Guest Post: Polygamy as the Answer? Christmas Thoughts

By Brittany Hartley

After my first son was born, I found myself home for the first time in my life. As a busy teacher, I had many dusty items on my faith “shelf” that were filed away for later. With this newfound free time I decided to take polygamy off the shelf and dust it off. Two years later, my personal journey into the study of polygamy had led me to a faith crisis, faith reconstruction, and faith transition. Accounts I read of the pain Mormon women experienced as their husband took more and younger wives horrified me. Emma’s story of her struggle between love and support for her husband and her disdain for polygamy was more emotionally gripping than any book I had ever read. Reading about Joseph Smith, the same man who gave the King Follett Discourse, and 16-year-old maid Fannie Alger years before the sealing powers were restored broke my brain, especially in light of Emma and Oliver Cowdery considering it to be adultery. Joseph’s mock marriage ceremony for Emma with sisters he had already married shocked me. The fact that these stories of pain and sacrifice had been blotted out of our history, their names nowhere to be found in our manuals, broke my heart into a million pieces. Once I scraped the barrel of LDS polygamy, I moved on from it, my faith never quite the same.

For a few years afterwards I was very sensitive to the polygamy that is still inherent in our theology and in our experience as Mormon women. I did not consent to a polygamous marriage, and yet, my marriage ceremony in the temple to my husband was one where I gave myself to him and he received me. Presumably if I died, he could receive other women whereas I could not be sealed to another man. The temple became hard. Garments became itchy to my conscience. My fascination with Joseph Smith’s theology became more complex and complicated, making it a cognitive dissonance minefield to sing “Praise to the Man Who Mingled with Gods.”

I remember one Sunday in particular we were studying the teachings of Lorenzo Snow. The teacher was giving a brief biography before beginning her lesson where she mentioned he had 9 wives and 42 children. There was this moment where we all sat there with this statement and said nothing. I knew from my studies that Lorenzo married very young wives, his last being 16 when he was 57. Yet we, Mormon women, were studying his experiences instead of those of his sister Eliza, prophetess and poet of the early church. I sat there in the silence as we read over his biography and wanted to scream. No one ever discussed polygamy in Relief Society as a rule. It is only something that quietly weighs on the hearts of Mormon women. We rave about the love between Gordon and Marjorie Hinckley being together in heaven, but polygamy is the uncomfortable squirm that comes when we speak of our current prophet and his two wives that will welcome him in heaven. Polygamy was divine, then frowned upon, then taboo, then other, and now polygamy is silence.

My family has been directly impacted by polygamy and what it can do to a marriage. My living grandmother’s grandfather continued to practice polygamy after the ban. He taught his children, as was believed by many in the Church in that day, that polygamy had to be done away with temporarily but that it was the true order of heaven and would return. When his son, my great grandfather, married he expressed the desire to take on another wife quietly in order to follow the true order. His wife, a firecracker of a woman, divorced him. My grandmother was raised in the social shame of being raised by a poor, single mother, and then later on, a mixed family as her mother remarried. As I sat on the couch at 2 AM listening to my grandmother I began to wonder even more, what was the purpose of all of the pain suffered in Mormon polygamy? What good can come of the reluctant pioneers of our heritage who were asked to participate?

I believe today we have our answer. Polygamy, embracing polygamy, wrestling with polygamy, is the key to Mormonism’s future and survival because it forces us to embrace the idea that God is accepting of families much more messy than one man, one woman, and their active, heterosexual, BYU attending children. When Carol Lynn Pearson wrote her groundbreaking book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men she left us with her opinion that polygamy needed to be disavowed as not sanctioned by God; a mistake similar to the race ban or Adam God theory. I see that answer as incomplete. To disavow polygamy would also erase the stories of faithful polygamous women in the early Church as we separated ourselves from that doctrine. It would also truly question the legitimacy of Joseph Smith as prophet to the point where the average member could not reconcile. In short, to disavow polygamy entirely is to abandon our history, our theology, our ancestors, and would destroy Mormonism’s future as a religion led by prophets.

The answer is to embrace the idea that God, for whatever reason, allowed the idea of unconventional, complicated, messy families. Encouraged it even, apparently. The antidote for the heteronormative patriarchy where God is one man and one silent woman that we must emulate is not in our future, it is in our past. It is the hill we have decided to die on as we see what our theology has done to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But unlike our Christian neighbors who have to deal with inflexible Leviticus scripture, we have this modern revelation that says that Zion is a community. We have this history where our first modern prophet was connected to women in various ways in various marriage arrangements by threat of an angel. We have an established pattern of heaven being a divine family where what matters more is linking into the chain and not “who is sealed to whom.” As more and more people painfully leave the Church they loved because they cannot find a place in our wards or in our heavens, why not use polygamy as a sign that God made it an important message in the latter days that heaven is not just one man and one woman? Zion was a community and God a community of divine persons. That community can include everyone. To include our prophet’s current wife who he married purely for companionship and not include our LGBT brothers and sisters doesn’t make theological sense in light of embracing polygamy.

This Christmas as diverse families gather around tables I cannot help but be inspired and moved by the small heavens that exist all over the country in dining rooms as single, adopted, black, white, divorced, gay, straight, member, nonmember, parents, aunts and uncles, children, grandparents, partners, and friends gather together to eat a meal and show gratitude for one another. If we can feel God there in our homes with all the different kinds of people that will gather, then God’s heaven is more expansive than our current theology allows. Wrestling with polygamy, for me, has brought pain but it has also brought hope that we have something that fundamental Christianity does not. We have a theological example in our recent history of God’s ability to accept a variety of marriages and people into one family. The hope is that God truly has a place at the table for everyone, in all walks of life, at his Christmas feast table.

Brittney Hartley is a history teacher living in Eagle, Idaho, with her husband and four children. She enjoys the rabbit hole of Mormon philosophy and will have a book out soon called Mormon Philosophy Simplified. Above all, she is a nerd.

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13 Responses

  1. Stephanie says:

    A really beautiful thought exploration, thank you. I too was personally impacted by polygamy in ways I can’t begin to cover here, and am always keen to hear new perspectives on the subject. After going to Hell and back in search for answers around this complicated topic, I was surprised to discover that when all was said and done I didn’t disdain polygamy. What I disdain is the cover-up and the martyr-complex–the “God made me do it” mindset. It opened up a much bigger chasm in my faith around the role of prophets and I began asking what is personal revelation, anyway? Are we victims to the whims of some outside force? But I’ll save that discussion for another day. As to polygamy, I am strangely at peace with those that chose and choose today to live this lifestyle but never when it’s coerced or by duress, which is how I believe it was introduced in the Church’s history. I love how you put it–unconventional, complicated, messy families have a place in God’s family. Yep, that sums it up for me.

  2. Mary L Bradford says:

    BRILLIANT I can accept this cogent argument~

  3. m says:

    Because patriarchy will never allow for a situation which permits more than one man who is placed in a dominant position over all his partners.

  4. This is one of the small hopes I have in the Church, that despite my being transgender female, that I could be with my wife forever. If we have to get someone male to balance it out, we’ll work it out in the hereafter.

  5. acw says:

    And, at this Christmas time, recall that God himself chose to come to earth in a complicated, messy step-family dynamic. Matthew began his genealogical tale of Christ’s origin with four women’s non-traditional sexual/marital history (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba) in order to normalize Mary’s. So as we display our Holy Family nativities, consider the imperfect reality that was the divine ideal.

  6. Violadiva says:

    As I listen to queer Mormon women, this is definitely the way the dialogue about afterlife relationships is trending in intersectional feminist spaces. It makes sense that a person could hope for a heaven in which all of their most treasured and beloved relationships continue, without the one man + one woman (or multiple women) restrictions. Some of these women are polyamorous and have said things like, “I want a Heaven where I can be with all my loves, of all genders.” A woman I know was a young widow whose second husband raised the children from the first. She loves both those husbands, but can’t be sealed to the second until after she dies. It’s a travesty that we have such asymmetrical sealing practices between men and women.

    When I spoke to CarolLynn about her book, she mentioned the idea of Joseph Smith having grand visions of how the whole human family could be sealed together, and that his attempts at following through with that were misguided. Perhaps he did originally conceive of this broader concept of afterlife relationships and executed it in his own way. If that’s the case, perhaps there is room in Mormon doctrine for mixed gender polyamorous relationships or sealings between monogamous gay couples.
    If embracing polygamy moves us any steps closer to recognizing the full humanity of all queer folx and offering them all the blessings that are currently off-limits to them, then it’s a door worth keeping open.

    I think the polygamy that CarolLynn urges us to disavow is anything that is non-consensual or coercive in nature, asymmetrical in who’s allowed to practice it, and the marrying of child-brides. If it only feeds a hierarchical patriarchy, or only goes from men to multiple women, it should be disavowed. If the women are manipulated or coerced by man or prophet, it should be disavowed. To the many women who were neglected and entered polygamous marriages against their wills, they should be granted the most consensual of Heavens to choose from.

    For the many pioneer members who believed with all their hearts they were following God by listening to his prophet, it will probably be counted unto them for righteousness.

    In short, polygamy or polyamory shouldn’t be seen as all good, or all bad, but depending on the conditions and the consent of all parties to the relationship, it can be a force for good or bad in a person’s life.

    I think the conditions for Emma Smith were intolerable, done behind her back and against her wishes. I think that part alone should make us raise a few eyebrows about Joseph’s execution of the idea.

  7. Kaylee says:

    I was in grad school when the California Prop 8 thing was happening. Some other students knew I was Mormon and asked what I thought about it. I told them that for a church with a history of being persecuted for non-traditional marriage practices, you would think we would support others who believe that non-traditional marriage is right for them.

    I wish that we would use the church history of polygamy to teach empathy. I wish we would use it to teach about the dangers of power inbalance and the importance of consent. I wish we would stop burying it as an embarrassing mistake and learn from it.

  8. CubMistress says:

    “Garments became itchy to my conscience.”
    –They’ve been itching mine lately, too. Why am I accountable to men for my intimate apparel? Why must I meet behind closed doors alone with a man who isn’t my husband to discuss my underwear and report to him what kind of underwear I am wearing how I am wearing it and how often I wear it, in order to worship in the house of God? Talk about the Mormon male gaze. I thought only perverts required women to discuss their underwear like that. I am really getting sick of it and of old men in Salt Lake deciding what intimate apparel I must don in order to be deemed worthy of God’s house. It just feels like men are controlling too much of my world lately, right down to the very underwear adorning my most private parts, and this deeply troubles me to the core. Why am I complicit with grooming my daughters for an entire lifetime of this, when even I am not comfortable with it?

  9. Elizabeth says:

    This is an interesting argument. But really, in the end, polygamy and homosexuality are two very different issues, and this comparison—unfortunately—doesn’t make me feel better about the subjugation of women. I think it’s true that God allows “bad” things to happen… He allowed polygamy to happen just as he allows people to actively discriminate against LGBTQ people. In no way do I believe these “bad” things, however, were ever justified, nor do I believe they ever will be justified. When Pearson says we need to disavow polygamy, I don’t think she’s saying, “Let’s forget it happened, and forget all of the people who practiced it, all that has contributed to our heritage in the process.” I think she’s saying, “Polygamy was and will always be unequivocally wrong. Let’s admit it was wrong, but let us acknowledge that it happened. We can move forward, just the same.”

    • Danielle says:

      I totally agree with your assessment. Carol Lynn Pearson says what so many women quietly struggle with. As long as D&C 132 is part of Mormon scripture, the pain will fester. When the church disavowed racism, it didn’t erase past pain, it just prevented future pain. To disavow polygamy will never erase what happened in the past. But must it continue on in the hearts of Mormons, unspoken, yet always present?

    • Jennifer says:

      But Mormon leaders dont believe it was wrong, so that admission will never happen.

  10. Pammy says:

    Loved this article so much!! Yes, if it’s accepted one way it should be accepted all ways. Everyone should be included in the family of life. At least that’s how I feel about each of my children and I’m pretty sure since I’m from Heavenly parents they probably feel the same way about each of us.

    Our Christmas table included parents married for 50 years, 2 couples with children still married and temple going, a divorced women who was left for a younger woman (me) (I can feel the pain of those polygamist sisters) having eyes wide open about the church, questioning much, not active anymore, a lesbian couple with a darling 1 year old that is theirs, a single lesbian woman trying to find her partner (my sweet daughter who was active in the church her whole life but doesn’t feel comfortable going to a church that says “we love and accept you but you can’t participate in everything if you act out on your love” (I don’t blame her) and a married young couple, one was raised in the church but chooses to live his life the way he feels is best for him. I want to be with all of them after we die! We all love and support each other in everything we do. Yes! Everyone should be included in the feast!

  11. Martin Pelegrina says:

    Tanta discucion , me pregunto en ocaciones , si no gusta lo que los loderes hablan pueden dar puntos de vista diferentes ? Si , esa esi respuesta . se puede juzgar o criticar ? Si , esa es mi reapuesta aunque no es lo correcto. ( todoe es locito mas no todo combiene ) , sin embargo tratar de imponer un pensamiento no esta bien , si yo participo en una iglesia , club o grupo debo acatar las reglas del lugar sino estoy dispuesto a hacerlo deberia retirarme . quien no quiera seguir al profeta ( presidente de la iglesia ) es libre . piense cual fue el convenio que hizo ore si no perdio del todo la fe y actue acorde a lo que piensa y siente .

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