Why don’t Mormons practice polygamy now? (LDS belief in living prophets)

Jun 11, 2013 by

We recently received this question from a reader.

Maddie writes:

Do Mormons believe that God never changes? If so, I have a question: For a long time Mormons encouraged if not required polygamy. Why have you changed and now say that practice is not permissible? If God doesn’t change His mind, would you say that your early leaders were wrong? If so, couldn’t they have been wrong about many other things?

Maddie, this is a question that I think a lot of people have, so thanks for asking it.

I think the short answer to your question is that we believe in living prophets. But following is a longer response that I hope can explain a little about what that means to us as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and how that relates to your question.

I think what is on Mormon.org addresses your specific question about polygamy pretty well, so I’ll start there. This is from the page “Do Mormons practice polygamy?”

At various times, the Lord has commanded His people to practice plural marriage. For example, He gave this command to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon (Doctrine and Covenants 132:1). At other times the Lord has given other instructions. In the Book of Mormon, the Lord told the prophet Jacob “for there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife: and concubines he shall have none… 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 2:27-30).

In this dispensation, the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by this command, but they obeyed it. Church leaders regulated the practice. Those entering into it had to be authorized to do so, and the marriages had to be performed through the sealing power of the priesthood. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation that the leaders of the Church should cease teaching the practice of plural marriage (Official Declaration 1).

Through a living prophet, polygamy (in limited practice) was commanded for a time. Through the same means (through a living prophet), polygamy was later revoked.

We believe changes in policy or commandments given to or through prophets do not negate or contradict the belief in an unchanging God. In fact, to me, the fact that God has consistently used this pattern of having living leaders to guide His people and do His work throughout the dispensations of time underscores the unchangeableness of God! Let me explain, or give a few examples.

Consider, for example, that God gave the law of Moses to the children of Israel. Before His death, Jesus and the family He grew up in lived and obeyed that law. But after Christ’s death and resurrection, the law was no longer practiced. It had been fulfilled; it had served its purpose in God’s big picture. After that time, it became, in fact, wrong for followers of Christ to practice the law of Moses.

But this change didn’t negate the divine role Moses had in God’s work or the role the law of Moses had during that time to bring people to God and point their souls to Christ. God had not changed, and His desire and love for His children had not changed, and His eternal plan to save His children through Christ had not changed (that was the plan from the beginning of time, even before the earth was formed, and still is the plan!). But the law had.

Another example is how, at first, Jesus Himself told the apostles to only teach the Jews, but after Christ’s death, to and through Peter (the authorized head/leader of the Church), the revelation was received to then take the gospel to the Gentiles. This didn’t negate Jesus’ commission to His leaders when He was alive. Again, God’s character and love for His children had not changed, but God had continued to reveal His will through His authorized servants, and His work continued to go forward.

Over time, the authority that had been given to Jesus’ apostles was taken from the earth, as those apostles died. Because of His big picture view and because of where people were at the time (speaking generally), there were centuries of time when that authority did not exist on the earth. God had not changed, but in His big picture view, that period of time had a purpose (and many people had important work to do to help prepare for the restoration of the gospel).

It was all still about God’s plan and His love and His purposes to bring people to Christ and this time, to prepare the earth for Jesus’ *second* coming.

Through the prophet of the restoration and the authority that was restored to and through him, Joseph Smith, the pattern of having living prophets was also restored. Continuing and unfolding authorized revelation for Christ’s Church became part of the pattern again. The unfolding work of the restoration of the Church took years and years, and continued after his death…and continues to this day.

Polygamy was commanded for some to live for a time in the early history of the Church. But through a living prophet (the fourth president of the Church), Wilford Woodruff, God revealed in 1890 that it was time for that to end. Leaders from that time forward upheld monogamy as the rule. As noted in the Mormon.org quote above, monogamy has, in fact, always been the rule. God has commanded polygamy at times, but it was never meant to be His unending, unchanging law.

Today, living prophets continue to receive inspiration about policy changes and specific things the Church and its members are to do and focus on.

But through all of the dispensations of time, through all of these types of changes and that process of God giving different instructions to different prophets depending on what His will and purposes were, the character of God has not changed. His love for His children has never changed. His plan, as mentioned before, never changed.

For me, although I don’t fully understand the purpose polygamy filled in its time, I am not bothered by it. This pattern of God working through living prophets to reveal His will and commands for specific times and seasons, in fact, only strengthens my faith in God and His character. It is the pattern found in scripture. I find great comfort in knowing that He will give the instructions that I need to know in my life through prophets, and that He is fully aware of what is needed now in our time given where we are in the earth’s history and in His big picture view. But my God is the same God who guided Moses and who sent Jesus and who inspired Peter and who called Joseph Smith and who speaks through living prophets today.

Answers to and thoughts about questions addressed at Mormon Women should not be considered official responses of the Church. For official material and/or to ask Mormon missionaries questions, see Mormon.org.

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  1. Stumbled on this scripture today and thought it was relevant and worth sharing:And gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon;
    9 Which contains a record of a fallen people, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also;
    10 Which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them—
    11 Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old;
    12 Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.

  2. Al Pratt

    When the mainstream Mormon church says they have nothing to do with polygamy, they would be more honest if they added, “not any more” and “not at this time.” Mainstream Mormon doctrine defends its early polygamy as God-mandated, allows for multiple wives in the hereafter, suggests that God may be a polygamist, and reserves God’s right to reinstate polygamy if and should He so please. …read the Doctrine and Covenants (which the Mormons regard as scripture), Section 132; it is the original “revelation” to Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith wherein God states that taking multiple wives is no less than a COMMANDMENT.

  3. Al,
    I removed the book recommendation you included for various reasons, but wanted your (very common) responses to be published. And, as you can imagine, I wanted to respond. 🙂

    “not any more” and “not at this time.” and “reserves the right to reinstate polygamy if and should He so please.” Yes. These are fair points (although you make it sound as though that is something we should apologize for, and I don’t agree with that. This is exactly the point of my post. When you believe in living prophets, you understand that following them could include hard things. As Jacob 2 says in the Book of Mormon, if God were to will it again, He could and He would. It’s a freeing thing to know that God is in charge and that He will let His prophets know what needs to happen. But when you understand that monogamy is the rule in God’s teachings, you also understand that polygamy had a focused purpose and limited timeframe. This was true anciently and was true in our dispensation as well.

    “Early polygamy as God-mandated” — Yes, we do believe that. Your comment sounds accusatory, but we simply beleive it had a purpose and a place for a time.

    “Allows for multiple wives in the hereafter” — sealings to more than one person can and does happen (after a spouse has died and a person remarries, sometimes this happens). What the hereafter will look like is something we just don’t grasp, though. (Sealings and polygamy aren’t necessarily synonymous as well. There were many early marriages that were sealings only, not actual, marital, consummated relationships. The doctrine of sealings goes beyond marriage.)

    “Suggests that God may be a polygamist” — I think some people speculate about this, but you’d be hard pressed to find any teachings from living prophets on this topic. Which means this isn’t mainstream Mormon doctrine.

    Re: Section 132 — again, this is where living prophets come into play, why understanding continuous revelation is so important to understanding Mormon doctrine. Joseph received this revelation to get clarity about the commandment that had been given anciently and for his time. But living prophets have made it very clear that monogamy now is the rule. And they also have expounded on this section in really important ways. For those who want to understand Mormon doctrine on marriage, it’s essential to study current teachings of prophets and to see the clear patterns in what they teach.

  4. beawesomeb

    Women in the church at the time of polygamy had to gain their own testimony just as we do now. Even if we aren’t practicing it now. You see The fullness of the gospel had to be restored in the latter days before Christ returns. So because polygamy was in ancient times of the Bible, we had to have it return for a restoration of the gospel in these latter days. That doesn’t mean that it has to be continued now but it was a principle that had to be restored and God knew that it needed to be restored before laws would change and before he could bring about the technology era. It also had to be restored through Joseph Smith who is the prophet of this dispensation. So he was told that if he didn’t restore it, a destroying angel would come for him. We also understand that to practice polygamy it was a calling and that one had to have the means to take care of more people. Also with more women then men at the time who needed looking after it was a means to fulfill that. God knows all things and has multiple purposes.
    So when polygamy was proven to have been restored and the prophet asked what to do about those going to jail etc. it was no longer necessary to practice it.

    {Editor’s note: Just a reminder that comments reflect the opinion of the commenter and don’t necessarily reflect the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or of the More Good Foundation.}

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