When I was in law school, I took a course on the history of women in the law (what history, you might ask!), and I got very interested in divorce in the church ranks during the height of polygamy 1860′s – 1880′s. It turns out that divorce was not only pretty high in Utah during this time, in fact, Utah became the Las Vegas of its time because of the ease with which one could obtain a divorce. Interestingly, divorce was not exactly frowned upon as a solution to unhappiness in those days in the church.
I propose that one reason for this acceptance of divorce stems from our earliest church history. As you may all recall, part of Joseph Smith’s introduction of the conception of celestial marriage was that members of the church who were unhappily living in existing marriages at that time could consider themselves “unbound” from each other because marriages sanctioned only by earthly authorities were null in the eyes of God.
I don’t recall how much divorce took place in those first years when only JS and a few others were practicing polygamy, but I do know that the figures rose astronomically as more and more members of the church took part in polygamous marriages. And I think part of the reason for this rise is fundamental to the way that at least Joseph Smith seemed to have taught (viewed?) marriage that was peformed outside the covenant.
I’m not going to get into the progression from polygamy to monogamy, I think we are all familiar with it, but I think the divorce phenomenon highlights yet another way in which our church views on marriage and the primacy of it to the practice of our religion, have changed over time.
Is there a way to reconcile these things besides invoking the idea that revelation is only fitting for each epoch (divorce and polygamy good for Eliza R. Snow and her counterparts but not for us)? And then it just all begs that other question of why marriage itself is so darn important to our current theology.