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Eternal Marriage and Mormon Polygamy

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Eternal Marriage and Mormon Polygamy

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

The LDS concept of eternal marriage is found nowhere in the Bible, and conflicts with the biblical teaching that the marriage covenant ends when one of the spouses in the marriage dies. However, Mormons believe in modern revelation and specifically believe that the revelations given especially through Joseph Smith clarify or even correct what they see as limited revelation imperfectly preserved in the Bible. On this basis, Mormons are likely to argue that they are not troubled by learning that their modern revelations contain doctrines such as eternal marriage that go beyond the Bible and even differ from its teachings in some ways.

Even granting this theological perspective for the sake of argument, what should nevertheless trouble Mormons is the fact that the doctrine of eternal marriage originated as a theological rationale for Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage. The connection between eternal marriage and plural marriage (or polygamy) is absolutely clear in Joseph Smith’s “revelations,” but Mormons today typically ignore that connection. For example, the chapter on eternal marriage in Gospel Principles cites Doctrine & Covenants 132 three times (220, 223) but never even mentions plural marriage, which is the main subject of that revelation (see especially D&C 132:1-3, 29-40, 51-57, 61-63, 65). That eternal marriage was a theological rationale for plural marriage is clear enough from simply reading all of D&C 132, but some historical background will help confirm this conclusion.

The LDS Church’s preface to D&C 132 states, “Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831.” This statement probably refers to a comment that Joseph Smith reportedly made on 17 July 1831, when he told a small group of married LDS men that one day it was going to be God’s will that they take “wives of the Lamanites and Nephites.” We therefore have pro-LDS sources informing us that Joseph had an interest in polygamy as early as 1831 (the year after the Book of Mormon was published).

In this light, we should take very seriously the historical evidence that Joseph Smith was pursuing intimate relationships with women besides his wife Emma in the early 1830s. These women included Eliza Winters, Nancy Marinda Johnson, Vienna Jacques, a Miss Hill, and especially Fanny Alger (see Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989], 4-6). Smith does not appear to have approached such women with a proposal of “eternal marriage,” or even to have had such a concept, for most of the 1830s. “Smith evidently viewed all marriages prior to this time [1841], including his own to Emma, as valid for ‘time’ only. As late as 1840 he occasionally signed letters to Emma with the benediction ‘your husband till death’” (Van Wagoner, 6).

Indeed, right until the end of his life Joseph never acknowledged that he was practicing plural marriage and went out of his way on several occasions to deny it. In 1835, Joseph had a statement on marriage placed in Doctrine & Covenants that acknowledged the accusation and that affirmed the Saints’ belief in monogamy. “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy; we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.” By the end of 1841, Joseph had at least three wives in addition to Emma, and he took at least eleven more women as wives in the first eight months of 1842. Yet in August 1842 Joseph published an article in the Mormon newspaper Times and Seasons quoting the D&C statement as an answer to the accusation of polygamy. The statement was later removed from D&C. Joseph took at least sixteen more wives in 1843, bringing the total number of women whom Joseph claimed as wives besides Emma to thirty. That same year, Joseph wrote a revelation affirming the practice, but it was not made public until 1852 and was not officially added to D&C until the 1870s. Right up to the end of his life, Joseph publicly denied having more than one wife. A month before he died, Joseph gave a speech in which he said, “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one” (History of the Church 6:411).

This evidence shows that the idea and practice of plural marriage probably came first and that the theological principle of eternal marriage came later. In any event, Joseph first articulated the two ideas together in the revelation dated 1843 (D&C 132), and he may have been developing the idea in his own mind for a couple of years prior to that date.

“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines—Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter. Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same” (D&C 132:1-3, emphasis added).

We see here that Joseph explicitly introduces this revelation (the only revelation in the LDS scriptures discussing eternal marriage) as explaining the basis on which God “justified” the Old Testament saints in having a plurality of wives. There can be no plausibly denying, then, that in this context eternal marriage is presented as the rationale or justification for plural marriage. Joseph issued this revelation in 1843, when his practice of plural marriage had become an issue of intense controversy among Mormons. Opposition to the practice from within his own religion was the occasion or situation that prompted Joseph Smith to justify his actions by offering a religious or theological reason for them.

A careful reading of D&C 132 shows that it was indeed Joseph’s own conduct that was at issue. Joseph strongly asserts his divine, exclusive authority to put into effect such marital contracts:

“All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead” (D&C 132:7).

The marriage of a man who marries a woman outside the LDS faith is “not of force when they are dead” (v. 15). Even those who think of themselves as marrying “for time and all eternity” are married for time only unless their covenant is sealed “through him whom I have anointed and appointed unto this power” (v. 18), that is, through Joseph Smith (at that time). Joseph is explicitly compared to the patriarch Abraham as a model polygamist: “Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins—from whose loins ye are, namely, my servant Joseph” (v. 30).

“I am the Lord thy God, and I gave unto thee, my servant Joseph, an appointment, and restore all things. Ask what ye will, and it shall be given unto you according to my word…. And if she hath not committed adultery, but is innocent and hath not broken her vow, and she knoweth it, and I reveal it unto you, my servant Joseph, then shall you have power, by the power of my Holy Priesthood, to take her and give her unto him that hath not committed adultery but hath been faithful; for he shall be made ruler over many. For I have conferred upon you the keys and power of the priesthood, wherein I restore all things, and make known unto you all things in due time…. And again, verily I say unto you, my servant Joseph, that whatsoever you give on earth, and to whomsoever you give any one on earth, by my word and according to my law, it shall be visited with blessings and not cursings, and with my power, saith the Lord, and shall be without condemnation on earth and in heaven” (v. 40, 44-45, 48).

The remainder of the revelation focuses on Joseph’s wife Emma, instructing her to accept Joseph’s practice of plural marriage and to welcome his additional wives into their home (vv. 51-65).

It is quite evident, then, that the revelation of eternal marriage was primarily and essentially a revelation of plural marriage, with marriage “for eternity” as the theological justification for that practice. Moreover, the focus of the revelation was specifically on justifying Joseph’s personal practice of taking additional wives for himself: the revelation repeatedly insists that God had uniquely authorized Joseph Smith to “restore” polygamy, and it also insists at length that Joseph’s one legal wife, Emma, accept his practice of polygamy despite her obvious misgivings.

A century and a half later, Mormons view eternal marriage as an essential aspect of their religious faith. Yet the original context of eternal marriage as the religious basis for polygamy is quietly ignored. Eternal marriage was not a divine principle revealed by God and restored through Joseph Smith so that worthy monogamous couples could look forward to having their families together forever. That is a sanitized reinterpretation of eternal marriage developed by the LDS Church in the twentieth century after it was forced to abandon polygamy. Rather, eternal marriage is an unbiblical concept invented by Joseph Smith as a pretext for his shocking practice of claiming to “marry” some thirty women. It simply makes no sense to accept the teaching of D&C 132 on eternal marriage while ignoring its teaching on polygamy.

For Further Study

Polygamy Page. A collection of articles on LDS polygamy from Joseph Smith to the present.