Mormon polygamy — the short version

Someone who notices when new stuff on topics gets posted on lds.org alerted me to the fact that there is updated information regarding the topic of polygamy.

The main article is titled “Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints] which links to other related articles about plural marriage.

Of particular interest is the article discussing the origins of plural marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo [https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-kirtland-and-nauvoo?lang=eng]. This article discusses the likely 1831 timing of the original revelation, the marriage between Joseph and Fanny Alger in Kirtland, and Joseph’s marriages in Nauvoo. Somewhere in this series of articles, Joseph’s marriage to the youthful Helen Mar Kimball is discussed as well.

Given the marriage-related discussions I have engaged in here at Millennial Star, I was interested in the closing paragraphs for the article on plural marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo:

“The challenge of introducing a principle as controversial as plural marriage is almost impossible to overstate. A spiritual witness of its truthfulness allowed Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints to accept this principle. Difficult as it was, the introduction of plural marriage in Nauvoo did indeed “raise up seed” unto God. A substantial number of today’s members descend through faithful Latter-day Saints who practiced plural marriage.

“Church members no longer practice plural marriage. Consistent with Joseph Smith’s teachings, the Church permits a man whose wife has died to be sealed to another woman when he remarries. Moreover, members are permitted to perform ordinances on behalf of deceased men and women who married more than once on earth, sealing them to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married. 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. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to trust in our wise Heavenly Father, who loves His children and does all things for their growth and salvation.”

No More “Old Wive’s Tales”

With these articles on plural marriage and the recent video discussing temple clothing, they Church is making it possible for individuals to learn about these aspects of Church history and practice without resorting to word of mouth or every word that is written in the comment section below every article that discusses some aspect of Mormonism (e.g., the ubiquitous pithy comments damning Joseph Smith and all things Mormon).

An aspect of these articles I particularly enjoyed was the nuanced and sober tone of the writing. These articles are concise and therefore lack detail, but there is nothing here that hides facts about plural marriage.

I also appreciated the discussion about how plural marriage ended, with acknowledgement of the lack of clarity on process. Some husbands restricting their physical affections to only one wife while other husbands maintained full marriages with their multiple wives. I appreciated the information about the reprimands for those men who used the end of plural marriage as an excuse to abandon women and children (as happened with Annie Clark Tanner).

I particularly liked the clarification that the revelation on marriage (D&C 132) is talking primarily about the eternal nature of marriage, since we so often focus on the bits that discuss plural marriage.

If plural marriage in the context of Mormon history is an area that interests you, I highly recommend you take a short moment to read the linked articles at lds.org discussing the topic.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

17 thoughts on “Mormon polygamy — the short version

  1. Timely. While protecting the privacy of victims of scoundrels such as John Bennett was surely a major reason for apparent secrecy in the Nauvoo era, too often dissidents have claimed a more questionable agenda for Joseph and others who remained faithful to the Gospel he restored.
    I like the way the new informational material about sacred clothing treats a sensitive subject. The relevant articles of clothing are not shown on models but in a way that hints at the form without being explicit. I hope honest people will respond to a similar approach on the subject of plural marriage.

  2. “I particularly liked the clarification that the revelation on marriage (D&C 132) is talking primarily about the eternal nature of marriage, since we so often focus on the bits that discuss plural marriage.”

    What ward are you in???

  3. Thank you, just on time. Days ago some new members in our church group [we are so small that we still do not have enough people to make it into a branch so we have a group] came up with some questions about this period of our history. Sometimes or most of the time it seems that we prefer to avoid talking about it, like we are ashame of it. Not so if we are honest and clear about what happened. Truth as it took place will not or should not scare people off the church.

  4. Hi Enrique,

    If you hadn’t already read it, you might be interested in scanning the series I wrote about A Faithful Joseph. Part of the challenge people encounter with the initiation of plural marriage in the latter days is the lack of understanding regarding why God would request such a thing or the factors that contributed to the multiple women Joseph covenanted with.

    The new series of articles at lds.org give a nice background, but for those trying to cut through the haze of nasty accusations, it’s helpful to have some plausible answers for how a heroic prophet could have covenanted with dozens of women, including teenage girls. The tales that get spread are based on the testimony of those who hated Joseph, some who hated him enough to vow to murder him. So listening to their version of events is akin to learning about Helaman from Kishkumen and the Gadianton robbers.

  5. Meg – Do those closing paragraphs mean maybe you’re open to the idea of eternal polyandry? I mean, it was a perfect opportunity for the church to say men may have more than one wife in the eternities, but women will definitely have one husband. Yet, they didn’t. I wish, instead of punting to Joseph Smith (Consistent with Joseph Smith’s teachings, the Church permits a man whose wife has died to be sealed to another woman when he remarries) the Church would have claimed that position as in keeping with modern day revelation. However, above all, I wish they would have explained the “why” of only allowing a living woman to be sealed to one husband at at time. Perhaps we don’t really know the “why,” at least I haven’t stumbled upon anything in an official church publication that explains “why”. However, I think the explanation might in turn explain the nature of the patriarchal order. Finally, one of the articles again reiterates that monogamy is God’s standard. There is simply no reconciliation between monogamy, serial monogamy and eternal sealings. I think half of the church membership thinks “Of course Elder Oaks will have two wives in the eternities” and the other half thinks he’ll have to choose between one of them and the other will find another in the Spirit World.

  6. I think there are numerous things in those articles that are left unresolved. When it comes to the doctrine things, we have seen in Alma an example of a prophet writing that he didn’t understand, and subsequently indicating that he did understand (on an iPad at the hospital with a friend, so I’m not going to look up the reference).

    I think those writing this article were unwilling to make a definitive statement about the nature of marriage in eternity when it comes to individuals who have had multiple spouses (whether concurrently or serially).

    As for our ongoing discussion, I think we’re both being told that the Church isn’t currently willing to definitively opine about the nature of marriage after this life. So I will stop asserting that my view is the only reasonable one (that polygyny in eternity may be permitted by polyandry in eternity won’t be) and likewise I think those like you wanting to assert that every sealing will be valid if the participants are righteous (resulting in sprawling linkages of multiple men and women) are being asked to stop proclaiming that as doctrine.

  7. To jpv,

    It would be nice if D&C 132 could have been a revelation that solely talked about eternal marriage. As it currently stands, there are numerous verses in that section that specifically talk about plural marriage, including the preamble where The Lord explains why He is giving Joseph this revelation.

    So I suppose I would say I live amongst people who actually read the scriptures, rather than only discussing those portions that are cited in lessons. Others in my ward may not view this section as I do, but as I descend from seven women whose husbands had married more than one woman, I myself am rather intrigued by polygamy (and I don’t remember a time when I was unaware of polygamy).

  8. Wait – I’m not sure if I understand you. Are you saying that a sealing, even if done by property authority and whether entered into in mortality or accepted vicariously, isn’t valid even if the parties keep their covenants? What’s the point of claiming to have sealing authority if, despite all conditions being met, the sealing isn’t authoritative and binding? I don’t think I’ve ever claimed eternal polyandry to be doctrine, only a possibility given our sealing policies. I’ve never claimed that all righteous women sealed to more than one righteous husband will in fact enjoy polyandry. Why? Because I think there’s going to be a lot of vicarious polyandrous sealings that aren’t going to be accepted for one reason or another, just as there will be a lot of polygnous (both living and vicarious) sealings that will be rejected for one reason or another, and neither the rejection (of a sealing done in mortality) nor the non-acceptance (of a sealing done vicariously) will imply a lack of righteousness on the part of the parties thereto. (That’s a mouthful) But I’ve never read anything from a prophet that says the efficacy of sealing ordinances is arbitrary or at the caprice of God. The only thing I’ve ever been taught or read is that if parties to a sealing keep their covenants, the sealing is effective. God is bound. The only way for the sealing not be effective is if the parties reject it after the fact or not accept it (void ab initio) if done vicariously. Am I explaining myself adequately?

  9. Hi Geoff,

    I’m believe that article was already posted when I read the articles in preparation for writing this post.

    I liked the clarification about the difference between the two manifestos. I also liked the nuance that some plural marriages entered into between 1890 and 1904 were seen as matters of individual conscience rather than Church subversiveness.

  10. IDIAT said “Do those closing paragraphs mean maybe you’re open to the idea of eternal polyandry? I mean, it was a perfect opportunity for the church to say men may have more than one wife in the eternities, but women will definitely have one husband. Yet, they didn’t. ”

    Our history is filled with cases of speculation of eternal truth. Those in leadership with strong personalities can unduly influence the church at large. I think in the last several decades the apostles have learned from this kind of experience and have thus made sure that any disagreement between the quorum of the twelve and first presidency are kept internal to themselves.

    I am reminded of Jacob who said,
    “Behold, if ye were holy I would speak unto you of holiness; but as ye are not holy, and ye look upon me as a teacher, it must needs be expedient that I teach you the consequences of sin.” (2 Ne 9:48
    https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/9.48?lang=eng#47)

    If we, as a people, were more holy, we would have more revelations.

  11. Meg…thank you for post. May I go back further in time on this matter. I understand that plural marriage was a practice back [I guess I should look into other cultures of the time to check out if plural marriage was a common practice among them also or unique to the member of the church of that particular time] in the time of the patriach [correct me I am wrong]. Not sure if the Law of Moses [the preparatory gospel as I see it] makes any comment on the issue. Furthermore neither does the New Testament when the Lord established his church. The point, can we really appeal to the BIBLE to justify plural marriage as a part of the or any gospel plan….

  12. Enrique, plural marriage is mentioned throughout the Bible. Abraham and Jacob, obviously. Moses (probably). Many other prophets throughout OT times (probably — it was a widespread practice). David, Solomon, etc. It was extremely common, for example, for Jewish men to take widows into their homes as second and third wives, especially if the women were the wives of a deceased brother. (See Deut 25:5-10). The Bible never condemns righteous plural marriage, and Jesus never tells people not to perform plural marriage (even though it was a widespread practice in Israel). Interestingly, it is the Book of Mormon that points out the problems of plural marriage. I would recommend reading Meg’s series on polygamy and the linked LDS articles to get a more complete view of the issue.

  13. I like the idea that those things that lead to God are good and those things that lead away from God are evil. There are times when it is less important to be “right” and more important to not argue about things. I’m presuming from the wording of these articles that the Church isn’t interested in being strident about the nature of eternal marriage when it comes to this matter.

  14. Idiat, my take on section 132 is that temple sealings are not actually binding unless the union is “sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise.” The mere physical performance of the ordinance is not itself binding. The physical performance — the spoken words, the physical actions — is just a precursor.

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