Guest Post: Polygamy as the Answer? Christmas Thoughts
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.