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Dr. Greg L Smith practices medicine near his home in Canada. Aside from medicine, Brother Smith studies the history and doctrine of polygamy. If you have questions, Greg Smith has answers.
RiseUp is a podcast for young adults in Seminary and Institute who are looking for answers to difficult or critical questions about the LDS (Mormon) Church, and the courage to share those answers with others.
First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share with us your tremendous knowledge about this very interesting topic. I just wonder why you didn’t mention the most important reason for plural marriage, the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage as described in section 132 of D&C. Also, the Law of Adoption as it was practised back in those days was the doctrinal explanation for entering into a plural marriage. Thank you once again and all the best.
I gave Greg a 15-20 minute window to answer critical questions about Polygamy, especially those question that in his experience, are the most common questions. The topic of polygamy is quite an in depth subject to tackle in that amount of time, and so some of the points that could be made just simply didn’t have the space to do so in the time allotted. I will take responsibility for those things not being addressed in this episode. However, we will have others to come on and discuss similar issues in the future, and I will keep that in mind going forward. Thank you for your feedback.
Thank you Nick for your prompt reply and for a great program. I agree with you that Polygamy is a very comprehensive subject. I appreciate people who are willing to spend their time to provide answers to people who wants to know the truth about mormonism and the prophet Joseph Smith.
I hit a wall with polygamy recently when reading the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg on this topic. I am trying to reconcile his explanation of heavenly marriage, being the union of one man and one wife, thereby becoming as a single angel and symbolising the marriage of good with truth, with the view taught by Joseph Smith and his successors. It’ possible Swedenborg was not shown this in the heavenly realms he visited and the angels he met may have been in a society that was excluded from this knowledge. After all, at some stage the Gods have to precreate spirits to start the process of creation. Any further thoughts on this from others who have studied Swedenborg would be appreciated.
Very good information! But how did you get the number of “as many as” 15-20% practiced polygamy? Seems high. I found the following in my research:
“The men living in polygamy in 1890 were therefore 1.4 percent of the total Church population. (Proceedings before the Committee on Privileges and Elections of the United States Senate in the batter of the Protests Against the Right of Reed Smoot, a Senator from the State of Utah, to hold his seat, Vol. 1, pp. 38, 320-324). The Utah Commission, though distinctly unfriendly to the Church in its presentation and using only population estimates, practically confirms the above percentage for 1880. (Report for 1887, pp. 11, 12.) Probably, the reliable records for 1890 represent the general conditions in the years that polygamy was practiced” (John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era], 390.)
“In October 1899 only 1543 polygamous families were still in existence-so few that the Tribune could argue with inverted logic that Roberts could not properly represent Utah since only 2 percent of the state was involved in polygamy. At the time of the Manifesto there had been 2,451 polygamous families within the United States, so the figures indicate a decrease of 37 percent in nine years. ” (Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980], .)
Greg Smith says
Thanks for your kind remarks and questions.
I didn’t get into the New and Everlasting Covenant of marriage partly because it’s complex, and partly because the connection is not entirely clear.
Early members thought of Polygamy and the New and Everlasting Covenant of marriage in the same breath, for at least two reasons:
a) Most were introduced to both ideas together, in a context where plural marriage was both encouraged, and focused on by critics outside the Church; and
b) the D&C 132 revelation mentions both together.
The tricky bit is that its now thought that the D&C 132 revelation may in fact me an amalgamation of answers/revelations given to Joseph on multiple occasions. So, “the new and everlasting covenant” is not the same thing as plural marriage (this view became more prominent after the cessation of plural marriage, as these texts were re-read with a different perspective).
There was some early mention of eternal marriage without the context of plural marriage (e.g., WW Phelps’ letters to his wife in 1835 if memory serves). So, you don’t need polygamy to have eternal marriage (we certainly teach it that way today).
And, its hard to see how plural marriage was necessary to teach the doctrine of eternal marriage–if anything, associating polygamy with it might have made people less likely to accept it.
Anyway, all that to say that it’s something of a complex issue. You’re certainly right that it’s part of the picture, but I’m not personally entirely certain how it all fits together. So, my list of “Why plural marriage” suggestions was more intended to suggest “benefits” or reasons why its practice was perhaps commanded at one time, even though it is (happily, in my view!) not something we’re called on to do today.
Hopefully that explains my omission. 🙂
Greg Smith says
But how did you get the number of “as many as” 15-20% practiced polygamy? Seems high.
The “around 2% figure” was often used by the Church’s authors in the late 1800s when persecution from the federal government was intense.
It was arrived at by taking the number of MEN who were polygamists, and dividing it by the total number of members. (The rationale was that only the men were practicing plural marriage, since the women only had one husband each! :->)
The intent was to minimize the figures, I think, and encourage the federal government to “leave them alone.”
But, using that kind of statistical analysis probably isn’t the best way to truly characterize how many people were involved.
If you look at active members of the Church, (excluding inactive men) “over a third of all husbands’ time, nearly three-quarters of all women-years, and well over half of all child-years were spent in polygamy before 1880.” [Larry Logue, “A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town,” Journal of Mormon History” 11 (1984): 25; cited by B. Carmon Hardy, ”Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise” (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2007), 143–44.]
And you can see the Church’s new “gospel topics” section on this issue here:
Still, some patterns are discernible, and they correct some myths. Although some leaders had large polygamous families, two-thirds of polygamist men had only two wives at a time. Church leaders recognized that plural marriages could be particularly difficult for women. Divorce was therefore available to women who were unhappy in their marriages; remarriage was also readily available. Women did marry at fairly young ages in the first decade of Utah settlement (age 16 or 17 or, infrequently, younger), which was typical of women living in frontier areas at the time. As in other places, women married at older ages as the society matured. Almost all women married, and so did a large percentage of men. In fact, it appears that a larger percentage of men in Utah married than elsewhere in the United States at the time. Probably half of those living in Utah Territory in 1857 experienced life in a polygamous family as a husband, wife, or child at some time during their lives. By 1870, 25 to 30 percent of the population lived in polygamous households, and it appears that the percentage continued to decrease over the next 20 years.
“Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” Gospel Topics (lds.org), (2013)
So, as always with statistics, it depends what you’re trying to illustrate, and what assumptions you begin to the question. The “2%” figure (one sometimes reads 5%) has often been repeated by people reading older materials, without realizing where those numbers came from, what they represented, and what the pressures upon them at the time were.
They aren’t the best way to understand its extent, though, so we tend to use the better figures nowadays.