Plural marriage is not really a big issue for me, though I understand why it is for so many. I don't understand it entirely, or why God at times commissions the practice, but I do trust him and am confident that I will, at some point, understand those things that I do not yet fully comprehend.
The church does not now practice or in any way condone the current practice of polygamy. The church practiced polygamy during the mid- to late 1800's because they were directed by God to do so. Elder Oaks, apostle and prior state supreme court justice, said,"As to those people who are still practicing polygamy, I have immense sympathy for them. But I don’t see any common ground of doctrine between them and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because revelation is the bedrock of our faith, we follow the prophet, and sexual morality is very important to us. They don’t follow the prophet, and they engage in relationships that we deem today [to be immoral as] the Lord has defined the law, and as the law has defined criminal conduct."
Augustine said,"Again, Jacob the son of Isaac is charged with having committed a great crime because he had four wives. But here there is no ground for a criminal accusation: for a plurality of wives was no crime when it was the custom; and it is a crime now, because it is no longer the custom. There are sins against nature, and sins against custom, and sins against the laws. In which, then, of these senses did Jacob sin in having a plurality of wives? As regards nature, he used the women not for sensual gratification, but for the procreation of children. For custom, this was the common practice at that time in those countries. And for the laws, no prohibition existed. The only reason of its being a crime now to do this, is because custom and the [secular] laws forbid it."
The Lord said, "David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me." D&C 132:38
Many have attempted to present the early saints who practiced polygamy in every sort of unfavorable light, but they are unjustified in doing so (in light of the large amount of historical documentation available). It was actually extremely difficult for the members of the church to accept plural marriage at the time it was introduced . They were good Christians and Victorian in background and moral character. "When instructed to practice plural marriage by Joseph, Brigham [Young] recalled that it “was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave." But the faithful men and women of the church did embrace the practice, not because they blindly followed their leaders, but because each of them took their concerns to God and asked in faith whether it was truly He who required if of them. read their stories
The plural marriage practiced by the saints was done with respect and propriety. Women and men were equally committed to the practice. It was available only to those who were living uprightly and the men took seriously the responsibility of providing for their families. "Contrary to popular nineteenth-century notions about polygamy, the Mormon harem, dominated by lascivious males with hyperactive libidos, did not exist. The image of unlimited lust was largely the creation of travelers to Salt Lake City more interested in titillating audiences back home than in accurately portraying plural marriage. Newspaper representatives and public figures visited the city in droves seeking headlines for their eastern audiences. Mormon plural marriage, dedicated to propagating the species righteously and dispassionately, proved to be a rather drab lifestyle compared to the imaginative tales of polygamy, dripping with sensationalism, demanded by a scandal-hungry eastern media market." VanWagoner
Public sentiment was, unsurprisingly, against the practice of plural marriage. Politics happened and laws were passed prohibiting polygamy. God leads men by persuasion, not control, and respects man's right to govern himself. Though the church contested the new laws on the grounds that they interfered with their free practice of religion, eventually these laws were upheld and the church was forced to abandon one or the other of these two important beliefs: They would either have to give up the practice of polygamy, or give up their policy of, "obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law," as the law, now more clearly defined, outlawed polygamy. President Wilford Woodruff, in consulting with the Lord regarding these troubles was shown in vision the great tragedy that would befall the saints if they persisted in the practice. The saints had suffered much but were willing to continue doing whatever God asked them to do. In these extreme circumstances, the Lord permitted the discontinuation of the practice of plural marriage. Had God's purposes for plural marriage not been accomplished, he would have provided a way for it's continuation. God is not controlled by man, but he does wait on us to come to him. Just as plural marriage was revealed in response to a Prophet's questions regarding polygamy in the Old Testament, it was ended by revelation when a Prophet counseled with the Lord regarding what the saints should do.
An excerpt from the Manifesto issued by the church reads: Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.
Though the church officially abandoned the practice, enforcement of the new laws was cruel and often illegal. Though new plural marriages were not authorized by the church, plural families which already existed (before the new laws clearly forbade polygamy) were literally torn apart. Men were imprisoned for attempting to provide for their existing wives and children or were forced to abandon them. Many had to live in hiding. Women were left with no means of support and were at times unnecessarily imprisoned, often with their infant children, for refusing to testify against their husbands.
I have read some journals and memoirs from this period in the church's history. Polygamy is in the background, but is only occasionally the focus of the stories. For the most part, they are like the stories of any other woman from that period. What makes them special is their extraordinary strength, integrity, and courage. I feel so much respect and admiration for them.
Excerpts from the memoirs of Florence Snow Woolley:
"Many very funny as well as tragic events grew out of the "Polygamy Raid" the nature of the event depending largely upon the temperament of the men and women who experienced them... I recall that at one time when my husband had had a particularly narrow escape from arrest, he was standing on the street corner talking with a group of friends when he picked up his little daughter Bessie and placing her on the palm of his hand asked: "Look at that, fellows, isn't that worth going to the 'pen' for?" What could the Law do against a spirit of that kind? Men all over the state proved that they were wiling to go to the pen and pay fins for their little ones. [My husband] was caught once...but as the deputies who had been commissioned to arrest me had failed to do so, Mr. Dee Woolley was set free without so much as a trial. When he was at liberty he invited his captors to dine with him at the restaurant, which they all did and had a most friendly afternoon."
"My husband was the first man I ever allowed to kiss me goodnight before we were married. Spooning or necking simply was not done in my day. Modesty was considered one of the feminine virtues or charms, and every girl cultivated it religiously."
"I have always said that I had the best father and the best husband, whether in polygamy or monogamy. They were kind and honorable men and earnestly tried to be just and true to all. A long life together proved that it was a right and happy choice. He was a very just man in his family relations and always treated me with the love and consideration that was due any wife...sincerity and truthfulness were the keystone of his character. My mother often said she had never known a juster man than was Dee. It was a surprise to everyone, even the polygamists them selves of the community that I should have consented to be a plural wife, when I could have had my choice of practically all the eligible young men of the town. I do not know just why or how I made up my mind to accept that position, for I could not have been in love with Dee when he asked me to marry him, even the second time (she refused him the first time and he asked again three years later), as there had been no ardent courting or even special attention paid to me. It was just fate---I suppose, that I should marry the handsome Dee Woolley. Although he already had a wife and five children and no particular worldly prospects except his strong hands and brave heart. It took more courage on the mans part to enter that relationship than on the part of the woman, but many of them did enter it. I have never regretted the step I took that 12th day of may 1877."