Thoughts on Polyandry

By December 13, 2009

I’ve frequently seen complaints that Joseph Smith’s practice of marrying already-married women is “particularly troubling.” That is, that marrying married women is somehow worse than marrying single women. Why is that? Why is men sharing a wife somehow worse than women sharing a husband?

Furthermore, looking over Todd Compton’s list of JS’s wives I noticed a pattern. Until roughly July 1842, JS mostly married married women and the single women he married were “older,” that is late 20s, 30s, 40s (with the exceptions of Fanny Alger and Sarah Ann Whitney). Then in the spring of 1843 he starts marrying young single women. This looks like a policy shift to me. The median age for the first group is 33, while the median age for the second is 19.

I find the quote from Jedediah Grant on the matter useful. “When the family organization was revealed from heaven–the patriarchal order of God, and Joseph began, on the right and the left, to add to his family, what a quaking there was in Israel…. Did Joseph want every man’s wife he asked for? He did not.”

It looks to me that JS began with policy “A” (married women and “older single” women) but then switched to only single women (policy “B”) when the elders balked (I see Alger as prior to implementing policy A and Whitney as anticipating policy B). If he now had to marry women before they married anyone else, it meant he needed to marry the women at a younger age. Thus the age drop. Which is preferable, teenagers or married women?

Anyway, if one is willing the think outside the box, what’s so THEORETICALLY bad about polyandry along with polygyny?

Frequent blogger Tatiana posted this comment over at Mormon Matters a few months ago that I think really hits the nail on the head:

May 27th, 2009 at 6:38 am
I think there will be voluntary polygamy [in the next life], including equally likely polygyny and polyandry….

… I think nobody will be in any sort of relationship they don?t want. I also think the only reason ?the principle? was practiced here on earth as mostly polygyny with the males doing the asking is that our patriarchal culture was/is slanted that way. I expect matrilineal matriarchal cultures in other times and places have probably slanted the opposite way. Of one thing I?m absolutely sure and that is that heaven is fair. Women aren?t second class citizens there. If there?s polygyny, then, there must also be polyandry to the same degree.

I have a testimony that polyandry would be a great form of marriage, even a higher form than monogamy, in the same way that the law of consecration is a higher law than the law of tithing, but requires us to be a whole lot less selfish. Since I expect we?ll have plenty of time and attention to spare in the hereafter, I?m thinking we?ll be able to do justice to more than one spouse. It?s something that feels right to me, though I would never practice it without the blessing of the church.


Oh and let’s not forget DC 132:41: “And as ye have asked concerning adultery, verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man receiveth a wife in the new and everlasting covenant, and if she be with another man, and I have not appointed unto her by the holy anointing, she hath committed adultery and shall be destroyed.” This or course suggests that if the wife is “appointed by the holy anointing” then being married to two men is okay. Why not (theoretically)?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Theology


  1. Why is men sharing a wife somehow worse than women sharing a husband?

    It’s not, as long as all parties consent. The big problem is marrying someone who is married to someone else without the latter’s consent. That is adultery and the violation of marriage vows on the part of at least one person.

    In addition, the cases where any one person is involved only in a polygynous or polygamous family situation and where the intimately connected group is of a small finite size are certainly a lot less problematic than the strange hybrids in between or beyond that. How is a group with more than three intimately involved individuals going to reliably come to a consensus unless (horror of horrors) one of them is recognized by the others as having some form of superior authority?

    Comment by Mark D. — December 13, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

  2. Or he figured out a more reliable method of birth control.

    Comment by djinn — December 13, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  3. When I first learned of polyandry those many years ago, I recall how disturbed I was. I even felt ill. I wondered how I would have felt if a file leader came to me and told me my wife was no longer my wife, but his. My kids were no longer my kids, but his. It made me sick.

    A few years after this experience I was sitting in Elders Quorum. Some one brought up polygamy. Being my stupid self, I said polygamy will never be practiced in the church again. All the members of the quorum became upset and assured me that polygamy would once again be a part of the church.

    The idea of having lots of wives seems to be desirable for the average man. The idea of loosing his wife to another man…….not so much.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — December 13, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

  4. I think I have decided to call these women “dual wives.” I agree with writers like Laurence Foster that “polyandry” is actually not the right term for these relationships. “Proxy husbands,” which Foster has proposed, is worse than polyandry though.

    I personally think Smith was demonstrating that a new sacerdotal family model radically revised proto-Victorian ideas about the nature of family. It’s harder to get more specific about a rejection of Victorian family structures than with dual wives.

    What he was proposing instead is rather complex and quite interesting…

    Comment by smb — December 13, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

  5. I personally think Smith was demonstrating that a new sacerdotal family model radically revised proto-Victorian ideas about the nature of family.

    Yes, yes, I agree wholeheartedly with this. I’m not so sure about the “policy shift” that Steve proposes, but there were several ways JS added to his family kingdom beyond polygyny, which is usually the one people focus on. I think we should consider all of them more fully when trying to understand the complexities of Joseph’s marriage/sealing practices.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — December 14, 2009 @ 12:11 am

  6. I don’t think I’m quite following here. It seems quite an assumption to me to suggest that polygamy or polyandry are so central to the eternal logic of family relationships. The Book of Mormon, at least, indicates pretty clearly that the standing rule for marriage relationships is monogamy. Variations from that are exceptional and prescribed by God for his purposes, which makes polyandry no less interesting but puts it in a very different context. I’d be interested to know what the evidence is that suggests that alternate forms of family structure will be widely or predominantly employed in the hereafter.

    And while consent certainly has significance for discussions of plural marriage of various forms, I’m not sure it’s the criteria that determines what relationships will exist, as Tatiana speculates. Our prerogatives may change substantially between this life and the next, but family structure as I see is very much an issue of God’s will and direction. Again, that’s based on a strong reading of the Book of Mormon. Ideally, of course, the Divine and human will would correspond.

    Finally, in practicing plural marriage, I don’t see Joseph deliberately “demonstrating” anything, but rather responding unwillingly and perforce to exceptional requirements. Ask Kathy Daynes about the introductory phases of polygamy, and she’ll point out that the earliest polygamists were men who were stumbling forward awkwardly…sometimes making missteps.

    Comment by Ryan T — December 14, 2009 @ 12:43 am

  7. Theoretically, polyandry or polygyny are no worse than polygamy, so long as all parties are willing.

    In fact, allowing it would solve some dilemmas such as the young wife whose husband died, and who would like the get remarried, but she doesn’t want to cancel the first sealing while the new prospective husband wants to be sealed to her.

    Unfortunately, the Church teaching is unequivocally that of an eternal patriarchal order, and conflicting patriarchies aren’t very orderly: ergo wife must have only one husband. While we can seal deceased wives to all of her husbands, it seems to be under the assumption that we don’t know who she’ll choose, so we do them all now and let her choose later.

    Since men can’t share a wife (so the doctrine goes), it’s very understandably disturbing because Joseph taking an already married wife means very literally that he is taking her away from the previous husband in the eternities, who is left in an ambiguous state.

    Comment by SW Clark — December 14, 2009 @ 9:25 am

  8. Thanks for the comments, I need to work through this stuff for my dissertation.

    A few responses.
    Mark, no doubt the lack of consent in a number of cases is a concern but we have to ask, adultery according to whom? No doubt the larger society frowned on all this stuff but DC 132:41 suggests that God’s consent is all that mattered. Furthermore Compton quotes John D. Lee and Jedediah Grant saying that JS said that previous vows were of no effect (that of course raises its own issues, but also sheds light in JS’s thinking). On your second point, no doubt this “complex” marriage is impractical but I like the quote from Benjamin Johnson: “our great mission to earth was to Organize a nucleus of Heaven to take with us.”

    Sam, so what was he proposing?

    BiV, regardless, it still looks to me like a change in practice after July 1843. How do you see it?

    Ryan, but the BoM doesn’t really talk about eternal marriage, seems like we need to look elsewhere.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 14, 2009 @ 9:35 am

  9. First of all, I don’t have this figured out at all. But Ryan, how do you reconcile Book of Mormon (specifically Jacob’s) teachings on monogamy and the OT and D&C practices and teachings? Not to mention the numerous quotes by early leaders insisting that polygamy was necessary for exaltation?

    Also, Clark, you said: “Since men can?t share a wife (so the doctrine goes)…” What doctrine is that? Or are you inferring this from the practice of not sealing women to multiple men in the temple?

    I’m worried about my tone–please don’t take this comment wrong. I’m sincerely trying to bat these things around in an attempt to come to a fuller understanding. I thank Steve for bringing this up, and I’d love to keep this discussion going. It is SO RARE to get a really good, dispassionate, intellectual discussion of Joseph Smith’s polyandry.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — December 14, 2009 @ 9:43 am

  10. oh, and I think that BF Johnson quote is FABULOUS, and very revealing.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — December 14, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  11. I think earthly Mormonism is patriarchal in form, both in it’s Priesthood order and Kinship order. I can’t see how polyandry could work in it’s eternal system (?)

    Comment by Bob — December 14, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  12. I lean towards the argument that polyandry in a patriarchal society (not just Mormon patriarchy, but the wider American variety) is what is so galling for people. The idea of one man sharing multiple women just fits in the patriarchal logic better than one woman sharing multiple husbands. BiV can help me out here, but I suspect there’s a gendered element to how contemporary LDS respond to this. To be clear, I can’t claim to really understand what goes through a contemporary LDS woman’s head when she hears about polyandry for the first time. I can think of multiple female friends and relatives who I’ve explained polyandry to, and they seem to respond differently to the issue than men do, but I can’t really explain that. But LDS men who I’ve talked with, there’s a sense of shock and almost latent outrage that the prophet would/could ask them to share or even give up their wives.

    Comment by David G. — December 14, 2009 @ 10:39 am

  13. Steve, I think you’re on to something about Joseph’s two marriage patterns. I believe polyandry is also implied in verses 44 and 48 in D&C 132 (and possibly also verse 51, regarding Emma). Verses 44 and 48 seem even more clear on the subject, whereas the meaning in verse 41 seems to be revealed only through a reverse negative (of the if/then clause).

    We all know that living husbands can marry polygamously, after their first wife has passed away. But if you study page 31 of the new Family History manual, it shows the conditions in which a woman, having passed away, may be sealed to all her husbands posthumously.

    Of course, Compton also discusses the one marriage in Mormon history, where not only was the woman sealed to Joseph for eternity, but also to her first husband (Marinda and Orson Hyde). Orson was sealed to her eternally in 1846, after the same occurred between Joseph and Marinda earlier. (Yes, they divorced in 1870, but it still opens up a can of worms.) Interestingly, Orson may have been the only of those polyandrous husbands to have been initiated into the Holy Order of the priesthood (second anointing).

    Joseph did but lightly open up the veil of eternity on the subject of marriage, methinks.

    Comment by cadams — December 14, 2009 @ 10:53 am

  14. Well, I certainly have a different perspective than most LDS women. (I am rather curious about it, and wish I could just try it, and see how it works. I can see how it could be an exalting principle. IF it were commanded. I would never want to get involved if it weren’t as a part of religious conviction.)

    But if I had to speculate I would say that polyandry bothers women as much as polygamy does–it all has to do with Joseph breaking up cozy little pair bonds. I don’t think it would be any easier on most women to be told they could go get another husband than it would they had to share one. Is that the kind of reaction you have seen, David?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — December 14, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  15. how do you reconcile Book of Mormon (specifically Jacob?s) teachings on monogamy and the OT and D&C practices and teachings? Not to mention the numerous quotes by early leaders insisting that polygamy was necessary for exaltation?

    Ryan, of course, can speak for himself, but I want to respond to these questions too.

    As Ryan stated in #6, the Book of Mormon established monogamy as the default, implying that exceptions for polygamy could be made. The OT and early LDS practices would be some of those exceptions. As for quotes insisting that polygamy was necessary for exaltation, I see two possibilities:

    1. The brethren making this claim were simply wrong, or
    2. The claim can only be understood in the context of exaltation being a collective goal, not an individual goal (see the recent formulation, repeated by Elder Nelson in his April talk, that we are saved as individuals but exalted as families). The probability that the demographics will work out so that every exalted male and every exalted female will have exactly one spouse are vanishingly small. Thus, some form of polygamy will be necessary to allow any unmatched individuals to achieve exaltation. In this case, I would agree that polygamy is necessary at a societal level in order to achieve exaltation, but not that any particular individual has to practice polygamy in order to be exalted.

    Note that my logic does not specify a priori whether the form of polygamy to be practiced would be polygyny or polyandry, but it does imply either one or the other, not both. We’ll leave the argument over which is most likely for another day.

    Comment by Last Lemming — December 14, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  16. Maybe it’s a function of most commenters coming of age in the era of DNA analysis, but it’s hard to understand how there could be a dozen comments without anyone mentioning the previously obvious problem of not being certain of the paternity of children in a polyandrous relationship. Spoken or unspoken, I think that plain biological fact is at the heart of squeamishness over polyandry, more than potential abuses of power, or breaking of pair bonds, or any other reason that has been proposed. Men resist raising the children of another man, and women like to choose the fathers of their children.

    This aspect of plural marriage is one I ordinarily watch from the sidelines because it doesn’t engage me. It’s a valid question for study, but I doubt we’ll ever really understand Joseph’s thinking with any certainty, and I’m pretty sure that without further revelation, every supposition about plural relationships of any sort in the hereafter is just as speculative and nothing for anybody, men or women, in or out of the church, to be disturbed by in the slightest.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 14, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  17. A third possibility for Last Lemming’s list is that during those exceptional times when plural marriage is permitted — even commanded under certain conditions — it may be possible for polygamy to be required for exaltation because it *was* a commandment for that generation. It may not be that polygamy in itself was a necessary condition, but that obedience to commandment was.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 14, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  18. #16 Very good points, Ardis. I dearly love to speculate about this, but I agree with you in the final analysis. Also, I hadn’t even thought about paternity of children, which was a major oversight on my part. Of course, raising another man’s child in addition to sharing a wife could be one of those exalting principles… 🙂

    #17 Right again. Obedience to the “no tattooing and piercing rule” could be the necessary condition for our day.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — December 14, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  19. no doubt the lack of consent in a number of cases is a concern but we have to ask, adultery according to whom? No doubt the larger society frowned on all this stuff but DC 132:41 suggests that God?s consent is all that mattered

    Steve F, I mean adultery by the definition of breaking marriage vows. Now of course one can say that God commanded so and so to break their marriage vows, but that does not mean they were not broken. The least one could do would be to have to decency to leave (or even inform) the unconsenting spouse first.

    It is the same deal with the issue of whether marriages are recognized by the state or by larger society. What difference does it make if the original husband and wife believed that they were entering a sacred, exclusive, and life long relationship?

    Comment by Mark D. — December 14, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  20. I don’t know whether that was supposed to be a joke, BiV, so pardon my denseness, but are you really equating the counsel — simple counsel, not commandment — about a fashion trend with the 19th century commandment of plural marriage?? I think you never will come to any mature understanding of Joseph Smith and his complexities if you’re this far into your study and can consider the origin and doctrines and consequences of plural marriage to be the moral equivalent of a tattoo.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 14, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  21. Joke.
    Joke, Ardis.
    Sorry I left out the smiley face. 🙂

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — December 14, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  22. The reason the practice is so appalling to members of the church today is the fact they were all carried out in secret without the consent of those who had a right to know. Emma Smith, always portrayed as an obedient contented wife of the prophet was absolutely tormented by the accusations of Joseph?s involvement in polygamy. Of all people Emma deserved to know about the plural marriage doctrine before it was put into practice. Husbands of the polyandrous wives were also unaware and gave no consent to the practice. By engaging in polyandry Joseph not only appeared to break his own marriage vows with his faithful wife Emma, he drew other women into an adulterous situation by marrying them without the consent of their husbands.

    Joseph claimed that an angel appeared to him and threatened that ?I was to obey that principle [plural marriage] or he would slay me.? Joseph would introduce the new doctrine to the married woman and relate to her the commandment by the angel. It was implicit that Joseph?s life was in danger if she did not consent to marriage or if she revealed the practice to anyone else. The coerciveness of the situation was inescapable. What believer would want to be responsible for the death of the prophet?

    Comment by AYdUbYA — December 14, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

  23. BiV, that was pretty much the reaction of my fiancee when I asked her if she found polyandry or polygyny to be more disturbing–she found both equally distressing. When I shared with her my hypothesis that men generally find polyandry more disturbing than women, she suggested that this in part is a result of men used to being in control of a relationship, but if a man has to share a woman, he loses that control. While she can see that having more than one husband would increase the power of a woman in a marriages, she said, “But why would I want more than one husband?”

    Comment by David G. — December 14, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  24. I don’t know how you dress this up to make it look good. The lying, the deceit, the dishonesty of it. I feel bad every time I see that statue of Joseph and Emma in Salt Lake. I hate to say it, but what it says is fraudulent.

    Comment by Ray — December 14, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  25. I clicked through from an aggregator expecting to read a comment from long-time regular Bloggernacle participant Ray. This isn’t him. Ray (the new guy), it would help all of us if you’d modify your moniker slightly. “Ray” is already taken.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — December 14, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  26. David, I’m glad you got that all cleared up before the marriage 🙂

    There’s a certain principle here. I remember as a kid that my mom would often say that she hoped that we would be able to be sealed to certain special friends as well as family. As an adult, I feel the same way. There are a number of relationships that I hope are eternal, beyond my biological family. I find this applies even more to my wife. She’s an only-child convert with deceased parents. She’s compensated for this with heaps and heaps of friends. There’s quite a number of people that consider her to be their daughter and our kids call a number of people that aren’t technically relatives aunt and uncle.

    Of course the implementation of such things was bound to be problematic. I’m thankful it was attempted nonetheless.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 14, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  27. Thanks, Ardis. I’ve asked him to change the name he uses on other blogs, but it hasn’t happened yet – I think because he’s a drive-by commenter who doesn’t stick around long enough to read my requests.

    For me, when the entire spectrum of Joseph’s atempts to implement what might exist in the eternities is viewed, the “nastiness” pretty much disappears. Of course, it helps that the totality of the practice under Joseph simply doesn’t point to rampant sexual activity among a group of lustful men. It just doesn’t.

    Now, I’m a bit radical in the Church when it comes to how I think relationships will be structured and how spirit children will be created, so it’s easier for me to accept non-monogamous relationships in the hereafter. When you don’t believe sexual activity as we know it is part of that future existence, the “yuck factor” pretty much is non-existent.

    Comment by Ray — December 14, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

  28. That is, I see this as a way of binding people together; a “group hug” as Spencer Fluman called it when I put out this theory at the Bushman seminar the summer before last.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 14, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  29. The whole “group hug” concept is popular at the moment, not only because of Spencer but also because it is basically the interpretation idea propounded by Bushman in his work. As a 21st century LDS, I love the notion. As a historian, however, I just don’t see compelling contemporary evidence that would lead me to accept it as the dominant motivational factor for participants in the 1840s.

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 14, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

  30. I’m going to concur with Taysom. In the immediate post-Martyrdom period it was a matter of establishing a theocracy based on universal kin networks. As husband-wife sealings were the only sealings performed during Smith’s lifetime, things are a bit more nebulous, and we have to rely more on his sermons than his practice. There is enough there, as Sam has shown, to piece together some cohesive interpretations.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 14, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

  31. I have heard from 2 different women the past year that the Church now allows widows to be sealed to a 2nd man in mortality. Can anyone verify this?

    Comment by Bret — December 14, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

  32. Of course, I wasn’t talking about the post-martyrdom period, J.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 14, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

  33. Bret,

    I just had this talk with a temple worker about a month ago. He confirmed to me that no woman can be sealed to two men for time and eternity, with a few exceptions of widows. He gave the example that if a woman lost her husband a few weeks after being married, she could be married again for time and eternity, but her first marriage (to the husband that died too early) would have to be nullified.

    Does anyone know any different?

    Comment by Manuel — December 14, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

  34. This is a gag, right? And some of those commenting are in on it?

    Comment by stands all amazed — December 14, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  35. SAM, substantive comments…you should try it. Maybe a start would be articulating why you think this is a gag.

    Comment by Jared T — December 14, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

  36. Nice work Steve,

    Greg Smith and I have discussed the early polyandry, late single marriage trend as well.

    One thought that we had was that many of the those polyandrous marriages weren’t consummated, so they presented less risk to Joseph Smith were they to be discovered and more toleration from those in the loop (such as the other husband and at least potentially, Emma). Heber C. Kimball went through a similar line of thought, initially proposing to marry older women that wouldn’t make his wife jealous (but was told that was unacceptable).

    So I think the problems with the Alger marriage drove him to seek out safer marriages. Then I suspect that the shift from polyandry to single women may have been accompanied by the angel telling Joseph that strategy was no longer acceptable.

    Comment by Keller — December 15, 2009 @ 12:03 am

  37. Interesting that this post came out the same time that I was writing mine on the Brigham Young – Augusta Cobb polyandrous marriage on Nov. 1843.

    Cobb, like some of Joseph’s polyandrous wives had been married to a non-member husband. It is difficult for me to determine if the marriage with Brigham was ever consummated, having seen arguments going both ways. I discuss how Augusta was more of a serial monogamist (instead of a true bigamist) as someone who separated from her first husband in the east and moved to the midwest. Mainly, though I took issue with an assertion that what Brigham did was adulterous by Mormon standards even citing D&C.

    Comment by Keller — December 15, 2009 @ 12:04 am

  38. Steve, I talk about a Chain of Belonging in my chapter 8. It’s hard to articulate what Smith was up to in less than 10,000 words.

    My wife often is sure to help people remember that where polyandry is actually practiced in societies, it’s a miserable disaster for the women involved. Most commonly the “wife” then becomes the maid and sexual object for a bunch of brothers, none of whom feels particular duties to her as they go about their days. there are few if any models of active polyandry that are the matriarchal inversion of the patriarchal order.

    The argument that Smithian paternity could more easily be hidden with dual wives is a very old one. Brodie popularizes it as I recall, but I think contemporaries were making the argument.

    Comment by smb — December 15, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  39. Still, Sam, I think the pre 1843 pattern is worth noting. It certainly wasn’t polyandrous like the situation your wife describes. “Complex” might be a better term; that is it went both ways.

    Here’s another thing about the pre 1843 pattern (plan A). There was no “sacred loneliness” that Compton emphasizes because the women either had another husband or they were older and single and thus didn’t have a husband anyway. It’s quite different than the situation after July 1843.

    So I still see these two systems that should not be seen as one continuous whole. My two cents is that we try to explain “Plan A” in terms of “plan B” which only obscures what was going on in “plan A.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 15, 2009 @ 9:49 am

  40. Stapley, 30, we have to rely more on his sermons than his practice.

    What I’m arguing here is that is a problematic assumption.

    Keller, thanks, but I’m not so sure about the model you propose. Who exactly JS consummated his relationships with is hard to know but he certainly could have done so with the already-married wives.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 15, 2009 @ 10:45 am

  41. What I?m arguing here is that is a problematic assumption.

    I think you are correct that there is significant data on marriages; but with no adoptions/child-to-parent sealings performed during Smith’s life, I’m not sure how it is problematic.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 15, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  42. Personally, I don’t buy into the whole idea of polygamy as a principle from heaven under JS, so perhaps someone can help me understand this. I haven’t looked at the sources or read Campbell’s new book, so I have some ignorance.

    But in short and objectively speaking, the whole practice of polygamy sounds like men who pursued sexual ventures in secret, mostly via leaders who asked fellow leaders or lower-ranking people to submit, but once word got out to the public, it was called polygamy and people were told it was of heaven. Tying it to a religious principle seems to be a cover up of sorts, or something that at least justified it. F. Alger and others seem to clearly be affairs. Or am I wrong, do the sources during JS’s time really indicate that it was a spiritual principle? If it was spiritual, the N. Expositor put out a single issue (which publicized these sexual relationships) and it was sacked immediately. That doesn’t sound like a heavenly action. Perhaps some objective opinions can answer this for me. Thanks.

    Comment by Zach — December 15, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

  43. Zach, I think that some people definitely do read it that way. However, there are a lot of folk who do not. See, for example, Hales’ recent large and somewhat peculiar piece in the Fall 2009 JMH. There is significant evidence that individuals viewed the Alger relationship as a valid marriage. Folks such as Todd Compton have taken this position for years. With regards to Nauvoo polygamy, there is skads and skads of literature on this. I think that the arguments for polygamy as solely a means toward sex are tremendously weak.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 15, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  44. J., what I’m saying is that we shouldn’t dismiss the data just because there weren’t those other sealings. Can’t the patterns that we do see teach us anything?

    To me it suggests that “adoption” can work “horizontally” (as it were) in addition to “laterally.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 15, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  45. Steve, I think we are largely in agreement that there is a lot to work with and that we are consequently able to make meaningful interpretations.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 15, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  46. Thanks J. and everyone, this has been a fun conversation.

    Zach, this entire exercise ought to demonstrate the process of trying to understand the past in meaningful ways. As J. mentioned, the scenario you proposed has been proposed by others; can you think of other possibilities? What I’ve proposed here is how I see it.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 15, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

  47. J, 45, I would not say that there is a lot to work with. There is pitifully little.

    Polyandry data, we have got polyandry data, and we need no more polyandry data 😉

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — December 15, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

  48. Complex marriage is something different–the Oneida perfectionists own that title. The early LDS called it celestial or patriarchal marriage, meaning something ratherdifferent than most of us would if we used those terms today.

    Zach–philandering is extremely common, and celestial marriage is extremely rare. Emma’s second wife cheated on her the old fashioned way then made her raise the child as a grandchild. A few anti-marriage agitators advocated open amarital sexual pairings, but by and large people just sort of slept around the way they always have and the way they always will (I’m not condoning this and believe strongly that adultery is dangerous, cruel, and awful)–to believe that everyone is a born-again Baptist circa 1990 is both naive and historically inaccurate.

    So now you’re left trying to explain the development of a rare ideological system on the basis of an exceedingly common practice. I’m not saying that this is impossible, but the skeptic’s initial response would be that the satyr’s view of polygamy is probably inadequate. I suspct a logical consensus would ultimately allow for both sexual pleasure AND conceptual complexity beyond just the libido.

    Comment by smb — December 16, 2009 @ 9:33 am

  49. sorry, emma’s second _husband_. LDS marital practices weren’t _that_ complicated.

    Comment by smb — December 16, 2009 @ 9:34 am

  50. smb- well put.

    Interesting post, thanks for fleshing out your thoughts at JI, Steve.

    Comment by BHodges — December 16, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  51. On Oneida (do people “own” titles Sam? 🙂 ), keep in mind that DC 132 is also the antinomian section (it’s how God introduces the subject) and also speaks in terms of an kind of attainable perfectionist status (the whole sealed up to eternal life stuff). Thus I see plan A as linked to antinomian perfection (the “perfect” could practice it) and thus similar in some ways to Oneida. Interestingly, I’ll be tracing such thoughts and practices in my dissertation, there are some interesting trends (particularly in the middle ages).

    My two cents is that plan A (1839-1843) was never fully put into practice and that DC 132 represents the shift but still has echos of the old system (41, which says, “oh, and if you were doing this before, it’s okay”). I agree that 51 looks similar to me; Emma is not now to partake because the system has been changed. I also wonder if JS wasn’t too crazy about the idea either. The men wanted a different plan.

    So David G. et al., when you conduct you straw polls, ask “which do you prefer, polygyny or complex marriage” 🙂

    On the point that complex marriage isn’t compatible with patriarchy, I’m reminded of James Madison’s dictum “if people were angels they wouldn’t need government.” How much “archy” do we need in the celestial kingdom? I’m not saying that there will be no order, but celestial people, by definition, know how to get along.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  52. What does this mean–> “I need to work through this stuff for my dissertation.”


    I am with many modern women, I see the pragmatic value of multiple women (as workers mind you) and the whole concept of “sister wives” being supportive to women of another area but I see zero value in having a second husband (since the one I have is perfect of course). The group hug theory is interesting but I feel like I can get hugs without an ordinance.

    It does bring up a really nice perspective, however, that younger women was as a result of seeking single women as opposed to other less favorable descriptions, so thank you for that.

    Comment by Lee Fleming — December 16, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  53. Honey (52), I guess I could just explain the dissertation to you in person (cruel, I know) but I’m looking at certain trends in radical/lay/mystical practices in the late middle ages that Kathryn Kirby-Fulton calls “revelatory theology” and how they influence radical/evangelical/sectarian movements in the early modern period leading up to the antebellum US. The complex marriage/antinomian issue is just one piece of this bigger puzzle. (Okay, I know that’s just blah, blah, blah to you and just about everybody else, honey, but I need to sound academic around here once in a while.)

    And don’t worry honey, I’m not planning on foisting an extra husband on you (thanks, honey, you are also the perfect spouse) especially now that David G. is spoken for (bad joke 🙁 )

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

  54. hahaha

    Comment by Jared T — December 16, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  55. ha nice

    Comment by BHodges — December 16, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  56. LOL! I’m not used to these type of thought experiments, Steve. I’m not sure how to react. 😉

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  57. Yeah, sorry for the bad joke.

    In case it wasn’t clear in 52, my wife said “I would totally rather have another wife than another husband” to me after reading this post, which is kind of an interesting response. Just to give a little background, she has mentioned to me that she would like another wife, for her not so much for me. That is, a person who would handle all the household duties and watch the kids (she’s worked full time for most of our marriage and we have 4 kids).

    On the issue of another husband, she said after the post “I do not want to be accountable to two men.” Also an interesting response.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2009 @ 5:51 pm


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