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The Polygamy Dilemma – Is Plural Marriage a Dead Issue in Mormonism?

Listen to the Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series that originally aired in late January 2014 by clicking on the following links:  Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4 

Due to political pressure brought upon the LDS Church by the federal government over the issue of plural marriage, President Wilford Woodruff signed what has come to be known as The Manifesto, or Declaration 1. The Manifesto can be found following section 138 in the Doctrine and Covenants. This document was basically a promise to the United States stating that the LDS Church would submit to the laws of the land and desist from solemnizing plural marriages. The document, signed in 1890, also denied any accusations that the church was encouraging or performing any such marriages. However, despite this promise, the polygamy issue would not be laid to rest.

LDS historians and apologists have given numerous reasons as to why Joseph Smith felt it necessary to establish the covenant of plural marriage. One of the main arguments used by Mormon spokesmen was the fact that men mentioned in the Old Testament practiced polygamy. This is a historical fact, as both unbelievers (i.e. Lemech, the son of Cain, and Belshazzar, the king of Babylon) and believers (i.e. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon) were known polygamists.

It must be noted that, biblically, polygamy was merely tolerated by God and never commanded by Him. The mere fact that in the beginning God created just Eve for the companionship of Adam points to the monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. This is confirmed by such passages as I Corinthians 7:2 where the apostle Paul states that “every man have his own wife,” not wives. In I Timothy 3:2, monogamy was a qualification for church office, and in Matthew 19:5, even our Lord condoned monogamy when He stated “they twain (two) shall be one flesh.”

A common belief in Mormonism is that all humans are the literal offspring of God. Mormons are told that we all existed as spirit children of Heavenly Father prior to our “mortal probation” here on earth. Believing that the gestation period of a spirit child in the preexistence could possibly be comparable to that here on earth, Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt supported the notion that God had multiple wives in order to enhance his ability to populate this world in a much shorter period of time. He said:

“If we admit that one personage was the Father of all this great family, and that they were all born of the same Mother, the period of time intervening between the birth of the oldest and the youngest spirit must have been immense. If we suppose, as an average, that only one year intervened between each birth, then it would have required, over one hundred thousand million of years for the same Mother to have given birth to this vast family. The law, regulating the formation of the embryo spirit, may, as it regards time, differ considerably from the period required for the formation of the infant tabernacle of flesh. Should the period between each birth, be one hundred times shorter than what is required in this world, (which is very improbable,) it would still require over one thousand million of years to raise up such a numerous progeny. But as heavenly things are, in many respects, typical of earthly, it is altogether probable that the period  required for the formation of the infant spirit, is of the same length as that required in this world for the organization of the infant tabernacle. If the Father of these spirits, prior to his redemption, had secured to himself, through the everlasting covenant of marriage, many wives, as the prophet David did in our world, the period required to people a world would be shorter, within certain limits, in proportion to the number of wives. For instance, if it required one hundred thousand million of years to people a world like this, as above stated, it is evident that, with a hundred wives, this period would be reduced to only one thousand million of years. Therefore, a Father, with these facilities, could increase his kingdoms with his own children, in a hundred fold ratio above that of another who had only secured to himself one wife” (The Seer, pp.38-39).

D&C 132

While a Mormon would be excommunicated for practicing polygamy today, the command to engage in plural marriage is still included in modern editions of the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 132:4 declares: “For behold, I reveal unto you a new and 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.”

According to the introduction to volume 5 of the Documentary History of the Church (DHC), the revelation was written down in order to convince Smith’s wife, Emma, of its authenticity. When exactly this “revelation” came to Joseph Smith is somewhat confusing. According to the same volume (5:501), Joseph Smith was given this revelation on July 12, 1843. However, the heading of section 132 states it was only recorded on that date only, for “this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831.” It would seem that the latter would be more correct since D&C 132:52 records a warning to Smith’s wife, Emma, to “receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph.” Emma never liked the idea of polygamy, and despite a warning in verse 54 saying she would be destroyed if she did “not abide this commandment,” she lived a full life. Her husband, on the other hand, would be dead within a year.

When the revelation was given or recorded is relatively unimportant and does not in any way solve the polygamy dilemma. There is plenty of evidence to show how Smith held to this view long before 1843 and even practiced it secretly. The real question is why was polygamy considered essential for exaltation in the early LDS Church while its practice today is grounds for excommunication?

Polygamy and the Book of Mormon

Despite the importance placed on this practice during the 1800s, the Book of Mormon has relatively little to say about polygamy. We find no reference within its pages that plural marriage was observed with God’s permission. In fact, Jacob 2:27 reads, “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.”

Some Mormons have countered with Jacob 2:30. This passage reads, “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 usual argument insists that polygamy was allowed in the early years of Mormonism in order to “raise up seed.” Proponents of this rebuttal say God allowed polygamy because there was an overabundance of women in the LDS Church, making it necessary for men to take on more than one wife. This argument is not supported by the facts and is actually refuted by LDS Apostle John Widtsoe. He wrote,

“The United States census records from 1850 to 1940, and all available Church records, uniformly show a preponderance of males in Utah, and in the Church. Indeed, the excess in Utah has usually been larger than for the whole United States, as would be expected in a pioneer state. The births within the Church obey the usual population law — a slight excess of males. Orson Pratt, writing in 1853 from direct knowledge of Utah conditions, when the excess of females was supposedly the highest, declares against the opinion that females outnumbered the males in Utah. (The Seer, p. 110) The theory that plural marriage was a consequence of a surplus of female Church members fails from lack of evidence” (Evidences and Reconciliations, p. 391).

Ironically, one of the best arguments against the Jacob 2:30 rebuttal is Joseph Smith himself. It is no secret that at least ten, possibly eleven, of his plural wives were already married to other men. Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman notes:

“The marital status of the plural wives further complicated the issue. Within fifteen months of marrying Louisa Beaman, Joseph had married eleven other women. Eight of the eleven were married to other men. All told, ten of Joseph’s wives were married to other men. All of them went on living with their first husbands after marrying the Prophet. The reason for choosing married women can only be surmised. Not all were married to non-Mormon men: six of the ten husbands were active Latter-day Saints In most cases the husband knew of the plural marriage and approved” ( Joseph Smith—Rough Stone Rolling, p.439).

According to LDS historian Todd Compton,

“Eighteen of Joseph’s wives (55 percent) were single when he married them and had never been married previously. Another four (12 percent) were widows…However, the remaining eleven women (33 percent) were married to other husbands and cohabitating with them when Smith married them…If one superimposes a chronological perspective, one sees that of Smith’s first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous” (In Sacred Loneliness, p.15).

Unless it can be proven that these women were all married to men who were either impotent or sterile, we have to assume that they were quite capable of “raising up seed” without Smith’s help. Apparently Joseph didn’t see the need for employing Jacob 2:30 as a proof text for plural marriage.

According to The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (2:617):

“Although polygamy had been practiced privately prior to the exodus, Church leaders delayed public acknowledgment of its practice until 1852. In August of that year, at a special conference of the Church at Salt Lake City, Elder Orson Pratt, an apostle, officially announced plural marriage as a doctrine and practice of the Church. A lengthy revelation on marriage for eternity and on the plurality of wives, dictated by Joseph Smith on July 12, 1843, was published following this announcement (D&C 132).”

No doubt this practice came as quite a surprise to many of the converts who came to Utah from Europe. As far as they knew, polygamy was merely a vicious rumor propounded by enemies of the church. Why should they think otherwise? After all, the idea that Mormons were practicing polygamy was denied outright in the European edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. For example, D&C section CIX:4, which had been printed in Liverpool, England in 1866, read: “Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy; we declare that one man should have one wife; and one woman but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.” Bear in mind that this denial was a part of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1876 — 24 years after polygamy became an official LDS doctrine!

Polygamy as a Major Theme in LDS Theology

In Utah the message was quite different. It would be only a short matter of time before plural marriage became a major theme in LDS theology. The same year that the above-mentioned Liverpool edition came out in 1866, Brigham Young preached, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy” (Journal of Discourses (JOD) 11:269).

When this practice came under severe criticism, it was evident that LDS leaders would not go down without a fight. That Mormon leaders were determined to defend this doctrine can be easily documented.

On October 12, 1856, Heber C. Kimball (first counselor to Brigham Young) declared, You might as well deny ‘Mormonism,’ and turn away from it, as to oppose the plurality of wives.” (JOD 5:203).

In 1866, Brigham Young forcefully stated, “We are told that if we would give up polygamy–which we know to be a doctrine revealed from heaven and it is God and the world for it–but suppose this Church should give up this holy order of marriage, then would the devil, and all who are in league with him against the cause of God, rejoice that they had prevailed upon the Saints to refuse to obey one of the revelations and commandments of God to them.” Later in the sermon President Young asked, “Will the Latter-day Saints do this? No” (JOD 11:239).

That same year, John Taylor, Mormonism’s future third president, accused those who opposed polygamy within the LDS Church as “apostates.” He said:

“Where did this commandment come from in relation to polygamy? It also came from God…When this commandment was given, it was so far religious, and so far binding upon the Elders of this Church that it was told them if they were not prepared to enter into it, and to stem the torrent of opposition that would come in consequence of it, the keys of the kingdom would be taken from them. When I see any of our people, men or women, opposing a principle of this kind, I have years ago set them down as on the high road to apostacy, and I do to-day; I consider them apostates, and not interested in this Church and kingdom” (JOD 11:221).

In 1869 Wilford Woodruff, Mormonism’s future fourth president, taught,

“If we were to do away with polygamy, it would only be one feather in the bird, one ordinance in the Church and kingdom. Do away with that, then we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether and turn sectarians and do as the world does, then all would be right. We just can’t do that, for God has commanded us to build up His kingdom and to bear our testimony to the nations of the earth, and we are going to do it, come life or come death. He has told us to do thus, and we shall obey Him in days to come as we have in days past” (JOD 13:165 – p.166).

Even as late as 1879, Joseph F. Smith was insisting that plural marriage was essential for LDS exaltation. Speaking at the funeral of William Clayton, Mormonism’s future sixth president, stated,

“This doctrine of eternal union of husband and wife, and of plural marriage, is one of the most important doctrines ever revealed to man in any age of the world. Without it man would come to a full stop; without it we never could be exalted to associate with and become god…” (JOD 21:9).

During a message given in 1880, Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt said,

“…if plurality of marriage is not true or in other words, if a man has no divine right to marry two wives or more in this world, then marriage for eternity is not true, and your faith is all vain, and all the sealing ordinances, and powers, pertaining to marriages for eternity are vain, worthless, good for nothing; for as sure as one is true the other also must be true.” (JOD 21:296).

Submitting to Government Pressure

Despite the rhetoric, the federal government began its efforts to force the abandonment of polygamy on July 1, 1862. The Anti-bigamy Act defined the illegality of polygamy, but it was not really enforced for another 20 years. In 1882 the government enacted what was known as the Edmunds law. This provision

“made the ‘cohabiting’ with more than one woman a crime, punishable by a fine not to exceed three hundred dollars, and by imprisonment not to exceed six months. This law also rendered persons who were living in polygamy, or who believed in its rightfulness, incompetent to act as grand or petit jurors; and also disqualified all polygamists for voting or holding office” (B. H. Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, p.437).

Five years later the Edmunds-Tucker Act became law. Its effects on the LDS Church proved to be the most devastating and are described in volume 5, page 320 of Messages of the First Presidency:

“During the entire period of the presidency of John Taylor, 1880 to 1887, relentless prosecution of men who had entered into the relationship of plural marriage was intensified.

“Under the provisions of the Edmunds-Tucker law the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was disincorporated, the Perpetual Emigration Fund Company was dissolved, and all property belonging to the Church, with the exception of buildings used exclusively for religious worship, was escheated to the government.

“Hundreds of men who had contracted plural marriages were heavily fined, and imprisoned. All persons who could not subscribe to a test oath which was provided especially for those who practiced or believed in the practice of plural marriage, were disfranchised.

“It became obvious that no human power could prevent the disintegration of the Church, except upon a pledge by its members to obey the laws which had been enacted prohibiting the practice of polygamy.

“It was under these circumstances that Wilford Woodruff was sustained as President of the Church, in April, 1889.

“September 24th, 1890, President Woodruff promulgated his Official Declaration to the Church and to the people of the United States, commonly referred to as The Manifesto.”

The signing of the Manifesto was certainly a major blow to the “prophetic insight” of Mormonism’s leaders. Perhaps Woodruff forgot that it was he himself who said his church would continue to practice polygamy”come life or come death.” In light of the numerous statements made by several LDS leaders, it is difficult to take seriously Woodruff’s claim that he acted according to the will of God. To do so would be to admit God has a very short memory, or that the previous comments from LDS leaders were outside of his will.

It would appear that the signing of the Manifesto was merely a ploy to get the federal government to relax its sanctions against the LDS Church. Evidence shows that polygamy continued despite the promise to abandon it. In 1899, then Apostle Heber J. Grant (he would become President in 1918) would plead guilty to unlawful cohabitation and be fined $100. In 1906, sixth LDS President Joseph F. Smith “pleaded guilty before Judge M. L. Rictchie in the District Court Friday to the charge of cohabitating with four women in addition to his lawful wife.” He was fined $300, the maximum allowed by law. (Salt Lake Tribune, 11/24/1906).

Splinter Groups

Many Latter-day Saints viewed the abandonment of polygamy as religious treason. Almost immediately splinter groups were formed to carry on the “everlasting covenant” of celestial marriage. According to the December 11, 1997 issue of the New York Times, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 35,000 people practice polygamy today. Many modern polygamists skirt the letter of the law by legally marrying one wife, and then perform private services in what they feel is in accord with “God’s law.”

Fundamentalist Mormons who practice plural marriage have little to fear from the government. According to the June 28, 1998 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, “even though polygamy is explicitly illegal under the Utah criminal code and prohibited in the state constitution, Utah law-enforcement agencies do not prosecute its practice.”

Not only does the government ignore this practice, in many cases it actually subsidizes it. In the polygamous communities of Hildale (UT) and Colorado City (AZ), “fully 33 percent of the residents…are using U.S. Department of Agriculture food stamps to feed their families.” Both cities “rank in the top 10 in the intermountain West in relying on Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor” (Salt Lake Tribune 6/28/98).

Former Mormon Prophets Would Today Be Excommunicated from the LDS Church

In today’s world of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, and many other well-known heroes of the Mormon faith would be promptly excommunicated from the LDS Church for their participation in practicing their view of celestial marriage. LDS Apostle Bruce McConkie declared, “All who pretend or assume to engage in plural marriage in this day, when the one holding the keys has withdrawn the power by which they are performed, are guilty of gross wickedness” (Mormon Doctrine, pp.579). No doubt, if Brigham Young were alive, he would rebut this by stating, “Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be dammed…” (Journal of Discourses 3:266).

Polygamy Will Commence Again?

It would be incorrect to think polygamy is a dead issue within the LDS Church. While McConkie denounced the practice of polygamy in this life, he did say, “Obviously the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming of the Son of Man and the ushering in of the millennium.” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 578). The most common answer as to why it is no longer a practice in the LDS Church is that it violates the law. Such an argument compels us to ask, “Does God really care what American law says?” A Mormon may argue that present circumstances reflect God’s will regarding this subject, but a Mormon who chooses such a defense will find no support for this from leaders prior to 1890. Almost without exception, pressure from the United States to eliminate polygamy was looked upon as a direct refusal of recognizing God’s will. Also, what about other countries where polygamy is legal? Is the LDS Church going to be so arrogant as to inflict American precedent upon its members in countries where polygamy is not outlawed?

When Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor addressed a conference at the University of Utah back in 1993, she said she would probably vote in favor of overturning existing anti-polygamy laws should a case ever come before the Court. O’Connor retired in early 2006 but her statement did show how her thinking differed from the Supreme Court of the late nineteenth century. In January of 1879 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, found George Reynolds guilty in a case known as Reynolds vs. United States. The court ruled that

“Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people. At common law, the second marriage was always void, and from the earliest history of England polygamy has been treated as an offence against society…. From that day to this we think it may safely be said there never has been a time in any State of the Union when polygamy has not been an offence against society, cognizable by the civil courts and punishable with more or less severity. In the face of all this evidence, it is impossible to believe that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom was intended to prohibit legislation in respect to this most important feature of social life.”

The Court ruled that George Reynolds, a faithful Mormon and practicing polygamist, “be imprisoned at hard labor for a term of two years, and pay a fine of $500.”

In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized homosexual marriage in every state throughout the country. If this is now law, many wonder if polygamy will rush in on its heels. This “slippery slope” is not at all a new revelation. The late Mike Royko, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, expressed similar concerns in an article printed in the Salt Lake Tribune (12/15/96, pg.A5). Royko described a hypothetical situation in which he stated that all that would be necessary to get the polygamy campaign going is to have the media get behind it and start calling all those who disagree with the concept of multiple wives (husbands?) a bunch of mean-spirited “polyphobes.” I have to agree since this type of tactic has worked so well in the past. With such a strategy, it may be only a matter of time before your 1040 form has multiple lines for “spouses” as it does for dependents.

How will the LDS Church react should polygamy become legal? It is hard to tell. It will certainly have a difficult time denouncing it since Doctrine and Covenants section 132 still encourages polygamous relationships. This could very well become a nightmare for the LDS public relations department. Should the LDS Church decide to go back to its teachings of the nineteenth century, I am sure that many of those Mormon fundamentalists will feel they have been vindicated.

Related Quotes

  • “I do not wish to say much upon this subject, but I say, woe to you Eves if you proclaim or entertain feelings against this doctrine! Woe to every female in this Church who says, ‘I will not submit to the doctrine that God has revealed.’ You will wake up by and by and say, ‘I have lost the crown and exaltation I might have gained had I only been faithful to my covenants and the revelations which God gave. I might have been crowned as well as you, but now I must go to another kingdom.'” – Brigham Young, “Condition of Apostates, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 12, p. 97, June 30, 1867.
  • “Now I wish to come directly to the point in regard to polygamy as it exists at the present time among the Latter-day Saints. I stated in the beginning of my remarks, that polygamy, or any other institution that was given at one age, might not be binding upon another, without a fresh revelation from God. I made that statement when I was discussing that subject in this house. I still say, that we are not under the necessity of practicing polygamy because God gave laws and commandments for its observance and regulation in ancient times. Why then do the Latter-day Saints practice polygamy? That is a plain question. I will answer it just as plainly. It is because we believe, with all the sincerity of our hearts, as has been stated by former speakers from this stand, that the Lord God who gave revelations to Moses approbating polygamy, has given revelations to the Latter-day Saints, not only approbating it, but commanding it, as he commanded Israel in ancient times…”God has told us Latter-day Saints that we shall be condemned if we do not enter into that principle; and yet I have heard now and then (I am very glad to say that only a few such instances have come under my notice), a brother or a sister say, ‘I am a Latter-day Saint, but I do not believe in polygamy.’ Oh, what an absurd expression! What an absurd idea! A person might as well say, ‘I am a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, but I do not believe in him.’ One is just as consistent as the other. Or a person might as well say, “I believe in Mormonism, and in the revelations given through Joseph Smith, but I am not a polygamist, and do not believe in polygamy,” What an absurdity! If one portion of the doctrines of the Church is true, the whole of them are true. If the doctrine of polygamy, as revealed to the Latter-day Saints, is not true, I would not give a fig for all your other revelations that came through Joseph Smith the Prophet; I would renounce the whole of them, because it is utterly impossible, according to the revelations that are contained in these books, to believe a part of them to be divine—from God—and part of them to be from the devil; that is foolishness in the extreme; it is an absurdity that exists because of the ignorance of some people. I have been astonished at it. I did hope there was more intelligence among the Latter-day Saints, and a greater understanding of principle than to suppose that anyone can be a member of this Church in good standing, and yet reject polygamy. The Lord has said, that those who reject this principle reject their salvation, they shall be damned, saith the Lord; those to whom I reveal this law and they do not receive it, shall be damned. Now here comes in our consciences. We have either to renounce Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon, Book of Covenants, and the whole system of things as taught by the Latter-day Saints, and say that God has not raised up a Church, has not raised up a prophet, has not begun to restore all things as he promised, we are obliged to do this, or else to say, with all our hearts, ‘Yes, we are polygamists, we believe in the principle, and we are willing to practice it, because God has spoken from the heavens.'”Now I want to prophesy a little. It is not very often that I prophesy, though I was commanded to do so, when I was a boy. I want to prophesy that all men and women who oppose the revelation which God has given in relation to polygamy will find themselves in darkness; the Spirit of God will withdraw from them from the very moment of their opposition to that principle, until they will finally go down to hell and be damned, if they do not repent.” – Orson Pratt, “God’s Ancient People Polygamists, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 17, pp. 223-225, October 7, 1874.
  • “Polygamy is a principle revealed from heaven with a commandment to enter into it practically. The principle is abundantly corroborated in the ancient scriptures, approved of God and sanctioned by all righteous men; and he who labors to overthrow this principle, fights against Jehovah and makes himself a shining target, courting the arrows of the Almighty upon his head, heart and country.” – Orson Hyde, “Government of the United States, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, p. 99, November 3, 1878.
  • “Congress passed a law making plurality of wives, bigamy, or polygamy if you please, a penal offense. Now it should be distinctly understood that this offense is not sinful because Congress has made it penal. There is no ungodliness in it, because God has revealed it, he has commanded it.” – Franklin D. Richards, “Preaching of John the Baptist, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, p. 312, October 6, 1879.

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