Polygamy Facts

Some of the assertions made in the U.S. News Blog column by Jay Tolson, to which I responded more generally here, deserve a response of their own.

In listing some of the public issues revolving around the LDS Church, Tolson makes the following claim:

Although officially banned in 1896 in order for Utah to qualify for statehood, polygamy has been on the rise during the past 50 years, with the result that roughly 2 percent in Utah now live in such families.

Tolson does not give a reference for this assertion, but it is not consistent with the best data available on the issue.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office reports that while there are no exact figures available on the demographic characteristics of polygamists, the best estimate they have- drawn from a survey conducted by polygamist groups themselves, approximates the total number of all people living in polygamous families in the United States at 37,000. Brooke Adams, who covers polygamy for the Salt Lake Tribune, tells me she believes that number actually includes all known polygamists in Canada and Mexico as well. It is a well-documented fact that polygamists live throughout the Western United States, including groups in Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota, Arizona, Texas and Montana, as well as those in Canada and Mexico.

If one accepts this figure, Mr. Tolson’s claim that 2 percent of Utahns are polygamists is far off the mark, even if a plurality or majority of the 37,000 known Northern American polygamists live in Utah. Given that Utah’s population is just above 2.5 million, 2 percent of Utahns would be 50,000 people. For the 2 percent figure to be true, every single known polygamist in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, plus another 13,000, would have to live in Utah. This is certainly not the case. Ms. Adams believes that fundamentalist groups in Utah number at or just above 25,000, a number that includes many people who believe in, but do not practice polygamy. In short, none of the best data available support the claim that 50,000 polygamists live in Utah. Rather, it appears that polygamists make up roughly 1 percent of Utah’s population or slightly less than that.

Further, I have not been able to track down any information supporting Tolson’s assertion that the practice of polygamy has grown rapidly in the last fifty years. (Although Ms. Adams tells me that these groups have clearly experienced some growth since 1930, without stating an opinion on how rapid the growth has been).

There is room for disagreement here, because tracking polygamists is a decidedly dicey endeavor. As one source in the Utah Attorney General’s office mentioned to me, “there’s no question in the census asking ‘are you a polygamist?'” Given that difficulty, reporting on such figures deserves a cautious approach. But Mr. Tolson’s unsupported figure of 2 percent appears to have left caution behind. His total may indeed be based on some reliable source, but in the absence of any citation, his disagreement with the Utah Attorney General’s best estimate, and that of other experts on polygamy cited by Ms. Adams suggests that Tolson’s allegation should be taken with a grain of salt.

Finally, it is always worth noting when discussing this topic that the the LDS Church does not tolerate those living in polygamy in its ranks. The Church excommunicates anyone found in this practice, and is completely serious in condemning it in modern times. There is simply no place for polygamous households in the LDS Church, and the Church is not winking, using doublespeak or coded messages when it decries the practice in modern times. It simply is not tolerated.

To give a bit of perspective of anecdotal facts on the ground, I have lived in Utah most of my life, and have never knowingly met a polygamist. The occasional drive down I-15 through rural areas might allow a glimpse of a couple of long-haired women in old-fashioned dresses, giving rise to speculation about their household status. But I believe I speak for the vast majority of Mormons when I say that we would look upon such a sight with just as much outsider’s interest/repugnance/fascination as any other American would. And if a mainstream Mormon were to hear of some person suddenly deciding to enter a polygamous lifestyle (I never have heard of such a thing, but I raise the hypothetical just because it is imagined by some outsiders), the news would unquestionably be met with stigma, disbelief and disapproval, without any sympathy for the choice at all. This is not viewed as a heroic-but-illegal path. In mainstream Utah and Mormonism in general, I believe that the practice of polygamy in modern times is just as badly understood and thoroughly abhorred as it is throughout the rest of the country.