“Entanglement”: The Legacy of Polygamy in Mormon Theology

By October 29, 2014

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.


[1] On the Chain see Brown, “Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,” 1-52.

[2] Brown, In Heaven, 236-46.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Kate and Sam, for this. I look forward to reading the full essay upon the book’s publication.

    Comment by Christopher — October 29, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

  2. “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.”

    I have to say that, as a single person, I think this idea holds great promise for “strengthening the stakes.” An over-emphasis on particularity tends to exclude and isolate individuals who are not the objects of others’ intense affections.

    It makes me wonder if, in the nineteenth century, even widowed Mormon women felt more interconnected to (entangled with) their communities than is the case today. Which is surprising, because I have tended to think about polygamy in terms of the marriage relationships and not the wider web of friendship it created.

    Comment by Liz M. — October 29, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

  3. I would add: At least by the later part of the nineteenth-century, though, it seems like the rationale I always heard about was that polygamy was necessary in heaven (and on earth) for exaltation and for the begetting of children–spirit and physical.

    Did this later theologizing distort what Joseph Smith said about his communal vision? Was he trying to promote God-like love, or was he preoccupied with a dynastic vision of heaven?

    Comment by Liz M. — October 29, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

  4. Fascinating, thanks.

    Comment by Saskia T — October 29, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

  5. Liz, great questions, with many moving parts.
    There’s always a tension between dynastic/hierarchical and egalitarian impulses. re: your #2, there was much stronger integration of the community that extended outside the individual polygamous family.
    Your #3 is fascinating and important, and it’s about legacy and continuity. How much do things change over time, what aspect of a rich conceptual system do you emphasize at a given moment in time, who is the micro audience, how does culture shift?
    I gave a talk at AAR a few years back that tried to puzzle through the public explanations during Smith’s era, and it was primarily about remarriage after bereavement, about the kind of entanglement that Kate and I describe in our essay. But part of that entangling is about parenthood (remembering that for early Mormons parenthood could extend through a kind of sacred adoption as well), so you can imagine that the dynastic/parental would also be prominent periodically.

    Comment by smb — October 29, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

  6. Thanks, Sam and Kate. Great stuff.

    Comment by David G. — October 29, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

  7. Fantastic stuff, Kate and Sam. We appreciate you sharing your research and insight!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 29, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

  8. Thanks, Sam. That is helpful. Looking forward to reading the entire essay.

    Comment by Liz M. — October 29, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

  9. “Mormon polygamy suggested that humans could possess a spousal love that did not lessen as it expanded to multiple spouses”

    I’m curious as to why you chose the word “humans” instead of “men.” Are you aware of documentation where women were sealed to more than one husband for eternity? Or are you proposing that the practice be extended to allow for multiple sealings for women?

    Surely, if men can “learn to love the way God loves” then so can women. So if the purpose of polygamy is to make men more like God, why were women excluded from that same opportunity?

    Comment by Dave K — October 30, 2014 @ 7:05 am

  10. Dave, my AAR paper from 2011 situates polygamy in the context of the Sadducean riddle of the levirate widow, which I think opens up a less male-centric model even from the very beginning. While the implementation in 19th century was clearly male-centered, the fundamental insight is not necessarily specific to maleness.

    Just to be clear, we’re not proposing or advocating anything in terms of church practice, just laying out a theoretical model for understanding some of the theological dynamics underlying plural marriage.

    Comment by smb — October 30, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

  11. Much appreciated smb. If I’m allowed to, I have a few follow-up questions.

    Accepting the premise that, as humans become more godlike they can (should?) possess spousal love with multiple spouses, and accepting that this premise can (should?) apply equally to all humans, male and female, what principle exists to limit the number of spouses in the eternities? In other words, doesn’t the natural extension of this principle result in a situation where all exalted beings are allowed to have sex with all other exalted beings (at least male-female sex)?

    If “more spousal love” results in a more godlike love, then maybe the Oneida group had a better approach to creating a Zion society than Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Dave K — October 30, 2014 @ 2:17 pm

  12. Dave, I think we’re all so obsessed with sexuality that it’s hard to see beyond it. But we need to. Kate and I are not remotely proposing that people should understand the afterlife as a “complex marriage” like the Oneida/Noyes group. The final paragraph of the excerpt was meant to spell out a non-sexual vision that was true to what was important about polygamy while not advocating for its return.

    My best sense (and here I’m not speaking for Kate at all) is that the key relationship of the eternities is the parental. it’s the relationship between God and Jesus; it’s the relationship among Jesus and all of us (Christian Bible and Restoration teachings accord on this point) through a kind of adoption, and it’s the fundamental interconnection in the heaven family as I understand the documents and the theology underlying them. Remember too that parenthood isn’t just biological parenthood, it’s adoption and the tender parental-filial affection in which people outside nuclear families can participate.

    In heaven, as I read Joseph Smith, we will be united as one in Christ, and there will be special power and flourishing in the awareness that we are united through our mortal interconnections. The question is: what’s the best way to prepare for that afterlife? And I think there, it’s what Kate and I lay out in that final paragraph.

    All best,

    Comment by smb — October 30, 2014 @ 5:57 pm


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