Listen to the stories of those who hurt because of the ghost of eternal polygamy

I don’t think about polygamy much. I have no interest in participating in it (in this life or another). It doesn’t come up much in my conversations, except as I discuss my polygamous ancestors from the early Church or the lives of Brother Joseph or Brother Brigham and their contemporaries. I am one of those for whom, as Carol Lynn Pearson writes, “it is not to be taken very seriously.” But Pearson argues that there are others, “a great many, I think,” for whom “it is a blight, rather like the crickets that destroy a crop.”

To that I say, but wait, didn’t we — and by we I mean the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — give up polygamy more than a century ago? Well, yes and no. Members of the Church who enter into polygamous relationships today are excommunicated. But the promise of polygamy in the next life lingers, as evidenced by these practices:
  • A widowed Mormon man can be sealed to another wife, and another after that, “secure in the promise that they will be his in eternity.”
  • A widowed Mormon woman cannot be sealed to another man.
Wow, that does sound a lot like polygamy, waiting to be lived once we cross to the other side of the veil. And while I hadn’t known it, this causes a great deal of pain to a great many women and men. Pearson conducted an on-line survey, inviting participants to share their stories and their feelings. Eight thousand people participated, and while I wouldn’t trust such a survey to be representative (simply because the kinds of Church members who fill out an on-line survey about polygamy may be different from the kinds of Church members who don’t), the stories add up.

In this powerful book, Carol Lynn Pearson gives space to more than 100 women and men to recount their experiences with the specter of polygamy in the eternities. Young widows recount an inability to date and re-marry because men are seeking an eternal companion to whom they can be sealed. (Those who do re-marry and have children with good men have to decide whether to disrespect the memory of their lost, first love, by canceling the sealing in order to be sealed to their current husband, or to leave the original sealing intact, which means the children from the new union remain sealed to the first husband. Dizzying, I know.) Women recount holding back their hearts for fear that they will have to share their husbands with others in the life to come. Widows wonder and worry if their husbands have already taken other wives on the other side. Men on occasion use the promise of eternal polygamy as license for licentiousness, whether in act, in look, or in thought, in this life. Pearson recounts the painful experiences of women in the early church, first exposed to the practice of polygamy.

I don’t know exactly how many people struggle with this. But as Pearson writes, “My business is to tell the stories.” And our privilege, she writes, “is to listen.” Listening opened the window — for me — to voices I had not heard, pain I was not aware of.

You might react, “But wait, the men and women I know aren’t bothered by this.” To which I would say, “Listen to the stories. The fact that some do not feel pain does not diminish the pain of those who do. The fact that people you know aren’t talking about it doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling it.” You might say, “But wasn’t polygamy for good reasons? Wasn’t it necessary to care for the widows, or as part of the ‘restoration of all things,’ or to match the many celestial women with the relatively few celestial men, or some other reason?” To which I would say, “Listen to Sister Pearson lay out her reasoning for why these reasons do not hold up. And then listen to the stories. Understand the pain.”

Carol Lynn Pearson is a poet with a long history in the Church. This book is intensely personal: Pearson regularly quotes from her journal, from the journal of Church historian Leonard Arrington, from the journal of Phebe Woodruff (first wife among seven wives of Wilford Woodruff), all in addition to the personal stories from those who responded to her survey. She takes great pains to lay out her love and admiration for Joseph Smith. But she believes that he made mistakes, and that polygamy was one them. She calls for the Church to disavow polygamy. Whether or not you agree with her conclusion, I highly recommend this book. I didn’t agree with every argument that she put forward. But I can’t disagree with the pain and sadness felt by many women over generations.

What do other people think of the book?

  • Laura Compton, Association for Mormon Letters: “‘The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy’ reflects many of the themes of previous work: love, feminism, equality, justice, healing, and the style, theme and subjects will be familiar to her readers. It is a work whose time has come, one which is very much and very clearly Carol Lynn, ‘wise-woman elder’ who notices pain, examines it, addresses it, and seeks to relieve it by urging the community on to better places.”
  • Stephen Carter, Sunstone: “All of it is rendered in the poetic, compassionate—yet passionate—voice she has used to address so many of Mormonism’s difficult issues. If you have ever struggled with polygamy’s persistence in Mormonism, you will find a wise friend here. If you have always accepted polygamy, you will find much to challenge your thinking, all of it rooted in a deep love of Mormonism.”
  • kait2lyn, Young Mormon Feminists: “Carol Lynn Pearson’s new book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy may be a literal Godsend. Pearson approaches the topic with intelligence, respect, and most of all—deep, deep empathy. Interspersed between the chapters of this cathartic book are stories collected, experiences from men and women in the Church and formerly of the Church who share the very real pain that is still being caused by the doctrine of polygamy. It makes this book unique in the sense that although Carol Lynn Pearson is the author, she’s also, more than anything, a listener.”

  • Meg Stout, Millenial Star: “I am simultaneously irritated with Pearson while applauding her clarity in pointing out the damage stupid beliefs about eternal polygamy can cause.”

  • Valerie Steimle, LDS Blogs: “There is so much false doctrine in this book I don’t even know where to begin.”
  • Brian C. Hales, The Interpreter: “An unfortunate publication because of its many weaknesses…If there is anything spiritually useful here, it might be that GEP could help to open the door to a discussion about things that have likely haunted some LDS women since the 1840s, when plural marriage was first introduced.”

This post was updated on December 16, 2016, adding an additional review to the list of other reviews above.

39 comments for “Listen to the stories of those who hurt because of the ghost of eternal polygamy

  1. A discontinued practice yes, but not based upon false principles. But then, God’s laws have always been harsh or confusing or difficult. Many saints entered into polygamy only after receiving some rather powerful confirmations that it was God’s will that they do so. I imagine a similar approach with gaining testimony and understanding of it in our day would be profitable.

    Even in the days of polygamy, of course, it wasn’t just some kind of male free-for-all. There were worthiness interviews to determine if a person was even temporally capable of supporting multiple wives, etc. Polygamy is the exception, not the rule, and was even when it was practiced. I remember reading only some 1% of saints ever entered polygamy back then.

  2. bobdaduck — The 1% number is way off. The best estimate is that 3-5% of all LDS men during the 19th century in Utah were polygamist but that does not figure in the women nor children. An estimated 33% of all Utah family members were in polygamy in 1880.

  3. The only way polygyny (the correct term for one man/multiple wives) is equitable in the hereafter is if polyandry (one woman/multiple husbands) is also part of the hereafter. So maybe when we are taught that polygamy (the term that includes both polygyny and polyandry) is doctrine, this will actually be the reality of it.

  4. This very first comment is an outstanding example showing that our members are just not clued in to the Gospel Topic Essays on despite the fact that they have been there for more than two or three years now. When I informally survey college students who are members about the essays, I am finding that only about 20% know of their existence and only about 5% have read one or more essay. My hunch is that plummets even lower among the general membership.

    A very superficial reading of the essay titled “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” would communicate that “At its peak in 1857, perhaps one half of all Utah Latter-day Saints experienced plural marriage as a husband, wife, or child.”

    This is a far cry from the myth of 1% that keeps getting perpetuated.

    I’ve read Pearson’s book and highly recommend it, but it is not for the faint of heart for sure. These stories need to be heard and my wife and I appreciated the candor and insight that runs through this work.

  5. Not to rehash every bloggernacle conversation on this topic, but I’m curious if Pearson suggests a route for the Church to disavow polygamy as she advocates. So many early church leaders spoke so passionately in favor of polygamy that is seems that disavowing the practice would shred the authority/aura of infallibility of the Church leadership. Also, eternal marriage would need to be doctrinally disentangled from polygamy (They are nestled in the same verses of the same section of the D&C), and the relevant sections of the D&C removed.

    So I’m curious if she wrestles with the collateral damage that would occur by disavowing the practice. My sense is that the leaders of the Church are aware of the pain and heartache, but calculate a disavowal would cause greater overall upheaval than just letting it stand. (That, and many–viz. Oaks, Nelson– are polygamists, so getting the unanimity required to change the practice would be difficult to say the least.)

  6. @Richard sorry to be so remarkably ignorant. I have not researched the subject in a long while; it just hasn’t been important.

    But don’t let the two characters “1%” distract everyone from what I actually said. The words stand just fine without that particular statistic. Joseph Smith’s wives spiritual experiences regarding polygamy, for example, I find to be exemplary, and I hope to pursue spiritual confirmations in similar manner if similarly difficult demands are placed on me ever.

    Interesting spirit. I wonder if I am stereotyped inferior for not being “in the know” about “the facts”? I think I shall take my leave.

  7. Polygamy as an idea linked with eternal sealings and families is intriguing, just like the United Order as an idea is intriguing.

    In practice, horrible. Horrible here and horrible there. Maybe, to a society who can live the United Order in peace and harmony polygamy makes sense. To all others, horrible. Horrible.

    Oh, the UO failed miserably. Of course it did. And polygamy also failed miserably. We just haven’t admitted that much yet.

  8. I have no doubt that polygamy has caused, and even continues to cause pain to some people.

    But to disavow polygamy entirely would be a dagger to the prophetic mantle of the prophet Joseph. You would have to say that a good portion of section 132 is false, and I think that would be tantamount to saying Joseph was a false prophet, or at best a fallen prophet.

    Thus, we have a much bigger problem if polygamy is false than if it is a true principle.

  9. I also think we try to understand these ideas with a very limited understanding, and just can’t see them well at all.

    No one who inherits the celestial kingdom and actually makes it to the highest degree would be unhappy in the least with their eternal condition. God will work it out. No one would be forced to continue with a spouse or even parent they don’t wish to be sealed to. Force is entirely against God’s character.

  10. Is it possible that romantic love is just not the sort of love that Heavenly Father cares that much about? That Bono was not so far off base when he said he’d give it up for a miracle drug? That the impulse to tell someone cooing over his shmoopy woopy to get a room does contain a nugget of truth? That an eternal honeymoon is not really what the Lord had in mind when he taught us about the possibility of the persistence of human relationships after death? That eros is a schoolmaster for bigger and better things?

    Nah. Couldn’t be.

  11. Carol Lynn’s book spoke to my heart and for the first time I felt understood in what polygamy has done to my relationship with God. But I don’t have the slightest hope that anything will ever change. As soon as I read this open hearted review, I knew I need only wait for the men to come out of the woodwork with their bloodless logic and loftly condescension to wave their magic wands like they always do. And so it was.

    Women will continue to wrestle with polygamy in private. Some will live, like I have, in the crippling fear that what happened to Emma will happen to us in the next life and wonder what kind of God sanctioned and still sanctions this. Some will reject the principle silently and never tell so they don’t have to put up with a trite rehash of the same four arguments that mean nothing when weighed against the evidence of their spirits. We already know we aren’t as important in your eyes as the prophetic mantle of Joseph Smith. You don’t need to tell us.

    I don’t think this probably counts as a charitable comment. Sorry. I usually just lurk here, but this issue has bled my spiritual life dry and it hurts when, just as someone shows compassion, the usual arguments come tromping out to remind me of how little this thing that has riven me in two matters to what I feel must be the vast majority of my fellow saints.

  12. “I knew I need only wait for the men to come out of the woodwork with their bloodless logic and loftly condescension to wave their magic wands like they always do. And so it was. ”

    Are you addressing me? I can’t find this bloodless misogyny you speak of.

  13. #11 TomW– This is precisely the dilemma. I think that if the Church could find a way to back off polygamy without “sticking a knife in the prophetic mantle” (as you say) they’d do it. But it seems that no one has found that elusive path yet.

  14. Snail – Very beautifully said. You underline where we fail as a culture. I fear polygamy as you do. My deepest fear is that I’ll die first and my husband will remarry and there isn’t anything I can do to protect myself (like Emma couldn’t stop Joseph from bringing in other women behind her back. ) None of the logic or reasoning fixes that or makes it less painful. It is about relationships. It is about what it means to be human and have agency. It is all about Emma.

  15. Thank you for this review David. I empathize with the pain caused by the church’s sealing policies. But any discussion of changing those policies must necessarily first address the policies governing ordinances that precede sealings. That is to say, before women can be treated equally in sealings, they must be treated equally in priesthood ordination.

    Women and men are equal in the church’s first ordinances – baptism and confirmation. Both make they same covenants with God and receive the same promises from Him. But in order to enter the temple, men must be ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood (boys to the AP for proxy baptisms). Women and girls are excluded from ordination by church policy.

    Priesthood ordination creates a covenant relationship between a man and deity. The man receives responsibility and instructions from deity that give him agency to act in God’s name. Eventually the man can become as God and receive everything He has (see D/C 84). This relationship expands in the temple initiatory and endowment, where the man makes additional covenants with God and, contingent upon his obedience, becomes a King and Priest to God. In contrast, a woman make covenants with her husbands and, contingent upon her obedience, becomes a Queen and Priesthood to him (her husband). With his priesthood authority, the husband then brings his wife through the veil. Lacking priesthood office, women have no power to bring anyone through the veil.

    Only after all of these preparatory ordinances do we get to a sealing. Not surprising, sealing practices continues the disparate treatment of the sexes. Women give themselves to their husbands. Men receive their wife (or wives) but do not give themselves in return. Under current policies it makes no sense to perform sealings any differently. Without the priesthood office and the male initiatory/endowment, women have no ability to bring others into the celestial kingdom. Women need to be sealed to a man so that they can enter. But sealing a man (or a child) to them cannot help these others because women have no authority to bring people through the veil.

    Only with this background can one really appreciate what it would take to create an equal sealing system. First, women must ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood. Then then initiatory and endowment must be changed so that women have a direct covenant relationship with deity rather than with their husbands. Women must become actors at the veil and not just vessels. Then, finally, the sealing practice can be changed so that both sexes give themselves to their spouse and receive the other in equality.

    Personally, I support all of these changes (the endowment has been altered dozens of times before). But I also have sympathy for church leaders who understand the magnitude of changes that would need to take place in order to allow women multiple sealings (at least if those sealings are to have real meaning). At the present, the entire purpose of a woman’s sealings is different from a man’s. As with the priesthood in general, women “receive” all the blessings, but only men are allowed to “give” blessings. Until we, as a people, are ready to give women acting authority – to ordain them to priesthood office – we have no business changing our sealing practices.

  16. At the risk of speaking too much, I want to add my belief that the underlying angst many members feel is not so much a result of the church’s sealing practices, but of the reality that loved ones have agency, loved ones’ feelings often change over time, and that the eternities are a very, very, long time.

    Were sealing practices to become more equitable, that change would not alleviate the underlying angst. If anything, it would increase the overall discomfort as women would be given more agency to form additional sealings that have to be dealt with in the next life. We can change policies and practices (and yes, even doctrine), but we can’t change the hard reality that if our sealings are to have any real eternal meaning, that meaning is not solely dependent on our personal choices.

    This is a long way of saying that, if a sister is worried that her husband could take another wife should she died, she’s much better off working with her husband on their marriage and deciding what they really want their marriage to be, rather than working to change temporary church policies that in the long run cannot bind her husband against his will.

  17. Women give themselves to their husbands. Men receive their wife (or wives) but do not give themselves in return.

    I addressed this extensively on a W&T post a couple of weeks ago. A sister is asked to receive the groom as her husband — how can she receive someone who isn’t giving himself? I posit that the sister is asked if she’s giving herself as a throwback to the days when women were considered responsibility of their fathers, hence the practice (and currently still practiced) of fathers “giving away” their daughters. The question is framed in such a way to make it clear that the sister is giving herself away, exercising her own free will and agency. I wouldn’t care if they did away with the language, but I think people read far more into it than is necessary. I have a side question: Can anyone point me to official church explanation as to why we don’t allow a living woman to be sealed to more than one man, but we do seal a deceased woman to all husbands she’s had in mortality. I know the policy, but I’ve never been able to read a coherent explanation of it anywhere.

  18. MaybeNot,

    Unless there has been a recent change to the sealing procedure, a woman does not “receive” a man. She only gives herself. He only receives her (and through subsequent sealing ceremonies, receives others wives). I’m dubious that there’s been a change to the wording of the ordinance, but here’s hoping you’re correct!

  19. Dave K — go participate in some sealings. She is expressly asked if she receives him to be her lawfully wedded husband for time and all eternity…..

  20. Dave K — didn’t mean “participate in some sealings” to sound snarky. Tone is lost on the internet;)

  21. The church could easily resolve the issue by simply making living sealings the way they do work for ancestors. Let both men and women be sealed to many people and let God work it out in the millennium. After all given our theology of the millennium you’ll have many marriages needing to be redone at minimum given many remarriages and one spouse not accepting the gospel in the spirit world.

    That pushes the topic off for people who are emotionally hurt by the ideas, makes it equal and acknowledges we don’t have a lot of clear revelation on how to understand all of this.

    Admittedly the President would likely still need a revelation for this change, but it’s a fairly plausible one that doesn’t require significant change.

  22. Two comments. First, I have an aunt, long deceased, who is sealed to three different husbands. The first lived only a couple of months, the second a couple of years, and the third was with her for most of her adult life. So, whatever that means, it apparently goes both ways in the hereafter, or there’s going to be a lot of sorting out to do, which I firmly believe. Consider, for instance, that we are constantly sealing together deceased husbands and wives who did not get along in this life and would have gladly divorced (or maybe even did).

    Second, regarding Valerie Steimle’s criticism that the book is full of false doctrine, that’s a pretty difficult claim to back up, since LDS doctrine is all over the board and has shifted over time. The Book of Mormon also has some “false” doctrine in it, if we consider Joseph Smith’s later revelations to be the final word. But even those do not always line up with each other or with current orthodoxy. So be careful about tossing the “false doctrine” bomb at anyone. I hear false doctrine all the time from the pulpit in general conference. It just depends on your own definition of what true doctrine is, because the Church hasn’t laid out a definitive theology, and most Mormons I know don’t believe the same things.

  23. Wally, I’ve not read the book so I can’t comment on that. But it seems the position you take entails there being no doctrine at all. i.e. completely relativist. Even acknowledging some disagreement over what is or isn’t doctrine I’m not sure we can take the position that because understanding changes that no one can make the charge of “that isn’t Mormon doctrine.”

  24. That’s an interesting review although I think he dodges a lot of issues. i.e. while there may not have been a formal equating plural marriage to exaltation there certainly was a lot of rhetoric on that in the 19th century Utah period. The fundamentalists didn’t get that idea out of thin air.

    However he raises a pretty good point that we really don’t understand what sealing means in the hereafter nor do we quite understand how marriage/children sealings relate to what seems a question of priesthood line of authority and accountability. My sense is that’s why some like Dave K (18) above seem to see the issue completely related to ones ordination to priesthood offices. It’s one of those areas we think we have it clearly figured out but a closer glance shows there’s actually a lot unrevealed.

    Our intuitions about marriage make that kind of sealing make sense. We want to be with who we love in the hereafter. Mormon sealing doctrine thus seems much stronger than say traditional mainstream Christian doctrine. On the other hand, surely there’s nothing limiting people from associating with whom they want – at least for Celestial beings. So the doctrine in practice gives us far less than it first appears.

  25. Sister Pearson is a gifted writer. I have enjoyed her poetry and pose for years. I do ,however. question the current actual application of the sealing policy that is the bases for the book. This has not been my experience nor that of others I know. Every couple’s situation needs to be addressed individually. Support the comments of Clark #28. As individuals and collectivity as a church we learn line on line and all things are not revealed at this time. We tend to superimpose our limited experience on situations that need a more “eternal” viewpoint. I am sorry if individuals feel limited or hurt by current applications of temple sealing policies. It seems dismissive and disrespectful to state that this is a temporary situation. Wait in faith, God knows all things and works for your good and your eternal happiness. Best advice I can give to individual in this situation is please contact the appropriate priesthood authority to discuss your personal situation and feelings. This may require that you seek an appointment above the level of your local bishop, or stake president . To other who are not involved personally in such a situation, this is a personal and sacred issue and should be treated with tenderness and complete privacy.
    The same type of respect need to be extended to our pioneer ancestor who lived polygamy. Don’t take your personal modern experience and standards and superimpose it on their experience. It was a different time and a different environment. My personal female ancestor were greatly blessed by having sister-wives.

  26. Thanks for this review. I found a great deal of solace in the book and I’ve finally let eternal polygamy go. I’ve loaned my copy out so many times I have no idea where it is now.

  27. I agree with Clark. We don’t have to change priesthood ordination practices to solve the fundamental inequity of living males’ being sealed to multiple women, but living women only being permitted to be sealed to one. When work for the decease is performed, both men and women are sealed to multiple spouses. I don’t see it as a big deal to extend the same practice/policy to the living.

  28. I’m hurt by the accusation that the faith of my fathers and mothers is hurtful. Stop hurting my ancestry and posterity by deceiving them.

    I’m hurt by others inability to “see it as a big deal”.

    Why should I change my faith for your hurt if you won’t change for mine?

    Did anyone tell Joseph that his revelation priesthood authority is hurtful he shouldn’t teach what’s true?

    No one wants to hurt people. Stop telling people they should feel hurt and help them see why it’s not hurtful.

  29. An aside – I stumbled upon archived talks of the BYU Widows and Widowers conference held in May of this year. The bios of the various presenters were on the web page. There were several couples who were married for the second time after having lost their first spouse. Some, because they were younger, had “his, hers and ours.” Others simply had grown children to try and unite into a blended family. I listened to some bits and pieces of the various presentations, most of which concentrated on grief and mourning, the logistics of being widowed, and so forth. I did listen to the talk by Elder Robert E. Wells, (emeritus). He has a very interesting background. Around minute 8 he talks about being sealed to his first wife and his second wife, and admits he doesn’t know how that will work out in the eternities. (Elder Oaks said as much in an interview, too.) What struck me as I blew threw the presentations is that not a one of them addressed the elephant in the room. The bios gushed with how wonderful their second spouses were, literally begging the question — what will happen when those couples die, and someone seals the deceased wife to her second deceased husband. Can our doctrine of patriarchy support any notion of eternal polyandry?

  30. Polygamy, like all of God’s other laws (fulfilled here, or not) are made to lessen our burdens, not to increase them. Being a new mom, stuck at home all day with husband whom I couldn’t even call (no cell phones then) and with a treasured human infant that I didn’t even know what to do with, (or even feel worthy of having), I would have welcomed my husband to have, (or to have had), a second wife. I couldn’t ever shake the fear that I might endanger my own child out of some act of my own ignorance. In fact, these sad tragedies of ignorant and loney motherhood, is in the news all the time, and which only served to reinforce my fears, as I totally identified with these women. I was tired. I was forgetful. I didn’t feel that I had anyone to call to help relieve me of my burden, not even occasionally. Honestly, the sadness of people who lived in the time of polygamy, just for the sake of being in a polygamist family, is not really looking at the whole picture. If there is wickedness and breaking covenants of chastity to God, that is the source of pain. That happens today. And that happened in the very first generation of mankind.

  31. After death a woman can be sealed to all the men she was married to in life (after their death). Whatever that means.

  32. #6 The Other Clark:

    So many early church leaders spoke so passionately in favor of polygamy that is seems that disavowing the practice would shred the authority/aura of infallibility of the Church leadership…So I’m curious if she wrestles with the collateral damage that would occur by disavowing the practice.

    #14 Snail, beautifully said. Quite sincerely, when I hear a woman say she’s not bothered by polygyny, I think she’s lying. Lying for the Lord, as they say. Lying for the cause. Lying in defense of wha they believe the gospel requires. Unless you’re talking about a woman who really doesn’t care much about her husband or intimacy or love—and who would just a soon have a business partner and sperm donor and let someone else take care of all that nasty stuff—I think she’s lying. Do any of you really know a woman who would be pleased to have her husband marry another woman? Let me see her! (And, please, M.R., it’s one thing to need help and another to grab another wife to get it.)

    I think we have a real problem when we promote the romanticism of eternal marriage and forever families, all while under the shadow of a celestial marriage model that is the opposite.

Comments are closed.