Recent events highlight confusion of polygamy

A practice that ended more than 120 years ago still misunderstood

Published: Saturday, Aug. 6 2011 12:24 a.m. MDT

SANDY — "Polygamy is the exception to God's law," scholar and author Valerie Hudson argued this week at a conference in Utah.

The Mormon Church has not practiced plural marriage for more than 120 years, but in the midst of inaccurate and confusing news coverage of the trial and conviction of FLDS leader and polygamist Warren Jeffs, he Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research coincidentally devoted an entire session to Hudson's interpretation of the history of Mormon scriptural teachings regarding plural marriage.

FAIR is an independent, non-profit organization that addresses criticism of Mormon beliefs but has no official tie to the LDS Church.

And despite confusion in some media coverage, there is no relation between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS Church or Mormons, and the polygamist FLDS or Jeffs.

Still, given recent media attention to and misunderstanding of polygamy within the Mormon faith, Hudson's remarks at FAIR were provocative and timely.

"The new and everlasting covenant, colloquially known (by Mormons) as temple marriage, is an eternal principle of the highest importance" and is based on a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman, Hudson said Thursday during her talk, "A Reconciliation of Polygamy."

Hudson, a BYU political science professor, was not speaking on behalf of BYU or the LDS Church. Plural marriage, as Mormons refer to it, was practiced by some members of the LDS Church in the late 1800s, but the practice ended in 1890 after LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation.

Drawing from language found in the second chapter of Jacob in the Book of Mormon, Hudson said that "when God commands men to marry, usually he commands them to marry monogamously. Sometimes, as Jacob notes, he will command them otherwise. But eventually he always rescinds polygamy and returns his followers to the established pattern of marriage: monogamy."

"Plural marriage outside the command of the Lord is always a grievous sin," Hudson added. "The Lord speaks of severe punishment for those who practice polygamy without being commanded. No such punishments are noted for those who practice monogamy."

Hudson also explored the language of the 132nd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, another book of Mormon scripture. She pointed out that verse 34 is referring to polygamy and why it was introduced at the time of Abraham.

"Verse 36, however, is the great key to understanding what the Lord is trying to tell us about polygamy," she said. In verse 36, the Lord uses the example of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son, Isaac, even though it violated the law, "Thou shalt not kill." Because Abraham did not refuse to obey the Lord's instructions, "it was accounted unto him for righteousness."

"Because Abraham obeyed an exceptional commandment of God and departed from the law, it was 'accounted unto him for righteousness,'" Hudson said. "But that obedience did not turn the departure from the law into the law … The Lord relieves Abraham from the exceptional commandment. The joy that comes from being obedient is replaced by the overwhelming joy of returning to the original commandment — the rule, not the exception."

Hudson believes verse 36 is there to remind Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the LDS Church, and others that polygamy is the exception to God's law of marriage, not the rule.

"In the Lord's eyes," she said, "monogamy is not a sacrifice, but a blessing. But polygamy is a sacrifice. … When God does command polygamy, he understands it is a sacrifice of the joy that would be there for his children if they could live the higher law … the Lord desires all of his children to have the natural joy that comes from living the law of marriage: monogamy."

Hudson said she believes that "in the eternities we will have the privilege of living under the law, not the exception to the law." In this world, however, the reinstitution of plural marriage in the LDS Church will only happen if the Lord commands it.

"Even if polygamy were to be legalized in the United States, the church would still excommunicate those who practice polygamy without being commanded by the Lord," she said. "Those who desire to practice polygamy in times when God has not commanded it are in spiritual chaos. That desire would be analogous to Abraham, after hearing the message of the angel and seeing the ram in the thicket, proceeding to sacrifice Isaac anyway as a testimony of his faithfulness to God. We can only surmise that from God's point of view, such an act would constitute anything but a testimony of faithfulness."

Hudson is the director of graduate studies for BYU's David M. Kennedy Center for International and Area Studies. She will leave BYU in January to become professor and George H.W. Bush Chair in Texas A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service.

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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