Man and Wife and Wife: The Dark World of Polygamous Wedding Ceremonies
In the Order, a fundamentalist polygamous Mormon sect, brides wear white, recite vows, and join hands with their groom's previous wives.
Illustration by Vivian Shih
In some ways, weddings in the Order, a polygamous Mormon breakaway group located in Salt Lake City, are just like regular, secular ceremonies. "They don't do anything weird: The girl has a white wedding dress, she goes down the aisle. It's pretty typical," says Julianna Johnson, 34, who left the Order when she was 21 years old.
But there are a few key distinctions: As with traditional Temple weddings in the mainline Mormon church, the vows are not "till death do you part," but rather "for time and all eternity. "And right before you do the vows, the previous wife would usually grab your hand and [your husband's] hand and join them together," adds Julianna. "It's a symbol that she agrees to what's going on, and it's kind of a symbol of she's giving her husband away."
In recent years, Order weddings have become even more atypical: After David and Daniel, two of the highest ranking elders in the Order, went to prison for incest and rape—they are married to several of their own nieces, half-sisters, and cousins, some of whom were underage at the time of the weddings—the protocol changed. "They started taking the bride and the groom and whomever was going to marry them... into a separate room, after they walked down the aisle, so that no one can witness their wedding," Julianna explains. "Then people can't legally say that they saw the couple get married—and it's usually women that are underage, and it's an older guy, and they're related."
The underage brides, though, are nothing new. When Julianna was 15 years old, she dreamt that she should marry her then 19-year-old nephew, Jacob Kingston, the son of her half-brother, Order figurehead John Daniel Kingston. Because their religion—a fundamentalist interpretation of traditional Mormonism—believes that prophecies from God can come to you in your sleep, as they did to the original Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, members of the Order place special significance on the literal interpretation of dreams.
"They take [dream interpretation] to the next level," Julianna says. "They kind of base their lives on it." After she told her family about the dream, the arranged marriage came together pretty quickly. At the time, Jacob already had one wife.
Of course, dreams themselves are influenced by waking life; someone you see during the day may end up in your dreams that night, as your subconscious mind processes the day's events. A secular take on dream theory would say that dreaming about a person doesn't necessarily mean you're supposed to marry them.
"Looking back," she says, "I kind of grew up with him, so I saw him around a lot." That would explain why he was in her dream—especially considering boy and girls in the Order rarely interact in a meaningful way with non-family members of the opposite sex (though, to be clear, most Order members are related in some way, and many end up marrying a close cousin or even half-sibling).
One of the only opportunities for interaction between men and woman takes place at the sect's weekly mixers. "For the married couples, it can be a date night... the men go and they can dance with each of their wives, and for people that aren't married yet, that's how they court each other and get to know each other more," Julianna explains to me over a towering glass dish of pistachio ice cream at Leatherby's Family Creamery in Salt Lake City. As if on cue, Hozier's song "Take Me To Church" begins to play from a stereo somewhere out of sight.
Right before you do the vows, the previous wife would usually grab your hand and [your husband's] hand and join them together.
"The men can dance with whomever they want, but not with a married woman they're not married to," she continues. "And if a girl is married, she's not going to dance with anyone except her husband, or maybe her dad or brother. But the married men can pretty much dance with any of the single women."
If a man—married or single—decides that he'd like to court a single woman, he must officially present himself as a choice. "Girls can only marry guys who present themselves as her choices," and to become a choice, a guy must first receive approval of the pairing and permission from Order leaders, explains Val Snow, a former Order member who was kicked out for being gay. During his time in the Order, Val worked as a cook in one of the sect's schools and would occasionally bake wedding cakes for polygamous marriages.
Though Julianna's marriage to Jacob Kingston came to her in a dream, and she took that aspect of her religion seriously, it wasn't something she actually wanted to go through with. "Weeks before, I had told my mom I didn't want to do it... she had me go meet with John Daniel, and his son, whom I was marrying, and she said, 'If you don't want to do it, you've got to tell them.'"
But Julianna was still only 15, and speaking up to her spiritual leaders wasn't something she was comfortable doing at the time. "As it got closer and closer, I started telling other people, like my sisters, and they just brushed it off as cold feet... and said, 'You'll learn to love him' or 'You'll get to know him,' or whatever."
On her wedding day, Julianna locked herself in the bathroom for two hours, crying and refusing to come out. Her sisters tried to get her to open door and talk to them, but it was only Paul Kingston, the church's leader, with whom she relented to speak. "If you don't want to do this, go out there and tell all these people who worked really hard on your wedding that it's not going to happen," she remembers Paul saying.
"Now I could do that, but at that point, no... I would probably be shunned by half my family," she tells me. "I didn't want to feel like a disappointment."
Julianna went through with the wedding, wearing a white dress she had sewed by hand with help from her sister. "Everyone at the wedding knew that I didn't want to get married... They knew how old I was; they knew the whole situation, and they just sat and watched it happen," she says. "I never saw my wedding pictures. Jacob had them, and he might have developed them. He might not have. I don't know."