Since starting this blog about two years ago, I have purposely tried to avoid a rather complete discussion of polygamy till now, as it seems to be a touchstone of sorts with dissatisfaction with the LDS (“Mormon”) church and is clearly a big issue with people who have not seen eye-to-eye with the church (i.e., apostates and “anti-Mormons”). I did not “lose” my loyalty to the LDS church over polygamy. On the contrary, I had looked seriously about this topic several times over the years and had come to the conclusion that it was “simply” a mistake in our history, and not much more.
As with other hot subjects, I have to start this topic by explaining the teachings of my youth as I grew up in Meridian, Idaho in a stalwart LDS home. Polygamy was often a topic of discussion, but was not a particularly contentious one.
In high school seminary – and on into college at BYU, the topic of LDS history of polygamy often came up. I doubt that any LDS youth in Idaho could say that they did not know about its occurrence in the early church. How prevalent it was, understanding how it happened — and why, and the circumstances surrounding its origins and demise, however is an entirely different matter.
What I was taught in my youth – A Brief Summary
I knew (or thought that I knew) that polygamy was given as a commandment by God to Joseph Smith as a part of the restoration. Since it was an Old Testament principle, it had to be a part of the Restoration. The Saints were persecuted for practicing polygamy and other things, so they were forced to leave the United States to be allowed to practice their religion — and polygamy. At that time, a large group of converts became disaffected with the practice of polygamy — including — and especially– , Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s first wife and her son, who Joseph had promised would assume the succession of leadership after him. Those who failed to emigrate with the saints – became organized into a large offshoot called “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” and did not practice polygamy. There were other disaffected groups, however, who practiced polygamy as a basic tenet of their religion. [One fairly large group of "Mormons" today who still practice polygamy is the FLDS -- Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, headed today by their prophet Warren Jeffs from his jail cell in the Utah State Prison.]
The Law of Sarah: This was a part of “The Principle” that claimed that the first wife had to approve of additional wives and “give” them to her husband as part of her calling as the first wife. This was in a similitude of Sarah giving Hagar to her husband, Abraham. Abraham was a central character in the justification that Joseph Smith gave in justifying plural marriage. [See D & C 132] Although Joseph Smith used Abraham and Sarah’s example, he apparently did not completely follow it, because he did not tell his own first wife, Emma, about his first plural marriages, probably fearing her reaction. In my opinion, this concept gave some degree of assurance that peace would more likely prevail in polygamous households instead of jealousies.
Eventually, after Utah became a US territory, the federal government Supreme Court found that the Mormon polygamy principle was not protected by the freedom of religion clause of the Constitution. The government was close to confiscating all the financial assets of the church. Several LDS leaders [only males] were jailed for practicing polygamy. After all, what is a man to do with multiple wives once they have been married and have started having children?? You don’t just tell the ugliest wives to leave, do you?
Some of the Mormon communities had people on the lookout for US Marshalls. When the warning was sounded, the polygamous men would scatter to pre-selected hiding spots. Persecution was sufficient to force many polygamists to move with their families to Mexico or Canada.
In 1890, the LDS leader, Wilford Woodruff issued a “Manifesto” denouncing the church’s early practice of polygamy for about 60 years. Since the keys of “Celestial Marriage” — or “The Principle” (as it was taught) had been restored to the earth, the Lord would later require Mormons to practice it — after the laws of the land changed to allow it again. [Interestingly, nothing in the "Manifesto" claimed to be any kind of "revelation" from God -- it only stated that the LDS leader would abide by the law of the land. It has since been claimed by many LDS members, when talking about the topic, to be a "revelation".] You can read the entire 1-page manifesto by clicking on this link. Many books have been written about the early LDS practice of polygamy, none is better documented or more objective than the book about Joseph Smith’s first wife, Emma Smith, called “Mormon Enigma, Emma Hale Smith“. [A former BYU professor has published a well-documented history of problems of the LDS church with polygamy between 1890 and 1904. It can be downloaded by clicking HERE.]
Emma did not emigrate with Brigham Young and most of the Saints to Utah Territory and refused to believe to her dying day that Joseph willingly participated in polygamy. She thought that he was put up to it by Brigham Young and others in the Quorum of 12 Apostles.
If a person asks questions today about polygamy to the missionaries, they are referred to the official church newsroom site about polygamy. At this web site, they will be told that the only reason the saints practiced polygamy was because it was a commandment.
Before I start dissecting this doctrine, I think I should point out that Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley made a statement during the course of a TV interview with Mormon-friendly Larry King, that he did not think the doctrine of polygamy was “doctrinal”. [Larry King was a "serial polygamist", having been married eight times to seven different women, one of whom was Mormon. Larry King was an atheist himself.] His statement: “Gordon B. Hinckley: I condemn it, yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal. It is not legal. And this church takes the position that we will abide by the law. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates in honoring, obeying and sustaining the law.” (Reference)
So that’s it in a nutshell. Now to get down to the nitty-gritty…..
Theories and Explanations of Why LDS Polygamy was Practiced
- Joseph Smith claimed that polygamy was “commanded” by God. He acted as though it was something that he did not really want to do and besides it was against the teachings and beliefs he was raised with. However, being the God-fearing and obedient man that he was, he began multiple marriages so that he wouldn’t be killed by God for disobedience. He claimed that an angel (with a sword) from God commanded him to marry many women in addition to his first wife, or he would be murdered by God. “I know whereon I stand, I know what I believe, I know what I know and I know what I testify to you is the living truth. As I expect to meet it at the bar of the eternal Jehovah, it is true. And when you stand before the bar you will know. He preached polygamy and he not only preached it, but he practiced it. I am a living witness to it. It was given to him before he gave it to the Church. An angel came to him and the last time he came with a drawn sword in his hand and told Joseph if he did not go into that principle, he would slay him.“ (- Sister Mary Lightner, Address to Brigham Young University, April 14th, 1905, BYU Archives and Manuscripts) There are many other references to this fact. A search of the official LDS website, www.lds.org reveals that this is the most common answer of LDS members to the question of WHY polygamy was practiced between the period of about 1830 and 1890 — simply because God commanded it, nuff’ said.
I am not at all sure WHY an angel would need a sword to kill anyone, but it certainly showed that he was serious about forcing Joseph to start polygamy. Joseph Smith claimed to have foreseen the problems that polygamy would cause for the church, but decided that he would obey the angel anyway.
- It was part of the “restitution of all things”. Mormons believe that there was a general apostasy of and from the original teachings of Christ. Since there had to then be a ”restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21) and part of this included the keys of the practice of Old Testament polygamy as practiced by the Old Testament prophets.
- It brought the Latter-day Saints together. Part of ensuring that the new religion survived was BECAUSE polygamy gave them an identity separate and apart from other start-up cults and religions. Of course, this included persecution due to polygamy, but this brought the Saints together and caused them to stay away from other religions. They would have to endure persecution and injustice, be driven out of the United States, and have to establish their own colonies in “the tops of the mountains.”
This same explanation is given, by the way, of the failure of “Zion’s Camp” — that those who survived the cholera and deprivations became the most loyal and strong of Joseph Smith’s followers.
- It raised up a mighty generation. It was believed that the need to raise up a mighty generation would be fulfilled by increasing the birth rate of fertile female converts to the new church. Polygamy allowed men who were strong in the faith to have more righteous children than would happen if monogamy were the norm. Brigham Young, for example is known to have fathered over fifty children from over two dozen wives.
Myths and Misconceptions About Mormon Polygamy
- “Mormons practiced polygamy because women on the frontier far outnumbered men, and plural marriage gave every woman a chance to have a husband.”
There is often a simple explanation about WHY polygamy might have been thought to have been a good idea — it was needed because there were so many poor faithful women on the frontier that some accommodation had to be made by wealthy men who could take care of them, protect them from the deprivations of frontier living and otherwise support them. In point of fact, men often outnumbered women by up to three to one. Women had to be imported (i.e., “mail order brides”) and those that came to the frontier often had “the pick of the litter” when it came to picking a husband.
- ”Polygamy took care of older women and spinsters so they had a chance to get married.”
This explanation “sounds” good and believable, but it is disingenuous at best and an outright lie at worst. Most polygamists chose young wives (as they also do nowadays in the FLDS church) and generally avoid entanglements with less desirable, older, potential wives. The new wives weren’t exactly spinsters who had been passed over for marriage — who were then rescued by a generous polygamist.
- “Polygamous men lived in harems and had about 20 wives each.” Having a large number of wives was actually rare. By far the most common was the polygamist who only married one or two extra wives. If they could afford it, each wife would have a home of her own. Relatively few Mormons actually lived in polygamous relationships — only 2 – 5% of even early Mormons lived that lifestyle. A visit to Salt Lake City and the Lion House will give the visitor an interesting glimpse into how Brigham Young managed the day-to-day lives of some of his wives and their children.
- “Polygamy was all about sex.” Wrong! Many marriages WERE for financial support only. Some marriages were never about sex. Many marriage ceremonies were performed only posthumously in LDS Temples “for time and eternity only” – meaning that sex was not allowed at all. I do not wish to be judgmental, but photos of some of the wives do not at all show sexuality.
- All 19th century Mormons practiced polygamy. As pointed out earlier, never did more than 10% of the early Mormons practiced “the principle.” Most Mormons did support the concept, however and believed that it guaranteed their entry into the highest order of heaven after their demise. The wives of Joseph Smith are listed in a short article by clicking HERE.
What Are My Current Feelings About Polygamy?
I don’t get worked up over who people fall in love with and marry — so long as the following conditions are present:
- They do it willingly and are not forced or coerced into the relationship because of pressure from family, potential spouse, religion or other entities. (Part of the problems that Warren Jeffs got into was using a 12-year-old child in his polygamous sect.)
- They are of an age where they can reasonably be expected to make a mature decision of this kind on their own. (In my mind this age is at least 16.)
- There is a mechanism to allow any of the parties to the marriage to get out of it through divorce.
- There is some kind of reasonable expectation of the support of the children emotionally and financially throughout the marriage and afterward. Men who have a lot of children (Brigham Young had over 50) simply do not have the ability to be a father — only to pass on his genes. I can only imagine what Biblical patriarchs did with the children of hundreds of wives, like King Soloman.
This means that I DO NOT support many of the Biblical definitions of marriage that can include:
- Forced marriage of the victims of rapists
- Arranged marriages
- Marriages of children before puberty
- Marriages that are not initiated due to close feelings of the parties involved
- Marriages that are made purely to have children
According to current LDS leadership, a marriage is properly defined as a union between one man and one woman. A special “Proclamation To The World” was made in September, 1995 about the current position of the LDS church. To my knowledge, this was never put to the entire church for a vote, neither was it claimed at the time to be “revelation”. No mention was made at the time about the church’s historical links to polygamy. At the time, I considered this “Proclamation” to be at least a manipulation of the LDS church’s history — and I never hung it on a wall as suggested to do so by home teachers and the local Bishop. This documents claims that only “A” husband and “A” wife are to be the basis of a family in the church. The LDS church has since made it clear that they regard monogamous marriage as the only marriage they will recognize. [unless, of course, you marry two or more wives who are then “sealed” in the temples — most commonly after a first wife dies and the husband then remarries)
As I became older and read more about LDS history, it became clear that the institutional church did not relinquish plural marriage until forced to by the US courts. I wondered, “If one day in the future, the courts accepted plural marriage, then it will quickly return.” But the Protestantization of church thinking about monogamous marriage put that thought to rest.
Polygamy was started by Joseph Smith, Jr. in the early 1830′s soon after officially organizing his new church. I don’t want to get into the situation of over-emphasizing the importance of polygamy to the new LDS leaders, but there seems to be substantial evidence that Joseph Smith not only married other women without the consent of his first wife, but that he married women who were already married to others at the time. His example was followed by all the other leaders of the LDS church up till the 1890′s.
At that time, the US Supreme Court was about to disenfranchise the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the leaders declared that they would no longer practice this concept.
I never thought that I, personally, would like to be polygamous. Nor did I ever want more than one wife. One wife is plenty for me.
I do have one well-documented ancestor who was polygamous. It was my great great grandfather on the Andersen side of the family. He came to the USA as a convert from Denmark. His wife refused to come, however and he continued to support her financially while she stayed in Denmark. At roughly the age of sixty, he married a woman who was also about the same age while trying repeatedly to get his Danish wife to join him in Utah. He was officially polygamous, but only lived with one woman at a time.
Marriage Experimentation in the 19th Century
College classes that I took exposed me to US history in ways that I could never have predicted. I learned that it was NOT LDS leaders who first brought up the concept of “Celestial Marriage” — that was taught by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as being necessary to enter the highest degree of heaven after mortality. As early as 1749, a preacher from Sweden named Emannuel Swedenborg taught; “A central question with regard to marriage is whether it stops at death or continues into heaven. The question arises due to a statement of Jesus’ that appears to say that, indeed, “death do us part.” Paul, furthermore, questions marriage in the first place, as opposed to celibacy. For a detailed analysis of this issue, see Jesus and Paul on the Eternity of Marriage.
The quality of the relationship between husband and wife resumes in the spiritual world in whatever state it was at their death in this world. Thus, a couple in true marriage love remain together in that state in heaven into eternity. A couple lacking in that love by one or both partners, however, will separate after death and each will be given a compatible new partner if they wish. A partner is also given to a person who loved the ideal of marriage but never found a true partner in this world. The exception in both cases is a person who hates chaste marriage and thus cannot receive such a partner.
In a future post, I plan on discussing other marriage experiments in the USA during the 19th century.