It has been frequently assumed - not only by detractors of Mormonism, but by many Church members themselves - that the Book of Mormon condemns polygamy and has no righteous examples of men practicing that way of life. Those outside the faith have tried to use this argument to undermine Church leaders teachings on this principle during the 19th century, and it has led some Latter-day Saints to conclude that polygamy was just an undesirable necessity tolerated only in harsh times or extreme conditions. However, the Book of Mormon itself, when read closely, seems to tell a different story.
The first great Patriarch of the Book of Mormon was Lehi. Sadly a great deal of the information surrounding him that was lost to us with the loss of the first 116 manuscript pages by Martin Harris’ wife, but Nephi’s smaller record does give us some interesting insights into his father’s life that may relate to this subject.
In Nephi’s record we learn that after the death of Ishmael in the wilderness (1 Ne. 16:34) Lehi begins referring to Ishmael’s sons as “my sons.” (2 Ne. 1:28) His remarks may have indeed just come from a fatherly concern, but it does raise another possibility - could Lehi have married Ishmael’s widow, and thus literally become a father to her sons?
This might remain mere speculation if it were not for some other facts outlined in the scriptures: Whilst Sariah is spoken of as being old and near death (1 Ne. 18:18), Lehi has two sons - Jacob and Joseph (18:7). It would appear that Sariah was past childbearing age and there is no mention of any special blessing of the Lord (like Sarah, Hannah or Elizabeth of old87) enabling her to still have children. Who then could have been the mother of Jacob and Joseph if not Ishmael’s widow, and who was the mother of Nephi’s sisters, born even later? (2 Ne. 5:6)
To further substantiate this point the Book of Mormon tells us that Nephi refers to Sariah as “our mother” when speaking of him and his older brothers, yet speaks of “their mother” when referring to the mother of his younger brothers (1 Ne. 18:19).
The Brother of Jared
Perhaps the greatest other Patriarch of which we have record is the brother of Jared, Mahonri Moriancumur, who the Lord directed to the new world long before Lehi. It is interesting that when the book of Ether speaks of Jared it mentions “his family” but when it speaks of his brother it refers plurally to his “families.” (Ether 1:41) Is this just a mistake in the text or did the brother of Jared have more than one family? This idea is not a new one as we read in an earlier LDS edition of the Book of Mormon (commenting on this passage) that; “From this verse it is seen that the Brother of Jared had a plurality of families.” (This footnote was removed in 1921) Later the scriptures tell us that “the number of the sons and daughters of the brother of Jared were twenty and two souls,” whilst Jared has 12 children. (6:20) How could Mahonri Moriancumur have so many children if he did not have more than one wife and more than one family?
The only other righteous man we have mention of in the Nephite record that may have lived this principle is Amulek who recounts how the Lord “hath blessed mine house, he hath blessed me, and my women, and my children.” (Alma 10:11) Given the strictness with which contact between men and women were regulated in ancient times, who could the women be that Amulek is speaking of if not his wives? Would he refer to any other women as “my women” even if they were relatives or servants?
Of course lack of reference to any other righteous men living this principle does not necessarily mean that others did not live it also, and it is understandable how the references we have looked at so far have been easily overlooked. Sadly our scriptural accounts give little reference to wives at all, whether singular or plural in number.
Jacob & Polygamy
The most controversial comments on this subject comes from the prophet Jacob in the book that carries his name, who, noticing the whoredoms many of his contemporaries entered into by using polygamy as justification gives them a solemn warning of the dangers of such excesses.
Some have taken his words as blanket condemnation of polygamy in all circumstances, but Jacob makes it clear that the intent of those he condemned was to ” seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms” and so the ” things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son” were used as an excuse by them. (Jacob 2:23, see 1:15)
Our critics will doubtless point out that Jacob speaks of many of David and Solomon’s “wives and concubines” being an “abomination” before the Lord. (v. 24) But they forget that the Bible makes it clear that many of David’s wives were initially given to him by God himself, and that it was the fact that some of Solomon’s large number of wives came from outside God’s covenant people, and that they turned him towards the worship of false gods, that led him to fall from God’s grace.88 These facts are confirmed by ancient and modern revelation -
And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;
And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; … (2 Sam 12:7-8, see 1 Kgs 15:5)
David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me. (D&C 132:38)
It was because of the whoredoms that had already been carried out and “the sorrow … mourning … [and] cries of the fair daughters ” who in many instances had been “lead away captive” (v. 31-33, see v. 35) and whose chastity had already been compromised (see v. 28) that inspired Jacob to tell those wicked men that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;” (v. 27) Such men had proved themselves unworthy for the greater responsibilities of additional wives because of the abominations they had already committed, and would have only brought greater condemnation to themselves and additional suffering to their existing families if took other women as wives.
Jacob’s comments were aimed directly at men who had fallen into unrighteousness and were seeking to justify it by the bad examples of David and Solomon after they had disobeyed the Lord.
Plural Marriage is no more inherently immoral than monogamy, but when a man seeks to take and abuse multiple wives he multiplies the sorrow and wickedness he can accomplish. Also when those wives are taken without the proper authority and permission of a prophet of God89 then a man enters that covenant without the Lord’s approval and without his divine help which is needed to live this principle properly.
Such were the sins of King Noah (Mosiah 11:1) and Riplakish (Ether 10:5) who both unrighteous lived plural marriage. Their lives mocked a true and sacred principle, and their lives both met untimely ends.90
Raising Up Seed
The one verse largely overlooked and forgotten - or more probably ignored - by those who would criticize the Latter-day Saints for their practice of polygamy comes from the same chapter in Jacob, in which the Lord Himself states:
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. (2:30)
Some have interpreted this to mean that monogamy, is usually preferred by God unless He specifically commands His people otherwise. This ignores the evidence of history which shows that the tradition of having only one wife came from the pagan Romans who wished to reduce women to property, as they had a scarcity of females amongst them.91
Let us look more carefully at the passage. The Lord states that if he will raise up seed unto Himself that He will command his people. Command them to do what? It can’t be speaking about monogamy, because He had already commanded the wicked of Jacob’s day to live that way. He makes this clear in the next sentence when He says that “otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.” Jacob has already explained what “these things” are, he has spent the preceding verses making that very clear to the unrighteous. So it is the unrighteous who must hearken to a lesser law of monogamy, they are those who do not “raise up seed” unto the Lord.
To paraphrase the verse in simpler English terms - “The Lord says - If I will raise up seed unto me then I will command my people [to live polygamously]; otherwise they shall follow what they have already been told [by Jacob, to live monogamously].”
President Joseph F. Smith sustained this view with his remarks during the Reed Smoot court case in which he stated (when speaking of Jacob 2): “It is simply a commandment of the Lord unto him, and received by him and accepted by him, to enter into plural marriage by his law and by his commandment and not by their own violation.”92
Some have supposed from this that “˜raising up seed”™ is about having more children, to make the Church grow at a greater rate (although they now argue that this is no longer necessary). This is an argument many have used to explain the reason for Plural Marriage during pioneer times, but there is a serious problems with this line of logic: Statistically speaking Mormon women who lived polygamously had less children on average than their monogamous counterparts.93 Therefore the Church would have grown faster by them not being plural wives!
The best tool for interpreting the scriptures are the scriptures themselves, and in the case this is proved true once again. Let us look once more at our polygamous patriarch Lehi. When he realized that his sons would be without wives and children upon the American continent the Lord instructed him that “it was not meet for him, Lehi that he should take his family into the wilderness alone; but that his sons should take daughters to wife, that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise.” (1 Ne 7:1) Thus his sons were able to “raise up seed unto the Lord”, and not just his sons either as we have pointed out earlier in this article, but Lehi also was able to take an additional wife (Ishmael’s widow) and have children through her (one of those children being Jacob himself).
Likewise Jared was told about himself and his brother that, “there [in the promised land] will I bless thee [Jared] and thy seed, and raise up unto me of thy seed, and of the seed of thy brother [Mahonri], and they who shall go with thee, a great nation. And there shall be none greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of thy seed, upon all the face of the earth.”
It was not the numbers of children raised up that were important, but hat they were raised up “unto the Lord.” That they were the choice spirits God had in store for those who live his holy law of Celestial Plural Marriage.94
Never has there been as great a need as now that such a law be lived. We indeed live in the time prophesied by Isaiah and repeated by Nephi in which “seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name, to take away our reproach.” (2 Ne 14:1, quoting Isaiah 4:1)
Has there ever been a greater need for such a principle that our day?
87Sarah: Gen 18:1-15;21:2, Hannah: 1 Sam 1:2-20, Elizabeth: Luke 1:5-25,57
881 Kings 11:1-11
90King Noah: Mosiah 19:20, Riplakish: Ether 10:8
91Brigham Young, 6 July 1862, JD 9:322
92Interestingly a contemporary of Joseph Smith said that the angel who commanded the Prophet to live plural marriage told him, “thus saith the Lord, the time has now come that I will raise up seed unto me as I spoke by my servant Jacob as is recorded in the Book of Mormon. Therefore I command my people.” (Joseph Lee Robinson Journal, p. 14)
93John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations
94Daniel H. Wells, JD 4:254; George Q. Cannon, JD 13:201; Erastus Snow, JD 24:165-66