God Did’t Command Polygamy so Let’s Stop Saying That
Growing up in the 80s my parents purchased a full set of dramatized scripture cassette tapes from the Living Scriptures which included all the LDS standard works plus stories from church history. (Suddenly feeling a bit ancient after typing ‘cassette tape.’) I often listened to these tapes while falling asleep at night which is how one night I learned about polygamy. There are many ways to inform youth about difficult topics; leaving them to find out about it on their own is definitely not an approach I suggest as helpful. At the time, I did not recognize or have the language to describe the horror and resulting trauma I experienced hearing Helen Mar Kimball’s story of being sealed to Joseph Smith as a reward for her father Heber Kimball’s willingness to offer his wife Vilate to Joseph when asked by Joseph. As a fourteen-year-old, was my fate the same as Helen’s? Would my parents sacrifice me as Helen’s father, relieved not to give his wife, sacrificed and abandoned Helen?
In my 20s, I excelled at mental pretzel twists to justify polygamy. This Square Two post details the same thought process I had even as I found polygamy increasingly horrifying. Zina Hungtinton’s heartbreaking story in Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier particularly bothered me. I started questioning polygamy yet also still accepted the justifications that polygamy was necessary to ‘raise up seed’ for God (Jacob 2), that God had commanded Abraham to take Hagar as a wife so polygamy by early church members was acceptable (D&C 132), and that polygamy was a restortation of all things ancient (D&C 132).
Let’s take a look at those justifications. Do polygamous marriages ‘raise up seed’ by increasing a society’s fertility rate? A quick internet search produces a number of academic peer-reviewed studies that say no. Polygamous males do have more children than monogamous males while polygamous females have the same or fewer children as they would in monogamous marriages. Additionally, polygamous societies have more single males than monogamous societies. This higher rate of single males means more males do not have the opportunity to have the children they would have in a monogamous society. (Why are the men who are unable to marry because other men have multiple wives forgotten in the polygamy conversation?) The result is that polygamy does not increase a society’s birth rate which means polygamy does not ‘raise up seed.’ It’s tempting to say something snarky such as who would have thought that females are human beings with a limited reproductive capacity who can’t be programmed to efficiently pump out more product – the product being children. Snark aside, here are links to a few of the many articles I found: Polygyny and the Rate of Population Growth, Fertility of Polygamous Marraiges, Polygamy in West Africa: Impacts on Fertility, Fertility Intentions and Family Planning. Bonus if you have access to JSTOR or other online journal access to conduct your own literature review. For those who want a quick summary specific to Mormon pioneer-era polygamy fertility, read this article: Mormon Polygamists Shared the Flaws of the Fruit Fly.
The ‘raise up seed’ phrase in Jacob 2:30 is often interpreted as a reference to polygamy. However, it is important to actually read the verse because it doesn’t say that polygamy is what will be commanded. We, meaning, church culture, have inferred this interpretation. Reading verses 26-30 as a paragraph, I learn that people practicing chastity, which I understand as abstaining from pre-marital and extramaritial sex, is important to God while whoredoms, another word for adultery, is not acceptable behavior. Reading further, I learn that whoredoms/adultery/polygamy are not acceptable because of the pain it causes other people. Anyone familiar with stories of pioneer-era polygamy knows the horror many experienced. Many of us have felt the haunting pain of polygamy lingering in our scriptures, class discussions, and sealing polices and know that polygamy is definitely a ghost that needs exorcising. As for circumstances where behavior that would normally be considered a whoredom might be sanctioned because it actually does raise up seed, the only instance that comes to mind is the story of Tamar. Her husband died and, due to laws at the time, her only option to have children was through one of her husband’s brothers. Because her father-in-law Judah did not fulfill his responsibility to marry one of his other sons to her, she found a way to become pregnant by him.
We are commanded to learn by study and by faith. Hooray for social scientists who study these issues and have provided us with information about the effects of polygamy on fertitily rates. We now know better than to justify polgamy with the excuse of increased fertility that does not actually happen. Let’s recognize that with more knowledge, we can do better than to continue recycling this justification.
Moving on. Did God command Abraham to take Hagar as a wife? Here again is where it is important to actually read the scriptures. Genesis 16:2-3 tells us that Sarah requested that Abraham go into her maid and “gave her (Hagar) to her husband Abram to be his wife.” Under laws of the time, Hagar belonged to Sarah. Hagar was an enslaved person with no choices regarding what happened to her body or her life. While Sarah and Abraham’s actions regarding Hager were lawful, it was not moral of them to take away Hagar’s agency. My heart aches for Hagar. Let’s stop attributing Abraham and Sarah’s actions to God. Let’s also understand Sarah’s actions by learning how females in patriarchal societies are valued for what their bodies can produce so we can instead value females as whole human beings. Let’s stop justifying Abraham and Sarah’s abuse of Hagar’s body by saying the ends justifies the means because many people descended from Hagar.
Pause. I must sit for a moment and hope for healing for all of those in this story, including those who inherited generational trauma. This is why I believe the gospel – the good news of Christ Jesus who lived, died, and was resurrected – is about the gift of healing.
Finally, let’s consider the justification for polygamy as a restoration of all things ancient. There are many practices from the ancient world that nobody is clamoring to restore – enslavement of adults and children, stoning, human sacrifice, sexual slavery, and genocide to name a few. Just because people did something a long time ago does not mean it was God ordained then and needs to be practiced now. We also misunderstand restoration if we view it primarily as a restoration of things or practices. Patrick Mason in Restoration: God’s Call to the 21st-Century World explains how restoration refers to a restoration of people. In this book he shares the interesting history of how our understanding of restoration was influenced by restorationist religious movements in the United States in the early 1800s. His book is worth reading in order to examine our views regarding the meaning and purpose of restoration.
Now knowing that these common justifications for polygamy do not justify polygamy, where to go from here regarding this topic? We can look to Mormon pioneers for an example. During the 40+ years of building the Salt Lake Temple, there were several instances when construction did not meet the standard of “building not for today or tomorrow but for all eternity.” Construction that did not meet this standard was undone and rebuilt. Did people at the time worry about how redoing work might reflect on the previous work done, the veracity of the church’s truth claims, or leaders’ priesthood authority? I don’t know. I don’t know if everyone was in agreement about the need to re-do work, if some people were scared, if some people were enthusiastic, or if some people were annoyed. All I know is that they re-did work that did not meet the objective to construct a high quality building.
What is the work of the church today? Hopefully it is bringing people to Christ, building a community of disciples, and supporting people as we grow, develop, heal and become whole. The doctrine of polygamy still present in our beliefs and temple practices actively harms that work and it needs to be ripped out.
There are many questions regarding marriage relationships after this life. Some may ask about people who have more than one spouse during their lifetime. There are people in my family of origin, extended family, and ward family who have endured deaths of beloved spouses. All the people I know have remarried. It is a sensitive topic because each person – females and males – love both their deceased spouses and their current living spouse. Do past practices of lived polygamy mean that polygamy as practiced by early church members is necessary in the next life to allow for the variety of situations surrounding death, divorce, and remarriage in the next life? I say no. We know so little of what the next life will be like, despite what Doctrine and Covenants 132 says. This section, as the kids say, is sus. One reason this section bothers me is that the language about wives treats women as objects to be obtained by men. I do not believe that my Heavenly Parents see me as an object. Ever since the first time I read this section as a teen, I feel nauseous when I read it. I trust my body because it doesn’t lie. It consistently tells me that not everything in this section is from God.
Even during Joseph Smith’s life, the practice and understanding of polygamy evolved. Why can’t we as the church evolve now? We can recognize that early church members hopefully did their best and we can honor their sacrifice and willingness to try to figure things out. We can also acknowledge that in the practice of polygmay things happened that were not ok with God. Church members do not need to justify the doctrine or practice of polygamy because the church will not crumble to pieces if it is admited that the collective understanding about this topic was incorrect. The church as an institution can do what the builders of the Salt Lake Temple did and rip out something that does not assist in the work of bringing people to Christ and offering healing. Whatever answers exist regarding marriage relationships in the next life cannot be built on the cracked foundation of polygamy.
Note: Because polygamy has been a challenging topic for me to digest, I had not read Ghost of Eternal Polygamy by Carol Lynn Pearson prior to writing this post. I have since started reading it and while it is painful to hear the stories of both people who lived this and people haunted by this practice, it provides what I consider essential information about this topic. I look forward to reading the second to last chapter which is titled “Toward a Partnership Tomorrow.”