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.

  • JohnnyS

    Hey KM,

    I like the post very much. I think also that it’s fair to point out that polygamy is/can be a troubling concept for many men as well. I think your main issue with it, as is mine with blacks and the priesthood, is that it really needs to be more fully repudiated. To simply say such things as “that’s in the past” isn’t good enough. Such is phrase is designed to accomplish two things: to allow the spokesperson in question to avoid contradicting the doctrine and, simultaneously, to defuse the controversial nature of the doctrine by relegating it to “the past.” Such a stance seems to me to be fraught with moral cowardice. Either we stand behind the doctrine or we don’t. I believe the scriptures talk about how the Lord would have us either hot or cold and I think it extends to questions such as these. I don’t like how we dance in the penumbra that exists between hard and fast doctrine and the murky past in which anything might have influenced the doctrine, but we really can’t be sure what it was or how it happened. I haven’t done enough thinking/praying about polygamy to say it’s absolutely not doctrine, but I strongly suspect this is the case. One can at least certainly make the case that the doctrine as practiced caused a great deal of consternation and led, in many cases, to difficult, even sadistic burdens being placed on the sisters of the early church. IMHO, I don’t see how we can on the one hand require absolute faithfulness to a spouse and on the other say that one can be faithful to many spouses, as long as one is married to them all. That’s a contradiction I simply can’t get my head around.

  • bidlet

    So, Big Love was just creepy and pervy … oh, just like polygamy. I can’t see any justification for it EVER! Years ago as a 23 year old, a husband of a friend said I could be a poygamous wife if I never got married – said friend was there at the time too – my gut feeling was revulsion but my mormon up bringing was so ingrained I thought I was supposed to feel flattered, ‘cept of course I didn’t.
    Here’s an interesting aside; the world loves to hate mormons because of polygamy yet totally accepts promiscuity and multiple sexual partners even for those who have several on the go at one time – not a popular move, but not hated as much as polygamy. Such a double standard and mostly but not exclusively a bloke thing. I abhor polygamy but this sort of hypocrasy is horrible too.

    • AnnieB

      This is such an interesting post and it has triggered off emails between myself and my sisters that read your blog. I am happy to have the chance to really understand where my sisters are with it, as we have never talked about it amongst ourselves. Which is quite sad and maybe a symptom of the fact that church keep it quiet so the general population keeps it quiet therefore nobody talks about it, not even within families. I must admit that I am surprised in where I am with this topic. I have lived the gospel all my life and I have some really strong feelings and points of view about church administration and some so called “doctrine” but I don’t ever recall really taking note on how I feel about Polygamy. Yes, I feel rather ashamed of this situation. So thanks for bringing up the topic and allowing me to analyze my feelings and thoughts. I do wonder how many woman would find themselves in the same predicament as I find myself. I would not tolerate polygamy in my relationship with my husband here on earth or in the eternities. But I am not willing to go as far as saying that it doesn’t have some place in Gods plan somewhere. OK I can hear all the “you gotta be kidding me” words coming out of your mouths. I think the polygamy that we know of or have a history of is corrupt. It doesn’t work here on earth cause of greed, power, abuse, we live by laws of fidelity, generally men run the world so its from their perspective, that they get to choose, that its their obligation etc. But this is a mans interpretation. I have a tiny piece of my mind that says…. but what if there is an eternal perspective of living and relationships that I can’t even perceive in my limited human mind? Maybe there are elements of family living that are bigger than what we have here? I still don’t understand the full power of “being sealed together”. Also where is the sacred principle of free agency. Me and my husband will not be a couple that will choose this course but there maybe others that can do this and their relationship is better for it. I know that sounds awful to most of us. But I have friends in the church that see no issue with polygamy. These are strong minded women, quite independent. Maybe they see their relationship with their husbands slightly different to the way I see mine. Does that make them more spiritual or more righteous…I don’t think so. It is something they think they could take on. For me my hubby its a no go! So I am pretty prepared to get beaten up on all this and I am willing to be convinced otherwise as my argument is based on open questions I have in my mind, that have yet to be answered.

  • Charlie

    Really enjoyed this blog, you’ve put words to a few of my own issues with polygamy and its LDS history. Would also like to add to your list my repulsion when the principle of polygamy is used by weak men in the church to justify committing adultery here and now.

    Been thinking a lot about polygamy in recent years, I have always instinctively disliked it and struggled to accept it as an eternal principle to be ‘enjoyed/endured’ in the afterlife. I can remember as a youth questioning it in youth classes and at home, it never made sense to me and the reasons/justification provided by members for its existence never washed with me. I remember being told by more than one person that ‘they were different times, there were many more faithful sisters than brothers and because of the times they needed to be married so that they could be taken care of physically. I’ve always thought this justification was such a crock, surely these needs could be met without having to marry some creepy old man whose already married to numerous other women.

    For many years polygamy remained a non traversed topic in my marriage, on reflection, I may have on some level suspected my husband (somewhat of a ‘by the book’ mormon) may decide to be faithful to the principle in the eternities. In recent years I’ve voiced my feelings about it – even declared that I wasn’t prepared to be exclusively faithful to someone who wasn’t prepared to be exclusively faithful to me FOREVER. Unfair and demanding of me??? The feminist in me shouts ‘I think not!’ I guess you could describe me as a fiercely jealous person, I like to think that I am also fiercely loyal. After a few deep and meaningful discussions and prayers we are both getting there in our beliefs and faith on this, I have to say the Church’s silence and non comital stance has not helped our navigation.

    Sharing this blog for sure, thanks.

  • bidlet

    The thing is, how can it ever be acceptable for a man to have multiple sexual partners and it be all right? As Gina points out; how can it be right for my husband to have the same wonderful intimacy he has with me with another woman and it be ok? Especially for me. Fat chance! This is my biggest problem with our church and probably unresolvable which I am quite resigned to. It doesn’t keep me awake nights. My mother professed not to have a problem with polygamy neither do a number of women I know of varying ages. I can’t but help wonder if their so called acceptance of this issue is because they are not terribly happy in their marriages – my mother certainly wasn’t a happy camper hence my parents divorce – oh yes, that’s right, my father went off with another woman! Bloody men! Why can’t polygamy just be a huge mistake and Joseph Smith and co just got it wrong? After 200 odd years I think Mormonism can wear it’s screw ups and just man up. Don’t you think????

  • Aj70

    Hi kiwi,
    Enjoyed our chat on Saturday. My issue with the whole polygamy thing is….
    If it was a revalation from god then.1
    Why was Joseph so secretive about it.careful reading of the intro to D&C 132 tells us he received it in 1831 and was practicing it but it was not published public knowledge until it was published in 1843.
    2 if it was part of our history why do we not embrace it but instead ignore it and gloss over it in our lovely correlated ph manuals etc.
    Try checking out the ph manual on brig am young.any convert to the church would think he only married twice!!
    I too would not be comfortable with polygamy, it worries me that as man in the. Church i am expected to be comfortable with eternal post mortal polygamy. Why don’t we as a church nut up and say that JS got it wrong he lost may of the faithful brethren,Oliver cowdrey et al and even got killed.let’s faithful JS is the only Proust not to die of natural causes and the lord promised that if a prophet leads the people astray he will be removed. Keep up the good work

  • Jeff

    I have no personal interest in practising polygamy and if I was sealed in the temple and my wife asked that if she dies before me and I remarry that I only remarry for this life only, I’d happily accede to her wish. Critics of polygamy overlook that the Lord had righteous prophets who did great things in his eyes (Abraham, Jacob) who were polygamous – were they lesser prophets because of their polygamy? Jacob 2:23-30 contains the key on this issue – polygamy is wrong and can only be practised when God sanctions it. There is much that we will all learn about the economy of God and His kingdom when we pass through the veil. To what extent polygamy as practised in the mid-late 19th century in the church meets the Jacob 2 test will be revealed then.

  • YvonneS

    II haven’t systematically read all the blocks on the archipelago list until this weekend. I find that in general they are interesting and well done. This particular topic is always a bit of a surprise to me. The reason being that it is in the past seems to me like another way of saying been there done that. I suppose each generation has to learn the same things the previous one already knew. We already talked the subject to death and don’t have any more to say. If we were to continue the conversation what would we say.
    1. Brigham Young said that polygamy is not necessary to salvation. He was the prophet at the time. Does it need to be said every ten years? In that time period divorces for plural wives were very easy to get.
    2. In the relationships that worked the women involved became good friends. Some of them were sisters. Each woman had her own sphere of influence one was a the teacher, another the cook some went east to be educated in skills needed on the frontier. And, they never had to worry about getting a sitter.
    3. Gordon B. Hinkley said we will not be required to be married to anyone we don’t want to be married to in the next life. He was the prophet at the time.

    As shocking as it might be there are still families like the one in Big Love living out of sight in the inter mountain west. They might call themselves Mormon’s, but their names are not on the records of the church.

    • kiwimormon

      I know, I know, but as much as it has been ‘done to death’ the traces of it seem to linger for some of us. I don’t know why – I guess that’s the point of my post.

      • YvonneS

        Most of us have something that lingers. So I have thought some about that. Thoughts that we don’t want that keep forcing themselves on us are often called obsessions. I expect that more often lingering doubts are just that, lingering doubts. They don’t force themselves on us they just come around when they feel welcome. So we are left to decide if we are going to invite them to take a seat or not. Just like we can plant and a water a seed of faith that will grow into something more we can plant and water a seed of doubt that will grow into something else. What we feed grows. We must decide what it is we want to nurture.