I know I’m behind the times. I don’t watch television very often, and I don’t have cable or satellite tv. But I recently got a Netflix subscription, and I discovered that Sister Wives was on. Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched all 18 episodes of season 1 and season 2. It really is entertaining. Over and over, I kept asking myself, “how do they afford such a large family?” Season 2, episode 3 answers the question.
Before I answer that question, let me give you a bit of info about the family for those of you who haven’t seen the show. Kody Brown, 42 is the patriarch. He served an LDS mission in the Texas San Antonio mission. While he was on his mission, his parents decided to become fundamentalist Mormons who embraced polygamy. (Season 2, episode 2 discusses their conversion.) I will mention that the show is not focused on their theology at all, and only gives passing references to it. Upon return from his mission, Kody decided to convert as well. At age 22, he married his first wife Meri, who was raised in a fundamentalist lifestyle. Meri and Kody have 1 daughter, Mariah.
A few years later, Kody married Janelle, his 2nd wife. Janelle also grew up LDS, but became a fundamentalist Mormon. Now the story gets really interesting. Janelle’s first marriage was to Meri’s brother. It didn’t last very long, and I’m not sure why they divorced, but they did. So, Kody essentially married his sister-in-law. (This hasn’t been covered in the show yet.) If you think that’s strange, it gets stranger. Janelle’s mom Genielle decided to become a fundamentalist Mormon as well, and she married Kody’s father just 3 months before Kody and Janelle. So Kody and Janelle are step-brother and sister. (Yes, Season 2, episode 2 covers this as well, but doesn’t quite cover all the bases.) Kody and Janelle had 6 children together in their 17 years of marriage. (Incidentally, Janelle is a year older than Meri.)
Then a year later, Kody married Christine. Christine was also raised as a fundamentalist. At the start of season 1, Christine was pregnant with she and Kody’s 6th child Truely. Season 1 Episode 4 shows the actual birth at the American Fork Hospital.
Season 1 details the courtship of a new wife Robyn, who was also raised as a fundamentalist. Robyn was previously married to a man by the name of David Jessop. Robyn and David had 3 children before they divorced in 2007. The show chronicles the courtship, and I hear that Robyn gave birth to a honeymoon baby on Oct 27, but I haven’t seen the episode yet. Among the 4 wives, they have a total of 17 children now. This family tree is available on their Facebook page.
The show has already caused some problems. Following their appearance on the Today Show (chronicled in Season 2 Episode 1), the Lehi Police Department opened up an investigation of bigamy. The Browns decided to move to Nevada to avoid arrest and breakup of their family. Meri announced that she lost her job in Season 2 episode 5. Robyn quit her job in order to marry Kody, and has had trouble finding work.
So, how do they afford this lifestyle? Kody said that’s the number one question he gets. They have some nice cars: a Lexus, Suburban, convertible, and a van. In Season 2, episode 3 they discuss finances, and Kody says
“I hate to say it’s communal, but it’s really very socialistic. We’re all working together for the same cause. We all use our own talents, and everybody works together.”
Janelle and Kody both work full-time. According to this website, Kody and Meri declared bankruptcy in 2005 in Wyoming. Kody owned a firearms company, but now he is a salesman of some sort. Janelle is also full-time, and seems to pull in a pretty good income. Meri worked part-time at a mental health facility, but was fired after she came out publicly as a polygamist. Christine is the stay-at-home mother. Not only does she “rule the roost”, but she is an avid coupon clipper, buying in bulk. As Robyn has come into the family, she has helped Christine with the many children as she has continued to look for work. The first 3 wives shared 1 huge home, and Robyn had a house about a block away. As I understand it, they have not been able to find a huge house in Las Vegas, so they have 4 separate houses now.
As they have pooled their resources, they have had to become a bit communal. I’ve enjoyed Stephen M’s posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5--I hope I got them all) on the economics of utopias. In the Browns case, I don’t see how they could live this lifestyle without being communal. In that sense, they seem very true to the vision that Joseph Smith had for consecrating all their possessions. The wives share food and resources freely with each other (Christine was surprised to hear that they were out of sugar–Meri admits to using the last of it.) It is this sense of communalism that seems quite in line with early Mormonism. They genuinely seem to get along, and even my wife mentioned that she could see some nice benefits of not having to worry about babysitters and having a built in social support network of the sister wives.
I am reminded that early Mormons in Utah were out to create a new economic order: the United Order. Capitalism was strongly denounced by Brigham Young as “profiteering”. Brigham often set price controls for basic necessities. Consecration tries to control the market, it doesn’t like free markets, because free markets often gouge individuals. As I outlined in my post on Consecration vs United Order, the early polygamy persecutions were as much about forcing free markets onto the Mormons as it was about eradicating polygamy. The Perpetual Emigration Fund and all church assets were targeted as an economic problem and driver of polygamy. It could be argued that “gentiles” used the issue of polygamy as a cover to dump the economics of the United Order. Gentiles really wanted to break into Mormon markets, and were prohibited from trading with Mormons by Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff. The government used economics to kill polygamy.
Early Mormons preferred a more socialistic economy of the United Order. (Please don’t confuse this with Marxist Socialism-that is not what I’m trying to say.) I do wonder if some of the virulent free market Mormons of today have forgotten Brigham Young’s admonitions against the profiteering side of capitalism. I wonder if this form of socialism the Browns are doing is more in line with early Mormon thought. Free markets don’t always equate to fair markets, especially for individuals, and Brigham Young did everything he could to regulate the “economy of heaven.” He was quite successful through his death, but later persecutions forced capitalism into Utah, and now some Mormons seem to think that unregulated markets are the “order of heaven.”
What do you think of early Mormon attempts to solve the problem of inequity by eliminating free markets and capitalism in Utah? If polygamy becomes legal again via gay marriage, will the church embrace polygamy?