FAIR is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Not Biblical
The Bible and plural marriage
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Was there no biblical mandate for plural marriage?
- Question: Does the Bible forbid plural marriage?
- Question: What are the "works of Abraham" and how does this relate to plural marriage?
- Gregory L. Smith, M.D., "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints"
With the authority of the Bible behind them, early Mormons argued for 'plural marriage,' and some Mormon fundamentalist sects continue to practice polygyny. They were and are right: if the Bible provides authoritative models, then a man should be allowed to have more than one wife, as did Abraham, Jacob, David, and other biblical heroes, with no hint of divine disapproval.
—Michael Coogan, God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says (New York, N.Y.: Twelve, 2010), 78–79.
Question: Was there no biblical mandate for plural marriage?
This claim is false; levirate marriage was mandated by the law of Moses
While sometimes forced to admit that some Old Testament figures practiced polygamy, some Christians insist that there was no biblical mandate or command to practice plural marriage.
Even if true, this claim is immaterial. God did not condemn the practice of plural marriage in the Bible. If it was everywhere and always forbidden, God could and would have done so. Early Christian authors understood this.
The practice of levirate marriage did not make any conditions on whether or not the brother-in-law was married
The details of this practice are outlined in Deuteronomy 25:5-6, which the Sadducees quote in asking the question to Jesus. The practice of levirate marriage did not make any conditions on whether or not the brother-in-law was married. There was a way for the brother-in-law to avoid this marriage, through a ceremony called halitza, which was a mark of shame on the brother-in-law for refusing to continue his brother's name, thus declaring that his brother was irrevocably dead. This secondary option however, has become much more relevant to the modern practice of Judaism than it was to ancient Israel. Additionally, the practice makes no distinction to whether or not the brother was already married. It is the only instance in the Old Testament where polygamy was mandated under certain circumstances. Finally, the widow with no children, upon the death of her husband, was automatically considered to be betrothed, or engaged, to the next brother in the family of her now-deceased husband.
This practice was changed somewhat in Talmudic law where we find more than a hundred clarifications and expansions on the practice. Among these was a shift towards the practice of halitza being preferable to levirate marriage. This became a ban that was established by religious law in modern Israel in 1957. Because of this, there was an interesting case reported in 1998 in the Spring Newsletter of the International Council of Jewish Women. It describes the unusual case of a married woman, living in Israel, who had a single daughter. In 1991, the family was involved in a serious automobile accident, and the daughter died immediately. The husband died hours later. According to Jewish law, the woman (who was childless at the time of her husband's death) was immediately placed in the role of the childless widow. Before she could remarry, she needed to go through the halitza ceremony with the only living brother of her late husband, who lived in Paris. This case was of significance because the brother-in-law refused to perform the ceremony. At first the Jewish courts simply ordered the brother-in-law to either perform the ceremony, or to pay the woman a thousand dollars a month for maintenance. He refused to do either. It took the woman six years to get the brother-in-law to perform the ceremony, and he also ended up paying her thousands of dollars as ordered by the religious courts.
This practice was not just a custom, but an integral part of the religious law at the time of Jesus
This practice was not just a custom, but an integral part of the religious law at the time of Jesus. While the above story happened only recently, ancient Israel was just as fervent in their keeping the Law of Moses, even in cases such as this. While a hypothetical situation was proposed to Jesus, it was a hypothetical situation that could actually happen, and the statements provided by the authors do not represent correctly this practice.
Question: Does the Bible forbid plural marriage?
The Bible does not forbid plural marriage
Some Christians claim that plural marriage has no Biblical precedents—they point to condemnation of King David and King Solomon as evidence that polygamy is always forbidden by God. Some claim that Abraham's polygamy "portrays his acceptance of plural marriage as a mark of disobedience to, and a lack of faith in, God." It is claimed that since the Bible didn't allow a man to marry two sisters, this proves that LDS plural marriage was "unbiblical" because some Mormons did so.
The Bible does not forbid plural marriage. In fact, many of the most noble Biblical figures (e.g., Abraham) had more than one wife. Furthermore, Biblical laws quoted by critics forbid kings from being led astray by plural spouses, or entering relationships not sanctioned by God's authority. However, the same Biblical laws provide guidelines for legitimate plural relationships.
It is true that David and Solomon were condemned for some of their marriage practices
This problem was mentioned in Deuteronomy:
15 Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother...17 Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away... (Deuteronomy 17:15,17
Only four chapters later, the Lord gives instructions on how to treat equitably plural wives and children
Critics ignore the fact that only four chapters later, the Lord gives instructions on how to treat equitably plural wives and children. (See Deuteronomy 21:15-17.) Why does He not simply forbid plural marriage, if that is the intent of chapter 17? Why does He instruct the Israelites on how to conduct themselves in plural households, if all such households are forbidden?
So, rather than opposing plural marriage, the command to kings is that they:
- not multiply wives to themselves (i.e., only those who hold proper priesthood keys may approve plural marriage—see 2 Samuel 12:8, Jacob 2:30, DC 132:38-39);
- that these wives not be those who turn his heart away from God (1 Kings 11:3-4);
- not take excessive numbers of wives (see Jacob 2:24).
David and Solomon are excellent examples of violating one or more of these Biblical principles, as described below.
David is well-known for his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah
David is well-known for his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah (see 2 Samuel 12:1-27. Nathan the prophet arrived to condemn David's behavior, and told the king:
7 ¶ And Nathan said to David...Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;
8 And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.
9 Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.
10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife. (2 Samuel 12:7-10)
Nathan here tells David that the Lord "gave thee...thy master's wives." And, the Lord says, through His prophet, that He would have given even more than He has already given of political power, wives, and wealth.
But, David sinned and did evil in the matter of Uriah. If plural marriage is always a sin to God, then why did Nathan not take the opportunity to condemn David for it now? Or, why did the prophet not come earlier?
Solomon's wives turned his heart away from the Lord, as Deuteronomy cautioned
Solomon's problem is described:
1 BUT king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites;
2 Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love...
7 Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon.
8 And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods. (1 Kings 11:1-8
Solomon's wives turned his heart away from the Lord, as Deuteronomy cautioned. Nothing is said against the plurality of wives, but merely of wives taken without authority that turn his heart away from the Lord.
Abraham and other Biblical examples demonstrate that plural marriage may, on occasion, be sanctioned
David and Solomon do not prove the critics' point, but in fact demonstrate that plural marriage may, on occasion, be sanctioned (as in David's case certainly).
But, we need not rely on these examples only to demonstrate that plural marriage was practiced by righteous followers of God in the Bible. Other cases include:
- Abraham married Hagar (Genesis 16:3), Keturah (Genesis 25:1) and other unnamed concubines (Genesis 25:6).
- Jacob (Genesis 29:21-30, Genesis 30:3-4, Genesis 30:9)
- Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21) and yet he is described as a righteous king of Judah who honored the Lord (2 Chronicles 13:8-12) and prosper in battle because of the Lord's blessing (2 Chronicles 13:16-18)
- Jehoiada, priest under king Joash had two wives (2 Chronicles 3:) and is described at his death as one who "had done good in Israel, both toward God and toward his house. [i.e. family]" (2 Chronicles 24:16).
and also possibly:
- Moses [married Zipporah (Exodus 2:22 and an "Ethiopian" (Cushite) woman Numbers 12:1 which may or may not be the same person. 
The Law of Moses provides rules governing Israelites who have plural wives
As noted above, Deuteronomy 21:15 provides rules governing Israelites who have plural wives. Further instructions are also given in Exodus 21:10. Why did God not ban plural marriage through Moses if it is always an immoral act?
The Law of Moses did not allow plural marriages to two sisters
Latter-day Saint plural marriage did not rely on biblical authority or interpretation (though they used biblical parallels to explain and understand the command which they believed they had received from God via a modern prophet.)
Marrying two sisters was quite frequent, possibly because sisters had already learned to get along together, which made for more harmonious plural families. One researcher noted:
Marriage to the wife's sister, defined as incest only by Anglican canon law, is the only form of polygamous marriage of the [potentially 'incestuous] categories...that occurs in significant numbers. 
The Saints did not claim to be restoring Mosaic plural marriage—they only used Moses' example as precedent for the fact that God could and had commanded plural marriage in the past. The specific structure, rules, and restrictions varied from time to time as guided by prophets.
Question: What are the "works of Abraham" and how does this relate to plural marriage?
The "works of Abraham" are fundamentally about obedience to God's laws, obedience to any commandment given, and willingness to sacrifice
D&C 132 tells Joseph and others to "do the works of Abraham." What are the "works of Abraham" and how does this relate to plural marriage?
The "works of Abraham" are fundamentally about obedience to God's laws, obedience to any commandment given, and willingness to sacrifice. For Joseph and the early Saints, a prominent part of such works was plural marriage, but this was (in a sense) incidental—the great work was obedience to covenant and law; plural marriage was simply their burden and trial.
It is often casually assumed that "the works of Abraham" refer mainly to plural marriage
It is often casually assumed that "the works of Abraham" refer mainly to plural marriage. A consideration of both the phrase's orgins, and its use in D&C 132, may suggest that a broader meaning is intended.
The phrase has its origins in the gospel of John. Jesus rebuked unrighteous Jews, saying:
...Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father (John 8:34-38).
Stung, the Jews replied, "Abraham is our father." Jesus answered:
If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham (John 8:39-40).
At its most basic level, "the works of Abraham" are to obey and serve God, and not be "the servant of sin"
Abraham plays a central role in D&C 132's justification of plural marriage
Yet, it is not simply as a polygamist that Abraham is appealed to:
29 Abraham received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word, saith the Lord, and hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne.
30 Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins—from whose loins ye are, namely, my servant Joseph—which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, out of the world they should continue; both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them.
31 This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself.
Abraham received blessings because of revelation and obedience to covenant and commandment
32 Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved.
33 But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham.
The works of Abraham, we remember, were obedience and service to God. Joseph and others were to "enter into [God's] law," which has been explained earlier in the section as the law of sealing as part of the new and everlasting covenant (DC 132:7; see here for a more extensive discussion of the new and everlasting covenant).
34 God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.
35 Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.
We must not confuse "the law" to which verse 34 refers with "the law" described in verse 7
We must not confuse "the law" to which verse 34 refers with "the law" described in verse 7: "The conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise...are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead."
"The law" which Sarah obeys or follows is later (v. 64-65) referred to as "the law of Sarah"—this law seems to imply that a man who will practice plural marriage must first give his wife the opportunity to approve and endorse the new wife. Thus, the rhetorical question and answer is not
- Q: Why did Sarah do this?
- A: Because plural marriage is "the law."
- Q: Why did Sarah give the wife to Abraham, when he could have simply, by his culture's rules, taken another wife himself?
- A: Because "the law" [of Sarah] requires a righteous man to give his wife a chance to approve, and not proceed unilaterally.
We here recall that this revelation was written to persuade Emma Smith to endorse plural marriage; this argument, then, is especially directed at her (see verses 51-56).
We note also that Abraham was not condemned because he was commanded and then acted
We note also that Abraham was not condemned—but not because plural marriage was "the law" and he practiced it, but because he was commanded and then acted. And, it was this fundamental obedience to any and every commandment that made Abraham great, as the next verse makes clear:
36 Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.
If taking a plural wife was "the law," which Abraham was bound by, then this analogy makes little sense—for it is surely not a law to murder. Indeed, the Lord acknowledges that the "default setting" for the law is not to kill. But, Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham took a plural wife not because it was the law, but because he was commanded (just as Joseph had been):
37 Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.
Abraham kept "the law"—the sealing power and conditions detailed earlier. He, Isaac, and Jacob were justified because they "did the works of Abraham"—they did "none other things than that which they were commanded."
The Lord returns to Abraham later in the section:
49 For I am the Lord thy God, and will be with thee even unto the end of the world, and through all eternity; for verily I seal upon you your exaltation, and prepare a throne for you in the kingdom of my Father, with Abraham your father.
50 Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.
The same themes recur—Joseph has been obedient, and thus will join Abraham. He has sacrificed (as with Isaac, notably, rather than as with Hagar) in obedience.
Gregory L. Smith, M.D., "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints"Gregory L. Smith, M.D., FairMormon Papers, (2005)
The criticism that polygamy is irreligious appeals to western sensibilities which favor monogamy, and argues that polygamy is inconsistent with biblical Christianity or (ironically) the Book of Mormon itself.
Even were there no such precedents, LDS theology has no problem accepting and implementing novel commandments, since the Saints believe in continuing revelation. I will not belabor the matter here, since ample resources are available.
This is a weak attack at best, and replies–devotional, apologetic, and scholarly–have been made to the claim. There is extensive, unequivocal evidence that polygamous relationships were condoned under various circumstances by biblical prophets, despite how uncomfortable this might make a modern Christian. Elder Orson Pratt was widely viewed as the victor in a three-day debate on this very point with Reverend John P. Newman, Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, in 1870.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 2:10. off-site
- Jessie L. Embry, "Ultimate Taboos: Incest and Mormon Polygamy," Journal of Mormon History 18/1 (Spring 1992): 93–113.
- B. Carmon Hardy's sourcebook on plural marriage is even given this title:B. Carmon Hardy (editor), Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its origin, practice and demise, Vol. 9 of Kingdom in the West Series: The Mormons and the American Frontier (series editor Will Bagley), (Norman, Oklahoma: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2007). ISBN 0870623443. ISBN 978-0870623448.
- See: Franklin D. Richards, Conference Report (April 1880), 94.; John Taylor, (8 April 1853) Journal of Discourses 1:226-227.; Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses 11:151-152.; Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses 13:158.; Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 21:238.; Franklin D. Richards, Journal of Discourses 24:282.; Franklin D. Richards, Journal of Discourses 24:337.; N[ewell] K. Whitney [et al.], "A Voice from the Temple," Times and Seasons 5 no. 22 (2 December 1844), 729. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- See: Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 1:60.; Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses 4:224.; Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses 4:259-260.; Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses 5:91.; Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:322-333.; George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses 13:198.; George Teasdale, Journal of Discourses 26:48.; Franklin D. Richards, Journal of Discourses 26:341.;