Today’s post comes from Samuel Brown and Kate Holbrook, good friends of JI and exceptional scholars. This excerpt, from a forthcoming book edited by Phil Barlow and Terryl Givens, offers some provocative thoughts on the legacy of polygamy in Mormon theology. Also, be sure to check out Samuel’s essay in Dialogue, linked below. After reading the essay, I’m sure you’ll want to purchase the book to read the rest of the essay.
From Samuel Brown and Kate Holbrook, “Sexuality and Embodiment in Mormon Thought,” in Givens and Barlow, eds. Oxford Handbook to Mormonism (forthcoming, 2015).
In response to Victorianism, Smith emphasized more the power of “friendship” and mutual commitment, incorporating intimate relationships between the sexes into his much broader “Chain of Belonging,” a kinship network of human relationships sealed by a power he called priesthood. Though he steadfastly proclaimed the persistence of human relationships through eternity, Smith does not appear to have intended the domestic heaven of his Protestant peers.
With his Chain of Belonging Smith seemed to anticipate that humans would learn to love the way God loves. Yet for most Christians, Mormons among them, God loves universally. God balances particularity—the specifics of each human life—with the generality of the entire human family. He loves the one even as he loves all. Divine love encompasses everyone and is augmented rather than diminished when it discovers new objects of love. Mormon polygamy suggested that humans could possess a spousal love that did not lessen as it expanded to multiple spouses. While a love like God’s—at once fully particular and fully general—was treacherously hard to achieve in practice, through polygamy Smith pointed toward the future possibility that humans could be interconnected without jealousy or strife. Smith believed that the human family was larger than the traditional nuclear family of parents and children. But Smith and his followers also loved spouses and children with incredible specificity and believed that God loved in the same way.
The entangled embodiment of LDS theology represents a complex and vibrant collection of interconnected traditions that speak to the fundamental meanings of life and community. Entanglement holds within itself a central tension. Navigating that tension provides important strength to the Mormon tradition, but such navigation can be fraught with peril. The difficult question, on careful consideration, is how best to achieve the state of divine love so fundamentally associated with God. What experiences in mortality will best train a person to love with divine love, to be entangled as God is entangled? The two extreme strategies are to love very well a small number of people or love less well a larger number of people. Many modern Mormons would endorse the former, while many in the nineteenth century, particularly the leadership, supported the latter. We suspect a complex and paradoxical dance approaches the best answer, in which the quality of relationships predominates, but in which those relationships should be outwardly focused. Families, nuclear and extended, church congregations and neighborhoods can and should know each other well, but those secure relationships should form the foundation for blessing the lives of others beyond those relationships. The intense feelings of passion and loyalty that accompany sexual intimacy suggest that it should not be included in such an outward focus. We believe that the legacy of polygamy can be best sublimated through an expanding sense of (non-sexual) community and belonging that incorporates monogamous families into an infrastructure of entanglement. Foster children, adoption, community involvement, and other mechanisms of expanding community are central to fulfilling early Mormon aspirations for entangled embodiment.
 On the Chain see Brown, “Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,” 1-52.
 Brown, In Heaven, 236-46.