Practicing Polygyny in Black America: Challenging Definition, Legal and Social Considerations for the African American Community

By Gibbs, Tyson; Campbell, Judith | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Practicing Polygyny in Black America: Challenging Definition, Legal and Social Considerations for the African American Community


Gibbs, Tyson, Campbell, Judith, The Western Journal of Black Studies


History of Polygamous Practices in the U.S.

Religious and social groups experimented with different forms of familia social bonds in America during the 19th century. Foster (1981) provides examples of two such groups:

"The Shakers ... established celibate, essentially monastic communities in which women shared equally in all aspects of leadership; and, The Oneida Perfectionists ... created a system of complex marriage or group marriage which resulted in radical changes in sex roles and behavior." "Every man was theoretically married to every woman in the group and vice versa." (Muncy, 1988)

The practice of polygyny in America has always been relegated to those persons in religious groups, Native American Cultures or isolated groups of individuals. The more notable practitioners were the Mormons. "Beginning in the 1830's, Latter Day Saints Church leaders secretly practiced what both they and their detractors called "polygamy," a self-consciously patriarchal marriage system in which men were encouraged to take more than one wife. In 1852, after they had relocated to Utah, church leaders took polygamy public." (Pascoe, 1993)

The Mormons' polygamous practices were not accepted by the American Protestant churches. Pascoe reports that between 1852 and 1882 the Mormons were under attack by evangelical Protestants. (Pascoe, 1993) Further attacks on this practice came from the federal government with the passage of the Edmunds - Tucker Act of 1882. This act proposed by "Senator George Edmunds of Vermont ... was one of a series of bills designed to end the Mormon practice of polygamy ... (Buice, 1981). There are reports of "Americans of social conscience confronted with the issue of polygamy had an immediate and negative response. Victorian Americans believed that the Christian Civilization was fragile, ... (and) feared any relaxation of sexual standards would lead to a complete breakdown of civilized order." (Buice, 1981 and Cannon, 1974). Many Americans during the 19th century opposed polygamy because of its association with Native American Cultures considered to be primitive and savage.

Further, the assumption was that easy access to sex was at the bottom of all of the polygamous unions regardless of their origin. Two examples of the reasons for polygyny among Native Americans are presented. First, Moore (1991) offers this assessment of polygamy among the Cheyenne:

"The pervasive Anglo-American idea (is) that polygyny is sexually motivated on the part of the husband.... From an American Indian standpoint, the institution of polygyny was seen to benefit both husbands and wives. For men, a larger household meant (an) increase ... more children (and) ... wealth. For women, polygyny meant ... (wholly sharing) a household with sisters, ... help with child care and other household chores."

The second example of polygamy is provided by Gillis (1966) who describes this practice among the Comanche. As with other Native American populations, the practice of polygamy was more practical than a matter of sexual convenience for the male in the household. Gillis states that: "Polygamy had been an economic and social necessity for the Comanches, ... (provided) a husband (to every Comanche female), ... maintained the birthrate and ... (provided) many trained hands to keep a Comanche camp functioning properly." Polygamy has been reported for almost all Native American Peoples (Moore, 1991).

Other examples of the practice of polygyny in America's past can be found among cases which were adjudicated in various states. The extent to which severe punishment was given to the polygamist, demonstrated America's intolerance for persons attempting to change the one man - one woman, monogamous way of life supported by Protestant religious churches, and state and federal judicial branches of government, during the latter part of the 19th, and early 20th twentieth century. Buice (1981) notes numerous incidents where "threats and lesser acts of violence were almost daily occurrences" for Mormon elders attempting to find church converts in Southern States.

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