Polygamy in the Book of Mormon

It struck me the other day that the one place in the Book of Mormon where polygamy is addressed is unabashedly opposed to polygamy. This is, of course, Jacob chapter 2 (and a little of chapter 3). However, it may surprise you to learn why Jacob was so opposed to polygamy.

If we take a look at the sermon given by Jacob in Jacob 2-3, it seems clear to me that the main opposition he feels toward polygamy he feels is based on the adverse effect that he feels it has on women and children. Let me give you a sample of his comments

Jacob 2:31-35

31 For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands.
32 And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts.
33 For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for they shall not commit whoredoms, like unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts.
34 And now behold, my brethren, ye know that these commandments were given to our father, Lehi; wherefore, ye have known them before; and ye have come unto great condemnation; for ye have done these things which ye ought not to have done.
35 Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.

All the added emphasis is mine and it is with good reason. It seems to me that the problem with polygamy, in Jacob’s mind, is not abstract. He seems to be saying that polygamy makes wives and daughters feel awful and that it hurts children. It is the real cries of those hurt by polygamy that are ascending up to God and leading to this forceful condemnation of the practice. Although the more abstract issue of chastity is mentioned, it is the sorrow, the mourning, and the cries of his daughters that cause God to condemn the practice.

Perhaps you will think that I am trying to stage a whitewash of the church’s past, or trying to argue that the church was wrong to have ever engaged in the practice. Not really; after all, we do have the escape clause built into this passage:

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 2:30)

However, it seems to me that this is best read as an exception that proves the rule. The Lord of Hosts may change the rules as necessary, but it is His perogative and such changes are, I think, meant to be temporary. For example, we do not encourage our youth to run about lopping the heads off of our fallen, drunken enemies.

It strikes me as interesting that the test cases for polygamy in D&C 132 come from the life of Abraham. In fact, this passage effectively puts Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on an even par with Abraham’s entering into plural marriages (see D&C 132:32-37). Once again, the clear implication is that plural marriage is not meant to be the norm (as almost sacrificing one’s child is also not meant to be the norm). Further, we have the following passage, directed at Joseph, but perhaps intended to assuage Emma as well.

D&C 132: 50-51

50 Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.
51 Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.

The Lord has offered an escape, one related to Joseph’s sacrifice. I have no clue what this refers to, but if the Lord is serious about there being an escape and the Lord is serious regarding the comparison of plural marriage to Abrahamic covenant, then perhaps our assumption of the eternal nature of all polygamous unions solemnized in the sealing ordinance is incomplete. To our knowledge, neither Joseph nor Emma “escaped” this in their lifetime.

If nothing else, I believe that the discourse on polygamous unions in the Book of Mormon indicates that polygamous unions were never meant to be the rule for our temporal existence, although the Lord may sometimes deem them necessary. As to why that might be, I don’t know, but this passage makes clear that there are great sacrifices and great sorrow involved in such a decision.

14 Replies to “Polygamy in the Book of Mormon”

  1. I’ve yet to see a scriptural reference to polygamous marriage actually in practice that didn’t involve great sacrifice and/or sorrow. Very interesting read on the similarity between the binding of Isaac and taking a second wife. That puts things in perspective.

  2. It’s almost a given that Orihah, son of Jared, had more than one wife.
    Ether 7:2 And he begat sons and daughters; yea, he begat thirty and one, among whom were twenty and three sons.
    Thirty-one children with just one woman? Poor thing.

  3. Great post!

    I am curious about different meanings of D&C 132:50-51. As I understand your penultimate paragraph, you are suggesting that polygamy may have been a “time only” ordinance with an “escape clause” for the hereafter. Do I understand correctly? If so, you are making an interesting suggestion. I suppose it would make sense of the fact that Joseph Smith was sealed to women who were already married (polyandry). After all, many of JS’s wives already had husbands. Perhaps they just needed to be tested “like Abraham”?? It seems like a cruel test to me, and I’m not sure how many people passed with flying colors. I know that I would failed.

    Frankly, the polygamy passages in the Book of Mormon have always troubled me. I guess I will never understand why the Lord would need to “raise up seed” through polygamy.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing up this topic for discussion.

  4. Does polygamy really increase “seed” as suggested in the Book of Mormon? Is there a higher rate of fertility among polygamous women than monogamous women?

  5. I think it’s the higher fertility rate for selected males that lies behind the argument that polygamy “raises up seed.” Behind the suggestion that the net birthrate will increase lies a second assumption, that polygamy provides husbands for women who would not otherwise have married. And lurking behind this idea is probably a third assumption, that males chosen to live polygamy are those that would “raise up [desireable] seed.”

  6. My read on what is happening in these chapters is a bit different than lxxluther’s. I see the primary problem among the Nephites as being that of prostitution and they are attempting to excuse it by rationalizing the scriptures dealing with concubinage and polygamy. I dont see polygamy being endorsed, but rather that Jacob is rejecting prostitution and vain attempts at false justification via polygamy, which he also notes is presently banned.

    With respect to “raise up seed”, you have to take ancient realities of mortality into account. Our modern medical technology has dropped rates of maternal mortality rates to amazingly low numbers. This was not the case for thousands of years up until the modern medical era. It is impossible to know what actual statistical rates of maternal death at delivery was, but I have seen estimates that suggest there was ~10% chance women would die in childbirth. If the women dies in childbirth in a monogamous marriage, who cares for the baby after the mother dies? In a culture of subsistence agriculture or nomadic herding, the father is not in a position to provide childcare to babies, having to provide for the rest of the family or they wil all die. Take Rachel and Leah for example when Rachel died delivering Benjamin, who then took care of him? Had to have been Leah or one of the other concubines. Had there not been a built-in system of childcare, Benjamin probably would have died also. It seems likely to me the practice of polygamy provides a built-in system of child care and support that improves the odds at having children survive. I have seen statistics (dont know how reliable they are) that indicate fertility rates among pre-OD1 polygamous Utah families was no higher then their non-polygamous peers.

  7. I think that the issue is not so much that he needs more people, but rather that he feels that this is a good way to “refine” the people he has. In other words, I put the emphasis on the “unto me” instead of the “raise up”

    Interestingly, Lehi seems to have asked about polygamy, but to have been told that his people’s precarious condition in the new world was what the Lord wanted for his people and that he believed that this was necessary in order to “raise up a righteous branch”. See Jacob 2:25 & 34.

  8. Brant Gardner has a very interesting Mesoamerican perspective on this passage. He suggests that the introduction of polygamy was tied to trading practices. Read his (soon to be published) draft here under verses 23-33.

  9. put the emphasis on the “unto me”

    Are you suggesting that polygamy was a way of refining the existing adult population by weeding out those unable to make the required sacrifice? Or did it refine the entire population by increasing the number of children born to “believing” households?

    Cause the second was what I was getting at but the first I’ve sometimes heard applied to the most recent attempts to live polygamy.

  10. I am inclined more so to the first than to the second explanation, personally, but not so much as to completely discount the first.

    Oh, I forgot, handle, I don’t know what is coming. I think that the afterlife appears to be a place where the workings of polygamy remain unclear and I know how I would like it to work, but I have no guarantees that it will.

  11. HP,
    I have had similar thoughts on this subject reading the BOM. It seems the only way to view things that I can make any sense of, and it is coming from the most authoritative source. I am glad to see I am not alone.

  12. Re: #7

    So, how many “desirable” seeds did Joseph Smith raise up?

    My understanding is that he didn’t really father that many children, compared with the number of women he was supposedly sealed to. Assumption #2 seems to be more easily applied to him.

  13. Plural marriage, like any other principle of the gospel, is a principle which can be used to build up the kingdom of God, to His Glory, or can be abused, twisted, and perverted to satisfy a person’s (or a people’s) selfish lusts. I think that in a true Zion society, plural marriage could be practiced and it would be an uplifting experience for all involved. However, due to our degenerate telestial state, 99.9% of the time it will be a principle which is misused and abused. Witness John C. Bennett and his “spiritual wifery”. It is for this reason, the fact that almost without fail, the principle will be abused, that I believe Jacob condemned plural marriage as hurtful and harmful to women and children. I don’t think this is inherent in the principle itself, but in that lustful and weak men will take advantage of the practice to satisfy their own carnal desires, to the neglect and detriment of their families.
    The true test of mortality is whether we will do “all things whatsoever the Lord [our] God shall command [us].” So for some, the practice of plural marriage is as the sacrifice and testing of Abraham. Whatever thing(s) are of the most value to you in this world, be it money, prestige, health, family, or even your spouse, you must be tested whether or not you are willing to give them up should God so command. And so, for Emma, polygamy was her ultimate test… would she submit her will to the Lord’s, despite her personal aversion to the practice? I for one, am not willing to judge whether she passed or failed that test. But I don’t think that God would ever institute anything that was inherently harmful to women and children, no matter how much he needed to simply “raise up seed”. After all, if necessary, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” I don’t think that the pure practice of plural marriage is necessarily hurtful to women and children, it is the abuse and misuse of it by wicked men.

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