Guest Post: Doctrinal Inconsistencies — Relationships, Sex, Sin
During the first session of general conference, I was disappointed to hear Elder Oaks address a topic that has troubled and confused me for many years. He was dismissive and suggested members not worry about it, rather than providing clarification for a doctrine that is spelled out in Section 132 and is part of our temple sealing practices. Historical plural marriage and the prospect of eternal plural marriage conflict with lessons the Church has taught me and I would have preferred to hear an explanation for how this teaching is justified in light of other teachings. If I could share just three contradictions with Elder Oaks, perhaps the following are the ones I would choose.
The Commandment to Cleave
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” This familiar verse, found in the Old and New Testaments and Pearl of Great Price, was the basis for what I was taught about marriage as a youth: God sanctions marriage and wants a man and a woman to cling and give their all to each other. In conflict with this, years later I would read in Doctrine and Covenants 132 where Emma was told to “cleave unto Joseph and none else” at the same time Joseph was marrying other women which, of course, contradicted my previous understanding of what God prescribed. With multiple wives married to one husband, there cannot be equal cleaving on either side. The woman will be left with only a part of her husband, both physically and emotionally, and the man will never feel the closeness to a wife because his attention will be divided.
Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, married monogamously to Henry Jacobs, then polygamously to Joseph Smith and later polygamously again to Brigham Young, had more than enough credentials to speak on this topic. She said that women in polygamous relationships “expect too much attention from the husband and … become sullen and morose”. She explained that “a successful polygamous wife must regard her husband with indifference, and with no other feeling than that of reverence, for love we regard as a false sentiment; a feeling which should have no existence in polygamy.”
While Zina’s advice may be the best way for a woman to survive a plural marriage, it reinforces that cleaving and giving all have no place in polygamy. Where she suggests that women expect too much from their husbands, I suggest that women have an instinctive desire that comes from God to be a sole wife, equally bonding and reciprocating love with their spouse. After eating the fruit in the garden, God tells Eve that her desire will be to her husband. On the other hand, Zina’s survival tips advise women to abandon this righteous, God-given desire in order to successfully live polygamously.
Plural marriage not only interferes with a commandment God has given men because he cannot effectively cleave to multiple wives, but also a virtue God has given women because she cannot effectively cleave to her husband as a plural wife. Both sides of this polygamy pickle—the man’s side and the multiple women’s side—guarantees a less than ideal marriage relationship in this life and a very sad expectation for an eternal companionship (or an eternal multiple-partner relationship) in the next one.
The Law of Chastity
From attending church as a youth, I also learned boundaries that included the law of chastity. This was a blessing in my teenage life, but now my adult view sees the inconsistencies. Plural marriage, from either the perspective of what was lived in the past or what might be lived forever in the future, is a one-sided law with an imbalance hurting the side that most needs the protection—women.
The lessons presented to me as a naïve teenager suggested that women were the gatekeepers of sexual purity, which is why girls should dress modestly and not do anything to encourage immorality. I came to understand that premarital sex was a sin for both genders, but women were more apt to feel remorse and dismay as a result because they would instinctively place more value on this act. This lesson was cultural rather than doctrinal, and may not be true today, but it would have been true in the 1800s.
The early Saints lived during a period much different than ours, the Victorian era, when there was a strong religious drive everywhere for higher moral standards. Add to this culture that women were the protectors of these higher standards and that polygamy would have been off the radar of decency. Yet these wives often lived in the same household—to put it crudely, like prostitutes in a brothel—where they anticipated (or dreaded) their turn for a conjugal visit from a shared husband.
The clash between their Victorian values and their reality must have been jarring. Although they were living a form of marriage, they were sexually sharing their husbands with other women so, unless they heeded Zina’s advice, it was emotionally damaging. This presents a serious inconsistency because God’s law of chastity should protect women and their unique, sensitive feelings about physical intimacy, not break their spirits.
In Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman writes of Emma wanting to know where Joseph was all the time because she was panicked over what he might be doing with one of his other wives (or at least the wives she knew about). To add to her dismay, she was threatened with destruction (Section 132) if she did not remain chaste while her husband was given encouragement to do what must have felt like the opposite.
Moroni 9:9 speaks of the evil of the Nephites in Moriantum who deprived the Lamanite daughters “of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue.” It is conflicting to think of this “most precious chastity” being reserved for a man with multiple wives. It would seem obvious that a man with only one wife would place more value on his one wife’s chastity than if he had a harem of women.
In Alma 39 Corianton is scolded by his father for his abominable sexual sins, teaching us that this is a two way street and a husband’s chastity is just as important.
Fortunately, because of repentance and access to Christ’s atonement, being chaste when entering marriage is a state of mind; however, neither the man nor the woman can have multiple sexual partners during marriage without demoralizing one or both of them. And, as the perceived guardian of sexual morality, it would be even more disheartening for the woman.
Clearly, the law of chastity is challenged by the early Saints’ practice of plural marriage. And while sexual relations may not be part of the next life, some kind of husband-wife connection will be so teaching that plural marriage will last throughout eternities also adds fuel to the fire of contradictions.
The Light of Christ Warns us of Sin
In Moroni 7:16 we are taught, “the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil.” Additionally, the Church’s Guide to the Scriptures says: “We are born with a natural capacity to distinguish between right and wrong because of the Light of Christ that is given to every person. This faculty is called conscience. Like other faculties, our consciences may be deadened through sin or misuse.”
In the Church’s historical narratives of women and men being invited to join a plural marriage relationship, there was always an initial revulsion when the plural marriage principle was introduced. At the onset, they knew this was wrong probably because their conscience, or the light of Christ, told them so. This is another clear contradiction between a Church teaching and the plural marriage practice. Our conscience may be deadened through sin or misuse so living in sin, or contemplating sin, makes it easier to gradually justify what initially we are warned is wrong. As the perceived gatekeeper of appropriate sexual intimacy, with the strongest cleaving instinct, women may feel an even stronger initial nudge by their conscience that this teaching is wrong.
In a similar way today, there are Church members confused and troubled by teachings of plurality of wives throughout eternity. Since I am one of them, I like to think this is the light of Christ helping me distinguish between right and wrong. Fortunately, we are not asked to choose whether to live this practice, but we choose what to believe which impacts our faith in God. As Joseph Smith said, “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God.” Sorting out this plural marriage conundrum matters because the clearer our understanding of God and His eternal plan for us, the nearer we can feel to Him.
The Take Away
More women seem troubled by our plural marriage doctrine than men. Perhaps this is because women are on the losing side of this equation or perhaps because this principle conflicts with their experiences and understanding of truth. More than one priesthood leader has been confused by a woman’s concern over the possibility of eternal plural marriage and Elder Oaks seems to be among them. Because it is a non-issue to priesthood leaders, they can say things that do not address the issue for a woman. For example, Elder Oaks suggested we not worry about it. Other common responses to a woman’s concern are: we are not asked to live it now so just put it on a shelf; you will be happy about this in the next life because God will not let you be unhappy; not everyone will be required to live this principle; or my personal favorite, you are selfish if you cannot share your husband to bless other women. If women generally have a more guarded view of sex, an innate desire to cleave to their husbands and, therefore, a conscience warning them that this doctrine conflicts with God’s laws, none of these excuses solve this inconsistency.
God has given us commandments to make us better individuals, to build better families, and to provide a better society. His commandments are for our happiness and welfare. Yet, with all the guidance He gives, there is much we cannot understand about Him. Among the many scriptures that inform us of our limited understanding, is Isaiah 55:8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.”
Verses such as these can be used to condone this confusing commandment of plural marriage. There is, of course, much we do not know and cannot understand about God. But if we accept plural marriage as coming from Him, while at the same time remembering other guidelines He has given through scriptures, modern day prophets, and the light of Christ, this scriptural verse should instead read: My ways are not My ways. The conflicts between plural marriage and God’s other laws are just too stark.
I need and want to trust God. Unfortunately, with plural marriage as a doctrine, God does not seem trustworthy. For this reason, I choose to believe this crazy history and eternal doctrine is not from the loving, just and trustworthy God that I worship. I hope for a future clarification that will alleviate these and many other contradictions surrounding plural marriage. Perhaps Elder Oaks will someday provide it. (For more on why I believe God does not endorse polygamy, see here.)
A wife, mother and grandmother, Kathy loves her family. She also enjoys flying. Two years ago she became an old, but not bold, private pilot.