Embracing Jacob’s Sermon

One of the more awkward moments of my time in graduate school came when I was reading a book about Mormon polygamy while taking a break in the lab.  A visiting scientist from Pakistan who was doing research in the same lab saw me reading the book and asked me: “That looks like an interesting book.  Are you preparing to take a second wife?”, then joked about taking a second wife himself.  A bit flustered, I explained that my wife and I weren’t interested in expanding our family that way, that my church had stopped practicing plural marriage over a century ago, and that I was reading the book to better understand my ancestor’s decisions.  It was an interesting conversation, needless to say.

The previous week’s reading in the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum includes Jacob 2, the epicenter for discussing polygamy in the Book of Mormon.  Recently, a good friend who has chosen to leave the Church asked me: “Do you think the church will eventually disavow the polygamous teachings in the Book of Mormon?”  I was somewhat surprised at the question, since the section in the Book of Mormon in question already disavows polygamy, calling the practice “an abomination” that causes “sorrow … [and] mourning” for the women involved.  It also forcefully states that the word of the Lord is that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none” (Jacob 2:27-31).  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for plural marriage.

There is, of course, one statement that the Church has used to justify polygamy within Jacob’s sermon.  He states: “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).  This passing statement has been interpreted to mean that when the Lord commands it, people can practice polygamy to have an increased number of children.  It is likely with that verse in mind that my friend spoke as he did.  Still, I’m grateful for Jacob’s words because they have allowed us to pivot away from saying that plural marriage is God’s law whenever it can be practiced to saying that monogamy is God’s law with rare exceptions.

The reason that is so important is that in times past plural marriage was held to be the law of God.  For example, Charles Smith recorded that during the late 1800s, church members in St. George were told by a group of high-ranking general authorities that: “It was the duty of the Elders of Israel to take more wives, and that there was no exaltation without it.”[1]  During that time, more than one couple made the decision to enter plural marriage arrangements because they were taught this, including Jane Snyder Richards who “said that as [her husband] was an elder and if it was necessary to her salvation that she should let another share her pleasures, she would do so.”[2]  Thus, while plural marriage was openly practiced among the Saints, Church leaders actively taught that it was a requirement for exaltation.[3]

When the Church officially gave up polygamy around the turn of the 20th century, Latter-day Saints understood that they did so of necessity and that it was a change of policy rather than a change of doctrine.  President Wilford Woodruff noted in his journal that he was “under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the Church” when he issued the Manifesto that distanced the Church from plural marriage.[4]  When the announcement was made at general conference, President George Q. Cannon spoke, citing a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants that stated: “When I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings” (D&C 124:49).  President Cannon stated that such was the case with plural marriage.[5]  It was understood that there had been no change in doctrine, just in official Church policy to deal with the current situation when it came to plural marriage.

This began a period of limbo in which the Church sought to distance itself from plural marriage while still believing it to be a true principle.  It took a second manifesto that made initiating new plural marriages an excommunicable offense and then the action of limiting use of the sealing authority to the temples to bring an end a period of confusion in which Church members and leaders tried to privately continue the principle while publicly working to show that they were giving up polygamy.[6]  Doctrinally, a series of awkward compromises were made afterwards, some of which endure to this day.  For example, Joseph Smith’s revelation about polygamy remained in the Doctrine and Covenants as a section while Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto and related documents were relegated to an appendix-like Official Declaration.  Men could not be married to multiple living women but could be sealed serially to multiple women after the death of a prior wife, essentially leaving a backdoor to practice polygyny in the afterlife.  Polygamy continued to be viewed as an important practice to many Latter-day Saints.

Other measures, however, were taken to distance the Church from the practice.  The term “celestial marriage” shifted from being a term used for polygamy to a term for temple marriage in general.[7]  General authorities began to affirm that plural marriage was not essential.  For example, writing around 1910, Elder B. H. Roberts noted that it wasn’t accurate to state that “Mormonism is based on polygamy” since “Mormonism existed ten years … before plural marriage was ever introduced into the Church.”  And, after the practice was abandoned, “Mormonism still survives,” showing that “the doctrine of the rightfulness of plural marriage is in every sense but an incident in the ‘Mormon system’ rather than a basic principle.”  He affirmed that: “Salvation in the Mormon religion is not made to depend upon a plurality of wives.”[8]

When Church leaders defended the decision to cease practicing plural marriage, however, they continued to do so most frequently based on a commitment to follow the laws of the United States of America.  A third manifesto, issued in 1933, affirmed that the sealing authority was solely to be used at the direction of the president of the Church and that those presidents had declared that “polygamous or plural marriages are not and cannot now be performed” because “our people sacredly covenanted with the Government of the United States that they would obey civil law” in the 1890s.[9]  More recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated that: “this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. … If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose.”  The first reason he gave for this was that polygamy was illegal and Article of Faith 1:12 indicates that we are expected to obey the law of the land.[10]  The law of the land was viewed as being supremely important in the decision to stop the practice of plural marriage.

The problem was that there was a lot of ambiguity about the status of plural marriage in the Church’s doctrine.  The argument that we don’t practice polygamy because it is illegal left open the question of what would happen when (or where) polygamy is decriminalized.  There is also the question of whether polygamy still expected to be the norm in the kingdom of God whenever the chance is available.  Eugene England noted that he had encountered the belief that modern Latter-day Saints would practice polygamy in the Celestial Kingdom quite frequently in discussions and jokes at the time he wrote an essay on the topic in the 1980s.[11]  One of those jokes may have been the song my mother recalled singing as a single woman at BYU: “Someday my prince will come / In the millennium, / And he will say to me: / ‘Will you be number three? / I will be true to you / And you, and you, and you…’,” sung to the relevant phrase of the song from Disney’s Snow White.  In other words, it was unclear whether polygamy had been temporarily or permanently rescinded.

Within the past few years, however, the Church has embraced Jacob’s words, clarifying that plural marriage is the exception, not the law, and indicating that it was rescinded on a permanent basis.  Gordon B. Hinckley laid the groundwork in his 1998 address when he gave his second reason for having nothing to do with polygamy: “More than a century ago God clearly revealed unto His prophet Wilford Woodruff that the practice of plural marriage should be discontinued, which means that it is now against the law of God.”[12]  The Gospel Topics essay on Plural Marriage confirmed that this was the official stance of the Church, stating that: “Latter-day Saints believe that the marriage of one man and one woman in the Lord’s standing law of marriage,” but noted that it was instituted for a time by revelation, using the escape clause in Jacob’s sermon as a scriptural justification for doing so.[13]

The Church’s new official history series, Saints, has continued to affirm that the Church’s stance is more in line with the Book of Mormon than in times past.  Both volumes of the history use Jacob’s words to teach that “no man should have ‘save it be one wife,’ unless God commanded otherwise.”[14]  Kate Holbrook (a church historian) spoke at a face to face event at the time Saints, vol.1 was released, citing Jacob’s instructions and then stating that: “Our church leaders have taught us that monogamy is the rule and plural marriage is the exception.  And our Church leaders have taught us that plural marriage is not necessary for exaltation or for eternal glory.”  Elder Quentin L. Cook backed up her comments by stating that: “In the senior councils of the Church, there’s a feeling that polygamy as it was practiced has served its purpose, and we should honor those saints.  But that purpose has been accomplished and that, that it isn’t necessary.”[15]  Thus, rather than arguing that we no longer practice polygamy because we follow the laws of the land, we practice monogamy because, as Jacob wrote, it is “the word of the Lord” that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife” (Jacob 2:27).

What are we to make of this story of gradually coming to embrace Jacob’s understanding of polygamy in the Church?  It does raise many questions, most of which we’ll probably just have to approach following Dallin Oaks’s advice to “trust in the Lord.”[16]  Two questions weigh particularly heavily on my mind as I write this, though.  First, how could polygamy be considered essential for exaltations at some points in our history and not others?  Second, how can it be that the change was made initially (in the minds of Church leaders) to save the Church from destruction by the government of the United States of America but over time has come to be accepted as God’s law?  These are tough questions to find answers to that are satisfying, but I may venture a few thoughts.

First, Jacob does make allowances that God “will command his people” at times to practice polygamy.  I believe that during the period it was practiced in the Church, plural marriage was done so at God’s command.  The saints who practiced the principle trusted Joseph Smith and believed that to be the case.  Obedience to God’s commandments is generally regarded as being important for obtaining exaltation and willfully rejecting them as detrimental to exaltation.  While it is hard to fathom the reasons why it may have been commanded, I assume that God had important reasons for doing so and that He expected His saints to do their best to follow His command while it was in force rather than actively rejecting it.

As to the second question, I believe that Latter-day Saints in the 19th century practiced plural marriage as God’s law but failed understand the nature of that law as a temporary thing.  Their assumption that polygamy was an eternal principle combined with the circumstances of the time at which God revealed to President Wilford Woodruff that He no longer commanded the Saints to practice polygamy made it difficult to grasp that God had truly signaled that it was time to lift His command to practice polygamy and return to the law that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife.”  They had made great sacrifices and gone to great efforts to practice plural marriage under intense opposition, after all.  We are not far removed from the time that the command for plural marriage was lifted.  We had presidents of the Church who had practiced polygamy all the way up to the end of World War II and senior Church leaders who had grown up in polygamous families all the way into the 1970s, both of which are within living memory of many Latter-day Saints today.  It may be that it has just taken time for the dust to settle and for Church leaders to understand that the change was permanent.  Whatever the case, today they teach that “monogamy is the rule and plural marriage is the exception,” as the Book of Mormon indicated all along.



Featured image from the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, courtesy of the Joseph Smith Papers project.  See “Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, circa August 1829–circa January 1830, Page i,” p. 98, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 17, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/printers-manuscript-of-the-book-of-mormon-circa-august-1829-circa-january-1830/102.

[1] Smith, Charles 1819-1905. Charles Smith reminiscences and diary, 1842 March-1905 June , https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=92dc82d2-97e3-4927-93a5-b6c91edd1ec6&crate=0&index=291  (accessed: March 13, 2020) .  President Joseph F. Smith likewise said that: “Some of the Saints have said, and believe, that a man with one wife sealed to him by the authority of the Priesthood for time and eternity, will receive an exaltation as great and glorious, if he is faithful, as he possibly could with more than one.  I want to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false” (“Discourse Delivered By Elder Jos. F. Smith,” 7 July 1878, Des. News [Weekly], 11 Sept. 1878, 27:32, 498/1-5. Cited in Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its origin, practice, and demise, ed. B Carmon Hardy (Norman, Oklahoma: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2007), 113.)

[2] Mrs. F D Richards, Inner Facts of Social Life in Utah, Interview with Mrs. Matilda Coley Griffing Bancroft, San Francisco, Calif., 1880.  Cited in Doing the Works of Abraham, 146-147.

[3] I suspect that, to the extent it was known among the Saints, Joseph Smith’s teaching that “in the celestial glory there was three heavens or degrees, and in order to obtain the highest a man must enter into this order of the priesthood” may have been interpreted as being a degree for each level of marital status: single, monogamous, and polygamous (regardless of Joseph Smith’s intent with the words).  I don’t have solid evidence other than the highest was understood to be for polygamists, such as when President Brigham Young said: “the only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” (JD 11:268-269).

[4] Wilford Woodruff journals and papers, 1828-1898; Wilford Woodruff Journals, 1833-1898; Wilford Woodruff journal, 1886 January-1892 December; Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=8eee1db1-409c-43b2-ac32-1d344bc519c7&crate=0&index=328#churchofjesuschrist (accessed: March 14, 2020)

[5] George Q. Cannon Journal, 6 October 1890, https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/george-q-cannon/1890s/1890/10-1890?lang=eng#churchhistorianspress.  See also Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand, 1846-1893 (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020), 607-609, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v2/part-4/40-the-right-thing?lang=eng.

[6] See the Gospel Topics Essay: “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage” for more information: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/the-manifesto-and-the-end-of-plural-marriage?lang=eng.

[7] See Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012), 161-162.

[8] B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vol. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News: 1907- 1912), 1:100-101.

[9] “An Official Statement from the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Deseret News, 17 June 1933, Church Section, 1-4.  Cited in Doing the Works of Abraham, 383-386.

[10] Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?” CR October 1998, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1998/10/what-are-people-asking-about-us?lang=eng.

[11] Eugene England, “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20, no.4 (Winter 1987): 138–54. https://www.eugeneengland.org/on-fidelity-polygamy-and-celestial-marriage

[12] Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?”

[13] “Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics Essays, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng accessed 14 March 2020.

[14] Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1: The Standard of Truth, 1815-1846 (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018) 433, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v1/36-incline-them-to-gather?lang=eng. Saints, No Unhallowed Hand, 152-154, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v2/part-1/10-truth-and-righteousness?lang=eng.

[15] Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults: A Face to Face Event with Elder Quentin L. Cook 9 September 2018 https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/broadcasts/face-to-face/cook?lang=eng.

[16] Dallin H. Oaks, “Trust in the Lord,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/17oaks?lang=eng.

25 comments for “Embracing Jacob’s Sermon

  1. Chad, great thoughts. I hadn’t considered that the Saints’ mistake was assuming the exception was, in fact, the eternal principle; but that formulation makes a lot of sense. In fact, said that way, it almost seems inevitable (given the opposition to the principle and the demand for faithful defenses of the principle). That said, I’m really grateful for Elder Cook conveying the opinion of the senior councils of the church. I hadn’t heard that quote, so I’m glad you brought it up.

    Assuming, then, it is a temporary principle and not an eternal one–and I’ll assume this happily, thank you–what were the reasons? I’ve read some things on the polygamy-fertility hypothesis that suggest that polygamy does not necessarily produce more children, which would run counter to Jacob’s claim in chapter 2. But I’m not well-versed enough in the social science or the early Saints’ theological defenses to know if there are reasonable reasons. (At least, reasonable from my limited, human perspective, which I’ll admit a la the Book of Job is flawed. Still.)

  2. Thanks, Chad, for a very thoughtful and well researched essay addressing questions that a lot of church members think about. Like you, I don’t know the answers to the questions you raise. Here is just one modest observation.

    It seems to me the nature not only of our own religious tradition but of any theistic religious tradition that the believers, both leaders and more low-level followers, will assume that they are acting “under the aspect of eternity,” so to speak. They may believe that God has a providential plan, and hence that everything that happens in the world, and especially everything that happens within the tradition or the church, happens in accordance with God’s will. So it is only natural that in explaining and justifying actions, decisions, and policies, both leaders and followers will tend to present things as God’s will. Economists will try to explain and justify things in utilitarian terms; Marxist will try to explain and justify things in terms of class struggle or dialectical materialism; and religious people will try to explain and justify things in terms of God’s will. It’s only natural.

    I believe it is actually a healthy manifestation of a faithful perspective to try to see things in this light. But the logic is often pressed too far. Someone may try to excuse outright wickedness, for example, with the plea that “God has a plan, and He is all powerful, so this must have been God’s will.” I know of a local church leader who, at least according to his son (who was a good friend of mine), tried to rationalize an adulterous affair in those terms. (The man later sincerely repented.) But that’s bad reasoning. And if we believe that a loving God allows his children a good deal of freedom, then many actions, decisions, and policies will reflect human decisions and understandings– wise understandings, perhaps, but not God’s eternal will or truth.

    In the church we are naturally inclined to present all church policies and decisions– church-wide policies like a change in the meeting schedule, and even local decisions like callings to be a Primary teacher– in “thus saith the Lord” terms. our leaders may encourage this inclination, for understandable reasons; they like to use words like “inspiration” and “revelatory.” Which for the most part seems appropriate enough: it’s a way of attempting to see our lives in light of God’s plan and purposes. And yet it also seems to me that reflection on our experience and our history makes it abundantly clear that the Lord pays us the compliment of giving us– as individuals, and as a church– a huge amount of latitude in which to exercise our agency.

    Doesn’t it pretty much have to be this way? Isn’t this basically the same approach that parents have to adopt with children, unless they want those children to remain perpetual infants?

    Does this mean that polygamy itself was a merely human, uncommanded policy? Not necessarily. It’s not for me to say, but I can readily imagine that polygamy may have served some sort of providential purpose. I look my nineteenth-century ancestors and I’m amazed at their faithfulness. Even so, the explanations for polygamy, even by church leaders, may have reflected their good faith but fallible attempts to understand what the providential purpose was.

  3. Thanks, Chad! Any sense of how the polygamy-is-the-default crowd tried to reconcile their view with the clear teaching in Jacob 2?

  4. The public explanations of not practicing polygamy because that’s the law in the US is more comforting to non-members, federal agents, etc, than saying that God has currently commanded us to not do it. Because if we did say that we’re only not living right now because a fickle God currently has the switch set to off, the outside world would be justified in being cautious about the switch being flipped back on at any time.
    To church members we need to say “Because that’s the current will of the lord”. Because a President of the church has taught that, and none afterwards have received revelation to change.
    As for the introduction of plural marriage being a revelation vs. the denouncement being in the appendix, reading Saints 2 makes it feel that way. Pres. Woodruff did receive a revelation, but it wasn’t anything like “Thus sayeth the Lord, it’s time to stop practicing plural marriage.” If it were, I suspect that it would have been included as a section in the Doctrine and Covenants. Having Pres. Woodruff write up a rough draft, and sending it around to a couple of other leaders before coming up with a final version, feels worthy of Manifesto\Appendix status.

  5. As for a possible purpose or function of polygamy other than increasing the church population, you might check out the book Revelation, Resistance and Mormon Polygamy (2013), by Merina Smith. The book shows how the development of polygamy was closely related to the development of a family-centered theology of salvation, which many of us cherish as central to our theology quite independent of polygamy itself. (Full disclosure: Living in a community property state, I would share in the royalties of any sales this comment might generate.)

  6. Many important figures in the OT had more than one living wife. Only in post-exilic Israelite society do we see restrictions. Any reader of the OT, as Joseph Smith was clearly an avid reader, had to consider the fact that the early leaders practiced polygamy. I’m sure that that weighed on Joseph Smith’s mind as he attempted to restore earlier practiced. And I imagine that that was a factor in the Book of Jacob. Hence the qualification when commanded otherwise.

  7. “It was the duty of the Elders of Israel to take more wives, and that there was no exaltation without it.”

    Whenever people raise this issue, I have no problem with it. If God commanded Israel to leave Egypt and going into the wilderness of they would be damned, does that mean we need to leave our homes now and go into the wilderness or we will be damned?

    They had very specific counsel given for a variety of reasons, but there’s no reason to assume that directive would apply to anyone that counsel was not given to.

  8. Lots of great thoughts and questions here. I’ll respond to a few as I have time to do so, though sorry to those I don’t get to.

    Bryan, there have been many possible explanations given for the principle over the years, some more reasonable than others. SDS brought up some and the Church’s Gospel Topics essay on the subject does a pretty good job on listing a few as well:

    “Plural marriage did result in the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes. It also shaped 19th-century Mormon society in many ways: marriage became available to virtually all who desired it; per-capita inequality of wealth was diminished as economically disadvantaged women married into more financially stable households; and ethnic intermarriages were increased, which helped to unite a diverse immigrant population. Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints. Church members came to see themselves as a “peculiar people,” covenant-bound to carry out the commands of God despite outside opposition.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng).

    M Buxton, I don’t have a feel on that right now. I actually intended to do more research on that very question (as well as how/if they talked about it in the 1800s), but haven’t had time yet. If I do, I’ll share what I find. Shooting from the hip, I suspect that they largely ignore/dismiss Jacob’s sermon or focus on the escape clause and avoid of the main body of the text.

    SDS, thank you as always for your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses.

  9. Also among the awkward compromises:
    1) RMN and DHO are sealed to more than one wife, yet lead a very anti-polygamy institution.
    2) Church doctrine discounts large swaths of Sec 132, yet clings tenaciously to other verses. (I suspect that the reason the church hasn’t disavowed the revelation is because it’s the only scriptural backing for eternal marriage of any type. The solution is to break it up into it’s four sub-sections, and disregard three of them.)

  10. Times and Season’s recent posts have been wonderful, including this one. Thanks to Chad Nielsen and the commenters. A few thoughts:

    The Other Clark’s suggestion about breaking Section 132 up into four sections, and de-canonizing the polygamous parts is seriously appealing. So is the idea of just receiving a new revelation that states that monogamy is the norm, period, and that polygamy was an exception. I believe that our leaders are called of God, and hope that they will feel inspired to more explicitly cut the cord to our polygamous past. Quentin Cook’s comments are quite encouraging, in the meantime.

    Dealing with our polygamous past highlights a larger problem for the Church: how can it jettison past teachings and practices that are no longer appropriate, without seeming to disrespect the leaders that taught those practices? There is a clear reluctance to do thus, and the process moves slowly. It took the Church about 30 years after the 1978 revelation on priesthood to explicitly reject the racist ideas of the time that justified the priesthood ban. And polygamy is deeply woven into our culture; many Mormon families had aunts who lived well into the 1950s and beyond, who had been polygamously married, post-Manifesto. Deep cultural changes takes time.

    Ultimately, the reasons for our polygamous period as a Church remain in the realm of speculation. Interesting reading, but I am just glad that we are putting more distance between ourselves and that period. I think SDS makes an important point about God allowing us a huge amount of latitude to exercise our agency.

  11. As a Mormon woman who is appalled by the very thought of polygamy in the past and present, isn’t there the very real possibility that this was a faulty revelation on Jospeh’s part. Oliver Cowdrey thought so. That it was never from God. Why would God hurt his daughter so? Joseph’s polygamist wives, almost all of whom left the church, were told they needed to marry him to gain salvation (sounds a little like Warren Jeff’s sect). They were young girls who wanted a normal courtship with a young man. How heartbreaking for them. That doesn’t even address the already married women. Isn’t is possible that Joseph made a big mistake? Emma and other high ranking church leaders thought so. Our church prophets have made big mistakes (blacks and priesthood).

  12. Christine, thank you for sharing your perspective. As I’ve studied plural marriage and contemplated the sorrow, frustration, and pain it often caused to those who practiced it (particularly the women), I’ve sometimes wondered the same thing. I agree that it is a possibility that it was a mistake, and one that was perpetuated because Church members (including those who led the Church after Joseph Smith’s death) trusted Joseph Smith to speak for the Lord. To accept that it was a mistake would be an even more thorough-going acceptance of Jacob’s characterization of polygamy as wickedness and abominations in Jacob 2. It’s impossible to know what was going on in Joseph Smith’s mind, though, and I hold out hope that the leaders of the Church didn’t make that big of a blunder to operate under the assumption that it was a commandment for so long if God wished it to be otherwise, which is why I expressed that I believe it was done at God’s command, even if I struggle with the realities of the practice. I also recognize, however, that I am a man who exists because of the choices of my ancestors to engage in plural marriage (being descended from a few second or third wives) and that those realities shape my views of the subject.

  13. Thank you Taiwan Missionary. Always glad to hear that my work is appreciated. I also like the suggestions you and Other Clark make of cutting down D&C 132 to the parts relevant to us today for what is in the cannon or producing a new revelation on the subject. I do, however, value the revelation as a historic document that lays out Joseph Smith’s justifications and understanding of the practice of plural marriage (and may write a post attempting to dissect it in more detail when we get there in next year’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum). And I agree that you (Taiwan Missionary) hit it on the head in discussing the difficulty of making deep cultural changes in our religion.

  14. Our church leadership struggles to renounce previous prophets and apostles statements and declarations. The priesthood ban went on years and years past when it should have been denounced as nothing more than racist. Polygamy is what our church Is known for, years after it was renounced and not in a good way. It is a PR nightmare. Why would the Lord create a doctrine that has significantly held back the growth of the church? My understanding is that polygamy did not produce more seed. I am also from polygamist marriages, but it does not make it right in my eyes. Sometimes I think we do mental gymnastics to try and make polygamy acceptable. In reality it was morally abhorrent and against the laws of the United States.

  15. I think a lot of people are with Christine Balderas on this, though there are many who resist her conclusion. Some see in Section 132 and JS’ and others’ choice not to abide by it as internal and historical evidence that at least parts of it were simply human attempts to persuade and threaten Emma into accepting JS’ behavior. Note that verse 54 makes it a commandment to Emma buttressed with a threat of destruction (also verse 64) while verse 61 requires the first wife’s consent, limits the practice to virgin women, and prohibits polyandry (or whatever you want to call it, since some reject that word), as well as reinforcing the then cultural view of women as things to be given to and belonging to a man.
    I have yet to see any defender of Mormon polygamy attempt to reconcile Mormon prophets’ practice of polygamy and some of their wives’ practice of “polyandry” with verse 61. The mental gymnastics required to try to make Mormon polygamy somehow acceptable cannot even make it consistent with Section 132.
    But then the Church can hardly give it up without the conclusion that JS and some other prophets and some of their wives were adulterers under the language of Section 132 itself. Giving it up would also seem to entail rethinking the concept of sealings as practiced historically and currently (or at least the notion of sealing “power” as opposed to contingent ritual). Giving it up would also seem to entail giving up some notions of the afterlife in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, and the common notion that sexual transgressions get in the way of one’s responsiveness to the Spirit — even if one does not believe them to be sin.
    To date I’ve not been in a situation where I had to be personally concerned about the conceptual and historical mess (though I am a descendant of multiple polygamists — not always through the first wife if one counts monogamists sealed to more than one wife), but there are many who are and have been personally concerned. I wonder if they have bought too thoroughly into speculative teachings about exaltation.

  16. In defiance of the TA who kept marking me down for doing “counterfactual history” when I was a BYU undergrad, here is a bit of speculation. Christine is surely right that polygamy provoked a lot of opposition when it was the church’s practice and it continues to cause doubts and problems even now, years after the practice has been abandoned. Could that have been the point? Suppose we turn the question around and ask: Without polygamy, would the church have developed into the strong, relatively unified institution and people that it became in the 20th century? And it seems entirely possible that the answer would be “no.” Without polygamy, the church might well not have been driven to move to Utah. Polygamy, because it was so controversial, gave the faithful Mormons a sense of identity and unity. Paradoxically, the intense opposition to polygamy (eventually leading to its renunciation) weakened the church but also strengthened it. I think it’s fair to say that without polygamy, the church wouldn’t be what it became, and what it is today.

    Now I admit that it seems a bit perverse to imagine the Lord thinking, “I’m going to command my people to engage in an ethically dubious practice– one that will cause much pain and opposition– in order to strengthen them.” (Although there is the story of Abraham and Isaac.) But imagine a slightly different scenario. Studying the Hebrew scripture in an effort to restore all eternal truths, Joseph Smith concludes (unnecessarily) that polygamy is one of those truths. And the Lord, who can turn even evil to good, and determined to respect the freedom and agency of His children, allows this to happen, with the design of turning the dubious decisions and deeds of His children to their good. “All things work together for the good of those who believe.” One might thus think, with Christine, that polygamy was a mistake, and still acknowledge that the practice was an occasion for much faith and righteousness, and that God used the practice to strengthen the church.

    As I said, pure speculation. My TA would be slashing my grade down into the failing range.

  17. Yes, SDS, any practice can be an occasion for much faith. Many, like polygamy, can be occasions for both righteousness and unrighteousness. A major contemporary complaint about your speculation would probably be that it exalts the need and value of the institution over the needs and value of the individuals affected by or connected somehow to that institution. That doesn’t sit well with contemporary individualism. Of course, it didn’t sit well with Emma Smith or Sarah Pratt or others in that time period either.

  18. If we want to do warts-and-all history, we’d better be prepared to do warts-and-all theology. That means accepting and working with both the parts we like and the parts we don’t. Eliminating the revelations we don’t like has immediate, substantial damaging effect on everything else we believe. We need to be able to say: This is how Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young, or Spencer Kimball understood the world and the scriptures and how they responded to revelation in that context; if we now understand the world differently in some respect, we can be thankful for our new knowledge while still trying to appreciate what earlier prophets were trying to tell us.

    As Brandon noted, there’s the thorny problem of Abraham, isaac and Jacob. If we’re serious about eternal marriage – and for many members of the church, that’s one of the most essential doctrines – then we have to be able to include them in there somewhere.

  19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUm7Yk0DNkQ&fbclid=IwAR35AlxKhATOJ6jBIO80rEFs8I9ObFNQAqI_eu4QpFg85jqEicSXaL4nJzQ

    Thought you might be interested in this lecture by Professor Joseph Spencer at BYU about how we treat our women will determine our blessings and success as a society. He talks about how the Nephite community began to fail when they took concubines and treated their women poorly, as commodities. The Lamanites refused to treat their woman poorly and their society did well. An interesting lecture.

  20. Like other commenters, I have a number of polygamous ancestors. Most of them report their own independent spiritual confirmations that this is what God required of them. I figure that if THEY were okay with it (and had to live with that decision), then I’m in no position to second-guess them 150 years after the fact.

    Does anyone else besides me see historian Holbrooks statement (“Church leaders have taught that plural marriage is not important for exaltation’) to be a classic example of gaslighting? I’ll bet the opposite is the case on a 10-to-1 ratio.

    Also, how does one justify 1Ne. 3:7 (‘The Lord gives no commandment saves he prepares a way’) with D&C 124:49? (“It behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings”)

  21. We can look back at church leaders with charity and believe they did their best. However, we should not privilege their flawed understanding of the Old Testament or of women today because this gives credence to evil ideas still in circulation about female inferiority and dehumanization.

    Jacob’s condemnation of polygamy was as relevant in the 19th Century as it is today. Polygamy was evil and remains evil because it destroys marriages, metaphorically stabs women in the heart, and causes children to lose confidence in their fathers. None of these horrible effects were negated because Joseph (I think mistakenly) believed he should restore a barbaric marriage practice. I do believe God can consecrate awful experiences for our good, but I don’t believe we should call the awfulness of the experience good.

    If a drunk driver kills my husband, eventually I may recognize it as an experience where I could learn forgiveness. But this in no way validates drunk driving or vehicular manslaughter. The only way to validate polygamy (one man with multiple wives where the opposite is forbidden) as a God ordained practice is to validate that women do not deserve love and fidelity in their marriages the way men do. You have to validate assumptions about how women’s primary purpose is some sort of celestial childbearing. If polygamy is only about maintaining earthly marriages in the eternities, then there is no reason why women can’t be with all of their husbands after they die. But that’s not the assumption. The assumption is women have to choose while men don’t.

    As for the exception clause from Jacob, why do we think this refers to having lots of children? Wouldn’t a more rational perspective be that God was referring to cases where infertility was an issue? I could see God allowing polygamy among the people of Old Testament for infertility perhaps. But I don’t think that means He condones it in any way. He allowed people to make a lot of horrible laws in the Old Testament. It is strange to think that if populating the Earth with righteous people is the reason for polygamy, that God set a monogamous marriage standard with one man and one woman with Adam and Eve. Surely, if there was ever a time for population growth and genetic diversity, it was then. Yet, we don’t find polygamy there. In fact, I think the first time more than one wife is mentioned is in reference to Cain and secret combinations, if I recall correctly.

  22. The reference to two wives is from Moses 5, with Lamech, who is a descendant of Cain. Lamech was a murderer and a follower of secret combinations.

    52 Wherefore the Lord cursed Lamech, and his house, and all them that had covenanted with Satan; for they kept not the commandments of God, and it displeased God, and he ministered not unto them, and their works were abominations, and began to spread among all the sons of men. And it was among the sons of men.

    53 And among the daughters of men these things were not spoken, because that Lamech had spoken the secret unto his wives, and they rebelled against him, and declared these things abroad, and had not compassion;

    54 Wherefore Lamech was despised, and cast out, and came not among the sons of men, lest he should die.

    55 And thus the works of darkness began to prevail among all the sons of men.

    56 And God cursed the earth with a sore curse, and was angry with the wicked, with all the sons of men whom he had made;

    The condemnation above definitely refers to secret combinations. However, it mentions these sons not keeping commandments plural. I think it’s noteworthy that these scriptures specifically mention Lamech took two wives. I believe this was one of his many sins.

    Here is a great comparison with Jacob 2 about God cursing the Earth because of men’s polygamy and referring to it as a sin practiced by those of old, like David, Solomon, and Lamech.

    29. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.

    33. For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for they shall not commit whoredoms, like unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts.

    In Jacob, God specifically calls out that He does not want His daughters treated like they were in the Old Testament. He does not want his sons committing whoredoms like in earlier times because of the suffering of His daughters. Yet in the 19th Century, God condones these same whoredoms and suffering? I don’t think so. The church was almost destroyed by the federal government because of polygamy. The saints were driven from state to state and severely persecuted for it. I wonder if this was a part of God’s curse.

  23. Other Clark, I would feel much more like I had been gaslighted if Holbrook said something like: “Church leaders have never said that plural marriage was necessary for exaltation,” which would be a blatant falsehood. To clarify, the exact quote was: “Our Church leaders have taught us that plural marriage is not necessary for exaltation or for eternal glory.” Though, to be honest, I’ve had a hard time finding a place where a current Church leader has explicitly stated that polygamy isn’t essential for exaltation. In the larger context of what she said, though, I feel like it was an effort to clarify the Church’s current stance and to help advance the idea that polygamy isn’t going to be the norm in the afterlife, which I appreciated, and Elder Cook didn’t express anything to the contrary.

    You’re right though, Clark. Those two scriptures do seem mutually exclusive and I’m not sure how to reconcile them. Paul seems to strike a balance between them when he wrote that: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13, NRSV). In that case, D&C 124 provides a way out.

    Mary, you bring up some good points, but there are still a lot of thorny issues in addressing plural marriage in the Church. As I said before, I admit that it is possible that it was a mistake, and one that was perpetuated because Church members (including those who led the Church after Joseph Smith’s death) trusted Joseph Smith to speak for the Lord. I can see where you are coming from. That being said, there are a lot of other things to consider, such as the spiritual confirmations many of those who participated experienced (as Other Clark discussed) and the experiences of Old Testament figures like Jacob/Israel who engaging in polygamy even when infertility wasn’t involved in every case but were still respected as men of God. It’s a difficult topic to find a good, clean way to accept or reject completely without facing complications.

  24. Apologies – I didn’t get much further than this statement – “I was somewhat surprised at the question, since the section in the Book of Mormon in question already disavows polygamy, calling the practice “an abomination” that causes “sorrow … [and] mourning” for the women involved.”

    It seems to me that Jacob does not directly or explicitly accuse his ‘beloved brethren’ of polygamy or plural marriage. Certainly the command is given in vs 27 against having more than wife (giving rise, I suggest, to the assumption that has launched the discussion above), but Jacob’s focus is upon ‘whoredoms’ as abominations. Such, I would suggest, is different from having more than one wife. Indeed if a Nephite man had two or three wives, which if these (if not all) can be the subject of Jacob’s observation that “Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives”? I suggest that the breaking of hearts and the cause of sorrow has been the infidelity of these men in committing whoredoms.
    I realise this is not a conventional reading, that it might be argued that associating the behaviour of David and Solomon with Nephite male behaviour is what is intended, but the reading I give is arguably closer to the text.
    It is also interesting that the heading of Chapter 2 has been changed from: “Jacob condemns the unauthorized practice of plural marriage” to, ” The Lord commands that no man among the Nephites may have more than one wife” (neither statement in my view address the issue Jacob is raising – but reflect a reading of the text though the lens of polygamy).

  25. sjames, your thoughts are plausible. Perhaps the Nephite men were just using polygamy among their ancestors as an excuse for adultery, hence the reference to David and Solomon (sort of like the spiritual wifery stuff that John Bennett and others in the early Church used polygamy to justify) and Jacob condemned polygamy to cut away their excuse as part of his focus on fornication in general. I’ve also wondered how there would be enough of a gender ratio (or at least population size) in a small first- and second-generation colony to make polygamy even a feasible thing. In any case, Jacob did condemn polygamy (contrary to Israelite culture they had left behind) as part of his process of condemning the whoredoms of the Nephite people when he tells them “hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; for I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts” (Jacob 2:26-27). That has given shape to how the Church uses the chapter, which is the focus of the discussion above.

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