In a recent address to BYU graduates Elder M. Russell Ballard encouraged Church members not to allow the subject of plural marriage to dominate conversations about the Church. He stated:
Our Church members have too often allowed others to set the conversational agenda. An example is polygamy. This ended in the Church as an official practice in 1890. It’s now 2009. Why are we still talking about it? It was a practice. It ended. We moved on. If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge it was once a practice but not now, and that people shouldn’t confuse any polygamists with our Church. In ordinary conversations, don’t waste time trying to justify the practice of polygamy during the Old Testament times or speculating as to why it was practiced for a time in the 19th century. Those may be legitimate topics for historians and scholars, but I think we simply reinforce the stereotypes when we make it a primary topic of conversations about the Church.1Plural marriage is not only a concern members have difficulty explaining to others, but one some have difficulty understanding in their own lives and faith as you discussed in your recent FAIR presentation. You described your feeling that
...even the idea of plural marriage...is deeply hurtful for some people, especially women. And it's more, I'm convinced, than just some kind of social or cultural revulsion. I think sometimes it's speaks to the things that we have experienced in our lives. It brings up memories of the abusive power or of men who mistreated us or sexual abuse or inconsiderate spouses or a host of other things. And it also is easily made to seem a textbook example of the abuse of religion for power—the preacher who wants sex with you and your daughter in exchange for salvation. And I sympathize with all those reactions because I know something of them.2While discussing Elder Ballard's recent address, one sister responded to his question about why plural marriage would still be discussed today by explaining her own concern:
It will be talked about because most members seem to believe that it isn't over at all. If everyone really thought it was just a past practice it wouldn't be of much interest beyond a historical quirk. I think women just choose not to think about it because it doesn't make eternity too appealing. It is kind of like telling members they will be slaves in heaven "but don't worry about it....you will be owned by someone who will treat you just fine and you will actually love losing your freedom."3LifeOnGoldPlates: Greg, can you address this concern?
Greg Smith: That sister's concern is a good description of what I think the problem is. On the other hand, being male, perhaps anything I have to offer will somehow miss the point. I'll share a few random thoughts on it.
I simply can't conceive of God requiring or asking us to do anything in the hereafter that would make us the least little bit uncomfortable.4 The slave analogy is actually a good one—like it or not, the New Testament frequently refers to us as the Lord's or Jesus' slaves. Despite the KJV translation, we are not "servants"—we're not free labor that has opted to take a given employment for wages, with a union, or whatever. The Greek word is doulous, which is "slave."5 So, the New Testament is full of this sort of thing, in which God will say "Well done, thou good and faithful slave, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." So, in a sense, we are told exactly this—we will be (and should already be) someone's slave, but they treat us better than fine and we actually do love losing our freedom: for it is only in losing it that we find it, is the idea.6 A nice example of the Christian paradoxes at work—you make yourself a slave, only to become a king and priest and so forth.
Now, of course, this strikes us as dramatically silly on one level—but, it should illustrate an important point. We are God's slaves ("unworthy servants," as King Benjamin insists at length)7 but the human concept of "slave" really only goes so far in describing what the relationship is really like—and, the kind of slavery we think of as associated with southern plantation life in the 19th century also further misleads us from the kinds of relationships in the ancient near east that "slave" should call to mind. We're also people who offer ourselves as slaves as in the parable of the prodigal son, and it turns out we're welcome back as sons and daughters of the household, heirs to everything.8 While the status as slaves may be very real, to draw a direct mortal analogy is to miss the point fantastically.
LoGP: So we are still stuck with some “cold comfort” on this one, where there remains a certain ambiguity on the subject, though Church leaders have specifically stated plural marriage itself is not a requirement for exaltation.9 But how does this apply to the general concept of “eternal marriage?”
GS: Quite simply, we don't have the vocabulary or experience to really conceive of what's being talked about here. This is all symbols and rough approximations. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Cor 2:9). We couldn't imagine it if we tried. However good you think it could be, you haven't scratched the surface. And, however inferior you conceive of yourself before God and Christ, you haven't appreciated the degree of separation—but, slave to king is as good as we can do.
So, when we talk about "eternal marriage," and "eternal families," I think we're getting a very rough, hazy out-line of what's involved. Its sometimes as if we think "married life" in the eternities will be pretty much like it is here, except with fewer quarrels and no bills to pay. And, that's useful, because we can't live on rarefied, inconceivable ideas—so "families can be together forever" is the closest we can get—but, let's not fool ourselves, whatever we feel about our families and those promises, they are pale, hollow outlines of the glorious reality of the promises. We can't even begin to conceive of what's involved, and what those relationships will be like. The closest we can come, and the ones that teach us what we need to enjoy it, are husband/wife and parent/child. So we focus on that, but its all "through a glass, darkly."
To conclude the argument, its difficult to conceive of any arrangement on earth in which our freedom and liberty was constrained by slavery that we would enjoy—better to be poor and free, we might well think, than pampered slaves.
Yet, clearly there's nothing more wonderful than to be God's "slave," because that's merely a poor symbol for a reality too glorious to contemplate.
Likewise, then, it may well be impossible to picture a plural marriage scenario that would meet our ideals or comforts on earth—but I suspect that says at least as little (if not less) about what any post-mortal "plural sealing" would involve as my current status as slave of the Most High God. (And, we're described as "married" to Christ10—obviously, there are some things that obtain in mortal marriage that have nothing at all to do literally with our relationship to Jesus—but, "marriage" is as close a symbol as you can get, and it does double duty because it can teach you both what marriage ought to be, and what the relationship with Jesus ought to be.)
Comments for this post are especially welcome, including any questions about plural marriage. Further, if you don't find the arguments compelling, feel free to let Greg know why, or propose an alternative answer, or ask for further clarification.
M. Russell Ballard, "Engaging Without Being Defensive," (Speech given at the Brigham Young University graduation ceremony on 13 August 2009, lds.newsroom.org). Image adapted from Giulio Casserio (anatomist, ca. 1552-1616) and Odoardo Fialetti (artist), "Tabulae Anatomicae," Venice, 1627. Copperplate engraving. National Library of Medicine, nlm.nih.gov.
Greg L. Smith, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)," Presented at the eleventh annual FAIR Conference, 7 August 2009, transcript at http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2009_Everything_You_Always_Wanted_to_Know_About_Plural_Marriage.html.
Anonymous email to author 17 August 2009.
This is similar to an argument I have made in the past and I realize it may be far from satisfactory for many people. In the eternities we have been promised happiness. We also know our vision here is limited, we see "through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). If plural marriage were to be a hell for someone in the eternities, it would not seem to be something expected to be present in the place deemed to be happiest. Either it will not be required at that point, or something will occur to shift our understanding so as to make us realize there is happiness in it. Because my answer is similar to Greg's it is difficult to challenge him in order to draw out a more nuanced explanation. If readers of this post have counter questions, or wish to explain why they feel this approach is inadequate, please leave a comment and it can be passed along to Greg for further discussion.
See Strong's entries for "doulos" at "Dictionary and Word Search for 'servant* G1401' in the KJV," Blue Letter Bible, 1996-2009 25 Aug 2009. (The related verb "doulow" is here.)
See Matthew 10:39: "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (cf. Matthew 16:25).
For instance, see Mosiah 2:23-34.
See Luke 15:18-24.
See the FAIRwiki article "Polygamy a requirement for exaltation?" here. Parenthetically, I think an explicit pronouncement in a current General Conference to reiterate this point would be welcome.
"For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called," (Isaiah 54:5). See also Hosea 2:19-2; Revelation 19:7, etc.