Margaret J. Stoddard
Plural marriage has been a source of controversy since the beginning of its practice by early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Many of the faithful Latter-day saints who practiced plural marriage (also known as Celestial Marriage or Patriarchal Marriage), understood and knew that the Lord revealed the doctrine to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and also that the Lord commanded the practice to be instituted among Church members. Dennison L. Harris remembered the following testimony given by the Prophet Joseph Smith only a few months before his death:
The same God that has thus far dictated and directed me, and inspired me and strengthened me in this work, gave me this revelation and Commandment on Celestial and Plural marriage; and the same God Commanded me to obey it. He said to me that unless I accept it and introduce it and practise it, I together with my people should be damned and cut off from this time henceforth. . . . we have got to observe it, that it was an eternal principle, and that it was given to [me] by way of Commandment and not by way of instruction. 1
There are literally volumes of accounts given by the early saints, testifying that the revelation contained in the Doctrine and Covenants (Section 132) was revealed by the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith. One example is this witness by Mary Isabella Horne:
I solemnly testify that I know that the Principle of Plural Marriage is true; that it came direct from God; I have had evidence of it’s truthfulness, and have lived in it for nearly fifty years. I counsel all my posterity to avoid condemning or making light of this sacred principle. 2
There are volumes of accounts given by the early saints, testifying that plural marriage was revealed by the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
President Heber C. Kimball, grandfather of Spencer W. Kimball, counselor to President Brigham Young and the steadfast friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith, also bore testimony that the practice of plural marriage came from God:
I speak of plurality of wives as one of the most holy principles that God ever revealed to man, and all those who exercise an influence against it, unto whom it is taught, man or woman will be damned, and they and all who will be influenced by them, will suffer the buffetings of Satan in the flesh. You might as well deny “Mormonism,” and turn away from it, as to oppose the plurality of wives. The revelations which Joseph Smith has given to this people were given to him by Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world; and this people cannot be blessed if they lightly esteem any of them . . . . For this purpose did He give the revelation on plurality of wives, as sacred a revelation as was ever given to any people, and fraught with greater blessings to us than we can possibly conceive of, if we do not abuse our privileges and commit sin. This doctrine is a holy and pure principle, in which the power of God for the regeneration of mankind is made manifest . . .
If any of you will deny the plurality of wives and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned. 3
Although plural marriage is no longer practiced in the Church, I believe it is critical for each faithful latter-day saint to obtain a witness and testimony that it was the Lord who commanded Joseph Smith to institute the practice of plural marriage. Many who have not obtained a witness of this important doctrine for themselves, are among those who are not only critical, but are also often quick to condemn the Prophet Joseph Smith, who is the Lord’s anointed. This scripture may apply:
Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them. (D&C 121:16)
In a letter written by William Clayton in 1871 in response to an inquiry about the the Prophet Joseph Smith and the revelation on Celestial Marriage. Elder Clayton wrote:
Now in regard to the subject matter of your letter, it appears to me the principle topic is what is commonly called polygamy, but which I prefer to call Celestial Marriage.
. . . . Now I say to you as I am ready to testify to all the world and on which testimony I am most willing to meet all the Latter Day Saints and all apostates in time and through all eternity. I did write the Revelation on Celestial Marriage given through the Prophet Joseph Smith on the twelve day of July 1843. When the Revelation was written there was no one present except the prophet Joseph, his brother Hyrum and myself. It was written in the small office upstairs in the rear of the brick store which stood on the bank of the Mississippi River. It took some three hours to write it. Joseph dictated sentence by sentence and I wrote it as he dictated. After the whole was written Joseph requested me to read it slowly and carefully which I did, and he then pronounced it correct.
. . . . I again testify that the revelation on Polygamy was given through the Prophet Joseph on the 12th July 1843, and that the Prophet Joseph both taught and practiced Polygamy. I do positively know, and bear testimony to the fact . . . .
Polygamy is a celestial order, the most sacred and holy that was ever revealed from Heaven to man. The revelation of July 12, 1843 says plainly, “To whomsoever this law is revealed they must and shall obey the same, or they shall be damned saith the Lord God.” How any man who pretends to believe the Bible can fight against polygamy, is a mystery to me. Abraham and Jacob were Polygamists. One is called the “father of the faithful.” Of the other it is said, ”In thee and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed,” so that there can be no blessings for the human family only through a Polygamist. You may rest assured that no man that fights against Polygamy will have the privilege of sitting down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. 4
This revelation is now included in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132. Plural marriage was likely revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith by 1831. 5
Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 explains that the Prophet Joseph Smith had inquired of the Lord:
. . . to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines. (D&C 132:1)
The Prophet Joseph Smith was then instructed by the Lord regarding the matter:
Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter.
Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same.
For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory. (D&C 132:2-4)
The revelation as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 explains that the Lord commanded these early Prophets to practice plural marriage, and that they
. . . did none other things than that which they were commanded. (D&C 132:37)
The revelation recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants gives what the Lord Himself states about His commandment:
I am the Lord thy God, and will give unto thee the law of my Holy Priesthood, as was ordained by me and my Father before the world was.
Abraham received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word, saith the Lord, and hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne.
Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins–from whose loins ye are, namely my servant Joseph–which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, out of the world they should continue; both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if we were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them. (D&C 132:28-30)
The Lord explained to the Prophet Joseph Smith that through his obedience these same blessings Abraham received, could also be his:
This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself.
Go ye therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved.
But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham. The Lord then explained to the Prophet Joseph Smith this doctrine as it was lived by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:
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.
Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.
Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.
Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law, as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods. (D&C 132:34–7)
I am sure that Joseph Smith pondered on the Lord’s revelation for a period of time. He began instructing his closest associates about the commandment he had received from the Lord, but he didn’t immediately act on it.
Erastus Snow, recalled:
The Prophet Joseph had said . . . “I have not been obedient enough to this holy law and the Lord was angry with me and an angel met me with a drawn sword but I pled with the Lord to forgive me and he did so and I made the sacrifice required of my hand and by the help of the Lord I will obey his Holy Law.” 6
Not only was it difficult for the Prophet Joseph to bring to light this commandment after he received it from the Lord, but also the apostles who were the first to receive it from Joseph had to receive their own witness that it came from God.
John Taylor wrote:
Where did this commandment come from in relation to polygamy? It came from God. It was a revelation given unto Joseph Smith from God, and was made binding upon His servants. When this system was first introduced among this people, it was one of the greatest crosses that ever was taken up by any set of men since the world stood. 7
Brigham Young also commented:
I never should have embraced it had it not been a command from the Almighty. 8
Each of these great men had to receive their own witness of the doctrine of plural marriage. They followed the process given by God for men to receive a testimony of any principle of the Gospel as given in the Book of Mormon:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true, and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:45)
Many of the early saints humbled themselves and also received their own witness of the truth and the importance of the doctrine of plural marriage through personal revelation, dreams, visions, or promptings. They came to understand the important principle that God’s ways are not man’s ways:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
John Taylor testified:
Where did this commandment come from in relation to polygamy? It came from God. It was a revelation given unto Joseph Smith from God, and was made binding upon His servants. When this system was first introduced among this people, it was one of the greatest crosses that ever was taken up by any set of men since the world stood. 9
Brigham Young explained how he came to a testimony of plural marriage:
Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned; and I will go still further and say, take this revelation, or any other revelation that the Lord has given, and deny it in your feelings, and I promise that you will be damned.
But the Saints who live their religion will be exalted, for they never will deny any revelation which the Lord has given or may give, though, when there is a doctrine coming to them which they cannot comprehend fully, they may be found saying, “The Lord sendeth this unto me, and I pray that He will save and preserve me from denying anything which proceedeth from Him, and give me patience to wait until I can understand it for myself.”
Such persons will never deny, but will allow those subjects which they do not understand, to remain until the visions of their minds become open. This is the course which I have invariably pursued, and, if anything came that I could not understand, I would pray until I could comprehend it.
Do not reject anything because it is new or strange, and do not sneer nor jeer at what comes from the Lord, for if we do, we endanger our salvation. 10
Have you received a witness of Plural Marriage?
In today’s world the Prophet Joseph Smith and the early saints who practiced plural marriage are under attack. Even though we are not called upon to practice plural marriage today, each faithful member of the Church must eventually gain his/her own testimony that the Prophet Joseph Smith did receive a revelation from God which commanded plural marriage.
We need to follow the example of the valiant early members of the Church. Many of them understood that God does not give commandments to his children that are not for their benefit and blessing. When the commandment was first given to them, some of the early saints saw it as a great sacrifice but came to realize that through their obedience they received great blessings and true joy. Those who lived this principle did so with the understanding that they were preparing the way for the establishment of the Lord’s Kingdom. Through their obedience, they came to realize that “…sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.” (Hymn, “Praise to the Man,” LDS Hymnbook)
Some of the early saints saw plural marriage as a great sacrifice but came to realize that through obedience they received great blessings and true joy.
President George Q. Cannon served the Church as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and member of the First Presidency under Presidents Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow. He reminded the Saints:
No great principles, like those to which we are wedded, no great work like that in which we are engaged, can be established in the earth, in the present condition of mankind at least, without great sacrifice on the part of those connected with it. We need not expect anything else than this. The Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith, in early church revelations, told to the Church: You are laying the foundation of a great work, how great you know not.
“You are laying the foundation of a great work, how great you know not.”
And the same words are just as applicable to us today, notwithstanding the growth of the work up to the present time. We with the light we now possess even, cannot conceive of its greatness. It has not entered into our hearts, neither are we capable of conceiving of it. But we are laying its foundation, nevertheless; and God has chosen us to this work. He has inspired us, and he has blessed us thus far in our endeavor to carry it out, and he will continue to do so to the end; and victory and glory will be the result of our faith and our diligence in keeping his commandments. 11
Sister Eliza R. Snow Smith, plural wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith and second president of the Relief Society, shared her initial struggle with, and eventual testimony of, plural marriage:
In Nauvoo I had the first intimation, or at least the first understanding, that the practice of a plurality of wives would be introduced in the Church. The thought was very repugnant to my feelings, and in direct opposition to my educational prepossessions; but when I reflected that this was the dispensation of the fullness of times, embracing all other dispensations, it was plain that plural marriage must be included; and I consoled myself with the idea that it was a long way in the distance, beyond the period of my mortal existence, and that, of course, I should not have it to meet. However, it was announced to me that the “set time” had come–that God had commanded his servants to establish the order, by taking additional wives.
It seemed for awhile as though all the traditions, prejudices, and superstitions of my ancestry, for many generations, accumulated before me in one immense mass; but God, who had kept silence for centuries, was speaking: I knew it, and had covenanted in the waters of baptism to live by every word of his, and my heart was still firmly set to do his bidding.
I was sealed to the prophet, Joseph Smith, for time and eternity, in accordance with the celestial law of marriage which God had revealed, the ceremony being performed by a servant of the Most High–authorized to officiate in sacred ordinances.
The more I comprehend the pure and ennobling principle of plural marriage, the more I appreciate it.
This, one of the most important events of my life, I have never had cause to regret. The more I comprehend the pure and ennobling principle of plural marriage, the more I appreciate it. It is a necessity in the salvation of the human family–a necessity in redeeming woman from the curse, and the world from its corruptions.
When I entered into it, my knowledge of what it was designed to accomplish was very limited; had I then understood what I now understand, I think I should have hailed its introduction with joy, in consideration of the great good to be accomplished. As it was, I received it because I knew that God required it. 12
This humble, courageous woman received a testimony of plural marriage, after her willingness to be obedient. Moroni in the Book of Mormon explains this principle:
Wherefore dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. (Ether 12:6)
These early saints received sure witnesses of God’s commandment to practice plural marriage (Celestial Marriage), because of their willingness to sacrifice and be obedient to this eternal doctrine.
John Taylor bore this inspired testimony of plural marriage and how it relates to Celestial marriage:
Where did this commandment come from in relation to polygamy? It also came from God. It was a revelation given unto Joseph Smith from God, and was made binding upon His servants. When this system was first introduced among this people, it was one of the greatest crosses that ever was taken up by any set of men since the world stood. Joseph Smith told others; he told me, and I can bear witness of it, “that if this principle was not introduced, this Church and kingdom could not proceed.”
When this commandment was given, it was so far religious, and so far binding upon the Elders of this Church that it was told them if they were not prepared to enter into it, and to stem the torrent of opposition that would come in consequence of it, the keys of the kingdom would be taken from them. When I see any of our people, men or women, opposing a principle of this kind, I have years ago set them down as on the high road to apostacy, and I do to-day; I consider them apostates, and not interested in this Church and kingdom. It is so far, then, a religious institution, that it affects my conscience and the consciences of all good men—it is so far religious that it connects itself with time and with eternity. What are the covenants we enter into, and why is it that Joseph Smith said that unless this principle was entered into this kingdom could not proceed? We ought to know the whys and the wherefores in relation to these matters, and understand something about the principle enunciated. 13
The Prophet Joseph Smith stated:
I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions; they cannot stand the fire at all. How many will be able to abide a celestial law, and go through and receive their exaltation, I am unable to say, as many are called, but few are chosen. 14
How many of us have testimonies that will “stand the fire.” in regard to plural marriage?
Are we willing to stand by the revelation given by the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and defend him and the commandment he was given on the doctrine of plural marriage?
- Harris, Dennison Lott. Dennison L. Harris statement, Ephraim, Utah, given to President Joseph F. Smith https://dcms.lds.org/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE5377450, see also McConkie, Mark L. Remembering Joseph, p. 386
- Horne, Mary Isabella. Testimony of Sister M. Isabella Horne. 1905, Church Archives
- Kimball, Heber C. Journal of Discourses. 11:211
- Clayton, William. Letter Salt Lake City to Madison M. Scott 1871 Nov. 11, Church Archives.
- “Plural Marriage (or Celestial Marriage, Patriarchal Marriage, Polygamy).” Inspira Wiki. Joseph Smith Foundation, 29 Jan. 2017. Web. 29 Jan. 2017. <https://josephsmithfoundation.org/plural-marriage-or-celestial-marriage-patriarchal-marriage-polygamy/>.
- Recalled by his mission companion, Orson Pratt, “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” The Millennial Star 40. December 16 1878. Print. 788.
- Taylor, John. Journal of Discourses.11:221.
- Young, Brigham, and Elden Jay. Watson. Brigham Young Addresses: A Chronological Compilation of Known Addresses of the Prophet Brigham Young. 1979. 5:170.
- Taylor, John. Journal of Discourses. Payson, AZ: Leaves-of-Autumn, 1980. Print. 11:221.
- Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses, 3:266-67.
- Cannon, George Q. Journal of Discourses, 23:278.
- Tullidge, Edward W. The Women of Mormondom. New York: n.p., 1877. 295.
- John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, 11:221.
- Smith, Joseph. Documentary History of the Church, 7 vols., (Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, UT, 1980), vol. 6:184.