What Did We Learn From Polygamy?

December 12, 2003 | 12 comments

Beware: lengthy reflections on the politico-theological problems of Mormonism follow.

Way down towards the bottom of the comments attached to Nate’s post “How to Make a Mormon Political Theory” (which I never commented on, but should have), Nate makes reference to an article by Fred Gedicks, a BYU law professor, titled “The Integrity of Survival: A Mormon Response to Stanley Hauerwas” (DePaul Law Review 42 (1992): 167-173). I’ve a copy of that article sitting on my shelf right now, and it has always bothered me. Specifically, I’ve been bothered (though perhaps in a good way) by a single footnote Gedicks included in that essay; a footnote that is, in my view, fairly explosive in its implications (though what the fallout from that explosion exactly is I’ve never been quite certain).

The context is as follows: Stanley Hauerwas had just delivered a powerful address on Christianity’s interaction with the modern state, in which he claimed (among other things) that American Christians’ obsessive concern with the First Amendment and “free exercise” jurisprudence has blinded them to the degree to which, as he put it, “‘Christianity’ [was being separated] from the social form in which it is to be embodied…[with the result that] Christian belief [is being] located in an interior, asocial sphere, ‘the heart’ or ‘conscience’ or some other private (i.e., non-public) space, and thus degenerates into ‘mere belief.’” (Hauerwas’s title, “The Kingship of Christ: Why Freedom of ‘Belief’ is Not Enough” should be a more than adequate summary of his point.) Gedicks is one of the commentators, and he confesses himself entirely unable to appreciate Hauerwas’s argument. He writes that “Hauerwas’s argument is not that seeking religious freedom through political activism is ineffective or self-deceptive, but that…activism on behalf of religious freedom transforms the church in ways that the church ought not to be transformed.” He goes on to claim that such “embodied faith” in an enduring church is, for Mormons like himself at least, impossible: “[I]t is not enough for Mormons simply to be faithful to the end…[for in] a conflict between faith and survival, our beliefs require that we do all we can to stave off the end.” After discussing the persecution the church faced because of its practice of polygamy, Gedicks comments that, “Just as Wilford Woodruff had made it clear that the survival of the Mormon church depended on its abandoning plural marriage, he had also made it clear that this abandonment was the will of God….[thus,] God does not always demand faithfulness over survival.”

Interesting stuff, to be sure. But what is it that strikes me as so explosive?

Following the sentence I just quoted, Gedicks drops in this footnote: “There is a sort of positivist loophole here: if God approves the abandonment of a particular article of faith, then by abandoning the faith one is still being faithful to God’s will.” Let’s think about this for a moment. Just what does the Manifesto–and the Mormon experience with polygamy and persecution generally–really teach us Mormons about religious freedom? Usually we appropriate the whole historical experience in terms appropriate to our post-Manifesto acceptance of the American context of religious pluralism (where what matters is “freedom of belief”); that is, we make it into a lesson about sensitivity and autonomy. We were a persecuted minority once, so we should be sympathetic to other such minorities; moreover, we know what it means to have freedom to practice your religion taken away by government power, and we’re determined to prevent such from happening (to us, or anyone else) again. Thus, our church lines up behind the Relgious Freedom Restoration Act and anything else which, relatively speaking, strengthens the free exercise clause. This are eminently defensible positions. And yet, strictly speaking, is the reasoning behind the historical lesson which we take to guide us to such positions legitimate? Look at it this way:

1) God command the church to practice polygamy.

2) God is good, and so, presumably, polygamy, within the bounds and by the terms God has set for it, is also understood to be a good, a “particular article of faith,” as Gedicks put it.

3) The church, when challenged by those who reject that article of faith, subsequently affirms right to practice what it holds to be good, within the bounds of basic principles necessary to a free society (for example, anti-Mormon literature to the contrary, no one is actually physically forced to practice polygamy against their own will).

4) The U.S government announces, through various legislative acts and Supreme Court decisions, that keeping the practice of polygamy within the boundaries of those basic principles is insufficient: polygamy itself is, actually, a bad practice, and must be ended.

5) The U.S. government begins to imprison Mormons, terrorize Mormon communities, and confiscate Mormon property, in order to force them to stopping doing what they believe to be good.

6) Wilford Woodruff goes to God and asks, what are we going to do?

7) God commands the church to stop practicing polygamy, to excommunicate those who do, and preach monogamy.

8) God is good, and so, presumably, the abandonment of polygamy (and the “persecution” (relatively speaking) of those who continue to practice it) is now understood as a good.

8) After a great deal of internal dissent and struggle (about 20 years worth), the church complies with this command, and the persecution ends.

Now, obviously, one can take this as additional sad story of government persecution of a religious minority, with the usual lessons being drawn. But don’t such lessons involve a normative presumption which isn’t present here, at least not fully? Polygamy was, in a particular instance, a good thing. Which would mean that being forced to abandon polygamy in that particular instance was a bad thing–a thing which should not have happened. If you don’t believe that, then any complaint about government persecution of a religious minority has no moral force. (I suppose one might have serious complaints on procedural, constitutional grounds, in the sense of the ACLU lawyer being upset that Nazis are being denied their rights…but from a perspective internal to the Mormon church, I do not understand how any complaint against government persecution, and any lesson drawn from it, cannot presume, if only implicitly, that it would have been better had the government not forced Wilford Woodruff to go to God and ask for help. But does anyone, actually, think that: especially given that we are to understand that it was God Himself to told us to adapt to what the U.S. government was telling us to do?)

In short: official Mormon doctrine holds that God told us that it was absolutely necessary to practice polygamy, and then when we couldn’t anymore, He told us that it was absolutely necessary that we stop. So, that would mean that our church actually didn’t lose its autonomy. God told us to be one thing, and then, when the abusive federal government told us we couldn’t be that thing, God told us we could be this other thing too. That’s really not quite the same as Jehovah Witnesses being imprisoned for refusing to recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and then continuing to refuse to recite it. Obviously the U.S. government’s persecution of the Mormons was far more extreme than that which individual Jehovah Witnesses suffered, and I wouldn’t want this simplistic caricature of the struggle over polygamy to seem like an apology for the federal government’s actions. But still, Gedicks’s footnote (which he himself admits isn’t “spiritually satisfying”) suggests to me that the Mormon experience isn’t very applicable to debates over religious freedom and pluralism; our theology of continuing revelation seems to put us outside long-standing (and very important) debates about freedom and community in the modern world. Perhaps, if God is not only in control of events, but is also in communication with us in regard to how we should adapt to said events, then there can be no such thing as “faithfulness” in the face of persecution, or the preservation of one’s “social order” in the context of a pluralistic state, because that state, and that persecution, are in fact already internalized into that faith and that social order. We might as well say that the Manifesto was a “victory” for the Mormon church, because it enabled the church to survive and flourish as an Americanized religion, while still somehow maintaining our primary allegiance to our divine King. Hauerwas would no doubt suspect that such a revelatory theology makes the preservation of our church’s “authenticity” much too easy, much too much a “done deal.” Sometimes I think he has a point, though I’m not sure such a point is a negative or a positive one.

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12 Responses to What Did We Learn From Polygamy?

  1. Kaimi on December 12, 2003 at 2:41 pm

    Interesting post, Russell. Isn’t the solution to recognize that some of God’s commandments are context-specific, and that changing contexts may change the proper course of action?

    Let me illustrate with two brief examples, which show why we should not always extrapolate context-specific commandments into general principles of “good” and “bad”:

    1. Noah is commanded to build an ark. Is building an ark a good thing? If so, why don’t we all build arks?

    2. Nephi is commanded to kill Laban. Yet the scriptures also teach us not to kill. So which is the good thing — killing or not killing? (In case anyone doesn’t realize it, that’s a rheotical question. “Not killing” is the good thing for almost all contexts).

    Polygamy may have been proper when it was practiced, and be improper now, because, like all (almost all?) commandments, it’s propriety is subject to a context-specific inquiry.

  2. Nate on December 12, 2003 at 3:26 pm

    Interestingly, the first issue of Dialogue contained an article entitled “The Manifesto was a Victory.”

  3. Fred Gedicks on December 12, 2003 at 3:42 pm

    Nate Oman put me onto this thread, which I read literally on the way out the door to drive from Chapel Hill to Provo. I think Russell is generally correct, with one caveat: Faithfulness in the face of persecution is required until God says it is not, so it does have a role to play. (Not very satisfying, but we’re talking naked positivism here.) Cf. Abraham and Isaac. The hardest challenge, I think, is knowing when God relieves us of the obligations of faith. There is a strain in our religion which suggests that the harder or more inconvenient a particular belief-act is, the truer or more righteous it must be. Loads of guilt thus attends the determination that God has relieved us of a requirement of faith in the face of persecution.

    Fred Gedicks

  4. Grasshopper on December 12, 2003 at 3:45 pm

    A slight correction to Nate’s comment. The Dialogue issue with “The Manifesto Was a Victory” is actually Volume 6, # 1 (Spring 1971).

  5. Dave on December 12, 2003 at 6:27 pm

    Interesting comments, Russell. Almost thou persuadest me to become a closet polygamist. Not.

    Narrative theology is a tricky business. In your historical summary there’s a “presumably” at no. 2 and another “presumably” at no. 8(a), then twenty years of dissent and struggle at 8(b). It would seem there is plenty of room for principled disagreement about presumptions and inferences to be drawn from the historical narrative of polygamy.

    To me, it seems like the idea, so firmly planted in the Mormon tradition, that polygamy was a revealed, divine commandment and that its abandonment was a revealed, divine command is an inference from the historical narrative that may be questioned. Or that such a characterization is, in fact, the result of the Mormon use of language, ascribing revelation and inspiration to what other religious traditions freely label administrative, organizational, or policy matters. I don’t think this is the place to dwell on the historical details of such an argument, except to point out that Pres. Woodruff’s own account of his reasoning and his communication via a press release sure looks and feels like a policy change.

    No argument–it was the right policy change. It save the Church. As you stated: Does anyone actually think we would have been better off had the government not pressured the Church to change and polygamy had continued?

    Polygamy is a sensitive topic and a lot of the Mormon identity is tied up in that historical narrative, so I know my sketch will rub some people the wrong way. I think the same dynamic holds, and is clearer, for the 1978 revelation, held out as a glorious, one-moment-in-time revelation commanding the Brethren to open up the priesthood to all races. But of course there was thirty years of politicking, lobbying resistant members of the Twelve, commissioning academic studies of the history of the doctrine to discover that (whoops!) there really wasn’t much in the historical narrative to support the priesthood ban as necessary rather than arbitrary. So they changed the policy. Bravo. Good change.

    I guess I’m saying a sociological reading of the narrative is as valid as the orthodox theological one you recite. It does less to bolster leadership claims of the top of the org chart but does more to rehabilitate Mormon moral reasoning.

  6. Greg on December 12, 2003 at 6:52 pm

    Why the strong dichotomy between “academic studies” “administrative,””organizational,” “policy,” on the one hand, and “revelation” and “inspiration” on the other? Must it be one thing or the other? I thought that one of the contributions of Mormonism is to challenge the supposedly rigid distinctions between revelation vs reason, study vs prayer, temporal commandments vs spiritual commandments.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on December 12, 2003 at 7:25 pm

    I’m sorry that we’re apparently going to miss out on Fred’s contributions to this thread; I would have liked to have heard more from him on how he thinks our historical experience with polygamy affects (or doesn’t affect) our sense of how one remains “faithful” (or, more specifically, maintains the integrity of one’s faith stance) in the context of religious pluralism and opposition. Maybe the thread will still be alive when he arrives in Provo, and he’ll be able to comment then.

    One (probably, again, much too belabored) point in response to his brief comment, however. Fred writes that “There is a strain in our religion which suggests that the harder or more inconvenient a particular belief-act is, the truer or more righteous it must be.” Surely this is true, but to present the issue here in terms of perceptions of difficulty (and hence sacrifice, etc.) is not, I think, the best way to put things. Our thinking about our reactions to challenges to the survival of a principle of faith should not focus on the “burden” of the principle; rather, our focus should be the integrity or “separateness” of that principle. Look at it this way: Christian revelation and commands, and hence the grounding for Christian ethics and behavior, is supposed to issue forth, in some sense or another, from a source which is transcendent, however defined; that is, it is not supposed to “of the world.” So, polygamy: definitely not of the world (at least, insofar as 19th-century white America was concerned). The world said: stop it, now. The church asked God: should we stop it? God said: yes. And we did. And so…well, whence exactly did the command to end the practice of polygamy originate? With God, of course. And yet…in a way, it didn’t entirely, did it? In this case (assuming we accept the orthodox story of polygamy as a revelation), it seems to me that we can’t help but conclude that God reacted to the world, instead of the other way around.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the only religious movements I have any respect for are Anabaptist-type sects that reject the world entirely. There are, if one looks across the history of Christianity with the sympathetic eye, plenty of instances in which one recognizes the divine (or some institutionalization thereof) essentially being “forced” to reconcile itself to “reality.” That is, its separateness from the world is in some way compromised. Such reconciliation may be part of a providential order for all I know (perhaps compromise isn’t always a bad word). But said reconciliations presumably involve some kind of immanent critique, some kind of reformation in which the reality of the situation becomes embedded in the world of faith, thus forming a new (but still old) story with its own integrity. I’m not sure we’ve told such a story in regards to polygamy, at least not theologically. At the level of doctrine, it seems that we just, well, stopped (and D&C 132 is still there in the scriptures, waiting to trip up new converts who haven’t been adequately forewarned).

    I’m far from clear in my own understanding of the whole point of this. Does it suggest that we’re a long ways from being able to adequately make sense of, even to ourselves, what being “faithful” to a revelation (especially one we’ve personally ASKED for) really means? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps this historical episode shows the bankruptcy of all the old notions of “faithfulness” in apotaste Christendom: maybe “compromise,” in the sense I used it above, the idea of immanently reworking one’s own story in response to the world, is another way of denying the fact that maybe you aren’t really receiving revelation at all. But whatever the point, I am certain the issue, as difficult as it may be to articulate, is an important one.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on December 12, 2003 at 7:33 pm


    Of course, simply treating the polygamy story sociologically (Joseph Smith got this idea, he tried it out, lots of folks struggled with it, the times changed, etc.) would render most of my reflections moot. And I should admit, I tempted to do so, since frankly part of me seriously doubts that Mormon polygamy had an especially revelatory genesis. But I’m theologically inclined; I’m interested in working out the meaning of our religious history. As long as plural marriage remains a (theological) badge of honor (or maybe it’s an albatross around our necks?) in how we assess ourselves historically, these questions are worth asking.

  9. Dave on December 12, 2003 at 7:46 pm


    I’m not sure I was really trying to make that distinction. It’s easy enough to identify administrative or organizational actions. Attaching inspired or revealed status to such actions is much trickier. After all, it took the early Christian church hundreds of years to identify an inspired canon for the New Testament.

    Mormonism is still juggling its canon: the Pearl of Great Price wasn’t added until the 1850s, and the Lectures on Faith were dropped some time after that. Two visions were added to the Pearl of Great Price, later shifted to the D&C, in the 1970s. If we are still changing our notion of what is or isn’t inspired enough to be in the Mormon canon, we are still, I think, free to rethink what actions in the historical narrative are or are not inspired under one reading or another.

    I haven’t, of course, read the Hauerwas article referred to in the original post. Seems like the distinction between (private) inspiration and (public) organizational action bears some relation to the comments by Hauerwas regarding (private) belief or conscience and (public) embodiment in a social form which requires, of course, adminstration and organization.

  10. Michelle on December 13, 2003 at 1:24 am

    A revelatory theology by itself requires faithfulness – maybe even more than that required to stand firm in the face of persecution. Isn’t it more difficult to live in a church that keeps changing its rules according to what seems like popular demand, and knowing that it is in fact revelation? I guess I just don’t agree that faithfulness always requires being burnt at the stake.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on December 13, 2003 at 9:14 am


    You put that very well. It certainly is possible that “faithfulness to revelation” is actually more difficult, in some sense, than “faithfulness to the church/doctrinal principles/the order of the faith” (as traditionally understood). I especially like how you acknowledged that revelation as we understand it may involve “changing…rules according to what seems like popular demand.” There is an old and important distinction in the history of Christianity between the voice of the people, and the voice of God; the idea is that hearkening to the latter would set you against the former. That distinction is hardly absent from Mormon doctrine. And yet the orthodox story of the Manifesto and polygamy’s end told in the church suggests, to me at least, that the distinction between the (popular) world and God’s (transcendent) work needn’t always apply; maybe sometimes they are one and the same. And I don’t know how to best think about that. (This is, for what it’s worth, one of the reasons I find Givens’s book on the BoM to be so interesting: his chapter on “dialogic revelation” underlines, I think, the strange fact that the BoM is in a sense very much a mundane, “this-worldly” revelation.)

  12. Michelle on December 13, 2003 at 9:41 am

    Perhaps the popular world and God’s transcendant world are one and the same, at times, for some sort of ends-justifies-the-means necessity. The Church was taken from the world once already, and we know that it won’t be taken again. The Church therefore has to survive in its changing world — the Church has to “flourish as an Americanized religion” in order for it, according to the laws and customs of the land, to remain until the end. Our role therefore is to believe that God is with us, that he directs the church, even when it may seem that men are really initiating the action.


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