Another Revision of Marriage: Utah Decriminalizes Polygamy

Another Revision of Marriage: Utah Decriminalizes Polygamy May 27, 2020

When same-sex marriage was legalized, many observers said that the door would be open to still more redefinitions of marriage.  Ironically, the next step has been taken in a state known for opposing same-sex marriage:  Utah has decriminalized polygamy.

Being able to have multiple wives was a staple of the early Mormons–sorry, Latter-day Saints–but when Utah petitioned to become a state, the federal government made it a condition for entering the union that polygamy be outlawed.  Though, as we will discuss, the Mormon founder Joseph Smith reportedly had a revelation that allowed him to take 30 wives, another purported revelation after his death conveniently stopped the practice, allowing Utah statehood to go forward.

But the practice continued illegally among Mormon fundamentalists and breakaway sects.  As of earlier this month, polygamy will no longer be a felony, just an “infraction,” on a par with a traffic ticket.

Benjamin E. Park has published a fascinating article in Religious Dispatches on the history and theology of Mormon polygamy entitled  How an 1843 Revelation on Polygamy Poses a Serious Challenge to Modern Mormonism.

He says that Smith’s original revelation on the matter was designed for an audience of one:  His wife Emma, to justify his celestial marriage to four other women.  She never bought into it.

Now to be fair, Smith’s idea of plural marriage was not just a matter of having sanctioned sexual relationships with multiple partners.  It tied into his theology of celestial marriage and the practice of couples being “sealed” in a Temple ceremony.

According to Latter-day Saints theology, when we die, human beings acquire the status of gods, who rule over their own universe.  (Note how this anticipates the concept of multiple universes that some scientists are playing with.  It would be interesting to see how many of the multiple universe cosmologists have a Mormon background!)  Anyway, these gods will populate their universes by sexually generating spirit children with their wives.  That is, a wife who has been “sealed” to the man in a special wedding ceremony in a Temple, which forms an eternal marriage (never mind Matthew 22:30), which will produce untold numbers of spirit children who will be born into bodies in the new universe.  (Yes, this is thought to explain our own universe and our own God, who generated us with a mysterious goddess.)

Joseph Smith was originally saying that a man can be “sealed” to more than one woman in the Temple ceremony, claiming that the plural marriages he was first entering into were celibate, which would go into full effect in Heaven, not on Earth.  But the practice soon morphed into a revival of the ancient Middle Eastern practice of having multiple wives in the earthly sense, as still practiced today in Islam.

When the church changed its teaching to accommodate Utah’s statehood, it could not eliminate Smith’s revelation about polygamy from its canon of authoritative documents.  Park says that the revelation, enscripturated in Doctrine & Covenant 132, contains much of the Mormon teaching about the family, a central feature of the religion and the foundation for its commitment to “family values.”  The part about plural marriage is today usually interpreted as referring to the possibility of a man being “sealed” to more than one woman, but in a series of monogamous marriages.  That is, a man might be married to someone to whom he is sealed, but then she dies and he remarries, whereupon he is also sealed to his new wife, etc., etc.  This would mean, though, that although monogamy may be the practice on earth, in Heaven, the newly-minted deity and his consorts would practice polygamy.

We’ll see if Utah’s action in decriminalizing polygamy will lead to a revival of the practice among mainline Latter-day Saints.  I would think the new law would make Utah a popular destination for Muslim immigrants, who would be free to have multiple wives as their Scripture allows and as practiced in their homelands.

I’ll also be curious to see if states outside of Utah–or the federal government–also legalize polygamy.  Right now, the left is attacking the new law on feminist grounds as another example of men oppressing women.  But I would think the law would also allow for a woman to have multiple husbands or for a whole array of other kinds of group marriages.

What could be the possible legal basis against them, given the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage?


Photo:  Joseph Smith and his family by Unknown photographer / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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