Is polygamy the next same-sex marriage? Fundamentalist Mormons, Muslims, and others argue that federal and state statutes on religious freedom protect the practice. Some liberals have joined the cause, using arguments about sexual liberty, equality, and autonomy. Traditional criminal prohibitions against adultery, fornication, abortion, contraception, and sodomy, they argue, have all now been eclipsed. Criminal prohibitions against polygamy must be repealed, too.
Cases challenging the constitutionality of anti-polygamy laws have been filed in the United States, Canada, and Europe. A federal district court in Utah has declared the state’s laws against polygamy partly unconstitutional. The first rounds of public debate about legalizing polygamy have appeared in newspapers, journals, and blogs. Shows like Big Love and Sister Wives portray polygamous arrangements as happy and normal, affecting our cultural imagination and stoking sympathy for what was only recently thought of by most as a domestic aberration. With polygamy becoming the newest front in the culture wars, we seem to be on the same trajectory that brought us same-sex marriage.
But this is not the case. Recognition of same-sex marriage does not make legalization of polygamy inevitable. Whereas the prohibition on same-sex relationships rose and fell with the legal influence of Christianity, the Western legal tradition’s prohibition of polygamy is based on deep pre-Christian precedents, and its arguments against polygamy find strong expression in post-Christian, Enlightenment thought. This indicates that the secularization of the West need not obscure the strong reasons to reject polygamy. While we may now live in an era of intense sexual liberty, we remain attentive to social justice. This allows our secular contemporaries to recognize the unique threat that polygamy poses to society as a whole, especially to women and children.
The Hebrew Bible counts more than two dozen polygamists among the heroes of the faith. The Mosaic law countenanced polygamy in cases of seduction, enslavement, poverty, famine, or premature death of one’s married brother. The New Testament does not contain an explicit prohibition of polygamy, though it implies one in Jesus’s talk of two becoming one flesh in marriage and in Paul’s instruction that a church leader should be “the husband of one wife.” But it was the pagan Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. who first clearly denounced polygamy to be a form of “domestic tyranny.” And it was a pagan Roman emperor who first criminalized polygamy in 258 a.d., more than a century before the establishment of Christianity and nearly a millennium before church authorities issued comparably firm proscriptions of their own.
The high medieval Catholic Church and early modern Protestant churches solidified the strong rejection of polygamy characteristic of the pre-Christian Greco-Roman world. But Christianity was a carrier, not an inventor, of the West’s criminal ban on polygamy. When Augustine wrote about the morality of polygamy he justified it in the lives of the biblical patriarchs, but not for the people of his day: “A plurality of wives was no crime when it was the custom; and it is a crime now because it is no longer the custom.”
Because Christianity adopted rather than initiated the prohibition of polygamy, it’s not surprising that nations in Europe and North America today remain firmly opposed to the arrangement, even as they distance themselves from their Christian past when it comes to other moral matters. Indeed, some of the strongest Western arguments against polygamy came from Enlightenment liberals who rejected the Christian domination of social mores, but also rejected polygamy as a betrayal of reason, nature, utility, fairness, liberty, and common sense. They marshalled their strongest anti-polygamy arguments not against secular sexual libertines, but against Christian splinter groups that were pressing the case for polygamy. In the nineteenth century, it was Christian liberals and missionaries, Mormons, and other religious groups, not progressives, who were demanding its legalization.
Traditional arguments against same-sex relations begin with the observation that gay and lesbian sex is by nature “non-generative.” However consensual and loving, same-sex intimacy cannot produce a child, which is the ultimate end and good of sexual intercourse. Having a child, classical and Christian authors alike argued, is essential for the preservation of the human race and the perpetuation of one’s own family name, business, identity, memory, and more. Moreover, these writers argued, “even the beasts” do not engage in same-sex activities, despite their lack of reason and conscience. Many animals kill and eat each other, take each other’s homes, food, mates, and offspring—acts that humans see as wrong. But even the beasts, following natural instincts alone, know that same-sex activities are unnatural.
Arguments based on the generative end of the sexual act do not at all apply to polygamy, however. Procreation is enhanced by having multiple wives. A single male having many mates is not only known in nature but is the predominant form of reproduction in most animals, including more than 95 percent of all higher primates. Pairing birds, voles, and a few other animals are the monogamous exception. The human body is not only capable of having multiple sex partners but a man can impregnate several women in a night, though a woman can have only one pregnancy at a time no matter how many men she takes into her bed. That’s why St. Augustine and later Western sages such as Hugo Grotius thought that, even if proscribed, one man with many wives is a “natural” form of procreation.
The arguments against polygamy based on nature have a foundation other than the procreative end of the sexual act. Nearly eight centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas put forward what would become a commonplace of Western thought and law thereafter, especially among Enlightenment liberals and common-law jurists. Human beings, Thomas argued, are distinct among the animals in having perennial sex drives rather than annual mating seasons. They produce vulnerable babies who need the support of both their mother and father for an extended period. Women bond naturally with children; men do so only if they are certain of their paternity. Exclusive and enduring monogamous unions are thus the fitting way that humans can at once have regular sex, paternal certainty, and mutual caretaking for their young children. Humans have learned by natural inclination and hard experience that monogamy best accords with human needs.
Later Catholic and Protestant writers argued that polygamy violates not only the natural law but also the natural rights of wives and children. Calvinist theologian and jurist Theodore Beza stated this argument clearly almost five centuries ago. Taking the Ten Commandments as his guide, he argued that polygamy violates the commandments against adultery, theft, false testimony, and coveting all at once.
Each of these natural duties has a correlative natural right that polygamy breaches. It violates the first wife’s natural rights to marital fidelity and trust, to ongoing marital property and material security, and to contractual expectations and reliance on her husband’s fidelity to the marriage contract. It runs counter to the children’s natural rights to proper support, inheritance, and the undiluted care, nurture, and education of their father and mother together. And polygamy breaches a neighbor’s rights to have an equal opportunity to marry without having most of the eligible women horded in one harem or having his own wife or daughters subject to the covetous privations of a powerful polygamous neighbor. Polygamy was thus doubly unnatural, Beza concluded—a violation of natural law and natural rights alike.
Enlightenment liberals and common-law jurists from the seventeenth century onward drew directly on these traditional arguments, even if they rejected Christianity. Most liberals posited natural rights as “inherent” in human nature or the state of nature rather than commanded in the Bible or the order of creation. But they came to the same conclusion: Polygamy violates the natural rights of women and children.
Seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke, for example, regarded polygamy as a violation of the natural-born equality of men and women, as well as the natural rights of children to be properly nurtured and fully supported by both their mother and father. For Locke, the natural laws favoring monogamy trumped any religious arguments for polygamy, and he would allow no religious liberty exemptions from criminal bans of it. A century later, leading common-law jurist William Blackstone condemned polygamy as a “singularly barbaric” violation of the reciprocal natural rights and duties of husbands and wives. Polygamy, for him, was a grave offense against public health and public order. Scottish philosophers Henry Home and David Hume argued that polygamy would breed tyrannical patriarchy or servile submissiveness in children. Children of polygamy—whose mothers are deprecated, whose stepmothers are hostile, and whose fathers are distant and distracted—simply cannot learn the healthy balances of authority and liberty, equality and respect, and property and responsibility that they need to survive, let alone thrive, in a democratic society. For Home and Hume, and many American writers who echoed them, polygamy undermines the common good.
The Western tradition developed another line of argument against polygamy that turned on its potential to do unjust harms. Some 1,800 years ago, ancient Jewish rabbis and early Church Fathers alike warned that polygamy was “trouble”—the literal meaning of the Hebrew term for a “second wife” (tzarah). They observed that it brought grief to the most noble and God-fearing men and women of the Bible—Abraham with Sarah and Hagar, Jacob with Rachel and Leah, Elkanah with Hannah and Peninnah. These biblical polygamists suffered bitter rivalry between their wives, bitter disputes among their children over inheritance, deadly competition among the half-siblings that ultimately escalated to incest, adultery, kidnapping, enslavement, banishment, and more. Think of the great King David who lustfully murdered Bathsheba’s husband to add her to his already ample harem. Or think of King Solomon with his thousand wives and concubines who led him into idolatry, and whose children ended up raping, abducting, and killing each other, precipitating civil war in ancient Israel.
A millennium later, Bishop William of Auvergne, commenting on Middle Eastern Muslim polygamy, argued that this “bent love” harmed women, because they are reduced to rival slaves within the household, exploited for sex with an increasingly sterile and distracted husband, sometimes deprived of the children they do produce, and forced to fend for themselves and their children when other women and children are added to the household against their wishes. Children are harmed because their chances of birth and survival are diminished by their calculating fathers who might contracept, abort, smother, or sell them, and by their mothers who sometimes lack the resources, support, and protection to bring them to term, let alone to adulthood. Men are harmed because they do not have the time, energy, or resources to support their polygamous households and because their minds and hearts cannot rest if they are always on the lookout for another woman to add to their harems—or for dangerous men abroad who might abduct their women. Finally, societies are harmed because polygamy results in too many unattached men who become menaces to public order and morality. Moreover, the complex extended families create ad hoc seats of domestic power based on numeric superiority rather than legitimate political succession or election.
European critics of polygamy faced a real-life illustration of its dangers in the sixteenth century. In the town of Münster, a group of young men, giddy with lust and theocratic pretensions, combined charisma, brutality, and biblical platitudes to force a gullible Christian community to adopt their utopian vision of biblical polygamy. Old couples were forced to end their marriages and start again. Young women were coerced into premature and unwanted marriages with older men; even prepubescent girls were fair game and were raped to death. Husbands collected wives like spiritual trophies, measuring their faith by the size of their harems and nurseries. Wives were used and then spurned when they were pregnant or nursing or when the next wife was added to the harem. Polygamous households became filled with bickering wives and children, who were then cowed into silence with threats of the sword. Wives who still objected, or who rejected their husband’s sexual advances to protest the unwanted polygamy, were summarily executed. Dissenters and critics were banished or executed.
We can see a similar pattern of dysfunction, albeit less flagrant, in the polygamous communities scattered about the Western world. They feature higher-than-average incidences of arranged, coerced, and underage marriages of young girls to older men; rape and statutory rape; and wife and child abuse. The women and children in polygamous households are often socially and educationally deprived. Young boys and poorer men have to compete for fewer brides. Oversized polygamous families commonly abuse social welfare programs, and polygamous communities are often socially isolated and combine religious and communal authority in coercive ways.
In the non-Western world, most polygamous cultures also feature social dysfunctions. After completing an exhaustive study of polygamy in 170 nations, Brown University political scientist Rose McDermott concludes, regardless of “whether it is practiced in a Western democracy or sub-Saharan Africa, polygamy produces harmful effects that ripple throughout a society.” Polygamous communities suffer from increased levels of physical and sexual abuse against women, increased rates of maternal mortality, shortened female life expectancy, lower levels of education for girls and boys, lower levels of equality for women, higher levels of discrimination against women, increased rates of female genital mutilation, increased rates of trafficking in women, and decreased levels of civil and political liberties for all citizens. The law’s prohibition of polygamy would seem based on a sound judgment about the harm its practice inflicts on the most vulnerable.
Skeptics of this line of reasoning are quick to point out that monogamous households are filled with many ugly harms, too: wife and child abuse, infidelity, abandonment, welfare abuses, and more. Yet these failures have not led to the abolition of monogamy but only to closer regulation to prevent harms and punish those responsible. Why not do the same for polygamous households? If polygamous wives or children really do suffer from increased levels of abuse, neglect, or deprivation, why not build protections into the law and enforce them scrupulously? If religious communities isolate their members, making them more vulnerable to abuse, why not make polygamy more mainstream, transparent, and accountable? If Big Love and Sister Wives can make the polygamous family work, why can’t everyone else be given a fair chance?
But this is to build the law upon the unique resources available to the powerful, not the more typical needs of the vulnerable. We can imagine a legal regime allowing polygamy when three or more well-educated parties—similar in wealth, ability, and opportunity, eyes and doors wide open—choose to enter into a union. They have the wherewithal to calculate and negotiate the costs and benefits, and the advantages and disadvantages. More important still, they can protect themselves through prenuptial and postnuptial contracts and through their own independent means, hiring lawyers, accountants, private investigators, and security guards to help them if their partners betray or endanger them or their children. For these exceptional sorts of people with lots of resources, the state prohibition of polygamy hardly seems necessary.
But the law must answer to the needs of the typical case, not the exceptional one. And throughout Western history and still today, the typical case of polygamy too often involves vulnerable parties who do not have the knowledge, resources, or connections to secure the kind of self-protection and self-help available to a “sister wife.” Every Western nation has general laws on the books against wife and child abuse; coerced marriage and statutory rape of young girls; depriving children of food, shelter, and education; welfare abuse; and more. Yet these laws provide too little support and protection for those made vulnerable by polygamy. It’s not a sound principle of justice to make vulnerable people more vulnerable just to accommodate the desires of the powerful to undertake experiments in domestic living.
Traditional laws against polygamy are more than just prudential prophylactics against harm. They also play an important symbolic role and teaching function. Laws against polygamy have been part of a broader set of family laws designed to support the classical Western ideal of the monogamous family. Aristotle and the Roman Stoics called the union of husband and wife, and parent and child, the “foundation of the polis” and “the private font of public virtue.” According to the Church Fathers and medieval Catholics, the monogamous household is the “seedbed” of the city, “the force that welds society together.” Early modern Protestants and Anglo-American common lawyers spoke of the stable marital household as a “little church,” a “little commonwealth,” the first school of love and justice, nurture and education, charity and citizenship. John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers treated marriage as “the first contract,” and the “deepest font” of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
For all of our new cultural emphasis on liberty and autonomy—or wariness about totalitarian power—we still look to the law to promote well-being. As the legal doctrine has it, the state properly concerns itself with the “health, safety, and welfare” of its citizens, which means discouraging and even criminalizing activities that harm individuals and the body politic.
In our time, the law has backed away from many traditional norms for sex, marriage, and family life, reflecting a social consensus that shrinks from moral absolutes and encourages a nonjudgmental attitude toward personal decisions about sex and relationships. Nevertheless, the teaching function of the law remains. We still “nudge” citizens toward certain ways of life. The state does not require its citizens to get married, but it encourages them to do so. It provides state marital licenses, tax and Social Security incentives, spousal evidentiary and health-care privileges, and hundreds of additional federal and state benefits and incentives that turn on marital status. And while the state rarely prosecutes polygamy simply on its own, it puts in place powerful deterrents. There is no funding, facilitation, licenses, or welfare support for polygamy. When combined with other crimes, polygamy is still prosecuted.
In the aftermath of Obergefell, we can be tempted to think polygamy is inevitable. The reasoning the Supreme Court majority gave for finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage could be deployed to find a right to plural marriage. But a just legal regime cannot be founded on abstract constitutional logic alone. The network of specific laws and judgments is influenced by (and influence) complex moral and cultural systems. Our legal systems in the West historically censured homosexuality and polygamy, but for very different reasons, and the reasons against polygamy remain in place. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the Christian culture in the West had to grapple with the role of polygamy in the Old Testament—and that Christian and para-Christian sects have revived it on occasion. Whatever its cause, our legal tradition is not nearly as unmanned in the face of polygamy as it seems to be when it comes to the sexual revolution more generally.
At this point all Western nations continue to proscribe polygamy, even as they have accepted sexual liberty and, in many places, same-sex marriage. There are good reasons for this. Unlike gay rights, which can be portrayed as an expansion of freedom at no cost to others, the ample dangers posed by polygamy, dangers traditional commentators point out, still seem real. Our collective sense that polygamy is wrong rests on sound intuitions about ways in which polygamy rewards the powerful—men capable of winning the competition for wives—while harming the vulnerable, which includes women, children, and men less competitive in a winner-take-all mating market.
We have every reason to believe this presumption against polygamy will continue, regardless of how liberalized we become in other matters of sex and family structure. A great deal of evidence shows that most men and women alike are instinctively attracted to long-term, single-partner intimacy and instinctively repulsed and angered if forced to share their bed and partner with a third party. Despite our wide cultural acceptance of sexual liberty in the West, sexual infidelity still breaks marriages and intimate relationships more than any other cause. Moreover, over the centuries, successful societies have consistently migrated from polygamy toward monogamy, but never in the other direction. Perhaps I’m wrong, and the modern sexual revolution will yield a polygamist’s Stonewall, and then an Obergefell. But if so, that will mean that we don’t care all that much about protecting the vulnerable.
John Witte Jr. is director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, and author of The Western Case for Monogamy over Polygamy.
Latter-day Saints believe that monogamy—the marriage of one man and one woman—is the Lord’s standing law of marriage.1 In biblical times, the Lord commanded some of His people to practice plural marriage—the marriage of one man and more than one woman.2 Some early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also received and obeyed this commandment given through God’s prophets.
After receiving a revelation commanding him to practice plural marriage, Joseph Smith married multiple wives and introduced the practice to close associates. This principle was among the most challenging aspects of the Restoration—for Joseph personally and for other Church members. Plural marriage tested faith and provoked controversy and opposition. Few Latter-day Saints initially welcomed the restoration of a biblical practice entirely foreign to their sensibilities. But many later testified of powerful spiritual experiences that helped them overcome their hesitation and gave them courage to accept this practice.
Although the Lord commanded the adoption—and later the cessation—of plural marriage in the latter days, He did not give exact instructions on how to obey the commandment. Significant social and cultural changes often include misunderstandings and difficulties. Church leaders and members experienced these challenges as they heeded the command to practice plural marriage and again later as they worked to discontinue it after Church President Wilford Woodruff issued an inspired statement known as the Manifesto in 1890, which led to the end of plural marriage in the Church. Through it all, Church leaders and members sought to follow God’s will.
Many details about the early practice of plural marriage are unknown. Plural marriage was introduced among the early Saints incrementally, and participants were asked to keep their actions confidential. They did not discuss their experiences publicly or in writing until after the Latter-day Saints had moved to Utah and Church leaders had publicly acknowledged the practice. The historical record of early plural marriage is therefore thin: few records of the time provide details, and later reminiscences are not always reliable. Some ambiguity will always accompany our knowledge about this issue. Like the participants, we “see through a glass, darkly” and are asked to walk by faith.3
The Beginnings of Plural Marriage in the Church
The revelation on plural marriage was not written down until 1843, but its early verses suggest that part of it emerged from Joseph Smith’s study of the Old Testament in 1831. People who knew Joseph well later stated he received the revelation about that time.4 The revelation, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 132, states that Joseph prayed to know why God justified Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon in having many wives. The Lord responded that He had commanded them to enter into the practice.5
Latter-day Saints understood that they were living in the latter days, in what the revelations called the “dispensation of the fulness of times.”6 Ancient principles—such as prophets, priesthood, and temples—would be restored to the earth. Plural marriage was one of those ancient principles.
Polygamy had been permitted for millennia in many cultures and religions, but, with few exceptions, was rejected in Western cultures.7 In Joseph Smith’s time, monogamy was the only legal form of marriage in the United States. Joseph knew the practice of plural marriage would stir up public ire. After receiving the commandment, he taught a few associates about it, but he did not spread this teaching widely in the 1830s.8
When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.9
Fragmentary evidence suggests that Joseph Smith acted on the angel’s first command by marrying a plural wife, Fanny Alger, in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s. Several Latter-day Saints who had lived in Kirtland reported decades later that Joseph Smith had married Alger, who lived and worked in the Smith household, after he had obtained her consent and that of her parents.10 Little is known about this marriage, and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding Alger. After the marriage with Alger ended in separation, Joseph seems to have set the subject of plural marriage aside until after the Church moved to Nauvoo, Illinois.
Plural Marriage and Eternal Marriage
The same revelation that taught of plural marriage was part of a larger revelation given to Joseph Smith—that marriage could last beyond death and that eternal marriage was essential to inheriting the fulness that God desires for His children. As early as 1840, Joseph Smith privately taught Apostle Parley P. Pratt that the “heavenly order” allowed Pratt and his wife to be together “for time and all eternity.”11 Joseph also taught that men like Pratt—who had remarried following the death of his first wife—could be married (or sealed) to their wives for eternity, under the proper conditions.12
The sealing of husband and wife for eternity was made possible by the restoration of priesthood keys and ordinances. On April 3, 1836, the Old Testament prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple and restored the priesthood keys necessary to perform ordinances for the living and the dead, including sealing families together.13 Marriages performed by priesthood authority could link loved ones to each other for eternity, on condition of righteousness; marriages performed without this authority would end at death.14
Marriage performed by priesthood authority meant that the procreation of children and perpetuation of families would continue into the eternities. Joseph Smith’s revelation on marriage declared that the “continuation of the seeds forever and ever” helped to fulfill God’s purposes for His children.15 This promise was given to all couples who were married by priesthood authority and were faithful to their covenants.
Plural Marriage in Nauvoo
For much of Western history, family “interest”—economic, political, and social considerations—dominated the choice of spouse. Parents had the power to arrange marriages or forestall unions of which they disapproved. By the late 1700s, romance and personal choice began to rival these traditional motives and practices.16 By Joseph Smith’s time, many couples insisted on marrying for love, as he and Emma did when they eloped against her parents’ wishes.
Latter-day Saints’ motives for plural marriage were often more religious than economic or romantic. Besides the desire to be obedient, a strong incentive was the hope of living in God’s presence with family members. In the revelation on marriage, the Lord promised participants “crowns of eternal lives” and “exaltation in the eternal worlds.”17 Men and women, parents and children, ancestors and progeny were to be “sealed” to each other—their commitment lasting into the eternities, consistent with Jesus’s promise that priesthood ordinances performed on earth could be “bound in heaven.”18
The first plural marriage in Nauvoo took place when Louisa Beaman and Joseph Smith were sealed in April 1841.19 Joseph married many additional wives and authorized other Latter-day Saints to practice plural marriage. The practice spread slowly at first. By June 1844, when Joseph died, approximately 29 men and 50 women had entered into plural marriage, in addition to Joseph and his wives. When the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, at least 196 men and 521 women had entered into plural marriages.20 Participants in these early plural marriages pledged to keep their involvement confidential, though they anticipated a time when the practice would be publicly acknowledged.
Nevertheless, rumors spread. A few men unscrupulously used these rumors to seduce women to join them in an unauthorized practice sometimes referred to as “spiritual wifery.” When this was discovered, the men were cut off from the Church.21 The rumors prompted members and leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as divinely mandated “celestial” plural marriage.22 The statements emphasized that the Church practiced no marital law other than monogamy while implicitly leaving open the possibility that individuals, under direction of God’s living prophet, might do so.23
Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage
During the era in which plural marriage was practiced, Latter-day Saints distinguished between sealings for time and eternity and sealings for eternity only. Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone.
Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings. The exact number of women to whom he was sealed in his lifetime is unknown because the evidence is fragmentary.24 Some of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith later testified that their marriages were for time and eternity, while others indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone.25
Most of those sealed to Joseph Smith were between 20 and 40 years of age at the time of their sealing to him. The oldest, Fanny Young, was 56 years old. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph’s close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.26 Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being “for eternity alone,” suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations.27 After Joseph’s death, Helen remarried and became an articulate defender of him and of plural marriage.28
Following his marriage to Louisa Beaman and before he married other single women, Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married.29 Neither these women nor Joseph explained much about these sealings, though several women said they were for eternity alone.30 Other women left no records, making it unknown whether their sealings were for time and eternity or were for eternity alone.
There are several possible explanations for this practice. These sealings may have provided a way to create an eternal bond or link between Joseph’s family and other families within the Church.31 These ties extended both vertically, from parent to child, and horizontally, from one family to another. Today such eternal bonds are achieved through the temple marriages of individuals who are also sealed to their own birth families, in this way linking families together. Joseph Smith’s sealings to women already married may have been an early version of linking one family to another. In Nauvoo, most if not all of the first husbands seem to have continued living in the same household with their wives during Joseph’s lifetime, and complaints about these sealings with Joseph Smith are virtually absent from the documentary record.32
These sealings may also be explained by Joseph’s reluctance to enter plural marriage because of the sorrow it would bring to his wife Emma. He may have believed that sealings to married women would comply with the Lord’s command without requiring him to have normal marriage relationships.33 This could explain why, according to Lorenzo Snow, the angel reprimanded Joseph for having “demurred” on plural marriage even after he had entered into the practice.34 After this rebuke, according to this interpretation, Joseph returned primarily to sealings with single women.
Another possibility is that, in an era when life spans were shorter than they are today, faithful women felt an urgency to be sealed by priesthood authority. Several of these women were married either to non-Mormons or former Mormons, and more than one of the women later expressed unhappiness in their present marriages. Living in a time when divorce was difficult to obtain, these women may have believed a sealing to Joseph Smith would give them blessings they might not otherwise receive in the next life.35
The women who united with Joseph Smith in plural marriage risked reputation and self-respect in being associated with a principle so foreign to their culture and so easily misunderstood by others. “I made a greater sacrifice than to give my life,” said Zina Huntington Jacobs, “for I never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman.” Nevertheless, she wrote, “I searched the scripture & by humble prayer to my Heavenly Father I obtained a testimony for myself.”36 After Joseph’s death, most of the women sealed to him moved to Utah with the Saints, remained faithful Church members, and defended both plural marriage and Joseph.37
Joseph and Emma
Plural marriage was difficult for all involved. For Joseph Smith’s wife Emma, it was an excruciating ordeal. Records of Emma’s reactions to plural marriage are sparse; she left no firsthand accounts, making it impossible to reconstruct her thoughts. Joseph and Emma loved and respected each other deeply. After he had entered into plural marriage, he poured out his feelings in his journal for his “beloved Emma,” whom he described as “undaunted, firm and unwavering, unchangeable, affectionate Emma.” After Joseph’s death, Emma kept a lock of his hair in a locket she wore around her neck.38
Emma approved, at least for a time, of four of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages in Nauvoo, and she accepted all four of those wives into her household. She may have approved of other marriages as well.39 But Emma likely did not know about all of Joseph’s sealings.40 She vacillated in her view of plural marriage, at some points supporting it and at other times denouncing it.
In the summer of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation on marriage, a lengthy and complex text containing both glorious promises and stern warnings, some directed at Emma.41 The revelation instructed women and men that they must obey God’s law and commands in order to receive the fulness of His glory.
The revelation on marriage required that a wife give her consent before her husband could enter into plural marriage.42 Nevertheless, toward the end of the revelation, the Lord said that if the first wife “receive not this law”—the command to practice plural marriage—the husband would be “exempt from the law of Sarah,” presumably the requirement that the husband gain the consent of the first wife before marrying additional women.43 After Emma opposed plural marriage, Joseph was placed in an agonizing dilemma, forced to choose between the will of God and the will of his beloved Emma. He may have thought Emma’s rejection of plural marriage exempted him from the law of Sarah. Her decision to “receive not this law” permitted him to marry additional wives without her consent. Because of Joseph’s early death and Emma’s decision to remain in Nauvoo and not discuss plural marriage after the Church moved west, many aspects of their story remain known only to the two of them.
Trial and Spiritual Witness
Years later in Utah, participants in Nauvoo plural marriage discussed their motives for entering into the practice. God declared in the Book of Mormon that monogamy was the standard; at times, however, He commanded plural marriage so His people could “raise up seed unto [Him].”44 Plural marriage did result in an increased number of children born to believing parents.45
Some Saints also saw plural marriage as a redemptive process of sacrifice and spiritual refinement. According to Helen Mar Kimball, Joseph Smith stated that “the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.” Though it was one of the “severest” trials of her life, she testified that it had also been “one of the greatest blessings.”46 Her father, Heber C. Kimball, agreed. “I never felt more sorrowful,” he said of the moment he learned of plural marriage in 1841. “I wept days. … I had a good wife. I was satisfied.”47
The decision to accept such a wrenching trial usually came only after earnest prayer and intense soul-searching. Brigham Young said that, upon learning of plural marriage, “it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave.”48 “I had to pray unceasingly,” he said, “and I had to exercise faith and the Lord revealed to me the truth of it and that satisfied me.”49 Heber C. Kimball found comfort only after his wife Vilate had a visionary experience attesting to the rightness of plural marriage. “She told me,” Vilate’s daughter later recalled, “she never saw so happy a man as father was when she described the vision and told him she was satisfied and knew it was from God.”50
Lucy Walker recalled her inner turmoil when Joseph Smith invited her to become his wife. “Every feeling of my soul revolted against it,” she wrote. Yet, after several restless nights on her knees in prayer, she found relief as her room “filled with a holy influence” akin to “brilliant sunshine.” She said, “My soul was filled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew,” and “supreme happiness took possession of my whole being.”51
Not all had such experiences. Some Latter-day Saints rejected the principle of plural marriage and left the Church, while others declined to enter the practice but remained faithful.52 Nevertheless, for many women and men, initial revulsion and anguish was followed by struggle, resolution, and ultimately, light and peace. Sacred experiences enabled the Saints to move forward in faith.53
The challenge of introducing a principle as controversial as plural marriage is almost impossible to overstate. A spiritual witness of its truthfulness allowed Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints to accept this principle. Difficult as it was, the introduction of plural marriage in Nauvoo did indeed “raise up seed” unto God. A substantial number of today’s members descend through faithful Latter-day Saints who practiced plural marriage.
Church members no longer practice plural marriage.54 Consistent with Joseph Smith’s teachings, the Church permits a man whose wife has died to be sealed to another woman when he remarries. Moreover, members are permitted to perform ordinances on behalf of deceased men and women who married more than once on earth, sealing them to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married. The precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to trust in our wise Heavenly Father, who loves His children and does all things for their growth and salvation.55
- See “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”; Jacob 2:27, 30.
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:34–39; Jacob 2:30; see also Genesis 16.
- 1 Corinthians 13:12; Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” Ensign, May 2013.
- See Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record 6 (May 1887): 232–33; “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star 40 (Dec. 16, 1878): 788; Danel W. Bachman, “New Light on an Old Hypothesis: The Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 19–32.
- See Doctrine and Covenants 132:1, 34–38.
- Doctrine and Covenants 112:30; 124:41; 128:18.
- “Polygamy,” in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, ed. John Bowker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 757; John Cairncross, After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974).
- Lorenzo Snow, deposition, United States Testimony 1892 (Temple Lot Case), part 3, p. 124, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 13:193; Ezra Booth to Ira Eddy, Dec. 6, 1831, in Ohio Star, Dec. 8, 1831.
- See Brian C. Hales, “Encouraging Joseph Smith to Practice Plural Marriage: The Accounts of the Angel with a Drawn Sword,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 69–70.
- See Andrew Jenson, Research Notes, Andrew Jenson Collection, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Benjamin F. Johnson to Gibbs, 1903, Benjamin F. Johnson Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; “Autobiography of Levi Ward Hancock,” Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
- Parley P. Pratt, The Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, One of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. Parley P. Pratt Jr. (New York: Russell Brothers, 1874), 329.
- Hyrum Smith, sermon, Apr. 8, 1844, Historian’s Office General Church Minutes, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
- These were the same priesthood keys Elijah had given to Apostles anciently. (See Matthew 16:19; 17:1–9; Doctrine and Covenants 2.)
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:7; 131:2–3.
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:19–20, 63; see also “Becoming Like God.”
- Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005), 145–60; Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800, abridged ed. (Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1985), 217–53.
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:55, 63.
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:46; Matthew 16:19.
- Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage has been discussed by Latter-day Saint authors in official, semi-official, and independent publications. See, for example, Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” 219–34; B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930), 2:93–110, Danel W. Bachman and Ronald K. Esplin, “Plural Marriage,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:1091-95; and Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Brigham Young University, 2002), 343–49.
- Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 1:3, 2:165.
- Joseph Smith, Journal, May 19, 24, and 26, 1842; June 4, 1842, available at josephsmithpapers.org. Proponents of “spiritual wifery” taught that sexual relations were permissible outside of legalized marital relationships, on condition that the relations remained secret.
- In the denials, “polygamy” was understood to mean the marriage of one man to more than one woman but without Church sanction.
- See, for example, “On Marriage,” Times and Seasons, Oct. 1, 1842, 939–40; and Wilford Woodruff journal, Nov. 25, 1843, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Parley P. Pratt, “This Number Closes the First Volume of the ‘Prophet,’” The Prophet, May 24, 1845, 2. George A. Smith explained, “Any one who will read carefully the denials, as they are termed, of plurality of wives in connection with the circumstances will see clearly that they denounce adultery, fornication, brutal lust and the teaching of plurality of wives by those who were not commanded to do so” (George A. Smith letter to Joseph Smith III, Oct. 9, 1869, in Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Oct. 9, 1869, Church History Library, Salt Lake City).
- Careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40. See Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 2:272–73.
- See Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 2:277–302. Despite claims that Joseph Smith fathered children within plural marriage, genetic testing has so far been negative, though it is possible he fathered two or three children with plural wives. (See Ugo A. Perego, “Joseph Smith, the Question of Polygamous Offspring, and DNA Analysis,” in Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy [Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2010], 233–56.)
- J. Spencer Fluhman, “A Subject that Can Bear Investigation’: Anguish, Faith, and Joseph Smith’s Youngest Plural Wife,” in Robert L. Millet, ed., No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues (Provo and Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2011), 104–19; Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context,” in Bringhurst and Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy, 152–83.
- Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Autobiography, , Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
- Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Plural Marriage as Taught by the Prophet Joseph: A Reply to Joseph Smith, Editor of the Lamoni (Iowa) “Herald” (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882); Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Why We Practice Plural Marriage (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884).
- Estimates of the number of these sealings range from 12 to 14. (See Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997], 4, 6; Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:253–76, 303–48.) For an early summary of this practice, see John A. Widtsoe, “Evidences and Reconciliations: Did Joseph Smith Introduce Plural Marriage?” Improvement Era 49, no. 11 (Nov. 1946): 766–67.
- Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:421–37. Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to more than one man, typically involves shared financial, residential, and sexual resources, and children are often raised communally. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith’s sealings functioned in this way, and much evidence works against that view.
- Rex Eugene Cooper, Promises Made to the Fathers: Mormon Covenant Organization (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), 138–45; Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 53–117.
- For a review of the evidence, see Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:390–96.
- Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith:Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 440.
- See Lorenzo Snow, deposition, United States Testimony 1892 (Temple Lot Case), part 3, p. 124.
- The revelation on marriage provided powerful incentives for a marriage performed by priesthood authority. (See Doctrine and Covenants 132:17–19, 63.)
- Zina Huntington Jacobs, autobiographical sketch, Zina Card Brown Family Collection, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; spelling modernized.
- The historical record is striking for the lack of criticism found among those who had once been Joseph Smith’s plural wives, although most of the wives left no written record.
- Joseph Smith, Journal, Aug. 16, 1842, in Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds., Journals, Volume 2: December 1841–April 1843, vol. 2 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 93–96, available at josephsmithpapers.org; Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, ed., Joseph Smith III and the Restoration (Independence, MO: Herald House, 1952), 85.
- Jenson, “Historical Record,” 229–30, 240; Emily Dow Partridge Young, deposition, United States Testimony 1892 (Temple Lot Case), part 3, pp. 365–66, 384; Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 13:194.
- Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 2:8, 48–50, 80; Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 473.
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:54, 64. The warning to Emma Smith also applies to all who receive sacred ordinances by authority of the priesthood but do not abide the covenants associated with those ordinances. See, for example, Psalm 37:38; Isaiah 1:28; Acts 3:19–25; and Doctrine and Covenants 132:26, 64.
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:61. In Utah, the first wife was part of the plural marriage ceremony, standing between her husband and the bride and placing the hand of the bride in the hand of the husband. “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer 1 (Feb. 1853): 31.
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:65; see also Genesis 16:1–3.
- Jacob 2:30.
- On the question of children, see note 6 of “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah.”
- Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Why We Practice Plural Marriage, 23–24.
- Heber C. Kimball, Discourse, Sept. 2, 1866, George D. Watt Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, transcribed from Pitman shorthand by LaJean Purcell Carruth.
- Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 3:266.
- Brigham Young, Discourse, June 18, 1865, George D. Watt Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, transcribed from Pitman shorthand by LaJean Purcell Carruth; see also Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 11:128.
- Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, an Apostle: The Father and Founder of the BritishMission (Salt Lake City: Kimball Family, 1888), 338; see also Kiersten Olson, “‘The Embodiment of Strength and Endurance’: Vilate Murray Kimball (1806–1867),” in Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume One, 1775–1820, ed. Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 137.
- Lucy Walker Kimball, “Brief Biographical Sketch,” 10–11, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
- Sarah Granger Kimball, for example, rejected plural marriage in Nauvoo but came west with the Saints. Many of the individuals who rejected plural marriage, including Emma Smith, later became members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
- For example, see “Evidence from Zina D. Huntington-Young,” Saints’ Herald, Jan. 11, 1905, 29; Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, “Mary Elizabeth Rollins,” Susa Young Gates Papers, Utah State Historical Society.
- Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?” Ensign, Nov. 1998; “Polygamy,” Newsroom, topics page.
- Alma 26:35; Doctrine and Covenants 88:41; 1 Nephi 11:17.
The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the historical content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.
Originally published October 2014.