Mormons and Modern-day Polygamy

January 24, 2012  
Filed under Uncategorized

The recent PEW study released on Mormons in America has added to the discussion in the media about Mormon beliefs. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is commonly referred to as the “Mormon Church” by those of other faiths, is still plagued by misconceptions which run rampant in the media and in society.

mormon-polygamyOne of the most prevalent topics of discussion by critics of The Church of Jesus Christ is that of polygamy. Mormon polygamy was a reality for several decades in the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith, the first latter-day Mormon prophet, received revelation from God to re-institute the practice of one man having more than one wife. Many theories about why the institution existed have been put forward by different people, both in and outside of the Church, but the truth is there is nothing in Mormon historical records which show that the Lord gave any reason. For faithful Latter-day Saints, what it boils down to is that God gave a commandment and it was to be obeyed.

Very few of the Saints ever practiced polygamy. It was generally viewed as something people did not want to participate in. No one was ever forced to live this commandment and even the women who did choose to participate had the option of divorce if they found themselves unhappy in the situation. When the early Saints began to practice polygamy, it was not clearly illegal. This quickly changed, however, when opponents of the practice took up the cause and the U.S. Congress eventually passed acts clarifying that the practice was now illegal anywhere in the country. Joseph Smith and the other Saints felt that what they considered as a religious act was protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Over decades, societal pressure became so great that Church leaders who were following what they believed to be a commandment from God were forced into hiding. Eventually, Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church, received another revelation from God. In this revelation, God told Woodruff that if Church members continued to practice polygamy, the government would disenfranchise them and destroy all they had built. God withdrew the commandment for His Saints to practice polygamy at that time. In a declaration which Woodruff issued in 1890, which came to be called the Manifesto, the practice ceased. Those who had previously entered into polygamous marriages continued in them, supporting their wives and children. However, no more polygamous marriages were sanctioned by the Church after that time. Those who continue the practice today are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though some refer to themselves as “Mormons” they are fundamentalists.

The PEW study states that among the people it studied, many found polygamy to be morally wrong. At least, this is how the PEW study stated their findings. Taken out of context, it is hard to define what this means—if the participants said this, or if this is how PEW interpreted what the participants said. If this is what the participants meant, then this shows that the negative portrayal of fundamentalists practicing polygamy today has had a profound influence upon current members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon doctrine clearly states that the original practice of polygamy was under a direct command from God. This means that doctrinally it is not considered morally wrong. When God withdrew the command to live polygamy, that did not mean something about the practice had suddenly become evil. It merely meant that God did not find it prudent at that time for His Saints to practice it any more.

This may seem capricious and even contradictory, when Latter-day Saints believe in the scriptures which say that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. They continue to believe that. However, men do change; radically and frequently. What might be prudent for one generation of mankind may not be prudent for another. The omniscient God knows what is best for His children and gives them commandments accordingly.

The practice of polygamy is not morally wrong. It may go against everything we have been raised to think, but that is largely a societal influence. Christians who today believe in the Bible easily look over the practice of polygamy in the Old Testament. Just because it was practiced anciently does not mean it is savage and barbaric. God led His people then just as He does now. That does not make His commandments easy to live. God is the sure standard, and what He says is right is right, and what He says is wrong is wrong when He says it is.

Accepting that polygamy has been a commandment of God for His people in the past and that it is not presently, is a trial of faith.

Additional Resources:

Jesus Christ in Mormonism

Mormon Families

Mormon Polygamy

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