A couple of months ago I (Kathleen from Dialogue) spoke to some younger women in my ward about polygamy. This was in a non-official setting. They were curious. One said, “There is nothing about polygamy on LDS.org.” She grew up thinking polygamy was a way of providing for the widows.
Among the resources I reviewed were many articles from 40 years of Dialogue. Two things stood out in my mind about the exercise. The first is that the majority of people who entered into polygamy had a firm conviction that it was God’s will. The second is that it seemed to be all about priesthood, patriarchy, and hierarchy. The eagerness with which people sealed themselves to apostles or church presidents in order to be part of their celestial families contradicts our more democratic ideas about priesthood. Today I think we would say that all priesthood holders are equal before God and that righteousness or exaltation isn’t linked to church office. Under polygamy having the maximum number of children was also important. The earthly peopling of the celestial family seemed to be a key concept. The man with the most wives and children wins–something.
By the time of the Manifesto polygamy was a harder sell than in the beginning, not just because of the pressures from the US government that tore apart families. The Saints no longer lived isolated from the rest of the country. They were probably influenced by the popular culture of their time, the notions of romantic love, the desire to be like everyone else instead of so drastically different. Still, when the plug was pulled on polygamy, after so many years of vigorous preaching, it must have been disconcerting. One can certainly understand why the practice died hard with many.
There is a thread that leads from the eternal families the polygamists envisioned, and the eternal families we are taught to seek today. What has remained is that the relationships we have on earth can continue intact after death. There are some fairly drastic differences, however. The kind of team relationship, loyal and exclusive, that a husband and wife are supposed to have today would be impossible in polygamy. A statement such as this one from Zina D. Jacobs Smith Young would be incomprehensible today. “A successful polygamous wife must regard her husband with indifference, and with no other feeling than that of reverence, for love we regard as a false sentiment; a feeling which should have no existence in polygamy.”
I couldn’t answer the obvious question these young women had: will there be polygamy in the hereafter? I could tell them that the practice has been discontinued on earth but that the doctrine has never been repudiated. The questions are left hanging. They wonder about their relationships with their husbands. They wonder where they fit in the hereafter. How, if they are sealed to their parents, they can equally be sealed to a husband and his family? The notion only works if one accepts that women are the trading pieces in a patriarchal system, not strong individuals with preferences and rights: a woman leaves the family of her birth behind and becomes part of her husband’s family.
In 1879 the Church lost the George Reynolds test case before the Supreme Court. I doubt our Church would try another test case even if it thought it could win, with the result that polygamy would be legal. Very few people would like to live polygamy again, and yet if it is a fundamental doctrine, as preached in the 19th century, it would seem to be in the eternal future for at least some of us. Do we assume that in the hereafter it will be more appealing? Who would want to be the lucky prophet called either to reinstate the practice or demote those iconic pioneers by saying the practice they sacrificed so much for no longer applies, because polygamy wasn’t the eternal doctrine they believed it was. So we are left with the question, What was polygamy all about, anyway? Maybe Gene England was right: it was the Abrahamic test for that generation. What then, is ours?