As a church, we often enumerate the struggles of the early saints and praise them for their faith. But amid all the tributes we pay, I have noted silence on one of the most heart-wrenching trials of the early Mormons: polygamy.
I believe that, privately, even the most faithful Mormons question why those who suffered everything were commanded to forsake even the happiness of a committed, monogamous marriage. But we don't often talk about it, because we don't know what to say. We struggle to reconcile our sense of morality and our belief in the church with our church's polygamous roots.
The first time I seriously contemplated my ties to polygamy, I was a missionary in Spain. There I met many people who were unfamiliar with the Mormons. Some would concentrate for a few moments before exclaiming, "Ah-hah! You're the polygamists!" Usually an expression of pleased certainty, mixed with disapproval, would settle upon their faces. "No," I would confidently reply, "we are not polygamists. In our church, the only marriage recognized by God is between one man and one woman. If a member of the church is caught practicing polygamy, he or she is excommunicated."
I felt proud to dispel that ugly rumor, and a little angry at being accused of such a thing. After all, the church discontinued the practice of polygamy more than a century ago, in 1890.
Sometimes, as I reflected upon my words, my adamant denunciations of polygamy troubled me. If I believed in our church, how could I rail against plural marriage? It was a cornerstone of faith to the early Mormon prophets and pioneers. Many of my own ancestors were plural wives and polygamous men. I felt guilty for disparaging their way of life. I wished to be more loyal to those who built the foundations of both my family and my religion.
Polygamy seemed completely contrary to the values most emphasized by the modern Church of Latter-day Saints: fidelity and family unity.
Since my mission, I have discussed my feelings with a few close friends. Together we have pondered the horrors of sharing a husband, and asked if God could approve. One friend hypothesized that the institution of plural marriage was nothing but a respectable way to satisfy the lusts of Joseph Smith. She stopped believing in the church he founded and the scriptures he translated.
I find this path unsatisfying. Just as I have pondered the evils of polygamy, I have also pondered the miracle of Joseph Smith's vision and his incredible life. While I still have many unanswered questions about polygamy, my belief in Joseph Smith's prophetic call is sure. Therefore, my investigation for the truth about plural marriage must go beyond Joseph Smith. My query is to God.
Evidence suggests that God condoned polygamy at certain periods in history. Joseph Smith was not the first prophet to practice plural marriage. The Bible records that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had multiple wives, with God's approval. The written history notes the difficulty of the prophets' marriages. Jealousy and competitiveness were constant threats. Wives battled for their husband's attention, affection, and bed.
Such strife hardly seems compatible with a prophet's holy calling or reverent nature. Yet the Bible records again and again God's pleasure with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are called blessed and favored for their righteousness.
The most disturbing proof of divinely endorsed polygamy involves King David and his son Solomon, who alone had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Neither king was ever criticized by God for polygamy.
I find the best explanation in the Book of Mormon. The prophet Jacob teaches the Nephites that God disapproves of polygamy, except in special circumstances, because it is so painful to his daughters.