Approach the average Mormon and ask the following question: “What was the purpose of the practice of Polygamy in early Mormonism?” First you’ll get a whole lot of awkward silence, then some flustered attempts to avoid the question and change the subject. The reason for this silence and embarrassment will be for one of two reasons. You can look up online discussions, and the ignorance is telling. Most Mormons haven’t got a clue as to the doctrinal or practical function of LDS polygamy, and they’ll be too embarrassed to admit this. A very select few will know the reasons and they’ll be too embarrassed to say them out loud because when you do that you sound absolutely barmy.
Like most LDS doctrine that is more controversial than admonitions to avoid swearing in the nude in the presence of small children, there is a great deal of misinformation on this topic, so I can’t even begin discussing the actual justifications for polygamy before I disembowel the false reasons that many Mormons unwittingly circulate.
The Theory: There were too many women when Mormons moved west, and so men married up the surplus to ensure that widows and single women would be cared for.
The Problems: Isn’t it possible for a close-knit society to ensure the well-being of orphans, widows, and singletons without assigning them into sexual relationships? This theory promotes the idea that some sort of sexual relationship is required for a man to provide for a woman, turning marriage into more of a form of prostitution than a partnership. Also, this theory is rubbish as polygamy began over ten years before the trek west began. Once Mormons got to Utah, there was still no surplus of women according to the detailed census records from the period, none of which indicate a surplus of women. If anything, there was a surplus of unmarried men because for every woman added to a polygamist’s harem, there is a single man who will be unable to find a wife.
The Theory: Polygamy enabled Mormons to “raise up righteous seed” more quickly than if they were monogamous, increasing the population to allow for better growth of the religion.
The Problem: Polygamy does not increase the number of faithful Mormons in general. It increases the number of children born to a specific male. Women can only produce a finite number of children, whether they are in polygamous or monogamous relationships. While Mormon missionaries did become famous in Britain for marrying wives and then bringing them back to Utah where they learned that there was a harem waiting for the husband, early converts were not disproportionally female. So while polygamy would not have increased the overall number of births, it was an excellent way for individual males to guarantee a high number of their own children. There is a direct correlation between number of wives and rank in the LDS church. Common members who practiced polygamy rarely had more than two wives, whilst general authorities had several to dozens, with very few exceptions.
The Theory: Polygamy was necessary because God needed the Mormons to restore the “fullness of all things.”
The Problem: If polygamy was restored because Mormons needed to bring back Old Testament lifestyle, then we have a problem. At no point is polygamy identified as a religious doctrine in the Bible. Every mention of polygamy is within the context of a common social practice. God spends an awful lot of time talking about sex in the Old Testament: with whom you can have sex, how often you can have sex, and what you can’t do whilst having sex. You would think that a deity as sex-crazed as Yahweh would mention how many wives a man ought to have if he cared, but he didn’t. Sex, and not marriage, is the primary concern of the Old Testament, and I imagine this has to do with the fact that illicit sex was disruptive to society and property ownership. Also, if Mormons were looking to re-create Old Testament society, they would have also started keeping kosher and would not have kept pigs, which they did.
The Theory: Mormons didn’t want to engage in Polygamy, but God made them do it to teach them discipline and faithfulness.
The Problem: Joseph Smith’s laughable account of an angel with a flaming sword ordering him to marry his groupies on pain of death notwithstanding, this is bollocks. We need only turn to the most married Mormon of all time, Heber C. Grant, for a quote on how much polygamists hated doing their duty:
“I have noticed that a man who has BUT ONE WIFE, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to WITHER AND DRY UP, while a man who goes into PLURALITY looks fresh, YOUNG AND SPRIGHTLY. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honors his word. Some of you may not believe this, but I not only believe it but I also know it. FOR A MAN OF GOD TO BE CONFINED TO ONE WOMAN IS SMALL BUSINESS,… I DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE SHOULD DO IF WE HAD ONLY ONE WIFE APIECE.”
Deseret News, April 22, 1857
“God Made Us Do It” is the theory that the church is currently clinging to. However actual studies of polygamy indicate that it is almost exclusively practiced because it is beneficial to elitist, male-dominated, undemodratic political structures. What is more probable? That Mormon men reluctantly took on surplus wives out of the faithfulness of their hearts, or that they enjoyed being rewarded with their own little genetic empires that made them rock stars in their society?
In my next post I’ll address the doctrinal justifications that Mormons have used in the past and at the present time for the practice of polygamy. In the meantime, please do share any other justifications that you may have heard of that you suspect are bollocks.