Polygamy lives on in LDS temples, spurring agony, angst and a key question: Who will be married to whom in heaven?

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The agonized question came from a concerned Latter-day Saint woman considering eternal marriage to a widower: Would she have her own house in the hereafter or would she have to live with her husband and his first wife?

Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the LDS Church’s governing First Presidency, used the query during last month’s General Conference to set up a speech about trusting in God.

In response to the heavenly hypothetical, the audience in the faith’s giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City let out a collective guffaw. That troubled many believing Mormons, especially women, to whom the possibility of eternal polygamy is no laughing matter.

It is the cause of anxiety, nightmares, deathbed promises, and, yes, earnest letters to authorities in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, begging for clarification.

The church has explicitly barred polygamy among its members, excommunicating any who try, for more than a century, but that has hardly ended the debate.

Oaks’ talk as well as the horrific massacre in Mexico of three mothers and six children from a former polygamous colony and the renewed chatter about legalizing plural marriage have triggered new conversations about the church’s past practice of polygamy and revived worries about what it means for today’s Latter-day Saints.

That’s because plural marriage remains very much a part of Mormon doctrine, enshrined in scripture, and practiced, at least through so-called sealings, in its temples. Many members believe polygamy will be reinstituted in the afterlife and even the late Latter-day Saint apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that the “holy practice” would resume after Jesus Christ’s Second Coming.

Polygamy also exists in the here and now. Divorced or widowed men can be “sealed” (married for eternity in Latter-day Saint temples) to multiple wives, while such women generally can be sealed only to one husband.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A sealing room in the Rome Italy Temple

If a man gets a divorce, he can be sealed again to another wife without “canceling” the first sealing, while women are required to get that cancellation. That plays into dating issues, wedding plans, gender conflicts.

One elderly gentleman was widowed and sealed twice, and, while in his 70s and considering a third wife, declared he would only court a woman who was already sealed to her first husband. It was a question he posed on all first dates with prospective mates. Because, as the man said at the time, “two wives on the other side are enough.”

Church President Russell M. Nelson and Oaks both married a second woman in the temple after their first wives died, so will those women be sharing their men in heaven?

And what about the Western world’s most famous polygamist, Brigham Young, who was sealed to more than 50 women?

(Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society) This photo, from 1898, shows Brigham Young and who his wives were at the time.

“I don’t think we can try to understand heaven based on our understanding of life here. Humans rule here by trying to decipher revelation. In heaven, it will be purely God’s love that rules. There is no need for polygamy. I think God can create spirits any way he wants to. He’s God!"

— Stacy Sonksen Cameron, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

“The church could disavow this doctrine quite easily. They could start granting sealing cancellations for women without having to jump through unbelievably traumatic hoops to not be sealed to someone they do not wish to be sealed to. The church could very much ease the fears and confusion of women and stop the practice of polygamy within temple sealings. The message is clear: Polygamy will exist in the hereafter and that how women feel about it does not matter.”

— Lesley Ann Butterfield-Harrop, Roanoke, Va.

Past versus present — and future

The LDS Church teaches that the practice of some men marrying more than one wife began with a divine revelation to church founder Joseph Smith. It is described and defended in one of the faith’s canonized texts, the Doctrine and Covenants, in Section 132.

The practice continued among some Latter-day Saints and with the faith’s blessing — despite an 1890 “Manifesto” publicly promising to end it — until a “second Manifesto” in 1904, after which the Utah-based faith strictly prohibited new plural marriages.

Today, any person who practices polygamy cannot become or remain a member of the Salt Lake City-based church.

Acclaimed playwright, poet and author Carol Lynn Pearson believes it is time to remove Section 132, disavow polygamy as ever having been an inspired practice, and discontinue those unequal marriage practices in the temple.

“Polygamy delayed is still polygamy,” Pearson reasons in her 2016 book, “The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men."

It is “not an artifact in a museum. It is alive and unwell, a ghost that has a dark life of its own,” writes Pearson, who lives in Northern California, “hiding in the recesses of the Mormon psyche, inflicting profound pain and fear, assuring women that we are still objects, damaging or destroying marriages, bringing chaos to family relationships."

Pearson received about 8,000 responses to an online survey about polygamy. Though not a scientific sample, she says that 51 percent of the respondents were “active Mormons.” Only 15 percent were “at peace with polygamy,” she writes, while “85 percent expressed sadness, confusion, pain.”

(Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Author Carol Lynn Pearson

Latter-day Saint historian Ardis Parshall, however, believes the passages about plural marriage should remain in the canon.

“There are numerous points in scripture — especially in the Old Testament but elsewhere as well — with obsolete teachings. Nobody I know advocates editing the laws for bloody sacrifice or for stoning rape victims who don’t scream loudly enough,” Parshall says. “Removing Section 132 wouldn't change anything about how it was believed and practiced in the past, and would dishonor those good people who lived it. Removing it would not ultimately soothe the feelings of those who hate it, because removal would not supply the missing information they crave about the eternal status of someone who has loved and married more than once. What we need is more information, not less.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Ardis E. Parshall, a Mormon research historian in Salt Lake City, is an avid bibliophile.

“I found Dallin H. Oaks’ talk from this last General Conference appropriate and inspiring. We would do well to trust in the Lord more, and lean not unto our own understanding. Removing canon to make ourselves comfortable sounds a lot like fashioning a god after our own image.”

— Jasmin Gimenez Rappleye, Spanish Fork

“My question about this and some other things in the LDS Church is: Would a loving Heavenly Father and Jesus put women into these outrageous positions when both, not the church presidency, know how women feel? I say no! Heavenly Father and Jesus are just; therefore I do not believe that there is polygamy in heaven.”

— Brigitte Dawson Hein, Sandy

Different kind of love

Kathleen Flake, head of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, believes the role polygamy played in the faith’s history is largely misunderstood.

“Thoroughly modern Mormons have accepted a particular cultural definition of marriage as necessarily romantic and projected it onto the afterlife in all sorts of ways.” says Flake, who is writing a book about polygamy. “They've furnished God's 'many mansions' with romantic sentiment and mid-20th-century nuclear families. So of course they worry about plural marriage."

Today’s Latter-day Saint couples “don’t know what these covenanted marriage relationships of the past were meant to do,” she says. “This was so fundamentally a religious form of marriage that it will never be understood by those devoted to romantic marriage.”

Notwithstanding the popular emphasis on “together forever,” Flake says, “LDS temple sealings are designed to order the couple in relation to God, not merely to each other.”

In a 2009 speech Flake gave at Utah State University titled “The Emotional and Priestly Logic of Plural Marriage,” the scholar drew on the testimony of early polygamist women in Utah to make her case.

Mary Isabella Horne, Flake tells the audience, was asked to compare her experience in polygamy to the 28 years she had lived with her husband monogamously.

“‘Plural marriage destroys the oneness, of course,’” Flake quotes Horne as saying, “but to her that oneness had meant ‘she was so bound and so united to her husband that she could do nothing without him.’ Though it had been a ‘trial of her feelings’ to lose it, she could now ‘see some advantages’ — namely, ‘she is freer and can do herself individually things she never could have attempted before; and work out her individual character as separate from her husband.’”

The “logic of plural marriage,” Flake says in the discourse, “can be found in its serving as a means of cleansing its practitioners of the mundane … or, in other words, making them holy.”

Flake does not expect the church ever to disavow plural marriage, she says, and she doesn’t have a problem with it.

“Perhaps the original vision was more like every one of the human race being sealed in one big family. If sealing is meant to bring people together, I have to think this is the purpose. Because the way it’s taught now, it divides family members and creates a culture of judgment.”

— Lisa Torcasso Downing, Heath, Texas

“I’ve never had a problem with polygamy. I gained a testimony of it early in my life. I can see why it would be beneficial. I don’t really care if we have it in heaven or not. In heaven, love is not a scarce resource. Here, we fight over it, we become jealous, we do horrible things under the guise of love — because it’s scarce. We claw at each other to get it, and we think it’s limited. Here, it is limited. But not there. In heaven, it isn’t scarce. It’s abundant. It isn’t something we fight over. It’s everywhere.”

— Laura Sage, Centerville

An exception rather than rule

The late writer and scholar Eugene England honored his polygamist ancestors in a strongly worded essay, “On Fidelity, Polygamy and Celestial Marriage,” yet he did not believe plural marriage would stretch into eternity.

“From reflection and from talking with Mormon women, that the devaluation of women inherent in the expectation of polygyny,” he argued, “is destructive of their sense of identity and worth now.”

In the 19th century, Mormon polygyny, a man with more than one wife, “was inspired by God through his prophets,” England wrote. “I am the descendant of polygynists … who lived that law — faithfully, morally, and at enormous costs to themselves and the church. Those costs included alienation from American culture and from their own moral training, martyrdom for a few, and very nearly the total destruction of their church and culture by the United States government.”

For those early Latter-day Saints, England wrote, “the good achieved by polygyny outweighed those costs and made possible the establishment and success of the restored kingdom of God on earth during its beginning period. And when that practice had achieved its purposes, limited to a specific historical period and place, God took it away.”

Feminist Latter-day Saint writer Valerie Hudson, director of the program on women, peace and security at Texas A&M University, also sees plural marriage as a doctrinal exception and uses the controversial scriptural passages as evidence.

In Section 132, church founder Joseph Smith uses the biblical story of Abraham and his two wives, Sarah and Hagar, to defend polygamy.

“Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation [for having plural wives]?” verse 35 asks. "Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it."

The next passage mentions God’s mandate that Abraham kill his son Isaac.

“God wishes us to see how and why he views the two situations as analogous,” Hudson says in a 2011 speech at a FairMormon conference. “The Lord is telling us that the term ‘Abrahamic sacrifice’ refers not only to the story of Isaac but applies to the story of Hagar, as well.”

In the story of Isaac, God asks Abraham to depart from the law against killing. In the end, an angel stays Abraham’s hand, Hudson says, relieving him from an “exceptional commandment.”

God does not then change the commandment or say it’s now OK to kill, Hudson says. Likewise, Mormon polygamy was an exception to the eternal principle of monogamy, and it was removed when the sacrifice no longer was necessary.

“This interpretation helps explain why the Utah-based faith does not baptize polygamists,” she says in the speech, “even in countries where plural marriage is legal [which includes dozens of nations in Asia and Africa].”

What about the fact that, even today, men can be sealed to more than one woman for eternity in Latter-day Saint temples, but women generally can be sealed to only one man?

That, Hudson quips, is “a vestige of androcentric [male-centered] understanding of the sealing order of the temple.”

(Photo courtesy of Valerie Hudson) Latter-day Saint writer Valerie Hudson

“I liked what was said in the last General Conference — that we know very, very little about the afterlife, and extrapolating based on conditions here doesn’t always produce good results. … I am not sure what it is even going to mean to be sealed to a spouse in heaven, except some vague idea that we will be ‘together’ but what that means when there are no limits of time and space, is beyond me to fathom.”

— Rebecca J. Carlson, Laie, Hawaii

“While studying church history, something that was significant for me was that the women who were called upon to live polygamy were given their own witnesses of it before they agreed to participate. I trust the voices of these women. I have ancestors who practiced polygamy, and, as their descendant, I feel both gratitude and respect for their sacrifices. I don’t expect a personal witness of something I haven’t been asked to do, but I continue to have great trust because I have experienced the joy that it is to be a woman in the gospel.”

— Kristine Stringham, Calgary, Alberta

Where polygamy is legal

Pumza Sixishe lives in South Africa, where some Christians, tribal traditionalists and Muslims practice polygamy, which is permissible.

“I grew up in a culture that accepted it,” Sixishe writes in an email. “It wasn’t a concept that horrified me, because I grew up reading the romanticized history of my people.”

Traditionally, the first wife was accorded great respect and wielded power over the other wives, she says. “The happiness of the ‘lesser’ wives and their offspring depended on the character and personality of that ‘great’ wife.”

Former South African President Jacob Zuma now has four wives, but he had five, Sixishe writes. “The country did not like the expense of multiple first ladies.”

Allowing men to have these polygamous marriages is “another sign of patriarchy dictating the rules,” she says. “Women friends always joke that they'd be OK with polygamy if they were the ones who could choose seven husbands. But, on a serious note, those same women friends believe that, for a strong bond to work, there has to be only one queen and one king in a relationship.”

Sixishe has never understood why Mormonism instituted polygamy in the first place. “As a woman, I always imagine what Emma [Joseph Smith’s first wife] must have felt, especially since this was such a foreign practice in that Protestant/Methodist background of 19th-century America.”

If it were about taking care of widows, as some have argued, there are better ways, she writes, “without being coerced to be in a polygamous marriage.”

In her experience in Sunday school, Relief Society, and LDS Institute of Religion classes, Sixishe says the women “were vehemently against it. … One of the women says she's not willing to share her husband even in the eternities.”

“This put me into a faith crisis 20 years ago and, even though I continued on in the church, this has never settled well with me. This was not prophetic and Joseph got it wrong. The temple only reminds me of this mistake he made. I don’t find joy there, and I never will as long as eternal polygamy is perpetuated there. I love the idea of what the sealing means, but the temple means less and less to me as time goes on because of this. I prefer to stick with my baptismal covenant for the rest of my life. That one reflects how I want to serve and love as my Savior did.”

— Susie Augenstein, Riverton

“As a 40-something single woman, I’ve heard people say this so many times, ‘Don’t worry. You could be the third wife of a dead soldier, random guy, or a boy baby who died before 8 and will be raised in the millennium.’ The ones that are the creepiest are the guys who say that if polygamy were returned, I wouldn’t have to worry about marriage, or that if they weren’t married, they’d marry me. The most annoying are the women who want a sister wife so they can work at a job and the sister wife will be her housekeeper/nanny. It’s not like we don’t think that single people will be servants to married people after we die anyway.”

Stacy Whitman, New York City

(Photo courtesy of Melissa Leilani Larson) Melissa Leilani Larson

Back to the future

Melissa Leilani Larson grew up as a Latter-day Saint in Hawaii, where she heard little about polygamy. But when she moved to Utah in junior high school, she learned more about the faith’s past unconventional marriage practice and wondered why no one talks about it.

“In a culture that focuses so much on marriage, polygamy is the elephant in the room. It is almost invisible but hard to walk around,” Larson says. “It’s such a fascinating part of our history.”

As a screenwriter and playwright, Larson chose to bring it up in the best way she knows — in a theater piece.

In 2013, when there was talk of polygamy being legalized, Larson wondered if the LDS Church would embrace it again and what that might be like. Would she be expected to participate as a single Latter-day Saint woman?

To explore those issues, Larson wrote, “Pilot Program,” a play about a contemporary Latter-day Saint couple, Abigail and Jacob, who are childless due to infertility and called to participate in a pilot project restoring polygamy to current church practices.

It has now been produced a couple of times, including its 2015 world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City and, in September, in a large Park City home.

In the play, Abigail, a liberal working woman, receives “a strong witness that they should participate,” and she suggests that they approach her good friend and former student, Heather, to be the second wife, Larson says. “Heather is at first appalled by the proposal but, like Abigail, is moved by the Spirit to accept.”

The rest of the play explores their new life together, adjusting and compromising, the playwright says in her description of the play. “Eventually, the family is changed forever when Heather gives birth to Jacob’s son.”

The two women end up switching roles, Larson says. “The [first] wife starts feeling like she’s been replaced and is now like a single person. I don’t see her leaving the marriage, but feeling like a third wheel.”

The curtain falls without a clear idea of what Abigail will do.

“I just set up the problem and provided little scenes about their life as a trio,” she says. “I can’t tell if she’s going to go or stay.”

Polygamy is “such a strange expectation,” she adds, “that to fulfill my faith, I would have to become part of somebody else’s marriage.”

As a single person, Larson has been told repeatedly that she could be a second or third wife in the hereafter.

“How is that supposed to make me feel better?” she asks in the latest episode of The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “Polygamy feels like this really weird thing I’m supposed to be grateful for.”

For her, it is “outside the realm of possibility,” she says. “A step too far.”