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Why Are We Still Talking about Polygamy?

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Why Are We Still Talking about Polygamy?

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

In the July 2010 issue of Ensign, an official magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard had an article entitled “Sharing the Gospel with Confidence.” Ballard’s main point is that Mormons should not get defensive when telling others what they believe. His first suggestion for talking about faith without being defensive is this: “Don’t let irrelevant issues drown out more important subjects.” What would be an example of an irrelevant issue? Ballard’s example is polygamy:

“This ended in the Church as an official practice in 1890. It’s now 2010. Why are we still talking about it? It was a practice. It ended. We moved on. If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge that it was once a practice but not now and that people shouldn’t confuse any polygamists with our church” (47).

Why are we still talking about polygamy? Let us count the reasons:

  1. Polygamy was established and practiced by the founder and supposed first prophet of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith. Joseph had over thirty “wives” in addition to his legal wife Emma. Any “practice” of someone who claims to be a prophet of God and the founder of the only true church on the earth today is a proper subject of examination and discussion.
  2. Joseph Smith lied about polygamy, including lying about it in scripture. Joseph practiced polygamy for several years, engaging in covert sexual relationships with women for years while lying about it, even in his own scripture. In 1835, Joseph had the following statement on marriage placed in Doctrine & Covenants: “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.” Yet Joseph had been engaging in extramarital relations under the cover of plural marriage for three or four years. (The statement no longer appears in D&C, of course.) Joseph deceptively denied being a polygamist as late as a month before he died: “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; see also Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 119). Even though Mormons do not practice polygamy today, the fact that the founder of their religion did and repeatedly lied about it is very much relevant today.
  3. As practiced by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other LDS leaders, plural marriage was on any reasonable judgment both illegal and grossly immoral. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that polygamy can be an acceptable practice (as many people argue by appealing to the dubious examples of Abraham, David, and Solomon). This doesn’t negate the fact that Joseph’s practice was both illegal and immoral. Both bigamy and adultery were crimes under state laws where Joseph engaged in the practice. The statement on marriage added in 1835 to D&C admits that these behaviors were illegal (“the crime of fornication, and polygamy”). Furthermore, Joseph claimed at least eight women as his wives who were already married to other men. Mormon apologists’ attempts to defend Joseph on this point (he was doing it to test their faith, or only for the women’s celestial salvation, etc.) are unconvincing. In addition to taking other men’s wives, Joseph also took several teenage girls as young as 14 years of age. Plural marriage was not merely “a practice”; it was an immoral, illegal practice that raises serious, troubling questions about the founders of the LDS religion. Anyone who desires to know whether the LDS religion rests on a sound foundation should take these questions seriously.
  4. LDS Church leaders continued the practice of plural marriage long after they supposedly “officially” ended it. The “Manifesto” of 1890 may have discouraged Mormon men from entering into plural marriages, but it did not stop the practice. In 1891, President Wilford Woodruff, who issued the Manifesto, lied under oath (as did other LDS leaders) by claiming that polygamy had ended when it had not. Only in 1904 did the LDS Church actually stop authorizing new plural marriages and begin excommunicating members who did not comply. Even after that date, most LDS men who had plural wives maintained those relationships until death. The first President of the LDS Church who was not a polygamist was George Albert Smith, whose presidency began in 1945! Polygamy was a reality in the LDS Church for well over a century, and has been completely absent from it for only about sixty years. The impression that some Mormons try to create, that polygamy was practiced for only a very short period of their religion’s history, is inaccurate. Furthermore, the fact that LDS Church leaders at the end of the nineteenth century claimed to have ended the practice while in fact continuing it again raises valid questions about the religion’s claim to be led by true prophets of God.
  5. It is clear that the LDS Church ended polygamy for pragmatic reasons, not because of any new revelation. Essentially, the United States federal government forced the LDS Church to comply with anti-polygamy laws. After decades of deception and defiance, the LDS leadership very reluctantly acceded to the government because, as Woodruff admitted in the Manifesto, they were afraid of losing their properties and being thrown in jail. In short, the Mormons did not admit to practicing polygamy until they were caught, and they did not stop the practice until they were forced to do so. This is not the track record of a religion led by true prophets.
  6. Polygamous LDS splinter groups are simply being faithful to the teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor. Such groups as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that was headed by Warren Jeffs (which has been making national headlines since 2007) and the Apostolic United Brethren make a very strong case that they are simply practicing what their founding prophets both practiced and taught. If they are right, then the current policy of the LDS Church is not faithful to the supposed revelations given through Joseph Smith.
  7. Even now, LDS doctrine clearly allows for and even implies the likelihood of a return to polygamy, should it become legal. It would actually be more accurate to say that the LDS Church suspended polygamy than that it ended it. The LDS scriptures still contain statements teaching and justifying plural marriage as a divinely authorized institution—even stating that it is “an everlasting covenant” and that those who reject it will be “damned” (D&C 131:2-4; 132:1-6, 37-39, 60-66). Since these statements remain in LDS scripture, polygamy remains an issue for the LDS Church today.

For these reasons, Mormons cannot plausibly claim that polygamy is an “irrelevant issue.” Polygamy in America is the cultural offspring of the LDS Church, supposedly revealed by God to their founding prophet and still taught in their scriptures, and they cannot divest themselves of their responsibility for it by disowning the child.