We get versions of this question quite regularly at our site, and we’ve addressed the topic of polygamy here before, but between the recent Pew Forum survey results and the fact that Warren Jeffs and the FLDS polygamy/marriage lifestyle recently in the headlines, I figured it was worth addressing again.
As a recent Deseret News article notes (“Mormons say polygamy morally wrong, Pew poll shows“), Mormonism and polygamy are often linked together. Polygamy is, in fact, often the subject of jokes about Mormons, “as though Mormons and polygamy are synonymous in mainstream media.”
But, as the article points out,
Ironically, the practice that’s most linked to Mormons is a practice most Mormons oppose, according to a groundbreaking new study of Mormons in America released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Over 1,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were recently polled in this Pew survey, and only 2% of the Mormons surveyed said that they felt polygamy was morally acceptable. 86% of them said they felt that polygamy was morally wrong, and 11% felt polygamy was not a moral issue.
But then why is Mormonism often tied to polygamy in the media or in casual conversation (or jokes) about Mormons? The article explains:
At one point 120 years ago, some Mormons practiced plural marriage, hence the association between Mormons and polygamy. The practice was discontinued in 1890, but the cultural association persists, perhaps in part because Mormons are sometimes confused with members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, a polygamist group not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The article notes that this cultural confusion and desire for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be differentiated from those of the FLDS church may have influenced people’s response in this Pew survey. But I think recent statements from Church leaders and from mormon.org also reinforce and support the moral stance reflected in the results.
President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, polygamy is “against the law of God.” This is true “[e]ven in countries where civil or religious law allows [the practice of a man having more than one wife] (“What Are People Asking about Us?” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 72).
In the Book of Mormon, the Lord told the prophet Jacob “for there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife: and concubines he shall have none… for if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things (Jacob 2:27-30). …
The Lord’s law of marriage is monogamy unless he commands otherwise to help establish the House of Israel (see Encyclopedia of Mormonism Vol. 3, pp. 1091-1095).
In other words, even in our history, polygamy was the exception, not the rule. Anyone who practices polygamy now is excommunicated from the Church.
I wrote the following on my blog, Telemoonfa Time:
A Survey from the Pew Research Center about Mormonism was recently published. A lot of it was good news: most Mormons considered themselves Christians. Mormons are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives than the general public is. Great.
But one statistic really dismayed me, and that was that 86 % of Mormons found polygamy to be “morally wrong.”
That’s found on page 11 of this document.
What? Morally wrong?
Abraham was a polygamist, Moses was a polygamist, Joseph Smith was a polygamist, Brigham Young was a polygamist, and Jesus Christ might have been a polygamist, and yet 86 % of my fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints think that polygamy is morally wrong?
(Jesus Christ being married is not official Church doctrine, but a lot of early Church leaders said stuff about Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene and maybe some other women, too. I think it’s very probable that Jesus was a polygamist in his mortal life.)
I would like to bring a scripture to my fellow members’ attention: D & C 132: 27. I think this verse is so clear that it cannot be misinterpreted. I mean, this scripture isn’t from Isaiah or the Revelation of St. John the Divine. It’s very straightforward.
Doctrine and Covenants 132: 37
Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.
So, if Mormon Scripture so clearly states that polygamy is not only moral, but commanded by God at certain times, why did 86 % of us Mormons tell telephone interviewers that polygamy was morally wrong?
I can only come up with three explanations:
Explanation # 1: They really think polygamy is wrong.
Mormons have been so inundated by church leaders with this message: “We don’t do polygamy anymore. We’ve moved passed that. We’ve received more revelation. So if you do polygamy now, you’ll be excommunicated.” So, maybe 86 % of Mormons have genuinely come to see polygamy as a big mistake.
I’ve heard from church members, here and there, in informal situations, from women mostly, that they really do think having more than one wife is wrong, and always was wrong. They still think that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were prophets, but they don’t think that polygamy was ever really OK. I don’t see how they could simultaneously think that polygamy has always been sinful and that Joseph Smith and all the rest were still prophets, but apparently some people are comfortable with that doublethink.
Explanation # 2: They were forced to give a brief answer.
What they really wanted to tell the pollster was, “Well, I believe that polygamy was a true principle at one time, but now the Church has been commanded by God to stop doing it. So it would be morally wrong for me to practice polygamy now, yet I congratulate the followers of Christ in earlier times for engaging in the righteous act of plural marriage.”
But they had to say yes or no, essentially, so they just erred on the side that required less explanation. That is, they said polygamy was morally wrong.
And I can’t blame 86 % of Mormons for that response. If someone were to ask me, “Do you consider drinking alcohol to be morally wrong?” and I was forced to give a yes or no answer, I would say “Yes, drinking alcohol is morally wrong.” But if I were allowed to give a longer answer, I would say, “Well, Jesus drank alcohol, and the righteous Nephites seemed to drink alcohol, and the Word of Wisdom wasn’t such a big deal in the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, so… I suppose that drinking alcohol is immoral in some situations but just hunky-dory in other situations.”
It’s the same with animal sacrifice. I believe it’s morally wrong now, but at one time it was a commandment of God. But if I was taking a test and I was forced to select A) animal sacrifice is wrong; or B) animal sacrifice is right; I would select A, because that’s the answer that best pertains to me and my current time and space.
Explanation # 3: They were in missionary mode.
When members try to explain their faith to non-members, they emphasize different things, they word things differently, and they alter the message to suit the audience. Some may go so far as to tell a white lie about church history. It’s totally understandable that a Mormon being called up by a non-Mormon taking a survey would say that polygamy is immoral, because Mormons want to give the impression that we have nothing whatsoever to do with polygamy. People hear about the creeper Warren Jeffs in the news, and they see shows like Big Love and Sister Wives, and they get an inaccurate impression of the Church. So members want to distance themselves from the so-called “fundamentalist” Mormons as much as possible, and one of the best ways to do that is to emphasize over and over again that we don’t practice polygamy. So some well-intentioned, missionary-minded Latter-Day Saints go so far as to say that polygamy is wrong.
I wonder if Church members are in missionary mode so often that they internalize all the politically palatable answers we give to people who know little about the Church.
I once knew a member of the Church who said that he thought that the Prophet and the Lord wanted every Mormon household to have a gun as part of their emergency preparedness plan. But the Prophet didn’t preach it just because it would be political suicide. It would stop people from investigating the Church. I thought, “Well, if God wanted his followers to get guns, He should tell us to get guns, and not worry about how it looks to the Gentiles.” It seems weird that God would alter his doctrine or withhold a commandment for the sake of good public relations.
If the Pew Research Center would have called me, I would have said that polygamy is moral.
See, I have the attitude that the LDS Church is true, and we have nothing to hide. Our church’s former practice of polygamy is nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, it’s probably not the best thing for missionaries to yell about from their soapboxes.
But instead of shying away from polygamy, and sweeping the subject under the rug, we members of the Church should be studying and accepting it. If it is hard to accept, well, so what? A lot of true doctrine is hard to accept.
telemoonfa, first an administrative note: Next time, please share your thoughts more briefly and then link to your post if you would like. Thanks. 🙂
Secondly, you bring up some worthwhile points of discussion, and I think the Deseret News sort of addressed the reality that our view of polygamy is complex and layered, and that some of the response may have been more culturally-driven than doctrinally driven.
But I still think there are some flaws in your argument.
Do you believe killing is immoral? And yet, sometimes God commanded people (e.g., Nephi) to take someone’s life. I think we can acknowledge the law while also acknowledging that there are exceptions. I think what you are acknowledging is the tension that creates. But I don’t think that calling polygamy moral will solve that tension. Otherwise, why is no faithful member of the Church able to practice it and remain a member? Why are there several scriptures that talk about the law of having one wife? Why wasn’t everyone living in polygamy during Joseph’s time? Why did polygamous marriages have to be authorized in the first place? Only those with keys could authorize such a marriage (“It is lawful for a man to have only one wife, unless the Lord commands otherwise by revelation (Jacob 2:27–30). By revelation, plural marriage was practiced in Old Testament times and in the early days of the restored Church by the direction of the prophet who held the priesthood keys (D&C 132:34–40, 45).” (Guide to the Scriptures)
I read that to mean that even if we had lived in the time of Abraham or of Joseph Smith, had we not been commanded/authorized by God (because not everyone was) to engage in polygamy, it would have been morally wrong. Again, what is the law, even as written in scripture? One wife.
In fact, in my mind, a key point of D&C 132 was that it was not immoral for Abraham, Isaac, etc. only because God put them into that situation for His purposes. When David and Solomon fell outside of God’s commandments and justified actions, they were condemned. In my mind, they would have had no need to be ‘justified’ by God in the first place (or could have fallen from grace by engaging in wrongful marriage/concubine arrangements) if polygamy alone was moral.
Although I don’t agree with all her conclusions, V.H. Cassler explores this more fully here.
You are right that we can’t pretend that polygamy never happened, but acknowledging the rule of God’s law to me (and the bold doctrine of believing in a prophet with keys to direct exceptions to key laws like that surrounding marriage) is, in my view, not the same thing as sweeping polygamy under the rug.
But there is definitely a tension there. And a survey question can’t necessarily capture that tension. But I still would have answered with the 86%. 🙂
p.s. Please realize that all that I have expressed are my own views. I cannot, of course, speak officially for the Church on this subject.