So asks Ronan. Here’s my polygamy theory–and it is worth every penny you paid for it:
(1) Joseph Smith was devoted to the idea of restoration, which sparked his belief that polygamy needed to be restored.
(2) God permitted Joseph Smith to restore polygamy.
(3) When the cost of practicing polygamy became too high, it was ended by revelation.
Further thoughts on each of the above:
(1) I think Joseph Smith misunderstood what the OT was teaching about polygamy. It is consistently seen as less-than-ideal in the OT (there’s none in the Garden, it is introduced by Cain’s naughty descendants, it always causes more problems than it solves for those who practice it, etc.). I think the “restoration” of polygamy was as necessary and desirable as the restoration of the monarchy or the rule about mixing linen and wool would have been.
(2) So why then did God permit Joseph Smith to restore polygamy when it didn’t need restoring? For the same reason that God allows me to ask stupid questions when I teach in Church even when I pray beforehand to be guided in my preparation of the lesson.
[Sidenote: I would like to see a lot more work done on understanding the concept of "permitted" as an answer to prayer juxtaposed to its more common cousins of "forbidden" and "required."]
I think God permits a lot of our foolish ideas, whether prophet or lowly Relief Society teacher, because you invade with the army you have, not the one you want. And because we (and those forced to listen to us) just might grow from the experience.
And I think that that is why God permitted polygamy (even though I don’t think God would have required its restoration). As we all know, polygamy was a huge test to nineteenth century saints, and I don’t know that it has lessened all that much for some people (particularly women people) who think about the issue today. God is still using polygamy to test and try us (the LDS feminists, the FLDS, the investigators, etc.).
The thing is: If every doctrine and practice and historical aspect of the church is easy and obvious and understandable and justifiable, where would your test of faith come from? You need a Relief Society teacher wasting valuable class time asking stupid questions in order to counterbalance your warm fuzzy from sacrament meeting, else how will your commitment to return to church next week be tried?
How do I explain angels with drawn swords? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe once it is the practice of the church, it is the practice of the church, and obedience is required. Maybe that story became a little . . . overwrought . . . in the retelling.
Which makes this a good time to point out that as near as I can tell, there is nothing even close to (1) an objective source on anything related to polygamy and (2) an objective interpreter on anything related to polygamy. Everyone in the 19th century thought it was either required to get into heaven or a one-way ticket to hell. (And I don’t know that any historian wouldn’t fit into one of those groups, even if their conception of “hell” is less theological and more sociological.)
I think there is a case to be made that polygamy is something of a black hole: I’m not so naive to think that perfect objectivity is ever possible for a historian (or a historical source), but 19th century LDS polygamy really takes the cake when it comes to these things; it’s like your own private doctrinal rashomon!
(3) But when the cost of practicing polygamy became–well, you know what it became at the end of the 19th century–then God put the kibosh on it. I think God gives us (and the prophets) an awful lot of leeway in the exercise of our callings, but draws the line at those things that would completely destroy the church.
It follows from all this that I don’t expect polygamy to be practiced in the eternities by those who didn’t practice it before. (Although I don’t have easy answers for the “loose ends,” including your g-g-grandmother who was Heber’s fourth wife. I trust God to work it out in a way all relevant parties are OK with, though.) But, in general, this theory of polygamy makes sense of all of the major data points for me without making me want to bash my head into the wall.
I made all of this up myself; it isn’t the official stance of the church and I can’t back it up with a laundry list of GA quotes. (And for those reasons I’d never teach it in a church class.) And I’m open to other theories. But I’ve yet to encounter another ‘theory of polygamy’ that puts together all of the pieces in a way that is theologically coherent (to me, anyway). I think my theory might work for blacks and the priesthood and anything else you don’t like, too.