The church officially—and in fact—ended its experiment with polygamy more than a century ago.
Yet polygamy and its effects remain with us today. And no, I’m not talking about D&C 132; we’ve officially read polygamy out of the the section, replacing it with our modern concept of eternal (monogomous) marriage.
What I’m talking about is the fact that a man (and, in certain limited circumstances, a woman) can be sealed to more than one person, and that those additional sealings can and do happen without the consent of the first sealed spouse.
The spector of involuntarily being a polygamous spouse in the eternities creates real dread among faithful, temple-married Mormon women. Not all, of course, and maybe not the majority. But it’s on the minds of many women I’ve talked to, and many I’ve otherwise heard. And, for reasons I’ll get into in just a little while, it is a real problem, and one that creates real damage.
We have an answer for it, of course: it’ll all work out in the eternities.[fn1] And, while I believe that that’s true, it’s a deeply unsatisfying answer. And it’s not unsatisfying only because it pushes the real question off by a step—turtles all the way down—but because it is incompatible with our religious philosophy. That is, if our sealings will all be worked out in the eternities, why bother trying to get them right in this life? If we believe that this life has an eternal impact, which I necessarily do, then, even if everything will work out eventually, it must be that my choices today matter, and that I’m obligated to work toward getting the best answer possible.
If that’s true, “it will all work out” isn’t necessarily the wrong answer, but it’s cowardly and lazy to use it as our first answer; instead, we need to leave it as our last resort, our grace after all we can do.
So back to our modern polygamy dilemma: while I call it “vestigial” in the post title, it isn’t really the result of our half-century or so experience. Rather, it’s a direct result of our belief that marriage can be eternal. If temple sealings are eternal—and if we allow second marriages—eternal polygamy is a very real risk.
But this kind of polygamy, in some ways more than even 19th-century polygamy, feels wrong. And it feels wrong because it represents the collision of a couple incompatible values that we hold, especially eternal marriage and marital autonomy.[fn2]
That we value eternal marriage should go without saying. When I was on my mission, that was our biggest selling point. It is essential to exaltation.[fn3] I have a fam’ly here on earth, and all that.
At the same time, we value autonomy in marriage. As parents, we don’t arrange our children’s marriages. The church doesn’t arrange its members’ marriages. It arranges singles wards for people to meet, it encourages its single members to get out there and marry, but it doesn’t actually do the hard work of deciding who they should marry.
And we carry that autonomy into our vicarious temple work. If the sealing were the only thing, we could seal any two dead people to each other. But we only seal couples who were, in fact, married in life, preserving as best we can their autonomous lifetime choices (incidentally, underscoring the relevance of this life’s choices).
But those values become incompatible in the case of second marriages. A man whose spouse dies can remarry in the temple; with proper clearance, a man who has been civilly divorced (but hasn’t received a sealing cancellation) can be remarried in the temple.[fn4]
In either case, eternal marriage has trumped autonomy. That is, the eternal nature of the first and second marriage implies that, in the next life, the man will be married to more than one woman. But that eternal sealing didn’t require the consent of the first wife.[fn5] (In fact, if he’s a widower, her consent is basically impossible to obtain.) As a result, she’s in a polygamous marriage that she did not consent to, tied to a person or persons that she didn’t want to be tied to.
Moreover, the second spouse isn’t always all-in on postmortal polygamy, but if she wants to marry a man who has already been sealed, it is often the specter of polygamy or of not marrying. Men’s requests for sealing cancellations appear to be rejected as a matter of course (speaking anecdotally, at least).
There are ways to solve the problem of non-autonomous polygamy, of course, but all of them seem to violate fundamental values that we hold. Some examples:
Status quo. We can leave things as they are. Which, as I pointed out, violates marital autonomy.
Tie sealing cancellation to civil divorce. Not bad, except that it could discourage faithful individuals from pursuing a civil divorce in cases where, in fact, civil divorce is their best option. That is, if you believe that temple sealing is essential for exaltation (and some people seem to believe a very literal version of this), then, on the margins, there’s an incentive for staying in a bad marriage for the sake of being exalted.
Automatically provide a sealing cancellation in advance of a new sealing happens. This is probably fine where the new sealing follows a civil divorce; where it follows the death of a spouse, though, you’ve just eliminated the autonomy of the dead spouse—her (or his) eternal marriage can end by virtue of dying.
Only permit a single sealing. Sure. But then you eliminate the possibility of making a bad first choice and then a good subsequent choice.
Eliminate eternal marriage. Besides the doctrinal difficulty of making that move, it seems a little excessive.
Allow women to get second sealings during their lifetime. It doesn’t really fix anything, but at least it evens the playing field, and provides some version of marital mutally-assured destruction.
Information-forcing temple prenup. You could always require marrying couples to decide, in advance of their sealing, whether a second sealing is permissible. Of course, to really work, it has to be irrevocable; once a couple is married, the husband (who wants a second sealing, say) has more leverage to demand a change. But the thing is, I’m not sure that’s a good point in time to require a decision of this kind of magnitude.
I’m not trying to find a solution here; I don’t believe there is a solution. But I think the idea that it will work out in the eternities becomes more palatible—and, frankly, more credible—when we’ve acknowledged the problem and wrestled with the possible solutions.
Today, it feels more like we’ve arrived where we are by default. We haven’t really enagaged with the issues, either institutionally or culturally. And by refusing to engage with the problems, we’re essentially telling our sisters and brothers who face them that we don’t care about their situation, because all is well with us.
And that’s the wrong message to send.
[fn1] FWIW, that’s also our answer to the dissonance between temple marriage being required for exaltation and the fact that not everybody will be married in this life.
[fn2] And yes, I know that in Joseph Smith’s time, polygamy, as practiced, didn’t necessarily allow for autonomy, and I know that throughout the ages, marriage was arranged, with limited to no input from the children to be married. Also, I don’t care. I’m talking specifically about contemporary Western marital mores here; for reasons I’ll explain in the main post, we’ve clearly absorbed those mores, even from a temple-sealing perspective.
[fn3] (except, of course, where it isn’t)
[fn4] My understanding is that women can be sealed to multiple men after they die, but not while they’re still alive, but I don’t have any citation for that.
[fn5] And yes, I know that 19th century polygamy, as a practical matter, didn’t always require the consent of the first wife. And I don’t care—again, I’m talking contemporary, not historical, practice.