When I was serving my mission in Italy, one of the first questions men would ask us was “If I join your Church, can I have more than one wife?” After staring for several seconds at the inquirer, we would shake our heads and tell him that there has been no polygamy in in the Church since the late 1880s, when it was declared illegal by the United States Congress.
Polygamy had never been a widespread practice among the members of the Church from the time it had been instituted in 1843; there were only about 3% of the male members who practiced polygamy and those who did had to be formally approved. Among the main requirements were that the men were financially able to support an extended family and that they were also spiritually worthy. The main reason for the institution of polygamy was that so many of the LDS men were being killed by angry mobs that many women, including the widows of the men that had been killed, were in need of support, both financially and spiritually. It should be remembered that in those days, it was virtually impossible for women, especially women with children, to find a job, especially when members of the Church were being chased from their homes time after time. Despite what is commonly believed, most women were fine with plural marriage, or polygamy; if they were unhappy in their situation, they had the right to bow out with a divorce.
When the early pioneers finally reached Utah, they thought that they had finally found a place where they could live according to the dictates of the Church and their own conscience. It should be noted that there was no legal provision regarding polygamy in the US Constitution, but each State was allowed to define their rules on the subject, just as with marriage laws in general today. However, Congress declared at that time that polygamy was unconstitutional and that if Utah wanted to enter into the Union, they would have to cease to practice polygamy. In the end, this resulted in many families being torn apart, with many wives and children being left without husbands and fathers, inasmuch as the order was, unfortunately, retroactive. The practice of Polygamy officially ended in the Church on September 24, 1890 through a Manifesto signed by President Wilford Woodruff.
Today, the practice of polygamy is not accepted or promoted in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are a few fundamentalist groups which practice polygamy; they are not a part of the the Church, and when a member of the Church does contract a polygamous marriage, he is ex-communicated.
This is an Interestingly Fun Fact: despite the title of the supposed biography by Irving Wallace, The Twenty-seventh Wife, Brigham Young did not truthfully have that many wives. The below photo, entitled “The Empty Pillow” was published at Brigham Young’s death.