Joseph Smith and polygamy: An inconvenient truth
Does it make any difference that Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, married as many as 40 women, some of whom already were married?
Smith’s marital history has been the subject of much debate, but until a recent essay by the Mormon Church acknowledging the founding prophet’s multiple wives, the church has maintained that Smith was happily married to one woman.
The essay explains that Smith was a reluctant polygamist, agreeing to multiple marriages only after an angel threatened him with a sword. Further, the essay notes that Smith was restoring the “ancient principles” of biblical prophets like Abraham, who took secondary wives.
In appealing to Scripture to address the inconvenient truth of Smith’s polygamy, the LDS church offers evangelical Christians a unique opportunity to urge our Mormon friends to revisit the Bible, which takes a back seat to the Book of Mormon and other church documents in LDS theology and practice.
Consider three biblical perspectives: (1) God’s creative intent; (2) His divine accommodation; and (3) His warning against polygamy.
Let’s begin with God’s design for men and women created in His image. In Gen. 2:18, the Lord says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is like him.” Adam acknowledges Eve as a perfect complement for him – “bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Scripture then says, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
When the Pharisees press Jesus about the legitimacy of divorce on any grounds, He takes them back to this passage to emphasize God’s creative intent: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matt. 19:6).
When they ask why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus explains that it is due to the hardness of people’s hearts, but “it was not like that from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8).
It is clear that God’s ideal is a monogamous, lifelong marriage between a man and a woman.
The Mosaic Law deals with such realities as divorce (which God hates) and polygamy (which He warns against). The Law is a great improvement over the pagan practices of Israel’s neighbors while making allowances for the fallen state of God’s people. It’s what some scholars call “divine accommodation.”
In his book Is God a Moral Monster? Paul Copan writes that the Law of Moses is “a gracious gift temporarily given to national Israel that bridged God’s ideals and the realities of ancient Near Eastern life and human hard-heartedness…. Much in the Old Testament visibly reminds us of God’s abundant grace despite human sin and fall-damaged social structures.”
While Scripture nowhere instructs God’s people to engage in polygamy, the Law provides protection for women involved in polygamous relationships.
Warning against polygamy
In addition to God’s clear intention for monogamous marriage, and His divine accommodation to protect the victims of sinful behavior like divorce and polygamy, several passages of Scripture tell us of the danger of taking multiple wives. Here’s a brief sampling:
From Lamech, the first recorded polygamist in Scripture (Gen. 4:19, 23-24), to Abraham, Esau, Jacob, David, and Solomon, wherever we see God’s ideal of monogamy ignored, the result is bickering, strife, and often idolatry.
Lev. 18:18 is a strong teaching against polygamy: “You are not to marry a woman as a rival to her sister and have sexual intercourse with her during her sister’s lifetime.”
In Deut. 17:17, God prohibits Israel’s king from acquiring many wives for himself “so that his heart won’t go astray.” Solomon, of course, takes 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), often from foreign nations for political reasons. The result: They turn his heart away from God.
It also should be noted that just because Old Testament characters like David and Solomon took multiple wives does not mean God endorses the practice. We need to draw a distinction between what the Bible records and what it commands.
Those who point to the Bible to endorse their polygamous practices, or to ridicule Scripture’s “outdated” and “archaic” teachings, need to study the passages in context and against the historical backdrop of the times in which they are given.
God’s creative intent remains the same: One man and one woman, becoming one flesh through marriage, until death. This is a teachable moment for all of us, including our Mormon friends.
Thanks for your comment. I’d like to learn more. Can you point me to the official LDS Church documents that acknowledged Smith’s polygamy in Brigham Young’s time? As for Abraham, his taking of Hagar as a concubine, or secondary wife, violated God’s creative intent for marriage and resulted in considerable conflict in his family and for future generations. We must draw a distinction between what the Bible records and what God’s Word commands. Nowhere does the Bible command polygamy, and where polygamy does occur in Scripture, the consequences are not good. I think a good question to ask is whether Joseph Smith — who claimed that an angel of God commanded him to take multiple wives on penalty of death, which directly contradicts Scriptural teaching on marriage — can be trusted as a true prophet.
The LDS Church has acknowledged Joseph Smith’s polygamy since Brigham Young’s time. What’s new is the detail, long known among Mormon scholars, but not discussed like this by the Church itself. I’d welcome the author’s explanation of Abraham’s polygamous relationships.