Polygamy’s Ancient Purpose & Legal History

*Note: I do not endorse polygamy.


Introduction to the Philosophy of Polygamy


Polygamists want to be free to practice their plural marriage because they are usually acting out of religious conviction. Minor reasons behind this have been presented as a method of alleviating the poor who seek marriage but cannot find it bringing psychological belonging and children, and as an act of charity toward children by birthing them into wholesome families so they don’t have to go to corrupt families. Strict religionists view their religious philosophies as the key to world peace, and they want to spread that message, but since no one will hear it, the most effective way to pass it on is through posterity. Hence the logic of having as numerous a posterity as possible. Sacred texts like The Holy Bible, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Quran encourage a numerous posterity, and in some cases, multiple wives to accomplish that objective.

Those in opposition to polygamy argue that it is generally barbaric, that it often accompanies a spirit of misogyny, that it is generally disrespectful to women as intelligent human beings, and they argue that children in polygamous families are disfavored because the adding of adult role models from time to time in their lives can be difficult for them to attach to and cope with seeing as polygamy is a very small minority in western culture.


Effects of Banning Polygamy in Early America


The Mormon’s are the obvious culture of interest in this unique case of polygamy rising in the civilized world. Mormons preached polygamy and lived it despite it being a large factor in being chased from state to state until landing in uncharted territory of the west where federal and state laws didn’t apply. Eventually Utah was made a state and more pressure came to ban polygamy. Mormon leaders like Wilford Woodruff went into hiding to avoid jail sentences, and many Mormon leaders did jail time for polygamy. Eventually the Mormon leader then Wilford Woodruff declared that God had changed the polygamy policy. His journal reflects the great pressure he was under from civil authorities to do so, including threats to the sacred houses of worship called temples. Wilford’s journal further expressed that “for the temporal salvation” of the saints, there was no choice but to end polygamy.

Mormons attempted to get the US to change its existing law banning polygamy on the grounds of religious freedom being protected in the First Amendment, but their case was denied, saying that you could believe in polygamy, just not practice it (Reynolds v US 1878). The US was trying to avoid a Pandora’s box of others seeking allowances to unpopular ideas on the grounds of religious freedom behaviors (like smoking paote, killing chickens, etc.). This shows that the consequences of laws have dramatic impacts on family life. Hundreds of children were born in polygamous families, and thousands today have polygamous ancestry. Though polygamy has been discontinued in Mormonism, still today a large portion of its missionary force are descendants of polygamists.


Effects of Banning Polygamy in Modern America


Though the Mormons have not expressed interest in legalizing polygamy today (and excommunicate anyone practicing it), groups like the Amish, the FLDS, Islam, and other polygamous groups are not able to spread their religion as they would like to in the US. They believe that polygamy is a moral obligation, but that they are being held back in their efforts to please God. As immigration becomes more popular in the US we will see interesting cases about polygamy.

Some recent cases show how the US has dealt with immigration and polygamy. One case involved a foreigner who left one wife in his home country, and upon his death in the US, the law respected his foreign marriage and allowed some of his inheritance to go to his foreign polygamous wife who was not living the US with him. Another recent US case involved a man who wanted to maintain a marriage with a minor whom he had legally wed in his home country before immigrating to the US, but this was not tolerated as child protection laws are very strict. The US policy is to allow people the right to marry. This developed in a Supreme Court interracial marriage case, overturning the idea that race was not an appropriate way to limit people’s choice of marriage (1967 Loving v Virginia). This has led to even prisoners marrying.

The Sister Wives television program featured a Lehi Utah family who practiced polygamy, and who almost won a legal battle for polygamy in the civilized world. The governor of Utah was mad at this flagrant violation of law and sued. The polygamist family was happy that charges were pressed so they could finally get a law passed allowing them to be publicly and legally polygamist (a law can’t change unless you can say someone is using it against you). This seemed to them to be an easy case since so many were allowed already to have sex outside of marriage in cohabitation, to have homosexual marriage, and other practices which were not common 100 years ago. When the case went to local courts, it was approved, but other courts challenged the decision and it was denied. The case went to the Supreme Court and since the family had moved to Nevada and Nevada was not pressing charges, and Utah could not since they moved, the case was dropped.

Though barely, polygamy remains illegal. It is treated like speeding too fast and not highly monitored and enforced in a few states like Utah and Colorado. However, if a case came up where there was child abuse, tax fraud, or welfare fraud, the polygamy would be prosecuted. Though child protection laws, tax laws, and welfare laws will remain in place, it seems there is but one more straw needed to break the camel’s back when it comes to legalizing polygamy.


Legalizing Polygamy: A Question for Modern Society


Given the prevalence of allowing other types of marriage such as the 5/4 Supreme Court ruling that all states were required to issue same sex marriage licenses (Obergefell v. Hodges, June 26, 2015), polygamy might soon be legal also. Forbidding it at this point could appear to some as prejudice as other forms of marriage are so widely accepted. The political culture today suggests a libertarian view of marriage, that religious and non-religious people alike may choose which form of marriage to enter into by their free will and choice. Some religions, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would not participate in polygamy (it has by them been unequivocally banned and declared not to be the will of the Lord in our time), but those whose religious standards do allow polygamy, such as Islam, would be allowed to practice their religion, and find joy in following their conscience freely. Expression of the religious conscience is at the bedrock of Americanism, and many suggest that polygamy qualifies as a religious freedom, not to be disturbed by the government inasmuch as it doesn’t harm others. The historic definition of marriage has included either a monogamous relation between a man and a woman or a polygamous relation between a man and a number of women.

The United States values its citizens having the right to “the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence), which historically has generally meant creating a family of your own and in your own way. Consensual polygamy was not always banned in US history, though homosexuality always has been (until very recently). Consensual polygamy is to some an ethical family arrangement. Globally, polygamy is currently practiced by millions. As the US becomes more global, it will need to decide what to do with foreign cultures increasingly coming to America, including polygamy.

Americans must rightly have strict laws forbidding underage marriage and forced marriage, which are 2 historic issues with polygamy. The age of adulthood in many societies (especially historically) is congruent with the onset of puberty, but when evaluating the age of adulthood, the debate must include ramifications of modern culture; modern lifestyles likely justify a later legal age of adulthood, that of 18 years. Non-consensual marriages must continue to not be tolerated in our modern humane society. With certain parameters in place, some suggest that polygamy could serve its intended and historic purpose of making marriage a real option for all (particularly the widowed and poor), making childbearing in a wholesome family context a real option for all, and giving children the opportunity to be reared in homes of faith and decency.

Many religious voices, including the Latter-day Saints, renounce the modern-day practice of polygamy. Some call polygamy a barbaric tradition which, if ever useful, has outgrown its time. While this may be true, the libertarian political climate of our time may yet have a reasonable case for again legalizing polygamous marriage in the United States.

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