PLURAL MARRIAGE COMMANDED, PERMITTED, AND NOT PERMITTED
God commanded the Latter-day Saints between 1852 and 1890 to practice plural marriage. Historical research also shows that the 1890 Manifesto did not stop the practice. It appears that Church Presidents Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith continued to secretly authorize polygamous unions to be performed between 1890 and 1904. Most of those were performed in Mexico and Canada, but not all. Then, in 1904, President Joseph F. Smith issued the “official statement” heralding an end to future authorizations for plural marriages.
A review of the scriptures and LDS Church history shows that polygamy may rarely be commanded of the Lord’s people. At other times, it may be permitted, and in many other times, it is not permitted. Latter-day Saints believe that it is all according to how the Lord “will command His people” (Jacob 2:30) and that it is regulated through the “one” man who holds the keys (D&C 132:7–8).
At Times, Plural Marriage is Not Permitted
It appears that at many times and places in earth’s history plural marriage was not permitted by God. LDS theology holds that during those periods, living righteously in eternal monogamous marriages brought full exaltation.
The Book of Mormon provides an example of a prophet and his family living righteously in monogamy. Lehi’s son Jacob revealed that his father was personally commanded by God to be a monogamist. Decades after his father’ death, while counseling the errant Nephites, Jacob referred to “the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife and concubines they should have none” (Jacob 3:5; italics added). This commandment was given to Lehi before he arrived in America (the “promised land”) and long before his grandchildren would commit “abominations” in the form of freelance polygamy and whoredoms (see Jacob 2:22–35). The monogamy standard subsequently governed the marital practices of Lehi’s posterity for a thousand years.
Similarly in the New Testament, Paul taught that bishops were to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). After Christ’s ascension, Peter held the sealing keys, so eternal marriages could apparently be solemnized, and there were attempts to live some of the higher principles such as the law of consecration (Acts 4:32). Nevertheless, there is no mention of plural marriage, which might have been noted in secular histories at least, if it were practiced among the early Christians.
A review of Church history shows that during the early 1830s, a similar situation occurred. Joseph Smith learned at that time that polygamy was acceptable to God, but that it was not then permitted. In 1832, Joseph told individuals, then in the Church, that he had inquired of the Lord concerning the principle of plurality of wives, and he received for answer that the principle of taking more wives than one is a true principle, but the time had not yet come for it to be practiced.
Latter-day Saints today believe that this same marital directive applies to them. They hold that in 1904, God withdrew the privilege and authorization to practice plural marriage through President Joseph F. Smith, the “one” man then holding the keys of sealing. Hence, from that time forward, plural marriage was not permitted.
At Times, Plural Marriage is Permitted
In contrast to times when God did not allow plural marriage, religious history suggests that seasons existed when it was permitted. In such periods, the “one” man holding the keys solemnized plural marriages for worthy men and women who desired to practice polygamy. Saints could also live monogamously without eternal penalty.
Regarding marriage practices in Old Testament times, Smith’s Bible Dictionary records: “Monogamy [was] the original law of marriage. . . . In the patriarchal age, polygamy prevailed.” It appears that “the Mosaic law . . . [was] directed to the discouragement of polygamy.” And, “In the post-Babylonian period monogamy appears to have become more prevalent than at any previous time: indeed we have no instance of polygamy during this period on record in the Bible, all the marriages noticed being with single wives. The practice of polygamy, nevertheless, still existed.” Historian Jessie Embry observed: “Polygamy was historically an option, but not a requirement, in Old Testament society.”
This situation seems to have recurred in the period between 1890 and 1904. The Latter-day Saints were taught that polygamy was no longer required in order to receive all of the Father’s blessings. While 60 percent of the general authorities had children by plural wives during that period, the other 40 percent did not.
As already noted, Church members believe that the 1890 Manifesto was not a directive to refrain from plural marriages. Instead it is seen as a proclamation telling the Latter-day Saints that Heavenly Father had accepted their sacrifice and that plural marriage was no longer commanded. However, the actions of Church leaders show that it was still permitted. Several hundred authorized plural marriage were secretly allowed between 1890 and 1904. When discovered by non-member politicians and the media, significant problems occurred for the Church and its leaders.
At Times, Plural Marriage is Commanded
Religious history shows that plural marriage has rarely been commanded by God. While the Old Testament states that Abraham took Hagar to wife at Sarah’s bidding (Gen. 16:1–3), the Doctrine and Covenants tells us that God required it (D&C 132:34–35). This appears to be the only recorded instance in the scriptures of a man being commanded by God to enter into plural marriage.
In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith taught certain Church leaders and members that they were commanded to enter into polygamy. Brigham Young was one of those so instructed and recalled his response: “When I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin, knowing the toil and labor that my body would have to undergo.”
For Latter-day Saints, a third example where plural marriage was commanded is found between 1852 and 1890. President Young announced the doctrine of polygamy to the world in 1852. For the next thirty-eight years, various priesthood leaders would on occasion teach the Saints that plural marriage was commanded by God. It was a special commandment to Church members of that era with blessings attached.
We do not know why God gave the Latter-day Saints this singular commandment. According to the scriptural record, this thirty-eight year period is the only time any of God’s followers have been so commanded in the 6,000-year history of the earth. Accordingly, it seems unlikely that authorized plural marriage itself brings some magical blessing or advantage in time or eternity. Rather, Heavenly Father appears to have desired the Saints of that era to experience the challenges and benefits it then brought to them. The issue was primarily obedience, not polygamy.
• Latter-day Saints 1852–1890
• Selected Church Members in Nauvoo
• Latter-day Saints 1890–1904
• Old Testament
• Latter-day Saints after 1904
• Book of Mormon: Lehi
• Joseph Smith: early 1830s
• New Testament (?)
For a more detailed view see Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations After the Manifesto (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006).
 As recalled by Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 13:193, October 7, 1869.
 J. D. Douglas, et al., New Bible Dictionary, 2d ed. (Leicester, Eng.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), 742, s.v. “marriage.”
 Jessie L. Embry, Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 4.
 Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 3:266, July 14, 1855.