Mormonism and Polygamy

I’ve posted a number of times now about polygamy, so it’s occurred to me that y’all might think it’s a topic I like to dwell on a lot. Or at least y’all might just be wondering what I really think about it. I just don’t want you to think that I’m sitting around fretting about polygamy, or that it’s something I “struggle with.” It’s not.

So here’s a numbered list that pretty well outlines where I stand on polygamy re: Mormonism.

1. I don’t care what Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Bruce R. McConkie, or anyone else said about polygamy. I believe what feels right to me, which might be different than what feels right to you.

2. I’m not embarrassed that polygamy is a part of Mormonism, nor do I believe that the Church (or anyone individually) needs to apologize for, or be ashamed of, their participation in polygamous marriages. I am entirely comfortable with allowing consenting adults to enter into any type of committed family structure they please. I have no personal interest in being part of a polygamous marriage, but if you do, whatever…

3. I really like the sealing theology behind the polygamous marriages. In it’s simplest form, sealing ceremonies are a ritual symbolic of our hope to perpetuate our love for each other for eternity.

4. The specific circumstances surrounding many of the polygamous marriages in Mormonism’s history are troubling because they were often the result of coercion, fear, or spiritual manipulation. Physical and emotional neglect were also rampant among polygamous marriages. These elements are abhorrent regardless of the family structure. Theoretically, I’m open to the idea that polygamy (including polygyny and polyandry) could exist without these elements.

5. Polygamy is problematic for the LDS church primarily because the Church began teaching that polygamous marriages were necessary to enter heaven, or that they were inherently better or more righteous than monogamous marriages. This is the primary message of D & C 132, which the church now has to more or less ignore or reinterpret to match the Church’s modern message about monogamous marriage. It’s an elephant in the room, but one that the church and most members have learned to comfortably ignore.

6. My interest in polygamy is primarily an academic exercise, since I find it (along with much of early Mormonism) nearly irrelevant to modern Mormonism. I like that modern temple practices allow persons to be sealed to more than one spouse. I think most of us would agree that there are circumstances where, for example, a widow or widower remarries, and the new marriage does not diminish or replace their love for their first spouse. Temple sealing practices should be changed to treat men and women equally.

7. My only real problem with polygamy and Mormonism is that so many modern Mormons feel like they need to defend or justify polygamy. We don’t have to defend the decisions made by past members of the church, nor do we have to believe that everything past members (or leaders) of the church did or said was inspired or “correct.” We can draw our own conclusions about it, and it’s ok if we disagree, both with each other, with earlier generations of Saints, and with early or current church leaders.

Ok, well that about sums it up. Reactions? Got anything to add? How do you feel about it?


12 comments to Mormonism and Polygamy

  • want to be plig.

    I want to be a polygamist. As bad as that sounds and being raised mormon..I like the idea of the modern part of sister wives and raising good kids together.

  • As a kid I often wondered why the Christian church lauded biblical characters who were polygamists but never dealt with the fact that they weren’t monogamous. I still think it’s something that’s largely overlooked. The biggest argument I’ve heard is that just because they practiced it doesn’t mean God condoned it.

  • Here’s my issue with polygamy, and kudo’s to you for calling out the issues the Church has had with woman, sometimes girls, being forced into plural marriages.

    At its basic level polygamy reinforces a very misogynistic view society, it’s degrades and lessons the role of woman in the family and at its worst makes them a commodity. Having sister wives raising a big family for their husband, who wouldn’t want to be the king of a society like that.

    However, based on Church history, I think you’d have a hard time convincing gentiles that this wasn’t just a way to justify the more earthly desires shall we say, of Church members.

    I’m not sure how one can justify 55 wives for Bringham Young, how does one maintain a loving and stable relationship with each of them. With Young it seems clear, especially later in his life, that he was sealing himself to as many women as possible, several of whom were married and lived with other men at the time. I’m sure he was building his celestial empire by then, so for him it was theological issue.

    But I go back to my belief that it’s degrading to women. It reinforces a place for them in the marriage that is below their husbands. Muslims use the argument that multiple wives, restrictive clothing, denying women the right to vote or drive or travel without a man, some how elevates them and keeps women “special”. Slave owners had the simular arguments.

    My other problem with polygamy is that upsets the balance in the community, you wind up with a lot of men with no one to marry. The FLDS people, and I don’t connect them to the Church, they’re a cult and the Church has condemned them appropriately. But they do offer an example of what can happen, they have kick out of their society excess young men because the elders of the cult are marrying the young women by the dozen.

    Bottom line.
    I have a ton or respect for the LDS Church. I think they’ve done a remarkable job providing millions with a moral compass and beliefs that help people find G-d and live better lives. It’s a remarkable and uniquely American institution that deserves praise. But, it’s a new faith tradition and which, at times, reflects the beliefs of society when it was founded. Its founders are historical figures who lived not so long ago. I wonder how Moses and Aaron would be portrayed 200 years after their death. 2000 years can soften some edges I think.

    Society wasn’t perfect in 1830 and its founders had their moral flaws. It’s up to the Church now to recognize and own up to the sins of their past, and by and large I believe they’ve done so. You could argue that challenges like these force members to wrestle with their beliefs and that makes them stronger.

    Being Jewish, this is a concept that is central to our faith. “Israel” in Hebrew translates to “struggles with G-d” and was the name given to Jacob when he symbolically wrestled with G-d in his dream. Since that time, from Moses to the Prophets to modern Rabbi’s.. this struggle has continued in arguments and writings on both sides of almost every issue you could imagine, and in the end it makes us all a bit stronger. Steel sharpens steel as they say.
    And with that, I’ve hogged your comments enough for one day.

    BTW, congrats on the new baby…

  • @want – best of luck with that.

    @Joey – I agree that it’s kind of an elephant in the room. It becomes even trickier in situations where OT prophets like Abraham and David credit God for their polygamy. If we’re going to hold them up as prophets (i.e. people who receive revelation from God), it’s hard to discount them crediting God for their polygamy.

  • @Sank – I agree. I think it would be a rare circumstance indeed where polygamy (either polygyny or polyandry) was practiced in a way that all partners were equally valued. I think it’s always the case that the more details we learn about history, nobody walks away wearing a halo.

    I’ve always liked the story of Jacob wrestling with God (the KJV bible, IIRC, translates it as “angel” rather than God, I think..) But on some level, it presents a version of the Gospel where God is willing to reason with us.

  • Casey

    Ok, I normally don’t post because I don’t feel nearly as intelligent as you or your other readers, but this subject fascinates me. I personally would never agree to be in a polygamous marriage but I don’t think it’s *all* bad.

    Back in 2002 as a new convert I wrote a paper on LDS polygamy for my “History Seminar” class for my History major. I read 3 autobiographies and many University studies. Here are some interesting factoids I came across…

    1. 60% of polygamous men has only one plural wife (so 2 wives total), instances of crazy amounts of marriages, like Brigham, were a minority.

    2. Many plural wives had a husband who was away on missions for many years at a time. The wives became very self reliant and ran their own businesses, established their towns, became highly educated, etc. Mattie Hughes Cannon was a 3rd wife, she was able to go back to school and eventually defeated her husband to become the 1st woman senator (in 1896).

    3. Brigham Young stated that the first time he heard about plural marriage that it was the first time he desired death.

    4. At one point Brigham Young stated that one didn’t need to practice polygamy, only believe in it to attain exaltation.

    5. Some argue that only worthy high priests were supposed to practice polygamy, that it wasn’t supposed to be practiced by everyone.

    6. In 1852 only 10% of all married Utah men practiced polygamy, but may have reached 20% (which some believe strengthens the argument that only worthy high-priests were supposed to practice).

    7. Many believed that polygamy would end the moral sins of monogamous men (e.g. adultery)

    8. Many women who submitted to becoming a plural wife were having financial troubles. Plural marriage was seen as one way to care for the poor converts.

    9. One Manti historian claims there were at least 7 different types of marriage practiced by the LDS church. 1)Civil 2)Time & Eternity 3)Time-only … usually happened when a husband died before he was sealed to his wife. The new husband would stand as a proxy for the deceased husband and the deceased husband would be sealed to his wife, while the new husband would only be married “for time”. 4)Eternity Only … this occurred when a woman felt that her husband could not properly exalt her if they were to be sealed. She would be sealed to a man of a higher priesthood for eternity but remain married “for time” to her husband. 5)Nominal … similar to “eternity-only” but the wife uses the husband’s surname and received help from the husband, but they did not live as husband/wife. 6)Delayed rights … for those who are seen as too young to be married but wish to be married. They will not live together or carry on as a married couple until they reach a certain age. 7)Convenience … this was VERY rare, if a woman’s husband to whom she is sealed cannot father children, the wife may marry another man to father the children. The biological father may have no claim on the children and they would be sealed to their mother and her true husband. Of these, the most popular are Time/Eternity, Time only and Eternity only.

    Fun huh?!

  • @Casey – Thanks for the info. Fascinating stuff. “Delayed Rights” marriages – that’s a new one! I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that before. This is exactly the sort of stuff I find fascinating – and this is the primary reason why I think Polygamy is best discussed by historians (or armchair historians), rather than theologians, especially theologians who are not historians (and don’t want to be historians).

  • I like your synopsis. I disagree about Point 1, only because for me what early prophets thought and said IS relevant to modern mormonism.

    Points 2 and 4 in particular resound with me:

    I have no problem with polygamy in theory.
    I DO have a problem with coercion, fear, and spiritual manipulation. I also have a problem with lies and half-truths, white-washing, and justification that ignores the meaning and purpose of a family unit.

  • Kassie

    I’m a big fan of letting consenting adults do whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt else.

    What I don’t get is how it can be illegal. I’m legally allowed to live with as many men or women as I want. I’m legally allowed to have sexual relationships outside of marriage if I want, even if I were married. I’ve met many a man with multiple baby mamas, and that’s legal. Yet somehow polygamy isn’t legal.

    I know they were going after that guy who did the reality TV show about his multiple wives. Did they ever arrest him? Does anyone actually get arrested for polygamy? And if so, how could it ever hold up?

    This is where I say, get rid of marriage as a legal institution completely. It is discriminatory on many levels. Get rid of automatic marriage benefits. Make everyone write wills. Let marriage be a religious/social institution and stop with that.

  • @Kassie – my understanding is that nobody has been prosecuted for polygamy for decades. Apparently, most legal experts agree that the polygamy laws would never hold up if challenged in court, and they’d rather not take that chance. So they just find some other charges to try them on. At least that’s what I hear…

  • Post as often as you want on polygamy, I’ll read every time! I personally am fascinated by the topic. My fascination is increased by the fact that I am descended from several polygamous marriages in which my ancestor was a 2nd or 3rd wife. So without polygamy I wouldn’t be here!!

    I do find it fascinating that Mormonism was so vehemently denounced, attacked and persecuted for the practice of polygamy, by a society that supposedly accepts the Bible as the ultimate spiritual authority. The Bible has nothing bad to say about polygamy, and as has been pointed out, it was practiced by many of the great heroes and patriarchs of the Old Testament. Jesus never condemned it, even though it was practiced in his time… So the animus against polygamy among Western Christians is also something I’m interested in.

    I don’t agree that polygamy requires the degradation or inequality of women. Nevertheless, it is dismaying to me that Old Testament polygamy looks something like slavery (some wives were slaves); and its purpose seemed to be to expand the household and wealth of the patriarchs who managed to get more wives. You are right too that there are many instances in LDS history where individuals appear to have been coerced or spiritually bullied into accepting the practice. And there are plenty of instances (I could tell some stories from my own family history) where it resulted in much family anguish and unhappiness.

    At the same time, I do also see why many Mormons came to see it as an ennobling practice; and there are also plenty of examples (in the vein described by Kassie) where it seemed to work well and even empowered women. Isn’t it possible that every social institution proffers examples of abuse, and that those instances don’t necessarily invalidate the institution itself?

    I do agree with you on the gender balance/fairness thing. I’d feel better if women could marry multiple husbands. I’m kind of curious about the concept of “complex marriage” as well… (Where a man might be married to more than one women, and women within that marriage might be married to more than one man.) Nineteenth-century reformers like John Humphrey Noyes thought that such marriages could help cure people of social evils like jealousy and covetousness, and could help people to be less selfish…

    At the same time, one husband is as much as I think I can manage!!!

  • Not Kassie, Casey. Though Kassie has some good points too!