The practice of polygamy (technically polygyny) in the early history of the church, and the ongoing doctrine of eternal polygamy, is perhaps the single biggest challenge to the faith of Latter-day Saints in the modern era. Many of us wrestle with this topic for years, often shelving it in basement storerooms of our minds because we don’t quite know how we should feel about it or how we can reconcile it.
We’ve wrestled with it ourselves. And, like many Latter-day Saints, we’re very much conflicted. Bill doesn’t have much plural marriage in his family tree. But Susan does, in a big way. So polygamy is part of our legacy and our children’s and grandchildren’s legacy. And it’s a mixed one.
The Milo Andrus Clan
Susan’s great-great grandfather, Milo Andrus, lived an extraordinary and colorful life. He received a powerful witness of the divinity of the Restoration, and embraced both the gospel and life with great faith and passion.
Milo marched to redeem Zion with Zion’s Camp. He attended the School of the Prophets. He was a powerful missionary, converting, among many others, Heinrich Eyring, grandfather of chemist Henry B. Eyring. He led three wagon trains of pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. Milo was a builder in every sense of the word. He helped build the Kirtland, Nauvoo, Salt Lake and St. George temples. He was a Bishop in Nauvoo, a Stake President in St. Louis, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy and a Patriarch. Historian Ivan J. Barrett wrote a biography on Milo that he titled “Trumpeter of God.”
When called to practice plural marriage, he seemed to embrace it with equal gusto, taking eleven wives who bore him 57 children! His descendants largely remained devout and today comprise one of the largest families in the church. Susan owes her existence to Milo and and his 8th wife, Jane Lancaster Munday. So our family has been directly blessed by them. And we share a gratitude for their legacy of deep faith, sacrifice and devotion.
We don’t know much about their private opinions of plural marriage. It seems they generally tried their best to make the practice sacred in their lives. But it was… complicated.
In 1848, Milo was called on a mission to England. He opted to take his 2nd wife, Sarah Miles, with him. His first wife, Abigail Dailey, was left to trek across the plains with their five children. They nearly starved in the process.
Abigail, who had married Milo at age 18, never signed up for any of that. She didn’t choose polygamy—it was more or less thrust upon her. The emotional wounds were so deep that she eventually divorced Milo. She remarried, but divorced again when her second husband took another wife. Four decades after their divorce, Milo and Abigail reconciled and remarried. Once the love of his life, she was now wife #11. We don’t know what to make of that. We imagine she was…conflicted. Maybe the surviving photo of Abigail captures it best.
Unlike Abigail, however, the rest of Milo’s spouses DID choose polygamy. And we owe them the respect of honoring that choice. They lived, in many respects, honorable, sacred lives as they lived out that choice.
Susan’s father, a deeply good and faithful man, looks at Milo’s life, including his polygamy, with a degree of reverence—part of the Andrus legacy of sacrifice for the Kingdom. Susan’s mother, a saint in every sense of the word, feels a little differently about the Andrus plural marriage legacy.
We honor the early saints, including Susan’s ancestors, who took this very difficult thing they were asked to do and did their best to invite God’s blessings into it. And we know from their stories that God was very much present in their lives. Whatever we might say about their practice of polygamy, it was not enough to separate them from God’s grace and influence.
The Taste of Polygamy
As he was laying out the doctrine of our premortal existence in his King Follett funeral/conference discourse, Joseph said:
“This is good doctrine. It tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you… I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life as they are given to me, you taste them, and I know that you believe them. You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life.”
Eternal truth flowed generously through the prophet Joseph Smith at the beginning of this Restoration dispensation–the Book of Mormon, followed by the books of Moses and Abraham, and the other revelations. To us, some of those revelations (e.g. Sections 121, 93, 88, 84, 89, 76, and others) are exquisite and undeniably inspired and powerful.
Many of the ideas and practices Joseph revealed have spread across the earth, inspiring the lives of millions. But not all. Polygamy lingers unpleasantly on the spiritual taste buds of most Latter-day Saints. It is an idea that inspires very few today, and feels quite heavy and confusing to most.
We include ourselves in this group. As we have been studying together the first two books of Nephi this year, we have been struck by how many times Nephi refers to the “plainness” of Christ’s word, or the “spirit of plainness” that has been in Nephi since he undertook his wilderness sojourn with his family. The beauty of that plainness comes through powerfully toward the end of his writing as he declares the simple but powerful “doctrine of Christ,” which is “given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be.” (2 Nephi 32:6-7)
We hear the Lord’s voice coming through the prophet Joseph clearly and plainly in most of his revelations. We often feel in these revelations that “peace which passes all understanding.” We have read Section 132 together a few times over the years and have sought to hear the clear voice of the Lord in it. Without elaborating, we must simply say that on many levels, it is very, very difficult for us to imagine the Lord we know speaking the words of Section 132. It brings us neither peace nor understanding. For us, it obscures more than it elucidates. It is not, to us at least, “good doctrine.” It does not “taste good.”
Section 132 is problematic for many readers, of course. One way to make peace with it is by pretending that “new and everlasting covenant” when used in this section actually means monogamous temple marriage. But of course, the first four verses of Section 132 make it abundantly clear what this section is about, and the entire second half of the section makes it even clearer. It’s all about polygamy.
And so we are left in a very uncomfortable position. Sitting in judgement on a canonized revelation is not a comfortable perch. But, in reality, most of us quietly do this in one way or another. We all have our favorite scriptures–scriptures that feel more true to us than others. And many, if not most of us encounter passages of scripture that we find deeply troubling, that our hearts or minds just can’t embrace. Not all scripture is of equal value. Joseph himself taught that.
So how do we make sense of this?
Clearly, Joseph was animated by his mission to “restore” ancient texts and ancient practices as part of tying all dispensations together. Polygamy was practiced in Old Testament times, so it needs to be restored (so the thinking goes). Perhaps this practice would have been better left in the ancient past with many other “unrestored” ideas and practices.
Here’s the big problem for us: At its core, polygamy would place men at the center of things in the eternities and put women eternally in men’s orbits. That’s just the nature of patriarchal polygamy. And that, for us, is the truly objectionable idea behind eternal polygamy. We don’t believe that is a model for either heaven or earth.
This is personal for us. We have built our marriage around the intention of creating a truly synergistic relationship. We believe our Heavenly Parents are the model for this relational synergy. A transcendent power can emerge in the relationship between a woman and a man if that relationship is truly nurtured and cultivated. Our experience in four decades of marriage confirms this idea; together, in intimate, trusting, vulnerable relationship, our marriage has become much more than the sum of its parts. It’s hard to imagine this gestalt could have emerged in a “crowded marriage.” It’s hard to imagine what true intimacy, trust and vulnerability would look like in a polygamist marriage. Inevitably plural marriages would seem to be inherently more transactional and less relational.
Jacob in the Book of Mormon, after railing against the evils of plural marriage and declaring it a gross abomination, then just possibly adds a caveat that might leave the door open a crack–depending on how you read Jacob 2:30. It’s a curious verse. “If I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people.”
Does this verse create just enough space for the 19th century practice of polygamy?
Not if “raising up seed” means making more babies; demographic scholars have shown that polygamy did not produce more progeny for the early church; in fact, it very likely suppressed overall fertility rates rather significantly.
But did the practice produce a particular type of people? Is that what Jacob meant?That’s hard to know. We may look at Susan’s “Andrus clan” and say “possibly.” (This idea is implicit in the argument that polygamy was a sort of “Abrahamic sacrifice” required of the early church to refine its faith. Bill has responded to that argument here.)
Overall, it’s hard not to conclude that polygamy was and is very problematic, a huge stumbling block for many, and a great stain on the reputation of our faith. Over time, it has surely closed many more doors than it has opened.
So we have to consider the possibility that polygamy was simply a wrong turn in our history. If so, it was a big one, since it defined us as a people for many decades, and continues to define us in part today.
But if it was a mistake, it is not an irredeemable one. It’s one that can and should teach us important lessons if we let it. It does not, for us, discredit Joseph’s prophetic mission. Not even close. The scriptures and the revelations are not, to use Melissa Inouye’s analogy, a cheap string of Christmas lights where, if one bulb is faulty, none of the other bulbs give light. The restoration project Joseph started continues to shine more and more brilliantly as it unfolds.
One final crucial question: What was in Joseph’s heart?
As Richard Bushman has persuasively argued, in instituting sealing and plural marriage Joseph seemed driven much more by a deep desire to expand kin networks than by a desire to have more wives or sexual partners.
Joseph was passionate about literally sealing up a kingdom of saints. Heaven was not some distant, other-worldy goal. Heaven was to be created now through the eternal, unbreakable power of priesthood sealing. Joseph and the early church exercised this sealing power generously, even sealing men to other men as well as to women. We have since redefined how the sealing authority is exercised, but maybe we can find inspiration in Joseph’s deep and expansive intuition, whatever unfortunate forms it may have taken.
As Elder Oaks recently reminded us, we know very little about how the next life will look, including how our relationships will be organized. We do firmly believe there is a special power that emerges from the synergy between a husband and wife, both here and in eternity, as modeled by our divine Heavenly Parents. But as we gaze into the eternities, maybe we should do so through a lens of more abundant eternal relationships.
That’s fine, as long as it’s not a lens that sees women eternally in the orbit of men. We should all be clear about that.