As a church we talk about polygamy seldom enough that there are people who are unaware that it was ever a practice. When we do talk about it, we seem to either have people waxing extremely nostalgic or waxing extreme in their offense. Usually over the same things. The truth is that polygamy was extreme. It was extremely bad and extremely good and we ignore the the good either because we are overwhelmed by the bad or because we want the bad parts back.
And because, it appears, we have decided to abandon what was good about it or modern society has now accepted those points as normal.
For the bad:
- exploitation of women.
- women as property.
- men as superfluous (if a marriage can have thirty women and one man, a man is = 1/30th of a women in importance to a marriage).
- the potential of surplus men being driven from the community (which happens in the FLDS).
- abuse of ecclesiastical authority to force people into marriages they would reject.
- those who comment on this post will surely fill in the blanks.
- otherwise, watch sister wives (which I confess to never having seen).
For the good:
- it broke cultural boundaries so that married women were allowed to own and manage their own property (in the rest of the United States they were unable to do so) because the doctrine was that they were the equals of men in every respect.
- women were given the vote when they were not allowed to vote anywhere else (and the U.S. Congress took that right away, before giving it back. Most textbooks only give the second date for Utah suffrage). The vote was not a hollow thing, the first woman in Utah to run for the state legislature beat her husband in the general election for the position of state senator — so not only running, but running against her husband — and beating him.
- Being praised as attorneys (where they were not allowed to practice law in other jurisdictions), business leaders, doctors, artists and shopkeepers.
- Strong female cooperatives and bands of sisterhoods with women running their own organizations independently of men.
- An emphasis on female education (to the point it was preached as more important as men being educated).
- Women having the right to divorce — easily and without censure. Brigham Young famously preached a sermon where he stated that if his daughters needed to divorce two or three times before they found the right many that was much better than being stuck in the wrong match or being afraid to marry.
The problem is that we can have all the virtues without polygamy and too many in the Church only give lip service to the virtues as being virtues. When was the last time you heard a woman being praised for being a business leader? Or encouraged to obtain practical education such as going to law school or business school or medical school? What Brigham Young encouraged, we actively discourage. What Jacob (in the Book of Mormon) castigated as sin, some of us embrace.
And should a daughter decide that she needs a divorce? How many would be like Brigham Young?
On the other hand, we do have what appear to be lecherous idiots, who just also are the same group who wants to see a return to the status of non-LDS women in the 1800s — they reject every sermon of Brigham Young or Joseph Smith (or Joseph F. Smith or Joseph Fielding Smith) on the equality of women. They are the kind of men that if a woman expressed an interest in medical school, instead of following the prophets and encouraging other women to help make that successful, they would attempt to discourage it.
In today’s church, I do not see an acknowledgement of the down side (or why it was definitely necessary for polygamy to be ended) or the up side (because I don’t think many in the modern church would encourage their daughters to become attorneys, doctors, business women or store owners — and do not value female education to the point that they would consider educating their daughters more important than educating their sons as Brigham Young did). Those who want a return of plural marriage want it for the factors that consist of its down side, and fail to realize that the benefits (which many outside the church now take for granted) can be easily accessed in today’s culture.
And as for the last virtue, that it created an ethnic group out of Mormons in an extremely short time — we are ceasing to be an ethnic group and ceasing to have ethnic group virtues.
Which is probably why no one told you about polygamy. What do you think?