11 September 2007

The vicious cycle of polygamy and anti-Mormonism

This semester, I am enrolled in a course in Family Law. Two weeks ago, we had an extensive discussion about polygamy (particularly in the FLDS context) and I became quite involved in it. A classmate of mine pointed out that too frequently, polygamy is immediately associated with Mormonism, while it is also practiced widely by neopagans (Wicca, etc.) and Muslims (though not in the US). I was thankful to him for that point, not only in recognizing that polygamy is not exclusively a Mormon "problem" but also for the fact that I was no longer the person in the room with the weirdest religion (he had previously confessed that he himself was a neo-pagan).

The reason I mention all this is that it got me thinking about how anger and ridicule over polygamy gets rolled into general anti-Mormonism. Anti-Mormonism did not begin with Joseph's practice of polygamy. The JS-H attests to this; but also there is some argument that Joseph's polygamous wives were not publicly known before his martyrdom, which was a direct result of anti-Mormonism. However, it is likewise indisputable that a large portion of anti-Mormonism in the late 19th and 20th centuries, even up until know, is based in the Church's previous practice of polygamy and the mistaken impression that it is still practiced among us. My impression is that the two (the larger anti-Mormon sentiment and the horror of polygamy) feed off of one another. If polygamy were no longer an issue, anti-Mormons would focus on something else. But many people who might be willing to let Mormons alone on many theological differences get very riled up about the Church's practice of polygamy.

I say this as someone who supports the 1st Amendment rights of polygamists to practice their religious beliefs. I understand that polygamy (particularly as practiced by FLDS) has many attendant evils, e.g. the "Lost Boys", sexual abuse, incest, etc. However, a blanket prohibition on polygamy is too blunt an instrument to deal with these issues. Nor would I be against polygamists who entered into plural marriage for purely secular reasons or simply as a matter of preference. I do not say this as a Mormon, and therefore predisposed to sympathize with polygamists, or as a liberal, and similarly predisposed to allow plurality of belief (and some would say sexual freedom). Rather I think the liberty-related imperatives of our Constitution show that previous laws or decisions that would prohibit polygamy were profoundly mistaken and un-American.


  1. Polygamy starts with Martin Luther (well, in the modern era, of course we know about Abraham and Jacob in the earlier eras of history).

    Most people don't realize that Luther preached it (even if he didn't practice it himself) as an appropriate behavior and practice.

  2. After watching the show "Big Love" on HBO, I can't think of any reason to have more than one wife. Just on a personal level, who would want to put up with the drama of having three women compete for time and resources in the same household? No thank you. I've got my hands full with just one.


  3. Plural marriage as depicted on Big Love is a far cry from historical reality. I suggest reading socuments from our early polygamists; they run the gammit from completely satisfied, to disgruntled wreck. By casting polygamy aside so quickly you ignore a very rich tapestry.

    I believe it was hypocritical of the US to forbid plural marriage. Unfortunately, the issue was tied up with the slavery debate. I recommend you read volume 4 of B.H. Roberts' Comprehensive History; he discusses the political motives behind the democratic opposition to plural marriage, one of the "twin relics of barbarism." Fascinating stuff; directly associated with statehood, the Utah War, and much of the early persecution against the Church.

    By the way, don't forget about all the accusations against Joseph in Nauvoo. John C. Bennett made a living selling his anti-Mormon polemic in writ and speech.

  4. Hmmmm... Is Justin trying to say something about me being a handful?

    As a Mormon woman, I have struggled a lot with polygamy. I often wish that the Church never practiced it. Certainly some of my "issues" with LDS teachings would ebb away if polygamy was erased from our history.

    But like you, I also believe that polygamists should have the right to marry. I don't see any legal reason as to why they shouldn't (as long as they are willing legal adults).

    My main concern would be how to create laws concerning polygamous marriage. How many wives (or husbands) is too many? What if two men want to marry three women? Where do we draw the line? Or should a line even be drawn?

    I'd be interested to hear more about the discussion you had on polygamy in your Family Law class.

  5. Actually, at least according to the NYTimes from a couple months ago, there's also a nontrivial population of polygamist Muslims in the U.S. (It being the NYTimes, it focused on those in the New York area, especially, iirc, the Bronx.) Of course, often the men pulled in a new bride from Africa, and then told their wives, who were generally not, let's say, thrilled. In spite of the liberty aspects, there are some abusive tendencies in polygamy which, while not an essential part of polygamy, seem to be tied in pretty frequently. While I'm not convinced that polygamy should be criminalized, I'm also not convinced that it should be legal.

  6. " In spite of the liberty aspects, there are some abusive tendencies in polygamy which, while not an essential part of polygamy, seem to be tied in pretty frequently."

    From what I've heard, these instances are no more common than in regular marriages.

    caroline: my wife has issues with it as well.

    I should say, if I unequivocally and immediately believed everything the Church has practiced, THEN I'd be worried, and would seek to re-examine my faith even moreso. The fact that I don't agree with God on every point off the bat is a positive thing: it shows we use our brains.

  7. I think it is very interesting that polygamy is so much on the rise among the evangelical right at the moment, when they have been some of the most stringent critics of Mormon polygamy and the ones who still tend to confuse the LDS and FLDS churches when ranting about it. (Sites such as christianpolygamy.info. site the "birth" of the new evangelical Christian polygamy movement as recently as 1994.)