How do Latter-day Saints view the polygamy in their faith’s past?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which seeks to abolish its former “Mormon” nickname) was founded in 1830 by the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., who later began practicing and advocating polygamy (the faith prefers the term “plural marriage” and in past times spoke of “the Principle.”) Smith wanted this kept secret but dissenters inside his flock revealed the controversial teaching, which played a role in his 1844 assassination.
After Smith’s successor as prophet, Brigham Young, led LDS adherents to Utah, the church in 1852 openly proclaimed its practice. This scandalized the nation. Young himself was to take 55 wives. But when federal laws attacked the faith’s very organizational existence, President Wilford Woodruff halted the practice in the 1890 “Manifesto.” Today, polygamy is grounds for excommunication, even in nations where it is legal.
That is basic, well-established history. But there’s far more to be said.
In recent times, the Utah-based faith has issued relatively candid explanations, posted at https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/topic/polygamy/ and under “plural marriage” at www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/essays?lang=eng/. Now the church’s Deseret Book company has published “Let’s Talk About Polygamy,” a more thorough and fascinating accounting by Brittany Chapman Nash, a 10-year veteran of the church’s official history department who emphasizes the experience of LDS women. Much of the following relies upon her research.
Twenty-first Century Americans might wonder why LDS followers ever wanted multiple spouses. At one level, the answer is quite simple. As Nash says, “they believed God commanded it.” Members then and now believe in Smith as God’s unique prophet and that all his revelations established the “latter-day” restoration of true Christianity that had been lost for nearly 19 centuries.
Smith’s own marital history began with his 1827 wedding to the former Emma Hale. His early scriptural revelations in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants advocated traditional Christian monogamy. But in the mid-1830s Smith privately wed 16-year-old Fanny Alger, who worked in the Smiths’ home. She soon moved away and married another man. History does not record what Emma knew or thought about this. Eventually Smith married some 30 to 40 women under church auspices (some propose higher estimates) while Emma wavered between acceptance and hostility. Some of his multiple unions were platonic and others romantic and sexual. Nash says a “puzzling” aspect was that nine of his first 12 polygamous marriages were with women who were already married to other men.
At the height of LDS observance in the 1850s “Reformation,” a sizable minority of LDS marriages were polygamous. In one settlement, 38.5 percent of the plural marriages resulted in divorce. Nash acknowledges the system was sometimes subject to abuse and “an element of coercion.” One woman complained about “fanatics” who told a girl “that to be saved she must marry some old codger.”
Some Saints naturally sought higher status through enacting a family bond with Smith and the later prophets and general authorities who led the faith. But Nash thinks an eternal aspect “was perhaps the most compelling reason” for plural marriage.
Polygamists generally interpreted scripture to mean “they were obeying a higher law and thus qualified for greater celestial glory than monogamists” in the multi-tiered LDS conception of Heaven. Young proclaimed about the afterlife that “the only men who become Gods, even the Sons of Gods, are those who enter into polygamy.” But Nash writes that “the potential for exaltation for monogamous and polygamous couples is now understood to be equal.”
Officials quietly sanctioned some plural marriages even after the 1890 Manifesto, which required deceit and circumlocution as had been the case prior to 1852. The “Second Manifesto” in 1904 imposed more discipline and the era ended for good with the death of polygamous President Joseph F. Smith in 1918, except for small “fundamentalist” breakaways that still obey the founding prophet’s dictum.
The polygamy revelation, which cites the Old Testament precedents of Abraham and David, was formally recorded in 1843 and granted permanent status as LDS scripture in 1876 (in the lengthy Section 132 of Doctrine and Covenants). Woodruff’s Manifesto, which also has scriptural status, does not abolish polygamy in principle but vowed submission to existing national law. As Nash states, “plural marriage was not rejected as a principle of the Latter-day Saint faith” and “the church has never renounced the doctrine.”
There’s an echo of the past in the LDS policy of letting men who were ritually “sealed” eternally to a wife who died to then undergo sealing to a second living wife and create a plural marriage in the afterlife. This tenet does not apply to women.
What does the polygamy teaching mean to contemporary Saints, among whom perhaps one-fifth have polygamous forebears? Nash contends that “we can gain strength from our polygamous past” and “discard shame and embarrassment.” Polygamy was usually a challenge for its adherents, as the book describes, so it can “invigorate our own resolve to make difficult choices and sacrifices for the gospel’s sake,” even while “not having all of the answers. . . . We can trust in God, as they did, and make and keep our own sacred covenants.”
Added historical note: Smith’s widow Emma and oldest son Joseph III both broke with Young’s Utah fiefdom and founded the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, based in Independence, Missouri. They were steadfast not only in rejection of polygamy but in denial that Smith ever practiced it. Since 1986, however, official historians have admitted the undeniable facts. In 2000, this small denomination renamed itself Community of Christ as if to distance itself from LDS roots.