Introduction to Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism

During the past eighty years, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been increasingly exposed to the activities of “Mormon fundamentalists” as portrayed in the media. Issues surrounding the continued practice of polygamy usually bring fundamentalism to the forefront, but Church members may wonder about other differences. They may puzzle over the allegations that their Church and religion have lost fundamental principles that are reportedly being perpetuated by dissenters. If something is currently missing from the doctrines and practices of the Church, members want to know what it is and why it was jettisoned. And if the accusations are false, there is desire to comprehend the deceptions and the forces that have otherwise empowered the so-called “fundamentalist” movement.

Religious “Fundamentalists”

The term “fundamentalist” was first used to describe a group of activist Protestant Christians in the 1920s to depict a “person willing to ‘do battle royal’ for fundamentals of the faith.”[1] The first time the title was applied in the “Mormon” arena was by Joseph Musser who used it to describe himself and his followers in 1935.[2]

Richard T. Antoun, author of Understanding Fundamentalisms, explained: “The movement, like the word fundamentalism, initially emerged among rural and urban Presbyterians and Baptists in the early decades of the twentieth century.”[3] “All fundamentalists are generally viewed as doctrinaire followers of sacred scripture, dwellers in and on the past, and naive  simplifiers of complex world events involved in a struggle between good and evil.”[4]

fundamentalisms book

The development of fundamentalist groups has affected every major religion on earth, including the formation of Catholic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, and even “fundamentalists” among the fundamentalist factions. Within the realm of the restored gospel, dissenters who continued to practice plural marriage after 1904 eventually adopted the title of “Mormon Fundamentalists.”

In order to understand the genesis of Mormon fundamentalism, a knowledge of the history of plural marriage is required. Fundamentalists of all persuasions are reactionists. They react to changes in the mother church, changes they believe are harmful or unauthorized. The discontinuation of plural marriage by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1904 was the primary triggering event that eventually guided dozens, and then hundreds and thousands, of nonconformists to leave the confines of the Church to form their own religious organizations.

For a more detailed view see Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations After the Manifesto (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006).


[1] Nancy T. Ammerman, “North American Protestant Fundamentalism,” in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 2.

[2] Joseph White Musser, “The Short Creek Embroglio,” Truth 1 (October 1935): 52.

[3] Richard T. Antoun, as quoted in Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), 230.

[4] Richard T. Atoun, Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian Islamic, and Jewish Movements (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira Press, 2001), 1–2.