When I was doing my undergrad at BYU-Idaho, my husband (then my fiance) and I decided to take a ballroom dance class together while we were dating. On the first day of class, we realized that there were quite a few more ladies than men in the room. Our dance instructor, also a female, explained to everyone that the women would rotate who got to have a turn dancing with the men, since there were more of us then there were men. When she heard the women groan, our instructor smiled and said, “you better get used to it ladies. This is how it’s going to be in the Celestial kingdom after all.”
I remember feeling my stomach twist in an unpleasant way when she said that. I turned to my then fiancé and said, “If she’s right that polygamy is mandatory in heaven, you can go ahead and enjoy that, but I’ll be voluntarily moving down a level in heaven to hang out with the angels.” He laughed, because I was kind of joking . . . but I was also pretty serious. Specifically, an afterlife that required me to share my husband with other women sounded like the exact opposite of heaven to me. Although the LDS church does not currently practice polygamy in mortal life and has not since 1890, polygamy is a very real issue for the afterlife that members of the church have to face every time a husband’s first wife passes away, and he is then sealed to more than one wife, or for any woman who wonders about the general status of marriage in the Celestial kingdom.
In addition, this is an issue that has existed throughout Christianity, and did not just originate with Joseph Smith. For example, the first recorded instance of polygamy (technically polygyny) in the Bible was of Lamech, who “took two wives.” Genesis 4:19. We also know that Abraham , Jacob, Esau, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Elkanah, Ashur, Abijah and Jehoiada participated in plural marriage. Some interpretations also suggest Moses had a second wife.
Though I’ve spent a lot of time studying and pondering about polygamy, I don’t pretend to be an expert on this topic. However, the most thorough and comforting resource I’ve ever read on this topic is “Polygamy” by V.H. Cassler. I recommend that everyone read the article in its entirety, but in the mean time I’ll highlight a few of my favorite passages for you.
First, Cassler quotes lots of scriptures and passages from prophets that make clear that marriage between one man and one woman is the eternal default principle, or the general rule. For instance, in Jacob’s sermon on marriage in the Book of Mormon, Jacob says, “Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none” (Jacob 2:27). The Millenial Start also said in 1933, “Celestial marriage--that is, marriage for time and eternity-- and polygamous or plural marriage are not synonymous terms. Monogamous marriages for time and eternity, solemnized in our temples in accordance with the word of the Lord and the laws of the Church, are celestial marriages.” Millennial Star, September, 1933; 95:588. Doctrine and Covenants 49:16 “Wherefore, it is lawful that he [man] should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation.” Cassler also points out that “In the beginning, when the earth was empty and sorely needed replenishing, God gave Adam but one wife, Eve, that the pattern of his law of marriage might be set from the dawn of time in the very first human marriage on earth (see also Moses 5:3).”
Thus, polygamy is a limited exception to the general practice of monogamous marriage, and polygamy is only lawful when God has commanded it through a living prophet. This principle is supported by Joseph Smith, who said, “I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise.” Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977), 323. Similarly Bruce R. McConkie said “According to the Lord’s law of marriage, it is lawful that a man have only one wife at a time, unless by revelation the Lord commands plurality of wives.” Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., rev. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 577. Thus, as Cassler points out, “God is not indifferent concerning how his children marry. He actively and severely restricts the practice of polygamy, while leaving monogamy unrestricted.”
Cassler compares the exception of polygamy to the Abrahamic sacrifice, where God will always eventually end the sacrifice and provide a ram in the thicket. For Abraham, God commanded an exception to the general commandment of “thou shalt not kill.” Cassler explains, “An Abrahamic sacrifice involves at least three elements found in the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac: 1) God makes plain to Abraham a law (“thou shalt not kill” [D&C 132:36]); 2) God then requires Abraham, an innocent and righteous man, to depart from that law (“sacrifice Isaac”), and the choice to depart therefrom would seem to erase the joy that naturally follows from the law; and 3) God provides a means of escape from the departure from the law (the angel sent to stay his hand and the ram in the thicket; Genesis 22:11-13), which allows renewed joy from being able to live under the law once more. . . . The first Abrahamic sacrifice is brought to an end by the Lord, who relieves Abraham from the exceptional commandment which has caused him suffering. The paradoxical joy is replaced by the fuller natural joy. By offering to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham regains Isaac forever. This is a very important element of any Abrahamic sacrifice: it is always eventually brought to an end by God.”
“Why does the Lord bring this relief? We can only reiterate that it is because God is not indifferent between a state of sacrifice and a state of relief, and that all other things being equal, he actively prefers eventual relief to perpetual sacrifice for his innocent children.”
The fact that polygamy is analogous to an Abrahamic sacrifice is supported by the Doctrine and Covenants. In D&C 132:50, where God discusses eternal marriage and polygamous marriage, He said to Joseph, “I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.” Cassler points out that “all of the surrounding verses are speaking of polygamy, and the only other mention of Isaac in the revelation is in the context of polygamy. The escape is not in reference to escape from enemies or poverty or other travails, because the last phrase about Isaac reiterates that it is an escape from a command the Lord gives that is being discussed. The whole of which verse 50 is a part begins with verse 36, because these are the only two verses in which Isaac is mentioned . . . It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that God is speaking of polygamy in verse 50. The Lord is expressing sympathy for the hardships and sorrow imposed on Joseph by this exceptional commandment to depart from the law of marriage. He is promising to count Joseph’s obedience for righteousness, as Abraham’s sacrifice was counted. And, very significantly, he is promising that at some future point Joseph will have an escape from this exceptional commandment to depart from the law of marriage and that the sacrifice and suffering that attended his obedience would come to an end . . . one day there would be a ram in the thicket for Joseph Smith concerning polygamy, and he would feel the relief and natural joy that attends such an escape.”
I sincerely hope that this interpretation of D&C 132 is correct, because if it is there are some very positive implications for LDS women.
1. My ballroom dance instructor was very likely wrong in her “uncritical assumption that polygamous marriage is ubiquitous in the celestial kingdom, and that even if we are not commanded to practice polygamy here, we may be required to practice polygamy there.” Cassler also points out that polygamy is likely not necessary in heaven for demographic reasons. For instance, “Approximately 106 male babies are born on earth for every 100 female babies born. More males have existed on earth than females. Yet by age five, the sex ratio is about 1:1, for male babies are more susceptible to genetic disorders. Therefore, a large number of males die before the age of accountability and are automatically saved in the celestial kingdom. Also, male deaths through such mechanisms as the wholesale killing of male children by an enemy power (e.g., in Moses’ time and in Jesus’ time), or males laying down their lives in righteous defense of family and homeland also increases the pool of males eligible for the celestial kingdom. Using established demographic procedures, several BYU sociologists declare in perhaps only a partially tongue-in-cheek essay that they can demonstrate there will be more males in the celestial kingdom than females.”
2. “[T]hose women and men who feel pain at the thought of polygamy are all right in God’s eyes God would not think it odd if they did feel pain. God is not indifferent between monogamy and polygamy in the new and everlasting covenant because he, too, views polygamy as an Abrahamic sacrifice which will cause suffering, but also (for the righteous) paradoxical joy and a closer relationship with him. . . When Abraham also was asked to make a sacrifice not justified under the law, his heart mourned and we do not think less of him for it--and neither did God.” I think this second point is especially important, because I’ve often heard people in the church respond to women’s sincere concerns about polygamy quite dismissively and with callousness. For instance, in one of my seminary classes, a student said, “I just can’t believe that God would require me to share my husband,” and the teacher said, “well, then you have a hole in your testimony.” I appreciated much more the response of one of my religion teachers at BYU-Idaho who said, “Sisters, it’s natural for you to feel concern over this confusing principle because you love your husbands, and of course your righteous desire is to cleave to him as one flesh and not share him as others. I don’t have all the answers for polygamy, but I know that God does not condemn you for your worries.” Thus, while some women may not be troubled by the thought of polygamy, that does not mean that women who are troubled by the idea are less righteous.
So what exactly is the ram in the thicket? Here we can only speculate, as this moves beyond the realm of scripture and Prophetic counsel and into the mysteries of the hearafter. However, I feel confident that whatever this ram in the thicket is, it will be something that makes the Celestial kingdom a place that good people would want to strive to attain, and not a realm of eternal sacrifice. As Christ rhetorically observed, “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matthew 7:9-11).” Through the principle of sealing transferability, a polygamous marriage may just create a proxy whereby a woman received a sealing ordinance, but will be given another worthy spouse in the eternities. To me, this seems particularly likely for all the women who sealed themselves to Joseph Smith after he died, and without ever necessarily knowing him, just so that they could be sealed to a spouse. Cassler also points out that “Wilford Woodruff had over 400 of his dead female ancestors sealed to him as wives. These practices seem to indicate that the parties involved understood that the man in question was more of a stand-in or proxy so that the woman could receive the marriage ordinance and thus her exaltation, than an understanding that these women were married in some meaningful sense to these particular men for all eternity.”
The ram in the thicket principle also seems consistent to me for individuals who never had the chance to marry in this life, or who struggled with their sexual orientation. Knowing that God is a just and merciful God, I believe that he will be able to make up for each individual’s sacrifice in the next life.
I’ll conclude with my favorite quote from the Cassler article:
“For those who weep at the mistaken thought they may be commanded to practice polygamy in Heaven, God does not condemn your feelings. On the contrary, God will not command you to practice polygamy in the next life, and if he commands you to practice it in this life, you can rest assured of two things: 1) he will make it up to you: you will have a ram in the thicket, even if it be in the next life; and 2) God will lift the exceptional commandment of polygamy just as soon as his loving purposes in commanding it have been fulfilled simply because he feels compassion for those who make an Abrahamic sacrifice in polygamy in similitude of the Atonement. . . If cultural misinterpretations cause the women and men of the Church to mourn over polygamy, either because they mistakenly believe that God is indifferent between sacrifice and nonsacrifice and so no escape from this sacrifice will be provided by God or because they are led to feel that they are selfish and not righteous if they feel pain at the thought of polygamy, then these cultural misinterpretations are actively harming our people. We then have a duty to root out these cultural misinterpretations from our midst, lest they cause great spiritual mischief (Moroni 8:6).”
What are your thoughts? Do you think this is a correct interpretation of D&C 132? What are some insights you have gained that have given you more understanding about plural marriage?