Isn’t polygamy really just adultery?

[Author’s note: this post is primarily addressed to LDS and members of organized fundamentalist break off groups. If you’re neither, you are of course welcome to read on – but you may miss some of the cultural references; then again, you may find it interesting to catch a glimpse into how millions of Mormons think.]

I was raised very active, faithful LDS. As such, I was emphatically taught the following: “Polygamy is a Sin, unless God commands it, and God will only ever deliver such a command through the Prophet. Polygamists who don’t get permission from the Prophet (or his authorized representatives) are guilty of Adultery and the only worse sins are Murder and Denying the Holy Ghost.” (paraphrasing)

I have found this perspective to be the rule throughout the LDS church and among almost all organized fundamentalist groups. What is amazing is that LDS and fundamentalist groups alike are united in thinking that only One Man can rightfully sanction plural marriage, and that anyone who marries plurally without that One Man’s permission is an adulterer – the only difference is WHO they believe the One Man is. I sometimes refer to this way of thinking as the “one man theory.”

If an LDS person gains a testimony of certain doctrines that were taught in the early days of the church and begins investigating fundamentalism, yet still retains their conditioned belief in the “one man theory,” their efforts will quickly devolve into a frustrating and futile version of the game “button, button, who’s got the button?” Indeed, such a person can truly relate to Joseph Smith’s feelings when he said, “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (JS-History 1:10)

Rather than dig in to the origins and reasons for this pervasive belief in the “one man theory” (which could fill books and is beyond the scope of this post), let’s try a different approach recommended by John Taylor:

“I believe it is good to investigate and prove all principles that come before me. Prove all things, hold fast that which is good, and reject that which is evil, no matter what guise it may come in. I think if we, as ‘Mormons,’ hold principles that cannot be sustained by the Scriptures and by good sound reason and philosophy, the quicker we part with them the better, no matter who believes in them or who does not. In every principle presented to us, our first inquiry should be, ‘Is it true?’ ‘Does it emanate from God?’ If He is its Author it can be sustained just as much as any other truth in natural philosophy; if false it should be opposed and exposed just as much as any other error. Hence upon all such matters we wish to go back to first principles.” (John Taylor JD 13:15.)

With this approach in mind, let’s revisit some common and familiar terms and re-examine whether their modern, traditional interpretation within Mormonism actually matches their biblical and historical meaning – or not. In “proving” (in other words testing) these things, we will be able to better discern what is true and what isn’t, so that we can confidently embrace true, eternal principles and reject the flawed traditions we’ve inherited in our religious culture.


My friend Joshua (one of the main authors on this blog) has already defined the biblical perspective of the term Adultery fairly thoroughly here. One noteworthy point is that for adultery to have occurred, a married woman must have had illicit intercourse with someone other than her husband; in which case, both parties (the unfaithful wife and the man) have committed a capital offense (meaning punishable by death) under biblical law. There is a corollary to this law that I hadn’t considered until just a few years ago, which I’ll spell out for clarity: therefore if an unmarried female has intercourse with a married man, biblically speaking this act is not adultery. In fact, if a married man sleeps with an unmarried woman, the biblical “penalty” is somewhat surprising: he must marry her!

This biblical perspective – of what does and doesn’t qualify as “adultery” – perfectly accords with D&C 132:61-63: “…if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified. But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed….” These verses are also helpful in clarifying the distinction between adultery and polygamy.


Marriage is one of those terms that most people don’t think needs to be defined or qualified, because it is such a familiar and ubiquitous concept. However, living in the modern USA, we have certain traditions that have become taken for granted as being required for a marriage to be legitimate – specifically, “marriage licenses.” Have you ever considered the questions: “are marriage licenses required for a marriage to be legitimate? Are marriage licenses an eternal principle?” A brief look into the history and development of marriage may be surprising if you’ve never studied it before.

In the LDS church (since 1890), the standard for whether or not a marriage is regarded as legitimate is whether a couple possesses a government issued marriage license or not (at least within the USA). Biblically, historically, and even legally, this is a strange and arbitrary definition. Even today in 2019, 10 States in the USA (namely Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah – see here) don’t require a couple to obtain a marriage license to be considered legally and lawfully married; in these states, all that is legally required for a couple is to publicly say they are married to each other and to cohabit with each other. The legal term for such a marriage is a “common law marriage” (see here). Being born-and-raised LDS myself, when I first learned about this fact I found it shocking! But… if you think about it, it makes sense. Marriage and the family pre-date all government; Adam and Eve didn’t get permission from the government aka a marriage license (what a laughable idea!).

“Ok,” you might be thinking, “so if a state-issued marriage license isn’t a God-ordained requirement for a legitimate marriage, surely at least a religious ceremony is required!” Question: what came first, the marriage of Adam and Eve, or the founding of the first church? What about cultures that don’t have organized religion involved with marriage – does that make them all guilty of adultery?

For example: among Native Americans prior to European colonization, government was a very fluid and uncentralized concept. When a man and woman decided to be married, they didn’t ask the chief for permission. Most tribes had religious ceremonies that surrounded the marriage to make it publicly known that the woman and man were starting a family; but if a couple “eloped” (ran off into the woods) and came back announcing that they were now married, it was accepted just as lawfully binding by the tribe as if accompanied by the most elaborate religious ceremony/celebration. Would these marriages be somehow less legitimate in God’s eyes because they lacked a government issued paper document or ecclesiastical endorsement?

Scripturally speaking, I believe it’s self evident that what constitutes a legitimate marriage in God’s sight is along the same lines as a “common law” marriage – that a woman not be married/espoused to another (living) man, that she and her husband consider themselves married to each other and are faithful to one another, and that they have conjugal relations with each other. Nothing more, nothing less.

Marriage vs. Sealing

Perhaps some reading these words are thinking I’m missing the point semantically by equating the rules governing monogamous marriage with those governing plural marriage (thinking that a plural situation makes all the difference). My response to that is: upon what basis do you think that? Either marriage is marriage – or it isn’t. If a monogamous marriage is a legit marriage and acceptable in God’s sight when the qualifications outlined above are met, then why not a plural marriage?

Granted, the scriptures make it clear that “if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not of force when they are dead, and when they are out of the world; therefore, they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world.” (D&C 132:15)

In other words – if a marriage is to last beyond THIS world into eternity, it must meet additional requirements. This applies to monogamous marriages the same as polygamous marriages; but just like if a monogamous marriage isn’t “sealed” for eternity doesn’t make the marriage relationship adulterous, if a polygamous marriage isn’t “sealed” for eternity it also doesn’t make that marriage relationship adulterous!

If a monogamous couple:
1) is faithful to each other;
2) builds a celestial quality marriage relationship;
3) desires and is worthy to receive the sealing ordinance by proper authority;
4) yet hasn’t had the opportunity to receive that ordinance by proper authority in this life;
Would the God you worship deprive them of that blessing and damn them to singlehood apart from each other for eternity?
Or would God provide them with an opportunity (either in this life or the next) to comply with the ordinances if they are worthy in every other way?

And now the crux of the matter.

If a polygamous man and his wives:
1) are faithful to each other;
2) build a celestial quality marriage relationship among one another;
3) desire and are worthy to receive the sealing ordinance by proper authority;
4) yet haven’t had the opportunity to receive that ordinance by proper authority in this life;
Would the God you worship deprive them of that blessing and damn them to singlehood apart from each other for eternity?
Or would God provide them with an opportunity (either in this life or the next) to comply with the ordinances if they are worthy in every other way?

Can such a plural marriage relationship (despite not being “sealed by proper authority” or being entered into with a “priesthood ordinance”) be called adultery by any scriptural or rational definition of the term?

I believe the answer is self evidently No.

And to anyone who would say otherwise, I would remind you:
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Exodus 20:16)
“And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.” (Deuteronomy 19:18-19)
“And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:10)

In other words, the biblical penalty for adultery is death; ergo the biblical penalty for *falsely accusing people of adultery* is also death – for the accusers. Accusing people of adultery is very serious indeed; the stakes are higher than you have probably ever considered before. Even though our modern governments do not enforce the biblical laws concerning the crimes of adultery and false accusation, God sees all, and Christ Himself warned that “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” (Matthew 7:2) Not my words. We cannot say we haven’t been warned. Wise people will be very reluctant to judge the relationship choices of sincere consenting adults.

Jacob 2

This chapter from the Book of Mormon is surprisingly only one of two places in all of the standard works (at least in English) where the word “chastity” is used. The word does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament, and only occurs 3 times in the New Testament (in the KJV). From our modern, Western worldview, the word “chastity” is tied almost exclusively to a sexual connotation of virginity/celibacy; however, from a Hebrew worldview the perspective has much more context and nuance. This subject is also far beyond the scope of this not-so-brief blog post, yet is incredibly important and hopefully will receive the 1000 page book it deserves someday soon.

For the sake of today’s conversation, I will just point out a few significant qualifiers from Jacob 2 that are often overlooked by Mormons who misapply Jacob’s prohibition against polygamy to be universal.

In verse 27, we find that the restriction from practicing polygamy was actually limited in its application to the people present at this meeting where Jacob addresses them: “Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.” To apply this scripture beyond the intended scope is textually unsupported.

In verse 30, Jacob includes a caveat to this direction to live monogamously: “For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people (to live polygamy); otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.” Can you think of a single other commandment God has ever given where He included a caveat or exception with it? The fact that He did so in this case is concrete proof that monogamy is not an eternal truth or natural state – it was a commandment specific to this limited group of Nephites and was requisite for them to obey until it was rescinded (until God commanded otherwise).

Also worth mentioning in regard to verse 30; for those who equate polygamy with adultery unless specifically commanded by God, let’s try a word replacement and see what happens: “For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people (to commit adultery); otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.” Sometimes God can give commandments that defy the limited wisdom and perspective of man; but can you point to a single instance in all of scripture where God commanded a single person to violate a moral absolute? Adultery is a moral absolute; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would not command anyone to violate a moral absolute; therefore, Jacob 2 actually proves that monogamy is not a moral absolute.

And finally: repeatedly throughout the Book of Mormon, the authors note that the Nephites obeyed the law of Moses; what almost all modern Mormons forget, is the fact that the law of Moses requires polygamy under certain circumstances. Jacob 2’s restriction of this specific group of Nephites to monogamy presents a singular anomaly, an exception to the rule (polygamy), which was the natural state for all other people who lived the law of Moses. Further discussion on this topic is necessary, but will have to wait for another time.

Polygamy Today

“Those who limit the designs of God as concerted by the Grand Council of Heaven cannot obtain the Knowledge of God, and I do not know but I may say they will drink in the Damnation of their souls. All those who are disposed to set up stakes for the Almighty will come short of the Glory of God. To become a joint heir of the Heirship of the Son a man must put away all his traditions.” (Joseph Smith, 27 August 1843 “Three Grand Orders” speech)

Most Mormons today reject the idea that living polygamy is acceptable in 2019; however, the reasons used by various factions to reject it are quite variegated. Old-school or conservative faithful LDS church members believe polygamy is an “eternal principle” in theory, but since “the Prophet says we shouldn’t right now therefore anyone who does live it (without the Prophet’s permission) is committing adultery – follow the Prophet.” On the other end of the spectrum: New wave, liberal LDS church members believe that polygamy was a terrible mistake made by the early church leaders/members, and “thank Goodness God has used the Living Prophets to correct such an Egregious Sin.”

I suppose it may also be worth mentioning that there’s a new movement within the LDS church called “the Remnant” that thinks that polygamy is an evil sin and Joseph and Hyrum never lived/taught it. Unfortunately, those who believe this reveal their ignorance or denial of historical fact, as well as an astonishing ability to selectively choose which scriptures they accept and which ones they reject. Further comment on this tangent could also fill a book, and is beyond the scope of this post.

And lastly, there are fundamentalists, who by definition absolutely believe in and practice plural marriage. Yet they condemn anyone who practices it outside of their authority as sinners. I ask you which is worse: sin, or hypocrisy?

What’s amazing is that if we discover we have been in the wrong, we can repent and be forgiven as long as we 1) make reparations if we’ve wronged others and 2) turn away from our wrong behavior and do better moving forward. I hope this post has provided information and a new perspective that will help us become better neighbors to plural families that we may not agree with regarding religious belief and affiliation, as well as help us become better prepared to account to God for how we judge others.

9 thoughts on “Isn’t polygamy really just adultery?

        1. If we focus more on living according to true laws/principles, God will provide legal administrators when the time is right.


  1. If one covenants to live “the law of the gospel as contained in the Doctrine and Covenants” then the instructions in D&C 132 cannot be ignored.

    D&C 132:44 clearly requires that women married in the New and Everlasting Covenant who lose their husband to adultery must be allowed to remarry in the covenant even if it necessitates plural marriage.

    Furthermore, on a daily basis, no one can tell God what God can reveal or not reveal. Any day God, by revelation, could require a plural marriage, and the faithful are under covenant to enter into that plural marriage.

    So, one cannot say they are living by the laws found in the D&C and then turn around and say they no longer practice plural marriage. Saying that is an admission that there are disingenuous in the covenant they have made.


    1. Interesting comment. I’m going to play devil’s advocate just a bit to help you flesh out your argument.

      First of all, the Doctrine & Covenants is mentioned, during the presentation of the endowment, only in connection with the Law of Consecration (which is another problematic issue all its own). The Old and New Testament are mentioned in connection with Sacrifice, and the Bible and Book of Mormon are mentioned in connection with the Gospel. So, that is one issue.

      A second issue is that the D&C also contains the Manifesto (Official Declaration 1). So, even if the mention of the D&C was broader than just consecration, a person could point out that it contains both 132 and OD1, but that OD1 superceeds 132 in some respects.


    2. Having said that, I do agree completely with the general premise of your comment. There is some sad hypocrisy among those believers who denounce polygamy while simultaneously believing the scriptures, and claiming Abraham as their father.

      There is hypocrisy both in belief, and in history. Their ancestors (whether literal or philosophical), sought for the protection of their rights to live their religion unmolested by unjust laws, and wanted to allow all men the same privilege (let them worship how, where, or what they may). That sentiment, in the case of polygamists, is only given lip service today.


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