Ganesh Cherian, a former bishop from Wellington, New Zealand joins KiwiMormon once again as a guest blogger.
Any good sculptor will tell you that if you want to replicate the human form you have to know the skeletal framework, how muscles attach and how that lays the ground work for the skin. But when you are looking at another human being, although we know the bones are there, we seldom consider their importance.
When it comes to understanding the modern church the analogy is the same. The recent polygamy essays released on lds.org in October 2014 stunned many Latter-day Saints. So very little is mentioned about polygamy that it is easy to discount it as unimportant to our faith. However the moment you start researching plural marriage you find yourself overwhelmed. This is because polygamy underpins almost everything we believe and practice. It shapes our understanding of life’s ultimate purpose. It is our framework.
This article seeks to place our major theological and historical events alongside its connection to polygamy, with the hope that it might explain much of where we are, how we got here, and give a good indication of where we can go.
Book of Mormon Links (1829)
Polygamy first made its latter day appearance in the Book of Mormon with strong counsel against it. “…hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And [polygamy is] an abomination before me;…1” As a record for our day2 it seemed to solve a lingering question (to a new and experimenting nation) of legitimacy over the sexual behavior of Israel’s great patriarchs.
D&C declarations, Melchizedek & Aaronic Priesthood (1831 – 1835)
However as new converts gathered to Kirtland, and Joseph translated the Bible, he explored the idea of plural marriage by taking his teenage housekeeper Fanny Algar as a secret wife3. When Emma found out she was furious and threw the girl whom she regarded as a daughter out into the street4. Rumors circulated and Oliver Cowdrey (1835) as Second Elder penned Doctrine & Covenants 101 ….”Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife;”5… it was accepted by the membership, Joseph Smith and remained in the D&C till 1876. With the fledging church under threat Oliver and Joseph told of heavenly visitors including John the Baptist, and formalized the claim to divine authority into the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods6, writing them into the 1835 edition of the D&C.
Leadership Apostasy, 12 Apostles significance, First Vision, BoA (1836-1838)
Lingering questions about the Fanny Algar affair and the Kirtland Bank scandal, undermined faith in the Prophet. A leadership crisis ensued. Oliver Cowdrey was excommunicated partly because of his concern over the Fanny incident7, along with the Whitmer brothers David & John. This changed the governing leadership dramatically, including making the travelling high council8 (12 Apostles and eventually Brigham Young at its head) much more prominent. The First Vision account of 1838 [POGP] 9 sought to shore up Joseph as divinely chosen and to establish his prophetic call back to 1820. The Book of Abraham also re-establishes Joseph as a translator and teaches pre-mortal existence and eternal progress.10 With a new understanding of a separate physical God, and an idea of heavenly ‘family’ (including divine mother(s)), eternal plural unions gain traction ….‘As man is, God once was and as God is, man may become’.11
Temple Ceremonies, Celestial Marriage, Mormon Elite, Public Denial (1841-1843)
Once established in Nauvoo, Joseph again began to take wives even more secretly than before. To ensure loyalty and discretion he inducted favored friends into covenant relationships creating a Mormon royalty. These sacred ceremonies heavy based on the rituals of Freemasonry12 promised blessings of heaven, an endowment of power and extended relationships beyond the grave. This also became a mechanism of persuasion, promising prospective brides (including already married women and some young teenagers) a chance to save their families in the eternities and gain favor with God by being connected to Joseph13. Those who participated were careful to guard these secrets and to word their denials of polygamy to the general membership and outsiders, to distinguish it from ‘Celestial Marriage’ or ‘the New and Everlasting Covenant’ which they were practicing14. A very contradictory public and private face of Mormonism emerged.
Establishment of the Relief Society (1842)
Rumors of polygamy again spread as some of the initiated took liberties that brought the leadership into disrepute. Also some women, who refused advances from church leaders made it public15. Joseph denied any involvement and extended the Melchizedek priesthood authority to women16, setting up the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo with Emma as President. She took her closest friends and waged a PR war against polygamy17, defending the church and her husband against attack. Unknown to Emma, many of these friends including her councilor Sarah Cleveland & Secretary Eliza R Snow were already (or soon to be) her husband’s additional wives18.
Theocratic Kingdom (1843-1844)
With multiple wives sealed to chosen leaders, Joseph seeks to enact this future heavenly kingdom on earth. The ‘second anointing’ or ‘calling and election made sure’ guaranteed previously promised blessings, and offered loyal ‘elite’ absolution from any earthly crime19. A ‘Council of Fifty’ were selected and anointed Joseph their king20. These men sustained him in his bid for the US presidency, and were sent on missions to campaign. Joseph continued to deny polygamy preaching vehemently against it21. Emma stepped up her opposition calling on the Relief Society women to pledge against the practice22.
As polygamy and theocracy accelerated, Joseph became bolder, and his councilors in the first presidency became concerned. Sidney Rigdon’s daughter Nancy23 and William Law’s wife Jane were both propositioned. William Law was subsequently excommunicated for his vocal opposition and wrote a newspaper (the Nauvoo Expositor) seeking to expose the prophet as a philanderer and a kingmaker24. Joseph as mayor of Nauvoo had the printing press destroyed and William appealed to the governor of Illinois25. Joseph & Hyrum were subsequently arrested and held in Cathage, where they were murdered by a mob angry about the alleged polygamous seductions and enraged by the suppression of freedom of the press.
Succession Crisis & Exodus, Establishment of RLDS (1844 – 1847)
Brigham Young battled Sidney Rigdon over control of the church and Emma over assets26. He blamed Emma and the Relief Society for the martyrdom and disbanded the organization. With the help of Joseph’s inner circle Brigham inducted scores of people into ‘The Practice’. These families and about half the saints left the United States to settle the Great Salt Lake basin. Sidney left Nauvoo and established a church in Pennsylvania. James Strange took members and settled in Wisconsin27. Emma remained in Nauvoo and remarried. Some years later a remnant of members collected into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of LDS and Emma joined them, with the young Joseph Smith III. (1860) becoming their prophet28.
Blacks and the Priesthood (1847)
At Winter Quarters polygamy became an open secret, the question arose of whom would be required to live it and how it would work. A dispute broke out when William McCary a man of mixed race (whose marriage to a white woman already challenged the social norms) sought additional wives29. Brigham Young started denying anyone with black heritage the priesthood, temple rites and especially celestial [plural] marriage.
Plural Marriage Revelation (1852)
Safe in Utah, the leadership disclosed polygamy releasing Joseph’s (1843) ‘Revelation’ which eventually became Section 13230. This caused a huge backlash in Washington, and also from converts in Europe who had been assured by current church apostles this was not the case. Tensions escalate between the US government seeking to settle the west with Victorian morals and members wishing to establish a separate theocratic Zionist kingdom embodied in polygamy31.
Reformation, Blood Atonement, Divorce, Dynasty building (1856 – 1860+)
As the realities of the harsh desert life in the new territory set in, defections became a problem. The First Presidency taught of impending doom, the end of times, and the only way to the highest degree of heaven was with a polygamous union. Members rededicated themselves to the kingdom through rebaptism and plural marriage hysteria followed32. Strict adherence to the brethren was enforced; dissenting voices were threatened with violence by ‘destroying angels’ and vigilante acts against apostates and gentiles were condoned33. When the frenzy subsided, many people found their marriages hostile. Divorce (and remarriage) was readily available for women and widely prevalent, including those of Church presidents, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, & Joseph F Smith. Successful polygamy practice relied on strong buy-in which often came from the intermarriage of prominent families34. This dynastic coupling cemented Mormon royalty into leadership positions and privilege which continues to the present day General Authorities of the church.
Pratt’s Martyrdom, Mountain Meadows Massacre (1857)
Parley P. Pratt was murdered in Arkansas by the estranged husband of a Californian woman he met as a mission president, who then left her husband to become his last polygamous wife35. He was mourned as a martyr and memories of previous persecution haunted the saints. Brigham gave fiery rhetoric damning the United States and put Utah on high alert from an impending US army assault36. A wagon train from Arkansas bound for California ran into trouble in Southern Utah trying to get supplies. Local Priesthood leaders, believing they were avenging Parley and following President Young’s wishes, attacked the party. They then worried that the group’s escape would cause trouble so they conspired to murder the company. 120 men, women and children were brutally massacred37. Brigham Young covered up the incident and blamed the Indians38.
Imprisonment, Civil Disobedience, Lying for the lord (1860 – 1880’s)
The Government enacted anti polygamy legislation, and sanctions against members39. The saints at first practiced civil disobedience, and voluntary imprisonment, but when that did not work, leaders went into hiding, and wives and families hid any polygamous relationships or progeny40. As in Nauvoo, lying for the Lord became commonplace as again carefully worded denials of polygamy were given to appease and misdirect government officials. Settlements in Mexico41 and Canada were set up in an effort to subvert the law. As endowment houses and temples were carefully watched, stake patriarchs were given authority to perform plural marriages whenever they saw fit, solemnizing unions with very little oversight (repealed in 1931)42.
Female Blessings and Anointings, Suffrage, Feminism (1870’s -1880’s)
With few husbands available, women took a more active role using the Priesthood as part of the re-instituted Relief Society (1866). Blessing the sick and presiding over births became a calling for prominent women43. Utah women also secured the right to vote early (1870) in part as a hope by the US government that they would vote against polygamy44. When this didn’t happen suffrage was repealed till Utah Statehood (1896). Women took prominent roles in society, furthering their education and becoming doctors, lawyers and politicians encouraged by Brigham Young45.
Leaders cannot lead the church astray; OD1, Politics, Tithing (1890’s)
Threatened with bankruptcy and vying for statehood President Woodruff issued a revelation ending polygamy, stating the ‘Prophet cannot lead the church astray’(1890)46. However this was widely seen by the polygamous membership as a smokescreen to appease the government. Plural marriage continued just in more secrecy. Several apostles took post-manifesto polygamous brides47. Statehood brought elections and most members shunned the Republican Party who they blamed for harsh anti-polygamy legislation and voted Democrat48. Meanwhile confiscated property from polygamy raids, and the legal fight against sanctions put the church deep in debt. Lorenzo Snow issued a revelation on tithing making it a requirement of faithful membership (1899)49.
Smoot Hearings, Second Manifesto, Fundamental groups (1900’s – 1930’s)
Continued polygamy into the 20th century caused major distrust for the American public. LDS apostle, Senator Reed Smoot’s rejection from congress and subsequent hearings were a huge embarrassment50. The church sought yet again to appease the government and Joseph F. Smith issued a second manifesto (1904) with consequences51. Church hearings were conducted and defiant apostles were disciplined along with many prominent members. Polygamy was driven underground with even greater secrecy52. Men who had sworn to uphold plural marriage by President John Taylor (who had given a revelation in 1886 that the majority of the church would apostatize and abandon polygamy53) kept performing new polygamous unions. But as the church leadership further distanced itself from ‘The Principle’, continuation with mainstream LDS became unsustainable. Those who were excommunicated or wouldn’t denounce polygamy formally organized into Fundamentalist groups in the 1930’s54.
WOW, All American Family, Anti-polygamy practice (1930’s – 1950’s)
Once polygamy was no longer sanctioned, the word of wisdom rose to fill the vacuum of divine revelation for our day55. Helped along by Heber J Grants support of the temperance movement and the US adopting legal prohibition, Utah abandoned alcohol production. When prohibition was repealed, teetotalism became the church’s unique identifier. Post WW2 prosperity and suburbanization developed stay at home ‘moms’, and with a dedicated husband in many houses, priesthood authority was de-emphasized for women. The church also vocally distances itself from fundamental groups and pushed Utah law enforcement to apply anti-polygamy legislation harshly56. ‘Strengthening the members committee’ was set up to guard LDS adherents against polygamous sect recruitment57. With monogamy, family values, and temperance the church began to have success proselyting to the American public.
Correlation, Beard Abandonment, Temple Marriage, (1960’s & 1970’s)
After the death of the last polygamous prophet Heber J Grant, David O McKay literally changed the face of Mormonism for the world, to a sharp business-like, clean-shaven appearance. With renewed success in proselyting and a growing international church, ‘Milk before meat’ was applied to the complicated narrative that had become LDS history. Relief Society, Young Womens, Primary, & Sunday School who all had their own autonomy, manuals, budgets, conferences and presidencies were annexed under the Priesthood. Lessons were simplified and the more questionable aspects of modern prophets’ behavior striped from the religious discourse58. An unimpeachable Joseph emerged, along with a lovable, pioneer, rouge Brigham. Polygamy was gradually eliminated from church stories and relegated to the hereafter. Section 132’s ‘celestial marriage’ was redefined and taught to mean marriage within the house of the Lord59. Only temple sealing policies remain as our active polygamy practice60.
Civil Rights, ERA, intellectualism (1970’s – 1990’s)
The later part of the 20th century was spent trying to balance established doctrines with the need to respond to significant social change and scholarship. Excluding Blacks from the priesthood and temple ordinances, became an ever increasing problem for an international church having success in Africa and South America61. At the same time domestically the boycotts of BYU sports games embarrassed the church62. In response President Kimball prayed for inspiration and removed the Priesthood Ban63 (1978). Mormon historians challenged the simple narrative created by correlation, highlighting discrepancies in our scripture, revelation and policies64, discovery of the Book of Abraham scrolls cast doubt on an literal translation65, and Equal Rights Amendment proponents highlighted ‘Heavenly Mother’ as a feminine divine worthy of worship and lamented lost priesthood status66. Apostles responded by railing against feminism & intellectualism, excommunicating those with divergent views including the September Six67 (1993).
Conservatism, Same Sex Marriage, Modesty (1990’s & 2000’s)
With a decline in religious observance across America and a dramatically changing political landscape, leaders align with the conservative Christian right68. With section 132 still our current declaration of marital policy we had a problem being recognized as representing the traditional family. Hoping to distance ourselves once and for all from our polygamous roots, the proclamation for the family is released69 (1995). It is used in an amicus brief in a major church backed political push to protect marriage in Hawaii for heterosexual monogamists70. Efforts to fight Same Sex Marriage are doubled in California a decade later (2008), and Utah today (2015). The proclamation also prescribes 1950’s gender roles, defining women as primarily mothers & homemakers, and needing protection & policing. Modesty rhetoric intensifies71. Single members are disenfranchised and there is concern over their activity rates, leading to more targeted single wards72.
The Mormon moment, Internet Age, Female Ordination & Relationships (2010’s- present)
The rise of the Mormon corporate success73, and popular modern icons have created fresh respect from mainstream America and legitimacy for the church. Even Romney’s polygamous Mexican colony roots barely created a stir. However the improved access to information, especially primary historical sources, has exposed an internet savvy population to a more nuanced version of prophets, doctrine and revelation. The church has had to admit with essays a number of previous practices and events that tell a different story than our Sunday school manuals74. At the same time understanding of past female autonomy and priesthood use has brought up fresh questions of gender inequality75. Likewise renewed polygamy awareness challenges the churches right to define marriage ‘as between one man and one woman’ 76 or to even prescribe marriage and children as the epitome of life’s experience or eternal value. As the complexity of the digital age embeds, loss of our youth prompts a lowering of the mission age, and thousands (particularly YW) take up the call to serve77.
As many more women return from missions, they will press for greater inclusion in the leadership and future of the church citing their ancestor’s greater autonomy. With Same Sex Marriage becoming the norm in most countries, younger members will see the churches stand, as out of touch with their experience of same sex couples they know.
And with an increasingly interconnected planet, the church will struggle to appeal to a new generation through fear of the second coming or promises of eternal reward. In a present moment world as things change quickly with technology, concerns will be about employment, economic wellbeing, and social justice. Members won’t necessarily need the church to be ‘true’ or even have all the answers but they will need it to be good, responsible, relevant to their current circumstances and hopeful for their future.
Likewise if we are to be a people of integrity we must tell a fuller, more accurate story of our past. We carry a lot of shame in relation to polygamy that haunts us in terrible ways and is unnecessary. Carefully worded denials, double speak and contradictions make our theology insincere and unreliable, marginalizing many within our own community and turning away outsiders to our message. Recognizing that polygamy shapes much of who we are, will give us power to be authentic and change in meaningful, useful ways. As we embrace our challenging past, we will be free to tell many inspiring stories of faith, commitment and love that are currently untold because of their connection to ‘The Principle’. This will be helpful in a precarious world, as we tackle our own uncertainties much like the early saints. Those stories would also give us a caution to not get so dogmatic or self-righteous about our belief that we exclude or prescribe in unfair ways, allowing us to be more Christ-like.
Our bones are strong. The future is bright.
- Jacob 2: 23-35 David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.
- Introduction to Book of Mormon. “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book”
- Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997)
- Oliver Cowdery said he had discussed with Smith the “dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s…in which I strictly declared that I had never deserted from the truth in the matter, and as I supposed was admitted by himself.” Cowdery to Warren A. Cowdery, January 21, 1838, quoted in Bushman, 323-24
- Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was Abraham 3:22-24
- Helen Mar Kimball: “[Joseph explained] the principle of Celestial marriage…After which he said to me, ‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.[‘] This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2012/02/helen-mar-kimball-remembering-the-forgotten-women-of-joseph-smith/
- …leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as divinely mandated “celestial” plural marriage. https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-kirtland-and-nauvoo?lang=eng
- Martha Brotherton Affidavit July 13 1842 about her refusal of Brigham Young proposal
- Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843; D. Michael Quinn http://signaturebookslibrary.org/women-and-authority-17/
- Times and Seasons 3 [October 1, 1842]: 940.
- May 26, 1844, Joseph commented: “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.” http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/faq/polygamy-denials/\
- “The Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo” in “Virtue Will Triumph”, Nauvoo Neighbor, March 20, 1844. http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/faq/emmas-response/
- The doctrine of plural wives was officially announced by Orson Pratt and Young at a special conference at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on August 28, 1852 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_Latter_Day_Saint_polygamy
- Lorenzo Snow married Wilford Woodruff daughter making the 5th President the Son in Law to the 4th. Heber J Grant spiritual son of Joseph Smith, physical son of Jedidiah Grant, Spencer W Kimball is grandson of Heber C Kimball, Henry B Eyring is SWK nephew etc.
- The Mountain Meadows Massacre (1950) Juanita Brooks : Young’s cover-up of the crime made him an accessory after the fact, and he stage-managed the sacrifice of John D. Lee.
- http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=DAC18840601.2.81# https://www.lds.org/topics/the-manifesto-and-the-end-of-plural-marriage?lang=eng
- 1882 John Taylor in response to the Edmunds Tucker Act, authorizes Patriarchs to perform polygamous marriages wherever, whenever necessary. Rescinded in April 1931 conference.
- Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism, Stapley & Wright (2011) Journal of Mormon History http://www.jstor.org/stable/23291588?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
- …We believe that women are useful …that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. Brigham Young. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, LDS Church, 1997, p. 135
- Official Declaration 1 “I, therefore, as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that these charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice…”
- D Michael Quinn LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890 – 1904 http://www.lds-mormon.com/quinn_polygamy.shtml
- By 1933, the General Handbook of Instructions listed the Word of Wisdom as a requirement for temple worship, exactly 100 years after the receipt of the revelation by Joseph Smith. http://en.fairmormon.org/Word_of_Wisdom/History_and_implementation
- Church Handbook of Instructions 1, 3.6.1 Sealing Policies
- Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood (2008) https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=7885
- Toscano (1985) The missing rib – the forgotten place of queens and priestesses in the establishment of Zion. https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/051-16-22.pdf