Gospel Q&A is a series from LDS Daily that strives to answer important gospel questions from readers. Today, we address the question, “Why did the Lord institute polygamy?”
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Featured Image | John W. Taylor’s four wives in 1901
Sooner or later, every Latter-day Saint woman (and probably most of the men) has to come to terms with the question of polygamy. I don’t claim to have THE ANSWER, but after much research and pondering, I believe this is at least part of what was going on that called a need for plural marriage in ancient times as well as in Church history. I hope it helps give you some peace about it, too.
I looked in the scriptures for times that polygamy was approved by the Lord to see what similarities might be found in the circumstances.
One of the most notable times of its practice is among Jacob and the daughters of Laban—Leah, Rachel, and their handmaidens.
Jacob’s brother Esau married among the Hittites, to the great dismay of his parents. They were not covenant-keepers. Isaac forbade Jacob from marrying among the Canaanites. Instead, he told him to go to his uncle’s house and marry out of his cousins. Isn’t it looking like there aren’t too many worthy, covenant-keeping families to choose from? Then Jacob was promised in a dream, “And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 28:14)
He receives this prophecy of great seed (large posterity). It follows the prophecy that he marries Leah, eventually Rachel, and then both of their handmaidens. These unions brought about the entirety of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now, I have a firm conviction that God loves all of His children. Our choices must disappoint Him at times (the same way we may disappoint our earthly parents, or our children may disappoint us), but His love remains. I’ve always loved this quote by Christian children’s book author Max Lucado: “If He had a wallet, your photo would be in it. If He had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Face it, friend, He’s crazy about you.” I believe this! He loves us! He adores us.
But. He is also very practical. If Jacob were to be the father of a great nation—of the entirety of the twelve tribes—having many mothers to bring them into the world was probably necessary. It had to be done to bring about the desired outcome of posterity.
It’s not often spoken of with regard to polygamy (or really spoken of at all), but the reality is that Adam and Eve’s children must have intermarried. They were biological brothers and sisters and yet they intermarried and conceived children. They would have had to do so. There was no one else. The thought of intermarrying among siblings is abhorrent, but there was no other way to raise up a posterity and become the predecessors for all of mankind.
Jacob 2 speaks a bit on the topic of polygamy presenting first the rule and then the exception.
The rule: “Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;” (verse 27).
One man, and one woman. This is the rule. God does allow for one caveat to this rule as found in verse 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” (emphasis added).
It suggests that polygamy is used in extremely specific circumstances when it is necessary to quickly build up a righteous posterity. It’s not the rule, but it is a practical solution that may be necessary for very specific circumstances for a very specific purpose—like building the family from which the entire twelve tribes of Israel would originate.
Similarly, D&C 132:63 indicates that plural wives would be permitted for the sake of multiplying and replenishing the earth. At the time in church history when the Lord did permit plural marriage, an estimated 60,000-70,000 converted Saints immigrated to the United Saints. What tremendous growth! How exciting and invigorating that would have been for the membership in the Salt Lake Valley! And yet, the Lord needs balance in His Church. He describes this in Jacob 2:48:
“And it came to pass that the servant said unto his master: Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard—have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves. Behold, I say, is not this the cause that the trees of thy vineyard have become corrupted?”
In order to keep the roots of the Church in harmony with its branches, the Lord instituted a quick way for a large posterity of “roots” to be born; members born into the church who could help the thousands of converts flooding in to grow into the gospel. Just as there was a specific time and reason that Adam and Eve’s children would have wed and conceived children, and a specific time when Jacob would have been authorized to have multiple wives to raise up a nation, polygamy was practiced in the early days of the Church to build up a righteous posterity that was needed to build the Kingdom of God and keep the branches of the Church from overcoming its roots. When this purpose was fulfilled, the practice was stopped.
While I’m extremely grateful that the Lord’s rule is marriage between one man and one woman, as a practical woman, the temporary need for the practice of plural marriage does make sense to me. It brings me peace that at more than 16.5 million strong in church membership, we probably won’t be asked to participate in this practice again.
This research brought me peace, and I hope it brings you peace, too.
Disclaimer: While all of my answers will use scriptures and/or words of modern prophets, I do not represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t believe any of my answers are comprehensive. I’m just one person using the gospel I have been blessed with to bring hope, peace, and answers to other seekers of truth.