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.