Growing up Latter-day Saint, I knew that polygamy was part of our past, but I was so defensive about it not being part of our present that I often failed to understand just how important it was to my ancestors (both literal and figurative). About a month ago, I stumbled on a passage in RLDS missionary Charles Derry’s autobiography (which I recently finished) that reminded me that polygamy was a huge prority for 19th century Latter-day Saints:
On the 13th of May, I met Samuel Smith, a Brighamite elder. He told me the gospel was not complete without polygamy. I pointed to the fact that Jesus Christ preached a perfect gospel, yet there was no polygamy in it; that Paul declared the whole counsel of God, but no polygamy.
This is an interesting passage, but it’s complicated by the fact that Derry is so staunchly “anti-Brighamite” that it’s hard to imagine that it hasn’t been filtered through his biases (though I’m very sympathetic to those biases!). This morning, though, checking my “On This Day” entries in Day One, I found a passage that I’d saved three years ago from Michael Quinn’s Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power:
Theocratic power was the real target of the federal government, but polygamy was the more vulnerable. Unintentionally Mormons identified that vulnerability by claiming that the church would sooner give up anything else. A frequent advocate of that theme was Apostle Wilford Woodruff. He sermonized on one occasion that if Mormons gave up polygamy, “then we must do away with prophets and Apostles.” A decade later he told Mormons, “Were we to compromise this principle by saying, we will renounce it, we would then have to renounce our belief in revelation from God.” Aware of that fact, the federal government used anti-polygamy laws to attack Mormon political, economic, and ecclesiastical power.
Consider also this passage from Charles Harrell’s excellent “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology:
Brigham Young declared in 1866, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” Joseph F. Smith, while an apostle, was adament on this point and stated in 1878, “Some people have supposed that the doctrine of plural marriage was a sort of superfluity, or non-essential to the salvation of exaltation of mankind…. I want here to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false… [W]hoever has imagined that he could obtain the fullness of the blessings pertaining to this celestial law, by complying with only a portion of its conditions, has decieved himself. He cannot do it.”
While polygamy still implicitly lingers in contemporary Mormonism, it’s still abundantly clear that in the past more-than-a-century, what was once held by Latter-day Saints as a top priority is now simply unnecessary (and even a bit embarrassing!).
In my mind, this matters because of what contemporary Latter-day Saint theology prioritizes. A friend and mentor of mine in Community of Christ (who is also from an LDS background) once argued that it is “the family” that is at the center of Latter-day Saint doctrine, despite efforts to make Jesus Christ the center. I think there’s room to push back against that argument, but I have to admit that I’m sympathetic to it. Consider again the second part of the Charles Derry quote above:
I pointed to the fact that Jesus Christ preached a perfect gospel, yet there was no polygamy in it; that Paul declared the whole counsel of God, but no polygamy.
Likewise, we cannot find Latter-day Saint teachings about the promise or importance of eternal families anywhere in the New Testament—or even in the Book of Mormon. These teachings do appear in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, but only in the context of polygamy (and only in the context of threatening Emma Smith with destruction if she doesn’t get on board). Is that enough to warrant the central place that “the family” occupies in Latter-day Saint teachings? Is it enough for eternal families to serve as a justification for queerphobia and as a carrot (or stick) for people to step in line with Latter-day Saint teachings no matter what their concerns are?
Even for a practicing, faithful Latter-day Saint in the 21st century, it must seem odd how high a priority polygamy was for their 19th century ancestors (both literal and figurative). Yet, I think it’s important for Christians of all stripes (and perhaps especially Latter-day Saints) to ask themselves what their priorities are—and whether their faith would survive without them.
You can use click on the
< button in the top-right of your browser window to read and write comments on this post with Hypothesis. You can read more about how I use this software here.