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.
"For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife and concubines he shall have none. For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me" (Jacob 2:27-28).
Jacob -- speaking for God -- commands his people not to practice polygamy. He even implies that plural marriage causes women to be less chaste and calls the consequences an abomination. Jacob goes on to review the pain caused by husbands who seek after other wives or concubines:
"For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people...because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands.... Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives and lost the confidence of your children...and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you" (Jacob 2:31-32).
God expresses anger and promises justice against those men who cause such suffering. He acknowledges the sad consequences of altering the traditional family and expounds upon the horrors of violating the intimate trust between a husband and wife. Yet, after expressing his anger toward these polygamous men, God justifies the behavior at his command.
God teaches his people that he fully understands the sorrow of polygamy and commands them not to participate. Yet, when he sees fit, he commands his people to practice it to produce many children very quickly. God implies that sometimes the importance of creating life immediately outweighs the suffering it causes.
His purposes for commanding the quick breeding of children are a mystery to me. Perhaps his people periodically need a new righteous generation. Maybe it was a test of faith for his most righteous followers. Maybe there were many choice souls who needed righteous parents as mentors.
Perhaps loving and nurturing many children is the most essential attribute of Godhood. Polygamous parents may better understand the challenges and rewards of Deity.
Polygamous fathers were given the demanding tasks of providing money, help, counsel, and comfort to their enormous families. As mostly single mothers -- but plural wives -- women were forced to confront feelings of bitterness, jealousy, and loneliness. They often turned to God as a surrogate father for their children and gathered strength from the conviction that they were obeying his commandments, even if it caused them to suffer. Their sacrifice required almost angelic faith and charity.
They were mere mortals attempting the feats of Gods. As consolation for their struggles, God promised that their suffering would be short and their reward eternal. "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him" (Psalms 126).
Likewise, God commanded Christ to suffer in a way that many of us do not understand. His sacrifice saved us and made him Savior and Redeemer of all creation. Surely we who believe in him understand that God may require great sacrifices of us, but we trust that our obedience will bring eternal joy. Polygamous families suffered much and sacrificed much. I think of them with reverence for their faith and strength. Only God could require his children to face hell on earth, yet command them to remain faithful. He alone could comprehend their suffering, yet promise them eternal glory for their sacrifice.
I believe in a wise Heavenly Father who blesses those who suffer for his sake. It seems a miracle that anything good could come of polygamy, but I believe in a God of miracles.