Thursday, July 24, 2014


Polygamy Generally

I believe the stories that most of the early Saints who practiced polygamy did so reluctantly. While I can justify its practice biologically, I can justify adultery and rape in the same way. Having more children may be a biological good, but that doesn't make it a moral good. So what do I think is wrong with polygamy? I'm going to refer to polygamy as I understand it was practiced among 19th century Latter-day Saints, generally
  • I have essentially one objection--polygamy gave men power over women in an unequal way. All of my other objections to polygamy are simply contributions to this unequal dynamic. I think this one objection is sufficient to justify a level of general condemnation of polygamy as it was practiced among 19th century LDS. Unnatural inequality is not a characteristic of unity or of Zion, and the power dynamic between husband and wife should not have inequality.
  • Men had economic control, for the most part. Polygamy was defended in part to provide for women because women couldn't care for themselves economically when they weren't married.
  • Polygamy was defended as preserving the virtue of men and women because men needed to have sex with multiple women, but prostitution was immoral. So polygamy was about men's sexual needs.
  • There are many more journals that I am aware of of women who felt hurt by polygamy than of men who felt hurt by it.
  • Women have been told they could only receive exaltation through sealing to a righteous husband, but men could receive it through sealing to any of their righteous wives. While I believe this is incomplete and flawed understanding of doctrine, there is sufficient evidence it was believed and taught by some.
I think any one of these problems is enough to say that polygamy either won't be practiced in the eternities, or the form it takes will be significantly different from its 19th century practice. It will have to be inherently equal, not just better because flawed people won't be practicing it.

Joseph Smith's Polygamy

Most of what I know about Joseph Smith's polygamy I know from podcast interviews, bits in blog posts, Rough Stone Rolling, part of In Sacred Loneliness, and from browsing the information on I know most of what I do about Joseph Smith from hours reading the scriptures and sermons he produced, and from biographical stories from dozens of sources. I like Joseph. I love most of what he taught. I'm inclined to give one who did and taught so much good (in my experience) the benefit of a lot of doubt, but having concluded that polygamy is pretty much hurtful to women and very difficult to justify as the best possible marital arrangement, I have to look with a more critical eye at polygamy as Joseph Smith taught and practiced it.

I hear an oft-repeated array of criticisms of Joseph regarding polygamy. Having looked at (digital transcripts of) the original sources used to support the criticisms, I find most of the criticisms either unsupported or exaggerated. To me the evidence paints a picture of a man
  • departing from societal norms (something I try to do from my culture), 
  • for reasons he believed were important (beliefs I share to a great degree),
  • in ways influenced by his culture and understanding (both by supporters and detractors),
  • with results that were at times hurtful and morally dubious.
I think some bad fruits came from polygamy. I might argue that those were products of a broader patriarchal society, but while that may help with understanding, it doesn't make the fruits good. Even excusing Joseph Smith by accepting the view that he didn't have sex with 14-year-olds, that he didn't have sex with women that were currently having sex with other men, and that the stories of threatening women with destruction at the hands of angels, or social ruin at his own hand, are at least exaggerated, I think there were substantial problems with Joseph's polygamy.
  • It was practiced in secrecy. Some things have to be done secretly--even some good things--or they will be interfered with by outside powers. That doesn't make secrecy or the deception necessary to sustain the secrecy a good thing. At best it could be defended as a necessary evil, but a necessary evil is still evil--only possibly less evil than the alternatives.
  • It was coercive. I may even credit Joseph as not intending it to be so, but his position and his belief that it was a commandment from God would have been sufficient to exert severe pressure on any of his followers asked to participate. Even if he simply asked, we know how so many of us react to every opinion from the prophet shared in a TV interview. Take that and multiply it by the commandment factor. This was not a free choice which the women (or men) arrived at on their own.
  • Joseph had sex with many women. Of his 35 wives, he may have only had sex with approximately 15 of them, and children with one (and possibly three) of them, but that's 15 women in 2-4 years. The social and emotional fallout from these relationships--either sexual or non-sexual--played out over decades, and often in unpleasant ways. I find neither this sexual activity nor the personal aftermath for Joseph's wives very admirable.
I accept Joseph as an inspired prophet, I view him as a fundamentally good man, I will discuss and share his teachings and the scriptures he produced with anyone who wants to (and occasionally some who don't), and rejoice when people wish to call me brother as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I think polygamy was wrong in a number of ways.

Possible Benefits and Eternal Ramifications

Having concluded that polygamy as it has been practiced (to my knowledge) is inherently unequal and thus (as implemented) not part of any Zion or Heaven that I imagine wanting to inhabit, is there anything good I can say about its past practice? The answer is yes, speculatively.
  • It's possible polygamy was the least evil way available to God to get the early Saints to take the best care they were willing to take of otherwise single women. Maybe God saw this and worked within the limits of the people he had, and that's all there is to it. That makes it hard to explain Joseph Smith, but maybe Brigham Young and others never would have even considered it--no matter what God tried to tell them--if it hadn't come through Joseph first. That's certainly possible, seeing how little that is radically new has ever come to us since Joseph Smith. Nearly everything we do is referenced back to Joseph in some way, even if the connection is largely imaginary.
  • Polygamy may have been important in fostering cohesion in a culture that I value. I wish it had been fostered in other ways that seem more eternally good, to me, but communal economic efforts never really endured in fostering unity and cultural cohesion. Family ties did a better job of it, even if they came with an ugly side. I do value that my culture preserved and taught me a knowledge of the teachings and lives of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other early apostles and missionaries. I value that they preserved the practice of sacred space and time in our temples. I value the right of passage of stepping outside of normal life and attempting to share things important to me as a missionary. Polygamy might have contributed in some essential way to these things I value. I can't rule that out.
  • Joseph Smith's polygamy might have been an imperfect attempt at implementing a social order like that found among the Gods in heaven. It may be that the Gods are sealed together in a network of marriages more than in chains of parent/child relationships. We are all brothers and sisters, after all. It may even be that these networks are not monogamous, but closer to polyamorous. Trying to implement polyamory in a healthy, righteous, respectful way is still beyond our abilities, and polygamy was the closest approximation available in a strongly patriarchal, puritanical society. We still don't have surefire ways to prevent spread of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies in the most consensual and equal polyamorous relationships conceivable in our modern, tolerant society. And that doesn't account for the significant probability of coercion, abuse, or simply emotional damage from non-monogamous relationships. Monogamy is tricky, and anything more grows exponentially trickier. It's possible Joseph Smith was giving us a window into a Heaven that is radically different from our current society. I'll entertain the possibility, but it's also possible he was simply wrong.
For these reasons I'm willing to cut a little slack for early Mormons. I think they did a great job of living well under hard circumstances. I think they built beautiful cities and raised beautiful children in a hard land. I think they followed God as best they were able. I'm done defending polygamy--I think it was at best a temporary optimum among a selection of bad choices for raising the most children for the most committed LDS men, and thus solidly establishing the Mormon culture. I view this as a valuable outcome. I don't believe it can be an eternal institution in the way it has been practiced, even if it could be a window on a radical interconnectedness that might exist in Heaven.

We do have some wrinkles to work out that still cause people pain, like what we do with sealings after a divorce or death of a spouse. We should work those out and not pretend that since they only affect a minority they don't matter. New revelation is called for--or at least new policy that is more equitable for men and women. There is already precedent for both men and women being sealed to multiple partners and Joseph saying women would have their choice in the next life. But as far as the whole culture is concerned, polygamy is history. It is in our past. We have moved on. I choose to neither glorify nor vilify it, nor those who established it, but instead ask what I can learn from it. If I'm done learning from it, it's probably best I try to shut up about it. It hurts too many people no matter what I say.

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