Polygamy within the LDS church is probably the most well known controversy by members and non-members alike.
Brigham Young said:
“There is another principle that has caused considerable uneasiness and trouble i. e., the idea of some men having more wives that one. Such tremendous fears take hold of some that they hardly know how to live; still they can’t die. Begin to whisper and talk around and actually afraid to go on a mission for fear some man will be sealed to my wife and when they return home, some will be babbling about, you don’t know but what you have got another man’s wife, are afraid to speak to a young woman for fear that she belongs to somebody else or for fear somebody else wants her. (others deny the faith as they think they never had much; and say it is all of the devil.) Such foolishness ought not to be cherished among a wise, prudent people.”
Brigham was right, it does cause members considerable uneasiness. That is surely at least one of the reasons the church recently released this article in regards to polygamy as they continue their efforts to address all these issues that are so readily researched with a google machine and the inter-webs these days.
Polygamy has been a thorn in the side of the church since early times. Joseph Smith brought it back as part of the ‘restoration of all things’ according to believers, or he did it simply because he was a horn dog if you don’t subscribe to the whole prophet of God thing. It upset many of the early leaders of the church such as William Law who was booted out (read excommunicated) by the council of the fifty*, fundamentally because he didn’t like the polygamy. It lead to Joseph Smith actively decrying people such as William who spoke of this polygamy and deceiving new members about the practice as he stated in this address to new converts implying that he had only one wife when in fact by church records you can see there were at least 30. William Law was frustrated by the slander in the speech Joseph Smith gave that day, so much so that he started a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor and put in print all the polygamous affairs of the prophet. That lead to an emergency session of the Nauvoo city council (of which Joe was mayor) and an order to destroy the printing press. Ultimately this destruction of the press lead to a gunfight and the murder of Joseph in carthage jail not long after. Why is William important to understand? Well he was the second counselor in the first presidency of the church, it would be like Elder Utchdorf getting kicked out of the church today for not agreeing with Thomas S Monson on letting 18 year olds go on missions.
So you see polygamy’s checkered past goes clear back to the beginning of the church. It has always been a problem. Maybe this is why the church even in its recent press release isn’t completely forth coming and honest about the practice of polygamy and polyandry that happened in the early church.
Polyandry? What is that? You might be asking if you are a member reading this. The reason it is a surprise is this is part of the secret about polygamy that you haven’t heard from the church. Polyandry is the practice of marrying other mens wives. I know as a member that I used to think Paint your Wagon other than just one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies was just satire in regard to the polygamy of the Mormons. Turns out it wasn’t. Prophet Joe did marry other mens wives, and he did it after sending them on their mission. The fears that Brigham Young referred to were very real, because it had happened before.
As a former well versed personal apologist, I was pretty well read on the topic of polygamy, but the polyandry was news to me. Turns out I’m not alone, not long ago members in Sweden were pretty upset about this as well. So much so that they sent church historian Marlin K Jensen to ‘rescue’ them from all this angst. In a rare moment of full disclosure, he admitted it is true that the prophet practiced polyandry as well as the many wives thing.
Turns out lots of those anti-mormon things that they used to say were lies really are true. This can be seen by the confirmation of many of these facts in the church article on the topic. What is even more revealing are the things that were left out. You see polyandry isn’t the only problem with polygamy, there are more, there is the fact that Joe married very young girls, as young as 14 years old, making his exploits far far closer to Warren Jeffs than most members are comfortable with.
Then there is the logic of it all. The Book of Mormon says the purpose of polygamy is to raise up a seed unto God. If that was the case then why didn’t Joe have any kids from his wives? Or how the revelation that is still part of LDS cannon that enshrines polygamy says the first wife must agree and the new wives must be virgins, both things that clearly weren’t the case with Joe’s first wife Emma or several of his other wives that were already married. There is the case of Fanny Alger, the very first plural wife whom he married as a plural wife before the priesthood to do so had been restored. Knowing these facts is it any wonder why the people that have left the church see this article as an attempt to ‘inoculate’ members? All this information can now be quickly discovered with a few clicks of the keyboard and to many it is very upsetting.
The problems with polygamy didn’t stop with the death of the prophet. They continued when the church was established in Utah. You see polygamy was never legal in the United States. Even when it was practiced in Nauvoo it was against the law. The church fled the US however, making their home in the territories that eventually became Utah. There polygamy was practiced openly. I recently discovered in the journals of Wilford Woodruff that Brigham Young felt it was better to be open in this practice and seemed to think the reason Joseph was removed had to do with his secrecy on the matter. This is what Wilford recorded:
Polygamy got even a little crazier for a while with the ‘law of adoption’ and the sealing of men to men for a time. Once you study this bit of history you might be able to see a glint of how in the future gay marriage sealings might be similarly justified by quoting Brigham in much the way they did so in regards to him seeing the future of black people, for example:
Brigham Young on blacks and priesthood from the church website today:
“February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members…” (Brigham Young, Speeches Before the Utah Territorial Legislature, Jan. 23 and Feb. 5, 1852, George D. Watt Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, transcribed from Pitman shorthand by LaJean Purcell Carruth; “To the Saints,” Deseret News, April 3, 1852, 42.)**
Brigham Young on gay marriage at some future date:
The sealing of men to men actually was a more sacred principle than Celestial Marriage, according to Brigham Young. In a discourse Young gave on September 4, 1873, he said, “We can seal women to men, but not men to men without a Temple.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 16, p. 186). ***
Now truth is, the men to men sealing wasn’t about gay marriage at all, but it is readily apparent that the church is very willing to pull such quotes far out of context to make them support their current agenda.
Back to polygamy. So it happened and then it stopped. Why did it stop? Well that is written in church cannon as well. It was stopped because of…(wait for it)… persecution! Because if they didn’t, they’d lose the temples and all gods work would be halted. Now if you stop and think about this for a minute, it is very ironic. The whole church up and moved last time they were persecuted, because they felt they should do what God wanted not what society says. And now they change practices because of persecution? (It is also interesting to note this is the same place it is canonized that prophets won’t ever lead you astray, unless of course its about black skin being a curse)
So in summary, plural marriage was first about raising up seed, then about restoring everything, then it was weakly removed because of persecution. Add in the polyandry, law of adoption and some of those other niggling details, no wonder it is such a confusing and embarrassing topic for the church.
Now that you know the rest of the story, is it any surprise that there are whole fundamentalist groups that have broken away thinking the efforts of Wilford Woodruff were off the rails when compared to canonized scripture?
Is it any wonder that the church actually still believes in polygamy from an eternal perspective and there are tens of thousands of cases where men are sealed to more than one wife as far as temple marriages are concerned? In these cases the men fully expect to have two or more wives for all eternity. Ask them if you don’t believe me.
I know that I was raised with the idea that someday when the millennium happened polygamy would return, it was only really gone because it was against the law after all. I am willing to bet that other 40 somethings out there had a similar understanding. Of course these days the church is disavowing all sorts of things prophets said in the past, even the ones that told us we’d never be lead astray by them because God wouldn’t allow it.
Gay marriage is now legal in Utah, even anti-cohabitation laws were recently repealed so that if you wanted a plural church marriage, well that is just fine so long as you only have one wife as far as the state is concerned. The world is realizing what Joseph Smith once said:
“Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive…”
It is obvious that legal plural marriage is just around the corner, and that at least as far as the church with it’s flip-floppin’ doctrine is concerned… Well it’s gonna be a problem.
* Yeah I said 50, not 12, trust me, more fun for you with the google machine on that particular topic :), and BTW it wasn’t just the polygamy, William also had issues with the sanctioned hits on people JS didn’t like as well as a few other issues, but Polygamy was one of his top 3!
**I highly suggest looking up the full discourse referenced here
*** Is this really taken more out of context than the previous quote?