Feeling better about the world today, although my sister keeps kicking my butt in Scrabulous on Facebook. I suck.
Anyway, this whole raid on the FLDS compound in Texas is making polygamy front-page news again, and it’s got me thinking. That’s always dangerous, but bear with me.
My great-grandfather was a polygamist. My grandmother was his youngest daughter, and she lived in hiding for twelve years, raised by her sister and unable to use her real name. The whole history of polygamy in the LDS Church is fraught with difficulty, and everyone would just as soon forget that it ever happened. That’s pretty hard to do, though, especially since it was the defining doctrine of the church for about half a century. So where there ought to be frank discussion, there’s awkward silence.
That’s mainly because modern Mormons find the practice abhorrent, including me. I had never met an actual polygamist until I moved to St. George and saw polygamous women crowding into the local Wal-Mart and Costco, their dowdy homespun dresses and strange, braided, non-bangs hair making them stick out like sore thumbs. I had been operating under the illusion that my ancestors weren’t nearly this weird, but that’s much harder to do when confronted with actual polygamists. My ancestors were probably were just as weird. Maybe even weirder.
Where does that leave me?
Still in denial, actually. Because, first off, my grandmother wasn’t weird. She was an accomplished woman who, to my knowledge, was never forced to wear an ugly burlap dress or yank her hair back in a strange, swooshy coiffure. I don’t know when dowdiness became part and parcel with the polygamy experience, but they could certainly do without it. And in the second place, I’ve seen no evidence that the systemic physical and sexual abuse that is rampant in these polygamous subcultures was part of polygamy back in the day. I have no proof one way or the other, but I want to believe the best.
Yet the modern practice of polygamy invites everyone to see the worst.
Every young Mormon missionary is deluged with questions about polygamy, and few of them give substantive or satisfying answers. Some talk about the glut of single ladies on the frontier who needed the protection of a land-owning husband, so Mormon men dutifully obliged them in a historical anomaly that vanished when conditions changed. I’ve never used that line, because, frankly, it’s not true. Polygamy was always a religious principle, and to minimize its importance in the early history of the church is the height of disingenuity. But it’s a principle that repulses me in practice, so how do I reconcile its previous sanction by my church with my present faith?
I do it the same way the Book of Mormon does.
Many anti-Mormons take delight in pointing out that the Book of Mormon rails on polygamy with more ferocity than anything in the Bible. The Lord condemns the unauthorized practice of polygamy as an “abomination” and refers to the taking of multiple wives as “whoredoms,” and then says the following:
“Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and 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.” (Jacob 2:27)
That seems to be a pretty clear-cut standard, which makes you wonder how Joseph Smith could possibly lead the church to go contrary to the plain language of the scripture he himself translated.
Until you read on to verse 30:
“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.”
In other words, monogamy is the norm, unless commanded otherwise by the Lord to “raise up seed” unto Him. That’s exactly what happened when the Church practiced polygamy in the 19th century. The doctrine bound the church together through a torturous time and raised up a large second generation to carry the gospel forward. And now, when it is no longer necessary, the Lord has commanded us to revert back to the norm.
Still, while the doctrine seems clear, the practice remains disturbing, to me and to most other Mormons I know. Sooner or later, if we want to truly be accepted as a “mainstream” faith, we’ll need to find some way to come to terms with our past.