Explainer

What is polygamy? Here’s an explanation of Sister Wives star Kody Brown’s lifestyle

Kody Brown TLC confessional
Kody has been a polygamist since 1993 when he took his second wife, Janelle Brown. Pic credit: TLC

Kody Brown and his family brought polygamy to prominence in 2010 with their hit TLC show Sister Wives. Here’s a look at what plural marriage really means.

Polygamy, also referred to as plural marriage, is the practice of having more than one spouse at a time.

Plural marriage typically involves one husband and multiple wives, all of them willing participants in the relationship.

The practice has origins in the Mormon church, dating back to the 1840s. Plural marriage was practiced by members of the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) for more than half a century.

The Book of Mormon instructed its members to practice polygamy for the purpose of raising “up seed unto [the Lord].” Plural marriage is also practiced in other faiths worldwide, with some Muslims still adhering to polygamy, mainly in West and Central Africa.

However, polygamy is generally frowned upon, especially in Western culture, and only 2% of the worldwide population practices plural marriage.

What is polygamy?

Additionally, polygamy is illegal in every state in America, although it was decriminalized in Utah in 2020, reducing it from a third-degree felony to an infraction.

The U.S. government began passing laws against polygamy in 1862, and prosecution against polygamists began during the 1880s. That didn’t stop many LDS members, who continued to live the plural marriage lifestyle, many of them secretly.

When Sister Wives first aired in 2010, viewers watched as Kody moved himself, his four wives, and their children from Utah to Nevada to escape prosecution.

Kody Brown and his wives went public with plural marriage on Sister Wives in 2010

Kody became a polygamist when he took a second wife (spiritually) in 1993. Since husbands are only allowed one legal wife, his other wives are considered his spiritual spouses, only recognized by their church, the AUB (Apostolic United Brethren), an offshoot of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).

His father, William Winn Brown, felt called to polygamy by God, and Kody decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Interestingly, Kody’s father, William’s second wife, was Janelle Brown’s mother, Sheryl. This created a unique title and relationship for Janelle’s mom, who then became both her mother and her mother-in-law.

Meri and Kody Brown wed in 1990, with Janelle Brown joining the union in 1993. Christine Brown joined the family in 1994, and Robyn Brown became Kody’s fourth spiritual wife in 2010 and his legal wife in 2014. Kody and Meri legally divorced in 2014 to allow Robyn to become Kody’s legal wife so he could adopt her three children from a previous monogamous marriage to David Jessop.

Because of the small population of polygamists, there are often intermingled relationships, given the limited options for potential spouses who also practice plural marriage.

Has Sister Wives backfired on highlighting the advantages of plural marriage?

Although Kody and his wives initially set out to educate viewers about polygamy and its pros, recent seasons of Sister Wives have highlighted its cons.

Christine left Kody in 2021 (as well as their religion and polygamy) and there have been rumors that Janelle has followed her lead.

Polygamy often results in large families, and Kody’s is no exception. In addition to Robyn’s three children he adopted, Kody shares 15 biological children between Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn. Despite being raised in plural marriage, none of Kody’s 18 children have opted to follow in their parents’ footsteps and become polygamists themselves.

Although Kody intended to tout polygamy for its advantages — remember his Sister Wives intro, “Love should be multiplied, not divided”? — his actions seem to indicate that he prefers one wife rather than four. During last season’s Tell All, Kody even admitted to questioning polygamy “all the time.”

Sister Wives airs on Sundays at 10/9c on TLC and Discovery+.