[ Author: Kathy Petersen ]
If you spend any time talking with Mormons, the topic of Joseph Smith (hereafter “JS”) and polygamy is sure to come up. There are a few ways they deal with it:
- Deny it entirely (extremely uncommon, especially since the modern LDS Church has admitted that there were plural marriages).
- Admit that there were marriages but claim that they were “spiritual marriages” only and were never physically consummated.
- Admit that there were marriages but insist that God required them and claim that just like God could issue a general injunction against murder but then call on Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, God could override His own law in this matter and call on early Mormons to practice polygamy (and marrying two sisters, and marrying a mother and her daughter, and marrying women who were already married to other men) for His own purposes.
Only a spiritual marriage?
I’ll spend the most time on this last point but want to talk about point two for a bit first. Mormons often offer as proof that the union was not sexual, based on the fact that none of the women had any children by JS. So far as that goes, it appears to be true – modern genetics studies have so far not shown that any of the children of the “plural wives” of JS were indeed fathered by JS. However, the fact that at least some of the women suspected that JS was the father of their child is proof in itself that there was physical consummation.
There is also evidence from some of the plural wives (including the youngest at the time of her marriage, Helen Mar Kimball who was only 14) that the marriages were indeed physically consummated. One (Zina Huntington Jacobs, who already had a husband) wrote of having engaged in severely shameful behavior and Helen later confided to a friend that had she known the marriage would be anything but “ceremony”, she would not have agreed to it (though many years later, she became a vocal advocate for polygamy).
There is also eyewitness testimony that JS shared a bed with one wife only a month after he had shared the same bed with another wife (not Emma, his legal wife). Even the LDS Church admits that the marriages possibly included sexual relations, but they do not go so far as admitting that there definitely was physical consummation (see also this response to the LDS article). In short, there is no reason to suspect that all of the marriages were “spiritual” only, and great reason to think that most were physically consummated.
Understanding the difference
Now to the last point and that is the equating of God’s telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac with JS’s claim that God told him to commit polygamy, even marrying women who were already married. At first glance, it may seem plausible – God gave a general command to all people but overruled it or allowed an exception in certain cases. However, a closer examination will show the emptiness of the claim.
First, there is a great deal of difference between calling on a man to sacrifice his beloved child – and the child of promise at that! – and calling on a man to have multiple sex partners. It’s pretty obvious that most men by nature don’t have any problem with desiring to have sex with many women; the greater difficulty seems to be remaining chaste before marriage and faithful during marriage. Also, if I may step into sarcasm for a bit, killing your child under any circumstances somehow just isn’t quite as pleasurable as spreading your seed. So that part is greatly different.
Also, God calling on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was a test of faith and obedience, and perhaps also a test to show if Abraham loved Isaac more than he loved God. We also have in the biblical text the fact that Isaac was the child of promise, the one through whom God had promised Abraham’s future offspring would come, so if Isaac were killed and remained dead, that promise would be made void, so it seems that Abraham recognized on some level that if he killed Isaac, that God would resurrect him. [In the Genesis account, Abraham tells his servants to stay behind, saying that he and Isaac would go and return in three days. He said that Isaac would return, though he knew he was going to offer him as sacrifice.] These parallels and lessons are entirely lacking from JS’s polygamy, much less his polyandry.
However, there is one larger point: Paul writes in the NT that “the things that were written before, were written for our learning,” and he draws frequent lessons from OT history to make a NT point. For example, in Galatians, he says that Abraham fathering his first child Ishmael by a servant woman while his second child Isaac was by a free woman, was analogous to the nation of Israel being under the bondage of the Law while the NT Church is under the freedom of Christ. Many commentaries have been written on the topic of the sacrifice of Isaac, drawing similar parallels including but not limited to the following (and in no particular order):
- Isaac’s “return to life” (not literally, since he wasn’t actually killed, but in a way was as good as dead, since Abraham was intent on offering him as a sacrifice) symbolizing our resurrection
- Isaac bore the wood for the altar up Mt. Moriah, prefiguring Jesus’s bearing of his cross to Calvary (both wood, both instruments of death)
- the ram caught in a thicket becoming the substitute for Isaac’s death symbolizing Jesus, the Lamb of God, becoming our substitute
- the three days that Abraham and Isaac were gone from the servants symbolizing the three days of Jesus in the grave
- Isaac willingly being bound by Abraham as a sacrifice instead of fighting back (we are not told his age, but ancient Jewish tradition has him as being about 25 years old) symbolizing Jesus’s willingness to be offered in sacrifice
- Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice that which was most dear to him, in order to obey God
Indeed, the things which happened and which were written before, were written for a reason and also happened for a reason. God had at least the above reasons for calling on Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. And JS had… what reasons for engaging in polygamy? When a Mormon offers the above response and equates JS’s polygamy and polyandry to Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice, you can ask him what great spiritual truths does JS’s polygamy show – and not just in marrying multiple wives, but also in marrying pair of sisters, mother-daughter pairs and many women who were already married to other men.