Recent Developments in Understanding Polygamy

On my LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) page on polygamy, I mention two important recent contributions from LDS women that help us look at polygamy in a different light. First, let me recommend the work of Valerie Hudson. See V.H. Cassler, “Polygamy,” SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2010), which explores significant but previously overlooked language in the scriptures that helps resolve the tension between the Book of Mormon’s prohibition of polygamy and the revelation in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants that supported polygamy. She argues that God is not indifferent to polygamy and clearly prefers monogamy for his children. She presents a compelling scriptural case that polygamy should be viewed as an Abrahamic sacrifice for those who took on that challenge during the temporary period when that atypical, normally prohibited practice was in force.  See also her 2004 book with Alma Don Sorensen, Women in Eternity, Women of Zion. You can also listen to a FAIRMORMON interview with her on this topic.

Second, in a breaking story from the end of 2013 and early 2014, I’m impressed with the work of Meg Stout in her series of essays at the Millennial Star beginning with “A Faithful Joseph.” She finds evidence that polygamy was not about sex, that Joseph was faithful to Emma, and that a possible purpose in having Joseph and others practice polygamy was to clearly establish and demonstrate that the blessings of eternal sealings and eternal family ties were open not just to those who families with only one marriage, but extended to women who were the second or later wife, including polygamous marriages (which have been accepted over the centuries in many cultures) and marriages in which the original first wife was deceased or divorced. That’s something I had never considered, but she presents an interesting case for it. Whether that argument stands or falls, her analysis of the cultural setting in which polygamy was introduced and the details from the life of her polygamous ancestor add several new dimensions to our understanding of polygamy. Her series on the topic is deeply significant, with more to come. Thank you, Meg, for your faith, patience, and research.

None of this removes the pain and tension of polygamy, whether on Joseph’s day or Abraham’s, but it may help us better appreciate those who endured it.

Kudos to Bookslinger for sharing the news of Meg Stout’s new series. Kudos to a terrific mom and thinker in Appleton, Wisconsin for recommending Valerie Hudson’s work to me.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

34 thoughts on “Recent Developments in Understanding Polygamy

  1. To say that polygamy was just about sex is too simplistic. Certainly there was more to it than that. However, to say that it was not about sex also goes too far. If no sex was involved, there would have been no need to keep polygamy a secret in the beginning, and no need to use the word "marriage." Joseph could simply have said that he was "sealed" to various women without the implications of marital relationships.

  2. Plausible explanations? The article linked is extremely reaching at best. It's clearly biased, excusing Smith of any wrong doing.

    If the same case was made against ANY unidentified man the conclusions made in this article would be considered laughable.

  3. Her note about Fanny Alger is ridiculous. Alger herself confirmed that her dealings with Joseph are exactly what we'd now call an affair.
    But none of this really should matter: Joseph claimed in the Articles of Faith that Latter-Day Saints believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the laws of the land, all the while he clearly was not. What does that make him?

  4. The delusional myopia required to explain non sexual relationships between Joseph Smith and this list of women is insulting.
    Please Jeff, you're a smart man. Can you seriously endorse Meg's article as plausible explanations?

  5. Why do true believers expend any mental energy on the argument that Joseph Smith didn't have conjugal relationships with some or all of his plural wives? If the plural marriages were commanded by God, then having relations would have been perfectly lawful. Yet the idea that Joseph may not have had relations with some of his wives seems to appeal to you and some other apologists for some reason, Jeff. Do you doubt that the plural marriages were authorized by God? If not, why worry about whether Joseph did or didn't have marital relations with some of his plural wives?

    I agree that polygamy was like an Abrahamic sacrifice in at least one respect: like the story of Abraham and Isaac, it raises age-old questions about what morality is and where morality comes from, and whether there is one morality for everyone or whether, as Nietzsche said (and Joseph Smith implied in his letter to Nancy Rigdon), there are no moral facts in the sense that there can be different "moralities" for different individuals. Joseph Smith was a genius. It would be refreshing if Mormons would spend some time really wrestling with these questions instead of trying to whitewash their history. The reason polygamy shocks members of the church is that they are taught from an early age to recoil in horror from discussions about "conjugal relations." Leaders and teachers in the church are so fearful that their children will engage in some act of sexual impropriety that they "build a hedge around the Torah," as it were, teaching them to feel guilt and shame over having sexual feelings. So naturally polygamy shocks them when they finally discover it.

  6. Hiero,

    On one hand you discourage people in the church from having an open dialogue about a topic, and on the other you disparage it for being closed about another. Which is it?

    Your statement rests on the assumption that a discussion about the details of polygamy is an attempt to "whitewash" history. If Joseph did not have 'conjugal relations' with many of the women that he was sealed to, then why would we perpetuate the idea that he did, or allow others to?
    I don't know about you, but I am more accepting of fact than fiction. Understanding the fact that Joseph didn't consummate most of these sealings actually sheds more light on their purpose. For example, it wasn't all about sex. That knowledge alone is important in understanding the doctrine that was introduced at the time.

    The last part of your comment is just absurd. First, it is highly improbable that a person grew up in the church only to later be "shocked" at finally discovering polygamy.
    Second, I am trying to remember just how my parents "taught me to recoil in horror from discussions about 'conjugal relations.' Did my dad show me the recoil technique that should be used? I'm trying to remember how it goes…and how did my leaders teach me to feel guilt and shame over having sexual feelings. Dang it, just what were those teachings!? I forget!

  7. Pierce,
    You have a strange definition of the word "fact". You clearly mean "conjecture" and "speculation". There's plenty of reliable contemporary evidence to show that polygamists, including Joseph, actually had sexual relations with their other wives. It's a fact, plain and simple. You may not have been exposed to these facts because they're not something that's typically taught in Gospel Doctrine, but the evidence is out there if you simply look for it.
    I think the ease of access to such evidence would go a long way in explaining the falling attendance and retention numbers across the church.
    When information from a variety of plausible sources is available, and it flies in the face of what's being taught each Sunday, who is to be believed? The person who has never once doubted a shred of what's been presented, or the mountains of actual evidence that contradicts the official church record?
    And speaking from my own experience, learning the details of Joseph's dalliances was truly shocking to me, a life long member. I still struggle with it, as would any member who even stuck a toe past the perimeter of official LDS message.

  8. "it is highly improbable that a person grew up in the church only to later be "shocked" at finally discovering polygamy."

    Sadly, it's actually very common.

    Mormon Elder Marlin Jensen (speaking to a religious studies class, openly troubled about the future of their church)
    "My own daughter has come to me and said, 'Dad, why didn't you ever tell me that Joseph Smith was a polygamist?'"

  9. I didn't say that there were no sexual activities in polygamous marriages. I said that there actually a lack of evidence that supports sexual activity occurring in most of Joseph's sealings. In your haste to rip on Gospel Doctrine class (which is not called Detailed Church History class, you skipped over what was actually said.

    "When information from a variety of plausible sources is available, and it flies in the face of what's being taught each Sunday, who is to be believed? The person who has never once doubted a shred of what's been presented, or the mountains of actual evidence that contradicts the official church record?"

    And what is the official church record that you speak of, and what is the official statement regarding polygamy that is blown away by "plausible sources?"

    Now I will be the first one to agree that we could do a better job with the materials being taught in our manuals, for a variety of reasons. And the church will not thrive in the information age without getting ahead of the issues and providing more information than critics. But if you haven't looked past a Gospel Doctrine manual to learn more about church history (if it interests you), then that is your fault. I actually am very interested in it and have spent a pretty good deal of time reading from some plausible sources (that don't rely on assumptions), and the consensus from my studies is what I stated above. It has nothing to do with Gospel Doctrine–which I'll emphasize again–deals mostly with doctrinal principles in a cursory manner and serves to edify, rather than controversial historical details of one aspect of the early church.

    I live in Arizona, and I have never known a person to have grown up in the church and not heard of polygamy. People may not know the details of these marriages because 1. they are murky and 2. the church hasn't included them in Sunday school lessons. But I don't think it's as common as you make it out to be, despite some of the one-off stories that might be floating around.

  10. So, Pierce, how do you square what the article of faith states versus the way Joseph lived? Did he obey, honor, and sustain the law of the land when he married women who were already married, or when he married children?

  11. That's a good question. I would start off by saying that it is indeed a belief of ours to obey, honor, and sustain the law. 3 things there:
    1. Joseph didn't break the law. The age of consent was actually about 10 years old back in that time (I'm not including my opinion on that, just saying how it was and how it was viewed).
    2. A religious ceremony like a sealing is not something that is regulated by the law, nor should it be. Even amidst the anti-polygamy laws in force today, fundamentalists have one legal spouse yet consider their sealings to be equal. Same is true of polyandry.
    3. My opinion only: While we believe that article of faith, we do not hold the "law of the land" to be the highest law, nor is it worshiped by us. Many unethical and unconstitutional laws are passed that don't deserve our devotion. In some cases, it is acceptable to practice a civil disobedience.

    So yes, I believe he did. And considering the terrible abuses instigated and perpetuated by local and federal governments, I would say that he practiced it better than most could have.

  12. Pierce,
    1. Having multiple wives wasn't against the law? Marrying someone else's wife wasn't against the law?
    2. Are you saying these weren't marriages, but "religious ceremonies"? Then why did they call them marriages?
    3. So the articles of faith are lip service to outsiders?

  13. Anonymous,

    I'm trying to understand the point of your dialogue with me. No, having multiple wives was not illegal in Joseph's time.
    1. Anti-bigamy legislation started being pushed through in the 1860'-1880's in response to Mormonism. Prior to that, it was not illegal.
    2. If you're concerned about the "law," then no, Joseph did not seek to have the State recognize these sealings aka. marriages, so far as I know. I don't have any bones with calling them a marriage, but I used that term to demonstrate that the State has no business regulating a religious ceremony like this, which is what a marriage is. As a side note, I have talked with couples who have said that they believe themselves to be married even though they had no religious ceremony nor a marriage certificate from the state. It was just something they believed. Do you think that the courts should attempt to regulate belief like that? There is a difference between what you do privately/religiously and seeking to get that marriage approved by the State.
    3. Why is it lip service and what do you mean by outsiders? Is my explanation really that hard to understand? There is a context to that article of faith like there is to everything. For example, we believe in God the Eternal Father and in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. That does not mean you can say "oh, you believe in the doctrine of the Trinity then."
    State and Federal laws are not the highest law. And just because a bureaucrat passes a law or ordinance or interprets a law a certain way doesn't mean we reverence it like it was scripture. Laws are overturned all the time because they are unconstitutional and we are not morally obliged to follow those (again, all this is my own viewpoint. Certainly other LDS who would disagree with me). It doesn't mean I don't believe in the principle of law. When we say we "believe in" it, the given is that the law is constitutional and serves to protect the rights of society.

    I'm sure you view it the same way. If not, please explain.

  14. The point of my dialogue is this: I like to hear how Mormons justify and explain their beliefs.
    I'll let it go at that, but I would question something on point #2, which I acknowledge is completely off-topic. If the government has no business in marriages, then why the fuss over prop 8, gay marriage, etc? If it's a sacrament, and the gov't has no business regulating a sacrament, why not just let people feel and act how they think best? Sorry for the de-rail, just a thought.
    As for #3, it's a matter of saying one thing and doing another. "We believe in obeying the law, but we don't obey it." The church hierarchy's continued practice of polygamy at the beginning of the 20th century, even after they themselves proclaimed the practice was outlawed, makes me wonder even more at the justifications used for this article of faith.
    Thank you for your answers.

  15. Anon,

    I actually think that your question is a good one and loosely relates to this issue. My belief is that private institutions should be in charge of marrying people, and government can recognize those for their programs, statuses, etc. This would put power over marriage back where it belongs and from whence it came–the churches. As it stands, however, the reverse is true.
    So in this case, the people have banded together, created government, and that government has certain programs and statuses for those who are married. That government is the ultimate authority on who is legally married. It thus becomes incumbent upon the people to define what marriage is. The LDS church decided that it would promote its belief in what marriage is–a union between a man and woman–and encouraged members to participate in defining what society considers marriage to be. Why not "let people feel and act how they think best?" We do. It's not a question of controlling people's actions. People are free to associate with whomever they want to, and the church currently does not promote legislation to prohibit that right.
    The real question is: why would the LDS people define marriage in a way that is opposite of what they believe in?

    "… makes me wonder even more at the justifications used for this article of faith"

    I just don't understand what is difficult about understanding this. Do you personally believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law? If yes, is there a limit to your obeying? Do you believe that laws can be unjust or unconstitutional? If so, do you believe in the principle of civil disobedience? If not, why? If so, do you not still believe in the concept of law?
    That's all there is to it. I believe that the American founding fathers believed in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law even though they led a revolution. The laws and taxes and statutes carried out by King George were immoral, so they disobeyed them by throwing tea into a harbor. Yet these men wrote the Constitution after the war. Did Martin Luther King believe in the law? Yes. Did he and Rosa Parks and others practice civil disobedience to unjust laws? Yes. How about Ghandi? Same thing. This conundrum is not unique to Mormonism. I really hope by now that is clear. I don't see how it could be that foreign of a concept or why you will only apply it to Mormons.

  16. I, personally, believe in civil disobedience, but I don't think Mormons in general do. Without opening a whole new can, the modern church currently frowns on it, in principle and practice. L. Tom Perry spoke out against it in a BYU devotional, and as recently as 2009, Elder Burton ranked it alongside sexual transgression and drug abuse in a conference talk.
    But that wasn't my point. My point, and perhaps I don't express it well, is that the church leadership says one thing and does another. The second example I mentioned, but which you passed over, was the continued practice of polygamy by church leaders even after the practice had been outlawed and condemned from the pulpit. Polygamous marriages were performed in secret, illegally, and against church law as well. I find this puzzling and hard to justify. How do you rectify this problem? This goes beyond disobeying a law of the land, it's disobeying a law issued directly to the membership of the church by the very leaders who then went on to participate in more polygamous marriages. To me, post-Manifesto polygamous marriage ceremonies seem like the actions of children. Leaders trying to get away with as much as they can before they're caught a second time.
    This brings me back to Joseph. Consider, for a moment, that he was driven by the thrill of sexual conquest. I know I've already lost you with that point, but that's how the world sees him. It's easier and more believable to accept that he was a passionate man than that god was constantly threatening his life at the point of a sword if he didn't take yet another wife, no matter who she was.
    I'll understand if you don't want to continue this, and I apologize to Jeff for dragging this out. These are things I'm genuinely curious about, and I find the reasoning of the faithful on these matters very enlightening.

  17. Pierce,

    I don't discourage anybody from having an open dialogue. I question the motives of people like Jeff for choosing to engage in a particular dialogue and for entertaining the idea that Joseph Smith didn't have relations with some of his plural wives. If you mistake questioning motivation for discouraging discussion, your analytical skills are too impaired to participate in a meaningful exchange.

  18. Hiero,

    Jeff's post and subsequent comment was simply opening up a dialogue to consider the possibility that several marriages were not consummated. You start of by saying that you don't understand why anyone would expend any mental energy on this. Those words just generally don't translate to "let's talk about this and see if there's merit to it!" So you'll excuse me if I misunderstood you. You'll also have to let me know if my analytical skills just won't cut it in a conversation with you. With comments like me being taught to "recoil in horror from discussions about 'conjugal relations,'" you may just be over my head.

  19. Anonymous,

    I just don't think Americans in general consider civil disobedience, with the exception of pockets of university students. But if pushed in the right way, I believe most Americans would. You're right in that it's not something we openly teach in any way. But, as demonstrated by events such as post-manifesto marriages, we can see that those Saints practiced it. It's important to point out that they also paid their debt for breaking the law. So in that way, they still honored and sustained and obeyed it while still bringing to light the injustice.

    Burton didn't necessarily rank it among sexual sin. The point of that talk (to youth and young adults) was for them to make choices that don't limit their participation in life's events. Getting a criminal record for civil disobedience demonstrations may not be worth it when compared to what the church teaches as life's priorities. In some ways I agree, in some ways I disagree.

    So if you yourself understand and believe in civil disobedience, you should not have any problems understanding why a Mormon would do it. Because I'm sure you also believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

    I also don't think you give the Saints enough credit for how polygamy was handled. They had been indoctrinated as to the importance of answering that calling and following the command to raise up a righteous generation. So now there is a revelation showing what the American government would do if it continued, so it had to cease. For them, the principle was still real, and they were caught between living that principle and the consequence of that decision. Do you not think that this was something that would need to phase out over time? How quickly do you change your religious practice because a hostile government is threatening you? You have to consider the context and reason for the stopping of polygamy as stated in the manifesto. God didn't stop the principle, he simply showed Woodruff what would happen if it continued.
    It's anything but childish. Children adopt new ideas almost in an instant. These people had to first weigh the consequence of disobedience, then change their family structures, culture, lifestyles, and religious practice. All because of what outside forces would do to them if they didn't comply. Those changes don't happen overnight.

  20. Pierce made some statements above that need some clarification: "No, having multiple wives was not illegal in Joseph's time."

    This simple is not true. Pierce is confusing federal law with state law. As in, there was no federal law against slavery, but in many states it was illegal. Polygamy was illegal in Illinois and probably must every state during Joseph Smith time. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that polygamy was not a religious right and was always illegal going all the way back to King James, essentially declaring that it was never legal.

  21. How delightful to see this note about my Faithful Joseph series over at

    For those who don't get why Joseph would have covenanted with nearly three freaking dozen women, I'm getting to the good (or positively scary) part right now.

    Joseph could have been engaging in as much or more bangy bangy as detractors might imagine. But it is striking that there aren't any children.

    Seriously, you have to come check out the terrible stuff Bennett and his acolytes were doing. It certainly explains why no one has been willing to talk about those times.

    I certainly hope that those of us examining the history roughly 100 years after all these men and women died won't get all pucker-faced about the errors they embraced, if briefly, in 1841-1842. Several of these women (and even some of the men) not only repented, but went on to become some of the most important leaders in Mormonism.

  22. As always, you take no thought of the nuances that don't fit your bias.

    Then comes the idea of who Joseph was legally married to. Legal marriages and spiritual marriages are not synonymous, similar to today.

    What Joseph did was not illegal, and he was never convicted of adultery.

    The anti-bigamy laws that were passed later on attempted to shut down any kind of polygamous families.

    Dig deeper before accusing people of lying.

  23. But I already explained those "shocking" quotations of yours in my next paragraph, if you would have cared to quote that too. By carefully omitting the context, you have yourself some great material to pick on. How stimulating.

  24. Pierce – What you are psychologically doing here is call Projection. Your biased natured is projected on to the person challenging you. Every time I challenge a liberal ideologue, I am accused of being a Republican. Every time challenge a conservative ideologue I am accused of being a democrat. But pray tell Pierce, what is my bias that you accuse me of? Anyways, “nuances” and “context” seem to be your way of confessing your assertion was a mis-statement, but not a lie.

    BTW, one indication of bias is the creation of hypothetical universes of dubious probabilities whether it is Oak’s hypothetical universe suggesting that maybe destroying the printing press would not have violated legal threshold of freedom of press at the time or Madsen suggesting Joseph Smith could have beat an adultery prosecution regardless of the jury pool. Not that either of those two scenarios have any real bearing of the reality of suppression and adultery by definition.

    The best technique I have used to expose the Mormon Apologist bias is the Bill Clinton analogy. Apologist says that the lack of evidence of children from extra-marital sexual relations demonstrates that those relations were not about “lust”. I take no stance either way, but under that theory then Bill Clinton’s were not about lust either, because none of his resulted in children that we know of. It works for just about every scenario on the subject. JS would have beaten an adultery prosecution. BC in fact beat a perjury (related to adultery) prosecution, ergo he did not commit adultery? They are analogous situations, not opinions Pierce. For a democrat to say JS’s were bad, but BC’s were OK is bias, just as the reverse (BC’s were bad, but JS’s OK) is also bias. Apologist’s say many of JS extra-marital sexual relations (though may be not all, after all he was fallible, right?) were OK in contrast to the mores of the time period purely as a matter of faith. This fine, but this is in fact the meaning of bias.

    Just curious, why did you put “shocking” in quotation marks? Italics or caps are better if you want to emphasize something. Quotations marks make it look you are quoting me, which of course would be false.

  25. "The best technique I have used to expose the Mormon Apologist bias is the Bill Clinton analogy."

    This is the funniest thing you have ever posted. On the one hand, you have a religious leader who believes he is practicing a biblical principle by being sealed (spiritually married) to more than one woman. Some evidence suggests that a few of these marriages were most likely consummated (not adultery when you're married to the person, btw). However, the lack of children in a marriage in those times is pretty substantial evidence to be considered when the dealing with the accusation of "lust." But as far as Joseph was concerned, they were in a legitimate husband-wife relationship. A commitment was made by all involved to be joined together as husband and wife in the hereafter.

    On the other hand, you have a married man who had oral sex performed on him by an intern at work. There are clear statements by both parties that their relationship was sexual. They were in no way married to each other.

    That's your humdinger?

  26. WOW, And I am the one accused of being biased. At any rate this is awesome, anyone who thinks they are spiritually married to someone is incapable of committing adultery. I love your religion Pierce. Makes me think of all those movies where the waitress say "sometimes" when asked if she is married.

    I can see why Mormanity doesn't like you. At least he is smart enough to not respond when his reasoning has been exposed. The more you respond it just gets better and better. This link will be shared many times.

  27. This isn't about who is biased. We both are very much biased.
    Yours, however, causes you to reinvent what adultery is, so that now it applies to couples who have mutually entered into marriage covenants in front of witnesses, and where sex may not have even occurred.

    I'm sure these zingers get the apologists every time.

  28. Thanks for clarifying your mental machinations of my biases. I did not realize I had this bias. I could not help but notice your difficulty in stating what your confessed bias is.

    I think we all get it Pierce, your position is pretty clear: JS was not guilty of polygamy because he was not "legally" married and he was not guilty of adultery because he was "spiritually" married. He gets to have his cake and it to. Accusing the 7 billion people on this planet that see some inconsistencies or something odd about these contorted reinvented definitions of bias is just bizarre.

    I love it . It is almost like the Bro. Jake you tube series pull his material straight from you Pierce. JS was not legally married, but it was a totally legit marriage.

  29. 1. This reimagining presents well known inconsistencies. It appears to be promoted here only as some form of lifeline for those who need it.

    2. The number one difficulty with Stout’s reimagining is that it makes Brigham Young a colossal fraud. Placating the cognitive dissonance regarding the religion’s founding, while amplifying cognitive dissonance regarding successive iterations of the religion.

    3. Stout provides no clear definition of the word faithful. Apparently Stout has developed a list consisting of women in the last year of Smith’s life that somehow Emma Smith might possibly have consented to Joseph Smith have sexual relationships with, ergo not unfaithful. Any other relation therefore constitutes unfaithful relations. Polygamy alone appears to be insufficient for this definition, but rather some undefined methodology exist for constituting each relation as “faithful”.

    4. Regardless of the definition, whether it is Stout or Pierce, as always, the new lexicon applies equally as well to David Koresh. Koresh had multiple “wives” with consent of each other and their legal husbands.

    To date Mormanity and his cronies have never been able to retort the David Koresh analogy with anything other than phony chuckles. To date Mormanity’s only response has been to label the David Koresh comparison has a form of hostility, unwittingly exposing the root of such anti-pluralist which is the arrogance that comes with believing their stuff smells differently than everyone else’s.

  30. Given current news I could not help but post here.

    Given the logic presented by the apologist, Bill Cosby must be innocent, because where are all the children.

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