Polygamy. Let’s Talk!

When did you first hear about polygamy*, and what has your experience been with this topic? What attitudes have you observed?

Growing up in the church in here in Britain, non-members would raise the issue of polygamy, as in “Mormon, that’s the religion where the men can have lots of wives”. And we’d then have to explain that actually we didn’t do that any more. As a child I remember ward members getting up in testimony meeting and talking about experiences when they’d had to explain to their neighbours, that no their husband wasn’t away because he was visiting another wife, his trip was work related, there was no other wife. This happened to more than one member of the ward. In one case one of the children had heard the exchange, and was very upset at the idea that his father would have another wife, and it was a few days before the mother got to the bottom of the poor kid’s concerns and reassure him that this was not in fact the case. I wasn’t aware at the time that there were polygamous off-shoots in and around Utah, it wasn’t something that was mentioned.

The reason given for the practice of polygamy in the early church would be looking after the widows, and was often accompanied by the, normally paraphrased, Mark Twain quote:

“…the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure – and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.”

as though it had been a serious observation on his part. The leader associated with the practice was Brigham Young. His home was portrayed as one big happy family, with the kid’s having all those “aunts” to go to. It was terribly sad that families had to be split up and the men imprisoned, on account of persecution. And Wilford Woodruff had put an end to it (as per Official Declaration 1**), we were told. That was pretty much it.

As an older child I became aware that if a man’s wife died, he could marry again, and be sealed in the temple, and so finish up with more than one wife after this life was over. Because would it be fair to make him choose? And my mother had said, that if she died, she wanted my father to marry again, because she didn’t want him to be lonely. Of course I would not have wanted my mother to die anyway, but this made me think about not wanting her to die rather more than I would have done otherwise. As I grew older I’d also hold at arms length in my mind the possibility that I too, were I to marry, might die before my husband, and that wasn’t something I wanted to think about. It seemed to be commonly believed amongst members that it didn’t work the other way however, for women marrying another husband. This concerned me somewhat growing up, especially as my family had a real life example, in shape of my aunt, of a woman whose first husband had died tragically young, who had married again, and had children with both husbands. It seemed she would be expected to choose. Throughout my life my aunt has been an inactive member of the church, her children were baptised, but are also inactive. I have often wondered to what extent our teachings on eternal families coupled with sealing policies, and the oft-spouted doctrine/folklore surrounding those policies contributed to their inactivity.

When I mentioned polygamy growing up, my mother sometimes said she wouldn’t have minded another wife helping around the house. Now she is older, and we are all grown, she has said that when we were young she used to think that sometimes, but actually, no. Not now.

I’m not sure polygamy got a mention at all, my final year of seminary, the Doctrine & Covenants year. It was the one year I had to take early morning. The teacher was a young, non-academic, just-returned-from-a-mission, sister. Very nice, but had nothing to add to the supplied lesson material. I was far from my best that time in the morning, and had to leave before the class finished every day anyway.

Later, as a student in London, I was loaned a copy of Mormon Enigma, and for the first time encountered descriptions of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. I didn’t know what to make of the information, knew nothing about the authors. Something else parked at arms length in my mind. I could never see Joseph Smith in quite the same way again, and my sympathies were with Emma. But it wasn’t something I ever discussed in depth with anyone.

Fast forward a few years, as a young married in a ward, where members seemed to remarkably blasé about polygamy in general church conversation. I visit taught one sister who’d been divorced. The children were, at that time, with her husband (to whom she was still sealed), and who had married again. She spoke about them all sitting together on the pew at church like a polygamous family, when she visited. The wife in an older couple died. My husband and I had come to know them quite well. A few years later he remarried, and was sealed in the temple, to a really lovely lady he’d met at an older single adult activity. The two wives are chalk and cheese. Very different to each-other. Although he and his new wife didn’t live in the ward boundaries, they would visit occasionally, and she spoke once in relief society, about how she would have conversations in her mind with the deceased wife sometimes.

Moving to a new ward, I visit taught a sister who expressed a strong dislike for polygamy, but who is otherwise a dedicated member. And not too long ago one of the older sisters in the ward married and was sealed to a widower. Another moment of dissonance for me. This man and his family had joined the church in my ward when I was a teenager. I had known the first wife. She was very different to the sister I knew in my current ward. This being Britain, there was the church wedding first. And the ward pretty much pulled out all the stops. This sister had been divorced twice, and had been attending single adult activities, and had really wanted to find a good husband. They appreciated the effort that had gone into the wedding for them, but expressed disappointment that so few had attended the sealing at the temple afterwards. I wondered how many had felt as I had on receiving an invitation to the sealing. That it was something I just didn’t want to have to address. I could deal with the wedding, but I did not want to have to think beyond that.

I’ve been studying more over the last few years, and the discovery that polygamy was sold to the women in the early church as the only way the curse of Eve could be overcome really angers me. Recent reading of Doctrine & Covenants 132, has reminded me how appalling women are viewed in that section. Joseph gets his wives, irrespective of how Emma feels. Her proposed additional husband? That was just an Abrahamic test for Joseph, subsequently withdrawn. Women given to men!

All this is in stark contrast to the oneness required for husband and wife as preached now, and indeed reiterated in President Eyring’s address at the Vatican Colloquium. And I’ve seen numerous online discussions of the way in which our doctrine/practice comes between a husband and wife, preventing that oneness. In spite of my discomfort at the idea of attending the sealing of a man to a second wife, I’m not wholly sure that I agree with those sentiments either. In my reading of scripture I don’t see oneness being limited to spouses, or families. Rather that the aim is for the whole human family to become one. I see the family on earth as being a laboratory of sorts, in practising that, in beginning to build it. I do think we might perhaps be overplaying the nuclear family now as an eternal identity. Though goodness knows that has to beat the sealing chaos taking place in Nauvoo and Utah, pre Wilford Woodruff’s reforms.

What I would ask, is redaction of those appalling verses in D&C 132, for men and women to be truly equal, and for temple and sealing practices to reflect that.

Discuss.

* Hawkgrrrl covered reaction to the recent polygamy essays in this post.

**The italicised introductory heading to the declaration in the link is not the same as the heading given back then.