One of the more awkward moments of my time in graduate school came when I was reading a book about Mormon polygamy while taking a break in the lab. A visiting scientist from Pakistan who was doing research in the same lab saw me reading the book and asked me: “That looks like an interesting book. Are you preparing to take a second wife?”, then joked about taking a second wife himself. A bit flustered, I explained that my wife and I weren’t interested in expanding our family that way, that my church had stopped practicing plural marriage over a century ago, and that I was reading the book to better understand my ancestor’s decisions. It was an interesting conversation, needless to say.
The previous week’s reading in the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum includes Jacob 2, the epicenter for discussing polygamy in the Book of Mormon. Recently, a good friend who has chosen to leave the Church asked me: “Do you think the church will eventually disavow the polygamous teachings in the Book of Mormon?” I was somewhat surprised at the question, since the section in the Book of Mormon in question already disavows polygamy, calling the practice “an abomination” that causes “sorrow … [and] mourning” for the women involved. It also forcefully states that the word of the Lord is that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none” (Jacob 2:27-31). Not exactly a ringing endorsement for plural marriage.
There is, of course, one statement that the Church has used to justify polygamy within Jacob’s sermon. He states: “If I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things” (Jacob 2:30). This passing statement has been interpreted to mean that when the Lord commands it, people can practice polygamy to have an increased number of children. It is likely with that verse in mind that my friend spoke as he did. Still, I’m grateful for Jacob’s words because they have allowed us to pivot away from saying that plural marriage is God’s law whenever it can be practiced to saying that monogamy is God’s law with rare exceptions.
The reason that is so important is that in times past plural marriage was held to be the law of God. For example, Charles Smith recorded that during the late 1800s, church members in St. George were told by a group of high-ranking general authorities that: “It was the duty of the Elders of Israel to take more wives, and that there was no exaltation without it.” During that time, more than one couple made the decision to enter plural marriage arrangements because they were taught this, including Jane Snyder Richards who “said that as [her husband] was an elder and if it was necessary to her salvation that she should let another share her pleasures, she would do so.” Thus, while plural marriage was openly practiced among the Saints, Church leaders actively taught that it was a requirement for exaltation.
When the Church officially gave up polygamy around the turn of the 20th century, Latter-day Saints understood that they did so of necessity and that it was a change of policy rather than a change of doctrine. President Wilford Woodruff noted in his journal that he was “under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the Church” when he issued the Manifesto that distanced the Church from plural marriage. When the announcement was made at general conference, President George Q. Cannon spoke, citing a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants that stated: “When I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings” (D&C 124:49). President Cannon stated that such was the case with plural marriage. It was understood that there had been no change in doctrine, just in official Church policy to deal with the current situation when it came to plural marriage.
This began a period of limbo in which the Church sought to distance itself from plural marriage while still believing it to be a true principle. It took a second manifesto that made initiating new plural marriages an excommunicable offense and then the action of limiting use of the sealing authority to the temples to bring an end a period of confusion in which Church members and leaders tried to privately continue the principle while publicly working to show that they were giving up polygamy. Doctrinally, a series of awkward compromises were made afterwards, some of which endure to this day. For example, Joseph Smith’s revelation about polygamy remained in the Doctrine and Covenants as a section while Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto and related documents were relegated to an appendix-like Official Declaration. Men could not be married to multiple living women but could be sealed serially to multiple women after the death of a prior wife, essentially leaving a backdoor to practice polygyny in the afterlife. Polygamy continued to be viewed as an important practice to many Latter-day Saints.
Other measures, however, were taken to distance the Church from the practice. The term “celestial marriage” shifted from being a term used for polygamy to a term for temple marriage in general. General authorities began to affirm that plural marriage was not essential. For example, writing around 1910, Elder B. H. Roberts noted that it wasn’t accurate to state that “Mormonism is based on polygamy” since “Mormonism existed ten years … before plural marriage was ever introduced into the Church.” And, after the practice was abandoned, “Mormonism still survives,” showing that “the doctrine of the rightfulness of plural marriage is in every sense but an incident in the ‘Mormon system’ rather than a basic principle.” He affirmed that: “Salvation in the Mormon religion is not made to depend upon a plurality of wives.”
When Church leaders defended the decision to cease practicing plural marriage, however, they continued to do so most frequently based on a commitment to follow the laws of the United States of America. A third manifesto, issued in 1933, affirmed that the sealing authority was solely to be used at the direction of the president of the Church and that those presidents had declared that “polygamous or plural marriages are not and cannot now be performed” because “our people sacredly covenanted with the Government of the United States that they would obey civil law” in the 1890s. More recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated that: “this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. … If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose.” The first reason he gave for this was that polygamy was illegal and Article of Faith 1:12 indicates that we are expected to obey the law of the land. The law of the land was viewed as being supremely important in the decision to stop the practice of plural marriage.
The problem was that there was a lot of ambiguity about the status of plural marriage in the Church’s doctrine. The argument that we don’t practice polygamy because it is illegal left open the question of what would happen when (or where) polygamy is decriminalized. There is also the question of whether polygamy still expected to be the norm in the kingdom of God whenever the chance is available. Eugene England noted that he had encountered the belief that modern Latter-day Saints would practice polygamy in the Celestial Kingdom quite frequently in discussions and jokes at the time he wrote an essay on the topic in the 1980s. One of those jokes may have been the song my mother recalled singing as a single woman at BYU: “Someday my prince will come / In the millennium, / And he will say to me: / ‘Will you be number three? / I will be true to you / And you, and you, and you…’,” sung to the relevant phrase of the song from Disney’s Snow White. In other words, it was unclear whether polygamy had been temporarily or permanently rescinded.
Within the past few years, however, the Church has embraced Jacob’s words, clarifying that plural marriage is the exception, not the law, and indicating that it was rescinded on a permanent basis. Gordon B. Hinckley laid the groundwork in his 1998 address when he gave his second reason for having nothing to do with polygamy: “More than a century ago God clearly revealed unto His prophet Wilford Woodruff that the practice of plural marriage should be discontinued, which means that it is now against the law of God.” The Gospel Topics essay on Plural Marriage confirmed that this was the official stance of the Church, stating that: “Latter-day Saints believe that the marriage of one man and one woman in the Lord’s standing law of marriage,” but noted that it was instituted for a time by revelation, using the escape clause in Jacob’s sermon as a scriptural justification for doing so.
The Church’s new official history series, Saints, has continued to affirm that the Church’s stance is more in line with the Book of Mormon than in times past. Both volumes of the history use Jacob’s words to teach that “no man should have ‘save it be one wife,’ unless God commanded otherwise.” Kate Holbrook (a church historian) spoke at a face to face event at the time Saints, vol.1 was released, citing Jacob’s instructions and then stating that: “Our church leaders have taught us that monogamy is the rule and plural marriage is the exception. And our Church leaders have taught us that plural marriage is not necessary for exaltation or for eternal glory.” Elder Quentin L. Cook backed up her comments by stating that: “In the senior councils of the Church, there’s a feeling that polygamy as it was practiced has served its purpose, and we should honor those saints. But that purpose has been accomplished and that, that it isn’t necessary.” Thus, rather than arguing that we no longer practice polygamy because we follow the laws of the land, we practice monogamy because, as Jacob wrote, it is “the word of the Lord” that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife” (Jacob 2:27).
What are we to make of this story of gradually coming to embrace Jacob’s understanding of polygamy in the Church? It does raise many questions, most of which we’ll probably just have to approach following Dallin Oaks’s advice to “trust in the Lord.” Two questions weigh particularly heavily on my mind as I write this, though. First, how could polygamy be considered essential for exaltations at some points in our history and not others? Second, how can it be that the change was made initially (in the minds of Church leaders) to save the Church from destruction by the government of the United States of America but over time has come to be accepted as God’s law? These are tough questions to find answers to that are satisfying, but I may venture a few thoughts.
First, Jacob does make allowances that God “will command his people” at times to practice polygamy. I believe that during the period it was practiced in the Church, plural marriage was done so at God’s command. The saints who practiced the principle trusted Joseph Smith and believed that to be the case. Obedience to God’s commandments is generally regarded as being important for obtaining exaltation and willfully rejecting them as detrimental to exaltation. While it is hard to fathom the reasons why it may have been commanded, I assume that God had important reasons for doing so and that He expected His saints to do their best to follow His command while it was in force rather than actively rejecting it.
As to the second question, I believe that Latter-day Saints in the 19th century practiced plural marriage as God’s law but failed understand the nature of that law as a temporary thing. Their assumption that polygamy was an eternal principle combined with the circumstances of the time at which God revealed to President Wilford Woodruff that He no longer commanded the Saints to practice polygamy made it difficult to grasp that God had truly signaled that it was time to lift His command to practice polygamy and return to the law that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife.” They had made great sacrifices and gone to great efforts to practice plural marriage under intense opposition, after all. We are not far removed from the time that the command for plural marriage was lifted. We had presidents of the Church who had practiced polygamy all the way up to the end of World War II and senior Church leaders who had grown up in polygamous families all the way into the 1970s, both of which are within living memory of many Latter-day Saints today. It may be that it has just taken time for the dust to settle and for Church leaders to understand that the change was permanent. Whatever the case, today they teach that “monogamy is the rule and plural marriage is the exception,” as the Book of Mormon indicated all along.
Featured image from the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, courtesy of the Joseph Smith Papers project. See “Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, circa August 1829–circa January 1830, Page i,” p. 98, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 17, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/printers-manuscript-of-the-book-of-mormon-circa-august-1829-circa-january-1830/102.
 Smith, Charles 1819-1905. Charles Smith reminiscences and diary, 1842 March-1905 June , https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=92dc82d2-97e3-4927-93a5-b6c91edd1ec6&crate=0&index=291 (accessed: March 13, 2020) . President Joseph F. Smith likewise said that: “Some of the Saints have said, and believe, that a man with one wife sealed to him by the authority of the Priesthood for time and eternity, will receive an exaltation as great and glorious, if he is faithful, as he possibly could with more than one. I want to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false” (“Discourse Delivered By Elder Jos. F. Smith,” 7 July 1878, Des. News [Weekly], 11 Sept. 1878, 27:32, 498/1-5. Cited in Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its origin, practice, and demise, ed. B Carmon Hardy (Norman, Oklahoma: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2007), 113.)
 Mrs. F D Richards, Inner Facts of Social Life in Utah, Interview with Mrs. Matilda Coley Griffing Bancroft, San Francisco, Calif., 1880. Cited in Doing the Works of Abraham, 146-147.
 I suspect that, to the extent it was known among the Saints, Joseph Smith’s teaching that “in the celestial glory there was three heavens or degrees, and in order to obtain the highest a man must enter into this order of the priesthood” may have been interpreted as being a degree for each level of marital status: single, monogamous, and polygamous (regardless of Joseph Smith’s intent with the words). I don’t have solid evidence other than the highest was understood to be for polygamists, such as when President Brigham Young said: “the only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” (JD 11:268-269).
 Wilford Woodruff journals and papers, 1828-1898; Wilford Woodruff Journals, 1833-1898; Wilford Woodruff journal, 1886 January-1892 December; Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=8eee1db1-409c-43b2-ac32-1d344bc519c7&crate=0&index=328#churchofjesuschrist (accessed: March 14, 2020)
 George Q. Cannon Journal, 6 October 1890, https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/george-q-cannon/1890s/1890/10-1890?lang=eng#churchhistorianspress. See also Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand, 1846-1893 (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020), 607-609, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v2/part-4/40-the-right-thing?lang=eng.
 See the Gospel Topics Essay: “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage” for more information: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/the-manifesto-and-the-end-of-plural-marriage?lang=eng.
 See Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012), 161-162.
 B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vol. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News: 1907- 1912), 1:100-101.
 “An Official Statement from the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Deseret News, 17 June 1933, Church Section, 1-4. Cited in Doing the Works of Abraham, 383-386.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?” CR October 1998, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1998/10/what-are-people-asking-about-us?lang=eng.
 Eugene England, “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20, no.4 (Winter 1987): 138–54. https://www.eugeneengland.org/on-fidelity-polygamy-and-celestial-marriage
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?”
 “Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics Essays, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng accessed 14 March 2020.
 Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1: The Standard of Truth, 1815-1846 (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018) 433, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v1/36-incline-them-to-gather?lang=eng. Saints, No Unhallowed Hand, 152-154, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v2/part-1/10-truth-and-righteousness?lang=eng.
 Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults: A Face to Face Event with Elder Quentin L. Cook 9 September 2018 https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/broadcasts/face-to-face/cook?lang=eng.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Trust in the Lord,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/17oaks?lang=eng.