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The LDS Church's Attitude on Polygamy and Domestic Abuse

Updated on February 15, 2017
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy has researched and written about relationships, domestic issues, dating, and con-artists for more than a decade.

The LDS Church currently believes family life should be safe and free from abuse

Mormon beliefs embrace the sacredness of family life.
Mormon beliefs embrace the sacredness of family life. | Source

The LDS Church, polygamy, and domestic abuse

The LDS Church has very serious teachings against domestic abuse, and its leaders are charged with addressing any form of domestic violence that is brought to their attention. As you'll see later in this article, the early years of polygamy (or plural marriage) is one are that might be questioned as an abusive practice.

The LDS policies on the issue of domestic abuse are both general and specific.

The general teachings are to treat others (especially family members) with love and respect, to be 'honest to your fellow man,' and to cherish your family and value it for all eternity.

The specific teaching is that men should not exercise 'unrighteous dominion' over their wives.

Members who wish to attend an LDS temple (temples are considered the most sacred of places in the church) are interviewed at least once every two years, where they attest to their worthiness to enter the temple.

At this interview (called a 'temple recommend interview), or other personal meetings with the the leader (or bishop) of the congregation, questions can be asked about whether an individual is following the teachings of the church about respect for spouses and family members.

If the church leader senses a problem, it can be addressed in several ways. First and foremost, church assistance will be offered if counseling or other services are needed. In serious cases, a member can also lose his or her standing in the church.

Effects of domestic abuse on self-esteem and family life

How the LDS Church helps victims of domestic abuse

Domestic abuse, in particular, violence toward women, can have serious and far-reaching consequences. It can cause injury, or even death, and it can damage the integrity of the family unit and create serious issues for the children in the household.

The LDS Church has extensive services to help its members in a number of areas, including abuse situations.

The structure of the LDS Church is such that every household is served individually, and the goal is that members should be given help and support when they are in need. Each household (even if the household consists of one person) has 'home teachers' who should make contact and, if possible, visit each month to bring a brief message and to see if the household needs help. Home teachers can be two men, or a married couple.

Women also regularly visit with other women in the congregation. Pairs of women (companions) visit with two or three other women each month to form friendships, share church information and messages and to see if the woman is in need.

Sometimes, during these visits, the home teachers or women companions (called 'visiting teachers) may sense a domestic problem. In those cases, the problem can be discretely referred to one of the congregation's leaders.

Church leaders are taught to deal with these problems with compassion and support. If safety is a concern, they can refer members to local resources that offer protection in such cases. Leaders can also refer people to counseling, either offered through the church (LDS Family Services) or other resources.

LDS Family Services has trained and qualified counselors who are also familiar with church teachings, and members who need this support can arrange to use these services.

In addition, the leader of a congregation will counsel with members individually during difficult times, both to offer spiritual support and to assess the needs of the member and his or her family.

"Brother Jake" takes a humorous look at polygamy

Was Mormon polygamy abusive?

Most people know the LDS Church practiced polygamy for several decades in the 1800s. Although for years, the church claimed this started as a way to protect women on the trek west (which ultimately ended with the founding of Salt Lake City), in recent years, the church has released the true details of the history of polygamy in its early years.

Through a series of official LDS essays, the church revealed that rather than having only one wife, Joseph Smith actually had more than 30 wives. Unlike what church literature claimed to persons who investigated membership, Smith did not at first inform his first wife, Emma, that he was engaged in polygamy, also known as plural marriage, with several women, including at least one girl of only 14.

Some, including longtime members or recent converts, were surprised at this information and feel it perhaps constitutes domestic abuse. Of further concern is the now-known fact that Joseph Smith married women who were already married to other men, which is known as "polyandry" (a situation in which a woman has more than one husbands). There is evidence that these women were told to keep the liaison a secret from their first husband.

Joseph Smith's polyandry has been widely discussed since the information was officially released by the church in recent years, and it is still troubling to many members who were not informed of it when they joined, or in their early years as children born into the church. Mormon Stories Podcasts has done interviews with historians and other experts on polyandry and other subjects.

Scholars and commentators have examined the issue of how this impacted marriage in a Year of Polygamy series of podcasts. Although the official and current church stance on plural marriage is that it is prohibited, the recent release of information that Joseph Smith did not inform his wife of these marriages troubles many people.

Each individual should decide if this piece of LDS (Mormon) history is bothersome and decide for herself or himself if it should be considered domestic abuse, or if the church appears to have deceived potential or current members.

Joseph Smith and polygamy - a reenactment

A mother teaches her children not to hit and to avoid unrighteous dominion

What does unrighteous dominion mean?

The LDS Church teaching not to exercise 'unrighteous dominion' can extend to any action of force used against another person.

This video shows a mother teaching her children how to teach each other to respect each other, and she uses a lesson on unrighteous dominion to explain that her children should not hit each other or force them to do something they do not want to do.

A major teaching of the church, one of the basics of Mormon beliefs, is that all people have free agency, which means they have the personal freedom to choose right from wrong. Since Joseph Smith told more than 30 women that God commanded him to marry them, some people question whether that constituted what we would call abuse today, or if it reflects unrighteous dominion.

This means forcing a spouse (or, in the case of this video, your sibling) to do something against their will is exercising unrighteous dominion. Some have questioned whether Joseph Smith committed unrighteous dominion by telling young teenaged girls and older women who were already married that "God commanded" him to marry them.

In the case of domestic abuse, unrighteous dominion could include such traumatic things as violence toward the partner, forcing intimacy on a spouse, verbally abusing them, exerting pressure or force to perform an act against their will, controlling their life in some way or other forms of 'dominion' over the spouse that is not righteous or healthy. Abuse can even take the form of extensive or egregious dishonesty with or lying to a partner or family member.

The church teaches that men should protect their wives and children from the harms of the world, and this responsibility applies to their own actions as well. As with men, women are expected to treat family members with respect, too.

This article is intended to offer general information about how the LDS Church (the Mormon Church) views polygamy and domestic abuse and the types of resources its members can turn to for help. It is not intended to offer counseling or guidance on these issues.

© 2012 Marcy Goodfleisch

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  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 21 months ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, C McNairy Wight - I know there are leaders who truly don't 'get it' - sadly, this is the case in many settings, whether in the church or not. I hope you can become self-reliant even in a starter job somewhere. You are the best judge of what is healthy for you and what isn't. Hang in there!

  • C McNairy Wight 1 profile image

    Carol McNairy Wight 21 months ago from Provo, Utah

    I moved out for a while, but had to come back for lack of money. My Bishop just did not get it-that emotional abuse is real abuse. He told me that sooner or later I was going to have to compromise with my husband and get on good terms with him. I told him Heavenly Father did not want me to be abused.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 21 months ago from Planet Earth

    So sorry you're going through that, Scared & Alone - I'd suggest contacting your state's disability services and getting on the list for subsidized housing. Family Services might know the options in your area. Best of luck!

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    Scared n Alone 21 months ago

    Hi Marcy, I don't know what to do. My family has been homeless for almost two years now due to extenuating circumstances following multiple deaths in my family. My husband is very verbally abusive and mentally abusive he controls everything that I do, who I can be with, who I can't talk to, when I can see my family, when I can't & what I can wear. It has gotten to a point to where I left and went to stay in a shelter. Unfortunately it's not a domestic violence shelter and I can understand after being there why some battered women go back to their spouses. They treat you like here subhuman, in the homeless shelter you have a 930 bedtime and you have to be up by 5:45 and in a case like me I had a disabilities, but I still have to be out of the shelter by 6:45 in the morning and I can not return until 4 p.m. I don't know what to do. I have not talked to the bishop about this yet because I I'm ashamed the I haven't been able to handle this myself and now I just don't know what to do. I can't handle it anymore. I know that I need help to get back to the person I once was. I would love it if my husband got help because, I love him more than anything but, I don't know that that will happen. In the meantime I have no income, I have no way of supporting myself, I'm fighting with disability, I can't have a job because I have so many work restrictions and because of the medication that I'm on. I'm torn I don't know what to do.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, C McNairy Wight - I am sorry you've had that type of response. The only things I can suggest would be to go to LDS Family Services for personal help, to consider talking to the Stake leadership, and to report anything that might be a legal violation to your local authorities. I do know what you mean about manipulators - so it might take a lot of effort to get the truth brought forward. I also know that the church does not want people to be in abused situations. Because of the serious nature of those types of complaints, leaders try hard to determine facts. This is not always easy to do.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  • C McNairy Wight 1 profile image

    Carol McNairy Wight 2 years ago from Provo, Utah

    I have recently had to face the reality that in the case of emotional abuse it is your word against his. So often the abuser seems totally innocent and can manipulate things so that it looks like the abuser is the wife. My Bishop does not believe me when I try to explain this to him.

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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Abused - I am sorry for what you're going through. I'd suggest going to Victim Services and other social agencies, and also look into LDS Family Services. If you feel your bishop is doing something that should be reviewed at a higher level, go to your stake leadership. Best of luck.

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    Abused 2 years ago

    My husband was found guilty of child abuse. He is also abusive to me. My Bishop won't help. They think hubby is wonderful. I need help. What can I do. I have no money. I don't want my children to be homeless.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    C McNairy Wright and Peabody - thank you to both of you for sharing those concerns and experiences. You are right, and I agree with you that even with the standards the church has, there are situations that fall through the cracks or get suppressed.

    In case you know of situations that aren't being addressed, here is some information that might help. Some of this you may know (but other readers may not), and some is information I recently learned:

    LDS Family Services will have regional or area coordinators who are responsible for alerting the leaders in Salt Lake City about issues that need to be addressed but are not being handled as they should. There are instances when a General Authority is sent to meet with the bishop and stake president, if needed. Members who are in crisis can also contact SLC directly, but it might take more time than going through the counseling channel, since there's already a process in place to expedite and address such issues.

    Local leaders do not always have backgrounds in counseling (unless that's their career history) or in crisis management, so there are times, sadly, when a leader might not be aware that intervention is needed. If a a woman feels there is abuse from a bishop or stake president, I'd suggest speaking with BOTH counselors in those cases. Presidencies or bishoprics have three people to provide checks and balances in such cases. Speak with them individually, and ask that they look into the situation. And, of course, contact LDS Family Services and talk to your RS President. If needed, turn to local support systems that serve battered or abused women.

    While it may be true that there are individuals in the church (even, at times, in leadership positions) who violate the church standards regarding such things, it's important to know that the stance of the church as a whole is very firm on the rights of every person (regardless of gender or age) to be protected from such treatment.

    I hope this helps - please know you're in my thoughts.

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    peabody 2 years ago

    what do you do if your spouse is the bishop? I can't understand how they would deal with this. What if there are not big bruises? What if she is feeling like she is losing her mind? what if she can't live like she is but cannot find anywhere to go or any idea how to go on?

  • C McNairy Wight 1 profile image

    Carol McNairy Wight 2 years ago from Provo, Utah

    I would like to say that, while the Church has very good intentions, the leaders are often unaware of how to deal with domestic abuse. I do not recall ever being asked at a recommend interview if I was dealing with my husband righteously. Also, I have friends who have not been treated as ideally as you suggest when it comes to domestic abuse. I am not saying you are wrong. I'm just saying that there needs to be more training for our leaders.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Carol - thank you for your very kind words! Yes, the LDS Church is really great, and I feel blessed to have found it. I'm glad you like the hub!

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    carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

    I have several friends who belong to LDS church and find that they are very compassionate and helpful people. I think it must be very comforting to belong to a loving and caring church. Great hub. Voted UP.

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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Mom Kat - thanks for checking back here, and for letting me know your (very good) questions were answered. Domestic violence is such a serious and sad issue - I hope people who face those problems reach out for help.

  • Mom Kat profile image

    Mom Kat 4 years ago from USA

    Sorry it took so long for me to get back to this... thank you very much for clearing that up :) You did a great job explaining it.

    As always, I think you're a wonderful writer who can really get the message across in a great way. Keep up the excellent job!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Good questions, Mom Kat - hope I can answer them a bit! Church leaders have the same confidentiality and ethics guidelines of other clergy (and they are considered clergy members while they hold callings as the leader of a congregation). As I mentioned in the hub about basic beliefs, counseling is available for people who have various issues.

    Also, the leader of the women's group in each congregation is supposed to maintain a list of community resources for such instances. Members who are in danger can be referred to shelters, counseling, law enforcement, etc. And yes, there have been instances where family members who were in danger have been provided a place to stay and help in leaving a situation.

    Church leaders try to support members through tough decisions (such as divorce). While there might be an effort to explore ways to counsel a couple and help restore the relationship, church leaders are not supposed to tell a woman to stay in a bad situation.

    As you point out, some people refuse to get help. If that happens, each situation is handled individually, since the circumstances can differ and the laws related what can and should be reported to authorities (by clergy) can differ. This would be similar in most other congregations where there may be victims of abuse.

    Congregation leaders and members try to offer support and love throughout whatever hardships families might endure. Children are considered precious and vulnerable, and leaders try to recognize situations that might need to be addressed.

  • Mom Kat profile image

    Mom Kat 4 years ago from USA

    What happens in cases of domestic violence other than the person losing standing in the church? Say a man is beating his wife; does the church tell the woman divorce is wrong and she needs to stay with him? Do they provide her and possible children with a safe place to stay?

    In the event that the person does not agree to get help and denies that there is a problem, what happens to the victims of the violence?

    Great hub, just looking for more clarification on the matter :)

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, fpherj - it's so heartening to see the way the LDS Church helps and supports its members. We have a special offering on the first Sunday of each month, which is also known as Fast Sunday. Church members are asked to fast for two meals, and to donate what they would have spent for the meals to a special fund to help others.

  • fpherj48 profile image

    Paula 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

    There is a huge Mormon Church about 15 miles from my home. It's actually on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, since the Native Americans have a high population of Mormons. But of course, Non-natives also attend this church. I got to know several Mormons on a personal basis a few years ago. One trait that was extremely apparent about all of them is that they are close knit and take care of one another whenever necessary.

    One woman in particular was having serious financial difficulties and her church paid her rent in full for 7 months in a row. No problem, no questions and no debt for her to repay. I can honestly say I've not ever known of another church to do this....UP+++

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Suzette - I'm so glad to hear you've met some good friends in the LDS Church, and yes, I am not surprised that family is a major focus for them! I appreciate your comments here; thank you for reading and sharing your feedback!

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    Suzette Walker suzettetaos 4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Very interesting and informative article, Marcy. I have some friends in Utah that are Morman and I know that they are very family centered. Thanks for lending some light on the Church of Latter Day Saints and your beliefs. I think they are spot on!

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