Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What do I think about polygamy?

Wow, I know.  I bet you weren't expecting a serious discussion from me today.  But I've got a few things that I have been thinking about a lot and I want to put them down so that I can move on.

Recently a friend and I were discussing polygamy, specifically with interest to the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormons, of which we are both members.  Historically, members of the church practiced polygamy from the 1840's to the turn of the century when the church decided to discontinue plural marriages (resisted by a few members and even some groups which splintered off).

But, it's there, in our history.  And a few echoes of that past are still present with us today.  It's mentioned in our scripture (Doctrine and Covenants, 131, 132, I'm looking at you).  Also, if a man and woman are married in the temple, and his wife dies, that man can marry another woman in the temple later on.  But if a man and woman are married in the temple and her husband dies, that woman cannot remarry in the temple unless she secures a "temple divorce" from her first husband.

These things, and the church's history of polygamy which was heartily supported by original church founders who we hold in very high esteem, lead many members today to try to understand divine purpose in polygamy.  Many times I have heard the explanation that in the early days of the church, many men were either being killed or dying (especially on the pioneer trek west), and in order to protect and provide for their widows, men needed to take on these extra wives and children.  That is the most rational explanation I have heard.  I'm sure there are others and please put them in the comments.

Anyway, in my conversation with my good friend, she was wondering if maybe polygamy takes a bad rap.  She frankly admitted that she wouldn't mind having help from additional women in the home in tasks such as child-rearing and cleaning.  She mentioned tribes in Africa where polygamy is openly practiced and how there isn't any psychological damage to those women because it is a culturally accepted normality that you share your husband with other women.  Also there are plenty examples from the bible of advantageous marriages between one husband and several wives, where the "work of the Lord" and "multiplying and replenishing the earth" was being accomplished by such a situation.  Please note, my good friend wasn't telling me she wanted to practice polygamy, but rather just exploring what the positives of it could be.

So at one point she asked me, "What do you think about polygamy?"

My answer to her is what I wanted to put here, to share with you.  It's something that I had already been thinking about, and it takes the form of two main points and a third thought:

Point #1: You need one man and one woman to make a baby.
Not one man and two women, three women, etc.  Physically, biologically, it just takes one man and one woman to reproduce.  That's just basic, simple, scientific fact.  This does bring up some questions about whether reproduction is the point of marriage or not (you may or may not agree) but within our church it is believed to be one of the most important things that a married couple can do: to bring new life into the world and "multiply and replenish the earth."  Biologically, you don't need multiple partners to do that.  If we're looking at this strictly logically, all of nature bears witness to the fact that there is no relationship on earth, no animal or living thing that needs anything more than one boy part and one girl part to create new life.  The earth was created this way.

Point #2: In all nations, countries, and lands of the earth, there are about 50% boys and 50% girls being born, everywhere.  Sure, the ratio flexes a bit, but only one or two percentage points in either direction.  It's called "sex ratio." Following this link will take you to the wikipedia article about it, but basically it is the ratio of males to females in a population, and it shows that we are almost completely equal, and there are actually just a few more boys than girls in the world's population!  For every 100 girls out there, there are about 105 boys (referred to as "a ratio of 105").  This article will show you the sex ratio for every country in the world, which almost all hover around 1 boy for every 1 girl, except in a few countries where the ratio is skewed (In Kuwait the ratio is 1.54 while Latvia is at .86).  Skewing usually occurs in countries where mortality rates differ due to things like war casualties and deliberate gender control (as explained in this article on gender imbalance in the human sex ratio).  But even if you even out all of those countries with the entire world population, you still get an almost perfect 1 to 1 ratio.

What this tells me is that there isn't a natural, logical need for men to take on multiple partners.  There's no reason, even in polygamist societies today.  Babies are still being born about 50/50, and I have heard about many boys being turned out from polygamist societies as teenagers, although I don't have any sources to back me up.  I've only heard about it via word of mouth, so if anyone has a known source on that feel free to put it in the comments.

For both of the points I've made, I'm strictly using logic.  Just what basic human reason and some simple math tell me.  I can hear arguments in my mind saying, "Well, you're being strictly logical and scientific, but the Lord's ways don't always make logical sense to man."  That's very true, except when they do.

An important and defining belief of Mormons is that we have both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother.  Church member Eliza R. Snow wrote a poem in 1845 titled "Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother" which includes these lines: "In the heav'ns are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason; truth eternal Tells me I've a mother there."  The 4th president of the church, Wilford Woodruff, has called this revelation (Woodruff, Wilford. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham. Salt Lake City, 1968. Pg 62).

The line that sticks out to me the most is: "Truth is reason, truth eternal."  Eliza R. Snow reasoned that if we have a Heavenly Father - doesn't it just make sense that we have a Heavenly Mother?  And if she can use logic and reason to discover something that is actually "revelation," then why can't I?  Can God reveal things to us through logic?  Yes, he has done so already if we believe this story about Eliza R. Snow.

I had a third thought to make, which is more rational than logical and it has to do with Adam and Eve.  If you are a Christian, this is perhaps the most important couple in all of history for you.  In Mormon temples, our worship is structured by the examples set by Adam and Eve, and I would just like to kindly point out: it wasn't Adam and Eve and her sister Judith.  If it had been, certainly all of human history would look quite a bit different.  And sure, there are other marriages in the bible, important ones, taking place between a man and more than one women.  But this is the first, the ultimate relationship, Adam and Eve, one man and one woman, all that it takes to have a child and begin to "multiply and replenish the earth."  Father and Mother of all mankind on earth, and we never needed more than one of each.

So... what does this all mean for our church history?  What does it mean if the point I'm making is that polygamy basically flies in the face of all nature and reason?  What does it mean if the most important men to our church, the ones who founded and organized it, participated in such a thing?  Obviously, I don't have an answer.  Honestly I don't even want to make such an accusation, but she asked how I felt about polygamy and in that moment I realized what I truly thought and I felt it so strongly that I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.  Maybe there were purposes to it in that time of our church's history.  Maybe it was the wisdom of God that such a thing should happen.  Maybe it was a misguided and heavily consequenced mistake.  But I would like to add that not all men that bring good things to pass are perfect or without blemish.  Look at the founders of our country, the amazing ideals and principles to which they held and fought for to establish this country.  How many of them were slave owners?  You could argue that the church founders are supposed to be men of God, whereas the founders of our country maybe shouldn't be held up to quite the same caliber.  So my question is:  Can you be led by God and still make mistakes?

Post script:  I'm sure that not all of my arguments here are complete, I'm sure there are points I'm missing or not taking into consideration, so I invite you to comment and open my mind further, help me to understand this more.  I welcome open discussion on this topic but please try to remain respectful of other's opinions.


M said...

What a loaded question!

Polygamy. Where do I even begin? I think Mormons feel awkward about polygamy, similar to how I imagine Catholics feel awkward about the Crusades. However, I think Mormons feel especially awkward about the subject of polygamy, since I think sexuality is a topic that Mormons generally feel a little awkward about discussing (largely because of the stress on abstinence before marriage). But perhaps that's a topic for another day.

I feel very strange about polygamy, but I think that also is because I am a product of today's culture. In Mormon culture during the 19th century, the mindset was to help and build the Kingdom of God. (Mormons still have this mindset today, but I think that during the early beginnings of Mormonismthis ideology was really stressed.) Polygamy was seen as a way to build the Kingdom. And, according to nature, this commandment made sense: one man can make lots of children with multiple wives, but one woman will still make children at the same rate (9 months), even if she has a lot of husbands. Anyhow, I like to think of this "building the Kingdom" mentality when trying to rationalize polygamy, especially since polygamy was practiced in Nauvoo (before men died while crossing the plains). I think it's fine to use the "there were so many widows" rationale too, but I don't feel like that point really hits at the heart of the matter. I wonder when that "so many widows" rationale even got started...

This being said, I don't want to come across too apologetic about the practice, because it still makes me feel awkward.

Breanne said...

M - thanks for your comment! I've often thought about this, too. Does having multiple wives increase the amount of children a group can produce overall?

I'm not quite sure, though. The amount of children you can produce is limited to how many women there are, in 9 month intervals. In a group with - say - 30 men and 30 women, you can only have up to 30 pregnancies at one time. I don't see how attaching those women to one man makes them any more "productive" than if those 30 women were married to all the 30 other men. Sure, one man can make a hell of a lot of children with multiple wives, but if populations (as we see above) are consistently spread out as 50% male and 50% female, why does one man need more than one wife for the group as a whole to make just as many babies?

The only way this would make sense to me, is if there was a severe fewer-men-and-more-women ratio. It might help to know if such a situation existed in the early Church.

I really appreciate your comment, and I also think it was important in the early days of the Church to "build up the Kingdom." I'm just not sure how that could be done more effectively in a man-woman-woman-woman situation than in three monogamous relationships.

CK Rock said...

At the risk of further complicating the issue, here is an interesting and well-documented website about the wives of Joseph Smith.

From the same page, there's an interesting article from John A. Widtsoe discussing the sex ratio theory you mentioned of why polygamy was practiced.

Kylen and Adrienne said...

I don't think it was a mistake...what brings me peace about those questions is reading Jacob 2:30...Jacob is chastizing the people for having unauthorized plural marriages and other impure practices and he told them the Lord's words: "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." There were many reasons for the Lord to want to expand His people of the Church when the Gospel was restored to the Earth, because it would be for the final time. In the end, everything will work out for our good and we will be happy as long as we follow the commandments.

Breanne said...

CK - I've also seen a good chart on Wikipedia of the wives of Joseph. Strange that he married some women who already had husbands. Part of me can't help but wonder if he actually consummated all of those marriages? Also, the article from John A. Widtsoe that you linked is exactly what I've said here, isn't it? It's interesting that the sex ratio at that time appears to have followed the general trend that exists today.

Adrienne - Thanks for your comment. I don't know if it was all a mistake or not, and it's likely something that we will ever know or understand in this life. I just want to say, again, that I don't really think that the Lord was "expanding His people" (see comment #2), and actually I wish I could point to that as a reason why polygamy could be justified. But logically and biologically it's not possible. =( But I do appreciate your conviction that although we may not understand everything, we can still trust in God.

CK Rock said...

This is an interesting topic. We should get together sometime and have a discussion over dinner or something.

Alyssa Rock said...

How did I not know about your blog until now? Chris finally told me about it. :P

You might really enjoy the Eugene England's essay from Dialogue entitled "On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage." (Let me know if that link is funky for whatever reason.) England makes a fascinating argument about why he doesn't feel that there will be polygamy in the celestial kingdom, but he nonetheless feels that polygamy was still an inspired doctrine at the time. He argues that it acted as a kind of Abrahamic test of faith. And if you read section 132, there does seem to be some credence for that interpretation because it talks about Abraham at length in that passage. Really great article.

I have my own personal opinions about polygamy. (And they're different from England's.) I'll probably just keep them to myself since it's such a hot-button issue. But, like Chris said, feel free to come over and chat for dinner some time if you want to.

Breanne said...

Alyssa - you are actually the second person to send me that article today. =) I think I'm going to have to do a second blog post about this because I've heard a lot of interesting opinions (been getting some emails) and drawn some more conclusions myself. And yes, we want to come to dinner! I'm very interested in what you think about this.

M said...

It's interesting to follow these comments. I just have one more idea about the man-to-woman ratio in relation to polygamy. Given that women have different menstruation cycles (and periods of time when they are able to conceive), I think that one man could produce more children with multiple wives, than if a man and woman were in a monogamous relationship. One man would continually have to wait for his wife to ovulate each month, whereas a polygamist man could potentially cause many women to conceive during different times of the month. Just a thought.

Breanne said...

M - couldn't those wives (with very synchronous wombs!) still produce just as many children if they were all in monogamous relationships? I think what you're saying still proves the fact that ONE MAN can have a heck of a lot of kids with multiple wives (for sure), but those women can produce just as many children if they each had their own husband. Overall, just as many babies are being born, right? Does that make sense? Am I still not understanding something? Sorry if I'm being really slow.

Breanne said...

By the way, M, I really appreciate that you're thinking this through with me, I'm glad for the alternative perspectives.

Don and Lynne said...

Hi Bre,
Good work tackling such a thorny subject. Coming at it from a non-Morman point of view I have noticed in general is that if something is possible to take place, it will take place. What we experience with polygamy is that some cultures and sub cultures have practiced it (and perhaps still are?). At this time in world history I'm not aware of so much of it going on. There are lots of social and practical reasons why it might be practiced. Sharing the household, child rearing chores. Giving variety to men and relief to women. As with all things there were probably advantages and disadvantages to the practice. Frankly I don't think such variations on human behavior are either good or bad or right or wrong, but they sure can be unappealing or even creepy to contemplate when we're so familiar with a certain habitual, condoned way of doing things... like monogamy. And when you are in a particular value system that is the way things work. Life works more smoothly and harmoniously when you recognize that, in other words conform to the norm.

you recognize that.