Mormonism and polygamy/Purpose of plural marriage
Joseph Smith era:
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This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
Why would the Lord have commanded the 19th century Saints to implement plural marriage? What purpose(s) did polygamy accomplish?
Note: Some critics provide their own reason—they claim Joseph Smith and the Mormons implemented plural marriage because of lustful motives. That charge is addressed elsewhere:
Plural marriage can be a difficult historical fact for people to understand, both members and nonmembers alike. Trying to fully understand the purposes behind such a commandment in today's mindset can also make this subject difficult. It is important to note that we do not have all the historical information surrounding the inception and implementation of the practice. Rather than trying to understand the Lord's purposes in retrospect on a limited scope, one should remember the above scripture in Jacob. Other benefits, although potentially advantageous, are not given as reasons by the Lord.
What do the scriptures say?
The only scriptural explanation given from the Lord for approved plural marriage is found in Jacob 2:30:
- "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."
Here, the Lord gives only one reason for plural marriage, "to raise up seed unto me." In the only recorded revelation on plural marriage received by Joseph Smith, the Lord further stated (D&C 132:63):
- "they [the plural wives] are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified."
These scriptural passages suggest to many that plural marriage served at least two reasons: 1) "to raise up seed" or "multiply and replenish the earth," and 2) "that they may bear the souls of men."
It is often not the Lord's pattern to give reasons for His commandments, and we are often left to draw our own conclusions—which may be completely wrong (Moses 5:6-8). We often obey when we do not understand why a command has been given—we only know that it has been given. We should remember the caution of Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
- ...It's not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do we're on our own. Some people [have] put reasons to [commandments] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong.
Joseph didn't "raise up seed," so why did he practice plural marriage?
If the purpose of polygamy was to "raise up seed," then why did Joseph not have children by his plural wives? He was certainly capable of having children, as demonstrated by those that he had by Emma, many of whom died. Yet, there is no conclusive evidence to date of Joseph having had children by any of his plural wives.
Joseph established the practice of plural marriage as part of the "restoration of all things," and introduced it to a number of others within the Church. This alone may have been the purpose of Joseph's initiation of the practice. The establishment of the practice ultimately did have the effect of "raising up seed"...just not through Joseph Smith.
Interestingly, some critics claim that Joseph Smith actually did father children with some of his plural wives, and that he simply covered up the evidence of pregnancies. This claim appears to have originated with Fawn Brodie in her critical book No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, in which Brodie speculates that he may have "learned some primitive method of birth control". This is simply speculation on the part of the author, since Brodie can't adequately explain why a large number of children were not produced from Joseph's other "marriages." Brodie also claimed that Joseph Smith had intimate relations with other men’s wives to whom he had been sealed, and that children resulted from these unions. However, DNA testing has so far proven these allegations to be false.
For a detailed response, see: Did Joseph have any children through polygamous marriages?
Are there other possible purposes?
Save for scriptural accounts, any other "reasons" which we attach, in retrospect, to plural marriage can only be based on supposition and intellectual deduction. Any such list as this is therefore tentative. Any or all of these things could have been intended by the Lord for the benefit of the Church and the Saints. A few of these benefits which have been suggested include:
- It was to try (prove) His people. Polygamy stood as an Abrahamic test for the saints.
- It was to "raise up" righteous seed.
- It served to "set apart" his people as a peculiar people to the world. This social isolation that gave the church space to solidify itself into an identity independent of the many denominations from which the membership was derived.
- Polygamy was part of the "restoration of all things."
- Numerous family ties were created, building a network of associations that strengthened the Church.
- Polygamy created a system where a higher percentage of women and men got married compared to the national average at the time. 
Other benefits which we do not yet see or understand could also have been intended. But, it reminds us plural marriage may have accomplished more than we sometimes appreciate.
For a detailed response, see: Possible benefits of plural marriage
- [note] Dallin H. Oaks, Interview with Associated Press, in Daily Herald, Provo, Utah, 5 June 1988.
- [note] David R. Keller, "Where the Lost Boys Go," FAIR Blog (last accessed 9 May 2008) off-site