Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
Monogamy, Polygamy, and Humility
In the 1830s, Joseph Smith secretly introduced polygamy into Mormonism. At first this practice was restricted to only a few individuals. During the period when the church was headquartered in Kirtland, Ohio, suspicions and suppositions regarding Joseph’s involvement in polygamy spread and led to difficulties for the church and its leadership. During the 1840s, in Nauvoo, Illinois, polygamy, though still clandestine, grew more extensive. Consequently, it could not be kept secret. The city of Nauvoo buzzed with troubling rumors about various romantic liaisons, while in the surrounding non-Mormon communities moral outrage fueled the opinion that the Mormons had to be expelled from the state.
Mindful of these developments, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other church leaders were contemplating moving the church to another settlement—perhaps to Texas, Wisconsin, Mexico, or the Rocky Mountains—some place where the Latter-day Saints could practice their religion unmolested by the attitudes and actions of others. In 1847, three years after Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob, Brigham Young led the Saints across the plains to the Great Basin. There the practice of polygamy remained a well known secret until August 29, 1852, when on instructions from Young, Apostle Orson Pratt officially made public the practice of “plural marriage” (JD 1:56). Thereafter, polygamy became a rule of the church.
For ten years, a minority of Mormons engaged in this practice under a growing cloud of public censure that linked polygamy and slavery as the twin relics of barbarism. Finally, in 1862, Congress enacted a law that defined polygamy as bigamy and made it a crime in the territories. This was the first attempt by the federal government to eliminate this practice. Mormons considered the law unconstitutional and [p.251] refused to obey it. In March 1863, Brigham Young was arrested on a charge of bigamy and placed under a $2,000 bond, but a trial was never held.
In the late 1860s, public opinion, freed from the concerns of the Civil War, again turned a frowning face westward toward the last barbarity—polygamy. In 1870, Mormon women held a large mass meeting in Salt Lake City to protest anti-Mormon and anti-polygamy legislation pending in Congress. In 1871, Young was again arrested, this time on a charge of unlawful cohabitation. The case went on until April 1872, when it was dropped due to a United States Supreme Court decision that overturned a number of Utah court proceedings.
In 1879, two years after the death of Young, the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional the 1862 anti-bigamy law. This was the beginning of the end for the LDS practice of plural marriage. In March 1882, Congress passed the Edmunds bill, which defined polygamy as “unlawful cohabitation” and disenfranchised from the vote those who continued its practice. A few months later the commission authorized by the Edmunds Act arrived in Utah territory to enforce the disenfranchisement of most of the Mormon population. In 1885, prosecutions of polygamists continued, while the church leadership, for the most part, was forced into hiding. By 1886, in spite of another mass meeting held by Mormon women to protest these actions, the crusade against polygamy continued, and many Mormons fled to sanctuaries in Canada and Mexico, where they could continue the practice. Also in 1886, according to most modern Mormon fundamentalist polygamists, church president John Taylor authorized several men, not church authorities, to keep polygamy alive, even if the church itself abandoned the principle.
The year 1887 saw the passing of the two staunchest defenders of plural marriage, John Taylor, third church president, and Eliza R. Snow, plural wife of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and president of the Mormon women’s Relief Society. By the end of the 1880s, even Mormon opinion began to turn against the practice. In 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued the “Manifesto,” a document declaring that no new plural marriages had been contracted with church approval during the previous year, that plural marriage had not been officially taught in that time, and that the avowed intent of the president of the church was to submit to the constitutional law of the land. It also advised church members to refrain from contracting any marriages forbidden by law. The Manifesto was accepted by the majority vote of the general conference of the church on October 6, 1890. This [p.252] event marked the beginning of the reconciliation between the church and the federal government that eventually led to statehood for Utah in 1896. However, church members continued secretly to contract polygamous marriages in the United States and to openly practice polygamy in the Mormon colonies in Mexico.
In 1904, church president Joseph F. Smith issued the “second manifesto” outlawing polygamy throughout the church and invoking upon those who disobeyed this injunction the penalty of excommunication. Some have argued that this action was taken in order to palliate the U.S. Senate, which had refused to seat duly elected Utah senator and church apostle Reed Smoot on grounds that Mormons in Utah had not really abandoned plural marriage. After three years of hearings, Smoot was allowed to assume his seat in February 1907. In spite of all this, polygamous marriages continued to be contracted, sometimes by or with the approval of church leaders in the highest echelons, leaders such as Apostle Matthias Cowley, whose allegiance to the principle led to his resignation from the Council of the Twelve in October 1905 and church president John Taylor’s son, John W. Taylor, an apostle excommunicated in March 1911 for refusing to abandon the principle and to refrain from performing plural marriages.
Although some Mormons continued to marry polygamously after 1910, the practice became less and less common. In the late teens and throughout the twenties, many church members, though uninvolved in the practice, remained loyal to the principle of polygamy by continuing to honor those who had sacrificed for it and by looking forward to its restoration as a church practice. Others were glad to see its demise. And others, so humiliated by the entire experience, left the church and Utah for refuges like California, where they could find a respite from religious zeal. By the early 1930s, only a small minority of Mormons, convinced that the church had been wrong ever to abandon the practice at all, continued to marry in polygamy.
The official attitude of the church toward these individuals became increasingly severe. In the 1930s, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., counsellor to church president Heber J. Grant, took measures to eradicate the practice once and for all among church members. As a result, polygamists left or were excommunicated from the church, only to claim that a rival priesthood authority derived from church president John Taylor allows them to continue the practice. Today, these groups are shunned by the church and its leadership (Foster; Quinn; Van Wagoner).
In light of this turbulent history, we can say without overstatement [p.253] that, for over one-hundred and fifty years, polygamy has been the nemesis of Mormonism. Church leaders no longer attempt to justify or explain this part of Mormon history. Official pronouncements are confined to clarifications that true Mormons do not practice polygamy and to statements that distance the church from those who do. The emphasis of the church is on promoting monogamous marriages and happy, well adjusted families as the basic unit of a stable and prosperous society. As for church members, we rarely discuss polygamy in church meetings, and when we do, many of us are left feeling troubled and disoriented.
For many, polygamy remains the most embarrassing element of our history and doctrine. We find ourselves still having to explain to outsiders that the LDS church abandoned this practice long ago. We despise the fact that others think we are living outside mainstream, conservative American marriage patterns. Because we want to be seen as respectable, we react to inquiries about or accusations of polygamy with denials and repression. Officially we try to cover up our past. Most converts to the church have only the vaguest understanding of our history on this issue. Though most Mormons are aware that Brigham Young had multiple marriages, many do not realize the extent of Joseph Smith’s involvement with this practice. And those who do, often try to believe he did not have sex with any of his plural wives. Most Mormons are unaware of the polyandrous aspects of marriage practices in Nauvoo, or that Joseph married women already married, sometimes without the knowledge of their husbands. Most Mormons do not know that plural marriages continued to be contracted long after the Manifesto was accepted by the church. They believe that everybody happily complied with the new mandate without reservation. Many want to believe that those who continued the practice of polygamy did so out of lust and rebellion. Many are further confused by the current practice of temple sealings which allows a man after the death of or divorce from his wife to be sealed again to another woman, also for eternity, thus reinforcing the notion that in the next life polygamy will continue. Women especially have had problems with the implication that polygamy might be an essential part of celestial marriage and wonder whether they are to be part of a future celestial harem—a picture that does not comport with the image most women have of an ideal heaven.
For our part, we frankly admit that we have no clear answers to many of the questions raised by the polygamy issue. We can say that we are not attracted to Mormon fundamentalism, largely because we [p.254] believe it is authoritarian, patriarchal, and oppressive. On the other hand, we find somewhat disingenuous the mainstream American and Mormon intolerance for alternative marriage patterns when so many traditional marriages are themselves not strictly monogamous and that, in practice, most people either as a result of death or divorce reach the end of their lives having been involved in more than one marriage. We are both committed to the idea of fidelity and consider promiscuity to be unhealthy primarily because it is rooted in egocentricity. Paradoxically, however, we do not subscribe to the romantically enthralling myth of “the one and only.” We think many people would be psychologically capable of having a loving relationship with more than one person. However, we think most such persons would agree that there is no way to develop and sustain such multiple relationships. In our culture and with our limitations, attempts to do this would undoubtedly shipwreck on the shoals of jealousy, envy, and fear. Nevertheless, though we understand that it is the tendency of most people to accept only that which accords with their received sense of ethics and their need for comfort and security and to reject whatever does not, we also recognize that in the history of the world, different sexual and marital arrangements have arisen in different cultures and that these, in their own way and in their own time, served as well as monogamy.
Confronted as we are with these troubling historical and psychological issues, what sense can be made of Mormonism’s experience with and teachings on plural marriage? Was the entire episode merely the result of one man’s weaknesses and temptations? Was it a moral test posed by God to the first Mormons—a test which they failed? Or was it truly a divine revelation? And, if so, what meaning could such a revelation have for us, who do not practice polygamy? As we have said, we have no clear answers to these questions. We pose them here principally to guide us through the discussion that follows.
Let us first observe that the revelation on polygamy in Doctrine and Covenants 132 was not written until July 12, 1843, some years after the practice of polygamy was first introduced. This text is, nevertheless, important because it contains the only authoritative scriptural defense of the teaching. The primary element in this defense, we think, is the assertion that God’s command to practice polygamy was to the church what God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to Abraham: “Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness” (vv. 34-36).
[p.255] This comparison suggests that an understanding of the meaning and purpose of the arrested sacrifice of Isaac will illuminate our understanding of the meaning and purpose of polygamy. For this reason, we turn once more to the Abraham story, keeping in mind our initial questions: Was the sacrifice of Isaac the result of Abraham’s weaknesses and temptations? Was it a moral test posed by God—a test which Abraham failed? Or was it a divine revelation? And, if so, what was its meaning and purpose for those of us who have not received such a command?
From the Mormon scriptural texts dealing with Abraham, there is little doubt about Abraham’s attitude toward human sacrifice. Although Abraham had inherited from his forefathers the notion that animal sacrifice was to be carried out in “the similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father” (Moses 5:7), Abraham himself, who nearly became a sacrificial victim, viewed human sacrifice with revulsion. Moreover, the texts do not present Abraham as a father who attempts to sacrifice his son out of weakness or temptation in order to control him, or to avoid pain, or as an act of vengeance or propitiation, or as the concoction of a religious fanatic bent on proving his worthiness to God. Nor is the sacrifice presented as a test of wills in which Abraham is torn between his moral repugnance for murder and God’s seemingly senseless command that Isaac be butchered on a stone in the mountain. True, Abraham is grieved that his son must suffer and die, but there is nothing in the text to suggest that Abraham is impaled on the horns of a moral dilemma. He does not agonize over his troubles as does, for example, Job. Nowhere does the text indicate that Abraham was later blessed because he refused to go through with the sacrifice. In fact, the texts agree that Abraham never refused to go through with it. For all intents and purposes, he accomplished it. He not only poised the knife over the breast of his son, he was in the very act of plunging it into him when the angel came and stopped him. Significantly, God never chastises Abraham for this act nor scolds him for going against his own moral scruples. On the contrary, more than one text indicates that Abraham was blessed for his faithfulness in carrying out God’s command. It is because he was willing to sacrifice his son that he is called “father of the faithful.” God’s direct appearance and command is presented in the story to eliminate the issue of uncertainty about the source of the command. The story of Abraham and Isaac begins with the appearance of God. Our modern tendency to disbelieve in direct contact with God obscures the point the story asks us to accept: that [p.256] because of God’s initial intervention Abraham and Isaac are involved in circumstances beyond control. This, then, is not the story of a good man who must prove himself worthy, but of a man who must endure the inevitable and who does so in faith, only to find in the end that God is not only as good as Abraham believed, but is better than he had ever dreamed even in his wildest imaginations. If this had been a story about morality, Abraham would have been a moral failure. But it is, instead, a story about faith, sacrifice, and atonement.
We conclude that the sacrifice of Isaac proceeded from a divine revelation whose principle purpose was to establish or reinforce the mythic notion that the king must willingly die for the sake of his people. Isaac was the child of the covenant, the miracle child, the king who was, in Abraham’s mind, destined to atone for the sins of others. It was only when the angel of God appeared to stop the ritual that Abraham and Isaac learned this was not to be, that there was another greater sacrificial victim who would come to make atonement.
It is hard for many of us, nourished as we are on twentieth-century positivism, to see the necessity of Christ’s sacrificial death. So we tend to interpret it only as a supreme act of love and devotion for humanity, which was performed in a way that would call out of us a corresponding outpouring of love and devotion for God. But for many people in the ancient world it was much more; it was the fulfillment of the myth of the dying god whose death and resurrection were considered essential to the sustaining of life from year to year. The New Testament writer seems to have held this same world view when he quoted Jesus as saying: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24; 1 Cor. 15:36). Seen in this way, Jesus was the seed which fell into the earth and died and then became the tree of life, “which giveth life to all things…” (D&C 88:13). This was the message of the story of the arrested sacrifice: “And if thou [Abraham] shalt die, yet thou shalt possess it [the promised land], for the day cometh, that the Son of Man shall live; but how can he live if he be not dead? he must first be quickened” (JST Gen. 15:11).
This leads us back to our central question. If plural marriage was to the church what the arrested sacrifice of Isaac was to Abraham, then we may assume that it was not merely the outgrowth of Joseph Smith’s personal weaknesses and temptations and that it was not merely a moral test which the church failed. Could polygamy in some way be a revelation in a historical setting of some important divine truth or pattern?
[p.257] In Moses 6:63, we read: “And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal and things which are spiritual; things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.” In other words, in earthly things are reflected the image of heavenly things. Could polygamy, like the arrested sacrifice and the law of Moses, have been meant to point us to something else, something higher?
In our view, polygamy was a revelation of the pattern of the sacred marriage, the hieros gamos, that was thought by people in ancient cultures to insure fertility. Today, we think of fertility mostly in terms of reproducing offspring. This is not a very pleasant notion to our overcrowded world and to many women of childbearing years. But ancient cultures saw fertility as positive. It signified an abundance of those things which make life pleasant and meaningful: food and drink, land and water sources, flocks and herds, goods and chattels, wisdom and good counsel, poetry and song, and a source of energy sufficient to make the world work and cohere.
At the heart of the sacred marriage with its promise of prosperity was the concept of union with God. In the story of Abraham and Sarah, this union occurs when God becomes a partner in the marriage. When Sarah realizes she is barren, she humbles herself and offers her maid, Hagar, to Abraham. Sarah does this in order to “obtain children” from Hagar (Gen. 16:2-3). This was a common practice in Mesopotamia at that time. When a wife gave her handmaid to her husband, the maid in a sense became the wife by assuming her identity. Therefore, the children born to the maid were counted as the offspring of the original wife. In this story, however, Hagar does not cooperate nor does she identify with Sarah. Instead, after Hagar conceives, “her mistress [Sarah] was despised in her eyes.” Sarah, in turn, reacts jealously towards Hagar and begins to treat her harshly. Finally, Hagar runs away to escape Sarah’s ill-treatment. The tragedy of this situation is that neither woman’s suffering seems to make her sensitive to the plight of the other. Note also that the quarrel between them is not over the affection of the common husband, but over their ability to produce an heir.
But God has compassion on them both and gives them both a blessing and a promise that they will each have a son and be the mother of nations. Additionally, we are told, God makes a priesthood covenant with Sarah and her posterity, as well as promising her that kings would spring from her lineage. Thus, Sarah, the priestess and princess, [p.258] becomes the candidate for the sacred marriage. She is chosen to give birth to the miracle child of promise.
But what has all this to do with polygamy? Several scholars have pointed out that the stylistic details of the story of the conception and birth of Isaac fit into the mythic ritual pattern of the sacred marriage rite of the Mesopotamian culture. The implication of this is that the birth of Isaac is the result of the deity’s having sexual intercourse with Sarah. George Widengren comments: “This interpretation would imply an Israelitic adoption of an ancient Canaanite tradition of the visit of a deity to the queen, the sacred marriage, the oracle about the birth of the royal-divine child, the naming of the child, and the prophesying of its future great deeds, and last of all the account of the birth itself” (Hooke, 184-85). Savina Teubal also interprets the conception of Isaac in terms of the sacred marriage rite. She points out that in the statement, “And the Lord visited Sarah as he said and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken,” the Hebrew word for “visit” can have a sexual connotation, for it is used elsewhere in the Old Testament in this sense (126). What emerges from this story is an interlocking marriage pattern that is truly polygamous, involving the many marriages among Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, and Yahweh. We believe that ninetenth-century Mormon polygamy was intended to mirror this pattern—the pattern of the
But why? What purpose could there be and what benefit could inure to the church by the attempt of the early Mormons to replicate these strange arrangements? Perhaps the answer lies in the story. Perhaps the polygamous relationship among Abraham, Hagar, Sarah, and Yahweh was essential if the humans involved were to overcome their limitations. Perhaps God sought to expand and purify these souls by requiring them to grow beyond the natural boundaries of their affections. Like seeds, they had to burst beyond their shells in order to grow into trees of righteousness, pillars in the temple of God (Is. 61:3; Rev. 3:12).
Both the Abrahamic story and the historical practice of polygamy among the early Mormons press us to reexamine our moral assumptions and to come to terms with the connections and contradictions that exist among our deepest feelings of divine love, sexual love, love of offspring, and love of friends. Both challenge our complacency and our comfortable moral and emotional categories. Both remind us of the need to expand our capacities, to move beyond the restrictions and limitations of our traditions. Both teach us that we cannot attain what [p.259] God wants for us unless we are willing to be enlarged beyond the context of relationships we have defined. Both tend to instill in us a commitment to the creation of a unified community out of diverse nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.
In Galatians 4, the apostle Paul refers to the story of Abraham’s two sons and uses it to chastise the Jewish Christians for their elitism, their refusal to accept into the church the Gentiles on an equal footing with themselves. Paul says that Hagar the slave woman represents the law and Sinai, while Sarah the free woman represents the covenant and the heavenly Jerusalem. Paul then turns the tables on his opponents. He says that Ishmael, the child of the slave woman and “born after the flesh,” represents the Jews, whereas Isaac, the child of the free woman and born “by promise” or covenant, represents the converted Gentiles. Paul argues here that if the Jews base their claim of election on their being lineal descendents of Abraham in the flesh, then they must be the children of Ishmael, Abraham’s natural son, whom they have always despised. His purpose in making this argument is to destroy the Jewish saints’ exclusive claim to the covenant of God and to remind them that God’s relationship with humanity is not based upon an elite status, it is not confined to one people alone. God is the God of Ishmael as well as Isaac.
If the purpose of polygamy was to expand the human capacity to love and to accept, then it is significant that Joseph Smith connected polygamy with two other important principles: the law of consecration and stewardship and the concept of the fullness of the priesthood. The idea behind the law of consecration and stewardship is that men and women cannot be equal in heavenly things unless they are first willing to be equal in earthly things. The idea behind the doctrine of the fullness of the priesthood is that the full range of divine gifts and powers can be realized only when men and women are united with each other and with God on an equal footing. These doctrines share common themes: the transcendence of human limitations through the intercession of God, the estimation and love of others as self, and ultimate union with the divine.
But even if we acknowledge that polygamy had a divine source and purpose, we also must acknowledge that people unpersuaded of this could and indeed have raised legitimate theological objections to its practice. Many people feel that polygamy threatens fidelity while monogamy strengthens it. Though we share this concern for fidelity in love relationships, we are not convinced that fidelity will be better [p.260] insured in monogamous relationships. We agree that if a relationship is to be more than fleeting and superficial, if it is to endure and deepen, it must be based on mutual promises, commitment, sacrifice, and maturity. The question is whether it is possible to be faithful to more than one person. Those who practice polygamy affirm that this is possible, although we wonder how many such marriage relationships can be sustained and developed within the context of the ordinary limitations of time, energy, and resources. However, we agree that we cannot subdivide love like we can time. The addition of a new child, for example, does not diminish parents’ love for their other children. But some have argued that the love of parents for their children cannot be equated with the love of spouses for each other. Perhaps there is something to this, but it appears to us that simultaneous fidelity and loyalty to more than one beloved is possible. This is particularly illustrated by men and women whose spouses die and who remarry. The new marriage relationship is not a betrayal of the old (even for Mormons who believe that the old marriage continues).
This very realization occurred to Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s brother. When the principles of eternal marriage and ordinances for the dead were introduced to him, Hyrum wanted to be sealed to his first wife who had died. And yet he also wanted to be sealed to his living wife. He loved them both. He could not choose between them. He realized that both relationships involved fidelity. This experience, more than any other, convinced Hyrum that it was possible to be polygamous and faithful. And for this reason he was able to accept the doctrine of plural marriage as morally sound. Thus infidelity is not necessarily inherent in every polygamous marriage any more than fidelity is in every monogamous one. But in spite of these observations, we agree with those who think that polygamy is likely to attract individuals entirely unsuited to it, people who are, perhaps, seeking to escape one relationship by entering another.
Another common objection to polygamy is that it cannot possibly have divine origins or spiritual purposes because of the sexual nature of the doctrine. Is it not just an excuse for lust? The fact that we can accept the idea of expansion of love in terms of children and friends, but not marriage partners, demonstrates our prejudice that a person who has sexual relations with more than one person is morally reprehensible, even in the confines of plural marriage. This is substantiated by the long-standing debate about whether or not Joseph Smith was intimate with his plural wives. Many say they could accept these [p.261] marriages if Joseph did not have sexual intercourse with the women. What does this say about our attitudes toward sex? As Terence L. Day has pointed out, we as products of Western culture are to some extent uncomfortable with sexuality (8).
In spite of Mormonism’s emphasis on the positive aspects of sex and the finite and anthropomorphic nature of deity, many Mormons share this discomfort. It is difficult for many of us to accept the sexuality of our parents, and some of us can barely stand to see our children become sexually mature. At the same time, incest is within the church a growing problem that is very destructive of spiritual, sexual, and psychological growth. We seem to have no wholeness about our sexual nature. We associate the absence of sexuality with purity, and the presence of it with degeneracy. We tend to see sexuality and spirituality as opposites and want to deny the erotic part of our being. We sense a sort of schizophrenia among our people. This is true of the larger American culture as well. But where many Americans today tend to pursue sex promiscuously and to eschew spirituality almost entirely, we Mormons tend to repress or deny our sexual feelings out of fear and to live by strict codes of behavior which we equate with spirituality. Thus, the pendulum swings between rigidity and licentiousness.
What we need is a balance of these extremes, a balance suggested in the idea of godly temperance, which is the substance of the temple ceremony’s admonition that we should keep our passions within the bounds the Lord has set. We usually think that we are being required by this exhortation simply to contain our passions. But, we think, it is also a call to expand them. Let us explain: Imagine two circles, one very large and the other very small. Let the small circle represent our human passions and the large one represent the passions of God. Picture the smaller circle overlapping slightly the larger one. Let this arrangement represent that our passions are like God’s in some ways but not all. To bring our passions into the bounds the Lord has set does require us to bring our small circle into the circumference of God’s larger one. But it also requires us break the circumference of our small circle so that it can be expanded and begin to approach the magnitude of divine love. We cannot do this until we come to terms with our sexuality, until we are able to see it as an extension and part of our spirituality and personhood. We must be sanctified beyond the shame that is the legacy of the fall and see our sexual desires in a new and blinding light, to see them as an essential part of our eternal nature, something to be magnified not feared.
[p.262] Another valid objection to the doctrine of polygamy is that it encourages deviations from ethical behavior for anyone wishing to depart from ordinary ethical conventions. This is a genuine danger. But it is no more dangerous than believing that our moral constructs are identical to God’s and should be inflexible. Neither of these possibilities is hypothetical. We have seen the results of moral certainty, and they can be appalling. In the church this often manifests itself in the form of judgment and condemnation. We know of one man who upon failing to follow the counsel of his stake leaders not to divorce his wife was excommunicated for his disobedience on grounds that he had committed adultery—in his heart. This could not have happened if his judges were not convinced that their own moral views were absolute and absolutely correct. We also know of others, who believing that they are free from moral constraints and that, to please God, they must prove themselves, have taken actions that contradict established notions of morality or that put themselves and others at serious risk. People who act in these ways are, in our opinion, not simply guilty of immorality. Their problem is a religious one—the problem of distinguishing revelations from temptations.
The question is, how do we do this? Again, we are not certain. Our answers can only be tentative. But it appears to us that the revelations of God could not be of human invention, self-concocted and self-imposed. They would probably be unexpected, unsought for, and simply endured. Their purpose would undoubtedly be to increase faith, love, and knowledge. Temptations, on the other hand, like those of Jesus in the wilderness, would more likely be in the nature of seductions to avoid the pain of enduring by the exertion of control. They would amount to enticements to assuage hunger by making bread out of stones, or to assuage vanity by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple and landing unharmed, or to assuage frustration by attempting to establish the kingdom of God by force. They could also involve attempts to assuage our sense of ordinariness by destroying the fragile fabric of our families and plunging headlong into some new marriage arrangement to show the Godhead that we are worthy of being their favorites, their elite. This is not to say that God will not sometimes call people to something new. But, it seems to us, that genuine revelation would require us to sacrifice ourselves rather than to oppress others, to acknowledge our sins and weaknesses rather than to prove our worthiness, to forgive rather than to seek revenge, to repent rather than to accuse, to reaffirm the equal dignity and value of every human being rather than [p.263] to establish an elite entitled to special privileges and status. As we have seen, the Abraham and Isaac story illustrates these points.
Another objection is that polygamy creates an imbalance between male and female. Women rightly assert that a marriage relationship consisting of one man and many women puts the male in the power position and implies that it takes many women to equal the value of one man. Such a relationship can create competition among the women for the favors of the man and spur men to acquire more and more wives as a symbol of superior status, thus further reducing women to mere objects or property. We share these concerns and for this reason do not argue in defense of polygyny (“many wives”), but have sought in this chapter to better understand polygamy (“many marriages”). In our view, polygyny was not the pattern revealed by God. Our point in emphasizing the story of Yahweh, Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar was to show that in this foundational myth, the pattern revealed was that of plural marriages, not plural wives. The early Mormons, we believe, were required to be polygamous not merely polygynous. Support for this opinion is found not only in the story of Sarah, but in the story of Mary the mother of Christ, who, according to Brigham Young, was married both to Joseph the carpenter and to the heavenly father of Jesus (JD 11:268). Moreover, true polygamy, involving elements of polygyny and polyandry (“many husbands”), was practiced under Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and under Brigham Young in the early Utah period (Van Wagoner; Johnson). Finally, Doctrine and Covenants 132 implies that a married women in the new and everlasting covenant may have more than one spouse if it is appointed by God (vv. 41-42). Though polygamy may not answer all the moral objections that can be raised against it, it at least seems more fair and balanced than polygyny. Moreover, true polygamy encourages role reversals and thereby creates an experiential basis for one spouse’s understanding of the other’s jealousy of as well as love for others.
The last objection that many raise to polygamy is its impracticality. Even if we concede its divine origins, polygamy seems doomed to flounder on human jealousy, fear of rejection, envy, egocentricity, exhaustion—not to mention such mundane constraints as time and money. The conflict between Sarah and Hagar illustrates this problem well. This last and simplest objection may be the best. For most of us, one marriage is challenging enough. We live in a day and age when the prospects of multiple marriages is mind-boggling and, frankly, distasteful. However, the fact that people continue to have affairs and divorces [p.264] may demonstrate that simple monogamy is not adequate to deal with the complex psychology of human beings.
Perhaps the most our generation can learn from the polygamy experience of the early Mormons is to have humility and charity, to reserve judgment, to remain open-minded, especially about matters we consider settled, and to be ready to reexamine our own attitudes about gender, sex, and marriage and our own prejudices against the notion that sexuality and spirituality are closely connected. Perhaps, the single conclusion that can be distilled from the complex and often competing concerns raised in this chapter is, predictably, a paradoxical one: Though there are good reasons to disagree fundamentally with the concept of polygamy, to heartily disapprove of the marriage practices of Joseph Smith and the early Mormons, to be committed to monogamy as the best arrangement for the promotion of fidelity in marriage and the development of healthy and happy families, nevertheless we of the late twentieth century have no basis to assume a morally superior posture toward those who for one reason or another have sought, through conventional or nonconventional means, the resolution of the tensions created by our enigmatic psycho-sexual natures. [p.265]