Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Plural Marriage: Bite 1

Plural Marriage: Bite 1

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 08, 2012

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.

Reminder to commenters: Keepapitchinin is a blog aimed at believing members of the Church. No comment will be posted that advocates actions or teachings contrary to those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (to the best of my understanding, at least; obviously the Church is not responsible for any misunderstanding on my part), and all discussion must follow Keepa’s general comment policy.



  1. What are your thoughts about the reaction some members had to the Manifesto as a sort of coded message to continue polygamous marriages while officially denying the practice? Most of my understanding of the that comes from Kathleen Flake and Daymon Smith’s dissertation on Correlation, but it seems like the idea of the Manifesto as a revelation is more of a modern gloss that’s harder to justify historically — at least if you think of revelation in an unambiguous “thus saith the Lord” sort of way. So I guess it’s a bigger question of what it means to “turn the key” and whether there’s a settled process by which that happens. It seems to me there really isn’t, though there have been moments like the priesthood/temple ban reversal where “keys” were more obviously turned.

    Comment by Casey — June 8, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

  2. Casey, regardless of the topic, I don’t think we need a published, public revelation to authorize the turn of a key. It’s also one of those things we’re asked to sustain, and on which we’re entitled to seek spiritual confirmation, but the one who holds a key doesn’t have to seek our permission to turn it, either. So it doesn’t matter what the nature of Wilford Woodruff’s motivation, whether it was a full blown word-for-word dictation of the will of the Lord (your “thus saith the Lord” version), or a quiet prompting, or anything in between. If you had/have confidence in Wilford Woodruff’s standing as a prophet, then you had/have confidence in his use (full, limited, or not at all) of the powers to which he held the keys. And I think the same confirmation is available to us all these years later, if we need to seek it.

    Short answer: It doesn’t need to be justified historically; it needs to be justified spiritually.

    As for my thoughts on “coded messages,” that’s a good topic for another “bite” at a later time.

    Thanks for starting the conversation.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 8, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  3. P.S. — Just because I don’t think WW’s turning of the key needs to be justified historically, that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a wonderful topic for scholarly study, or that we shouldn’t be interested in ferreting out as much as we can. I mean only that the existence or validity or meaning of revelation isn’t proven by historical study, and from my point of view there isn’t a whole lot of value of trying to impose a set of legalistic “rules” on when a president can or should turn a key.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 8, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

  4. One of the hardest things to put into context for most of us who are personally unfamiliar with polygamy is how people from that era would have viewed marriage, particularly polygamous ones. We only have our own culture’s view of marriage to go on. Even as Latter-day Saints who still think of the sealing as a priesthood ordinance, there is quite a bit of culture context that colors the view of “what marriage is all about”.

    This discussion is a good place to start and certainly this is the kind of context that would (hopefully) be revealed in the individual stories.

    Comment by Dustin — June 8, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

  5. Thanks, Dustin, I hope so. I think you’re right. And even approaching it in small pieces, I expect as I find or as readers teach me more of that context, some of these early “bites” may need to be corrected or expanded or in other ways modified by the later ones.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 8, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

  6. I agree, but I think concepts like “spiritual justification” are tough to define meaningfully, whether you’re talking about GAs who kept performing plural marriages after the Manifesto or someone today who marries a bad apple despite receiving a confirmation that it was right! But you’re right that revelation shouldn’t be defined legalistically. In a sense, it’s sometimes easier to see historically: it’s clear, with hindsight, that the Manifesto was the beginning of the end of polygamy, and perhaps easier to call it revelation now than when it was presented. I wish I knew better how members reacted at the time — what was the nature of their spiritual witness or confirmation?

    I also can’t help mentioning the priesthood ban again: it began in a halting, nebulous, and hard-to-verify process, and ended with an unambiguous FIrst Presidency declaration. Both have been represented as revelations from the Lord, so there’s obviously a lot of leeway in the process, but I’m not sure where to locate it, especially when you factor in personal revelation. So yeah, I don’t mean to hijack the discussion, but appealing to revelation is about as tricky as it is necessary. I suppose one of our purposes is to learn when the spirit is communicating with us and then depend on that witness to tell us when we’re doing things right, like some kind of holy tautology :)

    Comment by Casey — June 8, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

  7. I never have clever, witty, or scholarly things to comment on your posts, but I wanted to let you know I learned from your article. I had no idea that plural marriages were a temple ordinance and only to be sealed in the temple (or where authorized) . I just assumed any bishop or whoever could marry them. I knew that sometimes permission was sought or offered, but thanks for the lesson today!

    Comment by Tiffany — June 8, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

  8. I like the comparison to the end of the priesthood ban. I think there may also be an interesting comparison with the start of the priesthood ban, which was even more halting, nebulous, and hard to verify. I do not recall where, but I have heard a speculation that the origin ban might have been intended as a temporary and expedient policy to suspend the ordination of blacks back when it was causing a lot of conflict with our Missouri neighbors — a ban which might even have been inspired at that time and under those circumstances — and somehow this hardened into a permanent ban long after it no longer served the original purpose. Which still doesn’t answer why the Lord did not choose to end it until 1978.

    Comment by Vader — June 8, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

  9. Casey, I think I’ll be able to present stories of people that include their reactions to the Manifesto — I know there was a range of reactions, and that passing years was a factor, so that will be a good aspect to explore. I think I’ll wander into waters too deep for me at the moment if I try, off the top of my head, to discuss the priesthood restriction at the same time as I’m trying to share ideas about plural marriage, but the ideas expressed by Casey and Vader are worth exploring. There may be some historical clarifications that should be made — I think that, according to the latest scholarship to which I am privy, which in a few aspects is extremely recent and authoritative, that your facts, Vader, may need some revision — while race did of course play a role in our Missouri experience, there does not appear to have been any whiff of doctrinal exploration of priesthood restriction by Joseph Smith. I do, though, heartily endorse your recognition that the restriction developed and hardened over time, and that we can’t point to a single moment in the 19th century and say “There! that’s the point where the ban was universally and unequivocally revealed or put into effect.”

    Tiffany, your comment makes the struggle to blog about this worthwhile. I will do my best to be accurate and helpful, even though this is not my historical strong suit. Not by a mile. Nor is it at all comfortable for me!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 8, 2012 @ 4:37 pm

  10. Ardis, thanks for your comments. When I hear an intriguing new historical theory, it’s nice to be able to subject it to a basic sniff test, and you are better equipped than I for this area of history.

    Comment by Vader — June 8, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

  11. 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. The last verse says more will be revealed but I don’t know whether the Lord was referring to eternal marriage or plural marriage. I wish the next three or four prophets had received sufficient revelation to merit another section in the D & C. We might have all benefited from additional revelation on plural marriage.

    Comment by IDIAT — June 8, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

  12. Ardis, If you were a guy I would have to say “you da man”. Thoughtful, careful, and perfect for the way you placed your setting for the first bite. Well done, I have been waiting so long for this I thought you might of forgotten. Bring on the next Bite!

    Comment by Jim B — June 8, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

  13. This is an ambitious post, Ardis, and by the comments, demonstrably important.

    From a theological perspective, there is one other revelation that antecedes section 132. The previous year, JS received a revelation in regards to polygamy for N.K. Whitney that is to me very enlightening.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 9, 2012 @ 6:46 am

  14. Love it! I am wondering what to say when people say that we don’t practice it yet we do believe in it as per some recent leaders and others marrying second wives in the Temple-were Elder Oaks, Nelson and other’s time only marriages? what about God honoring those second marriages in the next life? I don’t know what to say. We don’t practice it in the sense that not everyone has this opportunity but we do in the sense that men have second wives possibly sealed to them. Look forward to anyone’s thoughts!

    Comment by Cameron — June 10, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

  15. “Look forward to anyone’s thoughts” … me too, but on a later post on that topic!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 10, 2012 @ 4:37 pm

  16. I don’t mean to squelch interested conversation, but if we range too widely we’ll end up with a hacked up beast and elephant guts all over the floor. I’d like to discuss this one small part at a time, and curtail speculation and all “I think I remember someone saying one time …” types of comments, is all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 10, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

  17. And we definitely don’t want elephant guts all over the floor!

    This is an interesting topic and I think it’s important that we discuss it honestly, thoughtfully and respectfully.

    Mormons, I find, are so funny about plural marriage. On the one hand we recoil from it and downplay it in our history. On the other hand, I know so many people who speak with pride about ancestors who had plural wives. Perhaps a discussion on how modern Mormons react to plural marriage will be a future bite (no elephant guts).

    Comment by Steve C. — June 10, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

  18. Did we get to the “sealed to second wives post and I am just looking in the wrong place?

    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 9:25 am

  19. I am having a great deal of difficulty with this proposed series, Julia. It seems that any mention of historical plural marriage results not in historical discussion, but instead brings up all kinds of questions and declarations about the afterlife.

    I’m a historian, not a theologian. I won’t speculate on areas where I don’t think much has been revealed, and I won’t let others use Keepa as a platform to advance their own speculations (which too often tend to be little more than misstatements of what *is* known and not-so-veiled personal criticism of the Church). So my enthusiasm for coming anywhere near the subject has chilled.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 29, 2012 @ 9:38 am

  20. That seems fair to me!

    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 9:54 am

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