The Secret Life of Mormon Polygamy

Although controversial, in LDS circles there have been a few Mormon women I know who were utterly captivated by Big Love.  While it told us an outlandish story about a  clandestine fundamentalist polygamous underground playing happy families somewhere in The Valley it also outed polygamy as a modern possibility.  It was an intriguing narrative of how the domestic rhythms of this truly Mormon of Mormon stories might play out in contemporary Utah society.  Regardless of intrigues and politics, I was fascinated with the concept of a community of women raising children together in their modern 3 up and one downs, transporting them in their communal minivans to school, and planning sexual rotations with their husband/patriarchs.

For all of Big Love‘s ‘production’ and polygamy’s Utah locatedness, ‘the principle’  is actually alive and well in New Zealand.  Though somewhat distanced from us through both time and space, this eccentric, esoteric and idiosyncratic practice continues to be present in the conversations and anxieties  of some Mormon women down under.  Church pronouncements aside personal internal battles with polygamy are still a reality as we come of age.    While our patriarchs have sought to dismiss it as firmly situated in a bygone era, without an emphatic repudiation of polygamy as anything more than an aberrant theological innovation, Mormon women must still wrestle with its historical significance, its future possibilities, and its present substance.

Even though it has been removed as an official doctrine of the church, polygamy plays out as a continuing legacy of my religion’s past.  In the Red Tent, polygamy flirts around the periphery of our imagination, our conversations, and our fears.  Polygamy reveals herself to us in its disavowals and silences. It secludes itself in the hushed spaces of the ‘not said’ and in its muted way speaks to Mormon women more violently than it did in those autocratic pulpit utterances of the 19th century.  In those days there was a theology, a doctrine and an orthodoxy that vindicated the practice and made ‘the principle’ as salutary and saving as the call to gather to Zion.  Today she plays butterfly games with our imaginations, darting in and out of consciousness like a capricious acquaintance leaving some of us bereft of answers and weary of the eternal unknown.

There isn’t a Mormon woman I know well who hasn’t pondered deeply upon the subject of polygamy.  Polygamy presents herself to Mormon women as a theoretical decision with interminable practical consequences.

‘Would I live the practice if required as a symbol of my faith today?’

Clearly there are women who would.  My adopted mother traumatized my sister and I with her regular accounting of the potential of certain single women in the ward to be her future sisterwives, at least in the next life.  For her, polygamy was an opportunity to deepen her bonds of friendship with her close friends.

My mother-in-law is polygamous.  She is the second sealed wife of my husband’s step-father and while there has been little in the way of familial conversation as to functional exigencies incumbent upon my in-laws as to how they will manage their marital affairs heavenward, there is still a tacit acceptance of its efficacy as a blessed course to ensure an eternal attachment to a good man.

Further, there is still a resilient and prescient discourse suggesting the over abundance of righteous women in the next life, who – out of practical necessity, will be required to share husbands.  The idea of one woman with one man in the heavenly realm has been touted by some in the OMC (ordinary Mormon conversation) as the simple manifestation of a devilish egocentrism.

But then there are women like myself for whom the proposition of living polygamously will be met, in any event, with a resounding ‘NO’.  Furthermore, I resent deeply the infernal ambiguity that has been constituted in the failure of the AMC (apostolic Mormon conversation) to deal with the question of polygamy with clarity and lucidity.  On the one hand it is a prerequisite for salvation, on the other hand it’s an officially declared liability to the life of the church.  On the one hand it continues to be practiced upon the dead in temple ordinances, on the other hand it is an excommunicatable offense among the living.   

But more than the contemporaneous abstraction of polygamy I resent it’s liminal presence in my spiritual, emotional and domestic life.

  • I resent that it has given my husband permission to wonder.
  • I resent that though my husband says polygamy has no appeal and he doesn’t wish for it, I know that as a good Mormon boy he would be duty bound to consider it if a Mormon prophet told him it was a necessary sign of his religious commitment.
  • I resent that polygamy lingers in the bed with us as I imagine what it would be like to have his familiar body next to mine, warm with the smells, and excited by the moans of another woman (or more).
  • I resent that my desire for an exclusive intimacy could be theoretically compromised by the presence of another.
  • I resent that the desires and needs of my sex have historically been rendered subordinate to a domestic order dictated by the masculine priesthood.
  • I resent that the story of Mormon polygamy has been cut short by the voice of authority and that we women have been given little opportunity to heal from the vicissitudes of a practice that for many was egregiously difficult and heart-breaking.
  • I resent that even my afterlife, one that I am conditioned to look forward to as a place of rest, peace and healing, has been intruded upon by the scepter of polygamy which whispers to me, ‘perhaps not now, but certainly in the hereafter – if you are very good’.

When Big Love piloted we received an email from some friends to petition HBO to take it down as an offence to the LDS church, as if polygamy is something from which Mormons are innocent.   Of course we didn’t sign the petition.  It seemed a rather peculiar request.  In terms of modern Christian practice Mormonism is polygamy, and polygamy is Mormonism.  Until we women are finally given the decree nisi, polygamy will continue to shadow us, an unsolicited bedfellow nibbling surreptitiously away at us  and compromising our rise to full feminine spiritual stature.

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Polygamy – It’s in our bones