Polygamy occupies an uneasy place in the psyche of many Mormons today. Although the practice was abandoned by the church in the early 20th century, it is exotic and taboo enough that it continues to be one of the public’s primary associations with Mormons. However, even within the church, the idea of polygamy (and specifically, polygyny) continues to complicate theology and life. Today I’d like to take a deeply personal look at some of the fruits of our lingering, troubled relationship with polygamy, and the effect it has on how we conceptualize and talk about (or don’t talk about) Heavenly Mother. If you’re feeling the need for conversational antecedents, please see Finding My Heavenly Mother, part 1 and part 2.
In public and to their non-member friends, Mormons typically try to distance themselves from polygamy and its popular portrayals in the contemporary media. Church members, leaders, and political figures alike will explain upon being pressed that we haven’t practiced polygamy in a hundred years, and then try to steer the conversation toward less controversial topics. And while fundamentalist Mormons do continue the practice, they are vehemently disavowed by the mainstream church, which views them as apostates.
Polygamy is, of course, also a minefield for missionaries. It’s true that in my family we have accounts handed down of early pioneer ancestors being converted when the missionaries preached powerful testimony of what they called “plurality of wives.” On my mission, though, the best I could do when confronted with point-blank questions about polygamy from an intelligent young woman contemplating baptism was to tell her I didn’t like polygamy either, but I still believed the church was true. She got baptized and remained active, in spite of her distaste for polygamy. As do I.
While disavowing polygamy to the world at large, many Mormons simultaneously continue to believe that polygamy will be practiced in heaven. And it’s not historical polygamy, but this idea of eternal polygyny that I would like to address during this post.
Captain Moroni’s 16th Wife
The common Mormon belief in eternal polygyny rests largely on 19th century teachings by the early polygamous prophets, and readings of D&C 132. However, it is given added credence and modern relevance by current temple sealing practices.
In the early days of the church, of course, a man could participate in separate sealing ordinances with an unlimited number of living women, each of whom was to become his wife not only during life, but for eternity. While men can no longer be legally married to multiple living women simultaneously, a man whose wife has died can be (and routinely is) sealed to another woman without cancelling the first sealing. Even stranger, in the case of divorce, men are often left sealed to multiple living women. Many members point to these situations as modern-day affirmations of eternal polygyny.
Interestingly enough, a woman can also be sealed to multiple husbands, but only after all the parties are dead. And in fact, the current practice when performing sealings for dead ancestors is to seal both women and men to all the spouses to whom they were married in life (whether polygamously or sequentially), with the expectation that God will “work everything out” in heaven. Still, a prevailing folk belief remains that the way He will work it out is for men to be married forever to all their wives, while women choose one husband, even if they married and loved multiple husbands during their lifetime.
Needless to say, the doctrine of eternal polygyny is a painful one for many faithful LDS women, both married and single. I had a female Mormon friend, single and in her late twenties, who would often bemoan her future fate as “Captain Moroni’s 16th wife.” It was a joke, but our laughter was tinged with trepidation. I was single myself at the time, in a church for which marriage is the highest state of human happiness. More than once I pictured myself arriving in heaven and being “assigned” a husband who already had a gaggle of wives around him, so as to avoid the awful fate of remaining single and lonely forever. No, that didn’t really sound like heaven to me. More like hell.
Aside from being devastating to single women, a belief in eternal polygyny can have profound effects on a marriage relationship. I have a friend who says that her husband looks forward to polygyny in heaven, because his sex drive will finally be satisfied. He believes that polygyny is a divine solution for what he perceives as the disparity between the male and female sex drives. Perhaps the thought is comforting to him, but I don’t imagine that putting off the problem till eternity is helping them much to develop a mutually fulfilling sexual relationship in the here and now.
Personally, I struggled to emotionally connect with my husband during the early years of our marriage, because I could not face the pain of loving him completely, and then being forced to share him. We were married in the temple, and deeply in love. But I often felt that because of eternal polygyny, our true marital happiness was as ephemeral as we are taught to believe it is eternal. During our sweetest moments together, I felt a twinge of hopelessness that our beautiful relationship would only really last until we got to heaven. How ironic.
Nor am I the only woman I know who has wept to her husband over polygyny, and been told that if he has a choice in heaven, he will choose only her, but if God asks him to marry other women, he will do it. I could not fault him for his faithfulness to God, but my feelings of despair drove a wedge not only between me and my husband, but between me and God. For the first time in my life, I deeply doubted whether God really loved and understood me. I was jealous of my Protestant and Catholic friends, who were in love and didn’t know yet that God might make them share their husbands. Sometimes I even hoped that my husband would be a little less righteous, so he wouldn’t qualify for the ultimate reward of more wives.
Trophy Wives in Paradise
While some men do treat the topic with the sensitivity it deserves, the idea of eternal polygyny also feeds an ugly undercurrent of chauvinism in the church. My male LDS friends have told me about conversations in BYU dorms or between mission companions in which young Mormon men fantasize about heavenly kingdoms full of beautiful women for them to rule over and enjoy. Such attitudes, nauseatingly reminiscent of the eternal rewards in paradise promised to suicide bombers by certain terrorist groups, demonstrate a frightening lack of respect toward women–a sort of eternal objectification.
Sometimes similar comments are made even in the presence of the women concerned. One memorable day at a family gathering, my husband’s elderly grandfather spread an uncomfortable silence over the entire room when he gloated in front of his embarrassed second wife that he would have two wives in heaven.
I grew up being taught that doubting or repudiating eternal polygyny was tantamount to unfaithfulness, and a stepping stone to apostasy. Fellow members told me that God would change my feelings about polygamy after I died, or that I would have different desires when I was perfected. For some people, I know those explanations are adequate, and they just don’t worry about eternal polygyny. For others, resignation to eternal polygamy actually becomes part of their female identity and (for better or worse) renders them more accepting of gender inequalities in the here and now. But I felt trapped by my belief in a heaven I dreaded and feared.
I also felt cheated by the church’s unrelenting emphasis on the Family Proclamation, the political statements about “one man and one woman,” and all the endless photos in the Ensign of happy monogamous nuclear families. If we were all going to end up in polygamous harems in heaven, wasn’t it more than a little misleading to teach that our marriage relationships here were eternal in any substantive sense?
For my entire life up till a year or so ago, I struggled to reconcile the idea of eternal polygamy with my belief in God’s love for me. I tried hard to let myself love my husband completely, even while believing that after death he might someday take other wives.
But worst of all were the whispers that God approved polygyny because that’s how He lived. In fact, sometimes they were much more than whispers. During a discussion about Mary and the conception of Jesus, one of my MTC teachers stated baldly, “well, we know that God is a polygamist. But I’m sure Joseph will be well taken care of.”
How telling that it only occurred to him to consider his bizarre arrangement from Joseph’s point of view. Because after all, what woman wouldn’t rather be added to the millions of women married to God than remain the treasured monogamous wife of her loving mortal husband?
My 21-year-old self couldn’t have talked back to her MTC teacher, but 11 years (and 9 years of marriage) later, I can say out loud that I, at least, would not rather be married polygamously to God (or any scriptural hero, even Friberg’s Moroni) than keep the beautiful, tumultuous, and utterly exclusive relationship I have built with my husband.
Is My Mother There the Same as Your Mother There?
Besides the devastating emotional and spiritual damage that the idea of eternal polygamy inflicts on women in the church, it also has a curious dampening effect on our discourse about Heavenly Mother. In fact, one of the most common ways of shutting down discussion about Heavenly Mother (second only to the persistent notion of “sacred silence”) is for someone to remark that there are probably millions of heavenly mothers.
However, it’s not immediately clear why the idea of there being multiple heavenly mothers should preclude discussion about Her(/them). For some members the subject may be wrapped up in discomfort with polygamy in general. Perhaps this is also one reason our church manuals have become increasingly reticent about mentioning Her, in the same way that mention of the polygamous wives of the early prophets is suppressed even in biographical sketches in the church manuals.
For others, as I mentioned before, any recognition of the divine feminine smacks of idolatry, and the idea of multiple heavenly mothers just serves to tip the scale further toward polytheistic pagan pandemonium. The Mormon concept of God, which includes three unapologetically distinct persons (two with physical bodies no less), already stretches traditional monotheism. Mentioning out loud some fantastically large number of attendant goddesses might well exclude us permanently from the conventional Christian club. (Which is not to say that admission to that club is or should be a factor when it comes to defining doctrine. But there seems to be quite a push lately to try to get everyone to acknowledge that we are also “Christian.”)
Some people have articulated a fear of being lost in a sea of female faces, leaving them unsure which heavenly mother is theirs, or nervous to worship the wrong one. Ironically enough, when I posted about Heavenly Mother on my personal blog, my own (earthly) mother commented cryptically, “I’m thinking that perhaps my mother there is a different mother there from your mother there.” The question of whether we might be children of different mothers does make things a little awkward. In the case of heavenly mothers being multiple, the old adage about us all being children of the same God turns out to be only half true.
While it has been pointed out that much of what we know about God the Father comes indirectly through Jesus Christ, at least we never need wonder how many heavenly fathers we have. Imagine for a moment what your relationship with Heavenly Father (assuming you have one) would be like if you weren’t sure whether there was just one of him, or a million. Is it possible to even discuss a heavenly mother who’s just a face in a crowd, and not even the same face for all of us?
At this point in the conversation (if it’s even made it this far), a lot of people throw in the towel, and say, “see! This is why we don’t talk about Heavenly Mother.”
It seems to me that a more overt acknowledgement of Heavenly Mother by Church leaders would inevitably entail clarifying this persistent question of whether there is one heavenly mother or many, and possibly also the related (and seemingly inextricable) idea of eternal polygamy. That’s some pretty heavy stuff (I mean, look at the fuss we’re all making over the relatively minor policy change of lowering the age of female missionary service by two years). So in the meantime, as always, we’ll just have to press forward with the bits and pieces we have about Heavenly Mother, arranging them however we can to make a coherent picture.
As you’ve seen in this post, I’ve gone to considerable trouble to think through the idea of multiple heavenly mothers. If it’s a possible belief, I think we need to consider it seriously and feel out the implications. But that’s the thing. It really doesn’t work. The implication is that our Heavenly Mother is not worth talking about or coming to know because there are so many of Her. She’s not even, like Eve, “the mother of all living.” Heavenly Father is the really important one, because He’s the one we all have in common, and the one who’s really God. Eternal polygamy turns my Heavenly Mother into a sort of amorphous crowd, indistinct, unknowable, fading into obscurity. And by extension, I guess that’s what eternal polygamy would look like for me too.
When I try to imagine a heaven with one reigning Patriarch surrounded by many wives, my mind and soul descend into darkness, doubt and confusion. Trying to reconcile the idea of eternal polygamy, which deeply offends my heart and spirit, with my belief in a loving Heavenly Father has been a struggle for me during much of my life, and at times has distanced me from Him and from my husband and left me feeling depressed, worthless, and angry. That’s a scary, dark place to be.
Ultimately, I realized that either my belief in God or my belief in polygamy had to go. They were mutually incompatible. I was not capable of believing in the God of polygamy because He was no god I would ever want to worship. For me, the divine picture only comes into focus when I imagine my Heavenly Parents hand-in-hand, equally yoked, the ultimate image of male and female perfection fused into one divine and balanced whole.
Becoming converted to the reality of my Heavenly Mother was a game-changer for me. When I realized that I had a Mother who understood me because She was me, I felt liberated, renewed, and alive. As I contemplated the meaning of female divinity, saw Her hand in my life and the world around me, and felt Her close to me, the specter of eternal polygamy gradually faded away. I no longer fear eternal polygamy because I no longer believe in it. There is simply no room for it now that its shadowy millions of wives have been eclipsed by the gloriously felt reality of a Heavenly Mother who embodies every power and perfection in Her female form, and stands side-by-side with my Heavenly Father in wisdom, love, authority, and counsel.
Now that my eyes and my heart have been opened, it’s hard for me to imagine that for so long I tried to force myself to believe something so antithetical to the deepest feelings of my soul. President David O. McKay often quoted this statement by Rev. Theodore Hesburgh: “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” No amount of telling me that “Heavenly Father loves His daughters just as much as He loves His sons” rings true to me, until I feel for myself the way He loves my Mother. My assurance of the love my Heavenly Parents have for me and my trust in their plan of happiness flow directly from my understanding of the even deeper love and partnership they share with one another.