It should come as no great surprise that many Mormons are troubled by polygamy. HBO’s Big Love, Warren Jeffs, and Mitt Romney’s presidential run have kept the practice on the cultural radar. More recently, the Church released a series of Gospel Topics essays on the subject (here, here, here, and here). and one member is facing Church discipline for writing about his disbelief in the practice.
While many members are able to reconcile their acceptance of the early practice with their abhorrence of contemporary polygamy, others reject the concept in its entirety. But rather than sanctioning those troubled by polygamy, we need to reaffirm that members with a variety of responses to the practice are still welcome among us – even as the Church continues to defend the historic practice.
To understand why the old practice of polygamy may be causing new waves, it’s worth contrasting the Gospel Topics essay with the usual depiction in Church materials and classes.
Joseph Smith’s polygamy has never been a total secret for modern Mormons. But in my experience many members had at best a vague sense that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and that it was kept secret at the time. Few knew anything about his wives other than Emma. And I think the general sense of most members was that this arrangement was primarily spiritual rather than sexual, and that it provided economic security for women who otherwise might be on their own. Something, in short, like what is written in the manual Truth Restored (2001):
“Although polygamy is no longer practiced in the Church, no account of the Church’s history can be complete without some discussion of the practice. It was first announced by Joseph Smith at Nauvoo in 1842. Many of those close to him knew of it and accepted it as a principle of divine pronouncement. However, it was not publicly taught until 1852.
“In the families that practiced polygamy, each wife, with her children, occupied a separate house, or, if the wives lived in the same house, as was sometimes the case, in separate quarters. No distinction was made between either of the wives or the children. The husband provided for each family, was responsible for the education of the children, and gave both the children and their mothers the same advantages he would have given to his family under a monogamous relationship. If it was thought he could not do this, he was not permitted to enter into plural marriage.”
The realities of polygamy have been well-hidden behind such false transparency. While more detailed information was available in publications neither produced nor sponsored by the Church, few members sought that out. But these new essays are the first time in which materials from the Church have given this level of detail.
With these essays, members are confronted by stark reality: that Joseph had many wives (40!), many of them already married, many of them young girls; that these were sexual relationships often without any financial support; and that Emma was often kept in the dark about them. That’s a much different picture to face than the generalities found in our manuals and one that is difficult to reconcile with our usual depiction of the beloved prophet as a consummate family man.
Though silent on the issues of eternal families or the celestial kingdom, the Book of Mormon does have something to say about polygamy. Speaking for God, the prophet Jacob referred to polygamy as “a grosser crime” than pride, “whoredoms,” “abominable,” and “wicked”; causing sorrow and broken hearts; and resulting in cursings, destruction, and great condemnation by God (Jacob 3:20-35).
If God condemns polygamous relationships this harshly whenever they are undertaken without his express command, is it any wonder that members feel similarly upon learning the details of Joseph Smith’s behavior? Is it any wonder that they question whether he was, in fact, commanded to follow this practice?
Nor should we be surprised to find that this information challenges our notions about Joseph Smith more generally. It reminds me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing for The Atlantic, said about another public figure:
“It is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another.… It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.”
What is truly remarkable is that many members do manage to reconcile their positive feelings about the Church with their negative view of Joseph Smith’s polygamous practice (in which he entered relationships that we would condemn today). If members are able to do so – however they are able to do so – we should welcome them with open arms. Even as the Church continues to teach that Joseph Smith was inspired in his polygamous practice, we should not insist upon the acceptance of 19th (and early 20th) century polygamy as a qualification for full participation in the contemporary Church. Asking members to embrace something that God usually finds abhorrent is not a healthy standard for individual or institutional spiritual growth.
 For a detailed look at what Church publications said about polygamy as of 2008, see http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/11/12/plural-marriage-as-discussed-in-the-church-today/
 See, for instance, this compilation of references to Joseph and Emma from sources available on lds.org: http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2014/11/20/josephs-first-wife-emma/
I think it’s probably important to clarify that it has been made abundantly clear in an honest study of the scriptures is that the only thing that God finds abhorrent about polygamy is its practice without His authorization (even in Jacob 2, He makes that quite clear). What evidence do you have in all of the scriptures or teachings of the latter-day prophets that God abhors polygamy? Please share it if you have any.
God never once approved of Polygamy….not once
If God does not find polygamy as practiced by Joseph Smith abhorrent, She should.
The dishonesty that accompanied polygamy is the biggest issue for me. I’m still amazed that people seem to ignore it, which seems dishonest to me as well. I don’t believe that an honest God directed, or inspired the outright lies and deceptions which brought forth, sustained, and are still used to justify and enoble the churches practice of polygamy. Calling lies “carefully worded denials” is just another lie.
We live in a world saturated with sex. Sex is the subtext of practically everything. Immodesty and immorality are constantly and enthusiastically promoted. Internet pornography (staunchly protected!) is destroying lives, marriages, and families (not so staunchly protected) as fast as a horse can run. In such a spiritually toxic climate, critics have a field day with Joseph Smith and plural marriage, considering it only in terms of sex – what other explanation can there be? The long and short of this perspective is this: Lust. Joseph Smith is a hypocrite who couldn’t or wouldn’t control his. He wanted to have sex with other women. Polygamy is the social and psychological window dressing to justify his lust. The End.
This analysis raises several problems for the Church. How can God accommodate such gross sexual immorality – and with the next several prophets as well? So much for being unable to look upon sin “with the least degree of allowance.” How Joseph was supposed to fool God with polygamy while maintaining close ties with Him is anyone’s guess. Is it not the case that covering sins, gratifying pride, or exercising any degree of unrighteous control nullifies Priesthood authority altogether?
So the plural-marriage-as-lust angle not only belittles Joseph Smith, it belittles God. Why call Joseph Smith in the first place, knowing he will so soon run off the rails to repeatedly violate the standards of sexual morality? Wrong choice for the First Vision, you’d think. A pretty big thing for Joseph to get wrong and for God to overlook. Couldn’t God have found a prophet who would hold to the course as did the many other prophets He has called throughout history?
And where’s the backup plan? Where is the second attempt at the Restoration in these days preceding the return of the Savior? Who else is expending time and money to build temples and perform therein the sealing work to bind families together (and keep all the records) to avoid the earth being “utterly wasted” at the Second Coming? Who else has tens of thousands of missionaries out there spreading this (or any) Restored Gospel? Who else has the Book of Mormon? Where’s that restored church, the one the world cannot object to on grounds of polygamy, the one without Joseph Smith?
And yet, on the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Joseph was faithful to his death in accomplishing what the Lord wanted accomplished, and no dearth of those willing to testify to this. Above all, why is the Holy Ghost continuing to testify of the truthfulness of a Restoration that included plural marriage?
The solution to this quandary is to return to the original assumption about polygamy – and reject it. Plural marriage is not about sex at all. It is not a program for sexual satisfaction. It never was. It’s about something else. It’s the “something else” that ought to engage our focus. It’s about families and it’s about eternity. It’s what Joseph Smith said it was – a commandment given to him by God for that time. God was the originator, not Joseph Smith. As with the Book of Mormon (“An angel gave me the plates”) so too with plural marriage – the straightforward explanation given by Joseph is the true one. Joseph Smith did not have a problem with immorality that Church members (and God) have to turn a blind eye to. Joseph Smith did not deviate from the Lord’s instructions for the Restoration.
Of the plural wives who left testimony, many stated that they had prayed for (who wouldn’t?) and had received a spiritual witness (sometimes dramatic) and peace that the course they were following was approved by God. Here is Helen Mar Kimball (the 14-year old so often cited in literature on polygamy):
“The Latter-day Saints would not enter into this holy order of matrimony unless they had received some stronger and more convincing proofs of its correctness than the testimony of a man, for in obeying this law it has cost them a sacrifice nearly equal to that of Abraham.”
And later in her life, “. . . of that pure and unalloyed bliss [to come] I solemnly testify that I have had a foretaste.”
To be sure, this was not her – or anyone else’s – first reaction upon hearing the doctrine, but Helen’s experience and witness is echoed by others, who also received “strong and convincing” confirmation.
A big obstacle to understanding plural marriage in Joseph Smith’s time is the scarcity in contemporary documentation. There is very little. This lack has been filled by critics with – what else? – sex, with all its innuendoes and in all its salacious forms. And why not, sex being touted as the principle concern of life? But must it also have been so with Joseph?
Is it a simple topic to get your mind around? No. Challenging? Yes. A trial of faith? Certainly. Plural marriage runs contrary to our expectations. Ask Abraham about challenges to faith and commandments that run contrary to expectation. But it can be and has been discussed in terms other than sex. It need not be an unbreachable obstacle to faith. The essays on the lds.org website are well-written and a good place to begin. I also recommend Brian and Laura Hales’ new book, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy — Toward a Better Understanding. It will be out soon in paperback; I was able to get it a couple of days ago on my Nook. Certainly there is plenty to read on the topic — have at it. Be aware that those treatments written by critics (or out-and-out detractors) of Joseph Smith have their scholarly responses and rebuttals as well, most of which can be found on the FairMormon website.
Will any of us be fully satisfied that we understand the whole of God’s plan here in mortality? Likely not. But we can be satisfied that all will be well. Does it make sense that any woman in the Celestial Kingdom is unhappy and feels she has been deceived? No one there, woman or man, would persuade us to lose faith in the Savior, in His Church or in His Priesthood. They pray that we won’t. After all, they are our family. They want us to join them there.
I think this you’ve touched on a key issue of perspective in interpreting scriptures. From my perspective, the fact that God has so rarely authorized polygamy (at very specific times, for only certain individuals on a case-by-case basis) and that God has been so vehement about monogamy at other times (see Family Proclamation, Paul’s counsel on bishops, etc) suggests that his default view is that expressed by Jacob. From yours, the key issue appears to be unauthorized behavior rather than any general dislike for polygamy per se.
I don’t know for certain which of us is right (His thoughts are higher than our thoughts, etc.), but that’s exactly the issue. Because God’s thoughts on the issue are somewhat obscure and given to interpretation – because God appears to have sometimes authorized and sometimes condemned it – we need to allow members to hold varying opinions about the practice. Otherwise, we’re removing/excluding people based on a semantic argument. That seems to me to be a really bad idea.
I frankly don’t believe polygamy was instituted by God and I see clear contradictions in Jacob and D&C 132. It’s baffling after reading the history of polygamy and D&C 132 that anyone can justify polygamy as Joseph Smith practiced it. He pretty much broke every rule he said God revealed to him as far as how polygamy needed to be practiced. My one question is this for anyone who can answer, where was polygamy commanded or authorized by God in the Bible? As far as I can tell, it never was. Abraham was encouraged by his wife to live it to have children. I think it was lived culturally but I know of no reference where it was commanded and yet time and time again I hear it was restored from an earlier commandment. To quote Yentyl “Where is it Written?”
I see no special problems between Jacob and D&C 132. Since the Nephites weren’t going to be called upon to institute the practice, the elaboration found in the D&C wasn’t necessary. As for “where is it written”: There is a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into our current Bible. Where is it written that Adam was baptized as a Christian? Not in the Bible. The list of the “unwritten” is as long as your arm.
And where is the condemnation in the Bible of the polygamy practiced by the patriarch? Why is the Lord OK with what should be clear violations of the law of chastity – “lived culturally” or no? (Today, pre-marital sex is certainly and enthusiastically “lived culturally”, but try selling that to a bishop.) Let’s reason this way: For the past 4,000 years, the over-arching family structure for mortal salvation has been the House of Israel – non-members who accept the Savior are even adopted into it. The House of Israel, this family structure, was established through the sexual relations of one man and four women. The evidences of the Lord’s love for and nourishing of the House of Israel are overwhelming, obvious and ongoing. (see Jacob 5, much of Isaiah, Matt 15:24 and Russell M. Nelson, Oct 2006) Where’s the condemnation of the would-be sordid sexual relations that produced it?
Nowhere. Does God have a double standard for chastity?
Most of those who reject the Restored Gospel reject all of it – the First Vision, the angel, the gold plates, the Book of Abraham, the temple ordinances – all of them originated with Joseph Smith, not God. So who cares what they think of polygamy? Had it never been spoken of, let alone practiced, all the rest of the Restoration would still be rejected anyway.
The difficulty and challenge come for members who want Joseph Smith to be right about the truthfulness of the Restoration (true in the sense of D&C 1:30) but wrong about polygamy. They have some heavy lifting to do. And their problem isn’t just with Brother Joseph, but with the next five prophets as well, all of whom defended the doctrine and its practice and all of whom were polygamous. (A later prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, was the son of Joseph F. Smith and a plural wife.) Where’s the divine denunciation of what would otherwise have to be seen as a monumental breach of the law of chastity?
For members, the only viable option is to see plural marriage as instituted and sustained by God for a season in His Church and for His own purposes. Investigation needs to begin with this. Here’s one reason that has been suggested: Plural marriage distanced the Church from the surrounding cultural norms from the get-go and has forced members, then and now, to examine their faith in God and the spiritual witnesses they receive. The Lord must have known how polygamy would appear to Joseph Smith’s world, and to ours. It’s not great for marketing. What, then, does He expect of us?
I appreciate your open-mindedness, but do not see this as a matter of inclusion or exclusion of individuals based on varying levels of understanding, it is a matter of whether or not we allow the philosophies of men (even intelligent men) to corrupt the truths passed down through the prophets and the scriptures to even the weakest who can be called Saints. Joseph Smith is either who he said he was or he is not. We cannot allow that he was inspired and instructed by God while simultaneously indulging the temptations of the Devil. Jacob 2 clearly shows that God regards the practice of plural marriage so highly that he will not allow it to be practiced except through strict regulation by the only one on earth holding those keys – the prophet. The men of Jacob’s day were acting outside of priesthood authority and using David and Solomon as an excuse. There is more information on Jacob 2 and the Lord’s exception “for if I will raise up seed unto me…I will command my people” at thewonderwomen.squarespace.com in a post called “A Godly Seed and a Peculiar People” (sorry- my device won’t let me switch screens right now to provide a direct link to the post)
I understand the argument for purity maintenance, but I don’t think our feelings about a discontinued practice is the place to draw the line. I don’t believe protecting ‘the weakest who can be called Saints’ requires removing those whose personal beliefs on this subject differ from the standard teaching, especially since the standard teachings on the subject are changing.
I understand that for you (and for Tim Bone), believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet and believing that polygamy was required by God are inseparable. What I hope you can understand is that for many, that’s not the case. And if people are willing to continue to fellowship with us even if they don’t believe polygamy was a commandment from the Lord, I think we should let them. But then, I’ve always preferred to err on the side of a literal interpretation of 2 Nephi 26:24-30.
Thank you for the blog post reference. While I did not find it entirely convincing/satisfying personally, I did find it insightful.