleasure-seeking activity. However, there are examples of women who found that their husbands were no longer interested in sleeping with them after they had a hysterectomy.

Neither sex should engage in extramarital sex. If a man sleeps with his fiancée before the marriage ceremony it is considered an adulterous act. There are cases of wives leaving their husband upon discovering this act. Given the value placed on reproductive vitality, it is not surprising that, as a woman grows older, she loses some of her esthetic value. This does not necessarily mean that she loses her influence over her husband. In fact, in Centennial Park I never found a single family where the favorite wife was the youngest wife. A wife's aging does not appear to undermine either the love bond (provided that she has already developed one) or her position within the family. It only affects her desirability as a sex partner. There is a fear of sexual abuse in the community. Adults often suspect that children over the age of 7 years will play with the sex organs of the opposite sex. In Colorado City and Centennial Park this is referred to as “doing the nasties.” This behavior is considered to be unnatural and something that must be prevented. In these two communities it is common for teenagers to sneak out of the house and engage in midnight drinking parties and dancing. A few of the youths have been known to engage in heavy petting and sexual intercourse.

Homosexuality is regarded as a terrible sin against the laws of God. Given this judgment, no one would openly admit to having these inclinations. Bennion (1998) found lesbianism to be rare, but not unknown, among women in the Montana community. In the Colorado City-Centennial Park communities I found only one instance in which a man was thought to be a homosexual. In every fundamentalist community homosexual behavior between males is considered more threatening to the community than that between females.


Romantic passion is not a prerequisite for marriage. In Centennial Park, half of the marriages are not based on romantic love. In these marriages, individuals, particularly teenage women, followed the matrimonial recommendations of their parents and the priesthood council. Not being deeply emotionally involved with a spouse, the individual enters marriage expecting, as in many cultures, that in time “love will come.”

Mormon cosmology holds that, before birth, everyone lives with God as a spirit. In this preexistence state, men and women were promised to one another for time and eternity. Therefore individuals must strive to find their “true love.” Failure to strive in such a way can potentially lead to an awkward situation whereby one's earthly spouse will differ from one's heavenly spouse. To ensure that death will not result in the separation of the spouses, it is imperative that the couple follow God's will. To this end, the advice of priesthood's council members as God's representatives is eagerly sought in matters of the heart. One of the council's most important functions is to help community members find their celestial mates.

Nevertheless, dilemmas do arise. There are times when parents disapprove of a daughter's (though seldom a son's) choice or, more importantly, the priesthood council considers the relationship inappropriate. When this occurs, individuals must reconcile their romantic feelings with their deep-seated religious beliefs, which include the importance of the priesthood council in guiding the community and its members to salvation and eternal happiness. In the face of such resistance many couples break up and marry whomever the priesthood council recommends. Other couples, whose love is deeper, often prefer to resist the council's recommendation. There are numerous precedents of individuals asserting that their romantic experience is authentic and thus sanctioned by God. Because Mormon theology is derived, in part, from 19th century transcendentalism, it holds that God's will can be known through acts of private introspection and personal revelation. Accordingly, it honors individual conviction and this religious tenet gives romantically entangled couples solid ground on which to argue that the council might be mistaken in its judgment. Although an individual's testimony of being divinely inspired is never directly challenged, the common response is to wonder whether God or the Devil is the real source of the inspiration. Still, the notion of “agency,” or personal choice, serves as an effective counterpoint to the community's formal organization—its male-centered priesthood council.

Marriage negotiations take place between the priesthood council and the couple, with the woman serving as both the object, and the arbitrator, of the negotiations. If the bride-to-be cannot be persuaded to change her mind, the council will often, albeit reluctantly, support her marital choice. For, as one informant said, “Who can deny God and God's love” (i.e., choice). However, in those instances where either the parents or the council refused to sanction the marriage, the individuals will either recognize and submit to the council's authority or they will elope and marry outside the community. Once a suitable time has elapsed, they return as a duly legitimized couple.

Men maintain a stoic, if not cynical, posture toward romantic love. Many men dismissed the emotion altogether, stressing that it was, at bottom, an illusion and not the best basis for a marriage. However, more in-depth probing found that two thirds of the men interviewed had been romantically rejected as young men in high school (Jankowiak & Allen, 1995). The experience was so distressing that they became determined never to become emotionally involved again.

Younger men are more consistently concerned than older mature men with finding their true love. Without the financial backing of their families, young men are economically unable to compete with the more established mature males. The only resources they have, being unmarried, are those not immediately available to older married men: access and the opportunity to offer exclusive attention to a particular woman. Because most male-female relationships begin in high school, many young men are able to form substantial emotional bonds. Although lacking economic means of support, a young man can often convince a woman that she would be happier marrying him rather than a middle-aged man with several wives. If the young woman falls in love with the young man, she will probably marry him. If he is unsuccessful in attracting a high-school sweet heart, he will ultimately leave the community to find a wife.


The Colorado City-Centennial Park communities distinguish between two types of families: elite or “united polygyny” (i.e., live together in one house) and commoner or “divided polygyny” (i.e., living in separate homes). The cultural ideal is to live together in one large house, but the reality is that only the local elite families are able consistently to accomplish this.

Within the family, the religious principles are centered on the notion of harmonious or familial love. Harmonious love encourages respect, empathy, helpfulness, and lasting affection; therefore it often serves as the principal means to bind and unite the polygynous family. Its nondyadic focus stands in sharp contrast to romantic love, a tolerated but seldom glorified emotional experience.

There is a continuum in men's and women's involvement in plural marriage that ranges from shared equality to outright favoritism. Men, as the symbolic center of the family, must balance each wife's emotional and economic interests. Conscious of the impact of favoritism on the harmony of the family, men strive to modify some of its harmful impact. To this end most husbands are diligent in spending quality time (e.g., dinners and trips), if not equal time, with each cowife. In this regard, women intently study and assess their husband's actions and are quick to note acts that suggest favoritism. If a husband can avoid pursuing his interests and struggle or, in their words, “sacrifice” in order to uphold the religious principles, the household ambience will be relatively harmonious and content.

The most delicate and potentially dangerous situations arise when a new wife enters the family. This is the most unstable time in a fundamentalist household and often tests a woman's religious convictions and, in turn, her willingness to participate in a plural marriage. During this liminal state, the new wife usually receives the husband's undivided attention, and cowives do not complain about their husband spending a lot of time with the new wife. It is understood that the honeymoon intimacy will continue once the couple returns from their trip. However, if the intimacy continues beyond a few weeks, it will engender a round of questions and doubts and, ultimately, generate into intense jealousy among the cowives.

Mormon polygynous wives who are not the central focus of their husband's attention and love deeply resent the “favorite” wife. If the favoritism persists, a wife will assume that her husband has grown emotionally distant and is no longer interested in her. When this happens, a wife will respond in one of three ways: she will seek to rekindle her husband's waning interest; she will resign herself to the loss of affection and seek emotional fulfillment exclusively in her children; or she will divorce and seek fulfillment in another marriage. Clearly, it is imperative for all concerned that the husband and his wives avoid favoritism and work together to sustain a harmonious family ambience. However, it is the rare plural family where the harmonious family ideal is sustained more than a few days.

If polygynist women are emotionally vulnerable, particularly to psychological abandonment, so are the men. If a polygynist husband becomes too attached, he knows that he will disrupt family bonds and damage his reputation within the community for being unable to manage his family. However, if he becomes too detached, he will live a life devoid of emotional intimacy.

A man is dependent on his wife's (or wives') assistance in attracting another spouse for, even if the priesthood council recommends a marriage partner, the woman must still decide. Her decision is often based on three factors: the quality of family harmony (actual and potential) represented in the cooperation between cowives; the intensity of affection held for the husband; and the number of wives, especially young wives, in the family. It is cultural given that it is often in a young woman's short-term interest to marry a middle-aged man with mature wives.

Mature wives are not powerless. They are respected, valued, and loved not because of seniority, but rather for either the quality of marriage or their access to valuable resources (e.g., a deceased husband's retirement funds, social security benefits, or some other forms of inheritance or income). This wealth, while not considerable, is often sufficient to attract another wife. With this supplementary source of income, a man can buy a used car or build a home for his new wife. If a wife withholds her income, it can undermine her husband's ability to attract another wife. A polygynist husband depends on his cowife's (or cowives') assistance to sustain a friendly household environment and to provide economic aid in helping him build his heavenly kingdom.

Men and women embrace the polygynous principle and its call for plurality, while simultaneously seeking to hold onto, or rekindle, the romantic passion once felt toward a particular spouse. The tensions that erupt around this dilemma are the source of the drama found in daily life living in a fundamentalist community. The reality is that the majority of polygynous families seldom achieve genuine long-lasting harmony but remain, at best, a cauldron of competing interests that periodically rupture the fragile balance that unites a man, his wives, and children in their religiously inspired and unified cultural system.


The polygynous family is often a contentious zone of competing interests that contribute to the fostering of full sibling solidarity. Thus the typical sibling rivalry found in monogamous families is often muted in the polygynous family owing to the presence of intrafamilial strife.

This hierarchy of feeling and affection is ubiquitous in the American polygynous family. There is a gradation of emotional affiliation and intensity in affection and loyalty between full and half-siblings. However, this does not mean that half-siblings never form close bonds with other half-siblings. Nonetheless, there is an overwhelming preference for full siblings to form more intimate patterns of solidarity. Generally, it is the later born siblings (i.e., a mother's last two offsprings) who are more likely to establish a close friendship with the comother's children. Thus, half-siblings attend family functions out of friendship bonds previously established, whereas full siblings attend for a variety of reasons ranging from obligation to deep affection.

Outside the family, teenage girls and boys often seek out an adult male who lives in the community but is not directly related to them to serve as a mentor in advising them about life and its goals. This relationship is usually formed in the mid-teenage years with the mentor being significantly older (20 years or more). The mentor serves as a moral guide and buffer between the individual and his birth family. The emotional bonds formed during this time will extend through the individual's lifetimes.


There is greater recognition of the value of female choice in Centennial Park community, but not in Colorado City. Centennial Park women have greater opportunities to select a mate from within their own age cohort. In the Le Baron community in Mexico, many mature women are finding that they cannot support themselves and therefore have decided to leave the community and the fundamentalist religion to find employment and security in the United States. In other communities (e.g., Montana and Colorado City), the change in U.S. welfare laws that has restricted the period of time that people can remain on welfare will have a demonstrable impact on most fundamentalist families. Many middle-income and poor men are only able to support large plural families because of the government's subsistence policies. The ending of the federal entitlement will result in more women working outside the community. It will also mean that only the wealthiest members will be able to form a plural family. In a relatively short time, the percentage of men who live in polygynous families will revert to around 20%, similar to that found among the 19th century polygynous Mormons.

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  • William R. Jankowiak
    © 2003 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.

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