Polygamy is marriage to more than one spouse at a time. The person married to several spouses could have more than one wife, more than one husband, or both. The topic of polygamy is taboo, and unfortunately, many people are uneducated about the subject.
Most of the news in the United States pertaining to polygamy focuses on the prevalence of its practice in certain sects of the Mormon Church, such as The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as FLDS). There was an uprising of anti-polygamy sentiments when Elissa Wall—a woman who escaped from a polygamist compound in Utah—came forward about her marriage to her first cousin in a tell-all book titled Stolen Innocence. Wall's efforts to liberate women trapped in FLDS compounds and bring justice to the men in the colonies—who committed rape and statutory rape—put a major ring leader in the FLDS church, Warren Jeffs, behind bars. Though the coverage of polygamy in the United States is predominantly negative and demeaning, there are several cultures throughout the world that practice polygamy, in its different forms, as a normal way of life.
There are two different types of polygamy: polygyny and polyandry.
Polygyny is the most common form of polygamy. It occurs when one man is married to several women, or carries on sexual relationships with several women, simultaneously. Usually, if there is not a legal contract with these women, or a legal contract cannot be produced, there is a ceremony that binds the man and women together that others will acknowledge as legal and sanctioned. Polygyny was more commonly connected to the Mormon Church in the 19th century, and it continues to be associated with the FLDS church today.
Polyandry is the less familiar form of polygamy. It occurs when one woman is married to, or is involved in sexual relationships with, several men at the same time. This form of polygamy occurs more often in cultures where the scarcity of resources forces several men to join together to buy one bride. Polyandry may serve as a method of population control, and female prostitution can also be associated with it.
Polygamy and the Mormon Church
Though polygamy is condemned by heads of the modern Mormon Church, there was a time when it was widely practiced and accepted. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), proclaimed he had a revelation from God stating that men of the church were to practice "plural marriage" (polygyny). Mormon leaders, including Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, all took plural wives to follow God’s instructions. Before the doctrine of plural marriage was added to the Book of Mormon, however, a separate doctrine was released condemning polygamy. This did not completely inhibit its practice, though.
Polygamy and the Law
The United States Constitution did not mention polygamy when it was originally created. However, when it became a "problem" in the 19th century, Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862. The act stated that the practice of polygamy in any United States territory was illegal. At the time of this piece of legislation's passing, followers of the LDS Church felt that their right to practice polygyny was protected by the Constitution. In the verdict of Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court judged that polygamy was not protected by the Constitution.