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Our history with plural marriage is really hard to accept. Shouldn’t we just renounce it in past, present and future and move on?

Bill Turnbull

We asked two intelligent and articulate women and one couple to respond to this big question.

YES, says Carol Lynn Pearson, well known-poet, author and playwright.  In her thoughtful and passionate response to our Big Question, she reflects on her own painful relationship with the subject of polygamy throughout various stages of her life. Here’s an excerpt from her piece, in which she’s reflecting on a time just after the breakup of her marriage:

When heaven has an earthquake you fall to your knees and feel through the rubble to find the pieces of God. In 1978 when my eternal, temple-blessed marriage shattered and everything that had been meaningful lay in jumbled shards around me, I had to slowly and carefully pick up every single piece and examine it, turning it over and over, to see if it was worthy to keep and to use in building a new house of meaning. As I gathered the broken pieces of God, I used only my own authority, only my own relationship with the divine, and the good, small voice that speaks inside me, to appraise them. I threw away many, and I kept many, assembling the bright pieces into One Great Thought that asked only, “Do I see God’s fingerprints on this? Does this piece feel godly? Does it speak of love?” That made it easy. I was forever finished with the insane attempt to love a God who hurts me. When I picked up the little piece of God-ordained polygamy, I smiled because there was no question. I thanked the God of Love, and I threw that piece away.

In her book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and MenPearson points out that, as painful as polygamy was to women, it was also spiritually and emotionally damaging to Mormon men.

So, we should just renounce polygamy, past, present and future, and move on?

Not so fast, says Jessica Brown. Let’s especially not be too hasty in summarily condemning its past through our presentist lens. And let’s prudently examine the side effects that wholesale renunciation of plural marriage would produce in the present. 

Renouncing plural marriage sounds like an easy solution to this uncertainty. But it’s worth exploring the side effects that would ripple in all directions in the push to get rid of this doctrine that can be so uncomfortable. Renouncing plural marriage would require more than just saying, “it was a mistake and no longer exists.”

In their response, Susan and Bill Turnbull (which you can read here) make a strong case against plural marriage in principle while also holding space for its practice in our history:

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.

To be sure, the practice of polygamy 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 our modern era. Many of us wrestle with this topic for years, often shelving it in basement storerooms of our mind because we don’t quite know how we should feel about it or how we can reconcile it. 

There are many ways a person might view and judge polygamy. Here are some examples:

  1. “I believe plural marriage is an eternal doctrine, called “Celestial Marriage” in D&C 132, and we might still be living it if laws allowed.” Since this position puts the believer directly at odds with Jacob 2 in the Book of Mormon, this view can be difficult to defend. And as generations pass, it’s a view that seems to be fading fast.
  2. “I believe polygamy was instituted by God for a time, but for most of us, it will not be our destiny here nor in the hereafter. Perhaps God instituted polygamy as some kind of ‘Abrahamic test.’ (A good example of this argument can be heard here.  A strong argument against the “Abrahamic test” view can be read here.)
  3. “While I don’t personally like polygamy, I resist looking at its practice in the early church through a ‘presentist’ lens. I have to try to understand the context and seek to respect the choice of those who practiced it.”(Jessica Brown elaborates this perspective in her essay.)
  4. “Though it was implemented and practiced very imperfectly, maybe it served a unique and important purpose for its time. Maybe, as Jacob 2 suggests, it functioned to build a particular kind of people. ” (This is one of the views examined in the Susan and Bill Turnbull’s essay).
  5. “I don’t know quite what to make of polygamy, but maybe God’s hand was in it. I’m sure God will work things out in the hereafter so I’m not going to let it trouble now.” (This view may strike us as a bit intellectually and morally lazy, but it’s a common one).
  6. “I think polygamy was a mistake, an especially pernicious one since it objectifies women by putting men eternally at the center of the gospel plan with women in orbit around them. It’s hard for me to hear Christ’s authentic voice in Section 132. And the way it was practiced by Joseph and others confirms that suspicion.” (This position is articulated by Carol Lynn Pearson in her response).

However we feel about the origins and practice of polygamy, we can have some sympathy and respect for the early saints who were asked to practice it.  So, in that spirit of generosity, and with open minds and hearts, let’s take a deeper look at the restored church’s complicated relationship with polygamy.

There is much to explore here. 

Carol Lynn Pearson’s essay,  Jessica Brown’s essay and Susan and Bill Turnbull’s essay are good places to start. 

The church’s own official position is published here. In addition, the church deals with the issue of plural marriage in a remarkably candid fashion in its new, and very readable, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.

If your primary interest is in how Joseph Smith instituted and practiced polygamy, we think Brian and Laura Hales gave us an invaluable resource in their faithful, balanced and very open examination of the subject. You can dive into that here.

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Additional Resources

The Path of a Seeker — A Conversation with Charles Stang

Presentism, Polygamy, and the Dangers of a Single Story

One Couple’s Wrestle with Polygamy

Exorcising the Ghost of Eternal Polygamy

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