This year I have had several students asking questions about the practice of plural marriage by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 19th century. Usually the questions focus on why the Lord commanded this practice. Before I even attempt at formulating a response I have found that inevitably some student will raise their hand and share their opinion that the reason the Lord commanded this was to help solve the numbers problem the early church allegedly was having. Many students have been taught (I don’t know where) that there was a superabundance of females and that what few brethren existed in the early church had to live plural marriage so that these sisters would have husbands. I will show that this was not the case. Although I do not know why the Lord commanded plural marriage, I will make an attempt to examine the consequences the church faced by living this practice in order that we can perhaps see some possible reasons why the Lord asked this sacrifice of the early church.
When the youth are bothered by this topic I tell them that is okay. Since President Woodruff issued the Manifesto we have been commanded not to practice or teach plural marriage. I for one am grateful for this as I have admittedly struggled to understand why this practice was put in place to begin with. I am not alone in this. Many in the church have wondered about plural marriage and struggled understanding why the Lord would ask this of the saints. Many wonder if this is a requirement for exaltation. I will address this as well.
Why Did the Church Practice Plural Marriage In the 19th Century?
Plural marriage was practiced by between two and four percent of the Church membership from 1843 to 1890 (according to the Utah Commission appointed by Congress). In the latter year the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the constitutionality of the congressional laws against the practice. Obedience to constitutional law is a fundamental tenet of the Church. (D. & C. 98:5, 6) Therefore, after Wilford Woodruff had sought guidance from the Lord, the Church suspended the practice…Today any Church member who enters into plural marriage or who teaches its propriety in these days is promptly excommunicated.
Plural marriage has been a subject of wide and frequent comment. Members of the Church unfamiliar with its history, and many non-members, 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 seem always to have been more males than females in the Church. Families — father, mother, and children — have most commonly joined the Church. Of course, many single women have become converts, but also many single men.
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, as would be expected in a pioneer state. The births within the Church obey the usual population law — a slight excess of males. 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 outnumbered the males in Utah. (The Seer, p. 110) The theory that plural marriage was a consequence of a surplus of female Church members fails from lack of evidence. (John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era], 391.)
Elder Widstoe continues the discussion debunking the myth that plural marriage came about because of the licentiousness of the leaders of the church or because the sisters did not want to marry rough, unrefined men of low character. He goes on to answer the question as to why the Lord commanded plural marriage: “The simple truth and the only acceptable explanation, is that the principle of plural marriage came as a revelation from the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith for the Church. It was one of many principles so communicated to the Prophet. It was not man-made. It was early submitted to several of his associates, and later, when safety permitted, to the Church as a whole.” (Widtsoe, 392.)
He later stated, “the principle of plural marriage came by revelation from the Lord. That is the reason why the Church practiced it. It ceased when the Lord so directed through the then living Prophet. The Church lives, moves, and has its being in revelation. (Widtsoe, 393.)
QUESTION: Why was it necessary for the Church to practice plural marriage?
ANSWER: It stands to reason that the gospel of Jesus Christ embraces doctrines and practices that are offensive to the world. The world accepts only its own doctrines and its own churches. The idea that their Messiah was to be a suffering servant who would die an ignominious death on a Roman cross was anything but a doctrine that could be expected to be popular among the Jews. True doctrines do not appeal to those whose hearts are set upon the things of the world. The idea that God can speak, that revelation continues, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet in every sense that Moses and Isaiah were prophets, was and is highly offensive to the world. The doctrine of the plurality of wives was equally offensive, as has been the doctrine of who can and cannot hold the priesthood and the role of women in the Church. We may not be able to predict what doctrines those of the world will take offense at in the future, but we have every assurance that they will have cause for offense.
Ours is not a new church; ours is a restored Church. We have no doctrines that were not known to the Saints of dispensations past. The prophetic descriptions of our day describe a restoration of all things—meaning all pure doctrines and righteous practices of the Saints in dispensations past. The doctrine of plurality of wives came to the ancient prophets by the command of heaven and was restored to us in like manner (see D&C 132:40, 45). Our forefathers practiced plural marriage because God commanded them to do so. They did it under the direction of the prophet and were greatly blessed for doing so. When the prophet commanded that they cease the practice, they did so, in harmony with the same Spirit. (Joseph Fielding McConkie, Answers: Straightforward Answers to Tough Gospel Questions [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1998], 28.)
Although he doesn’t get into the why of the practice other than to say that the Lord commanded it, he does make the point that doctrines of the Lord will not appeal to the world. As I have thought about this, I have considered other practices of those who have followed Jesus Christ in other dispensations that might seem strange to us. For some reason, we are not bothered by the idea that Abraham practiced plural marriage and that Jesus told the Jews that Abraham was in heaven (Matt 8:11), or that if the Jews were righteous that they would “do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). We don’t seem to blink at David’s decapitation of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:51), Moses’ slaying of disobedient Israelites (Exodus 32:28), or Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). I believe that because of Joseph Smith’s temporal proximity, we are more troubled with his practice of plural marriage than with the ancient prophets who also participated in this practice.
Results of the practice: Sociological Effects
“The institution of polygamy was the best thing that ever happened to Mormonism, and polygamy’s suppression at the hands of the federal government was the next best…”
– Douglas H. Parker (Douglas H. Parker, “Victory in Defeat—Polygamy and the Mormon Legal Encounter with the Federal Government,” Cardozo Law Review 12:805 (1991): 808.)
The Church’s practice of polygamy became public knowledge in 1852. Organized only 22 years earlier, the Church was a young, little understood, and often reviled faith. It drew converts from New England, Canada, Scandinavia, England, Scotland, Wales, and elsewhere. Sometimes not even sharing a language, it was necessary that this mix of new members be molded into a solid, enduring social group.
This was accomplished via two means: geographic isolation in the Salt Lake basin and marital practices that were offensive to most Americans.
Geographical isolation had become necessary for the Saints’ safety. Yet, as Terryl Givens has demonstrated, there was little aside from their theology which separated the Saints from general American society. (Givens, Viper on the Hearth, 18–93) Polygamy served as the perfect dividing line between “Gentile” and “Zion” America. The Saints remained relatively isolated until the coming of the railroad to Utah; by this time their status as a distinct religious and social culture was assured, given that they had spent most of the past half century in conflict with the U.S. government over polygamy.
We do not have to look far to see the fate of a religion without the twin isolators of plural marriage and geography: the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This break-off from the Utah “Brighamites” initially shared most of the other distinctive LDS doctrines, including a belief in Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, the divine origin of the Book of Mormon, and a need for a restoration. Yet, today the RLDS Church—now “Communities of Christ”—has little to distinguish it theologically from mainline Protestantism. Theologically, they were steadily absorbed into the American “mainstream,” while the Utah Mormons have retained their separate theological identity, despite joining the American cultural mainstream. (Polygamy, prophets, and prevarication, by Gregory L. Smith, M.D., p. 52) see http://www.fairlds.org/Misc/Polygamy_Prophets_and_Prevarication.pdf
However, it was equally important that plural marriage eventually cease, for similar sociological reasons. Even if Utah had successfully given legal protection to plural marriage, it would have stunted Church expansion and growth into other areas. Canada is a good example of a country which moved swiftly to implement anti-polygamy statutes upon the arrival of Mormon colonists. Canadian law even went so far as to name Church members as specific legislative targets. (Robert J. McCue, “The Attitude Toward Plural Marriage in Canada, 1887–1992” in Regional Studies in LDS Church History, Vol. 2, (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 2000): 281, 290.) Polygamy had served its sociologic purpose by the turn of the century, and world-wide expansion became more feasible with its discontinuation. (Smith, p. 52.)
The Test of Abraham
An impartial study of the Saints’ sacrifices during the polygamy period will always impress us with their devotion. Doctrine and Covenants 132 acknowledged at the outset that what was being asked was a staggering sacrifice: “Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.” (D&C 132:36)
The command to sacrifice Isaac is one of the most disturbing passages in all scripture. (Genesis 22) Modern Christians oftentimes pass over it too quickly, due to the understanding that this sacrifice was a similitude of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We seem almost over-anxious to reassure ourselves that God didn’t really intend for Isaac to be sacrificed, and then hasten to draw the parallel to Jesus Christ.
In our haste we miss the fact that Heavenly Father’s sacrifice of His Son had a meaningful theological rationale, while Abraham received no such justification. Knowing the end of the story, we are comforted from the ram in the thicket, while it is supposed that Abraham had no such comfort. Latter-day Saints who believe that Jehovah rescued Abraham from being a sacrificial victim himself should also appreciate that the sacrifice of Isaac demanded that Abraham renounce what was doubtless a cherished tenet of his faith: “no human sacrifice.”
As the philosopher Sǿren Kierkegaard described it, in his stimulating study of this scripture, “all was lost, more terrible than if it had never been! …Through a miracle [God] had made the preposterous come true [by Isaac’s birth to the aged Sarah], now he would see it again brought to nothing.” (Smith, p. 53)
Kierkegaard puts his finger squarely on the key issue: What is [generally] left out of the Abraham story is the anguish; for while I am under no obligation to money [which I am asked to sacrifice], to a son the father has the highest and most sacred obligations…Abraham’s relation to Isaac, ethically speaking, is quite simply this, that the father should love the son more than himself…a temptation is [usually] something that keeps a person from carrying out a duty, but here the temptation is the ethical itself which would keep him from doing God’s will. (Smith, p. 53)
Nor should we attribute this doctrine to a mere Old Testament notion, as Jesus made clear. (Luke 14:26) The Saints were asked to put everything on the altar. For them, “faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks.” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 43) They were not asked simply to part with their sins and weaknesses, to which anyone might be willing to leave behind. Beside these offerings they were to then lay their good name, their reputation for moral rectitude and honesty, their civil rights, and their place in American society. Not only must they abandon the false doctrines of the sectarians, but they must appear to renounce cherished principles of monogamy which were viewed as the well-spring of civilization. And then they were later required to discontinue the practice for which they had given so much. The thoughts shared by Helen Mar Whitney are insightful:
Those who have not the knowledge and assurance that the course which they are pursuing is according to the will of God, cannot endure all these afflictions and persecutions, taking joyfully the spoiling of their goods and even if necessary to suffer death, by the hands of their foes. They will grow weary and faint and fall by the way unless they have unshaken confidence and a perfect knowledge for themselves. They cannot make a sacrifice of their character and reputation; and give up their houses, their lands, brothers, sisters, wives and children; counting all things as dross, when compared with the eternal life and exaltation, which our Savior has promised to the obedient; and this knowledge is not obtained without a struggle nor the glory without a sacrifice of all earthly things. In the last days (we read) the Lord is to gather together his Saints who have made covenant with Him by sacrifice and each one must know that their sacrifice is accepted as did righteous, Abel and Abraham the father of the faithful. Every Latter-day Saint knows this to be true, and that according to our faith so are our blessings and privileges. (Helen Mar Whitney, A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1999), 187.)
At its core, polygamy asked the Saints to put their faith in the Restoration to the ultimate test. Was Joseph really a prophet, or not? Did prophetic authority persist? Could God truly speak by divine, unmistakable revelation to each individual? Was God’s voice truly sovereign over all institutions, and in all circumstances? Were they confident that they could discern that voice, even—or especially—when something contrary to their expectations was demanded?
Is plural marriage a requirement for exaltation?
No. Clearly if this was the pattern the Lord wanted us to follow, then we would read about Adam living this principle in the Genesis account. When Lehi and his family came to the Americas, the Lord certainly would have commanded them to live this law if this was the general rule of marriage. When they arrived in the Americas, the descendants of Lehi were specifically told not to live plural marriage. (Jacob 2) It is safe to say that monogamy was a practice among the saints in New Testament times as well. With the exception of some of the Old Testament prophets, the standard of marriage is clear: one man, one wife.
Question: Is plural or celestial marriage essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come?
Answer: Celestial marriage is essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come, as explained in the revelation concerning it; but it is not stated that plural marriage is thus essential. . . . These questions are answered, so that it may not be truthfully claimed that we avoid them. (President Charles W. Penrose, Improvement Era, vol. 15, no. 11, September 1912, 1042.)
Occasionally I am asked if I believe that those all those who achieve exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom will be required to practice polygamy…Do I believe that personally? No, I do not. Did some early Mormons believe it? Yes, they certainly did. What I believe is that people who don’t obey Heavenly Father don’t go to the Celestial Kingdom. And for those people in those days, the command to practice plural marriage was so difficult for many that the way they were taught just about insisted upon it. There are some folks during the days of Brigham Young and John Taylor who saw plural marriage all throughout the scriptures and for good reason. They were attempting to explain their circumstance in other times and places where Heavenly Father had worked with His children. We must attempt to view things as they saw them in order to understand their statements in regards to plural marriage.
An analogy might be useful at this point. This is like Noah and the ark. Do I think I need to go build a boat? No. If Noah didn’t build the boat, was he in deep spiritual and physical trouble? You bet your life he was.
Certainly there are statements by leaders of the Church suggesting that plural marriage was essential for salvation. But the LDS fundamentalists and those who criticize us today never attempt to balance these citations with remarks by the very same leaders who offer the idea that plural marriage is not a requirement of exaltation.
The Saints’ actions showed their dedication to the truth they had embraced. While we do not have the Lord’s explanation for why He commanded the Church to practice plural marriage, we can see that this was a tremendous test reminiscent of Abraham’s test in sacrificing his son Isaac. We see that plural marriage helped to isolate the Saints from the world as well as unite them in a critical time in Church history. People joined the Church in spite of plural marriage, not because of it. I am grateful that I did not have to face the ethical dilemma in which they found themselves. I am humbled by their maturity and dedication to building Zion in the midst of so many trials, even before they were asked to live plural marriage. Throwing this into the mix only tested their resolve to a level that is truly extraordinary.