Alright, polygamy episode! Between roughly 1833 until its formal end in 1890, some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy. One husband having multiple wives. It’s a controversial subject, and I’m really NOT going to defend it much. Polygamy is unfair to women, I don’t like it, anybody who practices it today is excommunicated from the Church. It’s not a thing anymore. But why, then, was it a thing? What do we do with this chunk of unappetizing history? Let’s dive in.
There are generally two extremes when it comes to reactions about polygamy. On one extreme you have the people that think, “Yes, God commanded Joseph Smith to practice polygamy, and he implemented it among the Saints perfectly.” On the other side is, “Joseph was a fraud and just wanted to sleep around’.”
I personally think God did command it — I don’t think Joseph was just being a creep, but I also think Joseph made p.l.e.n.t.y. of mistakes trying to implement plural marriage.
Now, while there are a lot of questions we can’t answer, let’s take a look at some of the facts and see what we can answer.
First, the fact is, Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and probably Moses all practiced polygamy. Why did God allow it to happen? I don’t know. But we’re talking about MAJOR figures of Christianity here. At the very least, it shows a precedent that God has permitted past prophets to practice it. Oftentimes Christian critics are quick to condemn the historical Latter-day Saint practice of polygamy, while entirely overlooking their own history of polygamy. Again, I’m not endorsing polygamy, it’s a gut-wrenching practice to our modern sensibilities, but history is history, and polygamy, if you’re Christian, happened.
But even to the sensibilities of those in Joseph Smith’s time, polygamy was an unsettling practice. One early Saint, Mercy Rachel Fielding: “This subject when first communicated to me tried me to the very core all my former traditions and every natural feeling of my heart rose in opposition to this principle.”
Mary Hales said, “The brethren and sisters were so averse to polygamy that it could hardly be mentioned.”
And it was hard for the men, too: When Brigham Young first learned about it he said, “…it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin.”
The quotes go on and on. Even Joseph Smith, who was commanded by an angel to institute the practice, was reluctant. The angel apparently had to visit him three times, the last time with a drawn sword, threatening his life, before Joseph complied. And even then, it seemed Joseph tried to avoid fully practicing polygamy. One of the ways he seems to have done this was to marry women who already had a husband.
In Latter-day Saint theology, we believe a couple is sealed together for time and eternity. This life and the next. As the early church worked to understand this sealing power, Joseph had women sealed to him for time and/or eternity. A few sealings were for time, or this life, only. Some were for eternity only — marriages that would take effect after this life. And some were for time and eternity.
Every woman he married that was already married was an eternity-only marriage. They still each lived with their husband, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Joseph was intimately involved with any of them. If Joseph was just a sex-crazed maniac, I see little point in any of these distant, eternity-only marriages. It seemed more like a way for him to ‘sort of’ fulfill God’s command, while providing some emotional relief to his first wife, Emma.
One motive behind many of Joseph’s sealings was probably the idea of creating one giant, interconnected family of saints. This seems to be one of the reasons why one man, Heber C. Kimball, wanted his 14-year-old daughter, Helen, married to Joseph, which she was, only about 13 months before Joseph was killed. Heber “had a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph.”
Of course, the idea of a 14-year old bride is understandably shocking to us in the 21st Century. It was less shocking in the 1800s. Still unusual, but not nearly as unusual as something like, ya know, polygamy. Researchers frankly don’t know if their marriage was ever consummated, though evidence suggests that it probably was not. She continued to live at home with her parents. Author Brian Hales says that “Helen wrote more about plural marriage than any other female author in the nineteenth century, defending it and Joseph Smith … Through those pages, Helen never describes even one time being alone with the Prophet without a chaperone.”
Now, looking from the outside-in, it’s easy to brush the whole polygamy topic off and say, “Joseph just wanted to sleep around. End of story.” But if we actually look at the history, the evidence really disagrees with that assumption. Joseph went to great lengths to make sure that the practice was not driven by lust.
For example, John C. Bennett was the mayor of Nauvoo and a member of the Church. Soon it came to Joseph’s attention that Bennett was deceiving and seducing women in the city. If Joseph was after the same thing as Bennet, he could have made the perfect accomplice. Instead, Joseph excommunicated him.
One author wrote, “Contrary to popular nineteenth-century notions about polygamy, the Mormon harem, dominated by lascivious males with hyperactive libidos, did not exist. The image of unlimited lust was largely the creation of travelers to Salt Lake City more interested in titillating audiences back home than in accurately portraying plural marriage. Newspaper representatives and public figures visited the city in droves seeking headlines for their eastern audiences.
In a podcast with Dr. Valerie Hudson I was listening to, she made an interesting observation. She said, “…one of Joseph Smith’s brothers … appeared eager to practice polygamy, and so his brother, Joseph, forbade him from practicing polygamy, which I thought was really interesting. So those men who were not pure-hearted enough to see it as a test, but rather as a perk, were not allowed to practice it.”
And again, the quotes continue. The idea that Joseph was driven by lust is simply contradictory to what the historical record shows.
But we still haven’t answered the age-old question: WHY polygamy?
Doctrine and Covenants 132, the official revelation on polygamy, gives us a few reasons for example:
- It was part of the restitution or ‘restoration of all things.’ (I don’t totally understand this one.)
- It provided some women the opportunity to have a temple marriage when they otherwise might not have been able to. (This makes a little sense to me.)
- Also, it was to “Multiply and Replenish the earth” (This one makes a little more sense to me than the others)
The Book of Mormon explicitly condemns plural marriage, unless the Lord sanctions if for the purpose of “raising up seed,” in other words, “multiply and replenish.” Strangely, there are zero recorded children from any of Joseph Smith’s polygamous relationships (I suspect Emma may have had something to do with that, she understandably struggled immensely with polygamy), but other families definitely had a ton of kids. I myself am evidence of that, because my great-great-great-grandfather was one of those polygamists, without whom, I wouldn’t be here.
At the end of the day, D&C 132 compares plural marriage multiple times to an Abrahamic test. You remember the story of Abraham and Isaac. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham wrestles with the commandment. “Why would God command this? It’s wrong, it doesn’t make sense, it’s contradictory” — but he steps up. Luckily his test ended before having to kill Isaac, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Another example of an Abrahamic test might be when Nephi is commanded to slay Laban. John Taylor, who was a polygamist, said polygamy, “…was one of the greatest crosses that ever was taken up by any set of men since the world stood.”
Helen Mar Kimball, that 14-year-old we mentioned earlier, wrote that according to Joseph, “the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.”
It was a test of faith, and it is a test of faith. But again, it’d be ignorant of me to pretend like these situations are exclusive to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They’re not. On rare occasions, God has commanded people to do things that seem to be flat-out wrong. I mean, if the Old Testament is correct, God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide for heaven’s sake. Frankly, that makes voluntary polygamy look like small potatoes. There are just some things that religious people put on the proverbial shelf until they receive a few more pieces of the puzzle. We shouldn’t ignore these issues or pretend they don’t exist, but it’s OK to not have all the answers.
It’s easy for us to look back at polygamy, point fingers and say, this was obviously a horrible thing. But if we acknowledge the experiences of those who lived through this period, we see a different picture. Multiple women eventually wrote books defending polygamy. Several women and men had intense spiritual experiences comforting them concerning the practice, including angelic visitations, visions, and dreams. The story of Heber and Vilate Kimball is amazing.
If those people who were initially repulsed by it were eventually able to obtain a testimony of it and even live it, then I can at least come to the conclusion that there are still things I don’t understand about it, and things I’m probably not meant to yet understand about it. So I am willing to shelf it and wait for more information.
- Pretty much anything you could want to know can be found here: josephsmithspolygamy.org
- More answers to questions about polygamy: https://bit.ly/2VTcQ9e
- From the Church’s official website: https://bit.ly/1wkQDum
- DNA solves mystery of Josephine Lyon’s parentage
- For more in-depth research, check out these books by Brian and Laura Hales:
It may surprise many people that only up to 20% of Latter-day Saint men took more than one wife and most of those had only two wives. Most were church leaders and some were asked to marry divorced or widowed women who needed support and who wanted to be part of eternal marriage in heaven.
Some people think that plural marriage goes against what it says in the Book of Mormon. But here’s what it 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. 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 (BofM Jacob 2:27 – 30).
The prophet Jacob was admonishing his people because they were becoming wicked. The men were cheating on their wives and causing sorrow for them and their children. They weren’t righteous enough to handle plural marriage wisely as had the prophets of old. So this prophetic counsel was for those people at that time. But it could still apply at the time of Latter-day Saint polygamy from 1840 to 1890. Note this phrase: “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.”
God isn’t saying that He might want to increase the number of babies born, but that He might want to raise up children “unto Himself.” That means righteous children of the covenant. One thing that plural marriage did among the Latter-day Saints was to increase the number of children of the most righteous and responsible Latter-day Saint men. When the first wife aged out of fertility a younger one would be able to bring more children into the family. Even today, most of the posterity of these men continue in righteousness as active members and leaders in the Church. The very survival of the early Church was in part up to them.
But What About the Women?
Polygamy was so very tough for all involved, but Latter-day Saint women did sometimes use it to their advantage. With more than one mother in the home, wives were able to leave for periods of time. A number went to Washington, D.C. to aid in women’s suffrage (they already had the vote in Utah Territory). Some went to medical school and founded hospitals in Utah.
Women were not downtrodden among the Saints. Eliza R. Snow (pictured above) was gang-raped during a mob attack in Missouri. How were women at that time treated when these kinds of things happened to them? The attack made her barren, so she couldn’t have children. How were childless women treated at that time in American history? Yet, Eliza was highly honored among the Saints for her intellect, her spirituality, and her poetry. She was married to the Prophet Joseph Smith and then to the Prophet Brigham Young.
The video mentions John C. Bennett who seduced many innocent women. He was excommunicated, but the women he seduced were not. They were nurtured and kept in full fellowship. Once in Utah Territory, women could obtain a divorce just for asking. Brigham Young, as governor, signed over 1,600 divorce requests from women. The law in the rest of America demanded that women prove adultery in order to obtain a divorce.