Welcome, AMG readers. I’ve got to tell you: my book The Book of Mormon Girl just came out on Kindle last week and (for you print lovers) is now available for pre-order here. Reviewers are calling it “laugh-out-loud funny” and “break-your-heart poignant.” See more reader responses here.
Now, for some serious business. It’s time to talk about polygamy. I can’t believe this column has been running almost two years without a serious talk about one of the most definitive elements of Mormonism—past and present. It’s a subject we carry around in a great deal of silence. There is a lot to say, so, please, read on through this very important edition of Ask Mormon Girl.
I’m an unorthodox lifelong Mormon. I consider myself to be well-versed on our religious doctrine, and in some BYU religion classes, had heard something about polygamy being “the exception, not the rule” in the celestial kingdom. I just put it on the back burner of my mind because a) I couldn’t even stomach it, and b) It sure as hell wasn’t going to apply to ME.
On Sunday, the Relief Society lesson was about the three degrees of glory. We of course addressed the fact that if a woman is not married in this life, she will have the opportunity in the next. During the last five minutes of class, the Relief Society President raised her hand to address the topic of exaltation and said, “Well, those of us who have righteous husbands need to be prepared in the Celestial Kingdom for him to take on other wives.” Ummmm, WHAT?! I had a feeling of absolute horror, and had a cold sweat and nausea instantly run over my body.
The rest of the night, and next few days I spent looking for doctrine of what she’d said. I spoke with many people, none of whom seem to know the answer. I cried. I plead with God for peace. I got more sick about it. These past few days, I’ve been unable to concentrate at work. I feel totally emotionally distant from my husband because, after all, what is the point of being close to him if I have to share him with other women? It goes against every fiber of my being. I asked my husband what he would do if faced with polygamy in the hereafter. He said if he had God actually gave him a choice, he would choose to be with only me, but that if it were a commandment, he would abide by it because he puts his love of God over his love for me. More nausea.
My thoughts have been, “Why have I been trying to live such a good life to gain exaltation if it would be my absolute personal hell over there? I would rather be single in the Terrestrial kingdom than practice polygamy in the Celestial kingdom.” I know this probably sounds dramatic, but it’s how I feel. I’ve talked to my parents, and they tell me that I’m thinking about it with my earthly eyes, and that since there’s no specific doctrine, why worry about it now, but honestly, I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s affecting my functioning at work, and I’m emotionally shut off from my husband. Please help! What’s your understanding of the doctrine?
After reading your research on the blacks and the priesthood, I felt for the first time I had received a clear explanation with historical background. I am curious why you have not discussed polygamy in more depth. I have read many books, but still have a hard time believing it was a revelation from God. From my perspective, the LDS faith still practices polygamy, not overtly but by permitting men to be sealed to more than one woman. Some personal experiences have added to my doubts, as well. I understand that this is a very controversial subject and perhaps that is why you have avoided it; however, I would appreciate your perspective.
Dear AL and AD:
Thank you for raising the issue of polygamy. It is an issue our community has profoundly mixed feelings about—shame, confusion, anger, resentment, fear, sadness, conviction, pride. And one we rarely talk about.
We need to talk about polygamy.
Just last week, after the subject of Mitt Romney’s Mexican-born grandparents came up during a debate, I posted to the @askmormongirl Twitter line: “Everyone knows Mitt’s ancestors went to Mexico to practice polygamy, right? Because it was illegal in the states.” And then, I came out about my own polygamous and non-polygamous ancestors: my great-great-great grandmother Lucy Evalina Waterbury Wight was a first wife, and my great-great-great grandmother Martha Clayton Dorton threatened to cut off her husband’s ears if he took a second wife. “Come on, Mo tweeps,” I tweeted, “Lose your shame. Tweet your polygamous ancestors.”
What followed over the next 18 hours was a remarkable outpouring of Mormon thoughts and feelings about polygamy. Some proudly tweeted their polygamous ancestors. Others admitted to shame and confusion about doctrine and history. Many (usually Mormon men) insisted they found polygamy “repulsive.”
Strong, strong feelings.
We need to talk about polygamy.
In the late nineteenth-century, the US government basically waged political, financial, and military war on Mormons in the west, in part because of polygamy. Show trials in Congress. National reform crusades and press coverage. All of them depicting our ancestors as depraved men and duped women. And it was all part of a very specific political effort (with strong anti-Asian and anti-Islamic overtones) to maintain the domination of white Protestant “normalcy” in the US.
To survive, our ancestors stopped talking about polygamy. Some of them went on the “underground,” hiding out from federal agents and moving from town to town. We learned not to talk about polygamy. We still do not talk openly about polygamy—by Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young, or as doctrine. We are still on the “underground.” The life account of Joseph Smith in the official church Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith manual does not mention any of his more than thirty plural wives. When I have mentioned his polygamy in public, angry Mormons have emailed me, incredulous, and demanding proof that Joseph Smith was polygamous. (If you doubt the facts, please see Todd Compton’s meticulously researched book In Sacred Loneliness. There really is no debate. Joseph Smith had at least 33 wives. Many have been profiled at an amazing series on “The Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith” at the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog.)
We need to talk about polygamy.
Polygamy remains on the books in Mormon scripture (many, but not all, Mormons interpret Doctrine and Covenants 132 as an endorsement of polygamy). And, yes, to this day, the mainstream LDS Church continues to form polygamous eternal marriages between one man and more than one women. Current temple marriage policies allow a man who has been widowed or civilly divorced (without a religious divorce) to be married for eternity to a second wife. A woman who has been widowed or civilly divorced (without a religious divorce) may not be married for eternity to a second husband. Technically, the LDS Church does practice polygamy to this day.
Because of scripture and policy, many mainstream Mormon people today—not the ultra-orthodox FLDS splinter groups of Colorado City, but regular everyday Mormons who look like Steve Young and Mitt Romney–fully expect that heaven will be polygamous. But they don’t talk about it.
We need to talk about polygamy.
In fact, the Mormon strategy for dealing with the public on polygamy is much like it was one hundred years ago: don’t talk about it. The official line is that Mormons do not practice polygamy (which is not essentially accurate). Apologists routinely downplay the historical extent of polygamy, stating that only 2 – 3% of LDS people ever practiced it; historians place that number closer to 20 – 30%.
I fully understand the reasons we tell the world we don’t practice polygamy. The amount of sheer revulsion directed at Mormons for polygamy is astounding, and it’s ridiculous in a world where other form of non-hetero-monogamous relationship are welcomed or winked at. We crave understanding. We want to get along with our neighbors and fit in. And yet the strategy of telling the world we don’t practice polygamy when polygamy remains a live Mormon doctrine may have some major drawbacks.
We need to talk about polygamy.
Growing up, I was taught not to worry about it. “Put it on a shelf,” as the classic Mormon line goes. “We’ll understand when we have an eternal perspective.” But that never worked for me. From the time I was a child, I have always been a thinker by nature, and serious about my religion. So I tested myself against the question, “Would I share my husband if it meant my sister Mormon could get into heaven?” And I decided, yes, I could. I think I was about 9 or 10 years old. Maybe that’s where my feminism started: in female solidarity.
I’ve lived with the reality of polygamy for a long, long time. I’ve seen the very real feelings it generates in people close to me. I’ve seen white-knuckling, and anger, and heard wives extract promises from husbands, and siblings tell siblings they don’t really count as “Mormon” if they so much as remain silent when the issue of polygamy comes round. Put it on a shelf? Hide it away? When we are taught to be a knowledge-seeking people? The fact is, Mormons live with polygamy every day. Even when we repress it.
Indeed, there are plenty of bright LDS young men and women today who look at the current temple sealing policies and conclude that yes, we do still practice polygamy. They are not wrong. They want no part of polygamy, and they find the way the culture denies it or “undergrounds” it to be scary and discouraging. And some of them walk away from the Mormon tradition.
And there are young people today who have no idea about Mormon polygamy or Joseph Smith’s plural marriages until they find it ON GOOGLE—what a wonderful way to learn the family secrets–often from one of the many anti-Mormon websites designed to shame and embarrass members of the faith.
On my twitter thread, @LDSBishop shared a story about an entire family that left the Church because they had no idea about polygamy until they read Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling.
Why should we not inform our own people about our own history? When we don’t, we set up our people to feel betrayed and ashamed, and we give power to people who would like to embarrass us. What we refuse to be ashamed of, others can never hold over us.
As for the doctrinal value of polygamy, I have talked to plenty of Mormons who believe that polygamy was always a human rather than an inspired element of LDS doctrine and practice. (See Flunking Sainthood author Jana Riess here.) I have talked to plenty of Mormons who embrace it as an iron-clad eternal principle. And I have talked to plenty of Mormons who think that polygamy may be an unfortunate but necessary part of the eternities. Why? They cite two big unofficial reasons:
- There are more righteous women than men, and if we all need to be married to get to heaven (as per LDS doctrine), then it makes sense that one man may have to marry more than one woman.
- If our heavenly parents pro-create spirit children, polygamy would be necessary to create enough spirits to people a planet.
These are my personal unofficial responses:
- As a feminist, and for the love of the men and boys in my life, I straight up refuse to believe that one gender is inherently or essentially more righteous than another.
- The idea that the creation of spirits happens in a process that parallels sexual reproduction of human bodies is a remnant of nineteenth-century speculative theology. Fantastic stuff. But a pretty limiting view of God to believe that S/he has to generate spirits through a spirit uterus. More recently, Mormon theologians have proposed a view of spirit creation as the “organization of matter.” And on a more personal level, I loved being pregnant, but if spirit creation means that I have to pregnate a jillion souls, I’m out.
So, count me among the many Mormons who do not believe that polygamy is an eternal principle, even as I honor all the Mormons who did and do believe this, and the sacrifices they made and make for faith. I love the idea that none of us enters the heavens singly, that we all must be bound together—across the generations—we all go in together. It reminds me of the Buddhist teaching that none attains enlightenment until all attain enlightenment. But one-man-multiple-woman polygamy is not an idea I can believe in, and it’s not just because I’m seeing with “mortal” rather than “spiritual” eyes: symmetry, I think, is an eternal principle too.
But most of all, I dislike the way we hide polygamy, or seek to manage it with carefully-managed or contradictory messages. That strategy we developed back in the 1890s sticks with us to this day and shapes our guarded, nervous relationships with non-Mormons. I hate the shame the whole subject engenders. I hate getting screaming e-mail messages from Mormons who are extremely ashamed that I mentioned Joseph Smith’s plural wives—a matter of historical record—in public. And I hate getting e-mail messages from Mormons to whom I must gently break the news that such is historical fact.
We need to talk about polygamy. A subject that drives such strong feelings among us deserves to be handled with candor, respect, and humanity. That is what I’ve tried to do here.
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