The following questions and answers are from interviews and correspondence between the Los Angeles Times and the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that took place as the newspaper prepared a two-part series on polygamy that was published in May 2006. The focus of the newspaper’s articles was not the Church or Latter-day Saints, but the polygamous community of Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona border.
For more information about distinguishing between polygamous groups and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, click here.
Question: Shouldn’t the Church do more to help victims of polygamy? If it helps victims of Hurricane Katrina and an Asian tsunami, why not people in its own backyard?
Before addressing the specifics, let’s discuss a broader context for these responses.
The Church now has well over 12 million members and operates in more than 160 countries. Church leaders — specifically the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve, together with the Presiding Bishopric — deal with an enormous complexity of issues as they administer the Church around the world. Those issues involve everything from managing tens of thousands of missionaries to a massive building-construction program (nearly one a day) to handling relationships with governments and making sure members’ needs are met.
We mention this because people who have particular causes or agendas don’t always understand it. Nearly 40 years ago, then-president of the Church Spencer W. Kimball told a gathering of Church leaders that they should encourage members to get involved in community affairs. He said it was impossible for the institutional Church to become involved in the various and complex community issues without being diverted from its primary mission to preach the gospel to the world. In the past 40 years, the world has become more complex, not less, and the needs have become more acute.
Does this mean we do nothing to help victims of polygamy? No. We are always interested in the individual. It simply provides additional context for understanding why the causes some people embrace don’t always get the attention they wish.
Specifically in relation to helping others, the Lord places a heavy obligation on the Church and its people to look after the fatherless and comfort the widow in their affliction, and also to sustain the poor and needy. That charge has been repeated throughout scripture and is one that is taken very seriously. Church response to these human needs — both local and international — manifests itself through hundreds of humanitarian aid projects each year involving distribution of aid worth many millions of dollars.
In addition, bishops — leaders of congregations — are empowered to render aid according to their own judgment and discernment to individuals within their area. The bulk of their time is spent in rendering service to members of their flock, although they do have the latitude to extend service to others. This is usually done through the administering of fast offering funds and through additional resources such as the Church’s thrift stores. We are aware that individual bishops in the Salt Lake area have often used these kinds of resources to assist women and children who have formerly been involved in polygamous situations and who need temporary help. That judgment is an individual one in each case. The bishop has a great deal of autonomy in such matters. Under no circumstances would the Church breach its privacy rule to disclose the names or details of those helped. Neither is there any way to quantify this from Church reports.
It’s also very important to understand the complexity of this problem. Some of the women and older children have no birth certificates. They have no social security numbers. Some have been pulled from school at an early age, so they have little education and no marketable skills. The Church can give emotional and psychological support, provide food or pay a gas bill for a time, but it can’t create a birth certificate or social security number or provide education. These chronic problems are matters for state agencies. The Church does have welfare officers who make sure that people who have these needs are guided through the complexities of government services to the right agencies.
Question: Do you have to be a member of the Church to receive financial help?
Again, the vast majority of the Church’s humanitarian aid goes to nonmembers. Most local assistance in the United States is given through bishops to needy members of their congregation. They do have discretion to help nonmembers but would generally try to steer long-term rehabilitation needs to state agencies.
Question: Why doesn’t the Church let people know what it’s doing to help victims of polygamy? Not doing this makes the Church look callous and uncaring. What does the Church have to lose by helping victims of polygamy? We can’t imagine anyone criticizing the Church for helping to eradicate child abuse, rape or incest.
As we’ve said, we are trying to help victims where appropriate. There is always a balance about what we say publicly — the scriptures do caution against “doing alms before men” (see Matthew 6:1). We always try to balance that with the scripture that encourages us to “let your light shine” (see Matthew 5:16).
Question: Do you have sympathy for polygamists, and are you therefore turning a blind eye to polygamy? Do you privately wish that polygamous groups were just left alone, because you know how it felt to be on that side of the law?
President Gordon B. Hinckley stated the following about polygamy in the Church's October 1998 general conference:
“I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. They know they are in violation of the law. They are subject to its penalties. The Church, of course, has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter.
"If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church. An article of our faith is binding upon us. It states, 'We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law' (Articles of Faith 1:12).”
Question: Has the Church ever taken a stand on issues of polygamy? Did the Church support legislation that would raise the age of marriage?
The Church actively encouraged the raising of the marriage age.
The Church’s obligation is to raise its moral voice, which it has done repeatedly over decades.
Question: The perception is that the Church could shut down polygamy if it wanted. Is this a sin of omission?
We don’t accept the premise. The Church cannot assume the role of government or law enforcement. It is not charged with doing the job of elected officials. We would not expect such an action from any other church in American society. The Church can only raise its voice and explain its concerns, which it has done.
Question: Do you feel pressure now that the abuses of polygamist communities are coming out in the press?
The Church welcomes any attention that leads to the serious problems of abuse being addressed. President Hinckley said as early as the 1980s that he was glad a hue and cry was being raised over the issue of child abuse. No church has done more than we have to address this terrible issue of abuse. President Hinckley has used the most forceful and sober language to condemn the evils of abuse.
Question: Is polygamy gone forever from the Church?
We only know what the Lord has revealed through His prophets, that plural marriage has been stopped in the Church. Anything else is speculative and unwarranted.