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FHE Lesson 2: Plural Marriage

Primary source material for this lesson:

1. What is plural marriage as defined by the Church?
  • Plural marriage was the nineteenth-century LDS practice of one man having more than one living wife at a time. Popularly known as polygamy, it was actually polygyny.
  • Note the differences between marriage for time and sealing for eternity. Technically, it’s possible to be legally married to one person for this life, but sealed to another for eternity (e.g., a woman remarries after her first husband to whom she is sealed dies, or a woman divorces her first husband to whom she is sealed and then remarries outside of the temple). These are not examples of plural marriage.
  • Also note, Joseph Smith is reported to have engaged in a form polyandry: “At the time that celestial marriage was introduced, it was possible to be married for time to one person and sealed for eternity to another. These marriages appear to have been performed for the purpose of forming dynastic bonds in the afterlife, as there is no evidence that Joseph ever cohabited or had intimate relations with any of these women. No children from these marriages have ever been identified. These were sealings which would only affect Joseph’s association with these women in the afterlife.” For more information, see here.

2. When and how did plural marriage begin in the Church?
  • Its introduction was the direct result of revelation. Joseph first wrote down the revelation on plural marriage on July 12, 1843. But evidence suggests he received it much earlier, probably in 1831. While he was studying the Bible, he became curious as to why the Lord justified Abraham and other ancient prophets in taking more than one wife. His petitions on the subject resulted in the revelation.
  • Two things slowed its introduction:
    • Detractors who desired harm to the Church and it’s members would use polygamy against them. Joseph knew this, so he proceeded carefully. He presented the principle privately to a small number of faithful members before the doctrines were revealed openly. Unfortunately, this led to rumors and charges of secrecy.
    • Joseph’s own reluctance. He had great difficulty “in overcoming the repugnance of his feelings.” Also, his wife Emma vacillated between faith in his prophetic calling and rejection of the principle. Others had similar difficulties accepting plural marriage until they received personal spiritual witnesses. For instance, Brigham Young recounted, “I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time.” Joseph proceeded only after an angel declared he must or his calling would be given to another. In addition to Emma, at least 29 women were sealed to Joseph, some of these after his death.
  • After the Saints left Nauvoo in 1845-46, polygamy was openly practiced. In winter quarters, for example, discussion of the principle was an open secret and plural families were acknowledged.
  • Though visitors to Utah commented on the practice as early as 1847, polygamy wasn’t openly announced until August 29, 1852.

3. How was plural marriage practiced?
  • Order, mutual agreements, regulation, and covenants were central to the practice (see D&C 132:7). Three principle conditions had to be met. Any plural marriage had to be: (1) “made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise,” (2) performed by the proper priesthood authority, and (3) made by “revelation and commandment.” Other governing principles included that both the man and woman involved must agree to the marriage, and other wives must give their consent.
  • Unauthorized polygamy was viewed as adultery. John C. Bennett, mayor of Nauvoo and adviser to Joseph Smith, taught a doctrine of “spiritual wifery” in an attempt to have illicit relationships with several women. He claimed they were married spiritually even if they had never been married formally, and that the Prophet approved the arrangement. As a result, he was excommunicated and many others became disaffected from the Church.
  • At its height, 20% to 25% of LDS adults were members of polygamous families, including about a third of women of marriageable age. A man usually had two wives, but seldom more than three. Larger families like those of Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball were exceptions.
  • Some plural families worked better than others. A common complaint of wives was that a husband didn’t treat them equally. But if husbands provided equal time and wives developed love and respect for each other, families were generally well-adjusted. Brigham Young discouraged divorce, but generally granted it if a woman sought it. However, he consistently counseled husbands to not seek divorce if their wives were willing to put up with them.

4. Is plural marriage required for exaltation?
  • No. The Book of Mormon makes clear that, though the Lord will command men through his prophets to live the law of plural marriage at special times for his purposes, monogamy is the general standard (Jacob 2:27-30).
  • Eternal marriage is a condition of exaltation in the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom, but this refers to the sealing of the marriage, not the plurality of wives. Eternal marriage can be performed posthumously, just as baptisms and endowments can be performed for those who died before they could receive these ordinances.

5. How was plural marriage ended in the Church?
  • Just like its introduction, its end was the direct result of revelation. “In 1889 in the face of increasing hardships and the threat of government confiscation of Church property, including temples, Wilford Woodruff, President of the Church at the time, prayed for guidance. He was inspired to issue a document that officially ended the sanction of plural marriage by the Church. The document, called the Manifesto, was accepted by Church members in a general conference held in October 1890 and is published in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 1” (see the Church’s entry on “Polygamy (Plural Marriage).”
  • The ending of polygamy was gradual. Because the members had sacrificed so much for this doctrine, some of them were resistant to the change. Some marriages were still performed, particularly in Mexico and Canada. In 1904, President Joseph F. Smith called for a vote from Church membership prohibiting post-Manifesto plural marriages worldwide. Today, any member of the Church who is discovered to be practicing polygamy is excommunicated.

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