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 lds.org, 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.
- 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. [↩]