Polygamy was, is, and likely ever will be Mormonism’s defining doctrine. Even though the Church officially ended the practice with Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 “Official Declaration 1,” spiritual polygamy, one man sealed to two or more women, is alive and well. LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson is sealed to two women–his first wife, Dantzel (d. 2005) and his current, Wendy Watson. I don’t know the difference between celestial polygamy and terrestrial polygamy other than carnal relations (at least until we’re all resurrected, but then what?) In 2022, polygamy remains the most controversial and most discussed aspect of Latter-Day Saint history and theology. It’s a cottage industry with books, conferences and digital ink devoted to covering it. I don’t think we’ll ever escape its shadow.
A complete survey of polygamy, if such a thing were possible, is far beyond the scope of a single blog post. (For a more comprehensive examination of polygamy see Hemlock Knots.) Instead, I want to focus on Jacob 2:30 in the Book of Mormon and the phrase “raise up seed.” On this phrase hinges in the LDS church’s modern interpretation, the so-called “exception clause,” that God can and will command polygamy, or more appropriately, polygyny (one man with multiple wives), when He sees fit for the purpose of additional children. The church’s 2013 essay on plural marriage reads,
“The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that the marriage of one man to one woman is God’s standard, except at specific periods when He has declared otherwise…
Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes for instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage during the 19th century. The Book of Mormon identifies one reason for God to command it: to increase the number of children born in the gospel covenant in order to “raise up seed unto [the Lord]” (Jacob 2:30). Plural marriage did result in the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes. (Emphasis added. See “Additional Notes” at the end of this post.)
This claim is also put forth by Stephen Smoot at Book of Mormon Central:
“Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today interpret this passage as saying “that monogamy is God’s standard for marriage unless He declares otherwise” (Official Declaration 1, citing Jacob 2:27, 30)…
Latter-day Saints in the past, as today, understood Jacob 2:24–30 as accommodating an otherwise prohibited practice.” (Emphasis added.)
FAIR Latter-Day Saints adds,
“In other words, when the Lords commands it, polygamy is acceptable. If Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, then you have to accept that God told him to bring the principle into practice. (Appeal to authority.) After all, this dispensation is the RESTORATION of all things, therefore, the principle of plural marriage was restored. (Bold in original).
The problem is, critics of the LDS Church use scriptures selectively, and not fully, in their arguments, therefore their interpretations are faulty of what LDS teachings really are… (Emphasis in original)
Remember that verse 30 could be the “exception clause.” That is why it is important to look at the full (bold in the original) account in the scriptures, and not selectivity pick one or two verses (this is sound advice!)…The Lord had not given permission for the people to have more than one wife at that time. The people were selectively using the scriptures to obtain more than one wife. Because the Lord had not given His permission, it was wrong to have more than one wife at a time.” (Emphasis added)
The BMC Team at Book of Mormon Central writes,
“Concerning their “whoredoms” (Jacob 2:23, 28, 33), Jacob specifically mentioned unauthorized polygamy as an iniquitous practice. (No, he did not.) ‘Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord…Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old’ (Jacob 2:24, 26). Jacob therefore categorized such unauthorized instances of polygyny and concubinage, as sinful, for, he said, God “delight[s] in the chastity of women” (Jacob 2:28), and would not tolerate lascivious men abusing women (Jacob 2:32–33).
That being the general rule, Jacob went on to qualify that law, saying that plural marriage is justifiable but only when God commands it. (He said no such thing.) “Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes. 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” (Jacob 2:29–30). As Latter-day Saint researcher Brian Hales commented, “The Nephite prophet Jacob reiterates a commandment given to his father Lehi establishing monogamy as the rule and polygamy as only a divinely commanded exception.” (Emphasis added)
This interpretation of Jacob 2:30 (“authorized polygamy”) post-dates Joseph Smith’s 1844 death and is likely tied to a creative revision of history by Brigham Young, Willard Richards and George A. Smith (Joseph’s cousin) in collating various documents for the Manuscript History of the Church beginning in 1845. Joseph’s October 5,1843 journal reads,
“Thursday October 5. … eve at home walked up and down st. with scribe.— and gave instruction to try those who were preaching teaching or the doctrin of plurality of wives. on this Law. Joseph forbids it. and the practice thereof— No man shall have but one wife”
In the Manuscript Draft history, we find the passage has been revised with the note “to be revised” about 3/4 down the page against the left border,
“Evening at home, and walked up and down the streets with my scribe. Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives;
on this on this law for according to the law I hold the keys of this power in the last days, for there is never but one on Earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred—and I have constantly said Joseph forbids it and the practice thereof. No man shall have but one wife at a time unless the Lord directs otherwise.”
The final printed version reads,
“Evening, at home, and walked up and down the streets with my scribe. Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives: for, according to the law, I hold the keys of this power in the last days; for there is never but one on earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred; and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise.”
With the stroke of a pen, Young, Richards and Smith turned Joseph’s original anti-polygamy statement to the “exception clause” the church uses today. In 1853 (after the changes were made) Joseph Lee Robinson penned his history and included the following,
“The Lord instead of releasing [Joseph Smith] from that burden, he sent an holy angel with a drawn sword unto him, saying unto him, Joseph, unless you go to and immediately teach that principle (namely polygamy or plural marriage) and put the same in practice, that he, Joseph, should be slain for thus saith the Lord, that 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.” (Emphasis added.)
This is also the first known account of the “angel with a drawn sword” myth, which I’ll probably address in a later post. Orson Pratt offered up a similar explanation in an 1859 sermon. Monogamy is the norm, unless God commands people to “raise up a seed,”
“Because certain individuals among the Nephites, in ancient days, were expressly forbidden to take two wives, that did not prohibit the Lord from giving them a commandment, and making an exception, when he should see proper to raise up seed unto himself.
The substance of the idea in that book is that—When I the Lord shall command you to raise up seed unto myself, then [polygamy] shall be right; but otherwise thou shalt hearken unto these things—namely, the law against polygamy. But when we go to the Jewish record, we find nothing that forbids the children of Israel from taking as many wives as they thought proper. (Emphasis added)
Curiously, the church sidesteps the polygamy issue in Jacob 2 in its Come, Follow Me Sunday School study manual, focusing instead on chastity.
Now that we’ve reviewed the official LDS interpretation of Jacob 2:30, let’s turn our attention to the Book of Mormon text and see if the claim that God will command polygamy to “raise up seed” (more children) withstands scrutiny.
Before we jump in, let me explain my approach to hermeneutics:
1) I apply the historical-grammatical method (authorial intent, historical/cultural setting, audience)
2) The text is king (Let the text speak for itself and refrain from imposing bias or meaning)
3) The Book of Mormon interprets itself.
CONTEXT OF “RAISING UP SEED”
If you’re not familiar with the history of the Nephite people in Book of Mormon, some context is important as we investigate the meaning of “raising up seed.” Around the year 600 BC, God commanded Lehi, a descendent of Joseph of Egypt, via a dream to leave Jerusalem prior to its destruction in 597 BC. Lehi obeyed, gathered up his family and departed. After some time in the “wilderness,” God commanded Lehi’s sons to return to Jerusalem,
“…it came to pass that the Lord spake unto him again, saying that it was not meet for him, Lehi, that he should take his family into the wilderness alone; but that his sons should taketo , that they might raise up unto the Lord in the land of promise. And it came to pass that the Lord him that I, Nephi, and my brethren, should again return unto the land of Jerusalem, and bring down Ishmael and his family into the wilderness.” (1 Nephi 7:1, emphasis added)
Here’s our first instance of “raising up seed” in the Book of Mormon. Naturally, if God wants to raise up a righteous people (“seed”), He needs couples. Man and woman. Husband and wife. Nephi’s sons returned to Jerusalem and Ishmael and his family agreed to join Lehi’s party. Sometime before their departure to the Promised Land, Nephi married,
“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, took one of theof Ishmael to
After their arrival in Promised Land, the Lehi’s family split into two groups: the righteous Nephites and the wicked Lamanites, Laman being Lehi’s first son. As people are often wont to do, the Nephites fell into the pride and searching after riches. Jacob begins his sermon by chastising them for their pride, then turns his attention to their “grosser crimes,” which always struck me as an interesting word choice. Crime indicates not just the sin of moral failing, but a legal one as well. Jacob says,
“For behold, thus saith the Lord:
This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son. Behold, David and truly had many and concubines, which thing was before me, saith the Lord.
Wherefore, thus saith the Lord,
I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a from the fruit of the loins of Joseph. Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old. branch
Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord:
“For there shall not anyamong you have save it be ; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the of women. And are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or be the land for their sakes. For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.
For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness andof their . And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts. For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for they shall not commit , like unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts.
We previously read in 1 Nephi 7 that the Nephites were led out of Jerusalem so that God could “raise a seed” unto Him. This establishes precedent and serves as our interpretive key. Remember, the Book of Mormon interprets itself and nowhere does God say, as the church suggests, that “raising a seed” indicates quantity. It’s about righteousness, not numbers. God desired to “raise a righteous branch” in the Promised Land. Whether the branch is comprised 10 people, 100 people, or 10,000 people is irrelevant. Monogamy is the rule among the people of God. Unless one wrests the scriptures to support a preconceived belief or bias, there’s no “exception clause” in the text for “authorized” polygamy. Nor is there any language, implicit or explicit, that “otherwise” is synonymous with “unless.”
Part of the issue is the imprecision of language. I’m guessing this can partially be attributed the difficulty of translation. Whatever the case, let’s very carefully examine verse 30,
“For there shall not anyamong you have save it be ; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the of women. And are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or be the land for their sakes. For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.”
Let’s reword this passage for clarity,
“For there shall not anyamong you have save it be ; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the of women. And are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or be the land for their sakes. For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up unto me in righteousness, I will give them commandments, (including monogamy), so they know what I expect from them. Because if I don’t (“otherwise”) give them explicit commandments regarding marriage and morality, they will hearken after the whoredoms of David and Solomon.”
If anyone would like to challenge this rewording, I invite you to contact me.
A SORE CURSE AND DESTRUCTION – THE FRUITS OF POLYGAMY
When compiling the Nephite record, Mormon makes an interesting observation,
“And behold, I am called, being called after the , the land in which Alma did establish the church among the people, yea, the first church which was established among them after their transgression.” (3 Nephi 5:12)
What was the “Nephite transgression?” I believe it was their immorality, including polygamy and concubinage. Jacob prophesied,
“But, wo, wo, unto you that are not pure in heart, that are filthy this day before God; for except ye repent the land isfor your sakes; and the Lamanites, which are not like unto you, nevertheless they are with a sore cursing, shall scourge you even unto destruction. And the time speedily cometh, that except ye repent they shall possess the land of your inheritance, and the Lord God will away the righteous out from among you.
Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have notthe commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were wife, and they should have none, and there should not be committed among them.
And now, this commandment they observe to keep; wherefore, because of this observance, in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will beunto them; and one day they shall a blessed people. Behold, their their , and their wives love their husbands…”
Consider this: God would rather people be faithful to their spouses than believe in Him at all. This should tell just how seriously God takes this commandment and sexual morality in general. Despite all their wickedness, the Lamanite obedience to the law of monogamy staved off their destruction. They were promised that in time they would become a fair and delightsome people because of their obedience to that one commandment. And in time they did take land of the Nephites and the righteous were led away. Amaron, a direct descendent of Jacob, writes,
“Behold, it came to pass that three hundred and twenty years had passed away, and the more wicked part of the Nephites were For the Lord would not suffer, after he had led them out of the land of Jerusalem and kept and preserved them from falling into the hands of their enemies, yea, he would not suffer that the words should not be verified, which he spake unto our fathers, saying that: as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall not in the land. Wherefore, the Lord did visit them in great judgment; nevertheless, he did spare the righteous that they should not perish, but did deliver them out of the hands of their enemies.” (Omni 1:5-7).
Amaleki then writes,
“Behold, I will speak unto you somewhat concerning, who was made king over the ; for behold, he being of the Lord that he should out of the of
Jacob’s prophecy was fulfilled to the letter. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that the “Nephite transgression” was related to sexual immorality and multiple wives and concubines they were expressly forbidden from taking.
SECOND WITNESS – THE BROTHER OF JARED
At the time of the “tower,” (presumably the Tower of Babel), God led a different group of people to the same promised land later inhabited by the Nephites. Prior to their departure, God told the Brother of Jared,
“…And [in the promised land] will I bless thee and thy seed, and raise up unto me of thy seed, and of the seed of thy brother, and they who shall go with thee, a great nation. Andshall be none than the nation which I will raise up unto me of thy seed, upon all the face of the earth. And thus I will do unto thee because this long time ye have cried unto me.
Just as it was with the Nephites, “raising up seed to God” references quality, not quantity. Neither Jared, his brother, or any of their party were commanded to take multiple wives for the purpose of “raising up seed.”
The Nephites that God led out of Jerusalem to “raise a righteous seed/branch” were explicitly and strictly prohibited from having more than one wife and any concubines. The LDS claim that God will sometimes command polygamy for the purposes of bringing more children into the Gospel via plural wives does not withstand scrutiny. It fails. And it fails badly.
The church has inverted God’s words, turning an explicit condemnation of polygyny and concubinage among His people into an “exception.” They church has granted itself a loophole. And there’s one reason they have done this: to justify the serial, institutionalized, church-sanctioned immortality, fornication and adultery of its Prophets, Presidents, Quorum of Twelve Apostles and other leaders and members between 1845-1900. There is no other reason. The LDS church presents itself as the only true church on the face of the earth. Consequently, any and all actions of its governing body must be divinely sanctioned or commanded. It was the same Wilford Woodruff, author of Official Declaration 1 and then president of the Church, who enshrined this prophetic infallibility,
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Emphasis added.)
By Woodruff’s reasoning, if he practiced polygamy (he had fives wives and 33 children), then God commanded it. The mere fact that Wilford Woodruff occupied the Presidency is sufficient evidence in his eyes. However, if it were conceded that all the church presidents from Brigham Young to Heber J. Grant were practicing polygamists–and polygamy is always sin in the eyes of God–Woodruff’s claims of prophetic infallibility fall by the wayside.
FAIR recommends we take a “full” survey of scripture regarding polygamy. I suggest they start with their own.
And I will end this post with this thought: if Joseph Smith took plural wives, then he was guilty of adultery. Full stop. No excuses. We don’t justify bad behavior because a person in authority, presumed or real, engages in bad behavior. Bad behavior is bad behavior. Mormon, perhaps seeing our future, directly addressed the Mormon Gentiles at the end of 3 Nephi, reiterating the words of Jesus at Bountiful,
“Turn, all ye, from your wicked ways; and of your evil doings, of your and deceivings, and of your whoredoms, and of your secret abominations, and your idolatries, and of your , and your , and your , and your strifes, and from all your wickedness and abominations, and come unto me, and be baptized in my name, that ye may receive a remission of your sins, and be filled with the Holy Ghost, that ye may be with my people who are of the house of Israel.”
The irony is that LDS believe the “Gentiles” refers everyone but the Jews and themselves.
*ADDITIONAL NOTES ON THE POLYGAMY ESSAY
There are a few notable things about this paragraph. First, the claim that the LDS “do not understand all of God’s purposes” in instituting polygamy is refuted by Nephi, who wrote that God does “nothing save it be plain unto the children of men.” (2 Nephi 26:32-33.) Secondly, the essay references “prophets,” but the church claims polygamy was instituted by one man, Joseph Smith. The plural “prophets” provides cover for Brigham Young (55 wives), John Taylor (8 wives), Wilford Woodruff (5 wives), Joseph F. Smith (5 wives) and Heber J. Grant (3 wives). Lastly, the church equates polygamy with faithfulness. Again, all of this is to justify church-sponsored adultery.