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

Plural Marriage: Bite Two

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 21, 2012

This is a very little bite, but an important one that, when misunderstood, leads to all kinds of difficulties in understanding the 19th century Mormon practice of plural marriage.

Bite 2: There was no formal, consistent “rule book” for the historical practice of plural marriage.

Once in a while the Lord apparently dictates in minute detail how his will is to be implemented by man: Genesis records the detailed dimensions and the materials to be used in constructing Noak’s ark and the tabernacle in the wilderness. Both Ether and I Nephi refer to detailed, inspired instruction on ship building. (The Lord is quite an engineer!)

In the more normal course of divine revelation, and certainly in our experience in the modern era, the Lord more often reveals eternal principles or general laws, and leaves it up to man, working under inspiration, to implement those principles in practical terms. So we have a commandment to preach the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue and people – yet the details of the missionary program (who to send, at what age, for how long, under what organization, what to teach, how to teach, when to baptize, what to do in this and that contingency) is left to man to work out. We’re to raise our children in the Lord and prepare them for baptism at the age of accountability, but the Lord doesn’t spell out the day-to-day details; we’re left to come up with the nursery manual and the Primary program and the Family Home Evening program and the songs and the Friend, etc., in our attempt to follow the commandment.

Sometimes the details worked out by man remain in force indefinitely: Section 89 doesn’t define the “hot drinks” we are to abstain from, but an early sermon by Hyrum Smith identified those hot drinks as coffee and tea; the identification has been consistently upheld by succeeding prophets, and there is no reason I’m aware of for that identification to change. On the other hand, the practical day-to-day ways in which the Relief Society carries out its mandate to administer charity to those in want have changed according to the changing needs and times: in one era, that might mean collecting and sewing carpet rags for the comfort of those living with primitive heating; at another it might mean delivering babies and tending personally to a mother’s needs for a week or two; at another it might mean advocating for laws to protect the quality of the children’s milk supply; at another it might mean teaching a woman good nutrition and shopping habits, and helping her to practice those skills at a bishop’s storehouse. The principle is the same, but the “rules” and practices change over time.

The day-to-day practice of plural marriage in the 19th century falls into the “revealed principle, but work out the details yourself” category. There was no detailed and consistent “rule book” in place that governed how such marriages were contracted, how such marriages were lived, and how such marriages ended.

Perhaps one of the most widespread assumptions among modern Mormons discussing historical plural marriage is that the husband always had to ask the first wife’s permission to take another wife, and that the first wife always participated in the sealing. This is simply not true. There can be debate about whether permission should have been sought (and denial honored), and there may have been brief times when Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and/or John Taylor encouraged or required that permission, but it simply cannot be assumed that permission was sought and given in any particular case, or that if a man surprised his existing family with a new wife he was breaking some law (well, he was breaking a law of trust and consideration and kindness, perhaps, but not a procedural law).

There are some existing sermons that require a man to arrange everything with a prospective bride’s father before approaching the woman. That, too, was a “rule” that was not consistent or long-lasting. I think it was, probably, an attempt to honor the patriarchal position of the father, but because it also had the potential effect of overruling the bride’s agency, it was not long or firmly practiced.

Some writers assert that the “rules” required a man to provide each wife with a separate house, or some territory within a common house over which she exercised domain, or other such provisions for daily life. Not so. What may have been practiced in one family was not a rule that all families were bound to live by. What may have been expected by custom in one town or one year was not applicable to other places and times. The existence of plural marriage among the Mormons simply lasted for too short a time for uniform practices to become established, in the absence of any rules dictated from either the Lord or the church president who held the keys to plural marriage.

Why does it matter?

Well, it helps us understand our ancestors better, without a layer of false assumptions between us and them. Ancestral marriages should be looked at on their own terms, without judging them by other marriages.

And maybe more importantly, we have a tendency to extrapolate from our limited understanding to reach indefensible conclusions. “Since thus-and-such was the rule in the 19th century, it means that in the eternities thus-and-such will happen, and I want no part of it!” Most of the conclusions people have drawn about assumed polygamy in the next life are based on misunderstandings of historical practices. Before we can address what might be true of the next world, we ought to be clear about what was true of this world.

Note: Although I’ve mentioned the next world, this is NOT the post to speculate about polygamy in the eternities. Please stick to comments and questions about the way it was practiced, and why, in the 19th century.



  1. Ardis, how about the “law of Sarah”? I’ve always heard that that was the provision requiring (at least in theory) the first wife’s consent.

    Comment by JimD — June 21, 2012 @ 11:21 am

  2. Ardis,

    I know that my g-g-g-g grandfather didn’t ask the first when he married the second. That was a source of great angst.

    Comment by Steve — June 21, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  3. JimD, remember that I am not an expert on this, and this is my best understanding at the moment, subject of course to continued learning: As far as I understand, the “law of Sarah” (referring to Sarah’s giving Hagar to Abraham as a wife, and which is mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 132:64-65), there are two views of this:

    First, that that law permitted a righteous woman to give her husband a plural wife, as Sarah gave Hagar, but did not compel a man to ask his first wife’s permission. That is, the law justified the first wife’s action; it had nothing to do with the husband.

    Or, alternately (and more crassly), that because a woman would be blessed by “believing and administering” the ordinance of plural marriage, and would be cursed by refusing to allow her husband to enter it, then in practical terms the first wife’s permission was of no consequence — she would of course grant it if she was righteous, and if she refused it she was obviously not worthy of celestial glory — so there was no need to ask her permission.

    That’s why I said there was room to debate whether permission should have been sought. In reality, the wife’s permission was sometimes sought, and sometimes not. In the case of the “not,” the plural marriage still existed and was valid according to the Church. Hence, I don’t think we can consider it a *rule* when it had no effect on reality.

    Steve, that circumstance occurred many times, and I’m sure it resulted in great angst for very many people. The sense of betrayal must have been terrific in some cases.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 21, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  4. This heterogeniety is really important. It is human nature to simplify things into digestuble narratives, but sometimes things are just really complicated. This complexity is compounded, I think, by particular aspects of nineteenth century lived Mormonism. Things like difficulty in communication, lifetime leadership callings, no centralized written liturgical ecclesiastical rules, the importance of proximate example for teaching.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 21, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  5. I appreciate your insight that historical polygamy was a principle with no rule book. But I still wonder about D&C 132:66; which law (eternal marriage or plural marriage) was being referred to, and what, if anything, further was ever revealed. Maybe God had a ‘rule book’ in mind, but just didn’t get around to revealing it to the next 3 or 4 prophets. Maybe He knew polygamy would have a somewhat limited life, and didn’t bother to issue the rule book. I’ve always assumed that had polygamy continued, some rules would have eventually been instituted. Structurally, the church is vastly different today than it was at that time. Perhaps God wasn’t so much worried about the rules than he was the principle.

    Comment by IDIAT — June 21, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

  6. Wait a minute—you mean that every commandment and principle isn’t supposed to be applied identically to every person in every situation? But then how am i supposed to be sure i’m being judgmental about all the right things?

    Comment by David B — June 22, 2012 @ 12:47 am

  7. Take the blanket approach just to be sure all bases are covered! Somebody has to do that on behalf of us all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 22, 2012 @ 1:18 am

  8. Makes perfect sense when you put it this way.

    What if the Lord hadn’t told Nephi or Noah in exacting detail what to do (I am not trying to comment on historicity in either direction)? There isn’t much leeway for ship building… they had never done it before, and if they didn’t do it exactly right, everyone on board was going to meet a watery end.

    On the other hand, marriage is entered into by a lot of different kinds of people and these varied people mean there’s no one set “right way” to do everything. Speaking from a perspective of monogamy even, I see many similar experiences to what you’ve written. Whether or not I spoke to my future father-in-law before proposing marriage, whether we had a big wedding or a small wedding, whether my wife through a bouquet or wore a garter or if we chose to live close to her parents or mine or neither all depended on individual preferences, circumstances, culture, experiences and relationships. It might have been a cultural norm to do X, but because of my preferences or her past experiences, we did Y.

    When you state it that way, I would expect we should find lived polygamy as varied and individual as we find lived monogamy. Even today, many of us don’t do every single thing in exact letter to the Church handbook and yet most of us aren’t kicked out of the ward over it

    Comment by Dustin — June 22, 2012 @ 6:56 am

  9. I’ve always thought that “the rule book” didn’t get widely disseminated because most of the church leadership (from John Taylor down to the local bishop) were either in prison or on the run. Add in the fact that any written instructions ran a high risk of getting quoted in the national press, and it makes for a perfect storm.

    Comment by The Other Clark — June 25, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

  10. One other comment: I had to hunt for “Bite One” as I’ve been offline for a week or two. Would it be possible to set up an index page where all the Bites could be linked to?

    Comment by The Other Clark — June 25, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

  11. The Lord is quite an engineer!

    He wrote the back of the book.

    David B. #6; For simplicity, just assume everyone is a sinner in need of repentance. It’s an excellent first approximation.

    Comment by Vader — June 25, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

  12. TOClark, the easiest way to find these will be to go to the Topical Guide (link in upper lefthand corner) and use your browser’s search function to look for either “Plural Marriage” or “Bite One” — they’ll all be listed there. I’m often a week or two behind in adding links to that Topical Guide, but not usually later than that. (If the series continues long enough, or if it does seem enough easier to all of you to make it worth the extra work for me ( 🙂 ) I’ll make some sort of an index page and put a “for earlier installments” link in every new “bite.”

    I think concealment from federal authorities probably played no real role in any hypothetical “how to practice plural marriage” rulebook. The practice was publicly announced in 1851 (after having been secretly practiced for a number of years), so there was a more than 30-year window before the federal government implemented any effective control during the Raid of the mid to late ’80s (prior to that there were very, very few prosecutions for polygamy). During those years Brigham Young often openly preached and published a lot of incendiary things that would have been better kept from the eyes of strangers, if possible. I just don’t see that an announcement and constant teaching of “Brethren, ask your first wife’s permission” could have added to the burden of persecution, even had there been such a formal rule (which does not seem to have been the case).

    But while I don’t think this had any role in promulgating or suppressing instructions concerning plural marriage, these are the kinds of questions and assumptions that we should look at. In the absence of any real historical teaching for most of us, we’ve probably all come up with ideas that may or may not be true to help us understand what was going on.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 25, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

  13. Not having any polygamous ancestors, I was always interested Iearning about the lives of my friends’ ancestors. All but one seemed to follow the “wives seperated in some fashion,” whether in different houses, different ranches, or different parts of a large house. None of my friends had ancestors with more than three wives.

    The one that I thought was a little questionable was the ancestor who married identical twin sisters, and shared a bed with both at the same time. The story included the details that the wives had almost all of their children within two months of each other and that the husband sometimes mixed the wives up. I wish I could remember his first name since I imagine there were many Jensens in Salt Lake City, who came the year after the Willie Handcart Company.

    Does the story pass the first blush test, Ardis?


    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 8:57 am

  14. A typical feature of the anti-Mormon expose’ is the polygamous man sleeping with all of his wives in the same bed.I can’t recall any contemporary example of a Mormon report of that (I’m not saying there aren’t any, just that I can’t recall any) — but personal marital arrangements were usually private. 19th century Mormons resented being questioned on that, and in the case of trials for unlawful cohabitation resisted answering — those details were no one’s business.

    But I don’t think our 19th century ancestors were all that different from us on such a basic level, and my instinct is that regular,long-term sharing of the marital bed was not common. For one thing, a man would have a hard time, I think, convincing his priesthood leaders that he was able financially to support two wives (a condition prerequisite to a legitimate plural marriage) if he were so poor that he couldn’t furnish two rooms with two beds.

    As for mixing wives up, that’s another feature of “funny” anti-Mormon stories — Brigham Young is the subject of anecdotes featuring him meeting children on the streets and not recognizing them as his own, or being introduced to his own wives at public dances because he’d forgotten they were already his own. None of those BY stories is true, and I can’t believe it of anybody else, either.

    No way to know for certain, I suppose, but I can imagine some incident, either real or imagined, where Grandpa mistook Grandma for her sister, then the story grew and grew in the retelling. (One part that would be easy enough to check to test the validity of the whole story would be to look at the dates of birth of children in both families.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 29, 2012 @ 9:24 am

  15. The sisters being twins was true and the first three children of each were born fairly close together. Her mom had the family history chart out and was sharing that as part of FHE, do I am guessing the within two months part was probably accurate. One of the twins died, and did the child, during childbirth. The other twin had several more children. I am pretty sure there were no other wives after that.

    Thanks for the “anti-Mormon folklore” info. 🙂


    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 10:00 am

  16. Oh, I somehow missed this post (and bite 2) when it originally came out. I’ve greatly enjoyed it, as well as all the comments. Thanks. Hope you can “keep biting” at this difficult topic.

    Comment by David Y. — August 29, 2012 @ 10:33 am

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