What Every Mormon Really Needs To Know About Polygamy

I just want to let you know up front that this may be a little longer of a read than my normal length blogs based on the sensitivity of the subject. But please…please…read it all the way through.

My wife and I have shied away from Section 132 for awhile now. A surface reading of it just doesn’t sit well with most people…but the research my wife has put in on this subject over the last two weeks has blown my mind. She went to God in prayer and analyzed every verse in that section. I wanted to get her feelings, her perspective, her thoughts before I published anything else on this subject.

I published an article called “It’s Time To Stop Hating on Mormons About Polygamy” a few weeks ago in response to the collective media’s commentary on Joseph Smith and polygamy. That piece was more of a reaction on my part. This piece is the result of serious study and pondering and is meant to bring peace to those that might be struggling with the concept.

While my wife was doing her own research…I was busy asking respected friends and knowledgeable church members (many of whom I would consider scholars) one question. “Do you believe that polygamy is a celestial law that will be required in the celestial kingdom?” The almost unanimous answer was “Yes”.

My immediate follow up question and response is this; “Ok…so who taught you that?”

A puzzled look always follows as they say…”well…well…I’m not sure. That’s just what I’ve always heard.”

“Heard it where?” I’d ask.

“Well…I don’t know. That’s a good question”

I’ve been trying to figure out where, how, and why I’ve been taught that plural marriage is an eternal celestial principle. I can’t for the life of me remember why I think that. Is it just Mormon folklore or something someone extrapolated from the Doctrine and Covenants or some Journal of Discourses quotation? Many Mormons will say the same thing…that they’ve heard plural marriage is an eternal principle. But my question is…where did they hear it? Who taught it? And why do so many Mormons believe it?

Maybe it’s time to NOT believe that.

Trying to figure out why Mormons used to practice polygamy is important to a lot of members of the church. It’s been especially difficult for women over the years which is understandable. Valerie Cassler Hudson once wrote that “no woman who has ever felt pain about polygamy is satisfied until her concerns about the hereafter are at least addressed.  No woman who has felt pain about polygamy can honestly strive for a place in the celestial kingdom unless she feels that that kingdom is a place in which she would actually want to live.” (Women in Eternity, Women of Zion,)

portrait of a lonely girl

It’s painful enough to think about in mortality…but to think that it might persist in the eternities is faith shattering for some people. We’ve got to acknowledge that fact and discuss it.

The first thing we need to establish is that when you hear something about polygamy from media outlets or even from other members of the church, you’ve got to keep in mind that they might not know what they’re talking about. Hey! I may not even know what I’m talking about. There are stories, interpretations, and opinions from so many different people that it makes it difficult to know what really happened…and why it really happened.

Here’s what I believe: Plural marriage is NOT a celestial law and it’s NOT required in the celestial kingdom. It’s a temporal, earthly law given as an exception to the spiritual celestial law of monogamy. I feel like it can proven according to the scriptures.

The Lord rips polygamy in the Book of Mormon. There were a few guys in Book of Mormon times that were trying to take multiple wives using David and Solomon as justification for their actions.

“for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son.”

“Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.” (Jacob 2:23-24)

The Lord is stating that having many wives was “abominable” to Him…and yet the Bible is clear that David was justified in having many wives when He spoke through His prophet Nathan to David.

“And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.” (2 Sam 12:8)

God was not condemning polygamy in David’s day…He was endorsing it. David only got himself in hot water when he went after Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) and then arranged for Uriah’s death to cover up the baby growing in Bathsheba’s womb.

Again in 1 Kings 15:5 it says that,

“David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.”

Polygamy was “right in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Kings 15:5) and yet simultaneously “abominable” in the sight of Lord. (Jacob 2:23)


At first glance it looks like an obvious contradiction between the Bible and the Book of Mormon…but we’ve got to ask ourselves if there are any other scriptural instances in which God is commanding or allowing mankind to do something that that is “abominable” but at the same time temporarily accepted or required.

After studying D&C 132 in depth, polygamy…to me… has become less about sex and more about sacrifice. This principle in all actuality requires the ultimate emotional sacrifice. To those required to live this principle…this sacrifice was worse than death. The emotional pain surpassed anything they could have suffered physically.

Good men hated it. (Yes…they did)

Women hated it. (Of course they did)

Joseph Smith hated it and ran from it. (This…he stated over and over again) Then he told others that it would be one of the most challenging thing the saints would ever face.

It is compared with only one other type of sacrifice in all of scripture. The Abrahamic sacrifice. Why?

Most of us have heard of an Abrahamic sacrifice but few understand what it really means. I had no idea how important understanding this doctrine would be to understanding plural marriage.

The Abrahamic sacrifice has a few significant attributes that set it apart from any other kind of sacrifice.

For some reason, God sometimes requires people to contradict and disobey a general commandment that has been given. For instance, a general commandment that has helped people and civilizations for years has been the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. To “not kill” is the general law that is calculated to bring happiness for following it in this life. But then at times God has required people to break that law in order to follow a temporary law that is an exception to the general law.

Remember the time when God commanded Israel to go after the Amalekites, and “utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Sam 15:2-3) Can you imagine how those Israelites felt as they had been taught their entire lives that they “should not kill”.

I can’t imagine how Nephi must have felt when he was commanded to kill Laban. Nephi said, “never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.” His entire life of righteousness seemed to hang in the balance as he was faced with this decision to break a commandment that he knew was right and good. He “shrunk” at the idea.

And then there’s Abraham.

Consider what Abraham was commanded to do to his son Isaac. He was commanded to take his and Sarah’s only son Isaac and sacrifice him in cold blood. Imagine the vice that must have crushed Abraham’s heart as he was commanded to do this thing. They waited years and years for that kid and now this seemingly pointless journey to Mt. Moriah is taking place. Abraham knew that one of the most severe commandments was “thou shalt not kill”…and yet here he was raising the knife to his pride and joy. It was the most strenuous test of faith.

Olivier-abraham-isaac

God required these people to follow an exceptional law that is temporary in order to accomplish his purposes even though those purposes were not made known to them at the time. It’s the most spiritually excruciating sacrifice anyone can experience. The general commandment brings happiness and the exceptional commandment brings temporary misery.

I believe that polygamy is one of those exceptional commandments given to men and women at various times for specific purposes. The Lord tells Jacob that he will institute plural marriages for one purpose.

“For if I will saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people: otherwise they shall hearken unto these things”. Jacob 2:30

Between reading this verse and the previous verses in Jacob…it becomes clear that the general law is monogamy. Monogamy is never restricted in the scriptures…but polygamy is always restricted unless God needs to “raise up” a righteous seed to fulfill his purposes.

And then we run into Section 132 where the Lord draws an interesting comparison between Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham’s willingness to enter into plural marriage. In verse 34, it says that God commanded Abraham to enter into plural marriage. It appears that Abraham was commanded to do this in order to “raise up seed”. Sarah was the one that gave Hagar to Abraham and in doing this…Sarah was conforming to the law that was given to Abraham. In this regard…Sarah was enduring an Abrahamic sacrifice of her own. In verse 36 the Lord draws an instant comparison between Abraham being required to offer Isaac and Abraham being willing to enter into plural marriage. In both cases here…the Lord is saying that it “was accounted unto him for righteousness ” for being willing to depart from the general law to obey the exceptional law as the Lord commanded it.

Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar did not enjoy the exceptional commandment to create a plural family. The Bible makes that really clear. This was the first major test that Abraham had in order to prove that he was willing to do anything that the Lord commanded him. Abraham didn’t want to marry Hagar and have a child with her or else he would have done so sooner. He wanted to be married to Sarah and have a child with her but the Lord prolonged that event in order to test their faith and teach them about sacrifice. As a result of their obedience…they were blessed with Isaac in miracle like fashion.

Unfortunately…Abraham and Sarah were not yet done being tested. Abraham was once again being asked to disobey a general law in order to obey an exceptional law. The Lord tells him to take his son Isaac to Mt Moriah, to bind him, and to sacrifice him. You’ve got to be kidding right?!

Abraham goes as far as to raise his knife and as he does so…the Lord provides an escape. A ram is offered in Isaac’s stead and Abraham’s happiness is restored to him.


As we go back into Section 132 and in verse 50…the Lord tells Joseph Smith that He’s seen his “sacrifices and obedience to that which He had commanded him” in reference to plural marriage. “Therefore” says the Lord, “I make a way for your escape…as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.”

Why does the Lord use the word “escape” here? That means that the sacrifice that is being required of Joseph Smith will come to an end.

Now this is where people may think I’m completely insane for believing such a thing. Most people would never dream or think that a guy would consider marrying multiple women to be a sacrifice…but to a good man that loves his wife…this would indeed be a sacrifice.

If the Lord is calling plural marriage an “Abrahamic sacrifice” then it will bring comfort to someone that has been required to live the law of plural marriage to know that the final attribute of an Abrahamic sacrifice is the eventual release…or…an “escape” as the Lord put it.

If plural marriage is a painful sacrifice for all of the good parties involved…then why would the Lord require it to continue in the Celestial kingdom. Why would God condemn the practice of plural marriage so strongly…even calling it “abominable” if it was in fact a celestial law. Because based on these scriptures…the “sacrifice” is eventually brought to an end so that happiness can be restored as it was with Abraham.

In no place in the scriptures do I see the Lord eluding to a polygamous requirement in the next life. I see Him condemning it in this life except for at times in which He has needed to raise up seed for His own purposes as a bonafide sacrifice and departure from the general law of monogamy.

Too many people believe that the entire section of 132 is about polygamy and mistakenly attribute the first half about the new and everlasting covenant of eternal marriage to plural marriage when in fact the topic of plural marriage is not even discussed until the second half of the revelation. I believe it is eternal marriage (monogamy) that is required in the celestial kingdom, not plural marriage.

But you’re probably concerned about all the people being sealed to each other right?

All of the reasons someone might bring up as a logical reason to practice polygamy in heaven is complete speculation. There is no doctrine about more women being in heaven or there not being enough time to make babies. No doctrine. Actually…most of the explanations aren’t even logical.

God promised Joseph Smith an “escape” from that exceptional law…so why would it be required in heaven?

Why this type of thinking continues on in the Church is a mystery to me. Heck…I’m grateful for all the media coverage because it’s forced my wife and I to consider this principal carefully and prayerfully.

I think people try to come up with whatever they can think of in order to rationalize why they might have to practice polygamy in heaven without ever realizing that it might not even be required in heaven after all. That it was an exception to the celestial law of monogamy in which husband and wife look forward to being with one and other and only each other in the eternal worlds.

But what about men that have been sealed to more than one woman? Why was Joseph Smith and others sealed to so many women including a 14 year old?

Some of the sealings and marriages that took place during the early days of the church were for assuring familial bonds in eternity and did not involve sex, but then other marriages appear to have taken place in order to “raise up a righteous seed”. That raising up a righteous seed portion is where I believe men and women were put to the Abrahamic test. That must have been insanely difficult for men and especially for women. It’s understandable that those affected by this principle reacted so harshly to it.

Even Joseph Smith says in a very candid way that “I don’t blame any man for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I had…I could not believe it myself.

In the early days…the church was still trying to wrap their heads around sealings. The restoration took place over time and was difficult to understand. Many of the sealings that took place were done as “proxy” or “stand-in” marriages. You had people being sealed to general authorities in every direction to assure their exaltation. Sometimes you had “widows get sealed to general authorities whose husbands had died before receiving the gospel and then the husband sealed to that same general authority as a child” in order to “keep him in the family”. (The Law of Adoption, Gordon Irving, BYU Studies 14 no. 3)

To quote Vallerie Cassler Hudson:

Many women becoming plural wives because of the mistaken understanding that they could not be sealed to their dead husbands and could not gain their exaltation unless sealed to someone as a wife.  For example, women who had never even met Joseph Smith while he was alive were sealed to him after his death; also, one woman had her aged mother sealed to her (the daughter’s) husband shortly before the mother died so that the mother could receive her exaltation.  Wilford Woodruff had over 400 of his dead female ancestors sealed to him as wives.  These practices seem to indicate that the parties involved understood that the man in question was more of a stand-in or proxy so that the woman could receive the marriage ordinance and thus her exaltation, than an understanding that these women were married in some meaningful sense to these particular men for all eternity.  For example, what can it mean to have a dead woman sealed to you, whom you have never met in this life, whose will on the matter you cannot possibly know, and who is in fact one of your great-great grandmothers?  Or to have your own mother-in-law sealed to you as a wife?  Or, in the case of a woman, to be sealed to a dead man whom you have never met, and whose will on the matter you cannot possibly know? These marriages make sense best as proxy marriages.  Indeed, when President Wilford Woodruff announced in 1894 that women could be sealed to their dead husbands (and children to their dead parents) even if the deceased had not been baptized before their deaths, many thousands of sealing transfers took place to rightfully reorganize family lines.

Hudson also points out that from a church manual it appears that there is also a doctrine of “transferability”.

When a man and a woman are married in the temple for time and all eternity and then separate, the children will go with the parent who is justified and who has kept the covenants.  If neither of them has kept his covenants, the children may be taken away from both of them and given to somebody else and that would be by virtue of being born under the covenant.  A child is not to be sealed the second time when born under the covenant, but by virtue of that birthright can be transferred. (Questions Frequently Asked About the Temple and the Endowment (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981), 10

This appears to to be what is happening with all of these sealings. Heavenly Father’s goal is to seal every man and women from “Adam…down to the last man or woman” back to God. The important seal is that of one being sealed back to God as opposed to the devil “sealing you his”. Once a woman is sealed back to God through the new and everlasting covenant, then her ordinance can be transferred to another worthy priesthood holder of her choice.  It makes sense. If she doesn’t want to enter into a polygamous relationship…then there will be someone for her to form a monogamous relationship with and she will be happy. How else could it be?

Someone might say that things will be different in heaven and polygamy might not be a big deal when you get to heaven. That might be true…but if “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there” (D&C130:2) then many of the saints will not be desirous of living that exceptional law.

I’m not saying polygamy cannot exist in the Celestial kingdom. I’m just saying that I don’t believe that it’s required in the Celestial kingdom. I don’t believe it is the de facto standard in the Celestial kingdom or that it will be commanded of any exalted individuals. In everything that I read in the scriptures and from the teachings of the prophets and general authorities…I see the teaching that if one man and one woman enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage…then they have the opportunity to receive their exaltation. Nowhere does it say that I am required to take another wife for exaltation. I believe a husband and wife can rest assured that if they prefer…then they are perfectly justified living the eternal and generally acceptable law of monogamy.

That brings comfort to me. It brings comfort to my wife. I hope it brings comfort to you.

What I have written here is my opinion. It’s not official doctrine…and I don’t speak on behalf of the church. I love the church and am grateful for the church. My only goal in writing this is to help those that might be struggling with this topic to consider every angle before becoming irritated or depressed about the subject.

I’m sure someone will find some sort of quote to try and prove me wrong or something. That’s alright! Like I said…I may be wrong. I’m like you. Seeking to learn. Seeking to grow. I love to see different angles and I’m happy to always consider additional light and knowledge even if it contradicts what I believe. I don’t know every single quote that was ever made on the subject. All I know is that I’ve found peace through my recent studies and that those studies appear to jive with the scriptures.

For the Church’s official releases on the subject you can visit https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-and-families-in-early-utah?lang=eng and https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-kirtland-and-nauvoo?lang=eng and https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng

You should also read Women in Eternity, Women of Zion by Alma Don Sorensen and Valerie Hudson Cassler. This book contains some of the best explanations on the subject that I’ve seen yet and is the source from which we were able to see the connection between Abrahamic sacrifice and polygamy. This find was a hidden gem to us.

I believe in my heart that polygamy is a temporal exception to the general and eternal law of monogamy. That it was that way in the Old Testament and that it was that way in the early days of the LDS Church. That it was a sacrifice to those involved and that in relation to the Abrahamic sacrifice, those involved will be offered an “escape” from it if they so desire.

 

Additional thoughts to consider that don’t necessarily fit within the point I’m trying to make in the above article:

1. Something similar happened to Adam and Eve. The were commanded to not partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and yet at the same time they were commanded to multiply and replenish the earth. You can almost feel how painful it was for them to make the decision to partake of the fruit on that tree. They didn’t want to disobey. It was a carefully thought out decision for them to eat that fruit. It wasn’t a mistake. They were breaking one commandment and knowingly bringing great pain upon themselves in order to follow another commandment. They broke that commandment so that each of us could come into the world. It was a sacrifice to them…and there was an eventual “escape”. That escape consisted of the Savior coming into the world to reverse the effects of the fall.

2. You can argue that since Christ had power over his own life and could have summoned “legions of angels” to save him that He actually transcended one general commandment in order to keep His Father’s exceptional commandment to give his life. It isn’t lawful for one to “sacrifice” one’s self but because the Father commanded His innocent son to give His life…He was justified and did not commit sin in following that command. His “release” or “escape” came on the third day as he was raised from the tomb.

3. I’ve always been bored by the seemingly endless genealogies that are placed into the very first chapters of the Bible in Matthew. But then someone pointed out that if you look at the genealogies of Christ, you’ll see that He descended from the “House of David”. Did you realize that the “House of David” was one of the largest polygamous “houses” in recorded history. Interesting that Christ would descend from a polygamous heritage.

4. I don’t know what Joseph Smith’s motives were. How can anyone know? All I’m saying is that people condemn Joseph Smith for the same things they should be condemning the prophets of the Bible for. No one can know of the intentions of the old prophets and yet we seem to just let them slide because of a “cultural acceptance” in their day. What wrong is wrong…and what’s right is right in any period of time regardless of culture.

5. If you believe the Bible then you can’t rule out Isaiah’s prophecy of the last days when he said that “in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach.” (Isa 4:1) What does that scripture mean to the Christian world?

6. Joseph Smith said, “ I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise.” and Bruce R. McConkie said “According to the Lord’s law of marriage, it is lawful that a man have only one wife at a time, unless by revelation the Lord commands plurality of wives in the new and everlasting covenant.”

These quotations reinforce that plural marriage is a an “exception commandment” for specific earthly purposes of raising up seed unto God in this life only. In the next life…we’ll be in no rush to “raise up seed” because there will be no time constraints.

7. There’s is no evidence of Heavenly Father having multiple wives in heaven.

8. If you think polygamy is weird…consider the incest that must have had to occur during the time that Adam and Eve were raising their families. Again…if you believe the Bible…you believe that this happened.

9. James E. Talmage was one of the churches greatest theologians. He said in “The Story and Philosophy of ‘Mormonism'”. pg 88: that “The Latter-day Saints were long regarded as a polygamous people. That plural marriage has been practised by a limited proportion of the people, under sanction of Church ordinance, has never since the introduction of the system been denied. But that plural marriage is a vital tenet of the Church is not true. What the Latter-day Saints call celestial marriage is characteristic of the Church, and is in very general practice; but of celestial marriage, plurality of wives was an incident, never an essential. Yet the two have often been confused in the popular mind.”

Polygamy is such a tough topic. It’s tough for anyone that truly seeks to understand it. We may not ever fully understand it but hopefully some of the things in this article help people to look at this topic in a different light.


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