Questions about D&C 132 and Plural Marriage

By October 31, 2014

Today’s post, the latest in our series where we answer questions about plural marriage, is about textual questions related to Doctrine and Covenants 132. Again, we are grateful to those who asked questions, wrote answers, and helped edit and format the post. Thanks especially to WVS, who answered the questions today. WVS has been a long-time bloggernacle denizen, blogging at his solo blog–boaporg.wordpress.com and at bycommonconsent.org. His fascinating multi-part analysis of the textual development of D&C 107 was recently published in Dialogue. He later wrote an in-depth series of posts at BCC on D&C 132, which he is currently expanding into a book.

 

QUESTION: “D&C 132:61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. “Uh, based on this essay, Joseph did not even meet the requirements of 132. He did not marry only virgins, Emma did not always consent and some were ‘vowed’ to other men. What am I missing?”

  • RESPONSE: Two points seem relevant. First, the July 12, 1843 revelation on marriage (section 132) was  part of a continuing understanding in how polygamy was to work. The reference to “virgins” in the revelation seems to never be enforced as meaning women who had never had sexual intercourse. Both Joseph Smith and some of his colleagues who practiced early plural marriage in Nauvoo before his death (29 men altogether) married women who had been married previous to those plural marriages. Later plural marriages never involved this hurdle of virginity and of course it did not function in barring already married couples from being sealed. “Virgin” was almost certainly interpreted as “free from fornication/adultery.” A similar stricture is placed on men in the revelation (verses 41-44).
  • Joseph Smith’s “dual marriages” (see verse 41 of the section 132) in Nauvoo involved women who were married (but not sealed for eternity) to other men simultaneously. Sealings in Nauvoo during Joseph Smith’s lifetime were seen as higher contracts than civil marriages even to the point that the sacramental calculus of marriage was considered parallel to baptism in its early days (see D&C 22; Samuel Brown, In Heaven and it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 242. Early members who noted this attitude included John D. Lee and Jedediah M. Grant) as the notion of sealing became more wide spread in Nauvoo. Section 132’s “vow” language (in vs 43, 44 at least–“vow” may have a more general sense early in the revelation, see v7) was seen in these terms. A woman was not to be connected eternally to two living men at the same time (the revelation is agnostic in regard to proxy sealings).
  • The “law of Sarah” as it exists in the revelation suggests that first wives were to approve of plural marriages, and it appears that at least for a few months prior the revelation, this regulation was observed in a proactive way. Joseph Smith had married Emily Partridge and her sister Eliza Partridge in February 1843 without first wife Emma’s knowledge. Later, Emma “chose” the Partridge sisters as wives for Joseph, and in the interests of harmony, no one objected to a repeated marriage ceremony. (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 298, 409.) That approval (by the first wife) had both practical and theoretical aspects. The practical aspect was framed by the marital harmony of the first marriage. The theoretical aspect was framed by the revelation, which sees that approval as ultimately optional. In the actual execution of plural marriages in Utah and before, every possible outcome occurred. Men took plural wives without the knowledge of their first wives, first wives rejected the notion when they were consulted, first wives approved of first plural wives, but were not consulted about further marriages, first wives were always consulted and always approved (or gave blanket permission perhaps), etc. First wives or plural wives sometimes functioned as recruiters of plural wives. One man in Utah sought approval of his first wife for entering plurality, an approval she refused to give. At the time, (1880s) Federal Marshalls were attempting to track down plural relationships. The first wife threatened to turn her husband into the authorities if he went forward with a plural marriage. (John Taylor, Letter to A. Kimball, November 19, 1886, First Presidency Letterpress Copybooks, Scott Glen Kenney Papers, University of Utah

 

QUESTION: “In Peggy Fletcher Stack’s SLTrib article, Richard Bushman is quoted as saying that these Gospel Topics essays confirm that monogamy is the standard and that polygamy was just a temporary episode. Does Section 132 really support this interpretation? And did subsequent theologizing on plural marriage distort the centrality of monogamy? Or not? None of these new essays addresses the problem of an essential othering of woman as distinct from man, the problem that woman, in Section 132, for instance, primarily is seen as a bearer of children, without the rights that a man enjoys. What have scholars said about the gender hierarchy in Mormon polygamy and monogamy?”

  • RESPONSE: I think the revelation in section 132 must be seen in its context. It was a response to an immediate situation, just as every revelation was. It also contains some principles that may be described as general theological signposts.  Seeing polygamy as a temporary episode is clearly a modern perspective. Whether that claim is fact or not must be characterized as a matter of faith but as a matter fact, the Church currently does not consider polygamy as a requirement for exaltation, and living in a polygamous relationship is considered deep sin. There is a caveat here: there is a way in which section 132 still influences marriage beliefs among Latter-day Saints beyond its teaching about sealing. Men and women who are sealed in the temple are seen by the Church as enjoying a bond durable beyond death. However, the Church allows a living man who has been sealed to a woman now dead to be sealed to another living woman. If all parties are true to their relationship and faith, then the husband may end out sealed to two (or even more) wives, who will apparently share that relationship in the hereafter.
  • In the nineteenth century, Church leaders saw polygamy as an opportunity that could not be lightly discarded. President John Taylor may have stated that point view most clearly in his response to a similar inquiry from a member of the Church in 1881. Taylor wrote: “It is not the patriarchal order or plurality of wives alone that will exalt us, neither can men, with this privilege within their reach, be exalted without it. It may mean one wife under certain circumstances, but where circumstances will permit, it means more.” Taylor went on to explain that, “if a man enters into the everlasting covenant with one wife, with full purpose of heart to keep the commandment and through circumstances is deprived of going further, he may be justified; but having further opportunities and circumstances being favorable, and he does not prove his purpose, he may find himself as the one who had one talent entrusted to his care . . . ” (John Taylor, Letter to Jesse B. Martin, Scipio, Utah, January 26, 1881, First Presidency Letterpress Copybooks, in Scott Glen Kenney papers, Marriot Library, University of Utah.)
  • Taylor makes two things clear in his letter: Church leaders were of the position that a belief in the divine origin of plural marriage, and a good faith intention to live it if possible, was necessary to achieve exaltation. If a man did not participate in polygamy when there was a legitimate opportunity, then his salvation was in jeopardy in Taylor’s mind.
  • After President Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto, there were several interpretations of its meaning. The majority of the apostles seemed to feel it was a temporary adjustment that would soon be rescinded. (See for example, John Henry Smith diary, April 1, 1896 in Jean Bickmore White, ed., Church State and Politics: The Diaries of John Henry Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 346.) In that light, they sought to continue plural marriage in various ways. These post-manifesto marriages continued at a much smaller rate than in previous decades. Forces inside the Church and out, and a gradual shift in the attitudes and the composition of Church councils led to an eventual end of these secret marriages. Gradually, Church leaders began to see polygamy as a feature of Mormonism that had come to a permanent end, until perhaps the Millennium. Bruce R. McConkie probably represents the latter view most clearly in his mid-twentieth century encyclopedic treatment of Mormonism. (See his Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1958, 1966), sv “plural marriage.”)
  • Whether persons in the current Church leadership subscribe to a restoration of plural marriage in the end time is not terribly relevant to Bushman’s assertion. As a practical matter, polygamy is a dead issue in the Church. Indeed, Bushman echoes an 1894 remark by James E. Talmage: “The Latter-day Saints were long regarded as a polygamous people. That plural marriage has been practiced by a limited proportion of the people, under sanction of Church ordinance, has never since the introduction of the system been denied. that plural marriage is a vital tenet of The Church is not true. What the Latter-day Saints call celestial marriage is characteristic of The Church, and is in very general practice; but of celestial marriage, plurality of wives was an incident, never an essential.” (John R. Talmage, The Talmage Story: Life of James E. Talmage, Educator, Scientist, Apostle (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1972), 132; Improvement Era 4 (October 1901): 909.)
  • Section 132 is a revelation about plural marriage. As a text, its immediate meaning is clear. It justified Joseph Smith to his wife Emma Smith in his engagement of plural marriage (and it upheld Joseph Smith by declaring that he was in a “state of grace”–his exaltation was assured). Whether passages from the revelation may be seen as suggesting the primacy of monogamy over plurality as a marriage form has an obvious answer in its historical context: no. The revelation suggests (by employing Joseph Smith as exemplar) that 1) polygamy was a divinely approved state at the time for those who were introduced to it, and 2) men who were introduced to this commandment were required to obey it or forfeit their exaltation. There are a number complexities in the revelation which I cannot engage here, but in essentials Joseph Smith’s dictation of the revelation assured that polygamy would continue after his death and that John Taylor’s explanation to Jesse Martin was a fair interpretation of the revelation as a whole for the period of public plural marriage in the Church.
  • Finally, the position of women in the July 12, 1843 revelation (section 132) largely reflects the position of women in society at the time, and some passages in the revelation invite the comparison of women to property (see verse 44) as they might have been viewed in the age and culture of the Old Testament.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Gender Theology Women's History


Comments

  1. Thanks, WVS. This is a phenomenal resource. I can’t wait to get my hands on your forthcoming book from Kofford!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 31, 2014 @ 7:45 am

  2. One may quibble over some details and interpretations, WVS, but your observations are very helpful and insightful. Thanks.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 31, 2014 @ 8:14 am

  3. Can you help me understand your response about the law of Sarah? It appears as though the ultimate answer to this is “they did it without the first wife’s knowledge anyway.” Have I misread it?

    Comment by Pierce — October 31, 2014 @ 9:33 am

  4. Pierce, adding a wife in a marriage relationship might or might not have been done with notice to the first wife in Nauvoo. Later, it appears that first wives were nearly always consulted or even acted as recruiters (that could happen in Nauvoo too). Men did sometimes went ahead into plurality over a wife’s objections, or she, despite fear and pain, gave her permission. A whole range of emotions were evoked in the large. The revelation text read strictly, give Joseph Smith permission to add wives even if Emma objected. That was generally interpreted to apply to all.

    Comment by wvs — October 31, 2014 @ 10:20 am

  5. One thing I did not expand on in the post: the interplay of divorce and sealing. A divorced male, sealed to his divorced wife, may be married/sealed to a new wife. Moreover, sealings are hard to dissolve. They, under various historical interpretations, may somehow persist even in the face of excommunication. The fallout here can be complex, and very painful when children enter the equation. Our cosmology and practice of sealing has many caveats.

    Comment by wvs — October 31, 2014 @ 10:27 am

  6. WVS said, “As a practical matter, polygamy is a dead issue in the Church.” Well, it was until they published the latest batch of essays. Now it seems pretty lively again, and continuing legal developments are likely to keep it that way for awhile.

    Comment by Dave — October 31, 2014 @ 10:50 am

  7. Dave, good point! And of course plural sealings continue to be contracted in various ways, just not while all parties are married and alive at the same time I suppose. Then of course there are Mormon polygamist groups and independents.

    Comment by wvs — October 31, 2014 @ 10:55 am

  8. Thanks, WVS.

    Comment by Saskia — October 31, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

  9. “Men and women who are sealed in the temple are seen by the Church as enjoying a bond durable beyond death. However, the Church allows a living man who has been sealed to a woman now dead to be sealed to another living woman. If all parties are true to their relationship and faith, then the husband may end out sealed to two (or even more) wives, who will apparently share that relationship in the hereafter.”

    What do you think are the ramifications of our sealing policy that allows deceased women to be sealed to all husbands they’ve had in mortality? The church seems to simply say vicarious sealings must be accepted by the parties and the parties must live worthy of the covenants. (And, as with all covenants, sealed by the Holy Ghost) Is there now room for celestial polyandry in our doctrine?

    Comment by IDIAT — November 1, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

  10. IDIAT writes, “Is there now room for celestial polyandry in our doctrine?”

    I’d say no, not now. Who knows what the future brings?

    Comment by WVS — November 1, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

  11. Thanks for writing this up.

    Comment by Mathew — November 1, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

  12. Thanks, Mathew and Gary. Joseph, thanks for the opportunity and thanks to the commenters. It’s a very complex subject with many facets.

    Comment by WVS — November 2, 2014 @ 10:11 pm


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