This began as a lengthy response to some very important questions raised on JNS’s thread earlier this week. A few commenters, understandably confused and even disturbed by some of the revelations regarding the institution of plural marriage and its practice in Nauvoo. Of particular concern is polyandry — Joseph Smith’s marriages (and, ahem, marital relationships) with women who were married to other men. Is there any scriptural precedence for this? Can it be right?
The short answer is that there is no short answer. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And yet God manifestly does new things at times. If we’re looking for Biblical precedence as a barometer for measuring the validity of beliefs and practices instigated by Joseph Smith or embraced by the Church he founded, we’ll have to toss out more than polyandry. In general, something being sanctioned by the Bible is not a particularly good benchmark for its ethical justification by most modern standards — at various times the OT God is found sanctioning, rewarding, or commanding ethnic cleansing, genocide, rape, pillage, prostitution, slavery, torture, etc. And I doubt very much that if Joseph Smith had advocated that women remain silent in all Church services any of us would find biblical precedence to be particularly comforting.
I say this not to invalidate the concerns raised on the thread — they are very valid. There are no simple answers (like “well, God said it’s okay in the Bible…”). Early polygamy is as complicated morally and ethically as it is historiographically. I’m in the process of working through many of these very questions myself, grounding my search for understanding in both the basic belief I have in certain faith claims of Mormonism as well as in good historical scholarship and social theory.
Some preliminary points I would make:
1) George A. Smith’s lurid analogies notwithstanding, people during Joseph Smith’s would have been scandalized by plural marriage for largely different reasons than people are today, because monogamous marriage was a different institution then than it is now. Polygamy challenged Christian marriage as, among other things, the basis for natural, patriarchal law and as the primary site and seedbed of male authority and power. Whatever else you want to say about whether or not Joseph’s own actions constituted abuses of authority, it’s clear — especially in the cases of already-married women — that Joseph pursued the marriages in a manner that undermined the power that the men in potential wives’ lives wielded over them.
Joseph’s own actions make clear that he was not attempting to eliminate the exercise of social power, but to reconfigure it. Fundamentally altering marital relationships — especially in a society where marriage is an institution that, in many ways, perpetuates the treatment of daughters and wives as property — meant reshaping the social relationships and conduits along which social power could be exercised. This process certainly empowered Joseph personally; but it also empowered wives, their families, and all those close to him. This seems to fit squarely (though with radical implications) within Joseph’s larger project and understanding of the human condition and God’s participation in it, where Apostasy is construed as the disavowal of divine, sanctifying power in favor of worldly, corrupting forms of power, and Restoration as a re-establishing of divinely ordained and exalting power relations.
2) Polygamy should be understood not primarily as a marital practice but as a kinship system. Plural marriage was closely connected (though the exact nature of the connection is elusive) with the largely forgotten Mormon practice of Adoptive Sealings. These two converged to create a fundamentally new way of establishing and perpetuating and even defining kin relations. Among other things (like the dramatic intensification of in-group out-group boundaries and the promotion of social cohesion), these practices — which, as GD Smith’s book quite helpfully points out — extended well beyond the person of Joseph Smith, yet were all, on some level, connected to him. They were ways of taking the uniquely binding ties of familial relations and extending them to non-kin. Anthropologists even today (see, for example, the work of Fenella Cannell) argue that the best way of understanding Mormonism is not as a religion but as an extended kinship system, a complex and unique kin network.
3) Joseph’s thought, his understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe, the ontological ground according to which he (re)organized basic categories like God, man, heaven, earth, spirit, matter, mind, body — all this developed and evolved with time. Further, Joseph’s rendering of the map of the cosmos and the grand narrative that accompanied it radicalized with time, moving further and further from the norms of traditional Christianity and republicanism the nearer he got to his own death. Polygamy, whatever else you want to argue about it, was a vital part of this process. Cultural ontologies are always grounded in semiotic practices and social relations, from ideas about the nature of language and its relationship to the describable world to marital institutions and economic practices. By dramatically breaking — not just abstractly but in the realest possible sense — with an institution as fundamentally anchored to the ontological and epistemological ground of Protestantism and early republicanism as monogamous marriage, Joseph literally freed his mind to pursue more speculative and radical renderings of the universe.
Nauvoo was by far the most theologically innovative period of Joseph’s life, and much of what has become the taken-for-granted, defining essence of Mormonism — the ontological unity of God and man, of spirit and matter, of heaven and earth, all the wonderful if challenging materiality and embodiment of Mormonism — resulted from this break. Despite the mountains of timber that have been felled to try to write unity between them, there’s no escaping the fact that the theology of, say, the Lectures on Faith is much closer to traditional Protestantism than to Nauvoo era theology. Breaking with the social conventions of his time gave Joseph the momentum to question things that good Protestants just don’t question. The results are some of the sweetest, most engaging, difficult, but magnificent parts of our religion. It is, I think, no coincidence that these radical, late doctrines (to say nothing of the endowment, the relief society, or temple sealings) emerged alongside the development of as radically alternative a system of social relations as plural marriage. And it is no coincidence that those Mormons who forcefully rejected plural marriage also disavowed what they referred to as Joseph’s radical, unchristian doctrines, as well as all things temple.
None of this is meant to furnish definitive answers or to silence criticism or discourage the airing of concerns. These are just some of the ways that I’ve explored thinking about the relationship between polygamy (which, in no small part due to my upbringing in the Correlation-Era-Church, I find deeply disturbing) and so much of the rest of Mormonism which I value so deeply, which constitutes such a profound part of who I am. I hope others find it helpful as well.