Sunday, February 20, 2011

Implications of Polygamy

In my last post, I listed some of the troubling facts about the LDS practice of polygamy/polygyny. Some very smart people, such as faithful historian Richard Bushman, can know all there is to know about polygamy, but somehow the facts seem to bounce of them like birdseed. To them, the facts seem to have no implication regarding the veracity of Joseph's religious claims. When this happens, I think there is a strong desire on the part of the believer to continue believing in the validity of the Church, despite the facts that contradict its claims. This fideistic approach to Joseph Smith (belief in something despite, or in spite of, contrary evidence) is a common LDS approach to many of its illogical truth claims, such as polygamy.

Prior to leaving the Church, I devoted a lot of time to studying the history of Joseph Smith, because everything rises and falls with him. If he was a charlatan, then the Church (despite its more wholesome modern image) is not what it claims to be: the only true and salvific church on the earth today. If Joseph is a false prophet, then the scriptures he claimed to translate, the revelations and Priesthood he claims to have received, and the Church he claimed to restore, are only fabrications of his rich imagination.

And nothing belies the claims of Joseph and the modern Church, more than polygamy. This is why the Church today is so hesitant to tell the full story of Joseph Smith. When Boyd Packer said "Some things that are true are not very useful," he may have been referring to polygamy.

First, what troubled me the most was the deception involved with the practice of polygamy from its very beginning, until its bitter end.  Joseph repeatedly lied to his own wife Emma about his extramarrital affairs. He also lied to the women he seduced, claiming that God told him to marry them,  that they would gain salvation if they consented, and that consequences would befall them if they did not. He lied to the Church, repeatedly claiming (especially when rumors of polygamy circulated) that he only had one wife. He lied to the general public and repressed information that might destroy his power base, even if this meant excommunicating close friends, or destroying the evidence - as in the case of the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor when it was going to expose him.

About the only thing that makes the post-1852 Utah polygamy era tolerable, is that men were at least publicly open about it, and they took care of their wives financially. However, Joseph never cohabited with his wives and did not provide them with any financial support. This is one reason why he may have married so many women who were already married to other males. Any pregnancy that resulted could be attributed to the women's current husband (cuckoldry). Joseph sacrificed nothing, but gained sexual access to multiple women in return, while the women usually had to sacrifice much more, and gained very little.

The upshot of all this deception by Joseph Smith is this: if he is willing to lie to his wife, the Church, and the public in order to have multiple sexual partners, then what does that say about his honesty (not to mention his sexual libido and need for power)? What does it say about his truth claims that we have no way to verify, other than taking him at his word (such as the First Vision, translation of the Gold Plates, receiving revelation, and visitations by angels)? To me, it means he is unreliable and untrustworthy. Combine Joseph's penchant for deception with the impossibility of the claims themselves, and the most probable conclusion is that he made it all up.  There are obvious reasons why he would make up such claims - such as increased power, prestige, fame, sexual access to women, and money - all things that humans naturally seek for, and are willing to deceive others in order to obtain.

And the deception did not stop with Joseph; the Utah-based Church continued to lie about polygamy while trying to obtain statehood, even after the 1890 Manifesto. Mormons believed polygamy was essential for salvation and viewed lying to Government authorities (even while under oath, as during the Smoot Hearings) as a lesser evil than disobeying a commandment of God.

And finally, you have the modern Church, which obfuscates the issue of polygamy today. When I learned about polygamy, in all it's detail, from modern historians, I was shocked. That is usually the reaction of people when they learn about the troubling facts of polygamy. We're shocked because it's at odds with the faithful version of Church history we are taught. It's no wonder we feel deceived and duped, not just by Joseph Smith, but even by the Church today. The modern Church's obfuscation and deception was one of the bitterest pills for me to swallow.

In addition to the ubiquitous deception of polygamy, there is the inherent immorality of it. Polygamy is  at odds with just about any measuring stick of morality. Even the Book of Mormon prohibits polygamy, calling its practice "abominable." But perhaps Joseph, while writing the Book of Mormon, was thinking of a possible loophole to Old Testament style polygamy, since he was careful to add that polygamy was wrong unless God wanted to "raise up seed unto me" (Jacob 2:30). This idea dovetails perfectly with what Joseph told Nancy Rigdon, after she rebuffed his offer of marriage: "that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another." This is pure postmodernism and self-justification at its most ridiculous.

One of the best moral yardstick we have is Kant's categorical imperative, which states that we should "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." So, if a man is wondering whether polygamy is moral, he should ask himself if he would like for polygamy to "become a universal law" - or, in other words, flip things around and allow himself by be one of many plural husbands to a single wife?  I guarantee that men, especially the ones who practiced polygamy, wouldn't go for this arrangement.

The other great moral yardstick is the Golden Rule, which, when applied to polygamy, gives you the same results as when you apply Kant's categorical imperative: it's immoral since nobody would choose to be subject to polygamy's abuses.  Jealously among the the multiple wives was commonplace.  Also common was spousal neglect and loneliness - especially when the first wife became older, and younger wives were added to the harem. Daughters raised in polygamist communities have few prospects other than being married (at a very young age) to an older man in an arranged marriage. The daughters of polygamists have very little say in the matter, and are innocent victims. Also, since males and females are born in a 1:1 female to male ratio, there will always be a surplus of young men who are unable to find a wife. These boys are usually kicked out of the group for some minor trumped-up infraction. They are then known as "Lost boys" and have a very bleak future after being cast out of their tribe into a world they are ill-prepared to deal with. Therefore, polygamy is good for no one, except perhaps the dominant male who increases his ability to propagate his own genes - an incredibly strong driving force in human behavior.

As an illustration of how polygyny is a manifestation of male dominance, consider other animals who practice it: among polygynous animals, average harem size increases with the ratio of the male's body size to the female's body size.  So, the biggest harems belong to species where the male is much larger (and hence more dominant) than the female. For example, males and females are the same size among gibbon apes and penguins, which are monogamous; male gorillas, which are usually twice the size of females, have harems of 3 to 6 females; but the male southern elephant seals, which weighs 3 tons and dwarf it's 700 pound wife, have harems that average 48-wives. The reason males are larger than females is due to male-to-male competition for exclusive sexual access to females; bigger males are able to win the fierce male competition for exclusive access to females.  Similarly, in the LDS Church, men higher-up the male hierarchy (and there is male competition in ascending the Mormon-power-pyramid) had more wives than less powerful men. For example the average Mormon polygamist only had 2 or maybe 3 wives. More powerful LDS leaders had significantly more wives: Joseph had 33 wives, Heber C Kimball had 48 wives, and Brigham Young had 55 wives.

In conclusion, LDS polygamy is a sad chapter in LDS history that has implications. Those implications are that if Joseph was willing to deceive others about polygamy, then he is not a trustworthy witness of his other claims. Also, polygamy is inherently immoral, failing both Kant's categorical imperative and the Golden Rule. Why would God use such a deceitful and immoral prophet? Polygamy is more accurate as a measure of male dominance in society, than as a means for salvation, as originally taught. For all of Joseph's virtues (and he had many), polygamy strips his veneer of virtue away, and reveals the charlatan that he actually was.


  1. joseph did cohabited with some of his wives, the whole eliza snow/emma hales fight to the death . . .

    and tho it might seem on paper that the women joseph married didn't receive much, we really have no idea how awesome he was in bed . . . just sayin'. could be worth the exchange.

    the other thing i don't get, is that mormons hold this non-traditional notion of marriage as sacred (the marriage of the celestial kingdom) and yet cannot make any space for any other type of non-traditional marriage (eg, gay). super hypocritical.

  2. You are right teabelly; I should have said he usually didn't cohabitate. After Joseph told Emma that he wouldn't allow her to be sealed to him until she gave her consent to allow him to have polygamous wives, she briefly consented, and allowed Joseph to marry the Partridge sisters (who were already living with the Smiths, and to whom he was ALREADY married). He may have cohabited with other girls he married, who were already living with him and Emma at the time. And if I'm not mistaken, Eliza R Snow was already living with them, schooling their kids, before they were married. I would have loved to see her and Emma go at it. Rumor is that ERS got thrown down the stairs and lost her pregnancy (just rumor though).

    The LDS stance against gay marriage is a bit hypocritical when you consider Reynolds v. United States in which they fought to legalize polygamy. Seems like they should be in support of two consentual adults who want to marry one another. I think the doctrine that gender is inherent, and that God is also heterosexual, has something to do with their homophobic doctrine.

  3. Thanks for your efforts on this blog. I'm a skeptic in sheep's clothing and it's great to read things I agree with after a LONG Sunday at church!

  4. Thanks. Unlike the Church you attend, your skeptical opinions are welcome here anytime. I imagine that Sundays are frustrating for you.

  5. Great post. My journey away from Mormonism began in July 2001 when I went on a Mormon Church History Tour. Having been BIC and having just gone along most of my life, not really doing much research into the history of the church, I decided before going on the Mormon Church History Tour to do some research so I would know more. That was the beginning of the end for me. After getting back, I was so confused and upset that I decided to continue my research - and that's when I started discovering the truth behind polygamy and so many other things in the church. Naturally, one thing lead to another to then to another to then to another to the point where I finally realized that Joseph Smith had made it all up. After spending 52 years in the church, I finally left and have been away for 7 years now.

    Of course, since leaving, I have continued to discover even more -- and after being away for over 3 years, I discovered polyandry. Of course, discovering that Joseph Smith had married women who were already married to living husbands was like a thunderbolt hitting me. And questions like why had I never heard this before began racing through my mind. At that point, though, I already knew that the LDS Church has covered-up and white-washed its history for many, many years -- "some things that are true are not very useful," to quote Boyd K. Packer (one of his many gems of wisdom).

    It is so reassuring to go out into the blogging world and see blogs like yours -- testament to the fact that others are discovering the truth about Mormonism as well. And of course, it helps to reaffirm the fact that I AM NOT ALONE!!

  6. Hi Joshua,
    Loved your post (and your blog for that matter.) Something else though in terms of negatives for the practise of polygamy, is the high rate of birth defects due to inbreeding. The more powerful men have more children, these children are then part of the more powerful dynasty and are also therefore more likely to have multiple wives, and so on, leading to a few select dynasties breeding more prolifically than the rest of the cult, leading to too much "overlap" in the gene pool.

  7. Your extreme idealism is not realistic with regard to having to choose between values when in extreme circumstances. You would lie to save the lives of your family or your own, in an extreme circumstance. Don't lie to me that you would not. Yet that has nothing to do with your perfect honesty in ideal circumstances. So please don't gripe about other people's deception in extreme circumstances where values are in conflict, because there are certainly circumstances where you would do the same.

  8. Extreme idealism? What's extreme about honesty? What's extreme about the Golden Rule? What's extreme about Kant's categorical imperative? Nothing extreme there. It's just basic morality.

    Also, nobody was forcing Joseph Smith to have multiple affairs with other women (some of which were already married). So your rebuttal that I would lie to "save the lives of your family," and that my morals are just as shoddy as JS's, is a non sequiter. Of course I would lie to save the life of my family, just like I would lie if someone fat asked me if their dress made them look fat. But that doesn't mean that I would lie so that I could have 33 wives without anybody knowing (except my inner circle).