Today’s post is in response to a question received on the website. A young man who is preparing for his mission asked me how I would respond to his non-member friend who asked why Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. The polygamy question is one I got only a time or two on my mission, but missionaries today are more likely to get asked about it, so they should be prepared to respond.
First, I would answer that polygamy is part of our past, but not part of the present Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith began publicly teaching the principle of plural marriage (polygamy) in the 1840s, but by the year 1890, polygamy was officially discontinued by the Church. The book of the Doctrine and Covenants contains the official declaration from Church President Wilford Woodruff ending polygamy. Today there are over 16 million members of the Church around the world, and none of them practice polygamy.
Now, having established that the Church does not now practice polygamy, it still doesn’t address the question of why Joseph Smith instituted the practice in the early days of the Church. To answer the why question, I’d like to quote the Church’s official statement on polygamy. It reads:
“At certain times and for His specific purposes, God, through His prophets, has directed the practice of plural marriage (sometimes called polygamy), which means one man having more than one living wife at the same time. In obedience to direction from God, Latter-day Saints followed this practice for about 50 years during the 1800s but officially ceased the practice of such marriages after the Manifesto was issued by President Woodruff in 1890. Since that time, plural marriage has not been approved by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and any member adopting this practice is subject to losing his or her membership in the Church.” (emphasis added)
The statement from the Church goes on to cite instance in the Bible where Abraham, Jacob, and others of the Lord’s servants had plural wives (see Genesis 16:1–3; 29:23–30; 30:4, 9; Judges 8:30; 1 Samuel 1:1–2).
Joseph Smith also asked God why he had been commanded to restore the practice of plural marriage and was told simply that the Lord has His reasons. One of those reasons given by the Lord is mentioned in the Book of Mormon: “If I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall [have only one wife]” (Jacob 2:30; see also v. 27). In other words, it was to bring more children into the world who would be raised up faithful to the Lord. (sourced, again, from the Church’s official declaration on polygamy)
The polygamy question is a tough one to answer, and missionaries should know it’s okay to say they don’t know all the reasons why. We know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and we know it came as a commandment from God. As a missionary, the conversation should then turn to helping the investigator gain their own testimony of Joseph Smith which can be gained by reading the Book of Mormon and praying to know its truthfulness. (see my previous post on The Power of the Book of Mormon)
Finally, I’ll leave you with a video clip from President Hinckley’s October 1998 General Conference talk where he reiterated the Church’s position against polygamy.