Evangelical Questions: The Husband of One Wife
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about polygamy. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
We are on Week 43 of this 52-week project. I’ve teased you a little about what will happen next year. I’m still not ready to spill the beans, but we had a planning meeting for it yesterday and I’m really encouraged.
Our jumping-off point is 1 Timothy 3:2:
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…
Before we start, let me set some expectations. This is not an apologetic for polygamy. This is not to pretend there are not hard issues with polygamy. If you yourself, Latter-day Saint friend, are struggling over the history of polygamy there are so many resources to help you. Let me just briefly touch on 3 of them. 1) The work of Brian Hales on this topic is the the very best source for learning the history here. His site JosephSmithsPolygamy.org should be your first stop if you’re wanting to see the most in-depth display of original documents as it relates to Joseph’s polygamy specifically. Brian and his then-wife Laura Harris Hales (now passed) created the site. Laura was amazing and kind. I gave my first formal talk for FAIR in 2020 and Laura was the speaker right before me. We had never met but she just sort of told me, “You and I are going to be friends because you need to know the things I can tell you.” Maybe not that blunt, but in essence, that’s what it was. Laura’s talk that year was on Helen Mar Kimball’s later-in-life reflections on polygamy. Helen was sealed to Joseph when she was 14, which gets really complicated for us today. But Helen’s own words, written after a lifetime of living polygamy, are the essence of what it means to embrace faith in the midst of something really messy. And if I had not already been completely swept off my feet over this church, I would have become so right then and there. My very favorite genre of speaking or writing is from the standpoint of, “You can maintain faith even if things are messy, even if you have doubts, even if you have questions. Those things in no way disqualify you from having a strong faith.” So, resource 1 is: check out Brian’s site (Brian is very much alive and well – just this last week he released a paper on Joseph Smith’s education called, “Joseph Smith’s Education and Intellect as Described in Documentary Sources.” Our friends at the Interpreter Foundation have it up on their website. It’s 8,000 words and over 120 footnotes. Brian’s site and Laura’s talk on HMK at the 2020 FAIR conference. 2) Second resource you should know about is the 2023 talk at FAIR by Don Bradley. Don is a proper historian and did the deep research for Brian and Laura’s work. And he has continued on in that work. Don’s talk at FAIR a couple months ago brings new information into play that changes the timeline of Joseph’s polygamy – which snaps several previously problematic ideas into place. It is well worth your time. 3) Finally Brittany Chapman Nash’s book, “Let’s Talk About Polygamy.” Brittany worked in the church history department for a long time, she was on the YW General Advisotry Board. She makes the topic very accessible and this is a very easy read. I think it’s less than 150 pages, in plain language, and it’s a great resource if you are struggling here. Ok, those are 3 great resources if you’re struggling in general with the topic as a Latter-day Saint. But what we are going to do today is different. We, as always, are going to talk about this topic as it comes up for Evangelicals.
So, before I was interested in the church, I knew some rough details about polygamy – mostly from movies or tv shows. I couldn’t have sketched out an overview of why it started or when. I just knew it was a thing, and supposedly wasn’t a thing anymore. But even that small amount of knowledge is more than a good percentage of Evangelicals have. As evidenced by this reality….Since joining the church I’ve received a handful of messages from friends about various tv shows that go something like this: “Hey, I’m watching such-and-such tv show about your church. There’s a lot going on there – you okay?” And they mean that with the kindest of intentions, they really do. They just don’t realize they’re watching a show about the members of a different group who practice polygamy, not our church. And I would say most Evangelicals have an understanding that is somewhere between what I knew and the knowledge that my friends displayed in their messages. So when they think about polygamy you need to know that their imaginations are populated by what they see on television and not by actual historical realities.
But even if you can explain all of that to them, and I think many (most?) Latter-day Saints could, you still have a problem…They interpret this verse in 1 Timothy to mean that all expressions of polygamy are bad for all places and all times. They get real squeamish explaining the polygamy of almost every prophet in the Old Testament and will usually say something like, “Yeah, they might have done that, but God didn’t like it or allow it – they just did it.” You can point out that 30% of the countries in the world still allow it today. They just…it’s usually been a hard no for them. But even that is changing.
In 2003 Gallop does a survey and finds 7% of adult Americans thought polygamy was morally acceptable – by 2020, 20% of adult Americans said it’s morally acceptable. And 35% of adults who consider themselves politically liberal say it is morally acceptable. This is sort of the spot where I walked in. I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly liberal, but I lived in a very liberal West Coast city for 25 years and that exposes you to a wide variety of people and lifestyles where the automatic response of most people is, “love is love.” So when I was investigating the church, that’s the cultural soup I was living in, so when the issue of polygamy came up my response was something like: Love who you want to love, why should I care? When the conversation came up with 2 women friends that are members of the church I was surprised. So surprised. I asked how they thought about the history of polygamy or the issue in general and they kind of fell all over themselves trying to tell me how bad they thought it was. They wanted to put lots and lots of distance between today and the 1800’s. I was confused. My liberal culture had taught me: You don’t get to have an opinion on how other people structure their marriages. Now, I get what they were doing – I was an investigator and they were trying not to freak me out – and I see the goodness in that. But I was far less worried about the issue than they were. As time went on, and I learned more, there were parts of the topic that I struggled with harder than others – I struggled with Joseph’s polyandry and if you struggle with that one too you must watch Don’s talk that I referenced earlier. But my initial reaction to the topic of polygamy was kind of, “So?” And I really haven’t moved too far from that. I understand the problems, I understand that the theological framework that supported polygamy is still found in places in our church. I listened to 100 episodes of a popular podcast talking about polygamy. And perhaps I’m not the typical example here, but what I’ve observed is that people inside the church are more touchy about this topic than people outside of it. So, all of that to say, you might be surprised that this conversation could go an entirely different way than you imagine. You, Latter-day Saint, might have far more complicated feelings about this than someone outside of our faith. You’re allowed to have complicated feelings here, and there is plenty of help for that, but Evangelicals don’t necessarily walk in with the same baggage.
And here is the other direction I want to go. I think sometimes we Latter-day Saints look at Protestants widely, and Evangelicals specifically as being a people who don’t have to grapple with history as hard as we do in our church. Since we’re talking about polygamy we’ll use that as the example. There are 2 reasons for this.
1) Evangelicals are perfectly aware of polygamy in the Old Testament. But, that was a very, very long time ago. Meanwhile, in our church, there are people alive today whose grandparents practiced polygamy. So stories about polygamy (and all of its challenges) are not just random stories about stuff that happened 3,000 years ago. Evangelicals have the luxury of not thinking about this topic very much because 3,000 years is a long time. And, to be honest, in general, they’re fairly unaware of the events that have happened in the interim. For example, Martin Luther, the great reformer and father of Protestantism, said, “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.” But even that was 500 years ago, so it just doesn’t feel as relevant for them.
2) Evangelicalism is very young as a faith community. Younger than ours. They really didn’t start gaining steam until post-WW2. And what was the cultural zeitgeist in post-WW2 America? Everything is modern and new. Everything is about the future. New is better than old. So they’ve culturally been able to tell their origin story that way. Think of the biggest Evangelical church in your town, I can almost guarantee you that their origin story is something like, “Well, Pastor So-and-So just wanted to study the Bible with some friends so they started a Bible study group in his living room. And pretty soon it grew into a church, and now here we are.” Well, that’s a pretty tidy history. But you understand that it’s an edited history. “Jesus did some stuff, died and rose again, then fast-forward 2000 years and we started this church.” And that’s the end of the history lesson. Because its culturally allowed (even expected) for the story to be told that way, they mostly just accept it, and no one asks harder questions based on history. They actually really do have it easier here than we do. But this is sort of the pay off on this topic and what I want you to hear….
Faith in messy. History is messy. People are messy. There was a time in our church’s history when a more sanitized version of history was being told – that happened for a lot of reasons, and it seems we’ve mostly moved past that mentality. And now we grapple with this stuff. And yes, some people leave over these issues. But have you met the people who know the depths of these issues and don’t leave? Don’t abandon their faith? People who can struggle through these issues, faith intact? If you’re watching this, I suspect there is at least some of that in you too. And you have no idea what a gift that is. A person who goes to a church whose origin story is Pastor Bill and his living-room Bible study, well they don’t develop the same skill in the same way. They don’t have to because the messier details are obscured from sight. My very favorite people in the world are people who model this for me – they want to know all the details of everything, and they still choose faith.
My point here is not even to prep you on how to talk about polygamy with outsiders. I don’t think that’s even a very interesting conversation, and a pretty large number of them won’t even care. But there’s a pretty easy pivot from that conversation to how one keeps faith alive while also acknowledging the messy. This is one of the gifts of our faith that you might not see, but in my opinion, helping other people build their faith by modeling how to wade through complex issues is one of the holiest things you can do in this world. I hope and aspire to be able to do that for other people, and I know you do too.
Okay, well, there you go. And seriously, if you are hurting or struggling over this issue please check out the resources I listed at the top of the show. Sometimes I’ve seen this cynical attitude from critics of the church that says, “Well, if you knew everything I knew, you’d leave too.” Which is just ridiculously untrue. And the folks in the sources I mentioned can really show you what its like to know all the details and still maintain faith.
Next week, “the priesthood of all believers” is up. That will be a great conversation. See you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.