The practice of plural marriage, past and present, received an airing Friday at the annual Sunstone Symposium, as speakers traced an arc from the marriage climate at the turn of the 19th century to government's two-pronged effort today to offer help and stop abuse in polygamist communities.
Plural marriage thrived from 1850 to 1890, with more people engaged in the practice than acknowledged by some estimates, said Lowell "Ben" Bennion, a professor emeritus at Humboldt State University. Bennion has partnered with Kathryn Daynes, a Brigham Young University history professor, on an ambitious, multifaceted study of early Mormon polygamy.
Their research is delving into such topics as architectural styles of polygamist homes, fertility rates and the marriage climate in that 40-year span.
Bennion said that in 1870 about 20 percent of men and 40 percent of women in Manti and Brigham City lived in plural households. The numbers in the Salt Lake area were even higher, he said.
As late as 1910, about 10 percent of the members of the Forest Dale ward in Salt Lake City were part of a plural family, he said.
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism estimates that at most 20 percent to 25 percent of LDS adults were members of polygamous households and, at the height of polygamy, one-third of women of marriageable age entered a plural relationship.
Bennion said private letters show many men relied on their wives to "spark" additional matches for them.
There was such a push for plural marriages in the Mormon Reformation, which took place from 1856-57, that one observer at the time noted most 14-year-old girls were already married or contemplating proposals, Bennion said.
In that era, Bennion said, girls were considered mature at 12 and it was commonplace for girls to marry at age 14. Boys were judged to reach maturity about two years later.
"We call them children now, but I think it is important to realize that people were expected to marry younger then," Bennion said.
While there were some acrimonious verbal spats over eligible women, few suitors resorted to violence or overt pressure to win a wife, he said. Yet, there was no such thing as today's "lost boys" phenomenon.
Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said today's public sentiment on polygamy runs from "lock them all up" to "leave them all alone."
Government officials have chosen the middle ground: pursuing perpetrators of child abuse, domestic violence and fraud while letting consenting adults make their own relationship decisions.
That approach has led to a historic open exchange between government and many of the state's fundamentalist groups, Murphy said, who have begun working together in recent years.
"It's about all of us coming together and trying to come up with solutions," he said.
State officials believe there are abuse victims in the state's polygamist communities who are unwilling to come forward because of fear of testifying against family members. That's the case with the lost boys, Murphy said.
None of the young men expelled from the polygamist community of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - in part because the boys, said to number in the hundreds, may be competition for wives - is willing to press charges against their parents.
Many of the boys, Murphy said, still want to go home.
Anne Wilde, who moderated the panel and is a founder of Principle Voices of Polygamy, said many of the state's fundamentalists fear the public and government officials lump all the groups together, saying the reality is there is great diversity in practice and policy among them.