What if the LDS Church brought polygamy back?
It would be awkward, for one thing.
I was nervous to attend, because I knew I’d have to think about polygamy for two straight hours. Two whole minutes of thinking about polygamy is usually a little much for me. The problem is that I don’t believe in it enough. Also, I believe in it too much. Polygamy disgusts me, angers me, and leads me to question my identity as a Mormon. And it scares me. What if it really is God’s will? What if it is practiced in the eternities? What if church leaders brought it back?
Pilot Program explores the answer to that last question. The premise: church leaders extend a calling to a modern Mormon couple to add another wife to their family as part of a restoration of polygamy. The first scene opens with the stunned couple, Abby and Jake, coming home from church after meeting with their stake president about the call.
They aren’t religious fanatics. Abby, in particular, is a liberal-leaning professional woman. She’s not the stereotypical dupe of a cult. Neither is Heather, the woman they ask to join them as the second wife. I wanted both of them to say, “No.” I was sitting on the edge of my seat, trying to will them to go a different direction.
I feel the same way about real women like Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells. They were ardent feminists, professionals, women who were ahead of their time. These real women didn’t fit the stereotypes either. Why would they get involved in polygamy?
In the play, Abby recognizes the patriarchy in this situation. She feels the insult to womankind, and to her, specifically. This calling, like so many in the church, is all about her husband.
“They don’t want me in this scenario,” she tells Jacob. “I’m the broken one. They want you.”
And yet, both of these women are Mormon, like me, like Eliza, like Emmeline. And they have reasons for the choices they make. Maybe they aren’t rational reasons, but they aren’t irrational either. Even as I tried to will the characters to run away, I simultaneously understood them and empathized with them. I thought about it much longer than the two-hour duration of the play.
The end of the play was unsatisfying to me. I wanted something more, some closure. But then, historically, the actual end of Mormon polygamy was unsatisfying, too: just a proclamation that we weren’t practicing it anymore because of legal issues (but we were). No one denounced the practice as wrong. They still don’t. Divine threats against women who won’t comply with polygamy are canonized in our scriptures. Accommodations for polygamy linger in our temple marriage ceremonies and policies. Polygamy could come back. It never went away, really.
You can read the script of Pilot Program within the collection, Third Wheel: Peculiar Stories of Mormon Women in Love by Melissa Leilani Larson. The collection also features the play Little Happy Secrets.