Plural Marriage: Will We Claim a Limited Prophet or a Limited God?
The recent essays produced by the Church on plural marriage have turned my thoughts inward to reflect on my own journey and relationship with the concept of plural marriage. I have especially ached for the young girls who married Joseph, as I have thought about the young, naïve girl I was at the age of fourteen. I still remember my first pivotal moment with polygamy. I had been reading The Work and the Glory series over the summer and I was struggling through the one in which plural marriage was being introduced in Nauvoo. I’m sure I had already known about plural marriage before then. Even at that tender age, I was terrified that I would die after I got married and would then have to share my future husband with another woman. Yes, I was fourteen!
But now, sitting in my room, tears streaming down my cheeks, I first came into contact with the pain of women who did have to share their husbands with other women. In a fictional book, written by a man who had never experienced that fear from a female perspective, I began my wrestle with a concept that I was too young to fully understand. Obviously, The Work and the Glory towed the line of the church in its sympathetic portrayal of Joseph. My pain and agony over this concept were reflected in the characters that rejected plural marriage and lost their eternal rewards. I thought my feelings were proof of my unfaithfulness toward God. I did not want to be one of the unfaithful ones. But I also didn’t know how I could ever feel good about polygamy. What a heavy burden for a fourteen-year-old girl to bear alone in her room.
But not all fourteen-year-old girls got to wrestle with hypothetical ideas alone in their rooms. Some had to do so face to face with someone they believed was a prophet of God with authority to make his word God’s word. What was their wrestle like? Did they go through the tortuous battle to work it out in their minds and hearts like I did? Did they cry and scream and rage against God the way I did? Did they spend hours on their knees, pleading with God to understand something that didn’t make sense to them? And in the end, did they humbly give in, thinking that a prophet of God must surely know best, that their own feelings and struggles meant nothing compared to his understanding? Did they give in because their desire to be righteous outweighed their own sense of logic and love?
That’s how it was for me. Worn out from my raging struggle, with red eyes and tears dried to my face, I looked in my mirror. I thought about my grandma who had divorced at an old age and had died without being sealed to anyone. “Okay God,” I said, trying to muster the courage I needed to do this. “I will share my husband (yes, I was fourteen!), but only if it will help my grandma to have someone to be sealed to.” And that was that. I had accepted the principle of plural marriage. It felt good. Just like the early saints, I had passed the test. I had proven faithful. Thinking back on that fourteen-year-old girl that I was, I can’t imagine any scenario in which loving Heavenly Parents would be okay with a thirty-eight-year old asking such a young, innocent girl to marry him. The legality of it makes no difference to me because man’s laws are not God’s laws. I believe God’s laws are meant to protect us.
A decade later I was no longer an innocent fourteen-year-old girl as I searched for a greater understanding of plural marriage in the early days of the church. I learned about Joseph’s deceitfulness to his wife, the secrecies, denials, lies, coercion of young girls, and the rejection of those who didn’t comply. I was no longer a naïve girl who wanted to be faithful at any cost to myself, but I still wanted the church to come off victorious. I wanted to believe that God had commanded plural marriage and that Joseph Smith had acted in secrecy only because people wouldn’t understand that this came from God.
But one major thing had changed in my life by this point. My understanding of God had expanded. I now believed in a God who loved beyond anything I had ever imagined as a fourteen-year-old girl. I no longer believed in a God who asked His children to commit immoral acts like cheating on a spouse or killing a son in order to test their faithfulness to Him. I believed in Heavenly Parents who love far beyond the love I have even for my own children. If I would not tease my own children in such a horrendous manner just to be sure that they are true and faithful to me, why would loving Heavenly Parents do that to us?
This new understanding of God left me with two choices. I could continue to believe in a God who would ask His prophet to lie and cheat on his wife, coerce young girls more than half his age to marry him, and to set up a system that would cause immense pain for women whom this same God calls His daughters, or I could accept that Joseph was mistaken. This was not the God I believed in anymore, so I had to accept that Joseph was wrong. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be gentle and forgiving toward a man with very human weaknesses. I still love and respect him as a man with a vision to build the kingdom of God! I can even accept that he caused himself to believe that polygamy was part of that. Perception can change much easier than we tend to think, especially if it can ease a sense of guilt or sorrow that we are feeling. My perception had also allowed me at one time to fit polygamy into my understanding of the kingdom of God in order to ease the pain of being one of the unfaithful ones.
Since I have discarded polygamy from my understanding of what the kingdom of God looks like, I have discovered a more loving peaceful kingdom to dwell in. It is a place where young girls are no longer victims of Joseph’s possibly well-intentioned, yet ill-fated marriage construct. It is a place where my daughters will not have to live with the agony of thinking that they might need to share their husbands for eternity, while fearing that their own feelings make them unfaithful. It is a place where God the Mother and God the Father love all their children equally, and They would never command a man to hurt their daughters in any way or for any reason. It is a place where our Heavenly Parents do not see our disdain for the practice of plural marriage as unfaithfulness to them. They are proud of us for speaking up about our feelings
I realize that it is hard to bring Joseph down to the level of a man with natural weaknesses when we have revered and deified him for so long. It is especially hard under scrutiny from the rest of the world. They can’t possibly understand what this means for us as Mormons. Our church is experiencing growing pains. I know personally how this painful process is going to feel for us because I have gone through it in my own faith over the last few years. But there is so much beauty and goodness on the other side of this.
My hope would be that Joseph himself has already repented of his own sins in regards to plural marriage. Why can’t we also repent of it as a church? Why can’t we stop allowing young girls to be his victims? Why can’t we say Joseph was wrong, we have made progress since then, and now we know better? If we could accept Joseph as a man with sexual appetites and imperfect understandings of God’s ways, then our understanding of a more perfect, loving God can expand. But if we continue to accept that Joseph’s claims of plural marriage came from God, then I’m afraid the God we believe in is limited in His ability to love, to parent wisely, and to give moral directives that will help us to be happy. What will we claim in the next chapter of Mormonism, a limited prophet or a limited God?
What was your experience trying to understand and relate plural marriage to your life? How do you feel about it now?