How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
I continue to struggle with how to blog about Mormonism’s historical practice of plural marriage. On the one hand, it would suit my temperament and abilities best if I could simply tell the stories of individuals who lived in plural marriages; on the other hand, I have been deluged by private email from readers telling me that they hope I will address this or that aspect, or answer this or that question. Those hopes nearly always concern the whys and hows and whethers, and I don’t have stories at hand that readily answer those questions.
I’m not an expert on plural marriage. This is not a topic I’ve studied any more than most of you, although of course I have come across aspects of it in connection with history I have investigated more fully. I don’t even have a family tradition to fall back on: Although my family joined the Church in 1838, the peculiarities of late first marriages and few children means that the only polygamy in my family tree involved great-great-aunts about whom I know next to nothing, and no plural marriage in my direct line.
So I’m going to tackle the topic one bite at a time, without pretending to be comprehensive. As I become reasonably sure of one small point worth writing about, I’ll share that. I have no master plan on what will be covered or when.
Bite 1: Mormon plural marriage was a priesthood ordinance. It was not merely the claiming of two or more simultaneously living wives.
Our understanding of plural marriage (celestial marriage) is derived from the 1843 recording of a revelation to Joseph Smith preserved as Doctrine and Covenants 132. Everything in this revelation concerns covenants with God, sealings by the Holy Spirit of Promise, priesthood authority, eternity, heavenly keys and powers. It is not in the least concerned with man-made governments, civil authority, secular legalities, or worldly practices and personal whims.
Recognition of this key principle clarifies many aspects of Mormon practice. In no particular order:
1. The 19th century Church (and, actually, today’s Church too, although the point is moot now) felt no need to obey marriage laws imposed on Utah and surrounding territories by Congress. Plural/celestial marriage was not subject to secular law – the laws of man had no authority to control or modify or suppress the laws of God.
2. Plural marriages were always supposed to be performed as priesthood sealings (they were temple covenants, although they may have been performed by necessity outside of as-yet-unbuilt temples, such as in the Endowment House, in Brigham Young’s or the Church Historian’s offices, in rooms in outlying settlements designated for the purpose, even in the outdoors). Regardless of their location, they were to be performed by men holding the sealing authority. No county clerk or federal judge could perform a plural marriage by virtue of his civil office. Your bishop could not marry you to a plural wife, even though he may have performed the ceremony marrying you to your first wife. (That first civil marriage had to be sealed by priesthood authority later to be an eternal, celestial marriage; the second, third, etc., marriages had to be originally performed by priesthood authority to be valid plural marriages.)
There were abuses to this principle, admittedly. Brigham Young’s son John W. married his wife Elizabeth Canfield in Philadelphia, by civil authority, even though he had two wives then living in Utah – that was not plural marriage as envisioned by Mormon doctrine; that was garden variety bigamy (trigamy?). Missionaries were instructed not to marry on their missions, not only because their attention should be devoted to the cause for which they were called, but also because they did not usually have access to authorized priesthood authority to perform such marriages – yet many families tell stories about a returning missionary surprising the folks at home with a new wife. But such alliances were not celestial marriages until and unless they were later conducted by proper authority.
3. Because plural marriage was a priesthood ordinance, men were supposed to have their worthiness approved by proper authority. Again, there were admittedly abuses where this step was omitted. Also, it is important to note that the procedure for obtaining permission varied over time – as with just about every other divine principle, church leaders endeavored to find efficient and effective procedures and policies and programs to implement the principle, and those procedures varied. Brigham Young’s papers contain many letters from bishops recommending that so-and-so be granted approval to take a plural wife, or letters from men themselves asking for that privilege; his outgoing correspondence contains both approvals and rejections of such petitions. At other times and places (Canada, Mexico, perhaps throughout the Mormon Corridor), apostles had the right to give such authorization. Just as no one today should perform a baptism without permission of the presiding authority of his ward/stake/district/mission as the case may be, no one in the 19th century had the right to perform a plural marriage without authorization according to whatever procedure was in place at the time.
4. By virtue of his standing as President of the Church, as well as his appointment as prophet, seer and revelator, the living church president has/had the keys to the priesthood ordinance of celestial/plural marriage, just as with keys to baptism and every other priesthood ordinance. The apostles in each generation have also held those keys in a latent form – all keys are conferred upon these men as part of their apostolic charge, but they are not authorized to exercise those keys as long as there is a living President. Brigham Young was the authorized successor to Joseph Smith and held those keys; John Taylor was the authorized successor to Brigham Young and held those keys; Wilford Woodruff was the authorized successor to John Taylor and held those keys; and on down to the present day.
This means that in 1890, Wilford Woodruff had every right to exercise his divine mandate as the authorized holder of the key to celestial marriage. When he announced the Manifesto, he turned that key. When Joseph F. Smith, then the current holder of the keys, announced the Second Manifesto, he turned that key. (The period in between is, I admit, a sticky situation for which we do not have full information – I won’t speculate on the validity of any particular marriage performed during that time, or to what extent any President may have authorized any particular marriage.) The important point for me is that the man holding the keys cut off the general authorization to enter plural marriage, and no one today has the right to perform or enter that priesthood ordinance in violation of the instructions of the Church President.
That is why it doesn’t matter to me one iota that the Manifesto appears as more a press release than a revelation. I don’t need the actual recorded words of any revelation in a case like this – President Woodruff had the authority to permit or deny the practice of plural marriage.
This is also why I have no hesitation about denying the validity of plural marriage today by those who claim their predecessors received a secret mandate from John Taylor to keep the principle alive in the world. Assuming for the sake of argument that he did give such secret instructions and authority to someone, that authorization ended at John Taylor’s death and Wilford Woodruff’s ordination, when the latent keys to that ordinance were quickened in Wilford Woodruff. John Taylor had no power to confer keys greater than those he himself held (say, a theoretical key to plural marriage that superseded the keys of the living Church President), and every key John Taylor held as Church President passed to Wilford Woodruff. At that point, no man on earth held any authority greater than that held by Wilford Woodruff.
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