Multiply and Replenish
Mormon Essays on Sex and Family
Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage
[p.103]In this essay I explore an idea—the general Mormon expectation of polygamy in heaven—that has important religious and moral implications but about which there is little definite scriptural direction and no clear official doctrine. I attempt a reconsideration of our traditional popular thought that is, of course, unauthoritative—but serious. I suggest some new, possibly beneficial, ways we might think and feel about monogamous marriage—both as it is and as it might be. My essay is not a critique of official Mormon practice or doctrine but an invitation to reexamine some unofficial ideas and expectations which persist among most Mormons because of a past practice—a practice I believe was divinely inspired but also believe was divinely, and permanently, rescinded.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar contains a crucial scene after Brutus has decided to join the conspiracy and kill Caesar. Brutus is reflecting on that decision in his orchard in the early morning when his wife Portia joins him. Awakened when Brutus has left her side and alarmed by the voices and cloaked figures of the departing conspirators, she worries that all this may be related to his “musing and sighing” at dinner the night before and the “ungentle looks” and “impatience” with which he had waved her aside. Even now Brutus claims he is merely “not well in health” and tells her to “go to bed.” But Portia will not be dismissed and speaks straight to the heart of his real illness:
[p.104]You have some sickness of offense within your mind,
Which, by the right and virtue of my place,
I ought to know of.…
I ask you, by my once commended beauty,
By all your vows of love, and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, yourself, your half,
Why you are heavy.…
Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it there stated I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I yourself
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
[That is, am I one with you in only a limited way?]
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.1
Portia then reminds Brutus of the qualities of lineage and character that first drew him to her and, as further proof of her firmness and courage to bear his painful and intimate secrets, reveals that she had wounded herself in the thigh but had suffered patiently all night without troubling him. Brutus exclaims, “O ye gods. Render me worthy of this noble wife!” But he does nothing to achieve that worthiness. A knock at the door signals an additional conspirator to be won over, and Brutus readily allows this crucial opportunity with his wife to be interrupted. Although he promises Portia that “by and by thy bosom shall partake / The secrets of my heart,” he never keeps that promise. Had he shared his deepest self with his other half, his wife, and had then been advised by her better perspective, this man, whom Marc Anthony later calls “the noblest Roman of them all,” might have been deterred from bringing greater evil on Rome than the evil he sought to cure. Instead, he destroys the life of Portia, who kills herself by swallowing hot coals after she learns what he has done and sees what his fate will be. And Brutus finally takes his own life after Octavius and Anthony defeat his armies at Philippi.
Shakespeare thus shows how well he understood the importance of fidelity, the complete faithfulness, loyalty, and sharing that is [p.105]possible only when a man and a woman join their full lives—physical, mental, and spiritual—in what he called “the marriage of true minds”2 He saw fidelity as central to married love, which he portrayed as the supreme form of human happiness and wholeness at the end of each of his comedies—and the violation or interruption of which lies at the heart of most of the tragedies and late romances.
I believe Shakespeare is right. Marital fidelity is central to mortal joy and eternal life, and great catastrophes are already resulting from our current neglect of it, in society generally and in too many Mormon marriages. It is the key to our concepts of sexual morality before and after marriage. And there is, I believe, a serious danger to the ideal of fidelity–and thus both to our sexual morality and to our concepts of ourselves as eternal men and women–in the expectation, shared I fear by many Mormons, that the highest form of marriage in the celestial realm is what is technically called polygyny, plural wives for a single husband.
I believe official Mormon polygyny, as it was practiced in the nineteenth century, was inspired by God through his prophets. (I emphasize this point because some, who have heard about but not read this essay carefully, have assumed the opposite.) I am the descendant of polygynists. I honor those literal ancestors and my many spiritual ancestors who lived that law—faithfully, morally, and at enormous costs to themselves and the church. Those costs included alienation from American culture and from their own moral training, martyrdom for a few, and nearly the total destruction of their church and culture by the United States government, which was willing to use brutal and in my view unConstitutional means to force Mormon conformity. I believe that the good achieved by polygyny—including probably the cohesion forced by the extreme social and moral isolation and persecution it provoked—outweighed those costs and made possible the establishment and success of the church during its beginning period. And when that practice had achieved its purposes, limited to a specific historical period and place, God took it away.
I believe God removed polygyny by inspiration to his prophets because it was no longer worth the costs it exacted. It was not removed because our ancestors lacked the courage or ability to continue to pay those costs or merely wanted to accommodate themselves to mainstream American values. I believe that anyone who honestly examines the [p.106]evidence will conclude that there were terrible difficulties and mistakes, embarrassing vacillations and equivocations, even transgressions and deceptions (by both church leaders and lay members), that accompanied both the beginning and the end of polygyny. But I do not believe that the problems accompanying plural marriage came, as some have alleged, because Joseph Smith was uninspired or lustful or because Brigham Young and John Taylor persisted in a mistake against God’s will. As I read their letters, journals, and sermons and the accounts and testimony of those who knew them best, I find evidence, despite mistakes and problems, that Joseph Smith had great self-control and that all three prophets were divinely inspired leaders who would not persist in a form of marriage—the supreme sacrament of Mormon theology—that was contrary to God’s will.
The anguish, mistakes, and problems that instituting polygyny brought to Mormons came because most people involved were trying to respond to what they believed was undeniable new revelation that nevertheless directly countered their own moral inclinations and Christian training. And I believe that in that clash of the old moral code with new revelation lies the best answer to the question of why. Why would God require such a strange practice, one counter to standard Christian morality and inherited rationality, one that contradicted sensible and God-given moral laws—and thus could be practiced only at enormous cost?
There are parallels in other difficult questions, such as: Why would God command his faithful prophet Abraham to kill his son Isaac, when God condemned human sacrifice as immoral? or, Why would God deny priesthood blessings to blacks, counter to his own teachings about universal equality? Polygyny was, as the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 132 indicates, an “Abrahamic” test, that is, a command by God to violate an earlier commandment: “God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. … Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? … Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it. 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” (v. 35; see vv. 34-37).
God apparently uses such a unique and uniquely troubling test to teach us the crucial but paradoxical truth that personal experiences [p.107]with divinity must outweigh our rational assumptions about morality. Obedience to divine commands sometimes supersede our understanding of earlier commands. If we are to transcend the human limitations of even our best inherited culture and religion, we must learn, sometimes painfully, to be open to change. Truth and history are too complex to be reduced to simple, irrevocable commandments—even from past prophets—like “Thou shalt always have only one spouse.” Truth must be ultimately “rational,” but its logic is not always or immediately clear to our present reason.
Our ancestors’ obedience to the new and “contradictory” revelation of polygyny, I believe, both tested and confirmed their worthiness to build God’s kingdom. They learned, as Shakespeare also knew, that “Sweet are the uses of adversity”.3 And they learned that lesson from the most wrenching human adversity—when contraries are posed by God himself. But if polygyny was an Abrahamic test, and thus a means to reveal and develop qualities necessary in one particular and unusual historical setting, it is not necessary to project this lifestyle into the eternities as the basis for a celestial order, as many Mormons now do. Heaven is, by definition, a place where cultural limitations and historical peculiarities of earth-life no longer prevail. Abrahamic tests and other special historical requirements, such as “lower” laws like the Levitical priesthood for the ancient Israelites and tithing for us, teach us much about God’s flexible dealing with human limitations and historical conditions but little about a supernatural celestial order, beyond such temporary mortal conditions.4
What then could such a supreme order be like? What should be our model of celestial marriage? Though we are given very little direct description of that highest heaven, the scriptures clearly support a theology of absolute fidelity between equal partners as the basis for sexual morality, marital happiness, eternal increase and, in its fullest implications, for godhood itself, the creative relationship and resulting power that makes all existence possible:
Neither is the man without the woman nor the woman without the man, in the Lord (1 Cor. 11:11).
And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. … therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh (Gen. 2:23-24).
[p.108]For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things (2 Ne. 2:11).
Black and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God (2 Ne. 26:33).
The theology of eternal, faithful sexuality as the foundation of divinity itself based on these and other scriptures is unique to Mormonism and is profoundly attractive to me. Just as the atonement of Jesus is the key to our salvation from sin and death in this life, so celestial marriage seems to be the key to exaltation, or eternal progression, both now and in the life to come.
The Mormon theology of marriage has two main characteristics. First, it implies that complementary oppositions lie at the heart of physical, moral, and social existence. The most fundamental of these is the male-female polarity. That fundamental opposition, when it is tamed and matured into physical and spiritual unity, makes possible the creation and proper nurture both of mortal children and of spirit children to populate new universes. Female-male unity (which God has powerfully imaged in the concept of becoming “one flesh”) ideally involves complete sharing—between separate, co-eternal individuals and without loss of our own individuality—of all our singularity, vulnerability, trust, hopes, and potentialities.
Since celestial marriage is a crucial requirement for exaltation to godhood, Mormon theology suggests that the maturity essential to discovery and exaltation of the self is ultimately possible only in a fully equal, bi-polar but thus complementary, individual-to-individual synthesis. The supreme figure for this ideal, powerfully reinforced each time faithful Mormons attend temple or sealing ceremonies, is that of the earth’s first lovers and parents: We are each invited to become, figuratively, Adam or Eve. We are thus imaginatively united in that perfect one-to-one unity established in the beginning by God, because “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2: 18). The Hebrew word for “alone” means incomplete, unfulfilled, rather than lonely. We are united that we might “know” each other, meaning in Hebrew to fully comprehend and share our being, sexually and in all other ways.5 The highest model for marriage, then, established in Eden and reinforced in the most sacred LDS ceremonies, is monogamous and centered in full one-to-one fidelity.
The image of becoming one flesh is realized most literally, of [p.109]course, in conception, when our bodies actually unite to make new life. The sexual relationship perfectly represents spiritual union within polarity, that one-to-one sharing that ultimately makes possible the creativity enjoyed by the gods themselves. We can violate that creative union of two opposites in various ways—by immature haste or promiscuity, by self-gratification or lust (outside marriage or even within it if sex is indulged in selfishly), by lying to each other, by not sharing fully and often our deepest feelings and hopes, by refusing to be vulnerable and thus walling off parts of ourselves, by not working constantly to justify and build complete trust.
The second main idea about marriage in Mormon theology is that since the fullest and highest form of love in the universe, the love that makes godhood possible, is the fully sexual and exclusive love of a man and a woman eternally committed to each other, it is the key to our highest joys and exaltations—or our greatest pains and failures. That love, even if the accidents of mortal life may prevent children, is the love that will continue the work and glory of God through eternal increase and creation in the hereafter. Therefore heterosexual married love is the ideal held out for all and eventually made available to all: Mortal probation continues for a long time after death in order to provide equal opportunities to all, and our theology promises that any genetic, developmental, or cultural problems or physical accidents that prevent marriage or children in this life will be resolved and opportunities for such marriages and children will be provided everyone in the next life.
But, as I understand it, Mormon theology also promises serious consequences if we oppose or neglect that ideal. There are prohibitions against homosexual activity and extramarital intercourse and discouragements against lust—of promiscuous, selfish, or obsessive eroticism—even in marriage. The only rational explanation, it seems to me, for such warnings and prohibitions is that by their nature certain practices either tend to center on self rather than on relationship and to deny the creative integrity of sexual intercourse—that is, its unique capability, at least in potential, to produce new life—or they violate the trust and fidelity that the vulnerability and creative power of male-female union both nurture and need.
What then about polygyny? It, in my view, does not fit the model of one-to-one fidelity I have described. First, we must consider the [p.110]possibility that polygyny really does not violate fidelity, that if people are good enough they can have trust and sexual wholeness with more than one person. If this were true of our polygynous ancestors, as it could have been, might it be even more likely in the celestial realms where the conditions and our capabilities will be much better than what we know now? I have found that this is the hope and assumption of many, perhaps most, Latter-day Saints who have seriously considered the possibility they might eventually live in plural marriage.
I find two problems with such a hope. First, it is based on a dangerous notion: that getting more of a good thing is an improvement, that great love for one person is better if extended to great love for many people. Consider, however, the differences between the various elements that make up truly complete love. They include charity or unconditional, Christlike love—but also friendship and erotic love, love that makes choices, love that is based on differential desires. The unconditional, redemptive love God has for all his children and commands us all to learn is certainly capable of being multiplied to many people. But such unconditional love is only a part of married love. And the other elements of a complete, married love, including restrictive obligations, covenants of complete and exclusive sharing, and the creative sexual love that makes new children and universes possible, are not improved by multiplication. In fact, they seem to be destroyed or at least weakened by it. Romantic, married love is, I believe, strengthened by being exclusive, even for the gods.
Eternal marriage uniquely includes all the elements of love: the exclusive, the inclusive, and the unconditional. Although it can expand greatly, even to include Christ-like sacrificial love for populous worlds of spirit children, it will nevertheless be injured by forces that weaken by division powerful bonds of filial obligation and sexual fidelity. In other words, celestial married love differs from mortal love not because it includes a larger group of individuals but because it includes a greater degree of the same kind of love required for earthly relationships—sexual love and idiosyncratic “liking” as well as greater charity or Christ-like love. But those unique and exclusive extra qualities, which give married love the greatest potential of any relationship, require the fully mutual fidelity only possible between one whole woman and one whole man bound together by covenant.
Such fidelity, I believe, moves us beyond polygyny or polyandry, [p.111]beyond patriarchy or matriarchy, beyond priesthood in its usual functions and meaning. It seems to me that those are all lower laws, serving their inspired purposes—but only during certain mortal times with their cultural limitations. The ideal celestial order of marriage—of power, of creation, and of administration—will be the one the temple marriage sealing ceremony invites us to look forward to if we are faithful: a full and equal complementarity of queen and king, priestess and priest. It will be what church president Ezra Taft Benson has said is the third priesthood order, “described in modern revelation as an order of family government where a man and woman enter into a covenant with God—just as did Adam and Eve—to be sealed for eternity, to have posterity, and to do the will and work of God throughout their mortality.”6
Just as the lower Aaronic (or Levitical) priesthood is superseded by the Melchizedek when historical conditions or individual maturity warrant, so I believe Melchizedek priesthood is a preparatory order that will be to some extent superseded by the fully equal order that men and women receive when sealed in the temple. And though we are apparently not yet mature enough to implement that order fully and administratively on earth, we should, it seems to me, try to imagine it for the future, at least in the celestial kingdom, and prepare ourselves for it by living it as fully as possible now.
That brings me to a second problem with the dubious argument that in celestial marriage we will be more able to love inclusively. Such an expectation can tempt us to love inclusively and thus superficially—even promiscuously—in this life. Mormons sometimes joke about looking forward to polygamy—because it will be more sexually diversified for men or less sexually demanding or psychologically intense for women (or will simply allow a division of labor in a household to the advantage of women). The serious edge under these jokes sometimes emerges in open longing for something “better” than we know in monogamy, perhaps a wider circle of easy friendships, unfettered by the full demands and resultant exclusions of being one flesh with one individual.
The trouble with these jokes and serious hopes is their projected flight from the full responsibilities of married love right now, which includes loving unconditionally—but also being an intimate friend, having children, sharing one’s deepest self, and being fully vulner-[p.112]able. In Michael Novak’s words, “Seeing myself through the unblinking eyes of an intimate, intelligent other, an honest spouse, is humiliating beyond anticipation.”7 And we are tempted to avoid that humiliation, however redemptive it is. Having comparatively shallow, friendly, intellectual, artistic relations with a group of people, even having merely sexual adventures with a variety, is not as difficult as developing a full relationship of fidelity with one person. And I fear that many Mormon men and women let the expectation of polygyny as the ideal future order justify their inclination to be vaguely promiscuous or superficial in sexual relationships, to flirt or share their identity with a number of people, or simply to withdraw from the struggle into blessed singularity—and there too often to be satisfied with some version of love of self. In short, I fear some Mormons, assuming future polygyny, practice for it now by diverting their affections and loyalties away from the arduous task of achieving full spiritual and physical unity with the one person they would otherwise inescapably have to face, an imperfect spouse.
The nineteenth-century Mormon experience shows that such temptations are intrinsic to polygyny. Those who lived it best, most devotedly and successfully, apparently found they could do so only by making the relationships more superficial—that is, less romantic, less emotionally intense and focused. Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, wife of three men, including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and one of the strongest public advocates of polygamy, was quoted in the New York World, 19 November 1869, as saying, “A successful polygamous wife must regard her husband with indifference, and with no other feeling than that of reverence, for love we regard as a false sentiment: a feeling which should have no existence in polygamy.”8 Vilate Kimball, first wife of Heber C., counselled an unhappy plural wife that “her comfort must be wholly in her children; that she must lay aside wholly all interest or thought in what her husband was doing while he was away from her.”9
Diaries, letters, and reminiscences of polygynous wives and children reveal that suppressing the romantic dimension of married love was indeed one of the costs of polygyny, whatever its compensating values. Even the best relationships appear to have been bittersweet. But I fear that such a flight from the complete love that includes romance may actually appeal both to overly idealistic unmarried [p.113]Mormons and to Mormons who are not completely happy in their marriages now. If so, it is an unfortunate compromise, one without genuine compensating values and one to be repented of rather than rationalized by the hope that eternal marriage will be polygynous. One of the most horrifying results of this idea, conveyed by some teachers of LDS youth, that polygyny is a “purer” love, is that they prepare some young women to be persuaded by Mormon fundamentalists that they can engage in that “higher” order right now. Such thinking can also encourage promiscuity in the young married, who may share their deepest feelings, even sexual interests, too broadly; it can encourage passivity in the middle-aged, who may thus neglect the constant struggle for full fidelity, which includes romance and friendship; and it can encourage irresponsibility in the old, who may finally retreat from their life-long task of building a deep and full celestial love into bored tolerance or silent alienation.
Now let me turn to a consideration of why, in addition to the serious danger to fidelity, I believe polygyny, though it was once an inspired practice, is not an eternal principle. I have five main reasons.
1. A requirement so central and important to our eternal salvation should be firmly grounded in the scriptures, but it is not. In fact, the clearest scriptures state that polygyny is only an occasional requirement, otherwise extremely dangerous. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Jacob reports the Lord’s insistence that David’s and Solomon’s polygyny was “abominable,” apparently, as the Lord suggests in Doctrine and Covenants 132:37-38, because they went beyond what he commanded them. The Lord tells the Nephite men categorically to have one wife only and no concubines—no divided fidelity of any kind (Jacob 2:27). In this general exhortation to chastity and monogamy, God offers only one exception: “For if I will … raise up seed unto me, I will command my people” (v. 30). The only such exception we know about since that time is documented in Doctrine and Covenants 132, where the Lord commanded his young church to practice polygyny, and we must assume that commandment was given for that fundamental purpose stated in the Book of Mormon.
I think the operative words in the Lord’s statement of his one exception, “to raise up seed,” are “unto me.” Polygyny, historical evidence indicates, did not produce a larger number of children; it [p.114]was more likely instituted because of the Abrahamic test and because it concentrated children in well-organized and elite families. My sense is that it produced a more devout and religiously well-trained progeny. That is certainly what some leaders, such as Brigham Young10 and Erastus Snow,11 believed was a central purpose and effect of polygyny. My chief evidence that they were right is the subjective one that well into the 1950s and 1960s, when the surge in new convert members began, I was present at a number of meetings where standing count indicated that a huge majority of active Mormons, especially leaders, were descendants of polygynists, a much larger percentage than the percentage of Mormons who actually practiced polygyny.
At any rate, Doctrine and Covenants 132 does not say or imply that polygyny is anything more than an exception, commanded for a specific purpose relevant to a specific historical circumstance and, by implication, to be rescinded when those circumstances changed or when the costs began to outweigh the benefits.
All of the passages in section 132 about eternal conditions and promises relate to “the new and everlasting covenant,” to what will happen “if a man marry a wife … and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise” (v. 19), that is, to eternal marriage, not to plural marriage. The language concerning plural marriage, it seems to me, simply grants permission to engage in this practice when required, with precise conditions: “If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another [by the law of the priesthood], and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second … then is he justified” (v. 61).
Only two verses of section 132 could be read as support for eternal polygyny. Verse 39 declares that David will not inherit his wives “out of this world” because of his sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, possibly implying that had he not sinned he would have inherited those wives in the next life. And verse 63 states that plural wives are given to a man “to multiply and replenish the earth … and to fulfill 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.” At most these verses suggest that polygyny might continue for those sealed into it here on earth, not that it will be required of others.
[p.115]However, if we interpret the verse 63 to imply polygyny in heaven, it requires that we see the purpose of celestial plural wives as primarily to bear more spirit children, more of “the souls of men.” One of the popular concepts of eternal polygyny is that each male god will keep his plural wives pregnant most of the time to produce those billions of spirit children for “the eternal worlds” referred to in Doctrine and Covenants 132:63. This notion seems so obviously wrong, so demeaning to women, that I am tempted to simply dismiss it, but I have found that enough Mormons, including teachers of religion, espouse such an argument that I must respond.
The assumption is that it would take a woman nine months to bear each spirit (which would be about 60 billion years to produce the 80 billion spirit children for an earth like ours). To try to reduce that time to, say, 20 billion years, through requiring plural wives and turning them into birth machines, is absurd on the face of it. To imagine such an inefficient way to produce spirit children insults God and to imagine such a limited, unequal role for women in eternity insults and devalues them—and our Heavenly Parents.
Though the scriptures are at most ambiguous, it is true that a number of nineteenth-century Mormon apostles and prophets, in their defense of polygyny, indeed clearly claimed it was the celestial order of marriage, including Brigham Young12 and Joseph F. Smith.13 However, in the same sermons they asserted or implied, with the same conviction, one or more of the following: that the wives of those who do not practice polygamy will be, in the next life, given to those who do14; that the more wives and children one has in this life, the greater one’s future glory15; that if Utah did not receive statehood before polygamy was abolished, it never would16; and that the practice of polygyny by the church would never be taken away.17 Since we no longer believe—or accept as inspired—those other claims, the associated claim, that celestial marriage is polygynous, is at least called into question.
The situation is similar to that of denying priesthood to blacks. Some apostles and prophets until recent times stated that the policy was rooted in pre-existent choices and the eternal nature of blacks or their ancestors.18 But in the same sermons or writings they also recorded their equally firm beliefs that interracial mixing with blacks would bring death19 or that the Civil War would not free the slaves20 [p.116]or that blacks would never receive the priesthood in this life until all whites had.21 All of those claims have been proven false—and thus uninspired. We should all aspire to the courage of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who, after the 1978 revelation flatly contradicted his (and other prophets’) earlier teachings that blacks would never receive the priesthood on earth, declared: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world [about how ‘all are alike unto God … black and white’ (2 Ne. 26:33)].”22
The same Book of Mormon passage states that “all are alike unto God … male and female.” We now have additional light and knowledge, because of the 1890 revelation and subsequent church teachings, to overcome our “limited knowledge” of what that means. Because God spoke in the 1978 revelation to end the practice of priesthood denial to blacks we should seriously question the rationale that well-meaning church members developed to explain that practice: the racist and unscriptural notion that blacks were not “valiant” in the premortal world. And because God spoke in 1890 to end the practice of polygyny, we should also question the rationale that well-meaning church members developed to justify it: the sexist and unscriptural notion of post-mortal plural marriage. Analogies are not proofs, but this one should encourage us to reassess our post-Manifesto understanding of marriage.
I realize this is a troubling position: If we start questioning some statements of church leaders, why not all? Though I sympathize with—and share—this anxiety, the assertion that revelation is either totally true or totally untrue is a false dichotomy. We simply do not believe, as Mormons, that we must accept all scripture and prophetic teaching as equally inspired, and we have no doctrine of prophetic infallibility. The scriptures and modern church leaders themselves have made this point again and again and have given us guidelines for distinguishing binding truth from good advice—and both of these from “the mistakes of men.”23 Polygyny served certain valuable historical purposes and then was rescinded, thus proving questionable some statements which were made in the process of defending it—especially that it would be permanent on earth because it is based [p.117]on an eternal requirement. Such statements can now be thoughtfully and prayerfully reassessed in relation to other fundamental scriptures and doctrines (as I am trying to do here) without opening the Pandora’s box of complete skepticism. Modern prophets themselves have explicitly renounced or modified specific practices and teachings of earlier prophets (the Adam-God theory, for instance), without thereby calling into question those prophets’ general inspiration or prophetic authority.
2. My second reason for questioning eternal polygyny, in addition to the lack of scriptural support for such a doctrine, is that if polygyny were the highest order of marriage, surely God would want us to practice it whenever and wherever we could on earth. A serious effort by the church to strike down the anti-polygamy laws as unconstitutional would probably now succeed. But such an effort is not made, and even in countries where polygyny is legal, Mormons, even converted polygynists with living wives, cannot be members of the church if they practice it.
3. There is a general Mormon assumption that the plural wives who were in the past sealed to polygynists (and additional wives sealed to widowers today) are bound by an eternal sealing that cannot be broken—so at least those marriages must be plural in eternity. Yet the modern church practice, initiated by President David O. McKay, of sometimes sealing a woman to more than one man (polyandry)—which occurs in temple work done for a deceased woman who was married to more than one man during her life—undermines this assumption. Such a woman is now sealed to all her husbands without our presuming to make a choice for her—and, of course, her choice in the spirit world of one of those husbands for an eternal companion must then invalidate the other sealings and leave those men free to find their own eternal companions. Sealings thus seem to guarantee bonds only when they are subsequently agreed upon by both parties—and do not forcibly bind anyone.
But if this is so in such polygandrous sealings, then it must as well be the case in polygygnous ones. The man involved could have the opportunity to work out a one-to-one relationship as the basis for celestial marriage from among the women to whom he was sealed, and the other sealings must then be invalidated by mutual consent, [p.118]thus freeing those women to form one-to-one celestial marriages with others.
What would become of all the “extra” plural wives freed from earthly sealings in such a scenario? Possibly the “extra” husbands of widows released by their choice of an eternal companion, the many single men who have lived on earth, and infants who have died and inherited celestial glory will be available as partners. One must trust in the principle of continued life and development after death, before judgment, to see that all, including both those who marry on earth to more than one person and those who marry no one, will be able to find their eternal companions if they so choose.
4. Another popular rationale for polygyny is that there will be more righteous women than men in heaven. This patronizing sentiment cloaks a sexist assumption, demeaning to both men and women. A fine satire on the matter, “In the Heavens Are Parents Single? Report No. 1,” by the “Committee on Celestial Demographics,” published in the spring 1984 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, makes a plausible case that there actually will be more men than women in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. We know that 104 males are born for every 100 females and 47 percent of males born into the world have died before age eight, as opposed to only 44 percent of females. If we accept the popular Mormon idea that all children who die under eight are exalted–then already we have a surplus of nearly 2 billion males!24
I believe it is more likely—certainly more consistent with the concept of free agency—that children who die and are thus, in the words of Doctrine and Covenants 137:7, “heirs of the celestial kingdom,” are not guaranteed exaltation but only guaranteed an opportunity for exaltation and that the number of males and females in the celestial kingdom will be essentially the same. In fact, I believe it will be exactly equal, because those who achieve celestial glory will arrive there partnered, two-by-two as into the ark, after having achieved, as part of their righteousness, a celestial marriage. Arguments about relative numbers are irrelevant; the highest degree of the celestial kingdom will be, by definition, a place made up of eternal male-female couples.
5. My fifth reason for believing celestial marriage is not polygynous—and main reason for thinking that we must not simply say, [p.119]”We can’t possibly imagine what it will be like in heaven and so shouldn’t worry about it”—is that it seems to me, from reflection and from talking with Mormon women, includng my wife and five daughters, that the devaluation of women inherent in the expectation of polygyny is destructive of their sense of identity and worth now. For instance, the argument considered above, that there must be polygyny because there are more celestial women than men, sounds on the face of it complimentary to women. But if we reflect a bit, it is simply a way of saying that one good man is in some sense the equivalent of more women than one, however “righteous” those women are compared to the average man. Can one man emotionally and sexually satisfy more than one woman? Is he capable of being “equally yoked” to more than one woman—spiritually or intellectually or managerially or whatever? In either case, the implications seem to diminish women, reducing them to less than full equivalence with men.
If we believed that the celestial order would be truly more inclusive, then we should allow for the possibility of polyandry. If all were capable of a “higher,” more inclusive love, then the rational and nonsexist arrangement would allow for plural husbands, as well. However, both the historical order Mormons once practiced and the celestial order many Mormons anticipate accept only plural wives, not plural husbands. Since there is no good reason to believe that polygyny will be needed to accommodate an excess of women in the celestial kingdom, then the expectation that there will be plural wives but not plural husbands cannot help but imply fundamental inequalities between men and women that have to do with their most central qualities and feelings, those involving sexual and spiritual identity and relationships.
I believe we can remove that vague implication of inferiority without becoming alienated either from nineteenth-century Mormonism or from our present faith in the gospel and the church. It is possible and spiritually healing, I believe, to affirm our polygynous ancestors for their obedient sacrifices and courageous achievements, which made the foundations of the restored church secure—and yet to reject the expectation of future polygyny. For too many of us, that expectation undermines the foundations of our present identities as women and men and diverts us from the difficult struggle for complete fidelity in our marriages that both the earthly gospel [p.120]standard of morality and the expectation of celestial marriage as the basis of godhood require.
I do not presume to speak for others or authoritatively. My intent is simply to help free us, as Mormon men and women, to think about our marriages in the afterlife without the anxiety-ridden and, I believe, morally corrosive expectation of future polygyny. Let us not be limited to our past understanding. In the speech I referred to earlier, Elder McConkie observed, “Since the Lord gave this revelation on the priesthood, our understanding of many [scriptures] has expanded. Many of us never imagined or supposed that they had the extensive and broad meaning that they do have.”25 And though he then discussed only our understanding of how blacks and whites are “alike unto God,” I suggest that we also need to consider that our understanding of how men and women are alike and equal unto God may still be narrow, in need of further expansion. Men who harbor an unhealthy sense of superiority and women who have felt degraded by the assumption of future polygyny should feel free to seek the inspiration that may help unburden them.
Certainly none of us can presume knowledge of the celestial order and what we will be capable of there, but our whole religion is built on the assumption that this life is, in its essentials, very much like that future life and a direct preparation for it. We have been commanded to try to develop perfect one-to-one fidelity in our marriages here, and in the temple marriage sealing ceremony we have been given, I believe, a clear vision of what the highest future order of marriage will be: a full and equal, one-to-one partnership of a king and a queen, a priestess and a priest, a perfectly balanced and yet dynamic bi-polar union that makes possible “a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever” (D&C 132:19).
Difficult as complete married fidelity and unity is to achieve, there is nothing sweeter than our approximations of it. And we have been given no clear evidence that it will not continue to be the sweetest thing in heaven, the foundation of godhood and a blessing available to all who, freed from this world’s limitations, really want it.
EUGENE ENGLAND is a professor of English at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, author of The Quality of Mercy: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience, and co-editor of An Open World: Essays on Leslie Norris. “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage” first appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Summer 1985): 42-66.
4. Joseph F. Smith, in a discourse in the Salt Lake tabernacle, 7 July 1878, suggested the danger of polygyny, a powerful principle “that savors of life unto life, or of death unto death,” if misunderstood or misused. He believed it was applicable “when commanded and not otherwise” and was “particularly adapted to the conditions and necessities … the circumstances, responsibilities, and personal, as well as vicarious duties of the people of God in this age of the world.” Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool, Eng.: LDS Bookseller’s Depot, 1855-86), 20:26 (hereafter JD).
6. Ezra Taft Benson, “What I Hope You Will Teach Your Children about the Temple,” Ensign 15 (Aug. 1985): 8. Joseph Smith listed on 27 August 1843 three priesthoods: Melchizedek, Patriarchal, and Levitical. See Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964), 323; Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols., 2d ed. rev. (1949; rpt. ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1951), 5:555; and Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, comps. and eds. The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980), 244-45.
18. JD 11:272. See also First Presidency Statement, 17 Aug. 1949, archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; and Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 102.