Especially in the LDS Church, where a good many members have a second wife or two in their ancestry. Particularly among General Authorities, who take polygamy very seriously. And certainly in General Conference, where the membership of the Church reverently assembles and tunes in for uplifting counsel. Well, life is full of surprises. Here are the first lines from the talk given by President Oaks in the Saturday morning session of Conference:

A letter I received some time ago introduces the subject of my talk. The writer was contemplating a temple marriage to a man whose eternal companion had died. She would be a second wife. She asked this question: Would she be able to have her own house in the next life, or would she have to live with her husband and his first wife? [Chuckles from the audience.] I just told her to trust the Lord. [More chuckles.]

I’m not sure what is more disappointing, Pres. Oaks playing this up for a laugh or the assembled congregation laughing on cue. This is what I wrote in my notes: “A second temple wife — everyone chuckles. Why? This isn’t funny.” Only in the LDS Church would someone tell a second wife joke. And only in the LDS Church would the audience laugh.

But let’s stay positive here. Rather than be offended (I’m not) or wag the finger of shame in someone’s direction, let’s think of some better answers that Pres. Oaks might have given to this poor lady who (again, only in Mormonism) has *serious* concerns about the consequences of temple marriage for women. And by women I don’t mean just second wives, I mean all Mormon women, who in LDS theology are all potentially second wives or first wives who end up with sister wives eventually sealed to Mr. Husband.

Pres. Oaks’ answer was: Just trust the Lord. I assume that would apply to concern about sharing a husband as well as sharing a house, that being the more serious concern about the whole plural marriage arrangement. There are several alternative answers Pres. Oaks could have given, none of them good. I’ll sort of start with believing, orthodox answers and move down the list.

1 – “In the Celestial Kingdom, all men and women are perfected, which includes personality and conduct. It will be a lot easier to get along with everyone, even a first wife, in the celestial realm.” So maybe there isn’t jealousy in the Celestial Kingdom, problem solved.

2 – “It is well known that women are more righteous than men, which leads to a gender imbalance in the Celestial Kingdom. Plural marriage solves this problem. I know it introduces some difficulties for women, in this life or the next, but that’s what you get for being so righteous. Consider the alternative arrangement: you’re probably happier with half a husband than two or three of them.” The way General Authorities often talk up LDS women and talk down LDS men, I’m surprised we haven’t heard this before.

3 – “To understand the answer about the house, you have to understand the patriarchal order. In heaven as well as in this world, men preside. So if your celestial husband wants all his wives in one house, you’ll share a house. If your celestial husband wants his wives in separate houses, you’ll have separate houses. Question answered.” I fear that there are plenty of LDS priesthood holders and leaders who would endorse this response.

4 – “You need to understand that the Kingdom of God is a patriarchal order, established under the umbrella of priesthood. Plural marriage exists primarily for the benefit and enjoyment of those holding the priesthood. If some women have concerns about the arrangement, that is of little concern to those who designed and who run the system.” This has the advantage of being fairly candid (about the men not really caring about women who wring their hands — that’s why Pres. Oaks can joke about it).

5 – “Focus on the joy that marriage will bring you in this life. We don’t really know that much about arrangements in the next life — don’t tell anyone, but we’re really only guessing about heavenly marriage. So being a second temple wife temporally, in this life, may not even mean you’ll be a second wife contemporaneously in the next life.” This may very well assuage the concern about being a celestial second wife, but at the cost of undermining the whole LDS doctrine of marriage in heaven. D&C 76 makes is pretty clear there are lots of single people in heaven (a couple of rungs down the ladder) and they are, we are told, going to be quite happy in their kingdoms of glory. So, in a roundabout way, Mormon theology is suggesting that if there is no marriage in heaven, we’d still be very happy there.

You may think I’m writing all this rather tongue in cheek, playing for laughs the same way Pres. Oaks did. I’m not. This is a serious issue which troubles many LDS women and troubles them deeply. I am sorry for the poor woman who wrote the letter to Pres. Oaks and listened to 10,000 Mormons in attendance laugh at her plight. I am sorry for the thousands of women in similar situations who are unhappy with what Mormon theology teaches them about their situation. I am sorry a General Authority thinks a second wife scenario is a nice little joke to tell in Conference. But if you are having a Mormon conversation with a woman who has such a concern, good luck coming up with a better response than the one Pres. Oaks offered or one of those I sketched out above.

Ideally a response to this issue would be informed, honest, and emotionally reassuring. Is there such an answer? This issue has really painted the Church (and women who accept its teachings) into an ugly little corner. The only thing that would make it uglier is if polygamy was somehow reinstated in the here and now.