I just finished reading Under the Banner of Heaven: The Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. As an ex-Mormon, this book was fascinating because it delved into more scandalous parts of Mormon history that were never talked about at church. Of course, one of the major themes in the book was the practice of “plural marriage” or polygamy, and that’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.
Though polygamy is sanctioned in Doctrine and Covenants 132 in the revelation revealed to Joseph Smith, subsequent church leaders ceased the practice toward the end of the 19th century as a result of pressure from the federal government. Since then the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have been forbidden to have more than one wife. However, several fundamentalist groups that peeled away from the main Mormon Church to form their own congregations felt nonobservance of the polygamy commandment was apostasy and continue the practice of plural marriages even today.
One of the things that bothers me about Mormonism in general is how women are expected to be subservient. But the level of subservience that is inculcated in fundamentalist Mormon women makes me sick—in many ways its comparable to how women are treated by Islamic fundamentalists. The problem isn’t that Fundamentalist Mormon men take multiple wives; the problem is the way their culture is designed to provide them with their many wives.
Though D & C 132 states that the first wife must give her consent for the man to take a second wife (and presumably each subsequent addition must be approved by all the wives that came before her), the major fundamentalist groups coerce women to marry men. Even girls as young as 14 can be forced to marry, and if one husband dies, the women are essentially given to whatever man is deemed worthy without consulting the women. Polygamy in this form is, in my opinion, abominable.
Yet this sort of coercion has historically also happened in single-wife marriages. It is degrading when a woman is essentially sold to a man like a milk cow, living her life according to her husband’s dictates, more a plaything than a real person. But it is so much worse when men collect multiple women by forcing them into marriage, turning fellow members of our species into nothing more than his personal herd of sperm receptacles.
But there are other Mormon splinter groups that practice polygamy without being disrespectful of women. In his book Krakauer mentions the leader of one such group who believes that not only does a man need a woman’s willing consent, she has to ask him to take her as one of his wives.
But all of this deals with men with many wives. What of women having multiple husbands?
At some point Emma Smith – Joseph Smith’s (first) wife – told her husband that she had no desire to live in a plural marriage with him and threatened to take a “spiritual husband” as her second husband if he were to take a “spiritual wife”. Interestingly enough, part of God’s subsequent revelation to Joseph Smith regarding plural marriage speaks directly to Emma, commanding her to cleave to her husband’s side and not to sleep with any other men. God, it would seem, only thinks men can handle having more than one partner, and was moved to chastise Emma personally in a revelation intended for everyone. Way to go, Joseph. I mean God. Or whoever.
The funny thing is that despite his multiple wives, Joseph Smith was also known to mess around with prostitutes. It turns out Joseph was a whore. Looks like we have something in common after all.
I suppose from a reproductive perspective it makes sense for a man to have more wives. A woman, after all, can’t get pregnant while she’s pregnant, but a man with multiple pregnant wives can produce more offspring in a single gestation cycle. This makes sense if you have fewer men than women and need to boost your population quickly.
But what if there are more men than women in a group that also needs to produce offspring quickly? I’m reminded of the end of the first book in the Ender’s Game series, when soldiers are settling the far off bugger planets after the buggers’ savage defeat. Since there were fewer women on board the starship and more colonists wouldn’t arrive for another 40 years, each woman bedded multiple men. She would still have to wait nine months to give birth, but the increased number of sperm donors increased the likelihood of her getting preggers quickly. In such a situation, it would make more sense for women to have multiple husbands.
This is all assuming, of course, that marriage is the only legitimate way to propagate the species, or that propagation is the only reason to marry. But I’m pretty sure we were popping out babies long before we came up with the mores of marriage, and often enough people have legitimate reasons to marry without ever intending or wanting to have children with their spouse.
Without the coercion, and with other things in the relationships beyond a means of popping out babies, I think there is something beautiful about plural marriages. If we can get past the pimply-faced, drool-bespeckled fourteen-year-old’s wet dream of fucking from wife to wife spreading his hot seed (drool), we can move forward to the loving, caring companionship that such a marriage can provide for everyone involved.
If everyone involved consents and more or less gets along well with all the other people involved, then you have more people to lean on in times of need, more people to learn from and to share your life experiences with. And if he can have other wives (or husbands), then she too should be able to have more husbands (or wives). Granted, it’s a complex relationship style, but with the right people and mindset, it would be a little community of lovers dedicated to being there for each other.
True, it’s certainly not for everyone, but I also don’t see why the idea of plural marriage was so anathema to the US federal government when Mormonism was a budding religion—or why it still is, for that matter. If people want to live together, support each other, raise children together, whatever, why should the state be able to dictate how many people can constitute a relationship?
When, however, men are forcing women to marry them – including, in some cases, their own stepdaughters or daughters – when children and women are forced to succumb to their husband’s sexual desire, then the state has a responsibility to step in and help people being treated as less than human. But when consenting adults decide on a particular arrangement, the government and society should mind their own business.
If the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints hadn’t banned plural marriage, I just might of stayed. Except for, well, all the other issues I have with the church’s doctrine and viewpoint…