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Polygamy

A minority of Latter-day Saints, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed Mormons) practiced Church-authorized polygamy for a period of 50 years.  Both the beginning and end of the practice (over 120 years ago) were brought about by commandments directly from God through modern prophets.  Polygamy is not practiced in The Church of Jesus Christ today, and attempting to participate in this lifestyle brings the punishment of excommunication.

Book of MormonPresident Gordon B. Hinckley, late Prophet and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stated the following about polygamy in the Church’s General Conference of October 1998:

I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. They know they are in violation of the law. They are subject to its penalties. The Church, of course, has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter.

If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church. An article of our faith is binding upon us. It states, ‘We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law’ (Articles of Faith 1:12). One cannot obey the law and disobey the law at the same time.

There is no such thing as a “Mormon Fundamentalist.” It is a contradiction to use the two words together.

Mormonism today does not practice polygamy, but neither does it claim that its past practice of polygamy was wrong.  The practice was commanded by God through living prophets and forbidden by God through living prophets.

Does the Book of Mormon Speak Against Polygamy?

The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ is similar to and complimentary to the Holy Bible.  While the Bible is the record of Israelites in the Holy Land, the Book of Mormon is an account written by Israelite prophets among a branch of Israel that dwelt anciently in the Americas. Their prophet Jacob spoke to a congregation of “Nephites,” so named because of Jacob’s prophet brother, Nephi.  The people had descended into wickedness, and Jacob had been instructed by God to call them to repentance.  In Jacob 2:27-29 says,

Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.  Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.

These verses make it sound like the Book of Mormon condemns the practice of polygamy, but verse 30 denotes otherwise:

For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

The people Jacob was teaching were under condemnation for their adulterous lifestyle.  It took a pure and righteous people to properly live according to God’s laws of chastity and practice polygamy, as did the prophets in ancient times.  The Lord says He will command His people, if He desires to raise up seed unto Himself, which is the same as saying that if He needs a lot of righteous, moral, faithful children among His covenant people, and conditions are right, He may command His sons to take more than one wife.

Does the Doctrine and Covenants Speak Against Polygamy?

Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of modern revelations, consists of information and commandments received by the prophet Joseph Smith regarding eternal, or celestial, marriage.  Eternal marriage is performed in Mormon Temples, and enables couples who continue in faith to enjoy a marriage that does not end in death, but continues into the eternities.  In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord says eternal marriage is for those who inherit the highest kingdom of heaven and are exalted into the very presence of God, becoming co-heirs with Christ. Both Jacob in the Book of Mormon and Section 132 in the Doctrine and Covenants mention David and Solomon of old with their plethora of wives and concubines.  Some seem to think that the two contradict each other, but they do not. The Lord uses both David and Solomon as examples of both righteousness and sin.  David and Solomon only sinned when they married out of the covenant or broke the laws of chastity.  David’s marriages were all sanctified by God, except in the case of Bathsheba, which sins cost David his exaltation and his eternal covenants.  Solomon started out marrying in the covenant, but then began to make marriages for political gain and to tolerate the idolatry of his wives.  Thus, their plural marriages were sanctioned at the beginning by God, but later marriages were considered sinful.

So What Is the Law of Polygamy?

The Law of Polygamy is that if a covenant people are righteous, and God chooses to raise up an increase of seed (children) unto Himself, He may command His people to enter into plural marriage.  Unless He commands it, we are to have only one spouse.  God’s desires were fulfilled in the case of the fifty years of polygamy practiced in The Church of Jesus Christ.  The law was incredibly difficult to accept, even by prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.  It took Joseph Smith ten years to teach it to members of the Church, and Brigham Young wished he were dead when he first heard the commandment.  The law was also difficult to live, mostly because the society in which it was practiced was made up of immigrants from Western Europe during the Victorian Era, when the roles of men and women were strictly defined, and prudishness was the norm.  In spite of such prudishness, men in the world commonly took mistresses, but Mormon men did not.  They assumed all the duties of devoted husbands and financially supported their wives.  Mormon women had complete freedom of choice whether to participate or not, and also had access to divorce.  On the other hand, polygamy freed many wives to leave their children for a time under the care of sister wives, so they could pursue education and careers.  Many actually increased in independence while living “the practice.”  (Read more.)

Who Practiced Mormon Polygamy?

Joseph Smith, the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ, had plural wives.  Once the principle of eternal marriage was given to him by commandment from God, he had to live it, and the restoration of plural marriage came along with the revelation of eternal marriage.  Says the Doctrine and Covenants:

Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same.

For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.

For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world (Doctrine and Covenants 132:3-5).

It took so long for the Saints to be willing to live this law, and so terrible was the constant persecution faced by Joseph Smith, his family, and early members of the Church, that Joseph practiced plural marriage privately for a time.

Polygamy was only practiced by a fraction of Mormons, mostly leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ, and most of them took only two or three wives.  These were not forced or ordered to enter into plural marriage, although the Prophets may have recommended that certain responsible men think and pray about it.  People who actually undertook to enter “the practice,” did so after receiving the approbation of heaven.  They had profound spiritual experiences.

From John Taylor:

I had always entertained strict ideas of virtue and I felt as a married man that this was to me…an appalling thing to do…Nothing but a knowledge of God, and the revelations of God…could have induced me to embrace such a principle as this…We [the Twelve] seemed to put off, as far as we could, what might be termed the evil day.[3]

From Zina Huntington:

Zina’s brother Dimick encouraged her to accept Joseph’s proposal of plural marriage. However, she refused. What changed her mind? Zina recorded:

I searched the scripture & buy [by] humble prayer to my Heavenly Father I obtained a testimony for myself that God had required that order to be established in this church, I mad[e] a greater sacrifise than to give my life for I never anticipated a gain [again] to be looked uppon as an honerable woman by those I dearly loved [but] could I compremise conience lay aside the sure testimony of the spiret of God for the Glory of this world…[1]

From Lucy Walker:

Of the proposal of marriage:

When [Joseph] Smith sensed resistance, as has been seen, he generally continued teaching—asking the prospective wife to pray about the principle, promising that she would receive a witness. So it happened here. ‘He said, “if you will pray sincerely for light and understanding in relation thereto, you Shall receive a testimony of the correctness of this principle.”’ Lucy was horrified by polygamy and by his proposal and did not quickly gain the promised testimony. She prayed, she wrote, but not with faith. She was nearly suicidal: “tempted and tortured beyond endureance until life was not desirable. Oh that the grave would kindly receive me that I might find rest of the bosom of my dear mother.[11]

Joseph waited at least four months, and then told Mary that she had to decide before the next day. What was her response?

‘This aroused every drop of scotch in my veins,’ [wrote Mary,]…I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar a living Sacrafice, perhaps to brook the world in disgrace and incur the displeasure and contempt of my youthful companions; all my dreams of happiness blown to the four winds, this was too much, the thought was unbearable.’…She then told Joseph that she could not marry him unless God revealed it to her, and God had not done so yet. She wrote, ‘[I] emphatically forbid him speaking again to me on this Subject.’[12]

What was Joseph’s response? Did he threaten? Cajole? Use his prophetic office to apply pressure?

He walked across the room, returned, and stood before me. With the most beautiful expression of countenance, he said, “God almighty bless you. You shall have a manifestation of the will of God concerning you; a testimony that you can never deny. I will tell you what it shall be. It shall be that peace and joy that you never knew.”[13]

Lucy describes the answer she later received while alone:

My room became filled with a heavenly influence. To me it was in comparison like the brilliant sun bursting through the darkest cloud…My Soul was filled with a calm, sweet peace that I never knew. Supreme happiness took possession of my whole being. And I received a powerful and irristable testimony of the truth of the marriage covenant called ‘Celestial or plural mariage.’ Which has been like an anchor to the soul through all the trials of life. I felt that I must go out into the morning air and give vent to the Joy and grattitude that filled my Soul. As I descended the stairs, Prest. Smith opened the door below; took me by the hand and said: ‘Thank God, you have the testimony. I too, have prayed.’ He led me to a chair, placed his hands upon my head, and blessed me with Every blessing my heart could possibly desire.[14]  (See FAIRLDS.org for more.)

How Did the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) Do at Living Polygamy?

Polygamous marriages tended to be as happy or unhappy as the assortment of marriages in any time or age.  Some made a great success of it, with plural wives treating each other as sisters and supporting each other in child care and household duties.  Some husbands were able to give each wife the attention she needed and the financial support as well.  Other families experienced jealousies between wives.  But those who observe from the 21st century looking back need not suppose that anything about Mormon polygamy was other than pure and upstanding.  Of utmost importance was faith.  This was a spiritual endeavor, not a worldly one, and faithfulness, prayer, worthiness, Christ-centeredness, were paramount.

“Spiritual Wives”

In the early days of the Church after the practice of polygamy was commanded by God, church leaders sometimes took “spiritual wives.”  These marriages did not lead to cohabitation in this worldly sphere, but were meant to be in effect only in the afterlife.  Thus, a woman could be married to a man here on earth and married to another in the afterlife.  For Mormon women whose husbands were not members of the Church, or who were unworthy of or uninterested in eternal marriage, being a spiritual wife to a worthy Mormon man was a great blessing, much sought after in those days.  There is no conclusive evidence to date of Prophet Joseph Smith having had children by any of his plural wives.  His only offspring are through his first wife, Emma Hale Smith.

Purposes of Mormon Polygamy

The only recorded reason for the practice of polygamy in the scriptures is to raise up seed unto the Lord.  The most stalwart families in the Church entered into the practice, and they indeed produced future leaders in the Church.  Fairlds.org suggests some other reasons:

  1. It was to try (prove) His people. Polygamy stood as an Abrahamic test for the saints.
  2. It served to “set apart” his people as a peculiar people to the world. This social isolation that gave the church space to solidify itself into an identity independent of the many denominations from which the membership was derived.
  3. Polygamy was part of the “restoration of all things.”
  4. Numerous family ties were created, building a network of associations that strengthened the Church.
  5. Polygamy created a system where a higher percentage of women and men got married compared to the national average at the time. [2]

The practice of polygamy certainly was an “Abrahamic test.”  Remember that Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his only son by Sarah, Isaac.  Since God had promised Abraham numberless seed through Isaac, this request must have caused Abraham considerable confusion.  Add to that the many years Abraham had had to wait before he and Sarah had been able to conceive, and facing the necessity to explain the sacrifice to Sarah.  And yet, Abraham followed the will of the Lord, when an angel stopped him in the act.  Abraham’s display of total faith and obedience had been accepted.  Abraham now dwells in the presence of God.  He is a true example of righteousness.

Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness (Doctrine and Covenants 132:36).

Those who hope to inherit the same glory as Abraham might possibly have to face the same kind of test of faith.  The commandment to practice polygamy for a time was that sort of test.

How Mormon Polygamy Ended

Mormon leadership went public with the practice of polygamy once the Saints were established in the Rocky Mountains and somewhat protected from the bitter persecution they had suffered in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.  But the U.S. Government passed a series of ever more onerous laws that strangled the Church and nearly bankrupted it.  The idea was clearly to destroy the Church all together.  Propht Wilford Woodruff received a vision from God showing him what would happen if the practice of polygamy were to continue.  The Saints would lose the use of their temples, where they performed important higher covenants, and the husbands and fathers of the Church would lose their freedom (many were already imprisoned) and ability to support their wives, children, and the Church, which has always had a lay clergy.  The practice of polygamy was ended in 1890 and the punishment of excommunication for not honoring the ban added in 1904 under Prophet Joseph F. Smith.  A few Latter-day Saints rebelled and split from the Church in order to continue the practice.  Such were excommunicated and have never been part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since.

The beginning and ending of the practice of polygamy does not represent a change in doctrine.  The Lord gives commandments and then withdraws them if conditions change or the people aren’t ready or able to comply.  Remember that the Israelites left Egypt led by Moses.  The journey by foot from Egypt to Israel takes about 11 days, and the Israelites approached the borders of the Promised Land fairly quickly.  However, when they refused the ordinances and covenants necessary to “enter into the rest of the Lord,” God turned them about and had them wander for 40 years until all in the departing generation had perished.  Other examples abound – in Saul who was honored and then rejected; in the offering of the gospel only to the Jews and then the commandment to take it to the Gentiles, and many other situations.  The Law of Plural Marriage has always been one that has been given by God when circumstances were right.