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Polygamy

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.

I'm not having a good day.
Sparring with Philip

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14 Comments

  1. I also want to think that people weren’t forcing marriage with child brides back in the day.Accounts seem to differ on the nobility of the men who participated in the practice. They had to be ‘called’ to the practice by church authorities, which makes me wonder how good the vetting was…Maybe it was just as good back then as the vetting of local bishops is nowadays… 🙂

  2. Yeah, local bishops. Can you believe that? Instead of Lion King with real lions, he could do a roadshow with real roads.

  3. You many want to consider cutting the 19yr old missionary a little slack in his presentation of polygamy. As you well know, their job is not to explain/expound upon every weird quirk of LDS life and doctrine, historical or not. That is <>your<> job (and mine too!).

  4. The gay marriage laws will soon lead to polygamy marriage laws. And all those who are against them will be labled poly-phobic, or polygam-ist, or religious bigots. Wait for it.

  5. FK, I’m not trying to beat up on 19 year-old missionaries. Heaven knows I said all kinds of goofy things when I was pounding the pavement in Scotland. They do the best they can, and it’s not surprising that not many of them know how to respond effectively to polygamy questions. Older members have similar problems, including me.

  6. I think because of our heritage, polygamy doesn’t seem to be that big a problem for me.We know that the leaders at the time weren’t all that keen to accept the doctrine, but were obedient to the Lord. When the Lord abolished polygamy in 1890, again people had problems with that, but our leaders obeyed. We also know that all things must be restored and this was a doctrine given to ancient prophets. Somehow, this is good enough for me. Having said that, there are many reasons I was born in this day and age. Put polygamy up there with giving birth on the plains.

  7. Just wondering… do Mormons believe there will be polygamy in the next life? Is it still part of the doctrine? Are Mormons allowed to talk about the polygamy in the next life? I’ve heard this is the case, but when polygamy comes up(which it has a lot lately) you never here Mormons talk about it. Again, just wondering.

  8. This whole FLDS thing makes me want to vomit, for so many reasons. Taking children away from homes and putting them in a state foster system known for rampant sexual abuse to foster kids makes me want to throw up. But they haven’t even gotten that far–the 400plus kids are “warehoused”. And some of those kids obviously are just infants. Maybe I’m feeling tender because I have an infant, but the whole thing turns my stomach and makes me want to weep.On the other hand, my husband tells me nto to underestimate what Warren Jeff is capable of, and that the accusations of abuse etc may be extremely well founded, and that although he believes there are harmless polygamists living peaceful lives without coercion, the Warren Jeff faction probably isn’t like that. So bring me my bucket again, because that makes me want to hurl some more.Sad, sad business all the way around.

  9. Re: polygamy in the next life:The answer is perhaps. (Although my wife insists no.) The doctrine of plural marriage is ancillary to the idea of celestial, or eternal, marriage. The concept is that families last forever, and marriages that are bound on earth will be bound in heaven. My understanding is that no one will be required to enter into a polygamous marriage, but those who have entered into such according to the proper authority will be able to maintain such if they so choose. I like to think that those who think it’s a bad idea altogether won’t be stuck with it. I think by the time we’re in heaven that this really won’t matter much one way or the other.

  10. Let me clarify – I have a huge problem with the FLDS thing happening. I also have had the urge to vomit since the whole thing started. That situation has no relation to early church doctrine whatsoever. And I agree that we can’t underestimate the abuse that is going on. They found bedrooms in the “temple” – cue vomit.I have to get back to scrabble now. Come join us.

  11. My only divergence is in how I interpret, “Raise up seed unto me.” I don’t see it as numbers thing (“a large second generation”) as much as a dedication thing (“members forged in the furnace of affliction”) – much like the fact that the post-Joseph leadership came almost exclusively from those who endured Zion’s Camp. I think they literally were “raised up” to the Lord in a very literal way – consecrated and bound to Him by the things they suffered and saw their parents suffer. I think it’s no accident that we only recently have begun to see large numbers of seventies who are not descendants of polygamy – with only one apostle who fits that description. Over the next forty years, I believe that will change, but we still are seeing the benefit of “seed raised up unto me”.

  12. Finally you have put my thoughts in to words in a totally cohesive manner on the issue of polygamy. I have always thought this way it is nice to see it explained so plainly. Perhaps the church could publish it in a pamphlet.p.s. How does Mrs.M.F. reconcile the non-tithed yogurt money in the mattress with her new bishop? Just wondering.

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