Polygamy in the Book of Mormon

Polygamy in the Book of Mormon March 12, 2007

It struck me the other day that the one place in the Book of Mormon where polygamy is addressed is unabashedly opposed to polygamy. This is, of course, Jacob chapter 2 (and a little of chapter 3). However, it may surprise you to learn why Jacob was so opposed to polygamy.

If we take a look at the sermon given by Jacob in Jacob 2-3, it seems clear to me that the main opposition he feels toward polygamy he feels is based on the adverse effect that he feels it has on women and children. Let me give you a sample of his comments

Jacob 2:31-35

31 For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands.
32 And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts.
33 For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for they shall not commit whoredoms, like unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts.
34 And now behold, my brethren, ye know that these commandments were given to our father, Lehi; wherefore, ye have known them before; and ye have come unto great condemnation; for ye have done these things which ye ought not to have done.
35 Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.

All the added emphasis is mine and it is with good reason. It seems to me that the problem with polygamy, in Jacob’s mind, is not abstract. He seems to be saying that polygamy makes wives and daughters feel awful and that it hurts children. It is the real cries of those hurt by polygamy that are ascending up to God and leading to this forceful condemnation of the practice. Although the more abstract issue of chastity is mentioned, it is the sorrow, the mourning, and the cries of his daughters that cause God to condemn the practice.

Perhaps you will think that I am trying to stage a whitewash of the church’s past, or trying to argue that the church was wrong to have ever engaged in the practice. Not really; after all, we do have the escape clause built into this passage:

For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things. (Jacob 2:30)

However, it seems to me that this is best read as an exception that proves the rule. The Lord of Hosts may change the rules as necessary, but it is His perogative and such changes are, I think, meant to be temporary. For example, we do not encourage our youth to run about lopping the heads off of our fallen, drunken enemies.

It strikes me as interesting that the test cases for polygamy in D&C 132 come from the life of Abraham. In fact, this passage effectively puts Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on an even par with Abraham’s entering into plural marriages (see D&C 132:32-37). Once again, the clear implication is that plural marriage is not meant to be the norm (as almost sacrificing one’s child is also not meant to be the norm). Further, we have the following passage, directed at Joseph, but perhaps intended to assuage Emma as well.

D&C 132: 50-51

50 Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.
51 Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.

The Lord has offered an escape, one related to Joseph’s sacrifice. I have no clue what this refers to, but if the Lord is serious about there being an escape and the Lord is serious regarding the comparison of plural marriage to Abrahamic covenant, then perhaps our assumption of the eternal nature of all polygamous unions solemnized in the sealing ordinance is incomplete. To our knowledge, neither Joseph nor Emma “escaped” this in their lifetime.

If nothing else, I believe that the discourse on polygamous unions in the Book of Mormon indicates that polygamous unions were never meant to be the rule for our temporal existence, although the Lord may sometimes deem them necessary. As to why that might be, I don’t know, but this passage makes clear that there are great sacrifices and great sorrow involved in such a decision.

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