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.
Question: Is polygamy sexist?
Question: Is polygamy sexist?
Introduction to Question
It is claimed that the historical practice of polygamy as well as contemporary theology about polygamy and its possible extension into the eternities by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is sexist. This has been most passionately argued by Latter-day Saint poet Carol Lynn Pearson in her book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men.
The observation that allegedly grounds this assertion is that polygamy fragments women's emotional and sexual opportunities as a wife. As Brian C. Hales has argued:
In the case of a new plural wife who would have remained unmarried if monogamy was exclusively practiced, her “emotional and sexual opportunities as a wife” are increased from zero to some fraction depending on how many other wives the man has. However, the other wives’ opportunities are diminished as a result of the new plural matrimony.
Do these assertions hold? This article will present at least one argument that they do not.
Response to Question
A Definition of Sexism
It will be most important to define our terms carefully and rigorously so as to have a good discussion of polygamy. FAIR has authored an article on sexism that may be illuminating for readers and which we encourage people to look at before proceeding.
The Higher Moral?
With that definition of sexism in mind, let's revisit a key scripture about plural marriage that we may have heard before in Jacob 2:27-30:
- 27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;
- 28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.
- 29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.
- 30 For 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.
We see here that polygamy is the exception where as monogamy is the rule. When polygamy is commanded, part of the reason will be that the Lord wants to raise up seed unto him. Could it be that the commandment given to Joseph Smith to practice polygamy in 1831 and instituted throughout the course of his prophetic career contains a moral good that supersedes a woman's want to have the exact same sexual opportunities as a man? Let's think about it: if the Lord wanted to raise up a covenant seed rapidly to himself, he would have to command polygyny (multiple women to one man) for the simple biological reality that a woman can be impregnated by no more than one man. It is the fastest way, and indeed the only way, to raise up a covenant seed rapidly.
Hales' argument above relies on a definition of sexism most similar to DS3 (see the article for explanation). Given DS3, polygamy would indeed be sexist. But given DS4, that's not the case.
Given that the higher moral law would be to practice polygamy, it would actually be immoral of women to be reluctant to practice it here on earth. Given DS4, the logic of Pearson and Hales is flipped on its head. It's not immoral to practice polygamy. It's immoral not to practice polygamy when commanded by God for a higher moral purpose. God declared that there were other purposes for polygamy. These are outlined in this article:
The question now would be to rigorously defend raising up a covenant seed and other scripturally grounded principles outlined in that article as a higher moral good that supersedes women's wants, needs, and even merits because it's simply not possible to give women the same access to sexual opportunities given this moral good that prior Latter-day Saints were following. We actually do know that polygamy increased the relative population of Utah broadly and the amount of Latter-day Saints born into the covenant so we have a start. We should trust that God esteems all his children equally and wouldn't give a commandment that superseded their wants, needs, and/or merits unless he had good moral and/or practical reason to. God reminds us that "[his] thoughts are not [our] thoughts, neither are [our] ways [his] ways...For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [his] ways higher than [our] ways, and [his] thoughts than [our] thoughts."
But What About Eternal Polygamy?
Now, the article on sexism and the analysis presented here really only applies to the practice of mortal polygamy or the type of polygamy practiced by the Church from the early 1800s to the very early 1900s. It does not, however, apply as neatly to the question of polygamy in the eternities. Brian Hales, however, offered perspective on this with which the author agrees and believes that others can agree with too.
Not only is polygamy here in mortality very difficult to practice, an associated fear involves the possibility of eternal plural marriage, which from our current view might be considered eternal unfairness. I have a daughter who has harbored the anxiety that if she dies before her husband (to whom she is sealed) passes away, he might remarry in the temple and she would become an eternal polygamist without her choosing. Here’s a few thoughts on the subject:
- We know almost nothing about eternal marriage and even less about eternal plural marriage.
- Worrying about eternal polygamy is worrying about the unknown.
- Exalted beings are promised a “fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33) and “eternal happiness” (Alma 3:26). [The author would add Romans 8:28 to this reading list]
- Worthy Latter-day Saints can trust these promises. [see, for instance 1 Nephi 9:6]
And there may be more to think about. President Joseph F. Smith taught in 1915: “If a man and woman should be joined together who are incompatible to each other it would be a mercy to them to be separated that they might have a chance to find other spirits that will be congenial to them. We may bind on earth and it will be bound in Heaven, and loose on earth and it will be loosed in Heaven.” This counsel seems to apply to a couple in the early stages of marriage. It also acknowledges that righteous men and women have agency even after a sealing has been performed. In other words:
Section 132 speaks of eternal things that are difficult to understand and that are easy to misunderstand. The first third of the revelation talks of the power to seal families eternally together. This seems to be Joseph Smith’s zenith teaching.
- D&C 132:19–20 promises exaltation and godhood to a monogamous couple who live worthily and are sealed by the priesthood authority of the “one” man holding the sealing keys (vv. 7, 18).
- The power to seal is also the power to loosen.
- Lucy Walker remembered Joseph Smith’s teaching: “A woman would have her choice, this was a privilege that could not be denied her.”
- We are taught that vicarious (and living) ordinances will continue during the millennium when communication between worthy mortals and righteous spirits will be enhanced.
- Agency and righteousness will allow all worthy beings to be sealed in joyful eternal marriages that they have chosen, even if some loosening and resealing ordinances need to be performed.
Thus, whatever the eternities look like, we can be assured that we'll see an outcome that we all desire. That would necessarily mean that sexism has not interfered and God is "no respecter of persons".
It is the author's hope that this article will serve as a important insight into the moral thinking of men and women everywhere whether in or out of the Church and/or applying knowledge of sexism to the Church and its doctrine, practice, and history. Further philosophical work on this question may reveal additional, important insights into it.
- Carol Lynn Pearson, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men (Walnut Creek, CA: Pivot Point Books, 2016). For reviews that expose the weaknesses of Pearson’s position and approach, see Allen Wyatt, “Scary Ghost Stories in the Light of Day,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 23 (2017): 137–160; Brian C. Hales, “Opportunity Lost,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 23 (2017): 91–109.
- Hales, "Opportunity Lost," 97n4. Hales has repeatedly made this assertion in his publications. See another instance in Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales, "Lending Clarity to Confusion: A Response to Kirk Van Allen’s 'D&C 132: A Revelation of Men, Not God'," FairMormon Papers and Reviews 1 (2015): 4
- "Polygamy and Population Growth," Mormonr, accessed June 8, 2022, https://mormonr.org/qnas/fX8STb/polygamy_and_population_growth.
- Isaiah 55:8-9
- James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965), 4:330–31.
- Lucy Walker Kimball, “A Brief Biographical Sketch of the Life and Labors of Lucy Walker Kimball Smith,” CHL; quoted in Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints: Giving an Account of Much Individual Suffering Endured for Religious Conscience (Logan, UT: Utah Journal Co., 1888), 46. The context was plural marriage, but the principle would seem to equally apply to monogamy.
- Brian C. Hales, "What Do We Do with Section 132?" FAIR Blog, November 10, 2021, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/blog/2021/11/10/come-follow-me-week-46-doctrine-and-covenants-129-132-additional-post.
- Acts 10:34