Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Symbolic Power of Polygamy

I am jumping the gun on my normal schedule and writing something I had no intention of writing until a few minutes ago in order to post this today. I just feel impressed to do so.

I believe that the major reason polygamy was revealed, taught and practiced by Joseph Smith was to solidify the foundation concept of eternal families early in the Church's history. Almost everything Joseph Smith taught focused on and developed our current understanding of eternal life and eternal marriage - and the universal application of the Atonement that provides the possibility for all to be joined (sealed) as part of a great, heavenly family. It is perhaps the single most unique aspect of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ - that we can be sealed to our spouse for time and all eternity - that family ties can last forever through the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood, embodied in a marriage ceremony and embedded in an ever-expanding family of equals.

Part of why I have not struggled personally to accept polygamy is that I have read journals written by my (and my wife's) ancestors and others who practiced it - journals that are full of both struggle to accept it and great manifestations of God to them as they did so. Some of the most powerful things I have read were recored in response to their own "furnace of affliction" that was polygamy. These journals also gave me a concept of what they envisioned by its practice - the embedding of the concept of universal, familial, communal sealing of a people (the symbolic tying of all into one large family of God and body of Christ) that we have a hard time understanding in our own modern, monogamous society.

It is conceivable that a group of people could believe in the concept of eternal marriage that includes ties beyond just a marriage and immediate family without practicing it here on earth, but the practice of polygamy and the persecution that followed embedded the concept of eternal family deeply into the souls of the earliest members in a way that could not have happened by listening to a Sunday School lesson or General Conference talk. They lived it and were persecuted and killed for it, so they KNEW it - painfully and deeply and undeniably. It literally was carved into their souls.

Having grown up in a small, Utah town where I was related in easily traceable ways to at least 20% of the town, I also got a taste of this communal sealing - and it can be powerful in practical ways. That over-arching concept of literal, expansive and all-encompassing FAMILY that makes all of us brothers and sisters is one of the beauties of Mormon theology to me. I don't think it could have been engraved in our cosmology without polygamy in quite the same way - just as I will never understand a nicotine addiction quite like someone who has smoked heavily and then quit. I'm glad I can't understand either through personal experience, but I'm grateful for those from whom I have learned polygamy's symbolic power vicariously.

31 comments:

Tasha said...

Great insight! Gives me something to ponder tonight.
It also makes me wish I lived closer so I could just enjoy a good long discussion with ya!
Love ya all!

Papa D said...

Tash, When the kids are gone, you and hubby can live in our basement. That would be fun - and might be viewed in the community as some weird polygamy/sealing thing. *grin*

Andrew said...

Interesting post, Ray.

A very similar post was up at another prominent LDS blog today, about the notion of polygamy being a way of binding us together as a human family. The post had some more controversial points, too, about intimacy within these relationships (thus no link, in case some might be offended by it. I'll let you search for it on your own).

Given the unusual way in which it was practiced (polyandry), along with adoption-type sealings, I think you are correct - polygamy was a way for the Saints to the nature of eternal families in a way that was/is difficult for us with our "traditional" family framework. It is to me, the most reasonable explanation for polygamy - that God was trying to show the saints how we are linked.

However, it seems from my reading of history that this family-linking was less of a factor in the later part of the nineteenth century.

Was the purpose of it lost, and thus polygamy was revoked? Have the fundamentalist groups focused on too small of an aspect of it?

Howard said...

Excellent post.

Communal sealing is also a good description of the interconnectedness that created a “tear resistant” fabric of society on both sides of the veil helping to insure that the then infant restored gospel will never again be taken from the earth.

Jami said...

I appreciate your thoughts Ray. The whole subject gives me indigestion. Just when I'd reconciled myself to eternal polygamy and the church's past practice of the principle, I ran into the polyandry aspect. I am now in the midst of reconciling my undeniable testimony with unsavory history. Faithful insights are comforting.

One of the reasons that RSR and In Sacred Lonliness are still in my reading pile is because I keep stopping. After a rest, I can move on, but it's slow going. And painful.

Papa D said...

Thanks, everyone, for your input. It struck me as I read the comments that I probably should add something else. I am going to say it as bluntly and directly as possible, and I hope it comes out the right way.

One of the biggest problems we have in understanding our state in the hereafter is that we have absolutely NO CLUE how spirits are created. Think about that for a moment. We don't have any idea how spirits are created. The only frame of reference we have is what we experience here in the creation of out mortal children. It is very natural to transpose that process of sexual activity into the eternities, given our belief that we will have "spirit children" there, but it's not supported by ANYTHING in out actual canon.

Our early (modern) prophets and apostles speculated freely about many things, but I know of NO authoritative statement describing HOW spirits come into existence. All we "know" (have been told in scripture) is the following:

1) There were things we call intelligences.
2) They became spirits.
3) They become mortal souls.
4) They become spirits again.
5) They will become immortal souls.
6) THAT PROCESS WILL BE REPEATED.

We have no clue about the "mechanics" of Stages 1 & 2, and we really have no clue about the "mechanics" of Stage 5. Stage 6 is a repeat of the entire process, so there are huge gaps in our understanding of it, as well.

My point:

The largest reason many struggle to accept polygamy is because many have associated the creation of spirits with the creation of mortals. In other words, "polygamy" carries explicit connotations of sexuality (of "sharing" a spouse sexually) - but that simply isn't taught anywhere in our actual canon. The only cases we have of seeing into the Celestial Kingdom are those like Paul's, where we are told that he saw things that could not be uttered.

Personally, I think even we who have been given a tiny glimpse of eternity in the sealing ordinances of the temple will be blown away when we finally see the big picture - and I think we will be shocked by how limited and limiting our current conceptions are (and how constricted they are by the blinders of mortality). When I see what Joseph seemed to be trying to create and what came to be under Brigham (not his fault, btw), I have to believe that all of our mortal fears about "polygamy" in the hereafter will fade away and become the ultimate example of how we see through our glass, darkly, here in mortality.

RoAnn said...

"I think even we who have been given a tiny glimpse of eternity in the sealing ordinances of the temple will be blown away when we finally see the big picture - and I think we will be shocked by how limited and limiting our current conceptions are (and how constricted they are by the blinders of mortality)."

My feelings exactly. Thanks for this post, which helped me to see a new aspect of this issue as it applied to early Church members.

Patty said...

It's interesting to read this one after reading your post on unity. I used to have problems with the whole idea of polygamy until I realized that this practice would help to unite people in a way that nothing else could. They had to really pull together and be united to make it work. I appreciate your thoughts on it. Oh, and I love your quote from 1 Corinthians- that particular one has been coming up a lot for me recently and has given me much to ponder.

Howard said...

Was the purpose of it lost, and thus polygamy was revoked?

Well, the early purposes for polygamy may have been outgrown. But, in 1880 Wilford Woodruff received revelation concerning plural marriage stating in part; My purpose shall be fulfilled upon this nation and no power shall stay my hand…fear ye not your enemies…your enemies shall not prevail over you.

Just 10 years later WW produced OD1. So was the Lord’s purpose fulfilled upon this nation in those short 10 years? Probably not or we would not have resisted ending of plural marriage.

Today multiple temple marriages to the same partner are preformed due to serial marriages, and common law marriages. The children of those relationships are sealed to their families.

Isn’t it more likely that plural marriage simply went underground?

Papa D said...

Good question, Howard.

I think the foundation concept of "sealing" was much more important than the specifics of "plural marriage" - Joseph's "higher law" to Brigham's "lower law", if you will. When you stop and realize that there is NO reason to seal children to parents if the PURPOSE of the sealing is focused solely on marriage (since those children hopefully will marry, be sealed to spouses and "leave home" here and eternally), it can be a powerful reminder that the core of the sealing ordinances is much broader than "just" the binding of a man and a woman as husband and wife.

From that perspective, "earthly polygamy" could cease without affecting the core concept of eternal sealing at all. Sealing us to our kindred dead continues on a daily basis in the Church, and "our kindred dead" ultimately is all God's children.

It's truly a powerful concept at its core.

Papa D said...

Andrew, I know Howard was quoting your question. I didn't mean to overlook that in my response, and I mistyped "Howard" instead of "Andrew" in my comment.

I apologize for that.

Howard said...

Earthly polygamy today seems to exist in the modified form of serial marriages and possibly even sexual transgressions followed by repentance.

Sojourner said...

The mystery of God will ever draw His children into discovery.

Papa D said...

Howard, I look around at polygamy in general and understand why it is approved (according to the Book of Mormon) here on earth ONLY as an exception to the general rule of monogamy. I admit, the recognition that monogamy is the default rule for *sexual* unions also colors my view of how I see "eternal marriage" and "sealing" - as I mentioned in a previous comment.

Sojourner, well said.

Papa D said...

Oh, and just to throw another fascinating wrinkle into this discussion, there are far-reaching and profound implications for discussions of sexual orientation when "sexual activity" is removed from one's perspective on what it means to be "sealed" and to "create spirit children" in the eternities.

I'm not sure if that deserves a totally separate post, but the concepts of dynastic sealings and adoption as they relate to the earliest practice of plural marriage open up all kinds of possibilities that might make us chuckle in consternation in the hereafter over our current quabblings concerning these things.

Jami said...

I don't think that the process of creating spiritual children will involve physical pregnancy nor sex. I believe that marriage will continue to be physically and emotionally intimate. How it is all going to work is beyond me at this point. When I need to know, I'm sure I will.

Tasha said...

You crack me up!

Papa D said...

I assume, Tash, that was pointed at my response to your comment - not Jami's comment. *grin*

Btw, I live to crack Mama up, so why not her BFF, as well?

Tasha said...

Now I crack me up! Jami's post wasn't even there when Istarted typing my comment. I was laughing at your post, just before Jami's. Although the living together thing cracks me up too.

Papa D said...

Yeah, Tash, now that I have re-read that comment, I also crack me up - since I meant to type "squabblings" not "quabblings".

Stephen said...

but the practice of polygamy and the persecution that followed embedded the concept of eternal family deeply into the souls of the earliest members in a way that could not have happened by listening to a Sunday School lesson or General Conference talk.

Well said. Fits my own thought that polygamy functioned to turn the early Church into an ethnic group in a short period rather than the 200+ years it usually would have taken.

The ethnic identity carried the Church into the 1960s/1970s and I think is why the Church was able to survive into the 70s when it began its next stage.

Stephen said...

Also, as I note at http://mormonmatters.org/2008/01/23/polygamy-what-it-really-implies-part-two/

While some are bothered by the fact that Joseph Smith engaged in polygamy, others are perturbed by the fact that he had so few children by anyone other than his first wife. As the recent DNA studies reflect, he and Emma buried more children than the other women had with Joseph between them.

Which of course highlights the fact that they had other children and felt free to marry after he died, with no criticism of their choices or directions.

Papa D said...

Excellent points, Stephen. I really like the way you phrased the following:

"Polygamy functioned to turn the early Church into an ethnic group in a short period."

Howard said...

We don't have any idea how spirits are created. The only frame of reference we have is what we experience here in the creation of out mortal children. It is very natural to transpose that process of sexual activity into the eternities, given our belief that we will have "spirit children" there, but it's not supported by ANYTHING in out actual canon.

Well stated, however in 1909 the First Presidency issued a statement titled The Origin of Man which suggests that we might actually be transposing spirit creation by removing sex from it!

Excerpts:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, proclaims man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity.

Man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents

He formed every plant that grows, and every animal that breathes, each after its own kind, spiritually and temporally--"that which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal, and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual."

It shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents… having "body, parts and passions," like other men

Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit, and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit, will I appear unto my people in the flesh. (Ether, 3:6-16.)

http://eyring.hplx.net/Eyring/faq/evolution/FP1909.html

Papa D said...

Good point, Howard, but at its root "beget" simply means "to cause; produce; generate; etc." The allusion to "birth" or "father" is only one usage for that term - and even those terms don't have to connote sexual activity.

We really have no idea exactly how intelligences become spirits. I'm not saying it is one way or another - just that we have no clear statement about the process of creation.

Howard said...

We really have no idea exactly how intelligences become spirits. True enough.

But this statement is very strong; "that which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal, and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual." It basically says when it comes to likeness; spiritual = temporal, temporal = spiritual.

Given this law, it would require strong evidence to the contrary to argue the sex out of spirit creation.

Papa D said...

Not really, Howard. Again, the most fitting definition of "likeness" in this quote is: "an imitative appearance; a semblance" - which, in this context, simply means that the mortal body looks like the spirit body. I personally think it is stretching one statement to the breaking point to assert that the 1909 statement says that we believe in eternal sex.

Obviously, since we don't have a clear canonical statement one way or another, I'm not going to stake my testimony on either option. I just don't think there is anywhere near enough scriptural evidence one way or another - and I am 100% positive that no current apostle would say that we believe in eternal sex. I think, if pressed, they would echo my "we don't know".

Honestly, Howard, this is one where we might have to agree to disagree - and I don't think we will get any additional insights out of continuing to discuss it. Thanks for your input on it, but let's move on. OK?

Howard said...

Papa D,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Papa D said...

You're welcome. Thanks. Seriously.

Christy said...

Ray, I did not read through all of the comments yet, so I may be repeating something already written, sorry. Thank you for this post. I have just finished reading Carolyn Jessop's autobiography and am happy to get a dose of the principles behind the practice after reading of its gross abuses. If you haven't already, can you explain what "polyandry" is? I've never heard (or read) that term.

"When I see what Joseph seemed to be trying to create and what came to be under Brigham (not his fault, btw), I have to believe that all of our mortal fears about "polygamy" in the hereafter will fade away"

I agree. I cannot believe that we will fear anything once we glimpse eternity.

Papa D said...

Christy, technically, "polygamy" means "the condition or practice of having more than one spouse at one time." It is a gender neutral term, so it could be plural wives OR husbands. "Polyandry", otoh, means "the practice or condition of having more than one husband at one time."

The earliest forms instituted by Joseph Smith were much broader than what came to be practiced under Brigham Young. The dynastic and "platonic" sealings, for example, didn't last into the 20th Century. Under Brigham, I agree with Stephen (one of the later comments) that the purpose came to be focused on "raising up seed unto me" (Jacob 2:30) by creating a new quasi-ethnic group - a latter-day House of Israel, if you will.