Sunday, November 6, 2011

Polygamy



Let's talk polygamy.

In recent months on separate occasions people have brought up the subject of polygamy with me so I felt to sum up our conversations and hopefully help others who maybe do not understand about polygamy and the Church.

Overview

To begin, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not teach or support the practice of polygamy. “Mormons” who openly live polygamous lives are generally part of offshoots from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as the incidents all over the news a few years ago in Texas. Those people have their own modified version of the Church and are in no way affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008) , fifteenth prophet and president of the Church in the latter days said:

“This Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church.... If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church.”

In the early days of the Church, the Lord did reveal to the prophet Joseph Smith that some of the members were to practice polygamy. This was not a blanket commandment but specific instruction given to select people. Then, in 1890, the Lord revealed to the current prophet and president of the Church, President Wilford Woodruff (1807-1898), that the members of the Church were to no longer practice polygamy (see Official Declaration 1). Some struggled with the apparent “retraction” of the commandment and split off to create their own churches in which they could continue to practice polygamy. These are the churches that you hear about today when polygamy is discussed.

As we discuss the history of polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a bit more in-depth, keep in mind that a certain degree of faith is required both to understand and to accept the reasons behind polygamy and why the Church no longer practices polygamy. Remember, our thoughts are not the Lord’s thoughts, neither are His ways our ways (see Isaiah 5:8-9). When God gives commandments or does things that perhaps we do not fully understand, we must trust in Him that it “shall give [us] experience, and shall be for [our] good” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7), for “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).

History

The first time the Lord commanded plural marriage was not in the 1800s. In the Bible we read of people including prophets such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others who had multiple wives (ex. Genesis 16:1–3; 29:23–30; 30:4, 9; Judges 8:30; 1 Samuel 1:1–2). And, likewise there were times that God commanded not to live the law of plural marriage.

One potential reason for polygamy in the early days of the Church could stem from the persecution of the early Saints. In the early days of the Church, persecution was very intense. Members of the Church were driven from place to place, their property was destroyed, they were denied rights and privileges that were rightfully theirs as US citizens, and they were even killed. Political leaders upheld the mobs that persecuted the early Saints and the governor of Illinois even signed an “extermination order” in which he decreed, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary.” (Greene, John P (1839), Facts Relative to the Expulsion of the Mormons or Latter Day Saints, from the State of Missouri, under the "Exterminating Order", Cincinnati, Ohio: R. P. Brooks, retrieved 2006-12-31.)

Throughout this persecution, many women were left widows and children left fatherless. One benefit of plural marriage was the better care for all of the women and children who didn’t have husbands and fathers to meet their needs. This certainly isn’t the reason, nor did Joseph Smith ever give this as a reason, but it may have been a partial motivation behind the commandment.

As persecution worsened, the Lord told the Saints to move west, to a place far away from persecution--the middle of the desert which is now known as the Salt Lake valley. There the Saints began to build a new civilization and enjoyed freedom from persecution because of their beliefs. Their joy was short-lived, however, as people in the east began to pressure President James Buchanan to raise an army to go west and fight the polygamists. As political pressure worsened, the US government under President Abraham Lincoln began to seize the property of the Church that the Saints worked so hard to build, threatening to take the sacred and beloved temples.

In 1890, the Lord revealed to President Woodruff that the members of the Church were to cease living the law of plural marriage and were, “to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land” (Official Declaration 1). Many members and leaders of the Church struggled with the retraction of this commandment (some leaving the Church and forming some of the various splinter groups discussed above), nevertheless the official stance of the Church from that day to now holds that polygamy is not a current commandment of God.

God’s command and the required faith

Earlier I said that in order to understand the reasons behind polygamy and it’s place in the history of the Church, a certain degree of faith is required. Many both inside the Church and outside have criticized that Church leaders caved and changed the commandment due to the extreme political pressure and outright persecution. This is false. The Lord Himself said, “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; . . . whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:38). He gives commandments and teachings when He wants, on His own timetable, and for His own purposes. He is not threatened nor influenced by man. “As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it upstream, as to hinder the Almighty,” in His work and His efforts to bless His children (Doctrine and Covenants 121:33).

In order to understand or at least square with polygamy you must have faith that Joseph Smith (through whom the commandment was first given in our day) was a prophet of God and that God spoke to Him. You must also have faith that Wilford Woodruff (through whom the commandment was taken) was a prophet who also spoke with the Lord. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is lead by Jesus Christ and He requires of us our faith and faithfulness in following Him. Plural marriage was not the first hard commandment to understand or follow, nor was it the first time laws and commandments have been taken from the earth. Indeed, it was Moses’ second time down the mountain when He brought with him the Ten Commandments; the first time he brought with him the higher law which he used to destroy the golden calf his brother Aaron helped fashion and the Lord deemed the people not ready or worthy of a higher law.

Some months ago I was discussing polygamy with a very good friend who is not a member of the Church and whom I respect very much. After discussing much of what we have discussed above, she brought up a very interesting point that is the most logical explanation I have ever heard concerning the history of polygamy and the Church. She said that in her research of the topic, she had come to the conclusion that the Church leaders used the law of polygamy for the very survival of the Church. In the early days, polygamy was needed to grow the Church from the inside. Then, with missionaries being sent to spread the gospel abroad and the imminent threat of loss of property and freedom at home, the Church leaders stopped the practice of polygamy in order to continue the growth of the Church.

The Book of Mormon reads, “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save that he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the things which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7). My friend made a very good point. And I also really appreciated her open-mindedness about the whole situation and her willingness to try to find the benefits of and potential reasons for the Saints’ living the law of plural marriage. I did, however, make clear in our discussion and I wish to make clear now that the decision to stop the practice of plural marriage was the Lord’s decision and not man’s.

The Lord took the law of polygamy from the earth for His own reasons and for His own purposes. The Saints were doing all they could to live according to the commandments given them by God through His prophets. They endured heavy persecution from day one and would have continued to endure everything if the Lord willed it. The government could not and cannot stop the work of the Lord, no one can. If it was God’s will that His Saints continue to live the law of plural marriage, He would have grown the Rocky Mountains or placed eternal blizzards in the mountain passes or done whatever you can imagine to prevent the coming of armies and the fall of His people, His Church, and His temples. He parted the Red Sea, He placed a pillar of cloud before the children of Israel by day and a pillar of fire by night, He walked on water, and He calmed the storms. He could have done anything to make possible the Saints’ living His commandments.

Conclusion

But He did not. This time He chose to take the commandment from the earth. I do not understand everything related to the law of plural marriage. In fact, I understand very little about that law and it’s place in Church history. But I do know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I know that each of his successors including Wilford Woodruff and Thomas S. Monson, who is the prophet today, were and are men of God who speak the mind and will of our Heavenly Father. Whether by the Lord’s voice or by the voice of His servants the prophets it is the same.

I echo the words of the prophet Alma and say that it, “may suffice if I only say,” that the commandments of God are given, “for a wise purpose, which purpose is known unto God for he doth counsel in wisdom over all his works, and his paths are straight, and his course is one eternal round” (Alma 37:12).

The Lord does what He needs to bless the lives of us, His children. His work and His glory is to bring to pass our eternal life (see Moses 1:39). He loves each one of us and hopes that each of us makes decisions to come unto Him through the atoning sacrifice of His Son and return to live with Them again. I am grateful for a Father in Heaven who loves me and cares about me enough to call prophets that I may know how to successfully navigate this world of changing and shifting values. I love the Lord and I know that He strengthens me in my efforts to keep his commandments.

Jeremy