The Quest for Polygamy in Sunday School

The title might sound strange, but that is what some members of the LDS Church are asking to find. Stories are told about lifelong members not hearing until adult age that Joseph Smith, or even Brigham Young, had practiced polygamy. These are not converts that can be expected to not know the basics of Mormon history. How can this happen? Its really hard to imagine, considering how intertwined Mormonism is with polygamy in popular secular thought. Eventually, sooner than later, a Mormon gets asked how many wives they or their husbands or father has. It becomes an exasperating eye roll question rather than shock. Most of the time. Apparently not all the time and for everyone.

My own experience, I believe, is a typical example of the slow learning about polygamy. Like so many Mormons, the subject just wasn’t brought up in church. Primary was too early where even discussions about reproduction would be inappropriate. The two subjects kind of go together. Most of the time the first inkling of both comes from school peers. At the age of around 10, that was the context of my exposure to the idea within Mormon teachings and history. My non-Mormon friend asked an offhand question if Mormons practice polygamy. I was taken by surprise, and assured him that there were all kinds of rumors floating around about Mormonism. I assume even by that remembered point of my life that I must have heard something before then to say it was one of many falsehoods.

A few years later I find out that Mormonism did indeed teach and practice polygamy, but not from a hostile source. By my mid-teen years I had developed a fascination with Joseph Smith and so grabbed the closest biography I could find. No, it wasn’t Fawn Brody’s famous scholar approved expose. The book Joseph Smith: An American Prophet by John Henry Evans was a rough sketch of his life and contained a small notice of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. The 1933 book stated, “ Polygamy or, as the Mormons prefer to call it, ‘plural marriage,’ was first introduced among the Saints in Nauvoo, in 1841 — although the Prophet had had the idea in mind ever since 1831.” (1966 ed., pg. 271). Again, the confirmation of this didn’t come from a source outside Mormon faith, but A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by B.H. Roberts who was himself a practitioner. He devoted an entire chapter in the second volume of his multi-volume history.

Both books might have talked about polygamy, the latter more than the former, but for completely different reasons. B.H. Roberts treatment aimed to argue that Joseph Smith introduced the practice for the intended audience of the now Community of Christ deniers. John Henry Evans reasoning sought to show that polygamy came from religious convictions. Regardless of why the two talked about it, the point is that Deseret Book published these books openly. Arguably it might be considered white washed treatments, but by no means was it hidden.

More recent publications also indicate a reluctant, but by no means missing, discussion of polygamy sanctioned by Mormon leadership. In the 1970s there was an explosion of Mormon history studies. Authorities of the LDS Church and Deseret Book sought to produce a one volume church history in the hopes of replacing Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials in Church History with more up to date scholarship. Although The Story of the Latter-day Saints never becoming the standard hoped for, and released with some controversy, Deseret Book still published it for a general readership. Oxford and Macmillan Publishing Company a little more than a decade later gathered scholarly entries for Encyclopedia of Mormonism made up almost entirely of BYU faculty. Both of them contained a fair amount of information about the introduction of polygamy, if lacking detailed histories.

Of course, the question is if all this should be brought up in Sunday School in a church setting. The implication is that polygamy is mentioned nowhere in material intended for the general membership; only for curious readers of history. This perception is upheld by no mention of plural marriage in the Joseph Smith and only one in the Brigham Young Teaching of the Presidents lesson manuals. A person can be forgiven for assuming this indicates no LDS Church devotional material addresses the history and doctrine of polygamy. They would be mostly-right, but not completely. Rare and far between, some church based material does bring up the subject. A short manual called Truth Restored written by Gordon B. Hinkley for use in church settings reads, “The history of the Mormon Church is so inextricably interwoven with the doctrine of polygamy that no history of the Church can be complete without some discussion of the practice.” (1979 ed., pg 136, also found at by searching the manual name). Late into the manual and quickly dispatched, polygamy is presented to add context to the whole and subsequent chapters. Members were surely offered the chance to read the chapter over the years, but the majority probably skipped them. Not surprisingly, it comes from an LDS Church history book written for Sunday School by none other than a future prophet. Perhaps some day a revised version can be written like the Gospel Principles manual was recently.

By no means is the Truth Restored manual the only church setting book to be found that talks about polygamy. Perhaps it might only be recently that section 132, the main polygamy scripture, has been expanded by the Church to at least bring up the polygamy topic, but its at least mentioned. The Seminary manual for Doctrine and Covenants and Church History hints that polygamy was revealed by at least 1831 for those who are paying attention. This is followed by:

In Doctrine and Covenants 132:1–2, we read that the Prophet Joseph Smith asked the Lord why Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others in the Old Testament had many wives. This question led to the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 132, which includes instructions about the practice of plural marriage. The Bible and theBook of Mormon teach that God’s standard for marriage is for one man to be married to one woman, unless He declares otherwise (see2 Samuel 12:7–8; Jacob 2:27, 30).Doctrine and Covenants 132 contains the revelation that established the practice of plural marriage among Church members from the early 1840s until the 1890s, when the Lord revealed that the Saints should no longer enter into plural marriage.

Later on in the same section the manual continues:

This week you will study Doctrine and Covenants 132:34–66 with your teacher. Those verses address the doctrine of plural marriage. With your teacher, you will discuss the Lord’s standard for marriage today—that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,”Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129). You will also discuss the Lord’s command at certain times that some of His people live the law of plural marriage (see Jacob 2:27, 30). You will learn about the Lord’s command to live the law of plural marriage in the latter days, as part of the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21), and about His later command to cease that practice (see Official Declaration 1).

This same careful approach is repeated in the updated Doctrine and Covenants Institute manual. Side by side, if so interested in checking, they are comparable. Another institute book that doesn’t shy away from the polygamy subject is Church History in the Fullness of Times in chapters 21 and 33 predominantly. In each case the 1831 date is included as part of the discussion directly or otherwise. Those most familiar with the historical controversies might understand the importance of mentioning this in relation to church produced material.

Why bring up all these examples of Church produced and Deseret Book published material? Because, to repeat and sum up, the only way not to be introduced to polygamy as a member is to not pay any attention. It is also to say that there is a time and place to teach and learn about polygamy, but when and how is not simply to state that it must. Discussions of Joseph Smith’s, Brigham Young’s, John Taylor’s, and Wilford Woodruff’s history of polygamy can easily sidetrack the devotional purpose of the Priesthood/Relief Society manuals. More can be done than the sparing and almost non-existing discussions in the three hour blocks of church. Before inclusion, however, some questions need asked and answered. Why bring it up? Under what context? Who is best qualified: Sunday School teachers, Priesthood leaders, parents and family members? What manuals should include mention of polygamy and what should they say? At the end of the day, most of those who want to talk about the subject in church do so more out of puerile curiosity and “shock value” than enlightenment. Often they already know a lot of the details. Asking the harder questions of suitability for a church going audience can get ignored. The above review of personal experience and publications is a starting point.

19 thoughts on “The Quest for Polygamy in Sunday School

  1. I must admit I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I was raised in the Church and while I knew from an early age that polygamy had been practised, I think if I had discovered in my mid twenties about the young age of some of Joseph’s plural wives, polyandry, etc, that would have caused me some serious faith challenges. Yes the Church doesn’t hide the fact that we practised plural marriage, but the elements of it that are more difficult to explain are not officially disclosed, and those I think are the elements that cause difficulties.

    But of course these are complex issues which couldn’t possibly be covered in a single Gospel Doctrine lesson (or even a couple of them), and as you say the purpose of Gospel Doctrine lessons is devotional/faith-building – not to teach history. And even if that wasn’t the case, how do you teach a history that has so many nuances in a way that people would actually understand – and who *could* teach it effectively? So the questions you raise in your final paragraphs are the really key ones, and ones that I can’t see any simple answers to.

    Personally, I don’t think Sunday School is the place; but I do think it needs to be taught; but I don’t know where!

    That is probably not remotely helpful, but I guess goes to show that it’s easier to identify a problem than it is to identify a solution….

  2. I think it should be taught in the home, and mentioned in church where it’s applicable to a doctrinal lesson. Unless it’s a church history class, there’s no need to talk about it. If the kids are old enough to be in regular Sunday school, I think the topic is briefly mentioned when covering doctrine and covenants(I could be wrong). When the kids are in seminary, it’s definitly talked about, and they’re definitly old enough to learn about it.

    Sunday school is to learn doctrine, scripture, and to learn how to grow closer to the spirit. Not to talk about weired or controversial things in church history, or church present. In a past ward, we had a gospel doctrine teacher who loved to talk about those things, he usually didn’t even touch on the lesson and the spirit was never there. He also didn’t follow the clean cut look, and had long French braids down past his butt and didn’t wear a white shirt and tie, so it’s not surprising that sticking to what the prophets want us to learn wasn’t really a priority.

    The current lesson plans have been prayerfully picked by those who have the authority to receive revelation for the lesson plans. God knows what’s best for us to learn and when, I’m happy enough knowing that.

  3. The problem is that it simply cannot be adequately discussed in a 40 minute once a week devotional meeting. That’s barely time to cover the most central doctrines and practices of the Church, let alone past practices whose purpose seems to have passed.

    Institute and Seminary seem like the right place, since there is considerably more time for it. Of course, that will not address older adult converts, unless they are encouraged to take Institute classes.

    Which, come to think of it, really doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

  4. I think Deseret Book could be a proper medium for dispensing information regarding plural marriage and perhaps other difficult topics. Perhaps a General Authority, even an Apostle, could write a fairly short (under 100 pages) and to the point book entitled, perhaps, “The Devoted Wives of Joseph Smith.” (I would think perhaps a bit more on the title.) For each of the wives discussed (it could be a representative sample) a full page color picture of the wife could be shown, along with a brief biography and devotional history of how that wife fits in to the history of the Church and the personal history of Joseph Smith. Many of these histories are inspiring beyond belief. All, to one degree or another, even Emma and I believe Joseph, sacrificed even as did Abraham because of their faith in Christ and belief in the restoration. Many had fairly amazing personal revelations that despite their misgivings, they were doing something asked of them by God through his Prophet. Finally, many went on to have illustrious lives giving much service to the Church (Eliza R. Snow comes to mind). For it to sell well under the Deseret Book model, it needs to be written by an Apostle preferably, not overly long, have a good cover photo (preferably with diffused lighting and focus), and plenty of illustrations inside and be placed in large numbers on the front tables of the the Deseret Book stores. This probably sounds tongue in cheek, and I guess to a small degree it is, but it could turn out to be quite devotional if done right. The general membership of the Church is not likely to read Todd Compton or Brian Hales, and would likely be satisfied with a small amount of information presented in a devotional way.

    The seemingly sticky issues of polyandry and the young age of some of the wives could be dealt with in the masterful way done by Steven Harper in “Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants” in the chapter on Section 132. In one paragraph he brings up both topics and quickly explains and dispenses with them in a way that will leave most thinking…”well, I guess that isn’t such a big deal after all.”

  5. You think there are color photos of Joseph Smith’s wives lying around, do you, Stephen? We really do need more historical literacy … 🙂

    Jettboy talks about lifelong members growing to adulthood and not knowing anything about polygamy. For my generation (perhaps it is changing with ever-increasing conversions), lifelong church membership almost always meant that at least some of the family lines went back to the Utah territorial period, if not back to Nauvoo and earlier … which means there was a pretty good chance of polygamy somewhere on the family tree. That’s another stumper for me as far as understanding how lifelong members could not have heard of plural marriage. It happens, I know it does, but I don’t understand it.

    If we were to be as candid about plural marriage as we should be, the shock wouldn’t last long, and the awkwardness of bringing it up for the first time in a 40-minute Gospel Doctrine class would soon pass. Then it just becomes part of the background. Look at what all the openness about Mountain Meadows over the past 15 or so years has done: Yes, it was a shock to members hearing about it for the first time, but there has been discussion in classes, and an Ensign article, and a book acceptable to church members. There is little awkwardness any more in church circles — all the fighting continues between a few church members and a few die-hard antagonists who insist on pushing old agendas. But if there were some reason to mention Mountain Meadows in Sunday School today, you wouldn’t have to go into detail, and most people would nod in apparent understanding, and if there is anyone who seems lost, there are acceptable sources to point them to (the Ensign article, for instance, which is short enough for non-reading non-historians to stick with, and in a “safe” source). If they want to read more there’s plenty available.

    The same thing would happen with polygamy if there were a few significant (meaning, substantial, not limited to the Ensign’s usual 500 words) articles there, plus acknowledgement of a few good available scholarly books (Kathy Daynes’ _More Wives Than One_ being at the top of the list) for those who want to read more. Then it becomes a matter-of-fact topic, without the awkwardness and shock of being brand new.

  6. Jettboy, you are so right, if you do not know about polygamy in the church, it is because you were not paying attention. I joined when I was a young an adult and still was able to learn about it from D&C gospel doctrine class and institute class, on top of that it was in a foreign country in South America. We had wondertul inspired teachers who encouraged us to learn church history on our own, so I studied from the limited books we could get in Spanish, even so I obtained enough information on the subject. If a person in South America can get the info, how is it that somebody in downtown mormondom is completely ignorant about it. IMO it’s just negligence, or spacing out, or you just don’t read the scriptures. I have had the experience of talking about Joseph Smith polygamy in RS class and seeing prople’s jaw drop and then having to show them D&C 132 to explain about plural marriage, and how it was God’s law and so forth. Btw this was here in the US of A.

  7. Maybe it’s a question of “good, better, best” as to why it’s not talked about more. There is so much other information that related to things going on today that it’s not the BEST thing to be focusing on?

  8. I know this isn’t necessarily answering the question about polygamy, but it’s strange that for some reason we take for granted an all powerful creator God sacrificing himself (by letting the ruling authorities convict, imprison and torture him), and then every Sunday meeting to drink his blood and eat his flesh, with these very words being invoked; while at the same time being squeamish about other aspects.

    I suppose the familiarity of the sacrament (or even strange ritual where we are buried in water, evoking death and the resurrection — hello strange Egyptian seeming ritual anyone?) makes it acceptable while the ickiness of plural marriage is just too foreign.

    If that’s the case, probably just a lot more talking about it would do the trick. I don’t generally buy into the inoculation arguments as they seem to be too much “focus on the bad and address it warts an all” which I think, quite frankly, none of us is up to. But just acknowledging plural marriage’s history and actually making that part of our history in word rather than shuttered closet doors, would be worthwhile in my view.

    What scares me about suggesting that though, is all the people who would line up on either side to attack and of necessity defend. I’m so far pretty happy the bloggernaccle hasn’t extended into any ward I’ve been to.

  9. “You think there are color photos of Joseph Smith’s wives lying around, do you, Stephen? We really do need more historical literacy …”


    Dallin Oaks gave a talk a while back discussing the death of his beloved first wife, June, and the wonderful woman he married as a second wife, Kristen. His was a wonderful explanation of the principles behind plural marriage in eternity. I’m not finding it, in the vast sea of great conference talks Elder Oaks has given. [Though I love his October 2005 discussion about priesthood authority – almost could have been written in response to the recent OW stuff.]

    I’ve mentioned polygamy when I was a Gospel Doctrine teacher. I had been the person in the ward responsible for training teachers back in the day when they launched the “new” teaching manual (I see all the content is online – I can’t even find the print version of the manual anymore). Anyway, I take it very seriously that we are to teach the content in the lessons and not add a bunch of other stuff. And yet there were definitely times when it made sense to discuss things, like when a man had two wives with competing and legitimate needs.

    I gave a 2010 talk in Sacrament meeting that discussed plural marriage, that was surprisingly well-received, titled Duty to our Kindred Dead.

    I would be gratified if one of the apostles (or more) addressed again the matter of marriage in the eternities, that plural marriage is a possible configuration, but that it is not a mandatory configuration. As I mentioned, I believe Elder Oaks has already given this talk, but there are others who remarried after the death of their first wife who could also address this topic (e.g., Elder L. Tom Perry and Elder Russell M. Nelson). Elder Richard G. Scott could perhaps talk about the “not mandatory” aspect, since his beloved Jeanene died almost 20 years ago, and yet he has not chosen to marry again.

    Even though President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has no personal reason for addressing this topic that I am aware of (i.e., I hope Harriet is happy and healthy and will remain so for many many years), I think it would be brilliant if he were to address the issue. Given that the early practice of polygamy is a stumbling block for so many individuals, it seems it could be a topic that would be appropriate to address, particularly given the push to perform family history research, and appropriately complete ordinance work on behalf of the dead (including all wives and all children). I may be wrong, but it seems that every topic President Uchtdorf has touched he’s done beautifully, and his conference addresses are treasured and remembered and quick-edited into faith-inspiring video pieces. I’m sure he could turn this topic into something that is a beautiful celebration of our mutual faith.

  10. We have D&C 132 and OD1 in our scriptures, so polygamy shouldn’t be a surprise. Some of the members can read books by Deseret Book too, but for most members around the world there are quite limited number of sources to learn of polygamy. However, having it in our scriptures should be enough.

    What shocks people, is just not the polygamy but polyandry, young age of some of the wives, things Joseph said while proposing some of them and other details that we do not usually learn in the church setting. I do not think that we should learn of these things in the Sunday School, since the purpose of the SS is not to educate us of details of church history but to help us to become better people. Nevertheless, there should be some official source to learn of these things too. I like the new Gospel topics pages. That is one way for the church to talk about difficult issues.

  11. I have to agree with Alissa that the best place for the introduction and development of this discussion is in the home when children are young. As a life-long member (my parents are converts) who married a convert I hope to avoid the shocking revelation I experienced in High School after vehemently denying any such thing could have ever happened while “defending” the church. There are opportunities to briefly bring up and introduce the topic (or any other controversial church topic) as an appendage to family scripture study and then have open and ongoing discussions. We also try to actively teach our children to try to suspend judgement when analyzing people/situations of other times and places and not using our own cultural norms to judge them.
    That being said, it would be nice if there was a way that converts could find out about some of these topics –a continued “open” approach by the church through the Ensign sound wonderful.

  12. I don’t know that anybody can go through a typical US history class in middle or high school and not learn something about Mormons and polygamy. However, virtually all the polygamy references in text books related to Brigham Young. I wish the church would flesh out Joseph’s polygamy (similar to what Meg is doing) in a series of Ensign articles or on the church website. I’ve mentioned before that I wish the church had done a better job on the front end of contemporaneously addressing plural marriage when Joseph first introduced the principle, and as lived by him and others. Meg – I think the Oaks interviews you reference are the PBS interview, or possibly the interview he did for “Conversations” on BYU Radio. All those who know my writings know my classic question: Why do we believe in serial monogamy in mortality if we’ll be pleasingly plural in perpetuity?

  13. Polygamy is not the really troubling issue coming as a terrible shock to lifelong members. Rather it is polyandry and the sheer number of Joseph Smith’s wives, and some of their ages.

    Mentioning polygamy more in church will innevitably lead to the far less pleasant topics. A reticence to talk about polygamy serves as a firewall to protect the church from formal discussions of polyandry, which can have no good ending among general membership. Keep it in private as much as possible.

  14. Idiat: Someone once said ( not an exact quote, but i think it was related to the Smoot hearings and the Second Manifesto): Which is better, to be a polygamist who doesn’t polyg, or a monogamist who doesn’t monog?”

  15. One context is probably in Young Women or Aaronic Priesthood perhaps on the a topic about temple marriage. Ask the youth how they would answer a question from a friend about polygamy. Even if it is not in the lesson material, asking everyone to role play difficultly situations let’s us think about how to best approach them before we are in the adrenaline of the situation

  16. I don’t think polygamy is the surprise. I think the surprise are in the details, especially in Joseph marrying young girls, married women, etc. I also think it is in some of the teachings of Brigham Young, which never made it into his PH/RS manual (for some odd reason -just kidding) in regards to plural marriage being a requirement for exaltation.
    As for having an apostle address plural marriage as noted by Meg, that would be fine. For an apostle to address these others issues, I’m not sure I’d want that. They should not have to delve into the weeds like that, especially when they are not historians. We had apostles as “expert witnesses” on many issues in the past, only to have members quote them as doctrine (blood atonement, priesthood curse, JS not using a seer stone, evolution,etc), and then later to have such things debunked. While I recommend the heavily edited Joseph Fielding Smith PH/RS manual, I can’t recommend his actual books, because he really pushed his personal agenda on many things that we do not now accept.

    I don’t want to put an apostle or the members in that position again. We should not have to choose between following an apostle’s personal teaching/belief, and the truth as shown by history or science. Joseph Smith DID use a seer stone, as well as the Urim and Thummim. There was no curse of Cain/Canaan, evolution really happens in some form.

    The apostolic role is to be a witness of Christ, teach the doctrine, and move the Lord’s work forward. Leave history, science, critical studies of the scriptures, etc., to the experts – where the members and others are not forced to choose a particular position in order to prove they are faithful to the Lord and his Church.

Comments are closed.