by Sharon Lindbloom
12 November 2021
Richard Ostling is perhaps best known for his past career as a religion reporter for TIME Magazine and the Associated Press, and for the landmark book he coauthored in 1999 with his wife, Joan Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. Mr. Ostling today maintains a blog titled Religion Q&A where he answers religiously-themed questions submitted by readers. At the end of October he responded to the question, “How do today’s Latter-say Saints view their faith’s past polygamy?”
Mr. Ostling’s answer provides readers with a concise historical overview of the practice of polygamy (aka, plural marriage) within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints beginning with Joseph Smith’s mid-1830s marriage to his first plural wife, 16-year-old Fanny Alger. Included in Mr. Ostling’s response are additional interesting historical details, like the fact that Joseph Smith married 30-40 women, the first 12 of whom (apparently not counting Fanny) were already married to other men, as well as Brigham Young’s 1866 pronouncement that “the only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.”
And while the information Mr. Ostling provides is stellar, in my opinion he fails to answer the question asked: “How do today’s Latter-say Saints view their faith’s past polygamy?” Mr. Ostling writes,
“What does the polygamy teaching mean to contemporary Saints, among whom perhaps one-fifth have polygamous forebears? [Brittany Chapman] Nash [author of “Let’s Talk About Polygamy”] contends that ‘we can gain strength from our polygamous past’ and ‘discard shame and embarrassment.’ Polygamy was usually a challenge for its adherents, as the book describes, so it can ‘invigorate our own resolve to make difficult choices and sacrifices for the gospel’s sake,’ even while ‘not having all of the answers. . . . We can trust in God, as they did, and make and keep our own sacred covenants.’”
These are some ideas that today’s Latter-day Saints can or might try when thinking about Mormonism’s polygamous history, but not necessarily the ways they actually do view the LDS doctrine and practice of plural marriage.
I don’t have a definitive answer to the question asked, but I can speak to it anecdotally based on the experiences I’ve had in speaking with Latter-day Saints, visiting LDS historic sites, and reading LDS books. How do today’s Latter-day Saints view their faith’s past polygamy? According to my observations, usually with embarrassment, often employing a form of denial, and sometimes with tears.
In my experience, when asked about Mormonism’s polygamy, Latter-day saints echo the standard response given by church officials during the 20th century: “We gave it up long ago. It has nothing to do with us.” As 15th LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley explained, “It has had nothing to do with [this church] for a very long time” (September 8, 1998, Larry King Live). Members of the Mormon church do not want to own their church’s polygamous history.*
When I’ve visited historic Mormon sites (such as Kirtland, Ohio or Nauvoo, Illinois) the LDS missionary tour guides do not freely offer information about plural marriage even though, historically speaking, it would be natural to do so. In Nauvoo, where Joseph Smith recorded a revelation on the doctrine, where he introduced it to his inner circle, and where he wed most of his dozens of plural wives, I was told that the missionaries are instructed not to mention polygamy. This, even though polygamy is a major issue that led to the death of Joseph Smith at nearby Carthage, Illinois – where polygamy is also not part of the tour script.
On a recent visit to Kirtland, Ohio my missionary tour guide focused a lot of the presentation on Newel K. Whitney and his family, explaining the many ways in which these people served and sacrificed for Joseph Smith and for the LDS church — from Kirtland, to Nauvoo, and on to Salt Lake City. But one fact — one sacrifice — that was never mentioned was that when Newel Whitney’s daughter Sarah Ann was 17, Whitney gave her to Joseph Smith to become Smith’s 16th wife. When I asked about this omission, a tour guide explained that this information was “not supposed to be included” in the tour. Furthermore, she said, when looking at history she often finds that those people did things that were wrong, but she chooses not to judge them. This sister missionary was embarrassed by Mormonism’s past polygamy.
For Latter-day Saints, thinking about plural marriage is not merely an academic exercise dealing with the past; while the practice of polygamy has been discontinued within Mormonism, the doctrine still remains. Richard Ostling notes in his blog response,
“As Nash states, ‘plural marriage was not rejected as a principle of the Latter-day Saint faith’ and ‘the church has never renounced the doctrine.’”
In fact, Mormon women understand that there is a chance they will end up being plural wives in eternity. In Mormonism, marriages “sealed” for eternity in LDS temples are not for this earth-life only, but are expected to continue forever in heaven. Women may be eternally sealed to only one man, but men — in the cases of divorce or the death of a spouse – may be sealed for eternity to many women, all of whom will be his wives forever in Mormonism’s celestial kingdom.
LDS author Carol Lynn Pearson asked Mormons and former Mormons to tell her their stories, thoughts, and feelings surrounding this LDS doctrine of what she calls “polygamy delayed.” In 2016 she published a book titled, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men in which she shared many of these stories. Ms. Pearson’s book gives readers deep insight into how many Latter-day Saints view their faith’s polygamy: They view it through tears.
Understanding that, according to Mormonism, plural marriage is God-ordained and, in some cases, God-required, members of the LDS church describe its effects on them like this:
- “I feel an incredible dread of an eternity in which I am assured I will have to live as a plural wife. This sounds like hell to me.” (7)
- “But polygamy in the next life seems like a punishment, not eternal glory.” (9)
- “[When I learned about polygamy as our eternal destiny, I began] a painful journey toward an impossible goal…how to love a God who hurts you.” (14)
- “Polygamy in heaven has caused me pain that cannot be quantified. It is the only reason that I fear death. It inhibits my ability to trust in a loving and just Heavenly Father. Its effects have been corrosive to my marriage and my soul.” (49)
- “There is always a piece of me that wonders… ‘If I die first, will [my husband] marry again and be sealed to another woman, making us eternal polygamists?’ That thought has made me cautious, wondering if there would be a place in the universe far enough away for me to hide if I were on the other side of the veil and my dear love was having another woman sealed to him forever…Could God break my heart forever and call it heaven?” (154)
This is how many of today’s Latter-day Saints view their faith’s polygamy — past, present, and future. In every case in my anecdotal experience, the LDS doctrine of plural marriage is viewed negatively. It’s an embarrassment to be denied, excused, or downplayed. Sometimes it fosters mourning or fear. And sometimes it causes Mormons to view their God as untrustworthy, and even hurtful. “What kind of God would think this up?” one of today’s Latter-day Saints questions, “Not one I want to worship or adore” (The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy, 185).
No wonder the LDS church does its best to distance itself from its history of plural marriage — and its continuing doctrine regarding the practice of polygamy in the future.
*A distinction should be made between Mormons as individuals and the LDS church as an entity. Today the church does offer some official information about its polygamous past on its website.
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