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Myths About Mormon Beliefs And Practices

Since many of the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about marriage and family are unique, misunderstanding and confusion about Mormon beliefs and practices may arise. Some of the myths about the church include those of polygamy and subjugation of women.

Polygamy. One of the church's "most controversial and least understood" (Bachman and Esplin 1992, p. 1091) practices was the polygamous marriage of a man to more than one wife, which was practiced in the church as early as the 1840s. Mormons, like the ancient patriarchs of biblical times, practiced plural marriage in obedience to God. Church leaders strictly regulated plural marriage within its membership. It was not a license for illicit sexual relationships; only 20 to 25 percent of LDS adults practiced polygamy. "At its height, plural marriage probably involved only a third of the women reaching marriageable age" (Bachman and Esplin 1992, p. 1095).

Latter-day Saints believed that the practice of plural marriage was protected under the United States Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion. However, the United States Supreme Court in 1890 upheld the antipolygamy policies of the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887. Civil rights were denied to people living in polygamous unions; fines and imprisonment were imposed; Mormons were barred from public office and voting. The Edmunds-Tucker Act disincorporated the church and authorized confiscation of church properties. Seizure of Latter-day Saint temples was threatened. The church faced political and economic destruction (Davis 1992).

President Wilford Woodruff in the Manifesto of 1890 (Official Declaration 1) formally discontinued the church practice of polygamy. Members accepted discontinuance of the practice of plural marriage as the will of God. Since the early 1900s, those within the church who enter into polygamous marriages have been subject to excommunication.

Subjugation of women. One of the unique beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that neither gender can obtain the highest ordinances and spiritual blessings without the other. Husband and wife receive these highest temple ordinances "together and equally, or not at all" (Nelson 1999, p.38). Neither man nor woman can attain their full divine potential without the other. Linking the woman with the man in marriage is perceived by some as relegation of women to the private rather than the public sphere and is interpreted as patriarchal subjugation of women (Corn-wall 1994).

From the earliest days of the church, both women and men have participated in all church matters presented to the membership for vote (Smith and Thomas 1992). Although Utah women were enfranchised in 1870, the antipolygamy Edmonds-Tucker Act of 1887 disenfranchised all Utah women. It was believed that Utah women were oppressed by patriarchy and would vote as instructed by their husbands. Mormon women joined with eastern suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, to oppose the section of the antipolygamy legislation that repealed Utah women's suffrage. In 1896, Utah became the third state to join the Union with equal voting rights for women (Madsen 1992).

Marie Cornwall (1994) purports that there was more institutional responsibility and autonomy for women in early Mormonism. She suggests that the church's "hierarchical structure and emphasis on distinct gender roles restricts women's contribution, assigns them to a particular sphere, and adds to their silence and invisibility" (p. 262). Lawrence R. Iannaccone and Carrie A. Miles (1990) examined how the church responded to U.S. women's change in gender roles and conclude that "the Church has managed to accommodate change without appearing to abandon its ideals . . . [and to] exercise flexibility in practice while maintaining purity of doctrine" (p. 1245).

Although the stereotypic image of the Mormon woman is that of the "unquestioning and dutiful housewife," the reality is more complex. Not all LDS women fit the stereotype. Rather, they vary in political beliefs, party affiliations, and attitudes toward authority (Presley, Weaver, and Weaver 1986). LDS women differentially find ways to negotiate their identity and place in religious congregations and society. "To view the religious participation of LDS women in a static manner would fail to capture the rich diversity of the different ways in which they exercise agency at multiple levels, and in diverse ways over the course of their lives" (Beaman 2001, p. 84).

Although employment participation rates for LDS women have been found to be similar to the national average, research by Bruce A. Chadwick and H. Dean Garrett (1995) supports "the hypothesis that religiosity, as measured by beliefs and private worship, is moderately related to lower employment among LDS women" (p. 288). Employment by LDS women is also related to lower participation in religious activities. This should not be interpreted however to "mean that all religious women are housewives or that all employed women have lost their faith and left the church. . . . [Some women are able to] maintain their religiosity in spite of the time demands of full-time employment" (p. 291).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsMormonism - Mormon Beliefs And Practices, Myths About Mormon Beliefs And Practices, Strengthening Lds Families, Promoting Family Well-being Worldwide