Guest Post: Polygamy or Priesthood for Women?

by Course Correction

Course Correction introduces herself in this way. “I’m a happily retired mother and teacher who lives in Bountiful, UT with my husband and a big, yellow dog. I read, write, garden and carry petitions for initiatives to improve state government.”

Which would have a more devastating effect on LDS Church membership—restoring polygamy or admitting women to the priesthood?  The Community of Christ, formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lost nearly 50% of their members when they extended the priesthood to women. Would half of devout Mormons find it impossible to obey the prophet if he had a revelation that the priesthood was for all worthy members regardless of gender? Extending the priesthood to males of African descent produced little fallout from the church, but it affected relatively few members. Most US wards at the time had no African/Americans.

Extending priesthood to women would affect every ward.  Every family. My elderly father’s reaction to the notion of giving women the priesthood was a horrified, “But then you’d have women telling men what to do!” I’m not at all sure that a majority of younger men don’t feel the same way. Not all women would favor the change, either. Women comfortable with the status quo might be unwilling to give up their place on the pedestal.

To return to the comparison of extending the priesthood to African/Americans, we were always told that their ban from the priesthood would be rescinded at some point. Although early church records show women participating in blessings and anointing and healing other sisters, no tradition of someday receiving priesthood power themselves exists. Indeed, women have always been told they share the priesthood with their husbands.

Restoring polygamy would be an entirely different matter. It would return to a principle officially taught in earlier days and abandoned due to outside pressure. Eternal polygamy is commonly acknowledged today as second wives are sealed to widowers for time and eternity. And some Mormon men include polygamy on their wish list for the restoration of all things in this dispensation. Yale professor Harold Bloom predicted in his 1992 The American Religion that by the early 21st century Mormons would have enough political and financial clout to resurrect the early pillar of their faith. Mitt Romney’s 2008 bid for the presidential nomination has revealed widespread American distrust, even dislike, of Mormons which makes that scenario unlikely in the near future.

But how many Mormons would leave the church if President Monson announced a revelation of the return to plural marriage—assuming it was legal in the US? Would polygamy be sold to women as a means of learning to be more selfless and Christ-like—similar to the rhetoric spouted by the wives on Big Love? Would mostly forgotten pronouncements of pre-Manifesto prophets be quoted and President Hinckley’s statement of never returning to polygamy quietly expunged from church sources?

Although neither scenario is likely, I kind of think more Mormons would go along with the return of polygamy. In my opinion, it’s easier to convince women to accept changes that disadvantage them than to get men to relinquish power and privilege.


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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42 Responses

  1. G says:

    oooOOoh, great questions! (just the sort of hypothetical yet plausible speculations I LOVE to chew on!)

    My optimistic hope: The Church is heading more in the direction of eventual ordination/inclusion of women, and the little baby steps along the way (Larger numbers of female members with higher education, a more sophisticated informed membership, a wider range of non-priesthood callings extended to women, more internal and external pressure for equality among the sexes in society at large) will make the official announcement that the priesthood is being extended to all worthy members no big shock.

    The church is moving so far away from it’s radical fringe roots (ie polygamy)… trying so very hard to establish it’s self in mainstream protestantism, I do NOT see it every regressing back to the fringes (you know, with those FLDS folk it likes so much to distance it’s self from)

    Those are my thoughts.

  2. ESO says:

    Well…I think the chances of admitting women to the PH is 1000xs more likely.

    I suspect the answer to this question will be gender split and age split–perhaps men and older people would find polygamy more palatable (relatively recently out of my family–my g-grandfather was the son of polygamists and he died when I was 18 (1993)) and perhaps women would find the PH option more palatable.

    I think this might play out differently in the worldwide Church (considering that much of the world includes polygamy in their society already) than in the US.

    BUT I suspect that spiritual confirmation of such a revelation would seal the deal, and I just don’t see that coming for Polygamy.

  3. Abbie says:

    If there was a return to polygamy there would be a *huge* backlash/outcry. I think too many people take relief with the “oh, we don’t do *that* anymore” statement and that the whole concept is, essentially a step backwards. I, for one, would leave and I hope that droves of women would do the same thing and probably take their children/families with then. Some would stay, but I would hope the amount of people who leave would be a loud alarm that says “You *really* shouldn’t have done that.”

    Or I’m just optimistic because I find the concept of polygamy appalling and I hope women wouldn’t tolerate that.

  4. Abbie says:

    ESO – hmm, my immediate reaction only took into consideration the US. I probably should have waited to comment, anyway, so I could look at the topic with less…emotion. 😛

  5. marta says:

    “but then you’d have women telling men what to do.” So very telling, and so very sad.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    Fascinating question, Course Correction!

    If we’re assuming polygamy becomes legal again, I’m afraid that polygamy might be more accepted because people could choose whether or not to participate in that practice (you can’t force people to marry–right?). So, I’d imagine that most Church members would not practice polygamy but would push on and find a way to be ok with it. Perhaps, though, I’m drawing too close a parallel to how the Saints reacted when polygamy was first introduced.

    However, if women got the PH, people would be forced to deal with women in leadership positions. While I hope and pray that this will be the case one day, in the current state of the Church, I fear a mass exodus might happen.

  7. jessawhy says:

    Although it’s terrifying, I think polygamy returning is more likely than women getting the PH.
    Although neither is extremely likely.

    I’ve been trying to think of what other change (not feminist oriented) I can imagine happening in the future. I must be unimaginative because I’m not coming up with any (other than shortening the 3 hr block- hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?)

  8. Emily U says:

    I don’t think either would drive people out of the church in droves. Most people would find a way to reconcile themselves with the church’s position – the “we’re the only true church” position is too compelling for most to walk away from.

    I think the fear of having to listen to a woman is a very last-generation thing. Most of our grandfathers rarely saw women in the workplace except as secretaries, but men my age work with women all the time, in fact many of their bosses may be women. As women’s equality becomes a greater part of the cultural milieu, it will become less shocking at church.

    I’m with G – I find it extremely unlikely that polygamy will ever return (I sure hope to hell it won’t!).

  9. Deborah says:

    Speaking of polygamy, Juvenile Instructor has published an almost unbelievable letter from a missionary breaking the news to his wife that he’s taken another wife (circa the Mexico colonies).

    It begins: “You can’t guess what I did last Sunday . . . ”


  10. mr.mraynes says:

    If it had its way, the Church would never touch either of these issues again with a ten foot pole. Much easier to pretend the gorillas aren’t in the room.

    Until they do deal with these issues, however, the Church hasn’t a leg to stand on in the “traditional marriage” debate. The irony is just plain painful.

    Also, that letter from the Mexican missionary was unbelievable…

  11. ESO says:

    Ahem…any man with a Primary or Cub Scouts calling already takes direction from women at Church.

    I am guessing few people do not accept those callings for that reason.

  12. madhousewife says:

    I think it’s a tossup.

  13. MJK says:

    Deborah – Wow! What a letter.

    I may be an exception, but I’ve come to feel that as long as I had some say in who the other woman was, I would not necessarily mind my husband taking another wife. Especially if we were both spending our childbearing years together. Having a young baby around the house has made me realize how advantageous polygamy could potentially be. We could be a two income household and still have one person to stay home with the kids who has an emotional and biological stake in their wellbeing. We’d have another person to help with hhousework! We could alternate childcare at night to give the other people alone time. Heck, even if I only got to make love with my husband every other night, it would still be more than we can manage now.
    Now I do realize that this situation has the potential, with human foibles, to be a total disaster. But if it really could be perfect and celestial it would be AWESOME.

    But I still don’t think polygamy will be reinstated anytime before the Second Coming.

  14. G:
    I think those baby steps toward giving women the priesthood are going to take generations.

    You’re right! Polygamy would be viewed very differently by African church members and potential converts.

    Emily CC: If polygamy were taught as a sacred principle necessary for salvation, it would not be a principle of choice affecting only a few members.

    I’m with you on shortening the 3-hr. block!

    Emily U:
    Good point about younger men being used to working with women in positions of authority. Maybe those baby steps toward PH equality may happen in the foreseeable future.

    Thanks for the link. I read it hoping it was a hoax, but apparently it’s not!

    I suspect church leaders would like to deal with the gorillas in the room–if they could only figure out how to do that without alienating a sizeable chunk of the membership.

    You almost sound like the wives on Big Love.

  15. Paul says:


    Any man with a wife is already taking direction from a woman – whether or not he has a Cub Scout or Primary calling.

  16. Caroline says:

    I actually think that people would have an easier time with women getting the PH. From what I can tell, most people have much stronger bad feelings about polygamy than they do about women’s ordination. I would imagine the vast majority of Mormons would go along with a declaration about PH, since obedience to authority in religious matters is so ingrained. However, with polygamy I don’t see the same kind of compliance. I imagine a lot of people saying, “I have faith in the prophet, but this is just something personally I can’t handle, so I’m not going to do it.” Also, polygamy seems to me to have more of an impact on an average Mormon’s life than women’s ordination would, so I think it would be a lot harder on most people.

  17. ESO says:

    MJK–you’re high in a really really optimistic way. Go ahead and watch anything anywhere on modern polygamy–Big Love, Oprah interviewing the YFZ folks, those crazy polygamists on TLC…you’ll get the idea pretty quick that Polygamy is no cake walk.

    Or you could read some journals from Mormon polygamists back in the day–they are not so sunny.

    But really: you have a great attitude!

  18. Brent Hartman says:

    When the Church had plural wives, plural wives had priesthood. Also, any woman who has received the higher ordinances knows what she has been given. She is a high priestess in the priesthood.

  19. Janna says:

    Brent – You speak truth, my fine brother.

  20. James says:

    I honestly can’t envision most of the Mormon men I know (and I know more than a few) would really be that petty about their “power and privelege” to the point they’d walk out over women getting the priesthood. Would there be some that would bolt? Probably. But a mass exodus? I don’t see it.

    From my place as a relatively mainstream member dude, reinstating polygamy would be like swallowing a horse pill, while women receiving the priesthood would be relatively effortless (from a philisophical standpoint…working out the logistial and cultural adjustments that would be necessary to accommodate such a massive shift would take work for everyone, even those who are already open to the idea). Women would definitely not be the only ones freaking out over reinstating polygamy…

  21. mr.mraynes says:

    Brent may be speaking the truth (I certainly agree with him), but I am not so certain “every woman” who’s attended the temple really believes they hold the priesthood. And I doubt even fewer men pick up on that.

    I think the point that’s discussed here is whether women are literally ordained to the priesthood–in public–and then openly officiate in it. Temples aside, that just isn’t happening right now. Even though endowed women do “have the priesthood.”

    The dissonance between theory and practice ought not to be glibly overlooked.

  22. MJK says:

    Heh. No, I really can imagine all the ways it can go horribly wrong, and I’ve read the accounts of the early church members. I just figure if it’s a given in the next life I might as well try to see some potential good in the whole thing. But I’m in a good mood today. Ask me next week and I might rant and rave for an hour.

    I grew up with a single mom in the Church and one of her close friends once said something to the effect of “So imagine you’re still single when you die, you can’t get into the Celestial Kingdom without a husband and imagine I was asked to share mine with you so you could. What else could I do in that situation?”

  23. James:
    The Community of Christ lost almost half their members not too many years ago when they extended the priesthood to women. Mainstream Christian churches who have women clergy have static or declining membership. Evangelical churches with rigid gender roles are growing. It looks like the trend is against gender equality.

    MJK: I can’t believe in a God who would deny a spot in the Celestial Kingdom to a single woman–or who would expect wives to share their husbands in either this life or the nexty.

  24. mr.mraynes says:

    Sorry to jump in with doctrinal nitpicking, but marriage has nothing to do with entrance in the Celestial Kingdom. That depends only upon baptism (and faith, etc.).

    Marriage is the gateway ordinance to exaltation–completely different state, although also happens in the Celestial Kingdom.

  25. James says:

    Call me crazy, but I think there is a significant difference between how members of other churches (largely anchored in tradition) would process a major policy change (of whatever kind) much differently than members of the LDS church (largely anchored in revelation) that believe they belong to church that is subject to prophetic change. I happen to think the majority of the church membership would clear that hurdle.

    I’d be interested to get people’s thoughts on why such a mass exodus occurs in other churches. I am sure there are a fair number of women who walk away, which is ironic given they are the ones theoretically benefitting from such a change.

    I suspect that some LDS women might walk away when they realized they had just inherited mandatory attendance at general priesthood meeting, stake priesthood meetings, stake priesthood leadership meetings, priesthood executive committee meetings, and lame jokes in 3rd hour opening exercises! 🙂

  26. Jared T. says:

    Hey all, sorry to barge in a bit, I just saw that the letter about polygamy I put up yesterday was linked to here and I wanted to alert you to the second part, the Wife’s response. There’s a twist there that should be kept in mind in considering the entire conversation, thanks!

  27. James:
    I have visited ward PH meetings several times in my calling as Teacher Improvement Leader. Actually, I wouldn’t mind swapping RS for PH. I handle lame jokes better than tears.

    Jared T.
    Thanks for the link to the wife’s response to the missionary husband’s “joke” about taking plural wives. What an odd sense of humor, to say the least!

  28. Megan says:

    Hm, interesting post, but I think its completely off the mark, personally.

    Women in religious leadership is pretty mainstream. While it would be strange in mormon culture, I think it would be a comfortable enough shift. It wouldn’t be a shift that removed us from mainstream society. In fact, almost no one outside of the LDS universe would really notice what the difference meant.

    Now, the re-adoption of polygamy, on the other hand, would mean that almost all members of the church would be faced with choosing religion or mainstream society. If mormons are openly practicing polygamy, we face utter rejection by just about everyone – the conservatives who embrace traditional sexual morality, and liberals who rail against the oppression of women. There is just about no one who can really stomach the idea of polygamy, and the open practice of it would definitely have an impact on the lives of members.

    Honestly, the LDS church – as an institution and as individual members – that I know wants nothing more than to be accepted by the mainstream.

  29. Mary Louise Bean says:

    I agree with your opinion in the last paragraph with a sad heart. True and sad.

  30. Greg says:

    Women have a rich history of participating in the priesthood in many dispensations. In this context, I appreciated finding Bruce H. Porter’s analysis of a woman’s role within the patriarchal priesthood at Esau and Jacob.

  31. Megan:
    “Honestly, the LDS church – as an institution and as individual members – that I know wants nothing more than to be accepted by the mainstream.”

    I agree with your assessment of LDS leaders and members. The desire to be mainstream will likely prevent a return to polygamy. That said, I’m not sure church leaders will be ready in the foreseeable future to extend PH to women, no matter how mainstream gender equality has become.

    Thanks for the link to Bruce Porter’s interesting interpretation of the Jacob/Esau story.

  32. mb says:

    Just one slight correction. I used to regularly attend a Book of Mormon study group with friends who had left the Community of Christ around 2001 when significant changes (including priesthood extension to women) occurred and had started their own congregation. Their main issue was not the extension of priesthood to women. It was the change in the stand of the church on the Book of Mormon.

    In 2001, Community of Christ President W. Grant McMurray reflected on increasing questions about the Book of Mormon and made the following statement: “The proper use of the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture has been under wide discussion in the 1970s and beyond, in part because of long-standing questions about its historical authenticity and in part because of perceived theological inadequacies…”

    My friends had left the Community of Christ and started their own church, along with many other fellow-believers, because they saw their church abandoning its belief that Joseph Smith had actually received the book from an angel and translated it accurately by the power of God.

    It is still a major issue of division. At the 2007 Community of Christ World Conference, President Stephen M. Veazey ruled out of order a resolution to “reaffirm the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired record.” He stated that “while the Church affirms the Book of Mormon as scripture, and makes it available for study and use in various languages, we do not attempt to mandate the degree of belief or use.”

    So, at least in my experience, though the priesthood change was received with some concern, it was the change in attitude toward the veracity of the Book of Mormon’s origins that was the real catalyst to the exodus you refer to.

  33. mb:
    I was unaware that the Community of Christ changed the status of the Book of Mormon at the same time they extended PH to women. Maybe there is hope for mainstream LDS women to receive the PH so long as no doctrinal changes are introduced at the same time. As far as I know, no LDS scriptures ban women from the PH.

  34. Debra says:

    In my experience, women ALREADY have priesthood authority, as any one who is awake, aware, and paying attention, during the endowment, will ackowledge. Women offiate in the temple, and women today use their authority to bless the lives of their families, friends and others, whether it involves laying our hands on someone’s head or not. We use it in a woman’s way, following patterns that women have used for eons, to bless others’ lives.

    What we don’t have presently in the current church institutional structure is permission to use our authority directly and openly, after the pattern of men.
    (see D. Michael Quinn’s excellent chapter, ‘Women have held priesthood since 1843’ in “Women and Authority”, for a wonderful discussion of this.)

    But we do use our authority, and in my experience it is growing in acceptance and the groundwork for including women as full equal partners in the institutional church hierarchy is being laid even now.

    Cases in point include small but noticable changes such as:
    1) the move of the RS visiting teaching message to right behind the First Presidency message in the Ensign.
    2) The change of listing the RS presidency at the top of the column in the conference issue, where “auxiliary” heads are listed.
    3) Camille Fronk Olsen’s new book, “Women of the Old Testiment”, published by Deseret Book, no less, wherein she discusses the original pattern of equal partnership between husband and wife, discusses Sarah’s prophetic role and quotes Jewish sources that Sarah was known as a prophetess and seer of greater power than Abraham, and discusses some of the other prophetesses of ancient Israel, as such. It is a landmark that that book was published by Deseret Book.

    These changes tacitly elevate both the status, importance and power of women in the church hierarchy, toward the day when the Women’s Relief Society will once again be recognized as the equal partner and peer to the male Priesthood Quoroms, as Joseph envisioned and taught.

    I sense that women will be included step by step, similar to the reverse that happened under Brigham Young, when women were stripped of power and influence, and marginalized after Joseph’s death, when Emma stood her ground in her opposition to polygamy, as Joseph’s partner, peer and equal to Brigham, and would not give in to Brigham’s tactics to get her to subservient herself to him.

    These changes will contintue to move forward because the original pattern is full and equal partnership between women and men, and it requires the full participation of both women and men, male and female, for full creation, and the restoration of the fullness requires it.

    (plus the world is in such urgent need of this restoration of the balance between male and female!)

    We as women need to keep standing up and holding our ground, and owning and claiming our gifts and powers as Joseph taught, and being the lightbearers that we are, BEING the equal partners with men that we are, first in our marriages, and secondly in the church organization.

    As far as polygamy goes, I agree with Emma on that one: Joseph was a prophet when the Spirit of the Lord moved and spoke through him, otherwise he was a mortal man like any other. She believed to her dying day that the “revelation” about polygamy came from another source other than a heavenly one.

    Polygamy in my opinion is inherently false, because of the gross, heinous injustice and imbalance and fatal injury to equality that it sets up between women and men.

    The pattern of full partnership between women and men cannot be established with it. The best original picture of this full partnership is that of the relationship between Adam and Eve, in the garden, before the fall. In this picture, there was ONE male and ONE female and together, they were Adam.

  35. Kelly Ann says:

    Hypotheticals are always fun and impossible to fully comprehend. My hope is that polygamy never returns. I like the discussion in regards to women and the Priesthood. I would like to see women have a real influence/ presence in the government of the church. However, I can’t help but think that why are we so focused on big steps. I think anything huge out of the blue would be hard for the church membership to accept. The past couple articles have made me think about small steps that still might be problematic to some but would at least fill the gap so to speak. Women on the Sunday school board for example … or female clerks … or a special member who would sit with members of the high council… I guess I would be content if I could see things change, even if slowly!

  36. Kelly Ann:

    As far as I know, no doctrinal reason exists to prevent women from serving as clerks or in Sunday School presidencies or on the SS general board, but those kinds of changes would not be without controversy.
    Reinstating rights women in the early church had to bless the sick and participate in setting apart missionary sons would probably also cause controvery–something the church eschews.

  37. Debra–
    Thanks for your comment. You make a great point that Adam and Eve are good evidence that plural marriage was not part of God’s initial plan for populating the earth.

    I hope you’re right that the small steps to make women’s role in the church more visible will continue until full equality is reached.

  38. paul says:

    Adam & Eve

    Don’t forget Lilith.

  39. Paul–
    Just when I thought Debra had nailed an anti-polygamy message in the Creation story, you have to bring up Lilith!

  40. paul says:

    We can read the creation myth as correlated historical fact, or as allegory. With Lilith in the picture, the myth gets more complicated; it is no longer “game, set, match” in favor of monogamy.

    In my opinion, reinstituting sacerdotal privileges to women would bring less havoc than reinstituting polygyny and polyandry.

  41. Sacerdotal! I had to look that up. You’re right. Sacerdotal privileges would disrupt my family a lot less than reinstitution of polygyny.

  42. Mr. Two of Three says:

    Remember folks, the Lord’s in charge here! If the Lord were to lead His Church through His Prophet to priesthood ordination of women or restoring the practice of polygamy, hopefully all we members of His Church would be as Mary and say, “be it unto me according to thy word.” Isn’t that what it’s all about, submitting ourselves to the Lord’s will and enduring to the end?

    In all these comments to this post, it seems like it is always termed, “if the Church were to do this or that…” or “if the Prophet were to announce this or that…” – I don’t ever remember reading, “if the Lord were to do this or that…”

    It all comes down to that question, folks – do I believe Jesus Christ leads The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the living prophet or don’t I. Each must honestly answer this for themselves. A true and strong testimony really does make things so much simpler and straight forward – without it… well, think we all can guess what that might be like. If either of those two things come about, it will only be because Jesus Christ has said it should be so. End of discussion, …and then it’s up to us to follow or not.

    For what it’s worth – my two cents are that, although the Lord can command and raise up seed in His wisdom as He has done from time to time (and I can understand how polygamy could benefit the Church and some of its members in the early years of the Church) but in my opinion, I think we will not encounter either of these again in this telestial world. Terrestrial… maybe. But I think we will most definitely encounter both of these if we make it back to our celestial home where both of these will be the way things are (just as only a minority of the Church practiced polygamy, I expect it will only be practiced by a minority there as well, but enough to accomodate the unequal numbers of men and women who qualify for and wish to fully become like our Heavenly Parents.

    Muich as it’s fascinating to daydream about these hypotheticals, it doesn’t hold a candle to how I feel after going out and helping someone move, or having a good hometeaching visit, or spending some time in the scriptures, or preparing for and wholeheartedly saying “Amen” at the end of the sacrament prayers and then partaking, or helping with a youth temple trip, or… simply enduring to the end, one day at a time, with my family.

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