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Question #91105 posted on 04/06/2018 6:12 a.m.

Dear guppy of doom,

I'd be super interested to hear your reaction to the books about early Church polygamy that you mentioned in Board Question #91056. You refer to your findings as being "fascinating!" which intrigues me because while I continue to have a strong testimony in God and the restored Church, I've never understood polygamy and thinking about it make me angry. The best I can do with it is tell myself, "I know that God values men and women equally, and it sure seems like aspects of polygamy contradict that truth. There must be something I'm missing."

So... can you shed any light on the subject? I'd love to hear what you got out of the books (which I will definitely look up on my own as well) and any insights you have into the early Church and its practice of polygamy. Thanks!



Dear Λrchetype,

I feel ya. My first introduction to this topic was two years ago when my friend confidently told me there would be polygamy in heaven. When I protested, he pulled up D&C 132:55, and showed how all faithful men would receive an hundred-fold of "wives and children" and cited certain things from the temple. (He seemed unnaturally eager about polygamy in heaven.) His off-putting words sent me on a two year (and counting) journey of researching into polygamy.

Usually when people ask me about polygamy, I'm careful to respond with only what the Church has said. This time, however, I'm going to give my honest opinion. I can guarantee people will disagree with it, and some may even be really upset with me. So before I go on, I want to make a few things clear:

  1. This is not doctrine. I am not pretending that my conclusions are the only truth. In fact, I will be rather upset if you read this and say, "well I like this, I think guppy is totally right" without doing any work yourself.
  2. My purpose is to encourage others to research and pray about this topic, not to convince you that my view is the ultimate truth. And if you have any thoughts that uphold/disprove my conclusion, please let me know! I'm in this to find the truth, and goodness knows I make so many mistakes, and this conclusion may be one of them.
  3. You can hold a testimony of the prophets and the Church and believe these things. I know several who do, including those who first gave me these ideas. This is not meant to shake anyone's faith in the Church. 

With that, here it is: my personal opinion is that polygamy was not ordained of God.

To start off, let's look at its history:
Polygamy in the Old Testament: 
  • Though it would have been a lot easier to multiply and replenish the Earth if Adam had multiple wives, God only created one. The lack of polygamy shows God's true order of marriage.
  • God specifically commands in Deuteronomy that kings shall not "multiply wives to himself".
  • Abraham practiced polygamy when he took on Sarah's handmaid, Hagar. This leads to Ishmael and Hagar being cast out of the camp when Sarah becomes jealous. Some people make the (admittedly simplistic) argument that the Middle East conflict between the Arabs and Jews can be linked back to Isaac and Ishmael.
  • Solomon was pretty great until his practice of polygamy, and beliefs of his wives, turned his heart away from God.
  • David was pretty great until his practice of taking women led to him being cursed by God.
  • I would argue that most instances of polygamy occur because of cultural practices and beliefs. There are no prophets or kings who are commanded by God to practice polygamy. It seems to be more of a cultural thing God puts up with. 

Polygamy in the New Testament: 

Polygamy in the Book of Mormon:

  • Jacob teaches, "Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. ... For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife..." There is one reason given for polygamy: to "raise up seed unto me," which we'll address later.

Polygamy in the Doctrine and Covenants:

  • The first reference to polygamy came in the original Section 101, which was later removed. It read, "Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife..." Joseph Smith was practicing polygamy at this time.
  • Polygamy was commanded by God in Section 132. It is crucial to recognize that the celestial marriage discussed in that section was not simply a sealing marriage, as we view it today. Rather, as the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote to U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, "We formerly taught to our people that polygamy or celestial marriage as commanded by God through Joseph Smith was right, that it was a necessity to man's highest exaltation in the life to come." The celestial marriage referred to in D&C 132 is referring to polygamy.
  • While D&C 135 addresses the matyrdom of Joseph Smith, it does not address what led to his death. The Nauvoo Expositor was about to publish a newspaper accusing Joseph Smith of practicing polygamy. While Smith was practicing polygamy at this time, it was not publicly known. Thus, Smith ordered the press to be destroyed. This destruction led to charges of riot against Smith, which led to his subsequent incarceration and death (source). 
From all this history, I personally see a pattern of prophets and kings being cursed or killed either directly or indirectly due to their practice of polygamy. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, "Every infraction of the Divine law of monogamy, symbolized in the account of the creation of woman in the second chapter of Genesis, brings its own punishment whether in or out of the marriage relation." 
There are many negative consequences of polygamy. However, I won't be addressing universal problems (you can read about them here), but rather the consequences on the Church, both when it was openly practiced and today.
  • Just as Jacob spoke of polygamy causing women to sorrow and mourn, LDS women experienced the same. While some publicly celebrated the practice, their journals told another story. "O, if my husband could only love me even a little...how much sorrow I have known in the place of the joy I looked forward to," wrote Emmeline B. Wells (2, p. 94). "Oh for a home!" Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon wrote to her polygamous husband, "A husband of my own because he is my own. A father for my children whom they know by association" (2, p. 95).
  • Because of the heartbreak faced by polygamous wives, they encouraged each other to not love their husbands. Zina D. Jacobs Smith Young said a successful polygamous wife must "regard her husband with indifference, and with no other feeling than that of reverence, for love we regard as a false sentiment; a feeling which should have no existence in polygamy" (2, p. 101). Vilate Kimball advised one wife that "she must lay aside wholly all interest or thought in what her husband was doing while he was away from her" and be as "pleased to see him when he came in as she was pleased to see any friend" (2 p. 102). I personally don't believe a loving God would require that of His daughters.
  • What happens when you have an equal gender ratio, but the men are trying to have more than one wife? The marriage age of females decreases. As Wilford Woodruff wrote, "All are trying to get wives until there is hardly a girl 14 years old in Utah, but what is married, or just going to be" (2, p. 92). Sarah Pratt said, "Here was my husband, gray headed, taking to his bed young girls in mockery of marriage" (2, p. 99).
  • Children were raised without their fathers, who would constantly be traveling to visit their different wives and families.
  • The race restriction on the priesthood. Polygamy created a view that Mormons were some other, inferior race. To reclaim their whiteness, Church leaders restricted black members from receiving temple blessings and the priesthood (source).
  • Today, we have scores of quotes on the eternal role of polygamy. As William Clayton, Joseph Smith's scribe, wrote, "From [Joseph Smith] I learned that the doctrine of plural and celestial marriage is the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on the earth and that without obedience to that principle, no man can ever attain to the fullness of exaltation in celestial glory." (1, p. 79). D&C 132 is canonized scripture. Women today, myself included, have wondered if polygamy is the order of Heaven, as Joseph Smith taught it was. This is a real, terrifying thought, one that hurts women today. 
  • The lack of discussion of Heavenly Mother. Some assume that Heavenly Mother is plural (and we have quotes from some early Church leaders supporting this). Do we not talk about her because the Church doesn't want to address polygamy in heaven? (The current Church has never publicly confirmed or denied the practice of polygamy in the next life.) Or does this sentiment come from polygamy, in which women are merely collected and even traded among men, valued only for their womb and childbearing abilities?
  • We practice polygamy today: men can be sealed to more than one woman, while women cannot be sealed to more than one man. While thankfully this has slightly changed so women can have multiple sealings after she dies, this practice adds to the confusion and pain some face when wondering how heaven will be. (The Church's only response is "The precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come.")
Of course, I would be extremely one-sided if I only addressed the negative aspects of polygamy. There were also positive consequences, which included:
  • Women had extra time to work, as other wives could watch their children. This helped Martha Hughes Cannon become the first female state senator, after beating her Republican polygamist husband for the office. We also had plenty of female doctors and other workers in Utah.
  • Utah was the second state to give women the right to vote.
  • Women had an easier time getting divorces. Brigham Young counseled women to "stay with her husband as long as she could bear with him, but if life became too burdensome, then leave and get a divorce" (2, p. 93).
  • The Relief Society's awesome publications: “If there be some women in whom the love of learning extinguishes all other love, then the heaven-appointed sphere of that woman is not the nursery. It may be the library, the laboratory, the observatory.” Imagine the Church saying that today!
  • Many of us are here today due to polygamy.
Two words of caution about these positive aspects: first, one author, in her study of the journals and lives of polygamist Mormon women, found that "in reality, only a small portion of these wives may have personally benefited from the polygamous system by igniting feminist ideals, although perhaps our postfeminist culture wishes they all did" (4, p. 90). Second, even horrible things can have good consequences. For example, rape is abhorrent, but if a raped woman becomes pregnant and decides to keep her child, her child might become a source of love and strength for her. Does that mean the rape was good? No. To be clear, I'm not implying that polygamy is rape, but rather using this example to highlight that good things can come from horrible actions.
Why, then, do we have polygamy? Carol Lynn Pearson gives one suggestion in her book, which came out of a conversation she had with several BYU professors and historians. One of them felt that Joseph Smith had fallen in love with Fanny Alger (his first polygamous wife), and "during this time Joseph is retranslating the Bible and, being in the dilemma that he was, found in the marital style of the patriarchs an answer to his problem. So he put it through his mechanism for getting revelation and came out feeling a divine sanction" (3, p. 67).
Many say that the priesthood ban came about due to racist Church leaders, or leaders attempting to make the Church appear "white" again. We do not say it was an eternal mandate from heaven. Why, then, can we not have the same view of polygamy? Why can we not chalk up polygamy to the human failures of Church leaders? I strongly believe that we can leave polygamy behind and still keep our testimonies of the Church, understanding that it is led by imperfect men who are constantly striving to repent and improve.
Goodness knows you've read enough. But I know there are some arguments people use to explain polygamy, and I'd like to quickly address them:
  • "It increased birthrates." Actually no, it didn't. Studies have shown that polygamy actually decreases birthrates for women. Furthermore, polygamy led to thousands of members leaving the Church or refusing to join it. Thomas B. Stenhouse, a missionary in England, wrote that 1,776 British Saints left the Church during the first six months polygamy was preached there (2, p. 86). 
  • "Women are more righteous than men, so there will be more women in heaven than men." There's been a fascinating study that argues that there will be an overabundance of men in heaven, as more men die before the age of 8 than women. Polyandry, anyone?
  • "The children were more righteous since they were born into righteous families." Polygamy often made things worse for families. Children grew up without their dads. Tom Kimball, a descendant of polygamous Heber C. Kimball, said polygamy "seemed to create fundamentalists and atheists...Even now, the majority of my Kimball cousins are not Mormon" (3, p. 57). 
  • "It was an Abrahamic sacrifice." But Isaac was never actually sacrificed. As Carol Lynn Pearson put it, "Isaac is spared the blow. Mormon women are not" (3, p. 64). And Mormon women continue to sacrifice. Pearson includes many heartbreaking stories in her book of Mormon women and men's fears about eternal polygamy. As one woman wrote, "I feel 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" (3, p. 7).
  • "We needed to care for the widows and children." Then why didn't we do what King Limhi did in the Book of Mormon? In addition, D&C 132 specifically says polygamy is for men to marry virgins to "multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment." Men shouldn't even be thinking about marrying widows or married women. 
  • "We needed to care for all the extra women." LDS apostle John A. Widstoe said "there seem always to have been more males than females in the Church" (3, p. 56). This study backs up his statement, saying, "An imbalance in the male-female ratio has not been substantiated by census data. On the contrary, some have argued that there was a shortage of women."
  • "It was the restoration of all things." But we didn't restore stoning. Or sacrificing animals. And remember, polygamy was never commanded by God in the Bible or the Book of Mormon.
  • "Polygamy brought us attention." Yes, bad attention. Who hasn't been asked if we still practice polygamy? There are plenty of other (and better) things we should be known for.
  • "It was all about sealings and linking everyone together." But Joseph married Fanny Alger before the sealing power was restored, and said it was because he loved her (3, p. 68; 5, p. 32). And many men were sealed as adoptive sons to men in the community (3, p. 66). Why couldn't they seal women as adopted daughters? They sealed Jane Manning to Joseph as a slave, after all.
  • "It wasn't sexual." Unfortunately, this isn't true. Todd Compton details several of Joseph Smith's wives acknowledgement (both public and private) to having sexual relations with Joseph (5, p. 12-15). Few today argue that sexuality was not a part of some of Joseph's marriage, though it was certainly not part of all his marriages.
  • "It was a test of obedience." At one point Joseph tells Heber C. Kimball that he needs to give his wife to be sealed to Joseph. After much internal struggling, Kimball complies. As he brings his wife to Joseph, Joseph breaks down in tears, saying it was simply a test and that Kimball had passed it (2, p. 41). This example is a test of obedience. Actually marrying and sometimes being sexually active with these women is much more than just that.
  • "People received spiritual witnesses of it." Women in the FLDS Church have shared their spiritual experiences of being told from God that polygamy is His order. Are we to say their experiences are incorrect? One explanation I've heard is that God knows it's best for these women to stay with their families and communities, even if they're acting counter to His law of marriage. Some women who rejected polygamy were shamed by church leaders and ostracized. It may have been more important to stay with the Church and a family that supports them than to reject polygamy.
  • "It's doctrinal." President Gordon B. Hinckley said of polygamy, "I condemn it, yes, as a belief, because I think it is not doctrinal" (4, p. 214).
  • "It made women important, as it linked women to exaltation." Yes, but it treats "women as if they were merely the instruments which aid men to fulfill their mortal religious obligations and enable them to produce kingdoms to rule over in heaven" (1, p. 69). Read D&C 132 and note how it says women are given unto men. Thus, this "view[s] women as property rather than individuals with inherent importance." Women are keys to exaltation. Their souls and individuality don't matter.
  • "If we are to become like God, men will need multiple wives so they can bear enough spirit children." Who said God reproduces in the exact same way that we do? If so, why can't Heavenly Mother give birth to thousands or millions of babies all at once, like fish do? (Sorry if that's a disturbing mental image.) Does this mean women are meant only as wombs, to give birth throughout eternity?
  • "It's a way for women to be unselfish." Why aren't men required to be unselfish and share their wife with multiple men then? Why is it only women who are required to share their spouse for all eternity?

When I first started researching into polygamy, and found all the quotes about it being an "eternal order," I went into a deep depression. C. S. Lewis spoke of my feelings perfectly: "Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like.'" My research, prayers, and ultimate conclusion have assured me that God is not sexist, and that They do care about all of us, male and female. I am not a prize to be won; rather, I am an individual who will grow with my spouse to become more and more like God.

I hope something I've written has answered some question or concern. At the very least it's given you a good starting point to start your own search. And of course, please email me (guppyofdoom@theboard.byu.edu) if you ever want to talk.

-guppy of doom

1. The Persistance of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy. Edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster.

2. Mormon Polygamy: A History. Richard S. Van Wagoner.

3. The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy. Carol Lynn Pearson.

4. The Polygamous Wives Writing Club. Paula Kelly Harline.

5. In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Todd Compton.

Other good resources:

Year of Polygamy (podcast)

Mormon Enigma. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery.