Of all the doctrines once taught and believed and practiced by the Church, the most famous, the most well-known is surely polygamy. Though it’s been officially disavowed since 1890 (or, at least, since 1904), it’s often the only thing people outside our faith know about us. Certainly, when I served my mission in Norway in the 1970s, Mormon equaled polygamy in most folks minds. They’d hear “Mormon” and either purse their lips in disapproval, or laugh. Big Love ran 5 seasons on HBO, and Sister Wives, a popular reality TV series, has broadcast on TLC since 2010. Of course, the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavows polygamy as practiced by fictionally on HBO, or in the highly mediated ‘reality’ of TLC, but in both shows, its practice is rooted in Mormon tradition, in the revelations of Joseph Smith. It’s not unfair to call their characters ‘Mormons.’
In the history of our Church, plural marriage went through a remarkable evolution. From the beginnings of the Church, polygamy was shrouded in secrecy, privately taught and (perhaps) clandestinely practiced. It then went public, and became the only thing people knew about us. It then went underground for awhile, until reemerging in subterranean enclaves. It was officially espoused, but also also officially condemned, though vestigial doctrinal remnants remain.
Joseph Smith certainly married multiple women (28? 31? 44?), as did others of the Twelve. Although officially denied, furtive polygamy was a shrouded part of Nauvoo culture. The 1843 revelation on polygamy, canonized as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants wasn’t widely disseminated. Plus, there’s good old Emma. Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s first wife, who, uh, wasn’t a fan. The proximate cause to Joseph Smith’s murder was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, and its one and only issue, which exposed the practice of polygamy.
Secrets get exposed; that’s their main reality. When it became clear that the martyred prophet had received a revelation on polygamy, it wasn’t long before the Church embraced it, fully and publicly. Though, to be sure, Brigham Young made sure he’d put a mountain range between him and the people who were trying to kill him first.
So, 1851-1890. Plural marriage becomes part of Mormon culture, part of Utah life, part of LDS doctrine. I want to reiterate: I’m not an historian. I’m a retired playwright with wifi. Many many people know way more about this than I do. But my Mom’s family came from polygamous stock; I’m proud of my history and heritage. My Mom descended from Stephen Markham and his fourth (I think) wife Mary. He’s my FPA (Famous Pioneer Ancestor). My wife’s family comes from another FPA, Peter Maughan. And we tease each other about it; who would have won a fight between them. In fact, both Markham and Maughan were early Utah settlers; it’s not at all unlikely that they might have known each other.
Larger point, though: plural marriage was officially sanctioned doctrine. There were many many many talks, from the pulpit at General Conference, by men of Apostolic rank or higher, including successive Presidents of the Church and thus prophets, seers, and revelators, who taught that a plurality of wives was central to the Great and Everlasting Covenant, and therefore necessary for exaltation. And that was what was taught, most specifically by Brigham’s successor, John Taylor, in a big, highly disputed revelation in 1886.
There were women, at the time, who supported it. And we have to remember the context; LDS polygamy flourished in the Victorian era. Not a good epoch for women. Kind of a horror show for women and marriage. Income inequality led to massive social dislocation, leading to widespread abject poverty, leading to exceptionally high rates of prostitution, exacerbated by an incredibly hypocritical sexual double standard. Victorian men cheated on their wives with impunity, and mostly without consequence, except for a burgeoning syphilis epidemic. At least LDS men, when they slept around, did so with women to whom they were married. For many, many women, polygamy may have been marginally better than the alternative. Some sister wives really did become close friends. Others regarded their co-wives as succubi. My grandmother once told me of two women she knew, sisters and co-wives, who, when one of them died, it may have been homicide. Frontier women had a workload that was, literally, lethal. At least plural marriage divided that workload up a little. That’s the best case I can make for The Practice.
I’m not going to get into the various court cases regarding polygamy, except to point out that the Church had a strong religious liberty case to make constitutionally. Also, again, there are lots of people who know more about this than I do. The argument against it (us) was, essentially, a legal brief for traditional marriage. Ponder that irony, but also consider this; Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto, in 1890, doesn’t read as terribly heartfelt. Utah wanted admission as a state, and the Church stood to lose its financial autonomy. We’d lost the legal battle; best to surrender with as good a grace as possible.
Meanwhile, clandestine polygamy continued. Joseph F. Smith’s 1904 Second Manifesto was probably intended to put the matter to rest. Two apostles were excommunicated, and although practitioners weren’t required to give up long-standing marriage arrangements, officially sanctioned polygamy finally did fade away.
Of course, there are still lots of people who still practice polygamy in Utah and surrounding states. Some of them seem more like insane criminals than like decent folks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t non-crazy, well-meaning, well-intended plural families around. I don’t know them well, but have engaged in dialogue, and let me tell you, they can quote John Taylor’s 1886 polygamy revelation at you until the cows come home.
But I’m not part of that circle. I’m an active, Church-attending, calling-accepting active LDS guy. And I don’t believe in polygamy, wouldn’t practice it if I was asked to, or even commanded to, and recoil from the notion that it might be reinstated.
My good friend and former student, Melissa Leilani Larson, wrote a play a few years ago called Pilot Program. About a contemporary husband and wife, active in the Church, who are asked by Church leaders to add another wife to their marriage. It’s a wonderful play, powerful and moving. And it filled my soul with sheer horror. What a nightmare. Our contemporary understanding of marriage would not, I think, comfortably sustain plurality. We believe in marriage based on two things; romantic love, and absolute equality. Those strike me as incompatible with polygamy. That was not true in the 19th century. It just wasn’t.
Of course, vestiges of polygamous doctrine remain. If a couple are sealed together in the temple, and he dies, she cannot remarry in the covenant. He can. And single women are ‘comforted’ with well-meaning bromides about how they’ll be eventually sealed to a worthy male. Cold comfort indeed.
So, no. I do not believe that polygamy’s coming back, and couldn’t be happier about that. I’m perfectly happy in my own marriage, thank you. What about our history, though? How do I reconcile it?
I don’t know. That’s where I come down: I don’t know. I do know lots of people, men and women, who believe that polygamy was never anything but a mistake. That Joseph Smith was not inspired, and that D&C 132 should be dropped from the canon of scripture. They believe this quietly, for the most part, but I do know people who think that way. It’s an attractive idea, that the single thorniest issue of our past was nothing aberrant.
But I don’t know. I’m troubled by our polygamous past, but also inspired by it, inspired by the real lives of extraordinary women (mostly women), who worked through heart-break and loneliness and despair to make their preposterous marriages work. I’m inspired by what little I know about Mary Curtis Markham, my ancestor. It’s hard to think that her life-long toil was in support of pure error. It’s equally hard to conceive of God requiring something that feels so entirely and comprehensively wrong. Commandment or ghastly mistake; it’s part of our history. And it’s not coming back. Let it go at that.