Mormon Doctrine of Polygamy
Plural marriage is an often-misunderstood doctrine of the LDS church. Though no longer practiced, Mormon polygamy is a spiritual tenet rooted in scripture and revelation.
Both inside and outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon), plural marriage is a sensitive and often-misunderstood issue. Here is a straight explanation of what LDS plural marriage was, a Biblical history of polygamy, and why Mormon polygamy existed.
Historical Background of Mormonism and Polygamy
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, polygamy was practiced for about 50 years from approximately 1840 until 1890.
Only the practice of polygyny — men having multiple wives — was permitted during this period. For a more in-depth timeline of LDS plural marriage, see History of Mormon Polygamy.
LDS Doctrine of Polygamy
It may seem surprising to many non-Mormons that Latter-day Saints actually see plural marriage as a spiritual practice.
Mormons believe that having more than one wife is sometimes commanded and sometimes forbidden by God, which He will make known through the current LDS prophet. The practice of plural marriage in the 1800s is believed to have been instituted and discontinued through divine revelation to the prophet of the church.
Plural marriage is not currently practiced in the LDS church. Mormons still believe in the principal, but can only speculate as to whether it will ever be practiced again. LDS church leaders have made no official statement either way on the subject.
Many of the Bible’s Old Testament prophets had more than one wife, suggesting that God at least permits plural marriage some of the time. A few examples:
- Abraham and his wife Sarah were unable to bear children, so Sarah gave her handmaid Hagar to him in marriage. Hagar successfully bore Abraham a son (Genesis 16: 3-15.)
- Jacob had four wives: he worked for seven years to marry Leah, then seven more for her sister Rachel (Genesis 29: 17-28.) He also married Rachel’s handmaid Bilhah and Leah’s handmaid Zilpah (Genesis 30: 4, 9.)
- David had many wives and concubines. He even married some of them two or more at a time (1 Samuel 25: 42-43; 2 Samuel 5: 13.) 2 Samuel 12: 7-9 says that the Lord “gave” these wives to David; the only wife David was punished for was Bathsheba, because he first committed adultery with her and killed her husband.
- Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines. He was later punished by the Lord not because he had more than one wife, but because he had married non-believers from forbidden countries that “turned away his heart” from God (1 Kings 11: 1-10.)
The fact that Abraham and Jacob continued to act as God’s prophets even after marrying a second wife shows that God allowed polygamy in those instances. Polygamists were also admitted into heaven: Jesus in the New Testament even referred to heaven as “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16: 22.)
Unauthorized vs. Authorized Polygamy
When Biblical polygamists like David and Solomon were punished, it was not for their polygamy but because their choice of wives disobeyed God’s commandments. Mormons take this to mean that polygamy in itself is not inherently sinful, as long as polygamous marriages are authorized by God.
Scriptural evidence shows that God does not always allow polygamy. Statements forbidding plural marriage are also found in the the Book of Mormon (see Jacob 2: 27,) the New Testament (see Timothy 3: 2) and even in places in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 17: 17.) This suggests that during some periods plural marriage is acceptable and at other times God does not permit it.
Reasons for Polygamy in the LDS Church
While the LDS church gives no official statement of God’s explicit purpose in commanding polygamy at some times and not at others, the Book of Mormon suggests that it has to do with increasing the population of believers.
In Jacob 2: 27-30, the Lord commands that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none,” but goes on to say that “if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things” (emphasis added.)
This verse suggests that monogamy is the norm, but that God may command polygamy when he wants to multiply His people. That may be the reason why polygyny (men with multiple wives) has been practiced but polyandry (women having multiple husbands) has not. Only polygyny would result in larger families.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not practice polygamy today, but still believe in the divine origins of the practice. They believe that plural marriage was both instituted and discontinued in the 1800s by revelation from God.
King James Version of the Bible. Intellectual Reserve: Salt Lake City, 1979.