Consent, Power, and Marital Polyamory: Look to Our Own History and Practices First

Photo by Claudia Soraya on Unsplash

Today in an opinion piece for the Church-owned newspaper the Deseret News, two professors and a graduate student of Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life wrote, “The Courts are Coming for Monogamy. We Should Resist.” Alan Hawkins, Daniel Frost, and Megan Johnson look at some instances in which cities or states in the US have given legal recognition to polyamorous unions, and they argue that the arguments present in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges already are and will continue to be used to extend legal rights to polyamorous unions. They fear the courts have their sights set on destabilizing marriage through the legalization of marital polyamory.

They write, “Before the dam of monogamy breaks and ushers in a new era of legally endorsed polyamory, we think it would be wise to pause and evaluate whether families and society would be better off for the change. Regardless of what one thinks about same-sex marriage, the move to polyamory is a breathtaking change to the public understanding of modern marriage and can be expected to have significant consequences.” They go on to discuss concerns around consent and power imbalance potential in marital polyamory and how any monogamous marriage is at risk when marital polyamory is a legal possibility.

Somehow, they managed to write the entire piece about marital polyamory without mentioning the big p word for Mormons: polygamy.

And while there is a certain irony in BYU faculty writing about the legal threat of marital polyamory after the Church’s many decades of fighting for the right to practice polygamy and only abandoning the practice after intense legal pressure, I am not here to suggest that members of the LDS church have no place in this argument because of their Church or family history. Rather, I think that their arguments should be informed by and acknowledge that history.

The writers suggest that polyamory is problematic for the “meaning of consent when there is an imbalance of power and equity.” I agree. How do we know that polyamory can be problematic around consent when there is an imbalance of power and equity? Because we have seen it thousands of times in our own history, starting with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. Most of Joseph’s plural marriages were enacted without Emma’s knowledge or consent. But moving past Joseph and into the Utah period, it was not uncommon for a first or subsequent wife to learn about a new wife after the marriage took place. A lack of consent and gross power imbalances led to heartbreak, abuse, and neglect of many plural wives. The book The Polygamous Wives Writing Club by Paula Kelly Harline and the Year of Polygamy podcast hosted by Lindsay Hansen Park are both great, accessible resources to learn more about this abuse and heartbreak. Park’s work also includes information about current Mormon fundamentalist groups that practice polygamy and why decriminalization of polygamy helps reduce harm and bring resources to vulnerable communities.

A lack of consent and power imbalances around polygamy is baked into LDS doctrine of the practice. D&C 132 is still part of LDS scriptural cannon. In it, Emma Smith is told to “receive” all the virgins who have been given unto her husband, and if she does not abide this, she will be destroyed. Husbands are instructed to seek their wife’s consent to marry another, but under the “law of Sarah,” if the wife refuses, the husband can do so anyway.

D&C 132: 64-65

64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.

65 Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.

When looking at LDS history and scripture, we see some of the potential problems regarding consent and power imbalances in polyamorous marriage. Really, we see more than potential. We see the lived reality of abuses when men use the name of God to justify polygamy regardless of consent or the ability to support additional wives. Hawkins, Frost, and Johnson are likewise concerned about the “demands of time and energy” required by polyamory and how that may leave some spouses unsupported. LDS history shows how this was a heartbreaking reality for so many women who were taught that this was their only path to the celestial kingdom.

But beyond history and scripture, current LDS sealing practices leave LDS women living with what Carol Lynn Pearson so wonderfully named and wrote about in her book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy. Current sealing practices allow living LDS men to be eternally sealed to multiple women without any cancellation of sealings, as long as they are only legally married and cohabitating with one living wife. Living LDS women are only allowed to be sealed to one man in her lifetime unless she receives a cancellation of sealing. This creates much anxiety and heartbreak for LDS women in a variety of circumstances. Some LDS women fear dying before their spouse and being forced into non-consensual eternal polygamy. LDS women who are widows have more difficulty dating and marrying LDS men who only want to marry someone they can be sealed to. Furthermore, while a process does exist for women to request and be granted a cancellation of sealings, the process is fraught with challenges that many women find sexist and dehumanizing. Telling women that “God will work it out” in the next life is patronizing and harmful when we can do something about this pain now.

Recently, Nathan Oman shared his incredible research into the history and current practice of temple sealings on the Mormon Land podcast and on his substack. He also makes the case that recognizing same-sex marriage sealings would be less theologically radical than many have assumed. I’ll direct you to his work for more details, but what fascinates me is that the policies creating the unequal sealing practices do not harken back to the 19th century, but were rather initiated in the 1920s and 1930s under President Heber J. Grant. While Grant attempted to move church members towards a monogamous, nuclear family model, he oversaw new sealing policies, perhaps viewing them as a path to maintain the theology of eternal polygamy while abandoning the lived practice. [side note – Grant, who died in 1945, was the last LDS prophet to live as a polygamous spouse, though he only had one remaining living wife at the time he was president of the Church.]

Unequal temple sealing policies were new 20th-century policies. They have gone through some adaptation over the last century, but they are still not equal and they still create incredible heartbreak and situations of manipulation, abuse, and non-consensual polygamous sealings.

Is it possible for marital polyamory to exist in a non-coercive, consensual way that works well for all parties involved? Yes, I think it is possible for some people.

Is it possible for marital polyamory to exist in a non-coercive, consensual way under a coercive theology that threatens women with destruction if they don’t “consent” and under policies in which women can be sealed polygamously without their consent? No, I don’t think that is possible. Yet that is the present situation that threatens LDS women.

LDS history and practice should inform arguments about marital polyamory in Church-owned publications. Concerns about consent and power imbalances should be used to remove the mote from our own eyes before we look outwards.

Katie Ludlow Rich

Katie Ludlow Rich is a writer and independent scholar focused on 19th and 20th-century Mormon women's history.

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16 Responses

  1. debhansen53 says:

    As a remarried widow who is sealed to her first (and wonderful) late husband, it is a great source of pain that I cannot be sealed to my amazing second husband! I must first die..,really? If I can be sealed after I die to him, why not NOW? There is no good reason…

    • JC says:

      I agree. It’s such a double standard that a man can be sealed to his deceased wife AND the wife he gets remarried to while he’s alive, but a woman has to wait until SHE IS DEAD to be sealed to her husbands.

      The rule used to be that if a woman wanted to be sealed to a new husband after the first one passed away, that she had to cancel her sealing to her first husband. That’s wrong on too many levels to list. I can’t bear to think of all the heartache and resentment that has caused in so many families.

      • Lily says:

        I am also single and have no idea how this can possibly work out where I will be happy. I emailed Ms. Pearson after reading her book and essentially got the “God will work it out we will all be happy” answer.

    • Lily says:

      So are we ok with people having multiple spouses? Or not? Or only when women have multiple husbands?

  2. tennesea says:

    Amen x 144,000 Katie. The ghost of eternal polygamy (exceptional book!) continues to fill our temples and doctrine with it’s mephitic stench.

    • JC says:

      I would read The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy, except all the reviews indicated that the book left single, never married women out of the conversation entirely.

      It’s TOTALLY understandable that women don’t want to share their husbands, but as someone who is single and might not marry in this life, I loathe the idea that I’ll only be exalted if I’m willing to become the nth wife of J-Random Righteous Dude.

      The single women I know feel this way as well. It’s definitely a problem that there are gaping holes in our doctrine concerning single women and no clear explanation of what will happen to them after death.

  3. Medford Smith says:

    To equate plural marriage to polyamorous relationships is comparing apples to oranges. Polyamorous relationships is anything goes sexual relations between (consenting) adults while plural marriage is a one man in two or more monogamous marriages. They’re so different that it’s obvious the authors didn’t bring it up. Perhaps one day the author will actually do some research on polygamous relationships in the 19th century instead of regurgitating the same tired tropes from disaffected and former members (who also haven’t bothered to do their own research) and publishing something that can add something to the discussion. Well, here’s to hoping.

    • Katie Rich says:

      What the authors of the Desert News article were talking about was formalized, legal, marital polyamory. That is not “anything goes sexual relationships.”

      And Mormon plural marriage was not strictly one man and two or more women in serial monogamous relationships, even if that was a common configuration. It was sometimes one woman legally married to one man and sealed for time and eternity to a second man and then sealed for time to yet another third man and then cohabitating and having children with the third husband while the first was still alive. Divorce was common (more common in the Utah territory than anywhere else in the United States). And if a man with “higher priesthood” desired the wife of a man with “lesser priesthood,” and she agreed to take him, she could leave the first husband for the second. Married men could desire to take another wife, date, court, and marry another woman with or without his wife’s consent. It was not simple, clean, and neat.

      • Medford Smith says:

        1. Divorce was more common in Utah because divorce was easier to get in Utah at a time when it was extremely difficult for most women to get a divorce. Brigham Young made divorce relatively easy because of the complex nature of these relationships. (Were you not aware of that fact or simply choose to omit that context?)

        2. For a plural marriage to be binding, the first wife’s consent is *required.* Not only must she consent but she is *part* of the ceremony. Look it up. (And for the few men who skipped the consent step when they married another wife, it’s considered adulty according to D&C 132. They won’t have any wives in the next life.)

        3. Once the Saints arrived in Utah, the vast majority of these marriages weren’t as complexly configured as you make it out to be. No doubt there were exceptions to the one man, multiple wives but to frame the exceptions as widespread is dishonest. Most of these unions were good marriages (with some obvious unique challenges). This is one reason why the Saints struggled to give up the practice when the first manifesto came out.

        • Katie Ludlow Rich says:

          You have suggested that I “actually do some research” and accused me of being “not aware” while expecting a level of context that you do not provide yourself. Nauvoo and Utah polygamy are not topics that I am ill-informed about. I have not to my knowledge presented factually incorrect information, even if I do not skew it to an interpretation that makes you feel comfortable with a practice that was coercive and abusive to many women. If you are actually a writer and researcher about polygamy and would like to drop a link to your work, feel free to do so, but I do not think further conversation between us will be productive.

    • Alma Frances Pellett says:

      Polyamorous relationships have never been “anything goes”, not in any age they have happened, including the most common current form, ethical non-monogamy.
      Your dismissal of “disaffected and former” members shows you didn’t really read the article, nor did you look at any of the linked sources from the Church itself.

  4. Alma Frances Pellett says:

    I remember similar articles when gay marriage was being argued. Worse than the ignorance of history is the flat denial that any marital relationships in the history of the Church were not have always happy and consensual, simple people only doing what they were commanded and happy to be so blessed. Nothing is I see there.

    I always come back to the people these changes would affect. Like gay marriage, making it legal doesn’t force anyone to enter into one, but applies the same benefits and protections given to any others so joined by the State. And for decades, there are people who need those protections.

    Even if the law changes and the Church fully goes back to embracing polygyny, any such would have the same issues with power imbalances, abuse of patriarchal power, and difficulty simply maintaining relationships as any other. Only now women have much more power and protection from the State. We simply can’t go back to where we were.

    But back to the important thing; the people who cannot currently get help because the government does not recognize their marriage.

  5. Elisa says:

    I think it’s funny that the court case involved a same-sex marriage. Glad that BYU is for those now … at least when it helps them write clickbait and stir up controversy.

  6. Lavender says:

    👏🏻 Preach, sister. Thank you for your eloquent views and all the information. I am going to think about this . . .

  7. Raymond Winn says:

    Debhansen – I am sorry for your loss (the wonderful first husband); I am happy for your present situation (a wonderful second husband), and I understand your heartbreak at apparently being unable to be sealed with #2. But perhaps that heartbreak can be slightly assuaged by remembering that the LDS temple ordinance application regulations are apparently adjusted by changing times, rather than by direct voice-of-God revelations, which should lead us to the recognition that such procedures are not ironclad make-or-break rules for getting into the right situation in the eventual afterlife. That is to say, we should take everything we think that we understand about the afterlife family situation with a grain of salt, since we really don’t understand it.

  8. RLB says:

    I tend the feel that BYU faculty and the LDS Church General Authorities are concerned about legalized polyamorous marriages because they would then have to confront the actual text of the Manifesto. They Church never ended Polygamy, they ended the practice of polygamy because it was illegal (in the US). “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.” Polyamory marriages become legal, the church should have to revisit the Official Declaration (though I assume they will come up with ways to just ignore it).

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