Polygamy, What it Really Implies (Part One)

Stephen Marshmarriage, polygamy 22 Comments

Polygamy gets a fair amount of attention from time to time, but very little thought of what it means or what it implies as far as what kind of species humanity might be and how relevant men are or just what is to be expected in the next life from eternal relationships.

My own thoughts are influenced strongly by just how irrelevant it is easy for a man to become when there are long term female house guests who fit in well, a situation we had when a friend’s husband got transferred and she had one semester left to finish her master’s degree. It wasn’t polygamy, but my wife and our friend got along like happy sisters and I noticed that I was less relevant. That got me thinking about things I had observed working in simulations and studying animal behaviors.

In most species that are polygamous, the males are mostly irrelevant much of the time. Lions hunt, raise children and interact with the males generally off to the side sleeping in a sort of communal polygamy (2-3 husbands, 8-10 wives in the pride whose history I was reviewing, similar rough ratios in other prides). Unless there is fighting and dying to do, male lions are not part of day to day life.

If you look at walruses — the males could just as easily be television sets most of the time. If we are a polygamous species, what it really implies is that to some extent men are not as relevant to a family grouping as women. In fact, the more women that can be in the family, the less relevant the men become.

This is illustrated in early LDS polygamy by plural households that sent members off to learn art, become medical doctors and otherwise operate independently, with little or no need for any continuous male presence. For many of the women in the relationship, men were irrelevant.

Now, are we actually a polygamous species, just as lions are carnivores, and is that some eternal principal, or is polygamy something else in the fallen framework, just as lions apparently cease to eat lambs in the next life? And, if we are polygamous, what does that really mean? I will address both of those in my next post, because I think polygamy is both more and less than it seems.

Stephen Marsh (addressing something that comes up all the time, but of which there seems to be little deep thought)

Comments 22

  1. One can of worms that has always been intriguing to me is what polygamy and polyandry say about deep Mormon concepts of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. Consequently, what space does this “flexible” view of eternal relationships create for homosexuality as an accepted option for an eternal family structure?

  2. In response to:
    One can of worms that has always been intriguing to me is what polygamy and polyandry say about deep Mormon concepts of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships.

    Do you think that this speaks to Mormons as a people or do the “concepts of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships” you refer to speak more to Joseph Smith as a person?

  3. I am talking about the complete lifestyle adoption of the early saints as well as fundamentalists today. Also, if mainstream LDS believe that it was a holy practice before the manifesto, then they are also included.

  4. Intriguing thoughts. This is actually somewhat of a Copernican Revolution of thought regarding polygamy. For so long polygamy has been portrayed as the ultimate scheme hatched by males to enjoy sex with as many females as possible. Now we learn that polygamy may really be the ultimate scheme to make men completely irrelevant and give the women more time with “the girls.”

    I think some might consider this the ultimate win-win situation!

  5. Oh, that is why men are so comfortable sitting in front of the TV!

    Seriously, I have often thought that I would enjoy living polygamy much more than DH would. We’d take our turns doing the laundry and watching children, have time to get a Master’s Degree and take little jaunts, and the toilet seat would always be down. I envision life as a giant slumber party, all of us chattering together while the patriarch of the home shivers upstairs in a cold bed.

    Poor Brigham. No wonder he was in a bad mood so much of the time.

  6. Clay,

    I’m not convinced that polygamy as practiced in Brigham Young’s Victorian Utah put a lot of importance on sexual intimacy in the sense that the term evokes arguments about personal fulfilment and identity as it does now, when homosexual marriage is being debated. Rather,I think a strong argument exists that sexual intimacy during the period of polygamy was viewed as entirely functional — to create more physical bodies to bring more children into the world to be raised by Mormon parents and thus provide them with a life informed by uniquely Mormon understandings of the purpose of life. As such, Mormon polygamy provides perhaps less support for an alternative view of sexual intimacy that would be useful in an argument in favor of homosexual marriage than might appear at first blush. Where the sole purpose of sexual intimacy is to create physical bodies for more children rather than fulfilment, pleasure, or self realization in terms of identity, the comparison would seem to break down somewhat.

  7. >>> Consequently, what space does this “flexible” view of eternal relationships create for homosexuality as an accepted option for an eternal family structure?

    Do you mean other than the fact that the Bible teaches homosexuality is a sin (1 Tim 1:10 or 1 Cor 6:9 for example) but allows for polygamy?(2 Sam 12:7-8)

  8. No arguments there. But this is a bit more of a serious problem in flexibility that you are indicating or even considering.

  9. Post

    Interesting question is what does marriage mean when it ceases to be a partnership essential for survival and becomes primarily a romantic attachment for joy?

    That is the implication of the tangent this discussion is taking.

    It is important because while labor and survival are important in our lives, I don’t recall ever reading about the Celestial Kingdom having starving beggars in it.

  10. One more though, here, Clay. You advance slavery in the bible as an example, but this really doesn’t make the point you were after.

    Yes, one can explain away the Bible allowing polygamy by pointing to it allowing slavery. This is actually a standard Evangelical response to Mormons. And, in my view, a corret one. The bible certainly does not sanction polygamy, it merely allows for it. (Or perhaps I should say that the bible is not clear.) D&C 132 sanctions it and is very clear.

    I don’t blame an Evangelical, that doesn’t accept D&C 132 as coming from God for feeling that perhaps polygamy was never really commanded by God. I don’t blame them at all. Based on the evidence they have, it is certainly unclear. However, I do blame them for making a definitive statement that polygamy is wrong in God’s eyes when the bible doesn’t say that either.

    So what does this have to do with homosexuality? Well, not much. The Bible doesn’t allow for it at all, as far as I can tell. It would take a really really big stretch to interpret the prohibitions against it right out of existence. So this is not like your slavery exampmle at all.

    Could we, perhaps, use your slavery example to simply point out that the Bible is “sometimes wrong?” Perhaps. But the moment you take that route, you might as well just through the Bible out the window and never read it again. You are, for all intents and purposes, effectively declaring your own personal conscience to be the will of God to the world. The whole concept of trying to learn from scripture is now nill and void.

    If God sent a revelation effectively turning back the Bible’s teachings on this subject, would I go along? Most certainly. God’s will is what I seek, even though I don’t always find it.

    But in the mean time, there is no easy solution and there is an effectively non-flexible barrier that can’t be passed by me or anyone on earth.

  11. Why are we talking about what “the Bible” allows at all? It’s a strange formulation for LDS of any ideological stripe to use, as we don’t accept the Bible as having authority to decide any issue.

    We are also “reifying” something which has no independent existence. I have sometimes fallen prey to this when writing about “the Church” taking a certain position or viewpoint. In reality, the Church does no such thing. The First Presidency, or Quorum of the Twelve, or individuals within those bodies, have positions and viewpoints. Issues become unnecessarily clouded when we speak in these generalities.

    It is not possible for a book to have an opinion. Paul or the author of Deuteronomy may have viewpoints on homosexuality and polygamy which we want to pay attention to, or discard as we see fit.

    Stephen, your question is interesting. What is the purpose of marriage itself when any earthly reasons for continuing it are gone. Maybe love? Not only in a romantic, but a companionate way. Does God struggle right now? Is God struggling alongside an eternal companion? You have raised some mighty important issues about our understanding of the afterlife and the nature of God by even straying there. Let’s develop those themes instead of getting distracted in sideshow arguments. What comfort does God get from being married in a situation where his existence is not in question?

  12. >>> a strange formulation for LDS of any ideological stripe to use, as we don’t accept the Bible as having authority to decide any issue.

    Wow! news to me! and here I thought it was the Word of God as far as it’s translated (and thus understood) correctly! But here all along I was supposed to just decide what was in and out for myself. 😉

  13. Bruce,

    You have described the classical Protestant position. If you had said, “What do the scriptures say?” I would have faulted you for reifying but not for sounding like a TV preacher.

    What I mean is that when we appeal to authority in LDS settings, we look to definitive statements by Church leaders on topics like homosexuality or polygamy, not to a single piece of the canon which, although it contains many inspired writings, does not contain “the fulness of the gospel” as I understand it.

    It has honestly never occurred to me to ask the question, “What does the Bible say about X?” It must be my Mormon upbringing in an area where that was the language used by our, ahem, religious competition.

  14. Stephen,

    How long will you keep us waiting for your next post? I can’t wait for the punchline…Do you have some biological training which can shed some light on polygamy as practiced by homo sapiens versus other species?

  15. >>> What I mean is that when we appeal to authority in LDS settings, we look to definitive statements by Church leaders on topics like homosexuality or polygamy, not to a single piece of the canon…

    That’s what I just said. Or did you miss the quote from the Articles of faith there?

    Nevertheless, the Church does accept the “authority” of it’s scriptures as normative, including the Bible. On the homosexual probitions, they have been unanimously affirmed by the modern prophets and there is no basis I can think of or are aware of that would in any sense justify not taking the bible very literally on this point. And yes, the church statements quote the Bible as their basis for this. Besides, I only specifically mentioned the Bible because that’s the part of our scripture that specifically talks about this issue.

    If my manner of speech sounded like a preacher than at least the TV preachers are right on this subject. I have been told by many Mormons that I’ve studied other religions so much that I don’t sound “Mormon” any more. Though my language may be different, my thoughts are thoroughly Mormon.

    >>> which, although it contains many inspired writings, does not contain “the fulness of the gospel” as I understand it.

    Actually, the church has taught that the Bible contains the fulness of the gospel, just like the Book of Mormon. See the current intro to the Book of Mormon where this is stated. In the new intro, they are down playing that for various reasons. But I have no reason to believe it isn’t still true. It, of course, depends on what you mean by “fulness” and “gospel.” 😉

  16. Sub point, John Nilsson. Reading back over my post that I believe you are responding to, note that I was specifically talking about how an Evangelical might look at the polygamy issue from the Bible.

    My first use of “the bible” was literal. I meant “the bible is the part of our normative scripture that prohibits homosexuality.” Nothing reified here.

    My next use of “the bible” was in response to the statement that the Bible allows slavery. I was likening it to an Evangelical saying the same about polygamy to try to understand Clay’s point… which I don’t. Having “the Bible” (or “the scriptures”) allow something isn’t the same as prohibiting it. It’s an open question. Specifically commanding against something as sinful in no uncertain terms is another thing altogether.

  17. Bruce,

    I appreciate this exchange. I think I understand better where you’re coming from. I have also been accused of not sounding “Mormon” at times, though probably the opposite pole from evangelicalism on the Christianity spectrum.

    My argument was also not about homosexuality per se, (that’s a topic for another time) but the way you went about deciding the answer to that question. Personally I would always reference a specific person, whether it were Paul or Isaiah, to invoke prophetic authority, when making a point, rather than saying, “The Pearl of Great Price says…”

    I have a hard time getting hold of an argument about what the Bible says since to me it does not have a unitary message. It is full of contradictory information about God written by people who had no clue their writings would be bound together in one book. I have always looked to Church teachings as one guide as to how to productively sort through this mess. The Book of Mormon does some of this sorting. It also is a collection of writings, but is edited with a little more continuity:)

    (Nothing in the previous should indicate I have anything against the Bible!) One of my secret shortcomings which prevent me from being a good Latter-day Saint is actually preferring to read the text of the New Testament to the Book of Mormon most of the time. I am sad Gospel Doctrine can’t dwell on it for two years the way the CES curriculum splits it up:(

  18. My point was never about “what the bible says.” I was just using language to express a thought. My point was that you can’t sweep a specific prohibition under the rug because there is something else in scripture that is allowed but no longer.

    The original question I was answering was how much flexibility polygamy creates for alternative lifestyles such as homosexuality. I was just answering the question: There isn’t much flexibility here. None, actually, short of a revelation that specifically rolls back significant teachings that are “contained within the Bible.”

    Don’t read anything further into what I am saying than this.

  19. Post

    I’ve already written the next post, but I am trying to limit myself to posting once a week. Co-bloggers here can read each other’s “works in progress” but at the moment I think everyone is too busy, not to mention, there are some other great posts.

    I blogged http://ethesis.blogspot.com/2007/11/beyond-life-real-question.html to address many of the issues in the tangent here.

    We live our lives in an era where happiness and satisfaction actually have a time and place, where there is more than the search for survival. Life in our time is different in some ways from live in an age of survival. In many survival societies, alcohol and drugs are not significant. Marriage is an economic survival tool, not a source of fulfillment. Arranged marriages rule over romantic love and in such societies most people do not believe that passion is anything more than derangement.

    What happens when survival is assumed? When what is argued about is really degrees of satisfaction. When division of labor and skill is no longer necessary in a household, what places to traditional roles have? No one needs to master technologies related to running a house or a family. We will not starve and go naked if I have not mastered the hunt or if my wife has not mastered making thread and cloth or how to tan leather. No one makes their own soap or candles or bricks in order to survive. Home canning is a hobby, not an essential. Cooking is an art, not a craft for most.

    I do not fear starving, naked and cold in my old age if I do not have enough loyal children. If I want, I can work at McDonalds for minimum wage, rent a room in a basement, check out books and the internet at a library and keep a standard of living better than 99% of humanity’s on social security. I can even get fat on that life style. Laugh, but the ability to get fat has historically been the sine non quon of success and wealth for thousands of years. In at least half of the world it still is.

    So, what do we do with our lives when we can get and stay fat without marriage? What do we do when children are a luxury rather than an investment? What do we do when in many ways we have conquered the need to fight for survival on a daily basis?

    The question becomes significant when you realize that what I am also really asking about is the celestial realm. Well, we may not get fat (in spite of all the Biblical phrases praising that — I assume they are symbolic). In our lives we are facing the question of what we do when we are beyond life and have moved into living.

    The answer is what separates the worlds of the next life, and what we do in this life. Do we seek pleasure, especially in the short run? That is the telestial kingdom.

    Do we seek joy? That is the path beyond. And just what does that mean, from romantic love (I surely hope that is part of a celestial order, I do so love my wife), to seeking fulfillment in marriage rather than “just” survival (giving another layer to President Hinckley’s comments about the need to have civil unions), to how we use our spare time or even how we blog, that is the question, the real question, that takes us past live and into living.

    BTW, a great essay on the same topic is at: My theory of eternity

  20. Slavery, Polygamy and Homosexuality

    Here’s the problem with appealing to the Bible then using modern definitions: nobody has bothered to mention that the ancient forms of slavery condoned by the Bible (but not condoned in modern scripture) are hardly the same thing. An ancient slave, such as Joseph when sold into Egypt, could fully expect eventual freedom, to buy their own way out of slavery (which implies some form of wages), and even some degree of trust, dignity etc. Which is why when African tribes sold their fellows to the white Europeans to be slaves in the Colonies they had no idea (likely) that they were essentially signing a death warrant. Biblical slavery was much more like a form of indentured servitude, and the slave owner was expected to provide for them as if they were a part of the house, that is, on a level, if not equal to their own children, certainly well enough that the slaves were not starving, in danger of death or sickness, etc. What the Bible was condoning, and taught was that slaves should be cared for properly and treated carefully.

    Polygamy, likewise was carefully outlined, and very strictly outlined under what circumstances it was permitted and how it was permitted. The likely sexual practices that many people would be tempted to indulge in today were prohibited, and what Joseph Smith is often accused of by those with sordid imaginations were prohibited by the Lord in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon (see Jacob’s diatribe for reference). To use the polygamy argument as a potential justification for deviant sexual practices (as defined by the mainstream LDS faith) is rather disengenuous to say the least. It shows either rank ignorance (not to be contentious) or lack of consideration of the issue. As an example of what polygamy means for humanity in the way that the Lord had the Saints practicing it, versus what you see a pride of lions doing, think about what Brigham did. He built a house with a separate wing for every wife. I understand that he also had his own private chambers. This leads to less of a slumber party atmosphere, and certainly not a sorority house feeling, but to a place where common meals and chores could be carried out, the family could work together, but where all things would be done in propriety. As a strict note, Brigham was sealed to each of the wives, but the wives were not sealed to each other. From a Law of Chastity standpoint the implications are very clear.

    Finally, I hope I have not been offensive in any way, and that my comment has been helpful. This is a sensitive topic in some ways.

  21. I recognize that I am really late to be commenting, but should someone read this post later I think it important to say the following about the original post:
    Just as it is offensive to claim that polygamy is “okay” or will be okay in the hereafter on grounds that women are lesser, it is every bit as offensive to say that one shouldn’t concern themselves with it through stereotypes suggesting that women love to gab and talk about “women stuff” and congregate in the kitchen, and that men are secretly lazy creatures that would always rather be in front of the television instead of in the company of their wives. I personally would rather spend time with my husband than with anyone else, that’s why I married him instead of staying at home with my sisters. And there is very little to comparison that can be justifiably made between one’s wife enjoying a visit from their sisters and one’s wife struggling to sleep in their private “wing” knowing that their husband was engaging in sexual intercourse with their sister one wing away. Read primary sources describing Emma Smith’s reaction to her “bustling household” of women. She doesn’t seem to prefer these other women’s company to having Joseph to herself, does she?
    The reason that polygamy is such a concern, for me at least, is because it seems to indicate that a man’s reward for righteousness is as many women as he wants, and a woman’s reward is to lose her husband to as many women as he wants. Scriptural statements such as that a woman will be “given” to another man should her husband not prove faithful don’t help this notion any. I am not here saying that there couldn’t be a myriad of really good, really non-upsetting reasons for polygamy. I am just suggesting that if we are going to discuss it, we do not try to make it appear harmless by peppering it with stereotypes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *