Modern LDS views on Plural Marriage

Boy oh boy the Bloggernacle is sure excited on Polygamy this week. Devyn at Mormon Mentality has a big write up with around 100 comments, then at FMH (got to get my acronym right) there is another big discussion about it by ECS.

Now I do not think of myself as an expert on this, I felt I would combine my response to both threads here, and because I think I am feeling like I am on the outside with the majority.  I look at the history of plural marriage from Joseph Smith’s liberal interpretation and the Puritan Plural Marriage as practiced by the Saints in Utah.  I have no problem with either side.

I think being asked to participate, and in some cases, being told it was an absolute necessity made it tough to escape.  Certainly for some men and women it was a cross which they were called to carry.  However, I think we as modern people do not understand the origins of marriage. 

Marriage in former days was a social contract.  It was as much a contract with society as it was with the other person.  The focus of the marriage was reproduction.  The construction of marriage as love relationship is mostly a modern conception.

Therefore, taking that into account, we need to change our perception of what plural marriage was in that context.  It is a social contract to help “replenish” society, to make sure the children of those relationships are brought up in a correct manner, at least in principle. 

Since the modern era, not sure exactly when it happened but certainly since the later half of the 19th century the concept modified, in the 1950s thanks to the conformity of the era and the mobility of society we focused on the role of the nuclear family at the ignoring of other relationships.  This to my mind is why the backlash in the sixties in part brought back the central role of the community (or commune) to the counter culture. 

So my feeling when I hear a grandson of a polygamist, Mitt Romney, talk about his loathing of the idea of polygamy I am left wondering what his grandpa would say.  Now for my wife the idea of a sister-wife is something she has no real problem with in principle.  For me I would be very reluctant to do because of how much effort monogamist relationships are I would be dubious that I would want to double it.  Certainly most members of the church seemed to be of that opinion.

Yet many sought out plural marriage, both men and women, because they felt it was a good thing as well as doctrinal.  They felt it expanded their relationships and in some cases expanded the love relationships.  Some felt it stunted those relationships and they wished for a change in their circumstances.

Men like Brigham Young were sensitive enough to put in ways to remove couples from a marriage that was failing, in one case, which either Van Wagoner or Embrie wrote, he stepped into the situation, made the man sign the divorce papers and give the woman $75,000 as a part of her marriage right.  While there were cases of abuse, both physical and mental, of unhappy relationship which led to first wives getting quite upset at other wives getting time with their husband, it was not as common as we might think.

As I said in comments elsewhere the FLDS version of plural marriage, driving out the young men, and underage marriages were a not as common.  So in the long run before we go on and on about plural marriage and consider it a horror maybe we should read some of the journals of those involved, and how they considered themselves as participants.  Our instant negativity is a holdover built up by Anti-Mormons who wanted to destroy the church and not just because of polygamy.

And I say all this never wanting to be a polygamist, nor understanding those that do.


4 Responses to Modern LDS views on Plural Marriage

  1. Johnna says:

    I think it’s really sad that your wife says she has no real problem with you taking a second wife. What kind of culture do we have, that causes this odd piety from our women? It seems a safe boast–since polygamy’s not coming back–but what a messed-up way to regard oneself. If I were an outsider, I might even take her avowed willingness to live polygamy was some kind of vote of no-confidence in you as a husband.

  2. Jon W says:


    I would say that argument does not wash. Saying someone would be willing to live the principle is different then saying they actively want it.

    What my wife is looking at is through the lens of her own ancestors who were polygamists. Her great something grandfather had three wives in total though only two concurrently.

    After one wife died in child birth the first wife said they should find another because she would miss her sister-wife a lot.

    First Polygamy is not gone. We still have scripture that suggests it, we only stopped in 1904 because of severe political pressure. As I said, I am not advocating for it but I do think that we need to be a little gentler to our ancestors who were called to serve in it. It may not be right for you, or others, but lets not assume the worst of others who suggest they may not have a problem with the idea at least.

  3. Johnna says:

    The avowed willingness to ultimately share one’s husband in an essential eternal sense, means that in her most personal headspace, she makes room for certain kinds of detachment from her husband. I don’t think that’s assuming the worst about anyone, to say that when you don’t have pair-bonding, you don’t have pair-bonding.

    I have ancestors who lived polygamy too. My family stories are vague and positive, like the one you told. so I was pretty much okay with it, until I started reading journals.

    I ran across a great Patty Barlett Sessions just last night, on the joys of having your husband take a teenager as second wife, a petulant teen who won’t help with the work, and you’re supposed to broker peace and love in their relationship.

    The next time I’m stuck in a room with a bunch of women claiming their willingness to live polygamy, I’m going to ask how many of them are willing to bring their mother-in-law to live with them.

    I think our ancestors believed it was necessary and sacrificed to live it. But it really makes no sense to me as an order for the eternal scheme of things. Joseph Smith said good doctrine tastes good, and affirmed our capability to know and recognize the truth. Polygamy is bitter.

  4. Jon W says:

    Well, I would suggest reading some of Jessie L. Embry’s work on polygamy, I think she did a good job of dealing with the successes and failures of the relationships.

    You might see it as an inability for pair-bonding I see it more of a trust factor. I do not know how to explain that more. Similar to when we decided to have children or moved to a different country, we decided it was right and counted on inspiration for confirmation. In the end though the whole thing is a non issue.

    I realize that some would find it an abrahamic trial, and I cannot say it would not be difficult, I just do not see it as a horrid think that we shun about past. Our history is what it is, we need not ignore it we need to understand and come to grips with it.

    For me a part of coming to grips with it is to acknowledge that some hated living the principle, some felt they had to because it was from God (via a prophet), some lived it and felt liberated by it. Both men and women.

    Anywhoo just my few cents. Everyone is of course able to have their opinion

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