Friday, August 8, 2008


      From 1852 to 1890, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught the doctrine of polygamy or plural marriage. In 1890, Wilford Woodruff, the president of the church, issued a "Manifesto" ending the practice. In 1904, the Church issued a second manifesto to clarify any misunderstandings about the universality of the ban.

The Church has prohibited polygamy ever since, and excommunicates anyone found to practice it. The "FLDS Church" and other polygamous groups that have recently received much media coverage are split-off sects not associated with the Mormon church.
      Most criticism of the Mormon church related to polygamy is the result of simple misinformation. It is surprising how many people still believe that Mormons have multiple wives, despite the fact that polygamy was banned 118 years ago.
      Of course, there are also those who understand that the Church no longer practices polygamy, who criticize it for ever having done so. They claim that God has never approved of polygamy and that the practice was the result of Joseph Smith's lustful desires, not revelation. They even claim that the Book of Mormon condemns the practice, showing that Joseph Smith's revelations contradict themselves.
      Anyone who carefully and honestly reads the Bible will realize that many early prophets were polygamists, and that God approved their plural marriages. In Genesis 16, we read that Abraham took a second wife, and in the very next chapter the Lord makes a covenant with Abraham and promises him great blessings. In Genesis 29, Jacob marries both Leah and Rachel. In the next chapter, he takes a third and then a fourth wife.
      Some argue that this was a cultural practice of the time, but that God was always opposed to the idea. This is a weak argument, however, considering that 1) there is no mention that God disapproved, 2) God certainly would have, as he was extremely strict about sexual sin during Old Testament times, and 3) in the Law of Moses, God gave specific rules concerning polygamy, to ensure that wives were treated equally. Furthermore, the prophet Nathan specifically said that it was the Lord who gave David his multiple wives (2 Samuel 12:7-8).
      The argument that the Book of Mormon prohibits polygamy is based on Jacob 2:27, in which the prophet Jacob says as much. The critics conveniently ignore verse 30, which reads, "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." The meaning is clear: Monogamy is the rule, but the Lord reserves the right to occasionally approve polygamy from time to time, as he sees fit. There is no contradiction.
      The claim that Mormon polygamy was motivated by lust and not by commandment is baseless. Speculation might lead to this conclusion, but there is no evidence to indicate that carnal desires were the motivation. In fact, the historical record shows Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders reluctant to obey the new commandment. It appears that after Joseph Smith first learned that he would be required to take multiple wives, he put off complying for several years. Brigham Young recalled his feelings about learning of the commandment to take multiple wives: "I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin."
      Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had good reason for apprehension besides their own aversion to the idea. Mormon polygamy made the already severe persecution of the Church even more intense, and probably was a direct factor leading to the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. Yet all believing Christians (as well as Muslims and Jews) must acknowledge that God has at times approved of polygamy. The only difference is how recent that was.

In summary
Argument: God would never approve of polygamy. Even the Book of Mormon condemns it, showing that Joseph Smith contradicted his own revelations in order to accommodate his lustful desires.
Response: The Bible makes it very clear that God once approved of polygamy. The Book of Mormon says that polygamy is only justifiable when God specifically commands it, so there is no contradiction. The historical record suggests that Joseph Smith and other early Mormons were motivated by a desire to emulate the ancient prophets, not by lust.

Intellectual Reserve. 2003. Church History in the Fulness of Times (The     Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Salt Lake City), 256.
Journal of Discourses, 3:266.
Roberts, B. H. 1930. A Comprehensive History of the Church (Deseret News     Press: Salt Lake City) Vol. 2, 95.


jaloayza3 said...

Is there any Biblical reference to God-sanctioned practice of polyandry, as it occurred in the case of Joseph Smith? Also, isn't it true that Smith practiced polygamy in secret, falsely denying his practice to his wife, the government, the press and the American public in general?

Travis Brinton said...

Joseph Smith did not engage in polyandry, or the practice of one woman being simultaneously married to multiple men. That is a misunderstanding of how sealings were understood in the early church. See
Emma knew about Joseph's polygamy. Joseph did practice it secretly, only teaching the doctrine of polygamy to a few at first, and no, he didn't hold a press conference and announce it to the world, for reasons that are obvious if you're familiar with the historical context. If you want to get into this more, I recommend Richard Bushman's "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling."

Travis Brinton said...

I rejected a comment here because it was obvious that the author was not interested in learning about the Church; only about attacking it. I reiterate that this is not a forum for debate. It's intended as a place for people who are honestly seeking to get succinct answers.

To the author of the rejected comment: It's evident you didn't even read the entire first page of the article. But if your mind is made up, I'd recommend you don't waste your time.

Anonymous said...

You said that Joseph Smith practiced Poligamy but not polyandry. I just finished reading Rough Stone Rolling and it stated in there that he did practice polyandry. Can you clarify?

Travis Brinton said...


The passages to which I assume you refer are on pages 437 and 439, in which Bushman notes that, "All told, ten of Joseph's plural wives were married to other men." A little further down on page 439, we read, "There is no certain evidence that Joseph had sexual relations with any of the wives who were married to other men." If those marriages were not consummated, then they wouldn't be marriages in the normal sense of the word, and Joseph Smith's relationships couldn't be considered polyandrous.

It is important to note that in those early years, the relationship arising from a sealing ordinance was spiritual, not necessarily familial. Many women were sealed to Joseph Smith and other church leaders because they wanted their eternal fortunes to be tied to those of their spiritual leaders. But the fact that many such sealings took place posthumously means they couldn't be marriages in the normal sense.

Some early Mormons took "spiritual wives" --but then consummated the unions in a very physical, non-spiritual way. Joseph Smith condemned that practice and excommunicated those who taught it, even while preaching polygamy (see Bushman, 526). So he saw a clear distinction between the two. That leads me to believe that Joseph's sealings to already-married women were intended as exclusively spiritual unions, not consummated marriages.