I had an experience a few weeks ago that I want to share. It is not directly related to plural marriage per se; rather, it is about family relationships. Which, I suppose, may be more directly related to plural marriage than any scriptural, doctrinal, historical, or cultural commentary that could ever be written on the subject. This experience is a bit embarrassing to me, but I hope that it will be instructive to others. I hope also that it will be instructive to my future self. Hopefully, now that I have written it down, I can refer to it in times to come in order to remind myself of the wisdom I so easily forget.
Last month was Christmas. My family celebrates Christmas. In fact, we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, but we don’t do the Christmas tree, the evergreen boughs, the Yule log, the mistletoe, or Santa Claus. With our gift giving we want our children to remember the gifts of the Wise Men to the Christ child, and the loving Gift of God’s Son to the world.
And yet, even without Santa Claus and the shameful commercialization of the season, things can still become the focus of our attention, and mere objects can take on significance far greater than they merit.
One of the gifts that my wife Charlotte received was a Newton’s Cradle for her desk. You have seen them before. It is a clever little toy that uses swinging steel balls, suspended from strings, to demonstrate Newton’s laws of forces and motion and the conservation of momentum. There is a picture of one at the beginning of this post.
Charlotte liked her gift, but she wasn’t the only one. My son also took a keen interest in the toy. Those first few days he played with it more than the rest of us combined. He was fascinated with it, and experimented with all the different combinations of ball collisions he could think of. He would pull 1, 2, 3, or 4 balls from the left, or from the right and let them collide with the remaining balls. He would even pull back different numbers of balls from both sides at once and let them strike the remaining balls – sometimes simultaneously and sometimes intentionally delayed by a moment. It was fun just to watch him play and discover.
Then one afternoon I walked in on my son who was standing over a miserably tangled Newton’s Cradle. It was a useless, hopeless, knotted mass of strings and balls (apparently this is a common occurrence as I had no difficulty finding this picture with a Google image search). I was shocked and disappointed at the sight and allowed my displeasure to be known. With some exasperation and annoyance in my voice (and yet still attempting to remain calm) I asked him firmly, “What, are you doing?!”. I could tell that he was afraid of being punished, yet he replied that he had turned it upside down, and that everything had become suddenly tangled when he did that. This only increased my anger and annoyance with him. “Why would you do that?” I asked, along with many other, similarly accusatory and belittling, questions. “What were you thinking?”, “What did you think would happen?”, “Why would you treat someone else’s property in such an abusive manner?”. I restrained myself from spanking him, but the verbal lashing I gave to him was more than harsh enough.
I pushed him aside and sat myself down to see if I could do anything to remedy the situation. As I inspected the toy I discovered, to my surprise, that it was not nearly as difficult to untangle as it had appeared, and I had it completely resolved in less than 5 minutes. You might think that this result would have brought me happiness, relief, and satisfaction, but it only furthered my disappointment; not at my son, but at myself.
As I was untangling the dumb trinket, I realized how simple and trivial the merething was in comparison to my son, and how little I really valued it in comparison to him. The thing was $6 plus shipping, but my son was priceless! And yet, in my moment of weakness, I had allowed the thing to become more important to me than my son! How foolish and silly I am at times.
After finishing I looked around and saw that my son had been anxiously watching me the whole time. I thought that he had left the room. With my heart now considerably softened, I showed him the toy. He expressed his relief at the result. I asked him, this time more gently, about how it had happened. He explained to me that he was moving it with both hands, but that one of them had slipped. He had kept a hold with the other hand, but the toy had swung upside down as a result.
He had not behaved in an abusive manner towards the toy, but I had behaved in an abusive manner towards him. It was all just an accident! It was something I might have done myself! I have done similar things before – we all have! My heart was further broken by hearing this. I had jumped to accusations and anger without even bothering to discover the truth first! Isn’t my son worth asking a few questions? Isn’t the truth worth asking a few questions? Yes, the thing is important (how important? – $6 worth, plus shipping), but it is not more important than my boy.
This post will be written primarily to those men who are contemplating becoming plurally married. However, those men (and women too) who are already part of a polygamous family may still find this post interesting and entertaining.
I hope that the comment section of this post will fill up with additional bits of wisdom from other plural husbands or wives – people who have lived within this type of family structure and have some insight to share. I know that some have had wonderful experiences with polygamy, and others have experienced heartbreak. I invite the wisdom from both in the comments below.
Also, I plan on doing several more advice posts, so save your advice for wives until then. I decided to start this series of advice posts because someone has reached out to my wife Charlotte asking for this type of advice. I apologize for the tardiness, the advice was asked for quite a while ago, but I just haven’t been able to get to it. Here then is the first thing to plan for:
1) Be prepared to have much less free time.
In fact, I should probably be doing something else right now other than working on this blog post. You will have nearly constant demands for your time from both wives and children, and rightly so. The demands, each in turn, will be physical, logistical, emotional, or spiritual, but each will require a slice of time. Each person will have to have their father or husband cup filled on a regular basis in order for the relationships to remain healthy and strong. Of course, no wife needs constant attention from a husband, nor does any child need constant attention from its father (or mother(s)), but when you have several, their needs tend to spread and overlap in such a way that will cause you to always be attending to someone. It could overwhelm you if you let it.
2) You don’t know anything.
Women are more emotional than men. This is true no matter the marital status of the woman whether single, monogamously married, or plurally married. This also makes women mysterious (as the poets and storytellers have noted since antiquity). Adding more women to your life will add more mystery, bewilderment, and confusion to your life. And the addition is not as straightforward as 1+1=2. No no, going from 1 woman to 2 will more than double the emotional complexity of your life. Be prepared to face utter cluelessness on a regular basis, where you are completely stupefied, and have no idea what to do to fix the problem at hand.
While the emotional burden will be draining (at times to the point of exhaustion), this is not to say that it isn’t worth the effort – far from it. Nothing worth anything comes without effort. And of course, it’s not all difficulties. There will be wonderful times as well. You will have the highest highs and the lowest lows of your life. It will bring you face to face with your greatest fear: failure.
3) Make friends with other plural families.
Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.
– Proverbs 27:17
The detractors and critics will take care of themselves – you will probably have more of them than you would care to have. That being said, find a plurally married man who is respectable; someone you can look to for advice and support. Knowing another, well-functioning plural family will be a great support to your wife or wives and your children as well. Building or joining a network or community of supporting, like-minded people is one of the best things you can do for your own family, and you and your family will be a support for them as well. Win-win! I am so grateful for all of my supportive friends and neighbors.
And, while we are talking about supporters:
4) You should be your own family’s best supporter.
If you have a family already, then build them up and encourage them. If you are single, then seek to be optimistic, positive, helpful, and useful rather than negative and criticizing. Yes, there is a place for discipline, and sternness, and all that comes along with that, but you want to be like a benevolent king to your family, not like a tyrant. Your wife and children should desire your company. You should accentuate and notice the positive in them, and make your support and approval known to them. You should realize that a husband or father criticizing his family is really a criticism of himself. If there is something wrong with a wife or child, then a good husband or father will accept the fact that he has played a major part in creating his family. Take the moment to teach instead. And if you must correct and discipline, then you must always show afterwards an increase of love towards the person you have chastened – lest they consider you their enemy.
If you are ever called upon to chasten a person, never chasten beyond the balm you have within you to bind up. – Brigham Young, JoD 9:124-125
Not only should you be supportive of your own family, and encourage a general feeling and practice of mutual support among all the members of the family, but you should also discourage detractors from within as well.
5) Family members should not spread their views about the faults of current family members to the potential new spouse; thus tainting her views from the get go.
Orson Pratt had some excellent things to say about this idea in his essay entitled, The Equality andOneness of the Saints. In his essay, Elder Pratt is speaking about people joining the saints, but the principle applies just as well to people joining any family.
“Through faith, repentance, baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, the imperfect sons and daughters of Adam become the sons and daughters of God; and being born of God, and all baptized with the same spirit into the same body, they begin to feel alike, think alike, and act alike, in many things: this is a first approximation towards a oneness: but being weak, and only having obeyed the first principles of the celestial law, they are tempted by the devil; divisions of feeling arise; each one sees the faults and imperfections of his brothers or sisters; and instead of trying to reclaim them in the spirit of meekness from their faults, he whispers them to others; prejudice rises; their love towards them begins to grow cold; this coldness is felt by others, and begets the same feeling in them. And thus the seeds of division are sown, and begin to sprout, and grow, and, if not checked, they speedily bring forth nauseous and bitter fruit, which, when ripened, contains the poison of death.
To counteract these divisions strict laws are given, and authorities ordained to strengthen and succour the weak; to root out all evil-speaking; and to check every sinful thing on its first appearance. Those who give diligent heed, will become habituated to keep the law of God, and will understand their duties, and perform them with cheerfulness and delight. Such will become more and more assimilated in their feelings; their love towards each other, and towards God, and His word, will grow stronger and stronger; and thus by habit they learn obedience to the law of oneness, until they are ready and willing to do anything which that law requires. While those, on the other hand, who do not give heed, find themselves more and more tempted, and their love growing colder and colder, and the faults and imperfections of their brethren and sisters still more magnified in their eyes; and at last, they become destitute of the spirit—destitute of good desires—destitute of the meekness and humility of the Gospel; and the devil takes possession of them, and leads them captive at his own will and pleasure. These do not abide a celestial law, therefore they cannot be made one.”
Orson Pratt, The Seer, Vol. II, No. 7, pg. 290
A husband should not speak ill of his current wife to a potential wife. He should not taint or influence her first impressions in a negative way. It will be detrimental to the family to gossip in such a way. The right way for a potential wife to form her own opinions of her future family members is to meet and spend time with them. The only reasonable exception I might imagine to this policy is in the case of serious physical or mental illness. Even then, it still might be better for the potential wife to find out these things by her own interaction. Either way, it will not be good to start a relationship with spouses on different “teams“.
6) Work on being the best man you can be first. Work on being the best husband you can be first. Work on having a good marriage first.
I call this the Jordan Peterson principle – clean your room. If you are single, getting married will not fix your problems. Fix yourself up before getting married. Make yourself a person that a woman would want to be married to.
If you are already married, getting married again will not fix your problems. Adding a second marriage will not fix your first marriage (nor will a third marriage fix a second, etc.). Have a good, loving, stable relationship first before adding another wife. If your current marriage is already unstable then you have got more than enough problems to deal with already, without adding further complexity to your lives. You may hear anecdotal occasions where this sort of thing may have helped, but don’t bet on it.
No man ever did, or ever will rule judiciously on this earth, with honor to himself and glory to his God unless he first learn to rule and control himself. A man must first learn to rightly rule himself, before his knowledge can be fully brought to bear for the correct government of a family, a neighborhood, or nation, over which it is his lot to preside. – Brigham Young, JoD 3:256
This idea is very similar to the common tragedy of a woman wanting to have a baby with her husband (or boyfriend) in order to get him to stay with her, or to love her, or to fix their relationship. It doesn’t work! And it is a terrible plan! Fix yourself and your relationships first.
Growing your family is important, but we should not run faster than we are able. Adding people brings chaos. Get your house in order before adding additional members (whether wives or children) and complexity to your family.
7) Take as much care in the additional wives as you did in the first. Don’t rush headlong into a second marriage (or third).
Additional marriages can, and often do, happen faster than the first. This is very understandable as the situation is quite different. People generally know how things work, are more mature, know what they are looking for, are in a better financial situation, aren’t waiting for their parents’ input/approval/funding etc., and yet there is much folly. It often happens that people rush into plural marriage without giving proper consideration to the personality, habits, beliefs, etc. of the new person they are wanting to add to the family. Go slow, and don’t be afraid to back out. There is so much at stake. People have often make a perfect wreck of their lives by jumping into something without looking. Of course, the very same things can and should be said about monogamy.
Here is a good example; if a potential wife already has children of her own (however that may have occurred), you should realize that you will be presented with more than an extra measure of drama. As Joe Darger once remarked, “It’s harder to add a stepkid than to add a wife.” It may take years to develop a good relationship with stepchildren, and it may never happen if there is resentment. Things to consider.
It is certainly true that sex is an important part of any good marriage (whether polygamous or monogamous), and I will have an entire post about this subject in the future. However, this is not a sound basis upon which to build any relationship. Sex is one dimension of a multidimensional thing called marriage. Sex alone is not enough to make anyone happy in marriage. Most of marriage is not sex.
However, I do believe this is a common mistake for men to make in both monogamous and polygamous situations. I have known monogamous men who told me they were looking forward to marriage just so they could have sex. No wonder the divorce rate is so high. It is particularly enticing bait that women hold out for us, and rightly so as it is intended to lead to marriage, but marriage is a long-term relationship. You want to find someone you can grow old with; someone you will be happy to share your life with; someone who will be happy to share their life with you, and this is based on much more than sex appeal.
9) Be upfront and above board in your communications about the possibility of having another woman join your family in the future.
If you are single, be upfront with your potential spouse about the possibility of having another woman join your family in the future. Clear, upfront expectations can make anything go more smoothly. No one likes to have the rules changed mid-game or the terms changed mid-contract. If you are already married it is the same story, but may be complicated if polygamy has not been a part of the plan from the beginning. As I just said, it’s not fair to change the rules mid-game. Having a wife united with you is heaven, having division between you is hell. If polygamy was not potentially a part of the game plan from the beginning, then you need to be sensitive, honorable, and respect that fact. Whatever happens, be patient (who knows, she might be the one to bring it up with you). Do not go around in secret courting and collecting wives. I know it has been done before, but I would never recommend it as a general course of action (I wouldn’t even recommend it on an individual basis – there is so much at stake). Don’t make it part of your plan. It will only lead to heartache and loss.
10) Know why you are doing it, and then stick to it.
Be committed thru thick and thin. It’s going to be rough sometimes (maybe oftentimes); you’ll need to be committed to get thru. Count the cost! Like Jesus said,
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.” – Luke 14:28-30
Consider the difficulties first. Polygamy will place financial, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social pressures on you and your family. Be sure that you are aware of the possible extent of these difficulties ahead of time, have a plan to deal with them, and be sure that your mental and emotional resolve is sufficient to meet the challenges in advance. Then, once you have started don’t look back. Remember Lot’s wife. Be all in, or not at all. Hot and cold both make pleasant drinks, but lukewarm gets spit out.
11) Get yourself into good financial shape.
The truth is, you may not be able to afford additional wives. Being welcomed into an impoverished family situation is not what women are looking for. Financial security is a particularly enticing piece of bait that men hold out for women, and rightly so as it is intended to lead to marriage. Financial difficulties are a major cause of marital problems, and even divorce, in monogamous couples. It is no different for polygamists. Polygamy itself can be more stressful than monogamy at times (and sometimes less stressful too); therefore, you will not want to add financial stress on top of other stresses that are already intrinsic to polygamy.
Closely related to financial preparations are the physical, logistical preparations such as lodging and transportation. Adding another master bedroom is good, but may not be enough. You might need another kitchen too, and maybe other space. This will depend on your wives. Maybe they can live together harmoniously in the same house, maybe they would even prefer it, and more happiness to you if they can, but it is not an unreasonable request if they want their own space – they are entitled to that much. Putting a wife in a regular room (while the other wife is in a master bedroom) is not good enough for a long-term arrangement. Don’t make this your plan. It may be fine initially, but will probably fail in the long run. If you can’t afford to do this, then you probably can’t afford to have another wife.
12) Women are afraid of being abandoned.
Your first wife must feel secure in her relationship with you, she must feel secure in your love for her, and feel secure in her financial support from you. You should be sensitive toward these natural and understandable fears. One area where you may want to be especially sensitive is in public displays of affection to a new or potential wife in front of established wives. You may want to limit this at first (and you will want to limit it both ways). Showing affection in public and in private is an important part of a marriage relationship, and it is something that a first wife is going to have to come to terms with, no doubt. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. However, it will become easier and more natural as time goes on.
There you have it. Take this advice for what it’s worth. Not all of these may apply to every situation, and some things you may disagree with. I openly invite your additional wisdom or counter advice in the comments below. Feel free to ask me to clarify my thoughts on anything that didn’t seem perfectly clear above. One more thing, after saying all of this you may get the impression that plural marriage has so many difficulties that it should be avoided all together. This may be true for some people, maybe even most people, but it is not true for all people. Even with all the difficulties, I am a fully converted polygamist. I find the rewards well worth the efforts, and I wouldn’t trade it back if I could. Thank you Charlotte and Melissa for making my life so full and blessed!
And when Jesus was come into the temple, the high priests and the elders of the church came unto him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority do you do these things?”, and, “who gave you this authority?”
Jesus answered them, “Tell me what you think? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go find yourself a wife, and make an eternal family.’
The first son said, ‘I’m not interested.’ Nevertheless, he eventually did find a wife, but they were not married in the temple. And yet he loved and cherished her like a treasure, and worked hard to lead their growing family, and to provide for all her needs. She likewise loved and honored him as her husband, and was a devoted and supporting wife.
Then the man came to the second son, and told him likewise to, ‘find yourself a wife, and make an eternal family.’
And he answered and said, ‘I will sir.’ He found a woman, and married her in the temple – a fact that he was always very proud of. By and by he began to neglect and abuse her, and she him. They insulted rather than complimented one another, they were always on the lookout to find fault and to take offense, they never apologized or reconciled, and they were secretly glad when something bad happened to the other. They were miserable, but still took pride in the fact that they were married by the proper authority.”
When Jesus was finished he asked, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”
It was actually harder for them to answer than you might realize, but eventually one elder, wiser than the rest, replied, “The first.”
Then Jesus said unto them, “Truly I say unto you, that the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
In my post about the social/legal side of marriage I said that I would write a future post about the spiritual aspects of marriage. In particular, I am going to give some thoughts on the Mormon concept of “sealing”. I realize this might not be interesting to all readers, but it is an essential concept for understanding the full import of Mormon polygamy.
The words that follow are adaptations of the words I prepared for a marriage rededication ceremony for some friends of mine. Just to give a little of the back story, I will repeat the beginning of my previous post:
A few years ago (November 2015) some friends of mine decided to rededicate their marriage. They threw a big party and asked if I would “officiate” at their ceremony. It was a relatively informal event; I said a few words, and they renewed their vows with each other. It was a beautiful thing, but the reason they were doing it was a bit disappointing. You see, they had just left the LDS Church (the reason why is unimportant to this post), and the validity of their Church marriage (specifically their sealing – more about this later) was being called into question by some of their acquaintances. This is sadly not an uncommon occurrence. When the Church kicked us out we had the same experience. Concerns were expressed to us that we had broken our covenants and now we were adulterers, had lost all our blessings, no longer had the Holy Ghost with us, etc.
My friends were not polygamists (never have been and never want to be), but many of the things I said will have obvious application to marriage in general. Here we go.
To express it briefly, sealing is all about a continuation of the family relationships that are formed in mortality. The hope is that those relationships which have been sealed will have the power to extend beyond this life, and into eternity, or in other words, that the covenants involved in family life will continue indefinitely.
The belief is that there is something essential about human familial interaction that can be preserved and endure forever – if it is worth preserving (that is, if it is Heavenly). While it is true that we may not know the exact details of Heavenly life, we believe that earthly life can be made to mirror Heaven in some respects, that earth can be made a little piece of Heaven, that the Kingdom of God can be within us, and among us, and that we can be personally (and as a family and even as a community) fashioned and made fit for Heaven as clay in a potter’s hand.
If you had to guess which one heaven was more like, a Church or a Family, which would you say? I would say that Heaven is more like a Family than a Church. In fact I would say that it was like one family in particular: The family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact Jesus calls Heaven, “Abraham’s bosom“. Those who enter are said to, “sit down” with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And all the faithful who are Christ’s will be part of that family. Whether natural branches or adopted in, they will be the seed of Abraham.
The structure of this family looks like this; there are 3 patriarchs at the head (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), below them are the 12 tribes (the sons of Jacob), next are the 70 descendants of Israel that entered into Egypt (which is symbolic of the world), finally there is the mixed multitude of their descendants and others who have joined them in their journey to the Promised Land. This structure is very similar to the hierarchical structure of the Church with it’s Presidency (3), Apostles (12), 70s, and members.
But here is the question: is Abraham’s family supposed to be reminding us that the Church is the real thing to be a part of, or is the Church supposed to be reminding us that Abraham’s Family is the real thing to be a part of? Well, I’ll give you a hint; Jesus never refers to Heaven as Russell’s bosom.
For Elder Parley P. Pratt, a knowledge of this doctrine of an eternal, heavenly family deepened his love for his own family:
“It was at this time that I received from him the first idea of eternal family organization, and the eternal union of the sexes, in those inexpressibly endearing relationships which none but the highly intellectual, the refined and pure in heart, know how to prize, and which are at the foundation of everything worthy to be called happiness. . Till then I had learned to esteem kindred affections and sympathies as appertaining solely to this transitory state, as something from which my heart must be entirely weaned, in order to be fitted for its heavenly state. . It was Joseph Smith who taught me how to prize the endearing relationships of father and mother, husband and wife; of brother and sister, son and daughter. . It was from him that I learned that the wife of my bosom might be secured to me for time and all eternity; and that the refined sympathies and affections which endeared us to each other emanated from the fountain of divine eternal love. It was from him that I learned that we might cultivate these affections, and grow and increase in the same to all eternity; while the result of our endless union would be an offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, or the sands of the sea shore.… . I had loved before, but I knew not why. But now I loved—with a pureness—an intensity of elevated, exalted feeling, which would lift my soul from the transitory things of this grovelling sphere and expand it as the ocean.… In short, I could now love with the spirit and with the understanding also.” – Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, pp. 297–298
For those who love and cherish their families, and spouses, it would not fully be Heaven without them. Mark Twain expressed it very well in, Eve’s Diary. The final words of that story are Adam’s description of his beloved Eve:
“Wheresoever she was, THERE was Eden.”
Mormons get too wrapped up in authority. They argue with everyone about it. They even argue among themselves about it. For many of them it seems that authority, for all the reverence they give it, is their religion, and this sometimes leads them to say foolish things. Things like, “Plural marriage without the proper authority is sin.” or, “Unauthorized polygamy is adultery.” or, “Polygamy will damn those who practice it, unless their unions have been authorized by the One Man who holds all the authority (keys)”.
I’ll say a little more about authority in the next installment of this post, but for now I’d just like to point out that in section 132 the Lord mentions three separate cases where a man and woman can make a covenant with each other (these cases are in verses 15, 18, 19). In every case mentioned, the covenant is between the man and the woman, or between the man, the woman, and God. There are no mentions made of government officials, state approval, judges, magistrates, or licenses, nor priests, bishops, elders or other clergy. Furthermore, in every case, no matter how it is done, the Lord calls it “Marriage”, and marriage is always honorable.
And yet, a marriage union has both civil and religious recognition and ramifications. This is because marriage is fundamental both to our society here as well as in Heaven. In D&C 130:2 we read,
“And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.”
Indeed, there is something potentially eternal about our relationships. Hopefully, we will treat them that way.
In a previous post, I promised to elaborate some more on Adultery. It is among the dirtiest of words in the English language. It conjures up thoughts of the most serious kind of betrayal. There is perhaps no more serious a crime than the treachery of betrayed trust. Indeed, Dante places it at the very bottom of the pit – the 9th and very lowest circle of Hell. In Genesis 20:9 adultery is referred to as, “[the] great sin“. It is important then that we know what constitutes this great sin.
This is especially true perhaps in the case of polygamists, who are accused of committing this heinous sin by virtue of their marriages. For example, the last paragraph under the entry “Plural Marriage” in the book Mormon Doctrine, by Bruce McConkie, said, “Any who pretend or assume to engage in plural marriage in this day [when the President of the LDS Church has forbidden it], are guilty of gross wickedness. They are living in adultery, have already sold their souls to Satan, and (whether their acts are based in ignorance or lust or both) they will be damned in eternity.” These are strong accusations to make.
First of all, let us establish that God has very clearly commanded,
Exodus 20:14 “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
It is the 7th commandment, and violation of this prohibition brought the most serious of consequences. As for punishment, there is no difference between the sexes, it was to be punished by DEATH for both parties (Leviticus 20:10). Certainly then we would want to know what constitutes this grave sin, so that we may utterly eschew it.
What is adultery? The answer to this question may seem simple, and indeed it is. And yet, the answer may nevertheless still surprise many people. Of course, as God is the author of this law, we ought to consult the scriptures for an answer. But first, let us look at the present usage of the word.
Unfortunately, the modern notions of what constitutes adultery have strayed in a very significant way from the original meaning of the word. Of this grammatical apostasy, some will say that the Biblical definitions of words, such as ‘adultery‘, are not as relevant in these modern times, with our modern understanding, and our modern morality. To this I would reply, that the Bible is the very reason that ‘adultery‘ is even in our vocabulary. It is the Biblical teachings on the matter that are the source of our conceptual understanding of this topic. The Bible is foundational to our notions about the immorality of adultery in the first place. Furthermore, no matter what the modern understanding of a word may be, we must understand the original, Biblical meanings of words in order to understand the Biblical stories, teachings, and commandments. As in all things, context is crucial. Let us be faithful to the word.
Here is the modern definition of adultery from some well-respected dictionaries:
Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than that person’s current spouse or partner. – Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary
Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not their spouse. – Oxford Dictionary
Sex between a married man or woman and someone he or she is not married to. – Cambridge Dictionary
Certainly language evolves, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is expected as our world changes. There are constantly new things and new situations that need to be described. Perhaps these definitions wouldn’t bother me so much if they stated that they were strictly modern definitions and that the original meaning of the word was something else. Without this sort of disclaimer, people will interpret ancient occurrences of the word in the incorrect light of a modern definition. Case in point: dictionary.com used to include the biblical definition of adultery on its “adultery” page, but that section was deleted just recently (sometime between March and May of 2017).
Here are some older definitions of the word:
Violation of the marriage bed; a crime, or a civil injury, which introduces, or may introduce, into a family, a spurious offspring. By the laws of Connecticut, the sexual intercourse of any man, with a married woman, is the crime of adultery in both. – Webster’s 1828 Dictionary
Black’s Law Dictionary (5th ed.) starts with the modern definition, but then adds:
In some [US] states, however, as was also true under the Roman and Jewish law, this crime is committed only when the woman is married to a third person.
I like the wording of these definitions very much. In the Webster’s 1828, it says that Adultery may introduce spurious offspring into a family; thus, adultery requires the woman to be married (i.e. she is part of a family). To adulterate a thing is to corrupt it by adding something foreign to it – to add or mix something with it that would not normally be mixed with it. To do so is to commit adultery. The adulterer is adding his seed to another man’s wife, and potentially his offspring to another man’s family.
Whether or not adultery has been committed depends exclusively on the marital status of the woman. The marital status of the man has nothing to do with it. He may be married or single, divorced or widowed; it is all inconsequential. Let me be very clear and precise: adultery happens when a married (or betrothed) woman voluntarily has sex with a man who is not her husband (or her betrothed). That is the simple, scriptural meaning of the crime of adultery. This does not mean that only women can commit adultery! Both parties are equally guilty, and the punishment is the same for both.
Let’s compare these common definitions with the definitions from a selection of Bible Dictionaries. As you read these you’ll get the impression that one of these things is not like the other…
Conjugal infidelity. An adulterer was a man who had illicit intercourse with a married or a betrothed woman, and such a woman was an adulteress. – Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1897)
Adultery was understood as sexual intercourse between a man and another man’s wife or betrothed woman. Similarly, any act of coition between a married woman and a man who was not her husband was also regarded as adultery. – Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (1996)
The parties to this crime, according to Jewish law, were a married woman and a man who was not her husband. – Smith’s Bible Dictionary (1884)
The unlawful association of men and women. Although generally having reference to illicit activity of married persons, the scripture often does not distinguish between the married and the unmarried. – LDS Bible Dictionary (1979)
A few things stand out to me as I read these definitions. First, I am very pleased with the descriptions given in the first three dictionaries. And yet, with this correct understanding of scripture, it makes me wonder in disbelief, how there can be such a generally vehement opposition to polygamy from the Christian community at large.
The other thing that stands out to me is the LDS definition. It just makes me shake my head. What are they talking about, “the scripture often does not distinguish between the married and the unmarried”?? Every single instance of adultery in the scripture where the marital status of either party is mentioned makes reference to the marriage or betrothal of the woman. Every single one. Here are several examples:
Leviticus 20:10 “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.”
Proverbs 2:16-19 “Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth [i.e. her husband] and ignored the covenant she made before God.”
Proverbs 5:3,20 “For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil…Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife? Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman?”
Proverbs 6:26-32 “For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulteress will hunt for the precious life. Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned? So he that goeth in to his neighbour’s wife; whosoever toucheth her shall not be innocent. Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry…But whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul.”
Jeremiah 29:23 “Because they have committed villany in Israel, and have committed adultery with their neighbours’ wives, and have spoken lying words in my name, which I have not commanded them; even I know, and am a witness, saith the Lord.”
Ezekiel 16:32 “But as a wife that committeth adultery, which taketh strangers instead of her husband!”
Hosea 3:1 “The LORD said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.'”
Hosea 4:13-14 “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills… your daughters shall commit whoredom, and your spouses [feminine noun] shall commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they commit whoredom, nor your spouses [feminine noun] when they commit adultery: for themselves are separated with whores, and they sacrifice with harlots: therefore the people that doth not understand shall fall.”
Romans 7:2-3 “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth… So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.”
In light of this fact (that every instance where marital status is explicitly mentioned in connection with adultery the woman is married to another man), we can use this as a key to understand two other cases of scriptural references. The first case is when adultery is not explicitly mentioned, and second case is where marital status is not explicitly mentioned. Here is an example of the first case:
Genesis 20:2-6,9 “…Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife…and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation? Said he not unto me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself said, He is my brother: in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this. And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin?”
No where in these verses is adultery explicitly mentioned, and yet we know this is the sin that both God and Abimelech are speaking of (and the sin which Abimelech was spared from committing) – because of Sarah’s marital status. Abimelech took Sarah with the intention to make her his wife, thinking that she was unmarried. In verse 17 we read that Abimelech was already married, and yet both God and Abimelech knew that what he was planning was with “integrity”.
Here is another example of the first case. What is the difference between these verses in Deuteronomy and this verse in Exodus?
Deuteronomy 22:22 “If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman:”
Deuteronomy 22:23-24 “… If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die… so thou shalt put away evil from among you.”
Exodus 22:16 “And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife.”
The difference between the outcome of these verses is the marital status of the woman. The situations in Deuteronomy are clearly adultery, for the woman is either married or betrothed, and the penalty is correspondingly harsh. The situation in Exodus describes a woman who is neither married nor betrothed, and the consequence is correspondingly light. I don’t know if I would even call this a punishment (altho I did in a previous post for humorous effect). It is also of note that the marital status of the man, in all these verses, is entirely inconsequential. He may be single or married; the consequence is the same either way.
As for the second case, here are some examples where there is no explicit mention of marital status.
However, we must interpret these verses in light of the rest of scripture. By using the term adultery there is an implicit mention of the marital status of the woman. The very word adulteryimplies the woman involved is married (or betrothed) and having sex with a man other than her husband (or her betrothed).
One scripture commonly used to make accusations about polygamy being adulterous is:
Matthew 5:27-28 “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Those making this accusation feebly reason that a man must have lusted after subsequent wives, and is therefore guilty of adultery. However, they condemn themselves as well since the marital status of the man is not mentioned by Jesus. They fail to grasp that by their own understanding of Jesus’ words, an unmarried man looking for a wife is just as guilty as a married man looking for an additional wife.
Indeed, I have known several monogamous people (both men and women) who have wondered whether they are guilty of committing adultery since they have “lusted” after their own spouse. Of course, they are not guilty of anything (in this regard), but there are several problems with their interpretation that led them to this faulty conclusion:
First, even if they were “guilty” of “lusting”, it would not be of adultery; it would be of “adultery in their heart”, which (altho it is still a sin) is not the same thing as committing adultery with your body. Hopefully this is self-evident to every reader and can be left without further discussion.
Second, the word lust is not merely sexual in meaning. Certainly lusts can include sexual desires, but in this context, and in most other contexts in the scriptures, a better term might be covet. Coveting is all about wanting something that is not yours. It is about wanting your neighbor’s things. This saying of Jesus is as much about the 10th commandment as it is about the 7th. He is reaffirming the command, “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” (Exodus 20:17), and, “Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour’s wife” (Deuteronomy 17:21). Coveting your neighbor’s wife is the adultery in the heart that Jesus is referring to.
But how do we know that the woman he is talking about is a married woman? Because he uses the word adultery, and as we have seen, adultery always involves a married woman. This is the third point of common misunderstanding with these verses.
Many common English Bible translations use the potentially ambiguous term, woman, in Jesus’ saying quoted above, but this word is only ambiguous to our modern understandings. Ancient readers knew that the women Jesus was saying not to lust after were other men’s wives.
Reformation Day was last week, and this year my family studied the life and contributions of William Tyndale. The man was a chosen servant in the hand of God, and his contributions to the world are undervalued by a large margin. He is the man who gave God an English voice, and he did a beautiful job at it. Here are those verses in Matthew from Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament:
If you had some difficulty reading that “English” text, have no fear, here it is with modernized spelling and punctuation:
Ye have heard how it was said to them of old time, thou shalt not commit advoutry [adultery]. But I say unto you, that whosoever eyeth a wife, lusting after her, hath committed advoutry [adultery] with her already in his heart.
Tyndale hit the nail exactly on the head!
Those who make accusations of adultery had better beware of what they do lest they find themselves in violation of the 9th commandment.
Exodus 20:16 “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”
Violating this commandment may be more serious than it seems. The Law requires the false accuser to receive the punishment appropriate to the accused crime.
Deuteronomy 19:18-19 “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.”
In other words, if a person falsely accuses another person of a capital offense, the punishment for the false accuser is also death.
May we all speak with understanding and not with ignorance, and may we be cautious in making accusations of wrongdoing.
When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise. – Proverbs 10:19
When I went from 11 years of monogamous marriage to a new polygamous lifestyle, I struggled to know what to do with myself on my nights alone. All my habits revolved around having my husband with me every night. I didn’t have a life separate from him, so for a time, I felt as if when he wasn’t with me, my life was put on hold. There was definitely a transition time for me while I figured out what to do with myself when I was alone.
If a monogamous woman was planning on becoming polygamous and asked me for advice, one of the things I would suggest is for her to have things she likes to do without her husband, whatever that looks like for her.
Women who naturally like having their own autonomy might gravitate towards polygamy exactly because of this time alone. I know my sisterwife Melissa calls plural marriage the ultimate lifestyle choice for feminists. She keeps herself busy with friends and hobbies, and she even chooses to have a job (even though Joshua is a wonderful provider and doesn’t need his wives need to work outside the home). Melissa considers herself a good candidate for a plural wife because her life is so full despite not having a husband who comes to her house every day.
Nowadays, I have a life with my husband, and I have a life without him. I’m fine either way. But some of my activities require planning, so I like to know in advance what Joshua’s schedule is going to be. His schedule does end up changing at the last minute at times, but generally I know what to expect. If I didn’t know each day where Joshua was going to land, it would cause unnecessary frustration in this whole plural marriage gig, because it would make it difficult for me to have a life separate from my husband. I need that separate life because otherwise it feels like when he’s not here, all I’m doing is waiting for him.
In episode 4 of Seeking Sister Wife, Dimitri Snowden and Joselyn are on a date at a restaurant. Dimitri brings up the topic of “splitting time.”
Dimitri: So, splitting time.
Dimitri: You know, listen, I’m wondering…
Joselyn: I wanted to ask you.
(They both laugh.)
Dimitri: So I’m one man, um, you know, with one body, you know… How do you feel about that?
Joselyn: As long as we feel that we make the best of our time, that there’s no problem.
Joselyn: So how would you go about that? Like, do you have, like, you think like days, certain days, or just…?
Dimitri: I ideally don’t want to have a defined schedule. I don’t want to have a chart on the refrigerator, where it says like Ashley and then Joselyn and then Ashley… Like, I’m not interested…
Joselyn: Yeah, me either, you know, because… It feels so generic to me, like I think that’s really generic.
Joselyn: I just want it to go naturally, like you said.
I think this is an interesting idea, but frankly, I don’t think it’s very realistic. I laughed when I saw what the Brineys said about it on Twitter because they seem to agree with me:
Not every woman likes to plan things in advance as much as I do, so I suppose Dimitri’s strategy might work for some polygamists. But in most of the plural families I’ve seen, the schedule is pretty predictable. Either they simply alternate nights (like the Alldredge family on SSW) or each wife takes a fixed set of weekdays (like the Briney family), or some combination/variation. One plural husband I’ve seen on YouTube spends 2 nights with one wife before switching and spending 2 nights with his other wife. Brady Williams from the reality TV show My Five Wives simply rotates through his 5 wives, 1 night with each wife, but gives each wife an extra night for her birthday.
Some time ago I read a novel called The Lonely Polygamist. In the book, the man and his 4 wives have a torturous meeting every Sunday where they decide on that week’s schedule (in particular, the sleeping schedule). The husband doesn’t take control at the meeting; it tends to be up to the wives to duke it out. The most aggressive wives end up with an unfair portion of his time, while the newest or most passive wife might go weeks without her husband coming to her house. This seems dysfunctional to me.
In our family, Joshua’s schedule is totally up to him, which makes sense, since he’s the one going back and forth between the houses. He’s the one that best understands his own scheduling needs as well as those of his wives and children. We give him our preferences and we can request changes to his normal schedule, but we wives don’t have to hash it out between ourselves.
And, no, we don’t have a chart on our refrigerator to keep it sorted out.