FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice.
Mormonism and polygamy/Purpose of plural marriage
The purpose of plural marriage
Jump to Subtopic:
- Gospel Topics: Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes for instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage during the 19th century
- Question: What do the scriptures say about plural marriage?
- Question: If the only purpose of polygamy was to "raise up seed," then why did Joseph not have children by his plural wives?
- Question: What purposes could plural marriage possibly serve?
Gospel Topics: Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes for instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage during the 19th century
"Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah," Gospel Topics on LDS.org:
Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes for instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage during the 19th century. The Book of Mormon identifies one reason for God to command it: to increase the number of children born in the gospel covenant in order to “raise up seed unto [the Lord]” (Jacob 2:30). Plural marriage did result in the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes. It also shaped 19th-century Mormon society in other ways: marriage became available to virtually all who desired it; per-capita inequality of wealth was diminished as economically disadvantaged women married into more financially stable households; and ethnic intermarriages were increased, which helped to unite a diverse immigrant population. Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints. Church members came to see themselves as a “peculiar people,” covenant-bound to carry out the commands of God despite outside opposition, willing to endure ostracism for their principles.
Question: What do the scriptures say about plural marriage?
The only scriptural explanation given from the Lord for approved plural marriage is found in Jacob 2:30
"For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things."
Here, the Lord gives only one reason for plural marriage, "to raise up seed unto me." In the only recorded revelation on plural marriage received by Joseph Smith, the Lord further stated (D&C 132:63):
"they [the plural wives] are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified."
These scriptural passages suggest to many that plural marriage served at least two reasons: 1) "to raise up seed" or "multiply and replenish the earth," and 2) "that they may bear the souls of men."
It is often not the Lord's pattern to give reasons for His commandments, and we are often left to draw our own conclusions—which may be completely wrong (Moses 5:6-8). We often obey when we do not understand why a command has been given—we only know that it has been given. We should remember the caution of Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
...It's not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do we're on our own. Some people [have] put reasons to [commandments] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong.
Plural marriage can be a difficult historical fact for people to understand, both members and nonmembers alike
Trying to fully understand the purposes behind such a commandment in today's mindset can also make this subject difficult. It is important to note that we do not have all the historical information surrounding the inception and implementation of the practice. Rather than trying to understand the Lord's purposes in retrospect on a limited scope, one should remember the above scripture in Jacob. Other benefits, although potentially advantageous, are not given as reasons by the Lord.
Question: If the only purpose of polygamy was to "raise up seed," then why did Joseph not have children by his plural wives?
Polygamy was not permitted only for the purpose of procreation
If the only purpose of polygamy, at least in Joseph Smith's case, was to "raise up seed," then why did Joseph not have children by his plural wives? He was certainly capable of having children, as demonstrated by those that he had by Emma, many of whom died. Yet, there is no conclusive evidence to date of Joseph having had children by any of his plural wives, and DNA testing has ruled out most of those who were suspected of being such.
Joseph was commanded to restore the practice of polygamy as part of the "restoration of all things." It was obviously not intended that Joseph use the practice to produce progeny.
Joseph was also sealed for eternity to some women who were already married, but these women continued to have children by their current husbands
Among Joseph's plural marriages and/or sealings, between eight to eleven of them were to women who were already married. Of the eight well-documented cases, five of the husbands were Latter-day Saints, and the other three were either not active in or not associated with the Church. In all cases, these women continued to live with their husbands, most of them doing so until their husbands died. These eternal marriages appear to have had little effect upon the lives of the women involved, with the exception that they would be sealed to Joseph in the afterlife rather than to their earthly husbands. No children from these marriages have ever been identified. These were sealings which would only affect Joseph's association with these women in the afterlife.
For a detailed response, see: Did Joseph have any children through polygamous marriages?
Question: What purposes could plural marriage possibly serve?
Save for scriptural accounts, any other "reasons" which we attach, in retrospect, to plural marriage can only be based on supposition and intellectual deduction
Any such list as this is therefore tentative. Any or all of these things could have been intended by the Lord for the benefit of the Church and the Saints. A few of these benefits which have been suggested include:
- It was to try (prove) His people. Polygamy stood as an Abrahamic test for the saints.
- It was to "raise up" righteous seed.
- It served to "set apart" his people as a peculiar people to the world. This social isolation that gave the church space to solidify itself into an identity independent of the many denominations from which the membership was derived.
- Polygamy was part of the "restoration of all things."
- Numerous family ties were created, building a network of associations that strengthened the Church.
- Polygamy created a system where a higher percentage of women and men got married compared to the national average at the time.
Other benefits which we do not yet see or understand could also have been intended. But, it reminds us plural marriage may have accomplished more than we sometimes appreciate.
- "Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah," Gospel Topics on LDS.org. (2013)
- Dallin H. Oaks cited in "Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban," Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life's Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.
- David R. Keller, "Where the Lost Boys Go," FAIR Blog (last accessed 9 May 2008)