By Scott S. Mitchell
In Part 1 of this essay I included the excerpt below from the LDS Church’s Teacher Manual for seminary (i.e., high school aged) students. This excerpt is taken from the Book of Mormon lesson wherein the content of Jacob 2 and 3 is addressed. Readers may wonder why I didn’t include material from the lesson covering Jacob 2 and 3 in the Church’s Book of Mormon Teacher Manual for Institute (i.e., college aged) students. (I truly do hope readers wondered that. It would mean the reader is intellectually engaged in the discussion of this topic, for one thing, and that question naturally inheres in a discussion about how the LDS Church teaches difficult subjects. But in this case, the question also leads to a very interesting answer.) In that manual, which is used by Brigham Young University and at LDS Institutes on college campuses everywhere, Jacob 1-4 constitutes the subject of Chapter 15. And believe it or not, nowhere in that lesson is the topic of polygamy even mentioned. Instead, the lesson deals with Jacob 2 and 3 as if it’s all about abstaining from premarital and extramarital sex. Nor is the subject found in the Teachings and Doctrines of the Book of Mormon Teacher Manual for the Religion 275 college course. I’ll discuss the implications of these omissions at the end of this essay, but will argue at this point that they appear to sort of be smoking guns in proving what the Church doesn’t want its members to ponder.
In the excerpt from the seminary teacher’s manual reproduced starting with the next paragraph, I’ve embedded my critique and commentary within the lesson text itself. The lesson text is in black print and the commentary is colored blue so as to avoid repeating the lesson points to which I’m responding.
Ask a student to read Jacob 2:24-27 aloud. Invite the class to follow along, looking for what the Lord declared about marriage. You may need to explain that the word concubine refers to a woman in Old Testament times who was legally married to a man but had a lower social status than a wife.
This isn’t true. Jacob referred to wives and concubines separately, making clear that the latter weren’t a subset of the former. In the Bible, the distinction between the wives and concubines of David and Solomon is made crystal-clear (though the writers and/or editors of the earlier part of the Bible are intentionally less precise in the use of these two terms.) A concubine was “a female slave or mistress with whom a man was lawfully permitted to have sexual intercourse.”1 I delve into the biblical usage of these two terms more thoroughly in the essay on polygamy and Doctrine and Covenants 132 referenced hereinafter.
“You may also want to explain that the Lord did not condemn David and Solomon for practicing plural marriage in general; rather, He condemned them for entering into specific plural marriages that He had not authorized (see D&C 132:37-39).”
This statement is blatantly false, and directly contradicts the plain wording of Jacob 1:15 and 2:24: In the former verse, Jacob said: “And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son.” (Emphasis added.) In the latter verse, Jacob was again unequivocal: “Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.”
Given the straightforwardness of Jacob’s language, it’s frankly amazing that the LDS Church would dare contradict Jacob and assert that there was nothing wrong with David and Solomon taking multiple wives in general. Did those who wrote the lesson manual think so little of seminary students’ intellects that they figured none of them would notice the contradiction? The Book of Mormon says nothing about David’s or Solomon’s sin consisting of merely taking wives and concubines that weren’t “authorized.” The idea of divine authorization for multiple wives and concubines is missing from the Book of Mormon (and the Bible, for that matter); it isn’t a cognizable exception.
Not content with this quagmire, however, the writers of the LDS teacher’s manual muck it up even more by outrageously citing to Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter “D&C”) 132:37-39 as authority for contradicting the Book of Mormon. The cited D&C verses probably contain more doctrinal and historical falsehoods (I have counted nineteen of them in the three verses) than any other three verses in the entire LDS canon, and that’s saying a mouthful. Virtually nothing written in those three verses is true (except the general statement that Isaac and Jacob were generally obedient servants of God). Overwhelming intrinsic and extrinsic evidence exists that the whole of D&C 132 is not a revelation from God at all; see Polygamy, Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 and their Doctrinal and Historical Problems within Mormonism, elsewhere on this website.
But an equally troubling point, at least to me, is that LDS writers would think the Book of Mormon can be overridden by the Doctrine and Covenants. Book of Mormon prophets made many prophecies about our day, and foretold the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as a marvelous work and a wonder containing the fulness of the gospel. None of their prophecies contemplated the existence of some other scriptural book in our time which would correct supposed doctrinal and factual errors in the Book of Mormon, much less upstage it within a few years of its publication. How could the book be a “marvelous work and a wonder” if it were intended to play second fiddle to the Doctrine and Covenants? The Book of Mormon was brought forth by the gift and power of God to be, as Joseph Smith himself is quoted in its Introduction as having said, “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man [or woman or boy or girl] would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” But Joseph said no such thing about D&C 132. (And if he had, he would have been wrong.) In fact, he never acknowledged its existence at all, and always publicly claimed to believe and practice the opposite of what it taught.
Jacob made clear that David and Solomon erred greatly by taking a multitude of wives and concubines, and that these were taken for the purpose of sexual gratification. If anything, the LDS writers should use the Book of Mormon to point out the doctrinal and historical errors in the Doctrine and Covenants.
According to Jacob 2:27, what is the “word of the Lord” regarding having more than one wife? (Help students identify the following truth: Unless the Lord commands otherwise, He has ordained that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. Invite students to consider writing this truth in their scriptures.)
The LDS church used boldface in its manual, obviously concerned lest seminary students apply Jacob’s words to Joseph Smith’s polygamy and infer that he erred. The boldfaced language runs interference for Joseph (and by extension, his contemporaries and successors), implying that he’d been commanded to take additional wives and thus cannot be condemned. This implication is again dishonest. There is no instance in the Bible or Book of Mormon where the text indicates God ever commanded polygamy. Indeed, Jacob states hypothetically in Jacob 2:30 that if (and only if) the Lord were to need to raise up seed (presumably in a situation where normal population accretion among his people might be proceeding too slowly), he would command his people to take appropriate measures. But this statement makes clear the limited purpose such a hypothetical commandment would serve. The Lord wouldn’t command polygamy out of a desire to provide men with boundless sexual gratification, especially if they were already producing children with their monogamous wife without difficulty.
Nineteenth Century LDS Polygamy Slowed Church Growth
Therefore, if we’re analyzing LDS history to determine whether Joseph Smith and others during the 19th century were commanded to practice polygamy, we should immediately apply the criterion requiring that the practice had the net effect of what God intended–increasing the population beyond what monogamous unions would have produced. What we find, however, is that the opposite occurred. As set forth more fully in the aforementioned essay on polygamy and D&C 132, Joseph Smith’s polygamy produced no seed whatsoever (at least until after his death when his wives could be married off to other polygamous church leaders such as Brigham Young), despite forbiddingly strong evidence that he had sexual relations with almost all 33 of them. Brigham Young’s polygamy was also disastrous, at least from a numerical production standpoint. Ten of his 53 polygamous wives divorced him. The wife acknowledged by virtually everyone to be Brigham’s favorite, Harriet Amelia Folsom, had drawn considerable attention from other single men wishing to court her. But when 24 years old and 37 years younger than Brigham, she became his 48th polygamous wife, only to remain childless her whole life. Only 16 of the 53 bore him any children, and eight of those 16 bore him only one. Another woman bore him two; another, four; and two of them, five. The average number of children born into a monogamous marriage during Brigham Young’s lifetime was a little above five, but families with six to nine children were common.2 Moreover, contrary to common misconceptions, men outnumbered women in Utah and in the Church from 1850 through 1940.3
Though three of Young’s polygamous wives accounted for a total of 21 children, the total number produced by the remaining thirteen bearers was 30, for an average of under 2.31, less than half the national average of that era. Brigham’s average number of children per polygamous wife was less than one. And even the three women who produced 21 children between them couldn’t logically attribute their fruitfulness to polygamy; if anything, the sexual attention Brigham paid them appears to have detracted from the attention he paid to his other wives. The evidence leaves no doubt that had Brigham’s polygamous wives only borne children from husbands in monogamous relationships, the increase in posterity produced would have been dramatic. Even the Church admits this fact, albeit very secretly. Buried in footnote 6 of “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” an essay which is itself somewhat hidden on the LDS Church’s website (you can’t find it by clicking on the letter P; instead, you must click on a generically-worded link within the body of the separate essay “Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”), the Church states: “Studies have shown that monogamous women bore more children per wife than did polygamous wives except the first. . .”4
The above statistics by themselves conclusively demonstrate that neither Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young were commanded to practice polygamy, assuming the Lord adhered to what He and Jacob described as His only possible hypothetical purpose in commanding it. But does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publish these statistics to help its readers reach an informed conclusion regarding the Lord’s involvement or noninvolvement in 19th century polygamy? No. Its writers bury it in an obscure footnote in an essay they make difficult to find, and that apologetically-worded footnote follows a sentence wherein it’s asserted that polygamy did actually produce some seed. One might justifiably ask, Why does the Church dissemble so much on this issue if it values the truth?
Early Church Leaders Didn’t Claim to Need to Hasten Church Growth Through Polygamy
Also contraindicating the Lord’s mandate of 19th century polygamy is the fact that early church leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were not married to women who were thought to be barren. Emma Smith bore Joseph nine children, four of whom lived to adulthood, and the couple adopted two others. Brigham Young’s first wife bore him two before she died at age 26, and his second wife, who outlived him, bore him six. Young’s polygamy thus began after he had fathered eight children in monogamous relationships. During both these men’s lives, the LDS Church was growing quickly, and significantly, neither man ever reported the Lord having told them polygamy was needed to hasten Church growth.
The Church Suffered Immeasurable Unnecessary Societal Antipathy Due to Polygamy
Moreover, no practice by LDS leaders caused more antipathy toward, and persecution of, Church members than their practice of polygamy. Had the Church not purported to abolish it in 1890, Utah would have been denied statehood. Today, all these years later, the Church is still trying to recuperate from the stain on its reputation that polygamy caused.
Polygamy Exacted a Great Emotional Toll on Women, Children and Church Members
It should also be remembered that in this essay I haven’t attempted to detail the emotional toll polygyny took on the women and female teenagers who were religiously guilt-tripped into participating in it. It ripped families apart, including Joseph Smith’s own family, and caused large-scale dissension, apostasy and the founding of break-off churches. It caused Oliver Cowdery to accuse Joseph Smith of adultery and leave the Church. It contributed greatly to Joseph Smith being assasinated. Thankfully, much has now been written on this topic, and much more remains to be written.5 The emotional toll polygyny took on women and their children, which was also graphically demonstrated in the life histories of my own 19th century ancestors, is the very reason the Lord and the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob forbade it.
Needless to say, the LDS Church has shown no interest in the emotional toll taken on polygamy’s wives, except to downplay it. In fact, in its website’s Gospel Topic essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” (which the Church tellingly doesn’t list on its list of Gospel Topic essays under the letter P, but which can be found by clicking on a “for more information on this topic” link in the body of the essay “Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”) the only women who are quoted on this point are a woman sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity, and later sealed “for life” to Brigham Young after Joseph’s death (which woman was also married to a third man simultaneous to both sealings); the first (and non-polygamous) wife of Heber C. Kimball, and a woman who was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity but sealed to Heber C. Kimball for life as a polygamous wife after Joseph’s death. All three women are quoted as expressing their initial revulsion, indignation or opposition when approached with the idea of polygamy, but eventually believing it was ordained of God. Given the pressure to say the right thing that would be imposed on women whose husbands consisted of two Church presidents and one First Counselor in the First Presidency, the Church certainly can’t claim it tried hard to obtain a statistically reliable cross-section of polygamous wives to quote.
Make sure that it is clear that in Book of Mormon times and in our day, the Lord has commanded that a man should be married to one wife. (See also D&C 49:15-16.) At certain times in the history of the world, the Lord has commanded His people to practice plural marriage. For example, plural marriage was practiced in Old Testament times by Abraham and Sarah (see Genesis 16:1-3; D&C 132:34-35, 37) and by their grandson Jacob (see D&C 132:37), and it was practiced for a time during the early days of the restored Church, beginning with the Prophet Joseph Smith (see D&C 132:32-33,53). [Emphasis in italics added by me.]
As noted above, no scripture, including Genesis 16: 1-3, supports the Church’s contention that God ever “commanded” polygamy. To remain silent about it, or to merely not punish the practice of it, is not to command it. Regardless, it’s disengenuous for the Church seminary teacher’s manual authors to cite to the situation of Abraham and Sarah as an example of the polygamy practiced by Joseph Smith. Abraham’s sexual relations with Hagar were suggested by his wife Sarah so he could father a child by her and not live his life without offspring, Sarah having concluded that she herself was barren. After Abraham fathered a child by Hagar, he never again had sexual relations with her, because of the damage that relationship caused to Sarah’s feelings after Hagar disrespected her. Two generations later, Jacob’s sister wives Leah and Rachel also gave their servant maids to their husband to grow the family. Zilpah and Bilhah thus produced four of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel. Both Abraham and Jacob, at the time they saw fit to father children by their respective wives’ servants, were literally the only adult male members of what later became the House of Israel. Moreover, both men were herdsmen and shepherds who needed more laborers to work in the family businesses. These factors made the need to produce sons all the more immediate.
None of the factors which necessitated Abraham’s and Jacob/Israel’s polygamy were present in the life of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. The Church was growing fast without polygamy, their wives were fruitful, and neither of the two faced labor shortages in running businesses.
Ask a student to read Jacob 2:30 aloud. Invite the class to follow along, looking for when the Lord’s people are authorized to practice plural marriage.
According to Jacob 2:30, when are the Lord’s people authorized to practice plural marriage? (Help students identify the following truth: Plural marriage is authorized only when the Lord commands it. Invite students to consider writing this truth in their scriptures.
Explain that if the Lord commands individuals to practice plural marriage, He will issue that command through His prophet—the President of the Church—and through no one else (see D&C 132:45-48).
According to Jacob 2:30, what is one reason the Lord has commanded some of His children to practice plural marriage? (To “raise up seed unto [the Lord],” or increase the number of children born in the gospel covenant.)
Point out that Jacob was speaking to the Nephites about the most prominent way they were committing sexual sin. Invite a student to read Jacob 2:28 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for how the Lord feels about chastity and sexual sin. [Italics mine. Boldface in original.]
I’ve already addressed most of the issues raised in this part of the excerpt. But it’s easily apparent that the Church is desperate to establish the idea that Joseph Smith’s polygamy had to have been acceptable because it was “commanded.” Hence the boldface and triple reiteration. Despite its efforts, the Church doesn’t actually quote any instances of said “commandments” from scripture, and ignores, at least in the teacher’s manual, the fact that Joseph Smith always publicly agreed with Jacob’s requirement of one wife per man. In fact, he told the whole Church he’d received a revelation endorsing monogamy–D&C 49:15-16.
The manual writers also don’t scripturally corroborate their assertion that Church presidents announce commandments to practice plural marriage–so far, they never have, even in the last 189 years since the Church was formally organized. If such a commandment had been communicated, the Church would have quoted it. The writers appear to merely hope seminary students will just take their word for it.
The most telling aspect of this excerpt is the complete absence of any discussion about how plural marriage affects the lives of wives and children who suffer its burdens. Ironically, this was Jacob’s chief concern. The LDS Church’s chief concern is protecting leaders’ reputations against any inference of error.
Given the unscriptural arguments, ignoring of history and illogical reasoning that were necessary to teach seminary students what the Church wanted them to believe about how to interpret Jacob’s words in Jacob 2 and 3, one can only imagine what discussion went on among the writers tasked with covering the same chapters for older, college-aged students. “They don’t pay me enough to strain and stretch that hard to justify polygamy!” I can hear them saying. “Go ahead, fire me if you have to; I’m not doing it! Remaining anonymous isn’t enough. I’ve got to maintain a little bit of self-esteem, for heaven’s sake!”
And so, they compromised with their bosses. They would write the lesson for Religion 121, but they wouldn’t address polygamy. They’d ignore the fact that that was Jacob’s main topic, and that his sermon was written for our time. They would pretend sexual morality as a (very) general proposition was the main point, but would nevertheless refrain from any discussion of what it’s like for a wife to see her husband acquiring additional sex partners. For the Religion 275 class, they’d just deem Jacob 2 and 3 not worth covering in a one semester class covering the Book of Mormon’s biggest themes. Sure, truth would be the casualty. Readers wouldn’t recognize the Jacob 2, 3 sermon for the gem that it is, and they’d miss the point that much damage is done when we censor uncomfortable truths out of our religious writings in order to protect heroes’ reputations.
But the writers would still collect their paychecks from their employer, and the Church’s higher priorities would be met, unscathed and sacrosanct.
1. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), p. 294.
2. See online Quartz business news article by Ephrat Livni and Dan Kopf, “The Decline of the Large US Family, in Charts”, October 11, 2017, at qz.com.
3. See October 12, 2010 article “‘Go west young man’ and sex ratios” at fairmormon.org online website, footnote 1, wherein Church and Utah statistics are cited by Apostle John H. Widtsoe.
4. In the rest of the footnote, the writers change the subject to allege that polygamy at least gave more women in society a chance at fertility, thus diminishing the impact of the fact that fewer children were produced by it.
5. In addition to the books mentioned in the polygamy-D&C 132 essay mentioned hereinabove to which I provided a hyperlink, I would now add Carol Lynn Pearson’s The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men (U.S.A, Pivot Point Books, 2016) and John Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).