At A Glance

You grew up in a polygamous home in Salt Lake City. Would you tell us about your home environment growing up?

When I was born, my dad had 3 wives.  He married 3 more women when I was 8.  There were about 20 children living at home at any one time.  In total my dad has 47 children born to 5 women.  I was never lonely, and it was a lot of fun having all those brothers and sisters because I had my best friends living and playing with me.

Our home was a kind of fortress.  We didn’t really associate or interact with anyone outside of our family and didn’t go into public a lot except to go to the grocery store or something like that.  We didn’t go to school:  education was not part of our experience.  No one in my family went past the 6th grade.  My dad may have graduated high school, but I don’t know a lot about my parents’ education because it just wasn’t emphasized.

The girls would stay home to cook and clean.  They would usually get married somewhere between the ages of 18-20 through an arranged marriage.  When the boys were in their teens they would get jobs in construction or working in a warehouse to help support the family.  My family had some financial struggles with all those mouths to feed, but I wasn’t ever very aware of it.  Everyone helped out and did their part, and some of the Moms worked to help pay the bills.  We were good at being frugal, and there was always enough.

Clothing was another distinct part of my upbringing.  The girls always wore long-sleeved dresses that covered our collar bones and also had to completely cover our arms and legs.  We also didn’t wear makeup or jewelry and always wore our hair done up.

Was your family ever in danger of legal trouble for living polygamously?

Not really.  Some of my ancestors were.  My grandparents had to hide from the law, and my great grandparents served time in prison for practicing plural marriage.  But today the law has taken a step back and there isn’t as much prosecuting of people who live polygamously.  We did have to be careful about not being in school.  If someone came to the house during school hours we all had to hide and pretend we weren’t there.

So there were efforts to hide your family’s lifestyle from the outside world?

Yes.  We had sort of a secret life.  We were never supposed to acknowledge that we were from a polygamous family.  The times that we did go in public people would often come up and ask us if we were polygamists, usually in a way that was quite rude; it was pretty obvious that we were from a polygamous family because of the way we dressed and the fact that there were so many of us.   We had rehearsed answers to give in these situations.  For example, if someone asked us how many mothers we had, we would deflect the question by saying, “Why?  Did you lose one?”  Or if someone asked my sisters and me if we were polygamous, we would respond that we weren’t because we weren’t even married.  People usually didn’t know how to respond when we said those kinds of things.  If they ever asked us how many brothers and sisters we had or any other question that was harder to get out of, we just said that we didn’t know.

Everyone helped out and did their part, and some of the Moms worked to help pay the bills. We were good at being frugal, and there was always enough.

So you understood at least somewhat that your family was different.  What sort of awareness did you have as a child about your family circumstances? Did you think you were unusual?

Actually I felt that our family was normal, and everyone else was different.  I remember wondering when we went in the house and closed the door if other people in the outside world continued to exist.  I thought other people were just props in my world:  there had to be cars on the street, and there had to be someone at the checkout counter, but other than that I wasn’t sure if any people on the outside really had lives.  So the reason I didn’t think my family was unusual is that I had almost no awareness of the outside world.

How was Mormonism presented and taught to you as a child?

In many ways it was similar to the mainstream Mormon Church.  We believed that Joseph Smith restored the true church, but that later the church abandoned some of its core principles and was no longer living the fullness of the gospel.  We thought it was our calling to live polygamy until Heavenly Father put the church back in order.

We also believed that the Book of Mormon was true.  The second chapter of the book of Jacob talks about polygamy, and my Dad used that passage to teach us that when the Lord commands that we live it, we do, but we must live it righteously.  In Jacob’s time the people were wicked and not living it correctly, but we believed polygamy was sanctioned for us in our time.

What led you to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Growing up I’d had questions from reading the scriptures.  I wondered about temples and also about missionary work, for example, but the answers I’d get from my family about these things never really satisfied me.  When I was 12 I prayed about my questions, and I remember feeling peace and like the answer was to just trust my parents.  I know now that for that point in my life that was the only thing I could do.  It wasn’t until later that I would be more mature and ready to know the truth and act on it.

When I was 21 and living in Bluffdale, Utah, a good friend invited me to take some institute classes.  (I later learned that she had felt strongly prompted to approach me even though we had previously been complete strangers.)  I was really bored and didn’t have anything better to do with my time, so I accepted.  I took those institute classes for a year.  We studied a lesson on the 17 Evidences of the True Church.  Going to those classes raised a lot of concerns for me, (many of the same concerns from when I was younger) specifically about church history.  One thing that struck me was that within days of the restoration of the church, Joseph Smith sent out missionaries to teach people about it.  From that day on, the Church has always had missionaries.  I realized that the spreading of the gospel through missionary work has always been a vital part of the true church, both in modern times and in Christ’s day.  The same thing is true of temple work:  Joseph Smith received revelations about bringing the temple ordinances back to the earth because they’ve always been an integral aspect of the gospel.  So I had this strange and uncomfortable realization that if what my parents had taught me was correct, then the mainstream Church had gone astray over 100 years ago, and we were the only ones living it correctly.  And yet we hadn’t sent out a single missionary or built a single temple in that time, so it didn’t make sense.  Reflecting on these things, there was a panic moment when I began to wonder if everything I’ve ever been taught to believe wasn’t true.  I would become agitated and start shaking from fear at the thought.  My dad was basically the prophet of our church, and the possibility that what I’d learned my whole life might be false terrified me.

After the lesson on the 17 Evidences, my institute teacher convinced me to take the missionary lessons to answer some of my questions.  I accepted, but I wasn’t really open to their message.   I had the mindset of trying to prove the missionaries wrong.  They taught me at the Institute building so we could keep it a secret from my family although I eventually did tell them.   A few weeks into the discussions I told the missionaries I wanted to stop meeting with them, but I continued to attend Institute.  And I still prayed and thought a lot about the Church.  This went on for about a year.

We hadn’t sent out a single missionary or built a single temple in that time, so it didn’t make sense.

I had become very close with the Andersons, an LDS family that lived down the road from us.  I often went to their house at night to join them in their family scripture study and prayer.  At this point I was seriously trying to figure out what I should do concerning the Mormon Church.  One night we were reading Mosiah chapter 18.  I remember thinking that somehow the answer about my future with the Church was somewhere in that chapter.   I was particularly struck by verse 10, which talks about having baptism be the desire of our hearts.  So I went home and thought about what we’d read.  The next day at Institute we read the exact same chapter.  My teacher had us go around and each read a verse.  When we got to my turn I read verse 10 again.  But then I took notice when the next person read verse 11, which talks about people clapping their hands for joy because of their desire to be baptized.  Driving home that night I realized that I would do that:  I was so excited at the idea of getting baptized that I would clap my hands for joy.  It was a huge revelation to me; the thought that I could be happy to be a member of the Church.

The next day at Institute I realized again that I did want to be baptized but still had some things holding me back.  I was afraid of so many things, like my family’s reaction and also the huge life changes that would inevitably come.  But mostly I was just afraid that it was wrong.  If what my family had taught me was true and I left it, I was sure I would go to hell.  My dad and every other person I’d grown up with believed in their plural marriage, and the fact that I might not believe it not was huge.  My eternal salvation was hanging on my decision of whether or not to be baptized, and I felt like I was stepping over a cliff.  So I prayed to Heavenly Father and told Him that I needed to know He would be there for me through all of these concerns.  At that moment, the institute choir was singing Rob Gardner’s “My Kindness Shall Not Depart From Me.”  It was as though someone had turned the volume up, and I remember hearing the line, “So hold on thy way, for I shall be with thee and mine angels shall encircle thee, doubt not what thou knowest.”  I started crying because I knew that my prayer was answered.  After that I found my institute teacher and told him what had happened.  He helped me see that I was finally ready to be baptized.  So later that night I went over to the Andersons and, after having prayer and scripture study, asked Brother Anderson if he would baptize me.  I was baptized in May 2004.

How did your family react to your decision to be baptized, and what is your relationship like with them now?

My dad was a little emotional and upset.  He had said things like, “You better be sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons.”  My mom was pretty harsh.  At first she told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to be with my sisters anymore.  In the long run, though both my parents ended up being pretty understanding.  My family has even been to church a few times and activities with me, like when I graduated from Institute for example.  So their attitude about it has softened over time.  I’m still very close to many of my siblings, though my being a member has made it so I’m not as close to all of them.  I often go home to see my family.  So I feel like I’ve been able to maintain a good relationship with them.

Converting to the LDS faith can be a big change for anyone, but it especially was so for you.  Can you explain about the changes you experienced?

There were so many changes.   When I was baptized in 2004 I thought the only thing that would be different would be where I went to church and that I would obviously have another kind of marriage.  I convinced myself that I wouldn’t change.  But little by little I’ve had to change my whole life.  When someone joins the church they aren’t necessarily expected to drop all their cultural traditions.  But sometimes culture can get in the way.  My experience was such that the religion and the culture were so intertwined that I couldn’t let go of one without the other.  So in a sense, when I chose to join the Church, I chose to be a part of the LDS culture.

So what were specific ways that your life changed?

Living on my own was a huge change.  When I was baptized the Church required that I move out of my family’s house.  I was 22 and had never lived away from home.  No one I knew had either, so this was a very new and strange concept for me.  Over the years I had saved up $900 through teaching piano lessons.  I found the cheapest apartment I could in Provo and lived off that money while I attended Utah Valley University.  Later I got offered a position working at a hotel and theater in Branson, Missouri for a summer.  That was my first real job, so that was another change.

Dating was another challenge.  I had grown up expecting an arranged marriage and was told to not talk or associate with boys at all.  So going from that mindset to having to date and put myself out there was difficult.  My mom taught me that if you don’t talk to boys or have any romantic experience or fall in love, you will have your whole heart to give to your husband.  But I’ve come to learn that keeping your heart locked up in a box and never feeling any pain doesn’t keep it anymore complete or pure than if you go through the refining process of having your heart broken and then grow stronger.  If you’ve never been vulnerable before then all you have to give to your husband is inexperience.

Changing the way I dressed was really scary.  I didn’t change until over a year after I joined the church since it wasn’t a doctrinal requirement.  During that first year I initially didn’t think there was a problem because the Church taught modesty, and I was simply dressing more modestly. But it left me with some internal struggle because, if I wasn’t supposed to change the way I dressed, that meant that on some level everyone else in the church was wrong.  I thought that I was living the higher standard.  In my mind I didn’t think women in the Church were bad if they wore short sleeves, but I felt like it would be wrong if I did it.  I felt very confused by these different standards of modesty.  I had this inner turmoil because I didn’t know what I would teach my daughters about it.  Also I wondered how practically I could keep my own unique dress standards and find someone to marry.

My institute teacher forced me to further examine these questions.  He told me that I should begin to dress like other women in the Church and give up my ultra-conservative clothing.  At first I was a little taken back because I thought it was just a cultural thing and that I didn’t have to change my clothes to be a Mormon.  And to some extent I still believe that I don’t have to look like everyone else to live the gospel.  But the thing was that it wasn’t just cultural in my mind.  I would look at women with nail polish and think they were evil.  I thought to myself, “I am a part of a Church that allows this wickedness.”  But my teacher helped me understand that I was the living the traditions of my fathers, and that as long as I did that it would stop my progression in the church.  I realized that he was right, and that I needed to stop making myself an exception.  So I learned to let go of my conservative clothing.  Looking back I’m very grateful that my teacher talked to me about those things.

So all in all it has been really hard to give up 100% of my old life.  It has been a long process over the last 8 years, and there are still things that I’m having to change.  All of these things that I do differently now that I’m a member have continually challenged my testimony and tested my faith.  I’m not sure I would have joined if I had known there would be so many changes.  But I’m glad I did.

What do you think about the ways that polygamy is discussed within the Church?

Well, when someone says something about polygamy in church I of course pay close attention.  Occasionally something is said that I know is incorrect, but I usually don’t say anything because I don’t want to make a scene.  I think the Church tries to downplay it because it’s so easy to sensationalize it.  There is more to our LDS history of polygamy than what most people know, but I understand why we don’t get into it very much because it can be confusing for people and it’s not relevant.  The truth is that most church members don’t understand polygamy.

What are your thoughts on the doctrine of polygamy?

I still feel that polygamy is very sacred when lived correctly.  Polygamy is a celestial principle that was revealed to Joseph Smith.  We know that it will be lived to some extent in the celestial kingdom.  I don’t believe that everyone who lives there will practice it, but some will.  The Church’s teachings never say that it is not a true principle, just that it’s not a principle that we’re currently living.  The leaders of the Church are very clear that it is not something that should be lived now.  But in times where the Lord commanded it, it was correct.  So I still have a lot of respect for polygamy and believe that it is very sacred.

What do you think of media portrayals of modern polygamy through shows like “Sister Wives” and “Big Love”?

I have mixed feelings on those shows.  First, I often think they are fascinating.  We’re used to watching portrayals of other people, but it’s very interesting to see how people portray us.  It’s like how many members of the Church are interested to see a Mormon character on television.  It’s funny to watch others portray something that they don’t understand.  Sometimes they are so off that it’s comical.  But every once in awhile, they get something right.  Mostly though, I’m offended because all the shows I’ve seen like that are trying to take advantage of the sensationalism of polygamy just to get on television.  I grew up to believe that plural marriage was a sacred, religious principle, so I feel like they are mocking and degrading something very spiritual to get attention and be in the spotlight.

Does the fact that you grew up in a polygamous home make other people uncomfortable?

Yes.  In dating it can be especially challenging.  Although I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of my past, it’s not something that I want to bring up on a first date.  And yet not talking about it implies I have something to hide.  For most people, it’s a negative thing, but it’s not for me.  Growing up in a polygamous home is too much a part of where I came from to answer all the first date questions without explaining it, so it can be hard.

Sometimes I like to have fun and sort of freak people out about it when they think they know all about polygamy.  Like recently I was talking to this guy about it.  He didn’t know that I grew up that way.  I egged him on and got him to tell me everything he knew (or thought he knew) about it.  Then I sprang it on him that I had grown up in a polygamous home.  It was fun to watch him squirm.  So I can definitely have a sense of humor about it.

The reverse is also true:  the fact that I am a member sometimes makes my family uncomfortable in social situations.  For example, a few months ago I went to St. George with my mom and some other women from her community for a business trip.  There was a man we met there who had questions about the Church.  He was asking these polygamous women about what Mormons believed.  These women were trying to pass themselves off as members of the mainstream church and brush their polygamy under the rug so they wouldn’t have to talk about it.  Some of the answers they were giving were not exactly correct, so I had to chime in and give the right answer.  For example, when he asked if Mormons drink coffee, they would say, “Some do, some don’t.  It’s more of a suggestion.”  I felt the need to step in and say, “Actually, no, it’s not a suggestion.  Mormons don’t drink coffee.”  At one point, the man asked, “Is everyone here Mormon?  Are you all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”  The women all replied yes.  Again I had to cut in and say that they were not, and that I was only one present who was.  It was somewhat of an uncomfortable situation because all these women thought I was being condescending.  I wasn’t meaning to be, but I felt strongly that it was important to express the truth about the church.  If you believe your religion, you have to stand up for it.  It can be difficult to do, but our leaders have put a huge emphasis on clarifying misconceptions about the Church, and I want to follow that counsel.  Looking back I’m sure we left that man pretty confused, but I would rather that than leave him with false information about the church.

If you believe your religion, you have to stand up for it. It can be difficult to do, but our leaders have put a huge emphasis on clarifying misconceptions about the Church, and I want to follow that counsel.

What’s in your future?

I just graduated with my Associates Degree in Communications and I’m working on getting my Bachelors.  That is unheard of for anyone from my home community.  I’m also writing a book about my experiences.  And obviously I want to have my own family.

Do you know of others who grew up in a polygamous home but then left to join the Church?

I know quite a few actually.  They usually leave the polygamous lifestyle and then later find the Church.  I have connected with them some over the years.  We never have had an official support group for former polygamists.  Maybe we should.  That’s part of the reason I wrote the book:  to reach out to anyone else who might have had a similar experience because I felt so alone.  Thankfully I’ve been blessed with good friends over the year who’ve supported me and helped me make some of the transitions.

You’ve mentioned that you would have had an arranged marriage if you had continued to live your family’s lifestyle.  Is it a relief that you won’t be in a polygamous marriage, or are there things you wish you had from that life?

I’m 100% grateful for where I am now.  Two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to say that.  I felt conflicted because I knew if I hadn’t joined the Church I would already be married, having children, and with all the good friends I grew up with.  At the time I felt robbed of that experience.  But I don’t feel that way anymore.  Even though I’m 30 and unmarried I wouldn’t trade being a member of the true Church because of all the blessings and knowledge that come with having the gospel in my life.  Things haven’t gone exactly how I’ve planned or wanted, but still I’m glad to be where I am at this point.

At A Glance

Vilate Nielsen

Provo, UT


Marital status:

May 2004

Schools Attended:
Utah Valley University

Languages Spoken at Home:

Favorite Hymn:
“Lead Kindly LIght”

On The Web:

Interview by Katherine Wilkinson. Photos used with permission.


At A Glance