We recently received this question from a reader.
Do Mormons believe that God never changes? If so, I have a question: For a long time Mormons encouraged if not required polygamy. Why have you changed and now say that practice is not permissible? If God doesn’t change His mind, would you say that your early leaders were wrong? If so, couldn’t they have been wrong about many other things?
Maddie, this is a question that I think a lot of people have, so thanks for asking it.
I think the short answer to your question is that we believe in living prophets. But following is a longer response that I hope can explain a little about what that means to us as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and how that relates to your question.
I think what is on Mormon.org addresses your specific question about polygamy pretty well, so I’ll start there. This is from the page “Do Mormons practice polygamy?”
At various times, the Lord has commanded His people to practice plural marriage. For example, He gave this command to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon (Doctrine and Covenants 132:1). At other times the Lord has given other instructions. 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).
In this dispensation, the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by this command, but they obeyed it. Church leaders regulated the practice. Those entering into it had to be authorized to do so, and the marriages had to be performed through the sealing power of the priesthood. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation that the leaders of the Church should cease teaching the practice of plural marriage (Official Declaration 1).
Through a living prophet, polygamy (in limited practice) was commanded for a time. Through the same means (through a living prophet), polygamy was later revoked.
We believe changes in policy or commandments given to or through prophets do not negate or contradict the belief in an unchanging God. In fact, to me, the fact that God has consistently used this pattern of having living leaders to guide His people and do His work throughout the dispensations of time underscores the unchangeableness of God! Let me explain, or give a few examples.
Consider, for example, that God gave the law of Moses to the children of Israel. Before His death, Jesus and the family He grew up in lived and obeyed that law. But after Christ’s death and resurrection, the law was no longer practiced. It had been fulfilled; it had served its purpose in God’s big picture. After that time, it became, in fact, wrong for followers of Christ to practice the law of Moses.
But this change didn’t negate the divine role Moses had in God’s work or the role the law of Moses had during that time to bring people to God and point their souls to Christ. God had not changed, and His desire and love for His children had not changed, and His eternal plan to save His children through Christ had not changed (that was the plan from the beginning of time, even before the earth was formed, and still is the plan!). But the law had.
Another example is how, at first, Jesus Himself told the apostles to only teach the Jews, but after Christ’s death, to and through Peter (the authorized head/leader of the Church), the revelation was received to then take the gospel to the Gentiles. This didn’t negate Jesus’ commission to His leaders when He was alive. Again, God’s character and love for His children had not changed, but God had continued to reveal His will through His authorized servants, and His work continued to go forward.
Over time, the authority that had been given to Jesus’ apostles was taken from the earth, as those apostles died. Because of His big picture view and because of where people were at the time (speaking generally), there were centuries of time when that authority did not exist on the earth. God had not changed, but in His big picture view, that period of time had a purpose (and many people had important work to do to help prepare for the restoration of the gospel).
It was all still about God’s plan and His love and His purposes to bring people to Christ and this time, to prepare the earth for Jesus’ *second* coming.
Through the prophet of the restoration and the authority that was restored to and through him, Joseph Smith, the pattern of having living prophets was also restored. Continuing and unfolding authorized revelation for Christ’s Church became part of the pattern again. The unfolding work of the restoration of the Church took years and years, and continued after his death…and continues to this day.
Polygamy was commanded for some to live for a time in the early history of the Church. But through a living prophet (the fourth president of the Church), Wilford Woodruff, God revealed in 1890 that it was time for that to end. Leaders from that time forward upheld monogamy as the rule. As noted in the Mormon.org quote above, monogamy has, in fact, always been the rule. God has commanded polygamy at times, but it was never meant to be His unending, unchanging law.
Today, living prophets continue to receive inspiration about policy changes and specific things the Church and its members are to do and focus on.
But through all of the dispensations of time, through all of these types of changes and that process of God giving different instructions to different prophets depending on what His will and purposes were, the character of God has not changed. His love for His children has never changed. His plan, as mentioned before, never changed.
For me, although I don’t fully understand the purpose polygamy filled in its time, I am not bothered by it. This pattern of God working through living prophets to reveal His will and commands for specific times and seasons, in fact, only strengthens my faith in God and His character. It is the pattern found in scripture. I find great comfort in knowing that He will give the instructions that I need to know in my life through prophets, and that He is fully aware of what is needed now in our time given where we are in the earth’s history and in His big picture view. But my God is the same God who guided Moses and who sent Jesus and who inspired Peter and who called Joseph Smith and who speaks through living prophets today.
Answers to and thoughts about questions addressed at Mormon Women should not be considered official responses of the Church. For official material and/or to ask Mormon missionaries questions, see Mormon.org.