I was part of an Institute lesson on polygamy, aka “plural marriage,” not too long ago. I wasn’t the main teacher, but was there as sort of a resource and support guy, so the teacher could pivot a tricky historical or doctrinal question to me (“I’m not sure about that one; what do you think, Dave?”). The class discussion was interesting and a little surprising, which I’ll get to later on in the post. What do LDS teens and twenty-somethings think of LDS polygamy in 2022? What does anyone think of LDS polygamy in 2022? What do you think of polygamy in 2022?
I’m phrasing the issue that way because the understanding of historical events is not a fixed and static thing. It changes over time. Every generation rewrites and reinterprets history. That’s not because the prior generation necessarily got it wrong. It’s partly because new documents and new facts emerge which need to be taken into account and often change, sometimes dramatically, our understanding of historical events. But it’s also because *we* have changed. We look at the world differently than our parents, very differently than our grandparents, and so forth. So LDS polygamy in 2022 looks different than it did in 2002 or 1982 and way different than in 1902 or 1862 or 1842. Every LDS generation understands LDS polygamy differently. How do we LDS in 2022 understand it?
The 21st Century
We are 22 years into the 21st century. What relevant resources do you or anyone else in 2022 have access to related to LDS polygamy that someone in 2000 didn’t? Well, there’s the Internet, but let’s get more specific. First, there are the LDS Gospel Topics Essays on plural marriage, three longer ones covering Kirtland and Nauvoo, early Utah, and “the end of plural marriage” (as if its over!), and one short summary essay titled “Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” These are interesting not just for the content, but because LDS leaders have finally chosen to publicly address and defend polygamy at some length. The summary essay starts with this sentence: “Latter-day Saints believe that the marriage of one man and one woman is the Lord’s standing law of marriage.” That’s a strange way to start an official discussion of LDS polygamy, claiming that God’s “standing law of marriage” is … monogamy. So the Lord’s law of marriage is monogamy, except when it’s not.
The second sentence is equally problematic: “In biblical times, the Lord commanded some to practice plural marriage ….” Huh? You can read a lot of Bible and not come across any passage where God commands patriarchs or Israelites or anyone else to practice plural marriage. That’s because He didn’t. Yes, there is polygamy in the Bible. There are a lot of things in the Bible. But just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean God commanded it. But that’s a reframing that LDS leaders and apologists are quite happy to use for an LDS discussion of polygamy: Start with the assumption that God commands it, sometimes, then try to come up with explanations for why God might do this, especially when God’s “standing law of marriage” is admitted to be monogamy. A more enlightening framing might be, Why do men sometimes want to do polygamy? Or, why is the idea of plural marriage attractive to so many men? Or, how do women fare under polygamy? As noted in the first sentence of the second paragraph, “Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes in instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage.” Again, that’s a strange position to take in an essay that attempts to explain and defend LDS polygamy: we don’t really understand this, but we’re going to try and explain it. We could talk about almost every sentence in the summary or the three longer essays. From the vantage point of 2022, the whole discussion seems sort of convoluted and unconvincing. But also in 2022, these essays are a starting point for any LDS discussion (in Sunday School or Institute or a fireside) about plural marriage.
There are other resources you in 2022 might be familiar with that someone in 2000 wouldn’t. There are the three Brian Hales volumes on LDS polygamy (which I haven’t read), as well as a short summary volume titled Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015), which I have read. The summary volume (and I assume the other volumes) provide a fairly straightforward presentation of the facts, mingled with apologetic defenses. A useful resource. Hales also put together a website that presents a lot of the material from the books and a handy two-page outline. Interestingly, the website is listed as a reference in the LDS Institute manual lesson on polygamy. There are two Institute lessons, actually, a class preparation lesson and a teacher reference lesson.
If you like podcasts, there is the Year of Polygamy podcast series, presented by Lindsay Hansen Park. I haven’t listened to any of the episodes, I’m more of a book guy, but I’ve heard they are really informative. A lot of “the rest of the story” material. There is also Carol Lynn Pearson’s book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy, published in 2016, that approaches LDS polygamy as not just a historical thing, but an ongoing traumatic historical thing. There was no “end of polygamy.” For some LDS, it’s more like an open wound that won’t heal, and the book recounts some of those stories. I haven’t read the book, but I did hear most of a panel discussion of the book.
Here’s the thing. For most of the 20th century, LDS leadership simply didn’t want to talk about LDS polygamy. The occasional Sunday School lesson on “eternal marriage,” with discussion of D&C 132, mostly avoided the topic, and it wasn’t talked about anywhere else. In the last third of the 20th century, Correlation did a pretty thorough job of removing *any* discussion of LDS polygamy from any and every LDS publication, to the point that an entire generation of LDS youth grew up NOT KNOWING that Joseph Smith had 35 “wives.” I put that word in quotes because there is a whole discussion of marriage versus sealing and, of course, concubines that we could have. Here in 2022, the women Joseph was married or sealed to look more like victims than wives. But that discussion is beyond the scope of this post. The main point to take away is that in the 20th century, the Church simply avoided the whole topic of polygamy, but in the 21st century the Church is addressing and defending it in the Essays and in curriculum materials.
The Class Discussion
I won’t go into specifics about the class discussion in the Institute class I attended. I was expecting a variety of questions about historical LDS polygamy, from how many “wives” did Joseph have (or even “did Joseph really have more than one wife?”) to Fanny Alger to polyandry. The only question along these lines was about post-1890 attempts to continue plural marriage down in Mexico or up in Canada. I said yes that happened, and I explained a little about the Mormon Colonies down in Mexico.
The surprising thing is that most of the questions, most of the concerns, were about current family relationships. My mother remarried and I want to be sealed to her and my stepfather, not bio dad. What about a woman who joins the Church later in life, during a third marriage, does she have to choose which of her three husbands to be sealed to in eternity? What about a member who was abused during childhood and does not want to be sealed to biological parents? Can that sealing be terminated? Those are the sort of questions that the new generation, teens and twenty-somethings, seem to have about eternal marriage. They don’t so much care about what Joseph and Brigham did or didn’t do. They care about how eternal marriage and family sealing work or don’t work in the context of complicated and complex 21st-century family arrangements.
Maybe, in terms of Gospel Topics Essays, what is needed is not four essays on historical LDS polygamy. Maybe what is needed is a long essay on sealings and terminations, choices and options, for families and kids and widows and widowers and blended families in 2022. What options are there for arranging or re-arranging LDS sealings that claim to determine family relationships in the hereafter? For you or me, that might sound like a technical issue or maybe a hypothetical doctrinal discussion. But for a lot of LDS, that is a very important and very personal matter of great concern.
Even if there had never been any LDS practice of plural marriage, the doctrine of eternal marriage would bring up many of these issues. So here is a surprising point: the problem isn’t the historical practice of LDS polygamy, it’s the LDS doctrine of eternal marriage. These problematic family scenarios (real-life ones, these are not just hypothetical) don’t get talked about in any LDS lessons or talks. The only way to get answers and action on a particular situation, a real-life situation, is to go the bishop and make a request, who kicks it upstairs to a stake president and eventually to a GA committee or the First Presidency, who then grants or does not grant permission for a particular sealing to be performed or to be terminated. There are some rules that govern these scenarios, but they’re not spelled out anywhere you or I can see them, and of course the rules change over time. Even more frustrating, the “rules” aren’t really rules. They aren’t binding. At some level, there’s an LDS committee or leader who can waive any rule for a sufficiently deserving case or for a friend of the family.
I could go on for pages. There are several scholarly books that have come out in the last 20 years that I could list. There are plenty of issues raised in the Gospel Topics Essays on polygamy to talk about. There is a longer discussion to be had about the various rules and changes for the current LDS practice of sealings and terminations of sealings. Like in the 19th century, men were sealed to men. But this is a blog post, not a book, so I’ll just wind it up with a couple more paragraphs and a few discussion prompts.
Here’s something I never see clearly explained in polygamy discussions. “Marriage” is a legal status, defined and controlled by the state. “Sealing” is an LDS religious practice or ritual, defined and controlled by the Church and its leadership. Keeping these two concepts distinct is very helpful, even if they are often muddled in LDS discussions. If you go to an LDS temple to get married, the marriage and sealing are performed simultaneously, but it’s only a marriage because in the United States the state (that is, the government) delegates to religious officials, including LDS bishops and temple sealers, the authority to perform a state-recognized marriage. You still need a marriage license from the state before going to an LDS temple for a marriage/sealing. In some countries, that delegation is not made. You go to city hall or the courthouse for a marriage, performed by a government official or judge, then go to a church for a religious ceremony, a “church marriage.” But the state action is what makes it a valid marriage. In such a country, skip the church service, you’re still married in the eyes of the state. Skip the trip to the courthouse, you’re not married.
One of the requirements for a valid marriage by any US state is that neither of the parties are currently married. If you acknowledge you are already married, you won’t get a marriage license. If you lie about it and try to get a second marriage anyway, that second marriage is void ab initio, void from the beginning, even if that does not become known until later and even if one of the parties was duped. So there really wasn’t any LDS plural marriage going on. There was a valid marriage, the first one, between a man and “the first wife,” and then successive LDS sealings that didn’t have any legal significance. I know there are folks with LDS plural marriages in their family history for whom this might be a touchy point, but hey, if I’m going to blog about it I’m going to tell it like it is. So there are legal marriages that LDS practice will do a sealing for (hetero marriages), there are legal marriages that LDS practice will not do sealings for (gay marriages), and there are invalid, not-legal marriages that LDS practice was once willing, even eager, to do sealings for (LDS “plural marriages”) but will no longer do sealings for. There are also legally dissolved marriages for which the Church claims a prior LDS sealing remains in force, another messy scenario that is deeply disturbing to many in that situation. It’s all much clearer conceptually and doctrinally if we clearly distinguish between marriages, a legal status defined and controlled by the state, and LDS sealings, defined and practiced by the LDS Church. The Church can do any sealing it wants and the state doesn’t really care. You could get your dog sealed to your family as long as the proper LDS official approves it.
So here are some things to talk about in the comments.
- Any LDS “plural marriages” in your family history? How do you feel about that?
- Any personal experience with working through a bishop, stake president, LDS bureaucrat, or LDS GA trying to get an LDS sealing approved or terminated? I’ve heard that leadership (at some level) is much more willing the last few years to bend the rules or make exceptions than in years past.
- Anyone a fan of TV series and reality shows about various polygamy scenarios? Funny how popular these shows seem to be.
- Any discussions you’ve had with an LDS teen or twenty-something about polygamy? Either because they were blindsided in seminary and came to you for enlightenment, or because they just can’t come to grips on moral grounds with the idea that Joseph Smith had 35 “wives”?
- Any discussions you’ve had with a non-LDS neighbor or co-worker about LDS polygamy? That’s a much different discussion that with an LDS person. If your neighbor or co-worker is Islamic, that’s an even more interesting discussion.
I was married to my first wife in the temple and sealed at the same time. She ended up leaving me for her boss at work and then divorced him about five years later. She never remarried. She ended up passing away at 59 and by then had basically come back to the church. She said to me that she was grateful that we were still sealed in the temple and hoped I would accept her. By then we had come to terms with what happened in our lives and were friends. My second marriage was in the Ogden temple for time only. About a year later we were sealed in the Mesa temple. We were together for 25 years but for a variety of reasons got divorced. She got remarried in a few months and within a year asked for a temple divorce. I was asked to write a letter and I did talking about the problems our marriage had and was not very “kind” in my assessment. I doubt she saw the letter and she was very quickly granted a annulment of our sealing and quickly got sealed to her third husband. About 7 or 8 years later I got remarried and a year or two after that, my ex’s husband passed away. He was actually a pretty good guy and when you have children, you never really go your own ways so we knew him for many family get togethers. At his funeral, my ex asked my wife to play the piano and organ at the funeral and I played guitar at the graveside for my daughters to sing. The unexpected surprise at the funeral was that my first wife was also there because her sister was in the same ward as he was before he married my ex. When my first wife passed away, my wife played again at her funeral and my ex was there because she had been my first daughters step mom of a long time. It wasn’t all that uncomfortable. We flew to the funeral but drove home with my daughters and my ex in the same car and were civil to each other. So I have interesting perspective on Polygamy. I’ve learned that even “until death do you part” is a form of polygamy if you have children.
The separation between legal and religious divorce is more complicated in other faiths, such that the law has come to be involved.
I wonder if, in view of the this those still sealed to those to whom they have no wish to be sealed, might find it easier to get a cancellation of sealing than would have been the case previously. Particularly where permission is being sought from a former spouse.
My mother’s side of the family has been LDS for very long time. Polygamy is there. One relative really did a deep dive into the family history on that side. The results were fairly awful.
The polygamist “doctor” that my mother so proudly talked about as an ancestor with four wives, turned out to be a dude with no medical training and over 40 wives. He made a good living marketing the 1890 equivalent of Essential Oils and Energy Healings. Many of his wives did not know about his polygamist status when he brought them to the Utah territory. Apparently, he liked to travel and pick up an extra wife along the way. He also felt no real need to financially provide for those wives or the children.
He was not legally married to many of his wives — but had been sealed to them. At one point, he sat down with his bishop and a stack of blank marriage certificates. They did a guesstimate of dates to make his many marriages “legal.”
Another male ancestor married three sisters. They had met him while sailing from England. They were assigned by Brigham Young to settle the Mapleton/Springville area. They arrived late in the season. The husband was assigned by BY to be the shoemaker for that region. He had that skill and had the tools. When BY sent them down there, BY did not provide any leather. They had no way to make shoes due to the lack of leather. The husband was unhappy with BY and contacted BY to essentially state “How in the $&&@ do you expect me to make shoes without leather?” BY did not respond and did not send leather.
They had few supplies and no housing. The four of them lived in a single covered wagon through their first first winter and suffered.
FWIW, some of their belongings are in the local Pioneer Museum in that area and there is no notation on those items that the original owners were involved in polygamy.
After he died, all three wives asked for a divorce/cancellation of sealing. The church granted that. Evidently, he was a fairly horrible person. Weirdly enough, on ancestry.com, those marriages are still listed and temple work was done for all three of those marriages — as well as the temple work for each wife’s subsequent marriage.
My father converted to Mormonism.
When I compare the two sides of my family, the truly squirrelly people are on the maternal side. There are some very known LDS names on that side, and I am not proud of that, as those are the squirreliest of the squirrels.
So much about polygamy has been whitewashed. There was so much weirdness that is simply not discussed.
Most of us knew about the Church’s history with polygamy since we were children growing up in the Church. And the way it was taught to me was pretty benign: there were more women than men; it was about taking care of widows; it was part of an effort to grow the Church; it was practiced for a while starting with Brigham Young but dropped in the early 1900s.
Unfortunately, what I was taught about polygamy as a youth in the 80s (see above) and what I’ve learned since then represent two different realities. I didn’t know that this practice started with Joseph Smith (33+ wives) even though we talked about JS all the time at church. And since I didn’t know about JS’s polygamy, I didn’t know about these details:
1. marrying sisters and mothers and daughters
2. marrying teenagers while in his 30s
3. offering salvation to family members of prospective wives
4. lying to Emma
5. lying to the Church
6. lying to the public
7. marrying members of the Smith household (household help) and/or foster kids
8. employing the Relief Society to aid and assist in the practice (even Emma’s friends)
9. proposing to women already married to active Church members (and sending men away on missions)
10. claiming the threat of a flaming sword
To answer your question…the way I see polygamy in 2022 is much different than the way I saw it in 1984 (my high school graduation year) because I’ve been exposed to information. Once you see it (1-10 above) you can’t unsee it. We can pretend that polygamy is OK under certain circumstances but we all know that it is wrong. Why do we know it is wrong? Is it the Light of Christ? Is it the Holy Ghost? Is it personal revelation? I don’t know. But I know that you know it is wrong and the spin I got in the 80s didn’t tell the story.
“They don’t so much care about what Joseph and Brigham did or didn’t do. They care about how eternal marriage and family sealing work or don’t work in the context of complicated and complex 21st-century family arrangements.”
I’m not sure this is exactly true. I think the reason there were no questions about Joseph or Brigham is because what is there really to say? I think the Millenials and Gen Z are just beyond tired of listening to priviliged white men defend the indefensible. That’s not meant to be a swipe at the OP as I believe you truly showed up in good faith to help, but just a general comment. For example, when Holland gave his musket talk I told my bishop I was beyond sad and needed some time to process and not to expect to see me for a season. He reached out several times to me to talk about it but I declined because what was there to say? Holland is a church leader; if the leaders want to go left and I want to go right then we go our separate ways.
The polygamy shows are hard for me to watch. I used to take a live and let live position on polygamy but those shows have exposed the coercion and lack of consent for those raised in the system.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Instereo, your story illustrates my comment about “complicated and complex 21st-century family arrangements.” Surprisingly, people can often make these complicated relationships work fairly well in terms of getting along and dealing with family members. It’s nice when the Church allows sealing arrangements to follow and support what is working in the here and now.
Hedgehog, interesting article and topic. I’m not aware of a similar position taken by any United States court.
arelius11, I removed your comments and links. This post is not discussing Denver Snuffer’s views on polygamy (which you call “the truth of polygamy”) so trying to move the discussion to that topic is not welcome.
I find it really interesting that the people in institute were mostly worried about current family relationships. Since I have very few divorces in my family, I guess I haven’t thought of those things. When you are in institute you are not very old. I wonder if as these people get older and into their own happy marriages, if polygamy will become a bigger deal. The way I finally explained it to my husband that I think he truly got it, was when I said currently you have one wife and I have one husband. If you have two wives, I have half a husband. If you have three wives I have 1/3 a husband, etc. How is that possibly fair? I explained that I knew if I were to die first, he would need to remarry (he’s not the type of person who wants to live alone). I would like him to pick a nice woman who is kind to our adult children, especially our disabled child who lives with us. I do not care if she is a member of the church. But under no circumstances is he to get sealed to her. Interestingly, after I finally expressed out loud how I felt and where I drew the line on polygamy it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. And on another note, this is the first time I’ve realized my great grandmother was really just a mistress, she was not “legally” married.
My grandfather was born in the Mormon Colonies in Mexico, he was there because his grandfather had multiple wives so the whole family was there. They then moved to a town called Freedom Wyoming. The main street of Freedom is the Idaho/Wyoming border. The story is that is was named Freedom because if state officials were after you from say Idaho, you could cross the street to be out of their jurisdiction. A nice place for polygamists to live.
My daughter got her sealing to her deceased husband canceled, and was sealed to her present husband. It was expedited because she happen to sit by the 70 in General Conference that was over the committee that did sealing cancelations. She got it done in a few weeks!
I needed to give my wife’s perspective about her experiences which are very different than from mine listed above. She married while at BYU-Idaho (Ricks then). The marriage lasted about 10 years. He was very abusive both physically and mentally yet when she went to the bishop he would council her to stay with him. It finally got to a point she couldn’t do that so she left and took the kids. After a year or two she married another man who at first seemed to be really good. Meanwhile her ex husband met someone and insisted on a temple divorce which she found very upsetting. Not because he was asking but because it brought up all the anguish and guilt again and it didn’t really matter what she said because it was granted quickly and he remarried in the temple. Meanwhile, she got remarried and was sealed in the temple to her second husband. Like I said, he was a good man but he got lost in the opioid epidemic and after a few years she left him and two weeks after that, he overdosed and passed away. Yet, in their marriage he had treated her basically well and adopted her three children because number 1 didn’t want to pay child support. We got married about three years after his death. Her first husband has never had any kind of contact with her or her children since the adoption yet the children are “still sealed to him” even though they had a temple divorce. We’ve been married now for 8 years and her first husband has not contacted any of the kids and has missed graduations, missions, marriages, and many family events. We’ve had contact with her second husband’s family in spite of their pain at losing their son. So when we got married, we rented a dinner cruise boat and got married in the middle of the Great Salt Lake with just our families attending. When asked by our parents (bishops and stake presidents) if we were going to get married in the temple we said no, we had “done it right, twice” but it didn’t seem to work therefore we were going to do it wrong and let God sort it out. If our love wasn’t good enough, what good was a sealing.
Which brings me to my real point about polygamy. Is it really a commandment from God or an excuse using God to have “legal” affairs or multiple relationships? Considering what we’ve seemed to learn about Joseph Smith in the past few years, is there really any difference between what he did and some man sneaking out on his wife to see his lover. How is it that some men are anointed to have multiple wives yet other men are “sinners” if they even look at a women with lust in their heart? Finally what is the difference when a wife consents to polygamy and adults consent to an open relationship as long as there is respect, love, honor, and support financially and emotionally for all parties. God sanctioning one thing that looks like the very thing he condemns at another time gives religion a bad name. Now complicate all that with same sex marriage and all I can say is “What about Love?”
This is an interesting discussion. It is interesting that you will not allow the possibility that Joseph Smith Jr. was not a polygamist. I have brought together a lot of information that supports that idea that Joseph was an honest seer instead of a lying polygamist. https://salemthoughts.com/Topics/JosephSmith-Honest_Seer.shtml
The contemporary information doesn’t support the idea that Joseph had multiple wives. In fact, probably the main reason the Relief Society was created was to fight against the idea of plural marriage that was being presented by many people.
Thanks for your comments, everyone.
Bishop Bill, very interesting. I guess anyone in particular need of a special sealing adjustment should go to General Conference, then sneak up to the big red chairs at the front when no one is looking and sit next to a Seventy.
cachemagic, comments and discussion are welcome. Drive-by linkers — no discussion, just posting a link — are essentially doing advertising for their site or view. It’s more an advertisement than a comment. It doesn’t contribute to the discussion. Denver Snuffer gets plenty of attention without W&T giving him free advertising. The thing to remember about the many public denials from the Nauvoo period is there were two regimes at work: (1) private polygamy as practiced by Joseph and some of his trusted associates in leadership and (2) public denials that polygamy was practiced by Joseph and his close associates (who knew otherwise) and lots of public denials by useful idiots (everyone else, who didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes).
Joseph never publicly acknowledged his practice of polygamy. Nothing surprising about that: most people engaged in questionable actions don’t publicly acknowledge what they are doing unless they are at some point forced to, and Joseph never quite got to that point. A good source for the dynamics of this private/public split is Merina Smith’s Revelation, Resistance, and Mormon Polygamy: The Introduction and Implementation of the Principle, 1830-1853.
I have polygamy on both sides of my family. My great grandma, who lived into my mid twenties was a child of polygamy. Her father had 4 wives. He would come to dinner on some Sundays. My great grandma never had a chance to speak to him personally until she met him on the sidewalk in town once and told him she needed a new pair of shoes. He didn’t buy her any.
On the other side I have a more detailed story. A widow and widower, each with one child met in England, married and traveled to Utah together. Both children died on the trip and the wife was too old to become pregnant. She wrote to her sister in England who was recently widowed and invited her to come to UT and be her husband’s second wife. She brought her children and came and had more children. My ancestor was one of the 2nd wife’s children that was raised by the first wife.
I have always felt positively about polygamy and imagined I wouldn’t mind sharing a husband with my sister. However as I have read the concerns of other people, I believe it would be good to change the church’s approach.
Acknowledge clearly that sealing only are in force if there is love and caring between the parties. Stop releasing sealings, just acknowledge that they aren’t in force if one of the pair doesn’t want them. Then seal anyone who wants to be sealed while alive monogamously (male or female even if still sealed to a dead spouse).
Smile and say it will all work out in heaven just like we do with work for the dead where we seal everybody to each other and don’t worry about it.
Regrettably polygamy is/was part of patriarchy and it’s misogyny. This needs to be seen and admitted.
cachemagic… Really, haven’t you read D&C 132?
To the author: Please please please tell us more about men being sealed to men. Great post.
“. . . the problem isn’t the historical practice of LDS polygamy, it’s the LDS doctrine of eternal marriage. ” That is exactly what I thought when reading Pearson’s book.
I’m Gen-X, so I probably shouldn’t try to speak for the younger generations. I have little to no experience with your discussion questions. I am aware of polygamous ancestors in 19th century Utah, but have minimal knowledge of their experiences with 19th century polygamy. I have read “Ghost of Eternal Polygamy” and found Sister Pearson’s anecdotes and thoughts rather compelling. All told, my “testimony” of polygamy as being commanded by God is shaky, at best.
If it’s not too far afield of your desired discussion direction, I find that most of my thought around polygamy are more about the rising incidence and acceptance of “consensual non-monogamous” relationships. Admittedly, some of my interest comes after years in a sexless marriage where sometimes it seems like the easiest solution to our sexual differences is some kind of open marriage. Of course, marriage/relationships aren’t about sex alone. I recently had an article come across my computer about a throuple in California that adopted a baby. I know for myself that part of my ambivalence towards 19th century polygyny comes out of my own ambivalence towards ethical polyamory or consensual non-monogamy. Certainly, the 19th century version violated so many of the principles of consensual non-monogamy — starting with the full and enthusiastic consent of all involved that was so frequently violated in 19th century polygamy starting with our founder himself who never got Emma’s full buy in and seemed to only sometimes get her begrudging tolerance upon threats of angels with swords or the like. Could it be that some of the apparent ambivalence of the younger generations towards the 19th century practice of polygamy is a result of some of their generations acceptance of all kinds of minority, non-traditional family structures — including the possibility of non-monogamous relationships? In many ways that’s where this Gen-Xer sits. Uncertain about a blanket condemnation of polygamy, because I find myself unwilling to condemn all polyamory. I can see problems with the way polygamy was practiced in the 19th century, like lack of consent and the gender bias, but perhaps there is a place for polygamy in my ethical world as long as it is practiced correctly??
To answer your questions:
1) Nope, both my parents were converts. None of my temple married sibs or their kids have had a second sealing or second marriage. My hubbie’s family is 5th gen (I think) and they had no polygamists either, which I guess means they weren’t popular.
2) I do have plenty of friends who’ve been through this, and frankly, the men have an easier time navigating it than the women. The women appear to be treated like dependent children who need to be sealed at all costs (even their own mental health) and can only be “un” sealed if their exhusband/father/god magnanimously agrees. It’s super gross.
3) I truly cannot stomach these types of shows, although non-monogamy is in vogue outside religious contexts now (throuples, etc.), and even that is something that I find to be a huge turn off. I liked the series The Politician, and there is a non-monogamy theme going on there, but non-religious. I really really didn’t like it.
4) Not really. My own kids know that I think polygamy is a male fantasy at the expense of women and that Brigham Young boasted he didn’t know all his wives’ names. These are not moral role models.
5) Yes, unfortunately, polygamy is basically the only thing my non-LDS friends knew about the Church where I grew up. I was often asked how many husbands I was going to have. It made me very uncomfortable.
Defending polygamy is definitely not going to fly with the current gen, just as it doesn’t and didn’t fly with me. It’s the worst thing the Church has to offer, and it completely spoils the temple and relationships between men & women in the Church. It should have been relegated to the dustbin of history over a hundred years ago, not doubled down on as it has been.
@lws329: The reference to men being sealed to men in the OP is, I believe, a reference to the “law of adoption”. The idea was that if a man wanted to be exalted it was better for him to be sealed to a righteous priesthood leader than to his own parents who might not be exalted. The Church taught that one needed to be attached through a sealing ordinance to this righteous priesthood chain somehow in order to be exalted. These sealings ended under Wilford Woodruff in the late 1800s. Some links to learn more:
1. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_adoption_(Mormonism)#:~:text=The%20law%20of%20adoption%20was,to%20their%20immediate%20nuclear%20family.
2. A previous W&T post: https://wheatandtares.org/2016/09/26/hales-on-the-law-of-adoption/
You might also be interested in a recent essay by Nate Oman who provides an interesting justification for why the Church could start allowing the sealing of gay couples: https://nateoman.substack.com/p/a-welding-link-of-some-kind. A really rough and incomplete summary of his argument is because Mormon sealing practices have changed so much over the years, we still have so little understanding of these sealing practices, and we are willing to throw up our hands and allow other sealings to occur and just rely on God to sort things out later, that we might as well also just go ahead and seal gay couples. In any case, Oman also mentions law of adoption sealings in his discussion of the history of Mormon sealings.
It is perhaps not inconsequential for 21st century discussions of polygamy that two current members of the First Presidency are eternal polygamists, apparently by choice rather than by commandment.
The preoccupation with current relationships is not new. When I was in the LTM (1976), we had a session with the Provo Temple president where we could ask about anything temple-related that we wanted. The first question was about who the inquiring missionary’s mother would be sealed to for eternity. The subject quickly took over the session and the temple president expressed his frustration that we were asking the wrong questions. I’ve been to one other such session (probably in the 80s–my memory is much fuzzier on this one), and I remember the same thing happening.
No reasonable person can deny that polygamy is wrong. It is little more than an attempt to give so-called official license to those who wish to copulate at will with multiple partners.
With that being said, it is completely hypocritical for modern cultural elites to criticize it. Indeed, these so-called elites practice free love to such an extent than even an excited rabbit would blush with shame.
To put it simply, far too many in today’s society use Facebook and Instagram to set up one illicit encounter after another. They cheat on their spouses with any and every partner they can connect with on social media. These people have no moral high ground from which they can look down on polygamists.
So let us condemn polygamy, but let us not give a free pass to its modern social media crazed form. All forms of wanton sexuality must be condemned.
Ghost of Eternal Polygamy really delves into this topic of why and how our doctrinal beliefs affect everyone here and now. For instance, Nelson and Oaks are eternal polygamists, so it’s very much still a current practice that haunts our ideas of heaven (and our questions on this issue just get laughs at GC when Oaks acknowledges them).
My young widowed neighbor recently had her sealing canceled for a remarriage, but it was quite a challenge to get the bishop to approve and had to be escalated through various levels, and required explaining intimate details of her first marriage to her former in-laws and missionary son, which was super uncomfortable. Elder Kearon’s April 2022 talk about abuse helped get that approved. Both her experience with church leadership on that and in the Utah dating world, where men only want women who are available for sealings, make this doctrine still a very present concern.
I thought Meg Stout’s Reluctant Polygamist is the best explanation I’d read of the Nauvoo era. And as the descendant of a dozen polygamous unions, I’ve read them all to try and understand: https://www.reluctantpolygamist.com/
For a religion that insists on word perfect recitation of sacrament prayers, everything underwater when baptised (including clothing!) etc, we sure have a slew of messy, unorganised eternity stuff going on. Ancestors sealed to every spouse (regardless of whether they would have wanted that when alive), ancestors baptised so that they can “choose to accept it” and so on. There’s an awful lot that we just leave up to God in the next life, while also being particularly dogmatic and specific about it in this life.
My maternal great grandfather.
I never knew my grandmother. She died before I was born. My mother did mention once a story her mother told her:
My great grandfather spent many years serving as a missionary and mission president in the south western states, leaving his wife to care and provide for their 9 (7 boys) children, My grandmother woke up one morning and saw her mother ironing clothes while tears streamed down her face. Apparently her mother had learned that her husband had taken a second wife. He had married one of the women serving a mission. The marriage took place in Mexico.
A close relative, after many years of marriage, had divorced her alcoholic husband. He had joined the church at one point and they got sealed in the Temple. A year later he resumed drinking and smoking etc.
When she discussed the divorce and sealing with her bishop he just told her it didn’t need to be cancelled— no one was going to have to be with someone they didn’t want in the next life.
Sometime later she remarried. She did not want to be sealed to the new husband because this was his second marriage and she didn’t want to be part of a polygamist marriage in the next life.
The fact is, the church believes in polygamous marriages in the next life. Men can get sealed to multiple women if his wife dies.
One wonders, were it not for laws against polygamy what would the church’s stance be today?
Just to add to the resources, I have over 100 videos on the topic of polygamy, from both believing and non-believing perspectives: https://gospeltangents.com/lds_theology/polygamy/
lws329, Michael Quinn has written about same sex sealings in the 19th century in his book “Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example.” See https://amzn.to/3UPG56k
Stewart: “It is perhaps not inconsequential for 21st century discussions of polygamy that two current members of the First Presidency are eternal polygamists, apparently by choice rather than by commandment.”
I agree that it is not inconsequential, but these arrangements are not entirely consensual. Pres. Nelson’s and Pres. Oaks’ respective deceased first wives had no say in the matter. Therein lies a large part of the problem.
Polygamy has very negatively affected both sides of my family. In both cases duplicity was used with regard to the husband taking a second wife. On my mom’s side of the family her grandfather suddenly announced after Manifesto 2 in 1900 that he was immediately taking a new job in Mexico. My great-grandmother was left to take care of arranging the big move, so she and her then 5 children arrived in a Mormon Mexican colony 2 months later only to discover that my great-grandfather had lied about the new job. He had been grooming a girl who’d been in his SS class for 5 years (he’d been her SS teacher) and moved to Mexico to marry her. She quickly became the favorite wife. To say that my GGma and her kids were angry and dismayed is an understatement. My GGPA spent most of his time and what money he could actually make on his 2nd family and left my GGma to take in washing and ironing to support her own children. The church leaders did nothing to hold her husband responsible for his first family despite her many pleas. Soon GGPA began to molest my grandma and her older sister and continued until they reached menarche. Again the church leaders turned a blind eye to the evil this horrible man perpetrated on his lawful wife and now 7 children. When Pancho Villa went on the warpath he took his 2nd wife and children and got out of Mexico ASAP while his first wife and children had to walk to the US border traveling by night and hiding by day because he’d left them no money. You can only imagine how messed up my grandma and her sibs, except the 2 babies, were. Her older sister wasn’t able to have children because of the internal damage she’d sustained. The other four children were seriously psychologically wounded which caused them to act abusively toward their own spouses and children who then were abusive toward my own generation in the family. The stories that my sister and I heard about what is know called “the family scandal” didn’t make any sense. When we started digging into the family history and realized the scope and enormity of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse that had been either been spoken of euphemistically or unknown by our parents we were literally sick to our stomachs. We held a cousins’ gathering and presented our verifiable info to the others who had also suffered from the evil and sick consequences of our GGpa’s behavior. As a group we covenanted to get the help that we each needed so that we wouldn’t pass on the wretched legacy to our own children. I’m pleased to say that my generation has removed the stain of polygamy upon our family.
My dad’s great-grandma was one of the first Danish converts to join the church and come to Utah. A man whom she’d known as a missionary in Denmark asked her to marry him and she did. A year later she had my GGPA while her husband was supposedly away on business. Her midwife was the best friend of this man’s first wife, a fact that he hadn’t revealed to my GGGma. (The first wife had been unaware of a second wife too.) The next morning the first wife and the local constable came to her home to evict her and her newborn. As she had no one to help or stand up for her she used the last of her money to move back in with her parents and siblings. Her parents demanded an accounting from her husband and asked the church to take action against him. They refused.
My beloved sister suddenly died 6 1/2 years ago from a traumatic brain injury. Nearly 2 years later her husband remarried. I refused to attend the sealing because I had to protest the fact that my dead sister had had no say about now being in a polygamous union. Someone had to stand up and say NO! to eternal polygamy. I was the only person who even gave my poor sister a thought. Her son and only child called me later that same day and thanked me for taking a stand for his beloved mother. This second marriage has been a bone of contention between my nephew and his father since that time.
The whole idea of polygamy does not have a godly origin. Instead, it was a social construct in ancient societies. The whole “flaming sword” and “God gave you to me” garbage are lies. If you read “In Sacred Loneliness” by Todd Compton and other books about JS’s polygamy before and in Nauvoo it quickly becomes apparent that the women who were given by their parents, coerced, shamed, or guilted into marrying JS and his inner circle were not seen as valued daughters of God but as status symbols and “things”. The fact that this all took place secretly and that JS was lying out both sides of mouth to avoid public censure, trouble with the law and a mass resignation of regular members tells me that polygamy was NOT sanctioned by God. Any institution that results in inequality, favoritism, neglect of the subordinate partner’s and children’s feelings and physical wellbeing, treating women as things/property and so many other sins that God is said in scripture to abhor is definitely not sanctioned by Him. Perhaps some of you readers will feel that I am fanatically anti-polygamy. You’d be 100% correct.
For a couple years before my marriage ended, I was fine with the idea of polygamy. If there were multiple wives, I wouldn’t have to be around my husband as often. Clearly, that was a sign that there was something deeply wrong with our relationship. I don’t think you could be happy in a polygamous relationship if you truly loved your spouse. It would have to be a marriage about the roles only – becoming parents and the wife as housekeeper while the husband is the impregnator. My experience made me realize just how dreadful polygamy would be — no wife even wanting to love her husband and the husband just being tolerated as his wife sighed and hoped he’d move on soon.
Dave brought up an interesting point about how some couples today have non-monogamous relationships. There’s an obvious comparison to polygamy, but the power dynamic is totally opposite. Polygamy is male-centric. The man is in charge and the wives do their duty. In contrast, in non-monogamous relationships, the ideal is that it’s not hierarchical and everyone is equal. No one has decision-making authority the way the polygamous husband does. Polygamy and a current day ‘throuple’ are only superficially similar.
Here’s my polygamy-heritage story. After my ggg-grandfather’s first wife died, he entered into polygamy by marrying two 18-year-olds within a short time. He was 36 at the time, so twice their age. We don’t have any details about the second 18-yo, but I like to imagine she was friends with the first 18-yo, and the first 18-yo asked her to consider the marriage so she would have a friend. Their husband was, by all reports, a good man. The three of them were married for about 25 years, when husband died. The two sister-wives stayed together for the next 30+ years. Neither ever remarried. They moved away from the homestead (together) and are buried next to each other, more than 100 miles away from their husband’s grave. I’ve always wondered about them. I wish they’d left written histories.
My Millenial and Gen Zer now have the whole scoop and see current leaders and apologists defending it tooth and nail. They’re self-respecting young women and want nothing to do with a church that cares more about tradition than humanity.
Thank you for this. I appreciate the effort and hope you go into more detail about the class experience at a later date.
This is a discussion to have with my kids and others I know as the years come (I’m lucky I still have some time to prepare as they are pretty young still.)
When a person (any age) is presented with the straight up facts that Josh H lists regarding polygamy, I hope that the response would be revulsion,outrage and a sense that the practice is not moral and not one that God would command. If young adults are being presented with some type of apologetic polygamy spin, then maybe that’s why their response was more concerned with current sealing practices. (Which are also problematic and inequitable for women) When those young adults stumble upon other sources that present troubling facts about polygamy then they will likely feel betrayal in addition to revulsion and outrage. A loss of trust in the institution that is defending the indefensible is often the result of this whole scenario.
My first wife and I were sealed but subsequently divorced. Two years later I became engaged to a woman and petitioned the First Presidency to (1) cancel the sealing to my first spouse, and (2) approved a sealing for me and my fiancé. It was a drawn-out and unreasonable process which included lots of unwarranted suspicion towards me. We couldn’t set a wedding date, order invitations, etc. until we received a verdict from the First Presidency. When it finally came down, my request to cancel the sealing to my first spouse was denied and the sealing to my second spouse was approved. It was a demoralizing experience, and it was clear that church leaders didn’t care in the least about how it impacted us. It also became the catalyst that caused me to immerse myself into church history. From that I concluded that plural marriage was the construct Joseph created so he could have sex with, and power over, lots of women. In other words, it really was about sex, money, and power.
I think “we” (Church) currently defend polygamy because we think it’s true because men we sustained as prophets said it was true. But that’s not how we have been taught as disciples of Christ to determine truth. I just wrote a paper on this—“An Enemy Hath Done This: the Seed and Weeds of Polygamy”—that attempts to tease out the doctrine of marriage from scripture (and polygamy didn’t fit so well): https://gwendolynwyne.com/an-enemy-hath-done-this-the-seed-and-weeds-of-polygamy/
I think we currently defend polygamy because we think it’s somehow of God because men we sustained as prophets said it was. But believing in polygamy has gifted us an inability to define marriage that causes continuous doctrinal confusion. If marriage can be a man and a woman who cleave as one flesh, AND it’s exact opposite—a man and a woman who must literally stop cleaving so the man can go temporarily cleave to someone else—then why can marriage not also be a different opposite variation: 2 men, or 2 women, or 3 men and 1 woman, or any other combination we can imagine? I just wrote a paper on the doctrinal question of polygamy—“An Enemy Hath Done This: the Seed and Weeds of Polygamy”—title is a bit of a giveaway: https://gwendolynwyne.com/an-enemy-hath-done-this-the-seed-and-weeds-of-polygamy/. Would love the bloggernacle thoughts.
Trying to comment again, this time keeping more strictly to the questions posed!
Any LDS “plural marriages” in your family history? Yes on both sides, but thankfully there wasn’t much. Once while doing family history, I noticed one of my female relatives had been married to one of Brigham Young’s brothers. Her life sketch told a tragic story. She was polygamously married to him after becoming widowed with children, but his treatment of her–particularly her sons–was so bad that she decided to leave. She took her children into the barren wilderness to scratch out an existence and was tracked down after a time by Brigham and his brother, who came to try and persuade her to come back. She said she would rather live with her children alone on the side of a mountain than endure any more abuse from that man, and they let her be. Naively, I sent the info to my family (look what I found!) without saving it to my own device. I just assumed it would stay available on Family Search. When I went to review it a year or so later, I couldn’t find it anywhere. It is unclear if the life sketch was removed or if my relationship was corrected, because now I can’t find a marriage in my family to one of Brigham’s brothers.
How I you feel about the polygamy in my family history? All the polygamy took place during the Mormon Reformation, when my ancestors were taught that the only way to be saved in the celestial kingdom was to be a polygamist. I think the fact that polygamy replaced the Atonement of Christ should be a big fat tell when we try to discern whether it’s of God or not (not!).
Any discussions you’ve had with an LDS teen or twenty-something about polygamy? I am going to answer for myself, because once I knew it existed for any woman, I knew that it could be in my future. Polygamy’s reality told me everything I needed to know about my divine nature and destiny as a daughter of God. In all my teen+ years of struggling with the fact of polygamy in the Church, no one has been able to show me how it doesn’t prove, in no uncertain terms, that women are worth less than men. None of my spiritual experiences teach me that so it was extremely dissonant for me until I began to consider if there was any chance the gospel of Jesus Christ could be true and the Church could have authority, but polygamy might not be/have either.
LDS eternal marriage is warmed-over Swedenborgianism. Swedenborg taught that when we die, we become angels — but not one person –> one angel . An angel consists of two soul-mates (not necessariljy spouses–Swedenborg’s was actually somebody else”s wife) joined together into one hermaphroditic angel. It’s a very romantic notion–after all, what teenager wouldn’t want to be together with their sweetheart forever?
One serious aspect of polygamy that I don’t recall being discussed much is the concentration of the gene pool in those who practice it. It might not have manifested in early latter-day practice, but it would have a snowball effect over time. Maybe 20-25 years ago the Salt Lake Tribune investigated families of those who currently practice polygamy, and found there were a lot of disabilities and genetic diseases within their families.
Nature encourages diversification-it’s healthier.
That’s very interesting. If you find the reference (or a scientific article on it) please post it.
@Josiah Reckons. Thanks for your interest.
(From a comment I made in March this year):
The genetic aim of reproduction is to diversify the gene pool. Polygamy itself, along with social hierarchies, along with colonization creating many small, isolated, remote towns, leads to condensing the gene pool.
Section 132 doesn’t include guidance to discourage inter-marriage. Joseph Smith married sisters, and a mother/daughter pair.
Both of these links are easy reads, yet informative:
Very interesting, particularly the second link. I’d never thought about inbreeding being a consequence of polygamy. In the article there’s a strong focus on currently polygamous communities, which makes sense because they are available. It would be interesting to know if there are also any lingering effects among LDS communities today. Do FLDS practices accentuate the genetic problem beyond what LDS did? There are a lot of different factors to consider.
Good questions. Scientists are on it.
Last 2 ¶s of 2nd link:
“Which brings us to the good news. Since inbreeding tends to uncover “recessive” mutations that would normally remain in hiding, studying these communities has helped scientists to identify many disease-causing genes. That’s because genetic information is useless on its own. To be meaningful to medical research, it must be linked to information about disease. In fact, more human disease genes have been discovered in Utah – with its Mormon history – than any other place in the world.
“It’s not the legacy Brigham Young expected, but in the end, it’s possible that the controversial practice might have some unintended positives.”
I don’t know even how to find out the current legacy from long ago polygamy. But it, along with a Mormon propensity to have large families, at least is helping us understand genetic components of cancer and heart disease.