Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Polygamy, Its Discontents, and Its Weirdest Defenders

I recently read a post over at kiwimormon about an LDS man facing some kind of church discipline for writing an essay arguing that the historical Mormon practice of polygamy was not doctrinal. I don't know the guy and I want to be sensitive to what sounds like a difficult situation, so I won't comment more on that, but it got me thinking about the practice we Mormonfolk call plural marriage. For starters, I thought about how much I dislike that euphemism, so I'll just call it polygamy.*

My position on polygamy is straightforward: Not gonna do it. Not now, not ever. If the President of the Church ever personally asked me to practice it, I would politely invite him to go to hell. If an angel visited me at night with a flaming sword, I like to think I'd grab my wife's Legend of Zelda Master Sword replica and at least go down with a fight.

Or just have my wife fight the battle for me. She's pretty great.

But being against polygamy isn't exactly a #boldstance for a modern Mormon. The real question, whether Mormon polygamy was inspired, is trickier. I have to admit I find it all unseemly. Joseph Smiths' first plural wife, Fanny Alger, reads an awful lot like a run-of-the-mill affair in the historical accounts, and his later skulking behind Emma's back and coercing of young women living under his roof... it's not pleasant to think about. Even the Utah version of polygamy looks more like a system designed to consolidate religious and cultural power to an in-group of male ecclesiastical leaders. Was God behind all that? I doubt it, but I'll grant the sincerity of practitioners who believed he was. Maybe I'm wrong.

Still, I'd venture that most modern Mormons are at least somewhat uncomfortable thinking about polygamy. Anecdotally, I think most approach it like the Book of Mormon does, as a theological aberration. Maybe at times a necessary one, even a righteous one, but something best left alone nowadays. Descendants of pioneer stock celebrate their polygamist ancestors, but rarely because of their polygamy.

However, I've also seen Mormons--good, practicing members, not fundamentalists--who seem oddly enthusiastic about it. Read any online discussion among the faithful and eventually you'll come across someone (usually male) who not only defends the origins of polygamy but trumpets its necessity, superiority, and imminent millennial return. Most of us have probably heard something similar in Sunday School at one time or another (possibly quoting Brother McConkie). I mean, whatever makes people happy... but it's odd to think that there are a small minority of dudes roaming the hallways on Sundays just raring to get back at it as soon as Jesus gives the go-ahead.

Other members end up defending polygamy just as vigorously by asking barbed hypothetical questions like "Well, you may not like it, but what if the prophet--or an angel--or GOD HIMSELF told you to practice it? If you call yourself a faithful Mormon then you have to say you'll say yes or you're an apostate!" This tedious game of spiritual chicken arises from our unfortunate fetishization of Obedience, but it's equally puzzling. What if the prophet starts asking dudes to marry other women? He hasn't and I doubt he will, so it's an odd litmus test of faithfulness.

Still, the question of polygamy is mostly abstract to me and most LDS men. I think the spectre of plural marriage haunts LDS women in a much more palpable way. Guys will joke about how they couldn't handle polygamy because one wife is plenty (har har har), but ultimately I think the sense of power and privilege inherent in being an LDS man shields us from really having to grapple with it.

Women, on the other hand, are taught from the time they're young that polygamy is definitely gone but (depending on who they talk to) maybe coming back, and therefore they might someday be asked to divide their eternal companionship like a celestial timeshare. At least the first wife theoretically has to give her consent to future marriages, although we all know that saying no is tantamount to disobedience, so that's cold comfort. Meanwhile, second or third wives are out of luck, I guess. They'll just be given to some faithful man in the hereafter. But don't worry, that's only if it comes back, which we don't even know, so why worry? (But it might!) Combine that uncertainty the generally passive, indeterminate vision of the afterlife LDS women are taught (compared to the active role promised to men) and it's no wonder Mormon women seem to worry more about polygamy, at least in my experience. It affects women more and they have less control over it! Not to mention the elephant in the room of Doctrine and Covenants 132, where Emma is apparently threatened with freakin' destruction (!!!) for her reluctance to get with the program. It's all a little ominous, is what I'm saying.

It makes me sad. The church's policy of basically shrugging its shoulders about polygamy doesn't seem entirely adequate in the internet age when all of the messy details are right there on Wikipedia, especially when we still practice polygamy in principle for male sealings to deceased spouses (see Joanna Brooks's nice take on that here). The LDS Gospel Library essays are useful, as are the quality, scholarly books and articles available to anyone with the resources to find them, but at some point I think we'll have to reckon with polygamy more openly. What that means in practice, I have no idea. I'll leave the grand calls to action to others.

Or maybe, like an embarrassing outfit we wore in high school, polygamy is destined to linger in our closet forever as a painful but unavoidable reminder of where we came from. Something we can learn from, at least. Let's just hope that the people eagerly waiting for it to come back in style are as wrong as I think they are.

*yeah, yeah, technically it's polygyny but in the context of a blog that mostly does jokey lists it seems pretentious to call it that.


  1. The only difference between the terms "plural marriage" and "Polygamy," is one is latin and the other is english. Personally I think using the latin "Polygamy" is more pretentious, and more euphemistic, but hey to each his own. If you are looking for a euphemism go with what the church called it for the first 100 years: "Celestial marriage"

    1. (in case you checked to get notifications--see below)

  2. As a historian, I like to look at how some of the saints used polygamy as a critique of Victorian sexuality--particularly when they took into account the economic impact of industrialization which included increased prostitution via urbanization. Removed from living with the theological implications of what does/might it mean for me, I think it (at least in principle and conversation) a fascinating and adept response to the economic and cultural shifts of the nineteenth century. I don't think one should ignore the creepy implications of Joseph Smith's approach or the power implications of actions in Utah; but that said, I think one can actually look to polygamy as a moment when Mormonism didn't put its head in the sand like an ostrich but thought about its practices as different than other prevailing practices. When they went about saying "the world teaches..." they were talking about something specific: Victorian sexual repression and hypocrisy in industrial capitalism. Would that we yet thought about current debates about marriage in terms of current economic and cultural realities. One could actually mount a semi-decent argument for hetero-sexual only marriages as a response to neoliberalism and late capitalism, particularly since most arguments for the right of gay marriage hinge on the rise of neoliberal subjectivity. I mean I wouldn't buy that argument. But it at least would actually be something people could debate as compared to "don't let the gays marry because it makes me feel icky"

  3. Oh and another thought I had. I think that moment of the guy that is gung ho about polygamy being brought back, well polygamy in general--it actually contributes to the necessity to perhaps thing beyond heteronormative structures that always assume that love and sex exists within a pairing.

    Part of critiques on heternormativity are not just that heterosexuality is presumed as the norm, but that we also live with the notion that sexuality in relationship with two people is the norm or the cultural ideal. How might 19th century Mormon polygamy speak to current conversations about Pansexuality?

    Granted the power structures are pretty lopsided that only men got to express their sexuality in such terms. But I think in addition to the power structures within the community, it is worth recognizing the transgressive or subversive element of Mormon polygamy that could be read as part of a pansexual history in America.

    So maybe in that moment in church, it's just a guy interested/excited in escaping monogamy or commitment. Or maybe it's a moment where a person that could identify as pansexual sees him (or possibly her) self in the legacy of the church.

    I bet it's the former, but part of me want to speculate about the potential of the latter.

  4. Allan, I'd be curious about when the rhetoric about polygamy as a critique of outside society started picking up steam. It sounds like something straight out of Brigham Young, but I wonder how much of it had roots in Joseph Smith's thinking.

    Interestingly, that made me recall a specific comment from the original post, and on finding it again, lo and behold it was written by the same gospelfullness who wrote the first comment here!

    So, if Mr. Fullness, doesn't mind me block-quoting that comment, it's interesting in light of what Allan is saying:

    "I have always viewed monogamy as a harsh, hateful and violent system intended to suppress women’s rights, so it sounds so backward to hear you praise it. In almost every society on earth throughout all history polygamy was the norm. This is true of patriarchal societies, but also of matriarchal societies. Even in our modern society today multiple marriages is the norm, we just call it “serial monogamy” to hide the fact that what is really happening is the women are treated like commodities to be cast aside when we want to find a new or better one. The whole system of monogamy makes me sick the way women can be cast aside like garbage. In the Lord’s system in the scriptures, and I’m not just talking about D&C 132, everyone is valued and given the opportunity to become their highest self. I see D&C 132 as fitting seamlessly with the whole of the cannon, even Jacob 2 and 3 do not contradict it, only the abuses you will find in any marriage, and particularly the whoredoms much more prevalent in monogamous cultures."

    That quote could've come straight from come straight from Orson Pratt! I think pinning the blame on monogamy is strange since women being treated as commodities has been the norm under pretty much every historical marriage system--LDS polygamy included--but there's no doubt it's an idea with 19th Century Mormon roots.

    Gospelfullness, if you're still around, you're talking mostly in terms of morality but do you think there's in inherent critique of modern, neoliberal capitalism in what you're arguing there?

    1. (and after a little digging around his blog he appears to be with the Righteous Branch so now I'm really curious to see what he says!)

  5. Okay, he gospelfullness emailed me and apparently had some trouble commenting again, so here's the content:

    I'm back! I'm glad I checked back in! My real name is Benjamin Shaffer, and yes I wrote both of those comments. I am also the author of a little more than half of what is on the GospelFullness blog: In the interest of full disclosure I am a member of Christ's Church, also called "the Branch" Many would label us as "Mormon Fundamentalists" because we do have poly families among us. I am personally monogamous (i.e. I have one wife, and have never had any sexual or marital relationship with any other woman in my whole life).

    Actually my views are more in tune with anarchy, and the principles of non-violence. I think the reason I see monogamy as a harsh and violent system is because the vast majority of people do not live as true monogamists their whole life. So what does the ideal impose on society? It imposes a double standard, where monogamy is held out as the norm, while in fact serial monogamy is much more akin to polygamy than monogamy anyway. You also have a lot of promiscuity of all kinds going on. But because monogamy is still held out as the norm, anyone who deviates from that norm becomes the victim of social stigma and violence. Just think about any of the "scandals" about politicians and
    Plural marriage on the other hand has entirely different social and economic implications, and therefore, as much as I hate to see persecution and prejudice, I have to admit that polygamy is very different. It is inherently subversive of and radical against the accepted social order. It seeks large families that operate like clans, not nuclear families. It has a whole different set of efficiencies but also liabilities. This means that while it could be addressing flaws in the socio-economic system, it tries to address those problems by replacing the whole system with one revolutionarily different.

    1. (continued)

      I think this may be one reason why the early church was such a threat to the political and economic systems of the rest of the country, and why there was so much early persecution of the church: because the church was offering an entirely incompatible social order, and economic system.

      So it is not very reasonable to think about polygamy in a vacuum, as though it is just about the marriage or just about sex. It is about the entire socio-normative and economic implications of the type of society it appears in. For this reason anyone who wants to understand LDS polygamy, needs to also study the "united order." even just one hundred years ago there was little distinction between religion and politics, or religion and economics. This is especially true in Mormonism where a huge portion of our early doctrines were not about topics associated with "religion" today. The D&C contains revelations on all kinds of political and economic issues. Once you see that the "restoration" for the first century of this dispensation had little or nothing to do with beliefs and had everything to do with actions and the desire to revolutionize society will it be possible to see how polygamy fits in the picture.

      The heterodox and radical position I take is that we should continue the experiment and live in a radically different kind of society. The society of God is not the same as the sinful society of babylon. You cannot have one foot in each the way the mainstream LDS church tries to. To do so is hypocritical. Either we should live all the commandments of God as revealed to Joseph Smith including all the political and economic ones, or we should just be protestants and throw away the D&C, P of GP, and most of the B of M.

      I believe that if we want Zion we need to change our traditions, and gather. This is not about just believing something, this is about doing something to fundamentally change the basis of our economy and society.

      So I do not think there is any fundamental distinction between morality and economics. My critique of Modern neo-liberal capitalism may sound moral, but that is because I think of this system as a moral system of enforcing normative values on society. I simply believe that the doctrine of free agency is so fundamental that no one should ever enforce any social norm. That this is a moral distinction does not lessen that it has secular impact. I simply refuse to bifurcate the two.

      Thank you for your time!

      Benjamin Shaffer