When we teach D&C 132 in Sunday School we usually just focus on the first part, the part about eternal marriage. I have yet to be in a class where we’ve tackled the second part of D&C 132, the law of plural marriage. Yet, it is clear as you read section 132 that both these laws—eternal marriage and plural marriage—are a part of the law that God was teaching Joseph Smith. In fact, God uses the story of Sarah and Hagar as an example of what the “everlasting covenant” looked like anciently. This is an important part, because it teaches us that polygamy, as practiced by the early patriarchs– like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon– was not just a cultural practice but rather a spiritual one, and that it is a principle that still has an important place in God’s plan.
I am no expert on the topic of polygamy, but I do know that coming to understand God’s laws on marriage—including plural marriage—can increase our testimony rather than weaken it. Yet before God explained the law of plural marriage to Joseph Smith he told him to, “prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you,” knowing that what he was about to teach Joseph would be difficult for him to understand and to follow. That instruction is still wise for us today as we study the topic of plural marriage. It is a topic that must be studied with the help of the Holy Ghost.
Even though the idea of polygamy can make us uncomfortable, we really aren’t as opposed to it as we think we are. For example, if I died it would be perfectly normal for my husband to marry another woman, be sealed to her in the temple, and have children with her. We would consider this a good and healthy relationship—good that my husband could move and give his heart to another woman after me and good that this woman would have a happy marriage and an opportunity for a family of her own. We don’t have a problem with a man marrying two women (perhaps even more) in his life time, as long as he does it one at a time. It starts to get complicated when we start thinking about heaven as one big slumber party, and try reconcile our earthly experiences with how things will be eternally. I think to understand it we have to be willing to open our minds to things bigger and grander than our here and now, and truly take an eternal perspective.
Lucy Walker, one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, wrote that when she first learned about plural marriage, “Every feeling of my soul revolted against it.” Yet, after praying and wrestling with the idea for several days that one night her room was, “filled with a holy influence” akin to “brilliant sunshine.” She testified that, “My soul was filled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew,” and “supreme happiness took possession of my whole being.” She gained a personal testimony of the principle of plural marriage and gained an eternal perspective that allowed her to follow a very hard commandment.
The Law of Plural Marriage
One of the best places to start the discussion of plural marriage is in The Book of Mormon where the prophet Jacob taught the Nephites that God’s commandment for them was, “there shall not be any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none” (Jacob 2:27). Jacob explained to the Nephites that polygamy was only permissible when it was given as a commandment, through God’s chosen prophet. “For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people” (Jacob 2:30) otherwise, God’s law was monogamy. That is a pattern that still is true today. Polygamy is only allowed when God reveals it to his prophet and commands his people to live it, otherwise the law is one man, one woman.
The story of Hagar and Sarah also helps us better understand God’s laws about plural marriage. D&C 132: 34 illuminates their story by telling us that, “God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.” This verse tells us several important things. First it tells us that Hagar became Abraham’s wife, not simply because Sarah wanted children as the Genesis account states, but because God had commanded Abraham to practice plural marriage.
Second, this verse tells us that Abraham taught Sarah this commandment and that she followed it, and even suggested to Abraham that he choose Hagar because she thought (at the time) that it would be a good match. I think this is an important distinction because it makes it clear that Abraham wasn’t lusting after Hagar but that Sarah arranged the marriage herself. Later, when the situation became difficult for all three of them Sarah blamed Abraham, telling him, “My wrong be upon thee” or in other words, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering” (Genesis 16:5). After venting her feelings, she calmed down and ended her remarks with, “the Lord judge between me and thee” which today might sound like, “God judge who is wrong, me or you.” These words seem to show that Sarah recognized that the choice to bring Hagar into their family had not just been Abraham’s, but that she had responsibility for it too.
The third thing that D&C 132: 34 makes clear is that polygamy is part of God’s law of marriage. This doesn’t mean that all people will practice it, but I think the scriptures make it clear that that plural marriage, as it relates to sealing ordinances and the Abrahamic covenant, does have a place in God’s plan. Fourth, we learn that “from Hagar sprang many people” and that one of the purposes of polygamy is, as Jacob taught in The Book or Mormon is, “to raise up seed” unto God .
Lastly, this scripture tells us that Hagar’s marriage to Abraham was, “fulfilling, among other things, the promises.” That phrase “the promises” is used elsewhere in scripture and appears to refer to temple covenants and the sealing power. For example, in D&C 2:2 restates the famous scripture about the return of Elijah saying, “… he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.” These promises are also mentioned again in D&C 132:63 where God explains that one of the purposes of plural marriage is, “to fulfill the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world.”
It is interesting to remember that a synonym for the word “promise” is the word “covenant”. Though we may not always understand how, I think God wants us to understand that plural marriage is a way in which He honors and fulfills His promises—His covenants—with all His children.
The Law of Sarah
Later D&C 132:65 tells us that Sarah, in accordance with what God called “the law of Sarah,” gave her consent to Abraham’s marriage with Hagar. This “law of a Sarah” is perhaps the most confusing part of section 132. It states that the law concerning plural marriage is that a wife must first give her consent for a husband to take another wife. Yet, the verse also states that “if she [the wife] receive not this law [of plural marriage] … because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah.” Meaning, that if a husband is commanded by the Lord to take another wife and his wife doesn’t consent, then the husband can do it anyway.
Orson Pratt wrote about how the Law of Sarah was practiced during Joseph Smith’s time. He said,
“When a man who has a wife, teaches her the law of God, and she refuses to give her consent for him to marry another according to the law, then it becomes necessary for her to state before the President the reasons why she withholds her consent; if her reasons are sufficient and justifiable and the husband is found in fault, or in transgression, then, he is not permitted to take any step in regard to obtaining another. But if the wife can show no good reason why she refuses to comply with the law which was given to Sarah of old, then it is lawful for her husband, if permitted by revelation through the prophet, to be married to others without her consent, and he will be justified, and she will be condemned, because she did not give them unto him, as Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham, and as Rachel and Leah gave Bilhah and Zilpah to their husband Jacob.”1
If you are anything like me your first gut reaction to the law of Sarah is resentment. It seems like a rule that is harsh and belittling women; a way to spiritually strong arm them into following something they don’t want to do. Yet I think we might look at it another way too, one which is not so oppressive, but rather good for women.
It is interesting that plural marriage, and in fact marriage in general, can be seen on two extremes, as either being the worse thing imaginable for women, or an incredible empowering arrangement. It is easy for us to understand the horrible aspect of it. Jacob told us that one of the reasons that plural marriage was not allowed among the Nephites was because the Lord had, “seen the sorrow and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people” and would not allow, “that the cries of the fair daughters of this people… come up unto me against the men of my people” (Jacob 2: 31-32). It is easy for us to see how a woman being forced to share her husband could result in a betrayal of trust, abuse, neglect and exploitation. It is harder for us to understand how polygamy might be empowering and good for women.
Yet, empowering and good are exactly how many early Latter-day Saints understood the law of plural marriage. In fact, when the United States began to persecute Latter-day Saints for their practice of polygamy LDS women— smart articulate women– spoke out boldly in favor of it . Eliza R. Snow, reflected their general feeling when she said, “it [polygamy] is truly woman’s cause – a cause which deeply involves not only her present but her eternal interests.”2
Brigham Young taught his daughter Susa Young Gates, that “[women] ought to have their choice in the matter for they can choose but one; and they ought to have the right to select that one.” Looking at it in that light, it is incredibly empowering to think that it is a woman’s right to CHOOSE whom she gives herself to—and that for that union to be approved of by God the man must be righteous and worthy to receive her. How many women in the world (and through the history of the world) would rejoice to think that they were not going to be left alone or “stuck” in an unhappy marriage for eternity? Is there anything more empowering for a woman than to be able to choose?
So how do we understand the law of Sarah? Here is just a thought. Let’s go back to the example I gave of earlier of my husband marrying another woman. Let’s pretend that after all of us die we meet up in heaven. I’d lived with my husband for 11 years and had five children with him. We’d been sealed and I still loved him and wanted to be with him forever. Yet, the other woman had been sealed to him for 40 years and also had children with him. She loved him and wanted to be with him forever. Who would get him? Would it be fair or just of me, the first wife, to claim him simply because I “got him” first?
Those of us whose lives have been touched by divorce, death, abuse, dysfunction, excommunication, remarriage, abandonment, and other family problems have probably worried about how God is going to make all this “sealing” business right in the end. I have often wondered if polygamy isn’t one of the ways that God will make all the “messy” aspects of our earthly relationships work out in the end. Could there– in a sphere free of time and space– for us all to be perfectly happy with the person of our choice?
Like I said at the beginning, I am no expert on plural marriage. Yet there is one thing that I do know, and it is that God loves His daughters– loves us more than we can even fathom. Everything He does is designed to make us happy—eternally happy. It is Satan who teaches us to have a mindset of scarcity and fear. God on the other hand is the creator of abundance and joy. When my questions or doubts about plural marriage begin to surface I have to hold on to that knowledge, and trust that His plan is a plan of happiness. I don’t think we have even begun to glimpse the enormity or extent of our Father in Heaven’s glorious plan—nor the type of joy that awaits those who trust Him.
Love only multiplies, never divides.
- The Seer, Vol. 1, No. 3, pg. 41
- BYU Studies, vol. 16, 1975-1976, pg. 260
Related Mormon Women Project Interviews
Away from Polygamy, Towards a Deeper Understanding, Vilate Nielsen
“I still feel that polygamy is very sacred when lived correctly. Polygamy is a celestial principle that was revealed to Joseph Smith. We know that it will be lived to some extent in the celestial kingdom. I don’t believe that everyone who lives there will practice it, but some will. The Church’s teachings never say that it is not a true principle, just that it’s not a principle that we’re currently living. The leaders of the Church are very clear that it is not something that should be lived now. But in times where the Lord commanded it, it was correct. So I still have a lot of respect for polygamy and believe that it is very sacred.”