Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Origin of Plural Marriage

The Origin of Plural Marriage

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 19, 2013

All things polygamy are the hot topic of the day. In addition to the ever-present undercurrent of interest, there was the federal court ruling last week declaring one aspect of Utah’s anti-polygamy laws unconstitutional (a ruling that did not, please note, legalize polygamy). That news was closely followed by the coincidental timing of the release of a new article on the Gospel Topics page of, Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah. Given the limits on time and geography embraced by that title, I suspect there will be one or more future articles on the history of other aspects of Mormonism’s experience with plural marriage.1

This morning, following a Facebook link, I read another Latter-day Saint’s historical overview of polygamy – or at least the first few lines of that overview:

Mormonism, like many Protestant churches, began as a restorationist movement, which is to say that it was dedicated to “restoring” everything in the Bible. Joseph Smith, Jr., Mormonism’s founding prophet, felt especially close to the Old Testament, so he believed his mission was to restore Old as well as New Testament traditions such as the authority of prophets, temple rituals, and the ancient Semitic custom of plural marriage.

I confess to being snagged on that paragraph and to have given only the most cursory glance at what followed. I think the claim made here is wrong, seriously misrepresents Mormon history and doctrine, and needs correction. I don’t want to pick a fight with Todd, whose work – including his recently published biography of Jacob Hamblin – is first rate. But I very much disagree with these opening lines of this essay.

Most Protestant churches did begin as an effort to restore primitive Christianity by purging the churches of their day (originally, the Catholic Church; more recently, various existing Protestant denominations) of practices and teachings they found incompatible with the Bible. In some cases, the intent of a Protestant reformer was to reintroduce practices and teachings seen as having been inappropriately abandoned by an earlier church. Overwhelmingly, the men and sometimes women behind these reformations – probably a more accurate word than restorations – based their reformations on what they found in the Bible: The Bible did not endorse a celibate clergy, so that requirement was dropped in a given church; the Bible did speak of the gift of tongues as one of the fruits of the spirits, so glossolalia was nurtured in another church.

The origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were different in a key aspect that should be central to every Mormon’s understanding: Mormonism claims that no amount of Biblical study, no matter how coupled with inspiration and sincerity, was sufficient to restore the fulness of the gospel and the efficacy of required ordinances. That restoration could only come through a new revelation from the heavens. And that is what we claim happened: When Joseph Smith was inspired through Bible study to pray for an answer to his questions, the heavens opened: He received personal instruction from the Father and the Son, personal visits from resurrected beings, personal appearances of ancient prophets, all of whom taught him and restored elements of the gospel that had been lost. In some cases, physical hands were laid on his head in ordination, with the conferring of powers and authorities that no amount of Bible study could have recovered.

Mormonism is not a reformation; it is a restoration. This concept is absolutely central to understanding Mormon practices, including the 19th century institution of plural marriage.

A reformer in the mold of Protestantism might have read the Bible, noted the ancient practice of polygamy, and decided that the practice should be revived.

But that is not what happened in our case. Joseph Smith did read the Bible, and did note the ancient practice of polygamy. But that wasn’t cause for his reinstitution of that practice. He did not practice plural marriage merely because he read about it in the Bible, any more than he stoned adulterers or taught that interweaving linen and woolen threads was against the will of God after reading about those practices in the Bible.

His Bible reading caused him to inquire of God through prayer to understand what he read in the Bible about God’s acceptance of ancient patriarchs who had multiple wives. The revelations now codified in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants were the result of his seeking for understanding on those points.

There’s a vast difference between the two assertions: Joseph did not practice plural marriage because he found it in the Bible; he practiced plural marriage because he received a commandment through revelation. The Bible inspired his seeking, he turned to the Bible to illustrate the revelation when he began to teach it, but the practice came through revelation and restoration, not because Joseph “believed his mission was to restore Old … Testament traditions such as … the ancient Semitic custom of plural marriage.”

Note: It seems that any blog reference to plural marriage quickly degenerates into speculations about the next life. That is completely off topic for this post.

  1. Note, please, that this is my personal and not-especially-well-informed expectation: Although I work at the Church History Library, these new essays are not my project, I have no particular knowledge of what’s coming down that pipeline, and I do not speak for the Library. []


  1. So, am I getting this right that it’s great to look at all the verifiable biblical and historical influences on Joseph Smith but there is no way to understand the doctrines and subsequent results without accepting his claims of contact with God and angels? I’m fine with that. I just don’t know how to discuss it without faith – which I’m also fine with but some won’t do it that way.

    Comment by Grant — December 19, 2013 @ 8:00 am

  2. That’s two distinct questions, I think, Grant.

    One is whether “contact with God and angels” is a valid criterion for judging truth claims — and no, I agree that some (most) will reject that. History shouldn’t proselytize.

    Two is whether “contact with God and angels” is how Joseph Smith and other Mormons, early and modern, understand their origins — and that, I submit, is how we do understand it.

    Even if you don’t believe that such contact occurred, or even if you’re directing your explanation to an audience that doesn’t believe it, it’s only honest to acknowledge the reports of the people concerned. You can do that without endorsing those claims. But when you endeavor to explain origins without even acknowledging how the people involved experienced those origins, you’re editorializing, you’re dismissing insider claims as so patently untrue that they aren’t worth mentioning. And I think you’re distorting history by replacing it with a wholly outsider/presentist explanation.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 19, 2013 @ 8:33 am

  3. So in other words, while we might address other issues in our theological history by saying that a particular teaching was incorrectly presented as doctrine, that approach is more difficult with Plural Marriage since the historical record is pretty clear about its assumed divine origin. That assumption was at the core of the acceptance of Plural Marriage by many Mormons. I think your clarification better expresses the nuanced dilemma that is the practice of Plural Marriage in early Utah.

    My own opinions on Plural Marriage involve straddling the issue between absolutely no interest in practicing Plural Marriage and yet admiring my ancestors (real and cultural) for their dedication to a difficult (and in their opinion a divinely instituted) principle.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — December 19, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

  4. You beat me to it. I was going to ask if you knew what article they were working on next so that we could speculate what news event it would miraculously correlate with. But I guess not.

    Comment by LauraN — December 19, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

  5. I don’t know, LauraN, but if the next article is on the Second Coming, I’m toast.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 19, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

  6. Cameron, please excuse me for not posting your comment (although it may remain visible to you for a time, it has not been published).

    Your questions go so far beyond the scope of this post that I’m not about to tackle them in a comment. Nor will I let them stand unanswered as if they were unanswerable.

    You may be sincere, or you may be a troll; such a comment can be read either way. If it’s trollish, such challenges are not welcome because no response would be convincing. If it’s sincere, you need to pull back — way, way back — and consider fundamentals concerning Joseph’s status as a prophet, the meaning of continuing revelation, and other basics, before you tackle polygamy.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 19, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  7. Ardis: I think you may have understood my first line to mean that Mormonism was one of many Protestant churches. That was not my intent. I agree with you that the LDS Church was not, and is not, Protestant, though it shares some characteristics with churches known as Protestant. It shares other characteristics with the Roman Catholic church. I also agree with you that any historian of Mormonism must reflect that Joseph Smith stated that it was restored through revelation. This leads to issues of (1) how do we define revelation, and (2) how do Mormon historians write about revelation to an audience that includes a lot of non-Mormons? (This would take some space to discuss adequately.) Anyway, thanks for this response, which will probably cause me to rewrite that first sentence of my little online essay.

    Comment by Todd Compton — December 22, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

  8. I appreciate the deeper questions that this exchange between Ardis and Todd raises about how to most accurately yet succinctly express the dynamic of restorationism as it played itself out in Joseph Smith’s ministry. I can see why Ardis reacted to Todd’s opening statement as reductionistic, though I think Todd offers some good caveats on that now as well.

    It seems to me that a good scholarly presentation of Joseph Smith’s restorationism will have to do two things. It will, of course, have to do justice to Joseph’s claim, and likely his personal belief, that the specific pattern of his restorations was determined by particular experiences that seemed revelatory to him, however we choose to understand that.

    At the same time, it will have to do justice to Joseph’s overall outlook (both inherited and developed) of restorationism: his growing expectation, spurred onward by his personal experiences but also shaped by his intellectual heritage, that many of the things he read about in the Old Testament (and also the New Testament) were things that needed to be restored, and that he could rightly wait in expectation to receive confirmation from God through his revelatory experiences.

    Todd’s initial statement focuses on the latter, and I can see why the phrasing might seem to suggest that the former was being implicitly excluded. At the same time, I might quibble with Ardis about her statement that Bible study wasn’t the “cause” of Joseph’s restorationist approach to polygamy (really a quibble over usage more than content, I suspect). If by ’cause’ we would mean that Bible study alone was the sole impetus that led to Joseph’s subsequent actions and claims, then of course this was not the cause. But if by ’cause’ we mean that it was a major contribution to his subsequent actions, and that it propelled him in that direction, then this seems fairly plausible – albeit that we must also note that Joseph’s belief in a specific occasion(s) of divine command was the catalyst that ignited his intellectual and personal inclinations into practice.

    I do tend to think that, even with the belief in specific divine guidance, Joseph’s initial approach (or, we might say, one layer of his approach, at least as is suggested by early LDS biblicist rhetoric) is more akin to the dynamics of restorationist or reformational movements within mainstream Christianity than this post would suggest.

    Comment by JB — December 23, 2013 @ 8:12 am

  9. Spoken like a friendly evangelical, JB. :)

    I appreciated Todd’s comment, so much so that I half-planned a follow-up post, but have deleted it.

    JB, I am only arguing proximate cause in this post. While Joseph no doubt began thinking about polygamy because he read about it in the Bible, he did not introduce it into the 19th century Church merely because he read about it in the Bible. Something more — something outside the Bible — impelled him to that introduction. That is a significant point, and one which distinguishes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from any Protestant church that considers the Bible sufficient as the full and last word of God. (What that “something” was is the source of another discussion outside the scope of this post: Mormons see that “something” as revelation; some others see it as libido. The stakes in that argument are high enough to justify my emphasis on Joseph’s claim to revelation/restoration rather than mere reformation.)

    Todd, I don’t think you think the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Protestant church, but you have certainly described it that way here — not because you use the word “Protestant” in the opening line, but because your description of how Joseph saw his mission (i.e., to realign the Church to a Biblical model, rather than claimed receipt of extra-Biblical instruction) is a completely Protestant/reformation model, and not at all a Latter-day Saint/restoration model.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 23, 2013 @ 9:23 am

  10. I think the mere existence of the Book of Mormon puts paid to the “protestant/reformation” model of Mormonism. To a reformist, the Book of Mormon is a heresy, the total opposite of what a reformer seeks.

    Comment by SilverRain — December 23, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

  11. Ardis: I think you’re misunderstanding my position in that little article. But that’s probably my fault–it should be better written. I’ll send you an email.

    Comment by Todd Compton — December 24, 2013 @ 1:11 am

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