Polygamy's Religious Context

Plural marriage was far more than a sexual arrangement. It tied directly to spiritual principles of Mormon theology -- for example, how one is saved.

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

I think doctrinally people miss the significance of polygamy. ... This desire to become like God included thinking about God as Father and themselves as fathers and mothers. Of course, one of Smith's teachings was there was a God the Mother as well. So this idea of becoming like God included this idea of becoming like God the Father and God the Mother. So parenting was hugely important, and this parenting occurred in these kinship structures, whereby you not only parented by giving birth, but you parented by adopting families into your family. So it's a web. It's a creation of kinship that has to do with salvation or exaltation as the Latter-day Saints would believe.

So to walk away from that was not just walking away from a sexual arrangement, which is how it was generally discussed. For Mormons to walk away from polygamy was to walk away from an entire kinship structure that not only gave meaning to their most intimate associations but also was related very directly to their understanding of how one was saved.

So this was a big deal. It was a major debate. And sometimes I think it's easier to think of if you went to another Christian and said: "The United States is going to legislate against baptism. You can't baptize anymore." Well, what would they do? They would start doing it in swimming pools; they would dig a hole in their basements. They would still baptize.

So Mormons were still performing these celestial marriages, because to them they were related to salvation. This is what gave you an endowment of power from on high through which to engender a particular kind of holy life, within your children certainly but also within this larger network of kinship. So ... before the bar of judgment, I think what Mormons think -- it is to be standing there with all their kin, not their actions, not their ascent to God's sovereignty, not their acceptance of Jesus as their savior only. The force of it is to stand there with their kin, people they love, that love them, and who will say: "Yes, this person helped me in my spiritual growth and my spiritual life. This person participated in my salvation with you, Jesus."

Jeffrey Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.

[Polygamy] was a spiritual principle. ... It was not licentiousness run amok. ... It was higher and holier than that. It may not in every instance have been practiced as appropriately as it should have been. ... Why it would have been a principle of exaltation and of eternity I'm not sure I know, and I'm not sure anybody knows. ...

All I can offer at this point, I think, is the feeling that belief as I see it in my own wife, as I see it in my own mother and I see it in my daughters. This is not to disparage men in any way, but there is something more given to spirituality in most women than I think there is in most men. ...

I don't know that that's documentable or if that's defensible. I don't know if you can get any data on it. But I know women; I'm married to one; I'm the son of one; I'm the father of some. ... I know there is something holy, if you let me use that word, about a woman's faith, about a woman's heart, about her spirit. And I am only wondering with you -- on record, but still wondering -- if somehow in the final equation of this, it was a way to account for the eternal possibilities and blessings and promises of all women, as well as all men, who qualify -- whatever it is to qualify -- for exaltation and eternal life and the promises of the future.

We believe that marriage is eternal. One of the fundamental premises of this church is that family is forever. I know, in my life, that it won't be heaven without my wife, and it will not be heaven without my children, because that's true, and if that's some eternal principle, and if there's something eternally splendid about that, then God in his goodness must have some way to let everybody share in as much of that as possible. And I believe that our doctrine points toward that. ...

Daniel Peterson
Daniel Peterson is a Brigham Young University professor and the author of many articles and books on LDS doctrine.

One of the other doctrines [of] Mormonism that separates them from other religious faiths is the idea the family ties survive. They not only survive; they are necessary; they are essential. We're not saved as atomistic individuals; we're saved as family groups. And Mormonism in the 19th century was unabashedly patriarchal. It was a restoration of Old Testament forms as well as New Testament. ... One of the things that was there was polygamy, and they took it very seriously. It was a religious principle that people entered into as a matter of religious commitment. It was a covenant they made. It was not just some quirky passing fad. It was something they were willing to go to prison for, and many of them did, as leaders of the church.

Sarah Barringer Gordon
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in 19th Century America.

The polygamy question: ... It came from a time when people were pushing the boundaries of marital relationships and sexual relationships -- Oneida, the Shakers. ...

... The Mormons were perhaps the most radical and consistent expression of a broad-ranging sexual experimentation that included the most rigid celibacy and the most group kinds of sex experiences that you could imagine in the 21st century. ...

One analogue to Mormon polygamy might be the Oneida Perfectionist Community founded by John Humphrey Noyes. They practiced what they called group marriage and stirpiculture [a form of selective breeding], and it's actually quite distinct in its own way as well. One of the things that Noyes believed was that marriage was the foundation of property and selfishness, that both of those things were fundamentally un-Christian, and that, therefore, each member of the community was covenanted to share him- or herself with every other member of the community. ...

Do you see Joseph trying to pull [sexuality and spirituality] together [in that way]? ...

In early Mormon society, sexuality and spirituality were united in plural marriage. The idea was that a sanctified man in union with multiple women could bring together male sexual potency and female fertility to create a family that would itself add to his own salvation in the family's status in heaven. The practice of sex within that family was thus sanctified.

It also was tightly controlled. There were strict rules about how quickly after birth one could have sex with any wife, and within most families there were very regular visiting arrangements for the husband, for example. But the idea that sexual relationships with a woman were themselves mirroring God's own sexuality was very, very important in the early church, especially to Joseph Smith himself, who in those early days and before the revelation was written down began to experiment with different forms of marriage and relationship in an effort to get closer to the divine mandate for human sexual relationships. ...