When I turned 14 years old, I started working summers with my dad. He delivered bags of ice to the beach out of an 18-wheeler and, as it was with the Army, he spent a lot of time away from home. Because the days were long, I usually made a killing taking this ice to all the vacationers at the beach. We delivered mostly to grocery stores and gas stations so we constantly bumped into customers as we unloaded the climate-controlled trailer. One joke we constantly heard:
“Man, you have the coolest job in the world!”
Yeah, that was catchy…for the first week. Like all jokes told ad infinitum, it got old quick.
The same thing happened this month. When folks learn I’m exploring the Latter-day Saints, I am invariably asked, “So, you gonna pick up a few extra wives?”
At first, I would brush off the joke with a chuckle, but eventually–as happened with the ice jokes–I wanted to strangle the messenger. At one point, I considered replying with: “Yeah, how about I borrow yours for 31 days?”
So here I am, taking offense about a stereotype and I’m only an honorary member of the church. See what Project Conversion does? It makes you part of the tribe, and once you’re part of the tribe, you start looking at things in a whole new way.
Anyway, the jokes got the gears turning about this rumored polygamy thing. Was it really part of LDS culture, or just something hanging on the fringe of the church? More importantly, is this practice condoned scripturally?
The answer is: yes, and all over the place.
Genesis 16: 2-3 says,
2And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. 3And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
The implied purpose in the giving of a Hagar was to produce offspring. Remember, Abram (he wasn’t known as Abraham yet) was promised to become the “father of many nations.” Can’t do that with just one or two kids.
We see plural marriages and the use of concubines all through the Old Testament (or Tanakh for our Jewish friends), especially with kings and patriarchs like David, Solomon, and Abraham. Conservative theologians maintain that Jesus played hard-to-get and went lone wolf during his life. Turned out, he had more important things to do…
Next, we look at specific LDS scripture, namely The Doctrine and Covenants. The D & C is scripture written by the prophet Joseph Smith as well as a few other church presidents and contains revealed wisdom, guidance, and information for the church–usually as Joseph Smith and others asked for it from God. Section 132: 59-66 specifically addresses the issue of polygamy,
61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood–if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. 62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified. 63But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified.
Why would Joseph Smith need revelation for more wives? The man was in the middle of building a religious movement. Did he really need the added pressure of a growing household? One theory I’ve heard is that Joseph’s wife caught him in bed with another woman. Subsequently, the Lord “revealed” the aforementioned scripture in order to justify his actions. On the other hand, we must remember that LDS members believe that each of us are spirit children, born of God, who planned for us to inhabit the earth that we might gain experience. In this context, Joseph Smith and other early church leaders/members seemed interested in expediting that plan. With such revelation in hand, they were cooking with grease.
The practice of polygamy continued through several leaders in the church until the United States government turned up the legislative heat on the matter in the 1862. By the 1880’s, the added pressure against polygamy had many LDS men on the run. Increasing turmoil in the church led then LDS president and prophet, Wilford Woodruff, to seek guidance from the Lord. Apparently, the Lord said enough is enough.
In 1889, church president Woodruff made an official declaration of the church called the “Manifesto,” in order to abolish the practice of polygamy,
Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise. There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey any such teaching, he has been promptly reproved. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.
The die was cast and the mainstream LDS church officially stands against polygamy to this day, going so far as stating on the LDS.org site: “Groups who teach polygamy today are not part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Seems the death of polygamy in the LDS church is certain. But reality is never so cut and dry. The church still deals with the residue of their past to this day in the form of jokes, ridicule, ignorance, and even entertainment. Shows like Sister Wives and Big Love open the fresh wound of the polygamy issue on a daily basis. Interestingly enough, the cast of Sister Wives is even filing suit to legalize “cohabitation and bigamy.”
Should be an interesting case.
The lesson here is to ask ourselves how we look at scripture in modern times. Polygamy was clearly given the green light during Joseph Smith’s time and those of the Bible, so if God and his wisdom is a universal constant, why change? Had the United States not issued laws against polygamy, would then church president Woodruff still issue the Manifesto against polygamy? Were his instructions divinely inspired, or reactionary? I don’t know, but cases such as these help us realize the more controversial side of all our scriptures…some that we tend to tuck under the rug as if to hide from view.
Does society change because of divine wisdom, or does divine wisdom adapt to changes in society?
For more information on the church’s position regarding polygamy, visit the LDS website.