For many, the fact Mormonism has a history of polygamy as an accepted practice is reason enough to reject the theology of Joseph Smith. But other supporters of Mormonism will point to the lives of the ancient patriarchs of Judaism, (like Abraham, David and Solomon), and argue for plural marriages. If God said it was acceptable for these patriarchs, why couldn’t God say it was acceptable for people in the era of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young? We could certainly spend some time arguing whether or not God ever championed the cause of polygamy with the Old Testament saints, and there is more than enough evidence to argue these saints actually suffered for their indiscretions and were in violation of God’s original plan of one man united to one woman (as seen in the Garden of Eden). But the disturbing reality of Mormon polygamy lies first and foremost in the manner in which it evolved in the history of the Mormon Church.
It appears Joseph originally held a view of polygamy consistent with historical, orthodox Christianity. When writing the Book of Mormon and foundational documents of the early versions of the Doctrines and Covenants (a volume of Mormon scripture), Joseph condemned the practice of polygamy:
And it came to pass that Riplakish did not do that which was right in the sight of the Lord, for he did have many wives and concubines…
Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom you hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father – that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none…
Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.
Joseph was not a polygamist when he formed the Mormon Church and wrote its first document, the Book of Mormon. In fact, his earliest writings are strikingly anti-polygamist. A Mormon would have a very difficult time defending the practice of polygamy from the Book of Mormon. A member of the LDS church would have to refer to the evolving theology and practices of Joseph himself to understand the root of polygamy in Mormon history. Even the earliest Doctrines and Covenants (D&C) writings describe polygamy as an act of fornication:
D&C Sec. 101
Insomuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy: we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife; and one woman but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again… (1835 edition, since removed).
When Did Joseph Decide Polygamy Was God Ordained?
According to the heading for D&C 132, “although the revelation was recorded in 1843, it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831”. This seems to be confirmed by the text of D&C 132:52 which records a warning to Joseph’s wife, Emma, to “receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph”. It seems that Joseph had already taken a number of wives in addition to Emma, and Joseph used this writing to convince her it was God’s will. The introduction to Volume 5 of the Documentary History of the Church (DHC) also says the revelation was written down in order to convince Emma of the authenticity of the practice of polygamy.
There are eyewitness accounts of women who were approached by Joseph prior to the polygamy proclamation and were solicited to have a polygamist relationship with him, without revealing the true nature of these relationships to Emma. In just one example from a January 21, 1838 letter written by Oliver Cowdery, (Joseph’s right-hand man from the early days of the church), Cowdery accused Joseph of having an illicit affair with woman named Fanny Alger:
“When he [Joseph Smith] was there we had some conversation in which in every instance I did not fail to affirm that what I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deviated from the truth in the matter, and as I supposed was admitted by himself.” (Letter written by Oliver Cowdery and recorded by his brother Warren Cowdery; see photograph in The Mormon Kingdom, Vol. 1, page 27)
Five years before revealing the doctrine of polygamy to his wife and members of the church, Joseph was already involved in a polygamist lifestyle. And even before he ever claimed to have a revelation on the topic, he began teaching the principles to his leadership staff. By July 1, 1841 Joseph was busy teaching the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles the doctrine of Celestial Marriage. (Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, ‘Helen Mar Kimball’s Retrospection About Her Introduction to the Doctrine and Practices of Plural Marriage in Nauvoo at Age 15’. A sealed letter to be opened at her death, LDS Archives; see also a letter from George A. Smith, (Joseph Smith’s cousin) to Joseph Smith III dated October 9, 1868)
In the spring of 1842, Joseph Smith approached Sarah M. Kimball with his teaching about plural marriage. He told her that God had “…instructed him to teach it with commandment, as the church could travel no further without the introduction of this principle.”(Andrew Jenson, ‘The Historical Record: A Monthly Periodical Devoted Exclusively to Historical Biographical, Chronological, and Statistical Matters’, 9 Vols, 1887 see Vol 6, p. 232 May 1887)
Following confrontations by Oliver Cowdery and concerned stories of his behavior would be heard by Emma, Joseph appears to have tried to explain the situation to his wife. Joseph’ scribe, William Clayton, related how Joseph tried to convince his wife Emma God told him to have more than one woman:
“On the morning of the 12th of July, 1843; Joseph and Hyrum Smith came into the office… They were talking on the subject of plural marriage. Hyrum said to Joseph, ‘If you will write the revelation on celestial marriage, I will take it and read it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.’ Joseph smiled and remarked, ‘you do not know Emma as well as I do.’… Joseph then said, ‘Well, I will write the revelation and we shall see.’… Hyrum then took the revelation to read to Emma. Joseph remained with me in the office until Hyrum returned. When he came back, Joseph asked how he had succeeded. Hyrum replied that he had never received a more severe talking to in his life… Joseph quietly remarked, ‘I told you you did not know Emma as well as I did.’ Joseph then put the revelation in his pocket, and they both left the office… Two or three days after the revelation was written Joseph related to me and several others that Emma had so teased, and urgently entreated him for the privilege of destroying it, that he became so weary of her teasing, and to get rid of her annoyance, he told her she might destroy it and she had done so, but he had consented to her wish in this matter to pacify her, realizing that he…could rewrite it at any time if necessary.” (History of the Church, by Joseph Smith, Introduction to Vol. 5)
Obviously Emma was not in agreement with Joseph on this issue; she did her best to destroy a document she clearly did not believe was from God. Brigham Young talked about how incensed Emma was about the issue of polygamy:
“Emma took that revelation, supposing she had all there was; but Joseph had wisdom enough to take care of it, and he had handed the revelation to Bishop Whitney, and he wrote it all off. After Joseph had been to Bishop Whitney’s he went home, and Emma began to teasing for the revelation. Said she—’Joseph you promised me that revelation, and if you are a man of your word you will give it to me.’ Joseph took it from his pocket and said— ‘Take it.’ She went to the fireplace and put it in, and put the candle under it and burnt it, and she thought that was the end of it, and she will be damned as sure as she is a living woman. Joseph used to say that he would have her hereafter, if he had to go to hell for her, and he will have to go to hell for her as sure as he ever gets her.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 17, p. 159)
Joseph was practicing polygamy and had already received a number of women he considered to have been “given” to him by God himself. These relationships then needed to be explained to Emma. According to Mormon history (in the DHC), Joseph wrote D&C 132 to accomplish this task. It was obviously not received well by the person for whom it was written, but Section 132 openly declared God now ordained polygamy:
D&C 132:3-4, 6 (we had better abide by this new covenant)
Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same. For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory… And as pertaining to the new and everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.
D&C 132:37-40 (It was good for Abraham, it will be good for us)
Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods. David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me. David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord. I am the Lord thy God, and I gave unto thee, my servant Joseph, an appointment, and restore all things. Ask what ye will, and it shall be given unto you according to my word.
D&C 132:52, 56 (Emma better not get mad)
And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God… And again, verily I say, let mine handmaid forgive my servant Joseph his trespasses; and then shall she be forgiven her trespasses, wherein she has trespassed against me; and I, the Lord thy God, will bless her, and multiply her, and make her heart to rejoice.
D&C 132:61-62 (It’s not really adultery)
And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
D&C 132:64-65 (If the wives don’t like it, stand by…)
And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law. Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.
According to D&C 132:61, a man’s first wife must “first give her consent” before he can take another, and this was clearly not the case when Joseph took his wives without telling Emma. In fact, Emily Dow Partridge testified she and her sister were married to Joseph without Emma’s consent:
“…the Prophet Joseph and his wife Emma offered us a home in their family, and they treated us with great kindness. We had been there about a year when the principle of plural marriage was made known to us, and I was married to Joseph Smith on the 4th of March 1843, Elder Heber C. Kimball performing the ceremony. My sister Eliza was also married to Joseph a few days later. This was done without the knowledge of Emma Smith. Two months afterward she consented to give her husband two wives, providing he would give her the privilege of choosing them. She accordingly chose my sister Eliza and myself, and to save family trouble Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed. Accordingly on the 11th of May, 1843, we were sealed to Joseph Smith a second time, in Emma’s presence… From that very hour, however, Emma was our bitter enemy. We remained in the family several months after this, but things went from bad to worse until we were obligated to leave the house and find another home.” (Historical Record, p. 240)
How Did the Practice of Mormon Polygamy End?
Despite the family problems polygamy caused for many of its members, early church leaders clearly believed polygamy was essential as a doctrine, (without obedience to this new covenant one would be damned). Polygamy grew in its practice and in its growing importance to Mormon theology. But in spite of its wide-spread acceptance as a pre-requisite for Salvation, the church did eventually bow to the laws of the United States under the leadership of their fourth Church President, Wilford Woodruff. For many years prior to the abolishment of polygamy, however, Woodruff also believed it to be an essential doctrine:
“If we were to do away with polygamy, it would only be one feather in the bird, one ordinance in the Church and kingdom. Do away with that, then we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether and turn sectarians and do as the world does, then all would be right. We just can’t do that, for God has commanded us to build up His kingdom and to bear our testimony to the nations of the earth, and we are going to do it, come life or come death. He has told us to do thus, and we shall obey Him in days to come as we have in days past.” (Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses 13:165 – p.166, 1869).
“The doctrine of plural marriage has come to stay for all time… we are not going to stop the practice of plural marriage until the coming of the son of man.” (Wilford Woodruff, John Henry Smith Journal, December 20, 1888)
Yet this “essential” doctrine from God was eventually abandoned under legal pressure from the United States Government. The “end” of the practice came with the Manifesto of September 26th, 1890:
To whom it may concern,
Press dispatches having been sent for political purposes, from Salt Lake City, which have been widely published, to the effect that the Utah Com-mission, in their recent report to the Secretary of the Interior, allege that plural marriages are still being solemnized and that forty or more such plural marriages have been contracted since last June or during the past year, also that in public discourses the leaders of the Church have taught, encouraged and urged the continuance of the practice of polygamy–I, therefore, as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that these charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory. One case has been reported, in which the parties allege that the marriage was performed in the Endowment House, in Salt Lake City, in the Spring of 1889, but I have not been able to learn who performed the ceremony; whatever was done in this matter was without my knowledge. In consequence of this alleged occurrence the Endowment House was, by my instructions, taken down without delay.
Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise. There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey any such teaching, he has been promptly reproved. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.
President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The signing of this manifesto was a significant blow to what had been considered “prophetic insight” from Mormon leaders and prophets. Remember it was Woodruff himself who said the Mormon Church would continue to practice polygamy “come life or come death.” So the question is, did Woodruff act under new inspiration of God, or simply react under pressure from the government? His prior statements would lead one to believe He felt believers should obey the commandment of God on this issue, even if death was a possibility. And his manifesto says nothing about a change in God’s will.
Did Polygamy Continue After the Woodruff Manifesto?
Even after the manifesto, it appears Mormon leaders and prophets lied about their behavior and continued to live a life o polygamy in violation of the command of their president and prophet. Evidence shows polygamy continued despite the promise to abandon it. In 1899, then Apostle Heber J. Grant (who would later become President in 1918) plead guilty to unlawful cohabitation and was fined $100. In 1906, sixth LDS President Joseph F. Smith “pleaded guilty before Judge M. L. Ritchie in the District Court Friday to the charge of cohabitating with four women in addition to his lawful wife.” (Salt Lake Tribune, 11/24/1906). He was fined $300, the maximum allowed by law.
Many Mormons still view polygamy as a commandment of God. Almost immediately following the Manifesto of 1890, splinter groups formed to carry on the “everlasting covenant” of celestial plural marriage. According to the December 11, 1997 issue of the New York Times, it was estimated that between 30,000 and 35,000 people practice polygamy today, and in so doing, live a double life of secrecy and deception.
How Does Mormonism Justify Its Practice of Polygamy?
Over the years, Mormons have tried to justify the early behavior of the Church. The current Church vehemently denies and condemns the practice of Polygamy. In fact, if men like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor and Heber C. Kimball were to be alive today and behave as they did in their own day, they would be promptly ex-communicated from the Church. So how do modern believers explain the behavior of the founding fathers? Well, one explanation has been offered consistently. Mormons often claim polygamy was practiced in order to provide homes to an historic surplus of women in the early church. But the Mormon apostle John Widsoe has ‘de-bunked’ this common explanation:
“Plural marriage has been a subject of wide and frequent comment. Members of the Church unfamiliar with its history, and many nonmembers, have set up fallacious reasons for the origin of this system of marriage among the Latter-day Saints. The most common of these conjectures is that the Church, through plural marriage sought to provide husbands for its large surplus of female members. The implied assumption in this theory, that there have been more female than male members in the Church, is NOT supported by existing evidence. On the contrary, there seems always to have been MORE MALES than females in the Church… The United States census records from 1850 to 1940, and all available Church records, uniformly show a preponderance of MALES in Utah, and in the Church. Indeed, the excess in Utah has usually been larger than for the whole United States,…Orson Pratt, writing in 1853 from direct knowledge of Utah conditions, when the excess of females was supposedly the highest, declares against the opinion that females out numbered the males in Utah.” (Apostle John Widsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 1960, pages 390-392)
In addition to this, other sources within the Mormon Church have also admitted polygamy was not practiced in order to provide homes to a surplus of women in the Mormon community:
“But then the proportion of the sexes in Utah would not, at present, admit of an extensive practice of plural marriage. When the census was taken five years ago, there were 143,963 souls in Utah Territory, not counting untaxed Indians. In this number there was an excess of 5,055 MALES over females. This does not have the appearance of permitting an extensive practice of plural marriage,…” (LDS publication, Juvenile Instructor, Vol. 20, page 133)
Another explanation has been offered for Mormon polygamy. Some defenders of Mormon history say the Church desired greater numbers in the general membership, and as a result, permitted the practice in order to accomplish this goal. But John Widsoe also observes this explanation is nonsensical, based on the fact men outnumbered women:
Another conjecture is that the people were few in numbers and that the Church, desiring greater numbers, permitted the practice so that a phenomenal increase in population could be attained. This is not defensible, since there was no surplus of women.” (Apostle John Widsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 1960, page 392)
Mormon leaders within the church have demonstrated the common explanations offered by modern Mormon believers are simply not based in the reality of the situation within the early church.
Why Did Joseph and Other Mormon Men Practice Polygamy?
If these explanations are not valid, what was the real reason why early leaders created the practice of polygamy? We can look at their behavior and statements to get some insight. Brigham Young spoke more about Polygamy than perhaps any other early leader. His words reveal the true heart and source of polygamy:
“Brother Cannon remarked that people wondered how many wives and children I had. He may inform them, that I shall have wives and children by the million, and glory, and riches and power and dominion, and kingdom after kingdom, and reign triumphantly.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 8, page 178)
“I could prove to this congregation that I am young; for I could find more girls who would choose me for a husband than any of the young men.”(Journal of Discourses, Vol. 5, page 210)
From just these two statements, one detects a measure of pride and desire, and these two motivations have been the downfall of mankind since the beginning of time. Why would Joseph Smith go to such extremes to create a new set of “scriptures”? Why would he write the Book of Mormon? Why would he initiate a Global movement? What was in it for him? In my career as an investigator and detective, I’ve seen three motives continually recur to motivate any crime. Behind every crime or sin is the motive of financial greed, sexual lust or the pursuit of power. Is it possible Joseph had any (or all) of these motives as he created the Mormon movement? His authorship of the Book of Mormon catapulted him from poverty and insignificance to a life of power, church financial support and sexual opportunity. Is it possible Joseph had more than enough reason to initiate the movement he created? Is it possible Polygamy is simply a residual piece of evidence pointing back to one of the many motives Joseph had to create the movement?
Has Mormonism Been Deceptive in Its Description of Mormonism?
There seems to be an element of deception surrounding the issue of polygamy as it was practiced in the history of Mormonism. Starting with Joseph’s earliest “marriages” and extending into the years following his death, Mormons have been less than truthful about their involvement in the practice. There was a conscious effort to cover up the activities of Mormon leaders in regard to their polygamous behavior and you can see it in Mormon documents. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Vol. 2 History of the Church):
“…polygamy had been practiced privately prior to the exodus, Church leaders delayed public acknowledgment of its practice until 1852. In August of that year, at a special conference of the Church at Salt Lake City, Elder Orson Pratt, an apostle, officially announced plural marriage as a doctrine and practice of the Church”:
“Although the revelation was recorded by the Church on July 12, 1843, publication of the revelation was not made until August 29, 1852, at a church conference by Orson Pratt” (Journal of Discourses 1:53ff.)
The lengthy revelation on marriage for eternity and on the plurality of wives, dictated by Joseph Smith on July 12, 1843 and published as D&C Section 132 was published following this announcement. Nine years passed from the first “revelation” to its publication. Twenty-three years after the “revelation” (fourteen after its publication), during which time polygamy was practiced continually, the 1866 edition of D&C Section 109 still stated that “polygamy was a crime”. Even though the D&C Section 132 introduction that Joseph originally received the revelation in 1831, he continued to deny this truth for many years:
“Do the Mormons believe in having more wives than one?” (Smith answered) “No, not at the same time.’ (The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as recorded in Elder’s Journal, Vol 1 #2, pp 28-29, 1838, with parenthesis added)
What Was the Theological Significance of Polygamy?
Why would Joseph, or anyone else in the church for that matter, deny the practice of polygamy? Doesn’t D&C Section 132 say without polygamy, one cannot attain eternal life?
D&C 132:4, 6
For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory… And as pertaining to the new and everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.
This revelation about polygamy described a doctrine necessary to attain the ultimate level of Mormon Salvation. But the revelation was not publicly revealed until August 29th, 1852 (see above). For 9 years, Mormon leadership apparently denied a revelation they thought was necessary in order to attain celestial glory. Many present day Mormons deny the Church ever truly believed polygamy was necessary for salvation, but Brigham Young clearly talked about the matter:
“We are told that if we would give up polygamy–which we know to be a doctrine revealed from heaven and it is God and the world for it–but suppose this Church should give up this holy order of marriage, then would the devil, and all who are in league with him against the cause of God, rejoice that they had prevailed upon the Saints to refuse to obey one of the revelations and commandments of God to them.”… “Will the Latter-day Saints do this? No” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 11:239).
“The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory and may even be permitted to come into the presence of the Father and the Son; but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessing offered unto them, and they refused to accept them.” (Brigham Young, Journal Of Discourses, Volume 11, p. 269)
“Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned; and I will go still further and say, take this revelation, or any other revelation that the Lord has given, and deny it in your feelings, and I promise that you will be damned.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 3, p. 266)
‘Some people have supposed that the doctrine of plural marriage was a sort of superfluity, or non essential to the salvation or exaltation of mankind… I want here to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false’ (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 20:28, July 7, 1878)
Further statements from Brigham Young confirm his dogmatic belief and prophetic proclamation polygamy was necessary to advance to Celestial Heaven and be truly saved. Listen to his response to women who expressed their pain and concern about the growing practice. In the midst of the discomfort and desperation they expressed related to their situation, Brigham responded with something less than empathy:
“Now for my proposition; it is more particularly for my sisters, as it is frequently happening that women say they are unhappy. Men will say, ‘My wife, though a most excellent woman, has not seen a happy day since I took my second wife,’ ‘No, not a happy day for a year,’ says one; and another has not seen a happy day for five years. It is said that women are tied down and abused: that they are misused and have not the liberty they ought to have; that many of them are wading through a perfect flood of tears… I wish my own women to understand that what I am going to say is for them as well as others, and I want those who are here to tell their sisters, yes, all the women of this community, and then write it back to the States, and do as you please with it. I am going to give you from this time to the 6th day of October next (about two weeks from the time of the statement), for reflection, that you may determine whether you wish to stay with your husbands or not, and then I am going to set every woman at liberty and say to them, ‘Now go your way, my women with the rest, go your way. And my wives have go to do one of two things; either round up their shoulders to endure the afflictions of this world, and live their religion, or they may leave, for I will not have them about me. I will go into heaven alone, rather than have scratching and fighting around me. I will set all at liberty. ‘What, first wife too?’ Yes, I will liberate you all… I wish my women, and brother Kimball’s and brother Grant’s to leave, and every woman in this Territory, or else say in their hearts that they will embrace the Gospel —the whole of it….say to your wives, ‘Take all that I have and be set at liberty; but if you stay with me you shall comply with the law of God, and that too without any murmuring and whining. You must fulfil the law of God in every respect, and round up your shoulders to walk up to the mark without any grunting… Now recollect that two weeks from tomorrow I am going to set you at liberty. But the first wife will say, ‘It is hard, for I have lived with my husband twenty years, or thirty, and have raised a family of children for him, and it is a great trial to me for him to have more women;’ then I say it is time that you give him up to other women who will bear children. If my wife had borne me all the children that she ever would bare, the celestial law would teach me to take young women that would have children… Sisters, I am not joking, I do not throw out my proposition to banter your feelings, to see whether you will leave your husbands, all or any of you. But I know that there is no cessation to the everlasting whining of many of the women in this territory; I am satisfied that this is the case. And if the women will turn from the commandments of God and continue to despise the order of heaven, I will pray that the curse of the Almighty may be close to their heals, and that it may be following them all the day long… Prepare yourselves for two weeks from tomorrow; and I will tell you now, that if you will tarry with your husbands, after I have set you free, you must bow down to it, and submit yourselves to the Celestial Law. You may go where you please, after two weeks from tomorrow; but, remember, that I will not hear any more of this whining.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4., pp. 55-57; also printed in Deseret News, Vol. 6, pp. 235-236)
Joseph Smith and Brigham Young clearly defined a theology of plural Celestial Marriage even Brigham considered to be an affliction to be endured by women. But it was a necessary endurance required in order to be exalted in Celestial Kingdom. Other leaders within the church also affirmed this truth:
“Where did this commandment come from in relation to polygamy? It also came from God…When this commandment was given, it was so far religious, and so far binding upon the Elders of this Church that it was told them if they were not prepared to enter into it, and to stem the torrent of opposition that would come in consequence of it, the keys of the kingdom would be taken from them. When I see any of our people, men or women, opposing a principle of this kind, I have years ago set them down as on the high road to apostacy, and I do to-day; I consider them apostates, and not interested in this Church and kingdom” (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 11:221).
“Polygamy is a divine institution. It has been handed down direct from God. The United States cannot abolish it. No nation on earth can prevent it… I will defy the United States, I will obey God.” (John Taylor, Salt Lake Tribune, January 6, 1880)
“Some quietly listen to those who speak against the Lord’s servants, against his anointed, against the plurality of wives, and against almost every principle that God has revealed. Such persons have half-a-dozen devils with them all the time. You might as well deny ‘Mormonism,’ and turn away from it, as to oppose the plurality of wives. Let the Presidency of this Church, and the Twelve Apostles, and all the authorities unite and say with one voice that they will oppose that doctrine, and the whole of them would be damned.” (Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, Volume 5, p. 204, 1856)
“Some people have supposed that the doctrine of plural marriage was a sort of superfluity, or non essential to the salvation or exaltation of mankind… I want here to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false.” (Joseph F. Smith, Journal of Discourses 20:28, July 7, 1878)
“This doctrine of eternal union of husband and wife, and of plural marriage, is one of the most important doctrines ever revealed to man in any age of the world. Without it man would come to a full stop; without it we never could be exalted to associate with and become god…” (Joseph F. Smith, Journal of Discourses, 21:9, 1879).
“…if plurality of marriage is not true or in other words, if a man has no divine right to marry two wives or more in this world, then marriage for eternity is not true, and your faith is all vain, and all the sealing ordinances, and powers, pertaining to marriages for eternity are vain, worthless, good for nothing; for as sure as one is true the other also must be true.” (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 21:296, 1880).
As they developed the requirement of plural marriage, Mormon leaders began to defend their position by arguing for the fall of monogamy. They did this by arguing monogamy was, in fact, evil and immoral. High level leaders and prophets of the church argued monogamy was harmful to men, to family and to society in general:
“I have noticed that a man who has but one wife, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young and sprightly. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honors his word. Some of you may not believe this, but I not only believe it but I also know it. For a man of God to be confined to one woman is small business… I do not know what we should do if we had only one wife apiece.” (Heber C. Kimball, Deseret News, April 22, 1857)
“We breathe the free air, we have the best looking men and handsomest women, and if they envy us our position, well they may, for they are a poor, narrow minded, pinch-backed race of men, who chain themselves down to the law of monogamy and live all their days under the dominion of one wife. They ought to be ashamed of such conduct, and the still fouler channel which flows from their practices; and it is not to be wondered at that they should envy those who so much better understand the social relations.” (George A. Smith, Deseret News, April 16, 1856)
“This law of monogamy, or the monogamic system, laid the foundation for prostitution and the evils and diseases of the most revolting nature and character under which modern Christendom groans…” (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, page 195)
“…the one-wife system not only degenerated the human family, both physically and intellectually, but it is entirely incompatible with philosophical notions of immortality; it is a lure to temptation, and has always proved a curse to a people.” (the Mormon Church paper, Millennial Star, Vol. 15, p. 227)
Mormon leaders also declared monogamy was not a divine union established by God and championed by Jesus and Paul, but was instead, instituted by pagan robbers from the Roman Empire. They argued Pagan Rome was the source of monogamy and declared monogamy was ultimately the cause of their downfall. In addition to crippling the Roman Empire, Mormon leaders maintained monogamy also destroyed much of Europe:
“Monogamy, or restrictions by law to one wife, is no part of the economy of heaven among men. Such a system was commenced by the founders of the Roman empire… Rome became the mistress of the world, and introduced this order of monogamy wherever her sway was acknowledged. Thus this monogamic order of marriage, so esteemed by modern Christians as a holy sacrament and divine institution, is nothing but a system established by a set of robbers… Why do we believe in and practice polygamy? Because the Lord introduced it to his servants in a revelation given to Joseph Smith, and the Lord’s servants have always practiced it. And is that religion popular in heaven? It is the only popular religion there…” (Brigham Young, The Deseret News, August 6, 1862)
“Since the founding of the Roman empire monogamy has prevailed more extensively than in times previous to that. The founders of that ancient empire were robbers and women stealers, and made laws favoring monogamy in consequence of the scarcity of women among them, and hence this monogamic system which now prevails throughout Christendom, and which had been so fruitful a source of prostitution and whoredom throughout all the Christian monogamic cities of the Old and New World, until rottenness and decay are at the root of their institutions both national and religious.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, p. 128)
“It is a fact worthy of note that the shortest lived nations of which we have record have been monogamic. Rome… was a monogamic nation and the numerous evils attending that system early laid the foundation for that ruin which eventually overtook her.” (George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, p. 202)
“Some of the nations of Europe who believe in the one wife system have actually forbidden a plurality of wives by their laws; and the consequences are that the whole country among them is overrun with the most abomi(na)ble practices? Adulteries and unlawful connections prevail through all their villages, towns, cities, and country places to a most fearful extent.” (Orson Pratt, The Seer, p. 12)
In further defense of their new theological position related to plural marriage, Mormon leaders began to argue Adam and Jesus were also polygamists and set the pattern for all believers who were to follow:
“Now hear it, O inhabitants of the earth, Jew and Gentile, Saint and Sinner. When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives with him.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 1, page 50)
“I discover that some of the Eastern papers represent me as a great blasphemer, because I said, in my lecture on Marriage, at our last Conference, that Jesus Christ was married at Cana of Galilee, that Mary, Martha and others were his wives, and that he begat children. (Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, page 210)
“Yes, one of the relics of Adam, of Enoch, of Noah, of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Moses, David, Solomon, the Prophets, of Jesus and His Apostles.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, page 328)
“The Scripture says that He, the LORD, came walking in the Temple, with his train; I do not now who they were, unless his wives and children…” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, page 309)
“…it will be seen that the Great Messiah who was the founder of the Christian religion, was a polygamist, …the Messiah chose…by marrying many honorable wives himself, show to all future generations that he approbated the plurality of wives under the Christian dispensation, as well as under the dispensation in which His Polygamist ancestors lived. We have now clearly shown that God the Father had a plurality of wives, one or more being in eternity, by whom He begat our spirits as well as the spirit of Jesus His first Born, and another being upon the earth by whom He begat the tabernacle of Jesus, as his only begotten in this world. We have also proved most clearly that the Son followed the example of his Father, and became the great Bridegroom to whom kings’ daughters and many honorable wives were to be married We have also proved that both God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ inherit their wives in eternity as well as in time;… And then it would be so shocking to the modesty of the very pious ladies of Christendom to see Abraham and his wives, Jacob and his wives, Jesus and his honorable wives, all eating occasionally at the same table, and visiting one another, and conversing about their numerous children and their kingdoms. Oh, ye delicate ladies of Christendom how can you endure such a scene as this? …If you do not want your morals corrupted, and your delicate ears shocked, and your pious modesty put to the blush by the society of polygamists and their wives, do not venture near the New Earth; for polygamists will be honored there, and will be among the chief rulers in that Kingdom.” (Orson Pratt , The Seer, page 172)
What Is the Biblical Perspective on Polygamy?
Biblical, Orthodox Christianity has always been very clear on this issue and because of its clarity, Orthodox Christian communities have never been polygamous. Why have orthodox Christians been so united on the issue of monogamy? Because the Scripture are clear:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Notice that “wife” is singular)
“…and the two will become one flesh.” (Notice the word, “two” as opposed to ‘three’ or ‘seven’ or ‘thirteen’)
1 Timothy 3:2 (related to elders)
“An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife…”
Titus 1:6 (related to overseers)
“Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife…”
Deuteronomy 17:17 (related to the king of God’s people)
“He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.”
Marriage is a divinely instituted union and the New Testament affirmation of marriage confirms it as a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman. For all of Church history, this “one on one” relationship has been considered holy, and while the Old Testament openly acknowledges the polygamous relationships of certain Old Testament kings, it never condones the behavior. In fact, polygamy was a direct violation of Deuteronomy 17:17, and the Old Testament repeatedly describes the lives of polygamous Old Testament saints to revel the destruction and harm the practice caused.
The New Testament rejects the practice of polygamy. Polygamous relationships specifically prevented individuals from holding a leadership position in the Church. In addition to this, the Church has never seen the Holy institution of marriage as necessary for salvation. In fact, Paul advocated the single life for those who felt they were called to unencumbered ministry:
1 Corinthians 7:1, 6-7, 32-35
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. I say this as a concession, not as a command… I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion… I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
And Jesus specifically taught marriage would not be a part of post-resurrection life:
“When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage…”
“Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die, for they are like the angels.’”
With scripture this clear, commanding one woman to be married to one man and denying any connection between marriage and salvation, one can easily understand why Orthodox Christians over the ages have rejected polygamy (and marriage in general) as a path to Salvation. Mormonism has been clearly unorthodox in its positions related to polygamy, extreme in its practices, and variable in its commandments.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Apologetics at Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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