I guess if we’re going to talk about common questions about Mormons, we might as well start with one of the classics.
I actually don’t get asked this question too often anymore, but my wife hears it frequently as a school teacher. Every couple of months she gets asked how many wives her husband has. The answer is one, even though both my wife and I do maintain (just to annoy each other) our respective “Dream Team” lists for potential plural spouses. But I really don’t see those all-star celebrity lists coming into play any time soon.
The issue is probably too “big” for a blog, but there are a few thoughts I have on the subject that might be helpful.
Plural marriage isn’t permitted in the Church, and hasn’t been for over a hundred years. Frequently that is about as far as the general members of the Church want to go in discussing it, for reasons I discuss below. But the topic is by no means taboo, and it is a discussion that we shouldn’t be nervous about having.
The practice of polygamy really raises two questions: Why did it start, and why did it stop? Critics of the Church usually convert these questions into an accusation: “Joseph Smith introduced the practice of polygamy in order to satisfy his own lusts, and the Church activetly taught the doctrine until Utah wanted statehood in the U.S. Then the president of the Church conveniently received a ‘revelation’ that the practice should be abolished.” That line of attack is far from accurate, but it does help to frame the discussion.
Why Did the Mormons Ever Start Practicing Polygamy?
I think this is the question that Church members are most uncomfortable about answering, because current social ethics teach that polygamy is an inherent “wrong” (whereas premarital sexual relationships, married couples with multiple sexual partners, easy-access divorce, and same-sex marriages are morally acceptable). It is easy to feel that, based on current moral views, any discussion of the topic puts you on shaky ground.
But Mormons really shouldn’t feel guilty that the Church practiced plural marriage for a time…at least no more guilty than maintream Judeo-Christian faiths should feel. If you are asking me to explain Brigham Young’s multiple wives, you first need to explain to me the multiple wives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon. All of these men clearly were accepted by God during periods of time when they had multiple wives. How did they know when it was acceptable to start or stop the practice? At some point, somebody had to tell them, and that somebody would have to be…well…God.
Look: I wouldn’t like the idea of more than one wife, even if Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez (currently Nos. 1 and 2 on the “Dream Team” list) were the candidates. I love my wife dearly and am devoted to her with all of my heart. Not to mention that I lack the imagination to think up multiple Valentine’s day gifts. I wholeheartedly agree with the Church’s position that marriage is between one man and one woman. But that is not a “new” position.
The Book of Mormon teaches exactly that same thing in a revelation given to Jacob, an ancient American prophet, but with this reservation: “[I]f 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). In other words, unless the Lord commands his people otherwise through His prophet, the standard for marriage is one man and one woman. In other words, we determine the appropriateness of the practice now in the same way that the Lord’s people of the Old Testament did. We follow the prophet.
Why did the practice stop?
If you are asking me whether the issue of statehood played a role in the abandonment of plural marriage, my answer is: Of course. But not for the reason that our critics cite, which is mere expediency. Rather, the issue of statehood created a problem for the Church, a problem which we believe the Church leaders then took to the Lord for guidance. We believe that in response to long prayer and supplication on this issue, the Lord directed that the practice be discontinued.
While you might not agree with that explanation, you can’t just dismiss it with a sneer. If you do, you have created a significant problem for Christianity generally. Consider just one example. Following the crucifixtion of Christ, virtually all of the members of the Church were Jewish, both by blood and in their religious traditions. These early members of the Church continued to observe many, if not all, of the religious practices that were an integral part of their spiritual lives.
In that environment, the resurrected Lord opened the Gospel to all people, directing His apostles to take that Gospel into “all the world,” which included Gentile nations. That presented a problem, in fact a crisis, for the apostles. While Christ’s message was accepted readily by many non-Jews, those legacy Jewish traditions stood in the way of them closing the deal. Non-Jews balked at converting to Christianity if it meant that they would have to adopt all of the practices of the Old Testament faith, including dietary restrictions and (ouch) circumcision.
How did the Church resolve this problem? Well, cynics would say that Peter realized that he couldn’t win converts under these circumstances, so he conveniently had a “revelation” in which he was told that the dietery restrictions no longer applied. This, the critics would contend, was a change born of desperation, not revelation. The early Christians, however, acknowledged Peter’s authority and embraced the new revelation, rejoicing in the additional opportunities it provided to them.
If that pattern was followed by the primitive Church under Peter, it’s good enough for me. If you don’t accept the doctrine of continuing revelation, then the Church abandoned plural marriage because it was a convenient response to a crisis. If you accept revelation as a doctrine, then you believe that the crisis led the president of the Church to petition the Lord on the subject, and he received a revelation in response.
We believe the latter. The Lord spoke, and in response the Church abandoned the practice. If you promote or practice plural marriage in the LDS Church today, you are shown the door. I’m happy with that result, as I imagine that 99.99% of the Church membership is. That’s one of the reasons that we don’t talk about the subject a lot. For us, once the Lord has spoken on a topic, there really isn’t much sense in debating it any more.
Which is why I worry less about polygamy, and more about how we get people to stop bringing casseroles to Church pot lucks.