Plural marriage in early Christianity

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Doctrinal foundation of plural marriage
Introduction of plural marriage
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End of plural marriage

How did early Christians view plural marriage?

The perspectives of early Christians demonstrates the plural marriage was not the absolutely forbidden idea that some modern sectarians might wish it to be

Critics point to New Testament scriptures such as 1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 3:12; Titus 1:6 to argue that the early Christian Church was opposed to any plural marriages. The Latter-day Saints do not take their doctrine from ancient Christian writers, but from canonized scriptures and the living prophets. However, the perspectives of early Christians demonstrates the plural marriage was not the absolutely forbidden idea that some modern sectarians might wish it to be.


The listed scriptures do indeed include Paul's instructions to some leaders to be both married and potentially monogamous. The Greek in the New Testament is not as definitive as the critics might wish. The text can "be read as excluding (a) the single, (b) the polygamous, (c) the divorced, [or] (d) those remarried after being widowed. The words can also convey the connotation 'devoted solely to his wife.'"[1] One's attitude toward polygamy will probably influence the interpretation one chooses—but we must not lose sight of the fact that it is an interpretation.

In any case, Latter-day Saints agree that the 'standard' instruction to all believers is monogamy—exceptions can only be commanded by God through His prophet (see Jacob 2꞉30).

However, critics go too far when they conclude that early Christians believed in an absolute prohibition on plural marriages.


As I think, moreover, each pronouncement and arrangement is (the act) of one and the same God; who did then indeed, in the beginning, send forth a sowing of the race by an indulgent laxity granted to the reins of connubial alliances, until the world should be replenished, until the material of the new discipline should attain to forwardness: now, however, at the extreme boundaries of the times, has checked (the command) which He had sent out, and recalled the indulgence which He had granted; not without a reasonable ground for the extension (of that indulgence) in the beginning, and the limitation of it in the end.[2]

Tertullian's perspective is strikingly similar to Jacob 2꞉30, in which monogamy is the norm, but God may command exceptions to "raise up seed."

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr argued that David's sin was only in the matter of Uriah's wife, and echoed a common early Christian idea that marriage was a "mystery," or sacred rite of the type which Latter-day Saints associate with temple worship:

And this one fall of David, in the matter of Uriah's wife, proves, sirs," I said, "that the patriarchs had many wives, not to commit fornication, but that a certain dispensation and all mysteries might be accomplished by them; since, if it were allowable to take any wife, or as many wives as one chooses, and how he chooses, which the men of your nation do over all the earth, wherever they sojourn, or wherever they have been sent, taking women under the name of marriage, much more would David have been permitted to do this.[3]

Justin saw the patriarchs' marriages not as corruptions or something which God 'winked at,' but acts with significant ritual and religious power.


Even Augustine, a towering figure in Christian theology, held that polygamy was not something that was a crime before God, but rather a matter that depended more upon cultural biases:

Again, Jacob the son of Isaac is charged with having committed a great crime because he had four wives. But here there is no ground for a criminal accusation: for a plurality of wives was no crime when it was the custom; and it is a crime now, because it is no longer the custom. There are sins against nature, and sins against custom, and sins against the laws. In which, then, of these senses did Jacob sin in having a plurality of wives? As regards nature, he used the women not for sensual gratification, but for the procreation of children. For custom, this was the common practice at that time in those countries. And for the laws, no prohibition existed. The only reason of its being a crime now to do this, is because custom and the [secular] laws forbid it.[4]


  1. Kevin L. Barney (editor), Footnotes to the New Testament for Latter-day Saints: Vol. 2, The Epistles and Revelation (2007), 240a. Buy off-site
  2. Tertullian, "Exhortation to Chastity," in 6 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)6:53–54. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  3. Justin Martyr, "Dialogue With Trypho," in 141 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:270. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  4. Augustine, "Reply to Faustus 22:47," in Philip Schaff (editor), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series 1 (Augustine and Chrysostome) (Vol. 1–14) (New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886–1889), 4:288. off-site