We find four reasons Joseph Smith instituted polygamy found in the scriptures and quotes from Mormon prophets. 1) “The first reason offered by the Prophet was that plural marriage needed to be restored as a part of the ‘restitution of all things’ prophesied in Acts 3:19–21.” 2) A second purpose for plural marriage was that it provided a special trial for the Saints at that time and place. 3) There were spirits in premortal life “who desired to be born into devout families here on earth. Polygamy would increase that possibility.” 4) All worthy children of God who desire to enter His full presence in the afterlife (“exaltation”) should have that opportunity. The highest level of the Celestial kingdom requires eternal marriage (not plural marriage) to enter that state. If there are more worthy females than males, some would be sealed into plural marriages by choice.
Restitution of All Things
The first reason offered by the Prophet was that plural marriage needed to be restored as a part of the “restitution of all things” prophesied in Acts 3:19–21.This need for a restoration is mentioned in section 132: “I am the Lord thy God. . . . I have conferred upon you the keys and power of the priesthood, wherein I restore all things” (v. 40; see also 45).
For example, Benjamin F. Johnson recalled in 1903: “In 1835 at Kirtland I learned from my Sister’s Husband, Lyman R. Shirman, who was close to the Prophet, and Received it from him. That the ancient order of plural marriage was again to be practiced by the Church.”
It might be argued that this was the only reason Joseph Smith ever needed to give. He simply had to say, “Old Testament patriarchs practiced polygamy, and I’m restoring it.” There was no need for an explanation of a complicated and detailed theology of celestial and eternal marriage.
A second purpose for plural marriage was that it provided a special trial for the Saints at that time and place. It tested their faith and brought them valuable experiences. In the past, God has mandated obedience to specific commandments that were not required of other peoples and at other times. For example, the Children of Israel were given the Law of Moses, which was fulfilled at the time of Christ.
Going back even further, Abraham received the law of the gospel, which included the practice of circumcision, but such is no longer required. One of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, Helen Mar Kimball, remembered: “The Prophet said that the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.”
Brigham Young explained in 1855: “I foresaw, when Joseph first made known this doctrine, that it would be a trial, and a source of great care and anxiety to the brethren, and what of that? We are to gird up our loins and fulfill this, just as we would any other duty.”
The trial and the associated opportunity for blessings from obedience were withdrawn through the 1890 Manifesto. In that document, President Wilford Woodruff, the one man holding the sealing keys who must authorize all valid eternal marriages, declared that the commandment to practice plural marriage was no longer binding upon the Saints. They were to thereafter live monogamy like the Book of Mormon Saints.
Give Devout Spirits a Family
A third reason given by Joseph Smith for the establishment of plural marriage deals with the premortal existence. He taught that we all lived in that realm as spirits before coming to earth. Among those spirits were many who were “noble and great,” (see Abraham 3:22) who desired to be born into devout families here on earth. Polygamy would increase that possibility.
The revelation on celestial marriage affirms: “They [the plural wives] are given unto him [their husband] to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment . . . that they may bear the souls of men.” (D&C 132:63).
Nauvooan Charles Lambert recalled the Prophet teaching: “There are thousands of spirits that have been waiting to come forth in this day and generation. Their proper channel is through the priesthood, a way has to be provided. But the time has come and they have got to come away.”
Helen Mar Kimball agreed, “It was revealed to him [Joseph Smith] that there were thousands of spirits, yet unborn, who were anxiously waiting for the privilege of coming down to take tabernacles of flesh, that their glory might be complete.”
Unfortunately, some authors have portrayed sexual reproduction—to “multiply and replenish the earth”—as the primary reason for plural marriage. It was one of several reasons for the restoration of polygamy, but it is not the most important.
Allow all Spirits the Opportunity of Exaltation
The fourth reason from Joseph Smith why plural marriage needed to be restored dwarfs the other three explanations in significance because it deals with eternity. D&C 132:16–17 states that men and women who are not sealed in eternal marriages during this life (or vicariously later) experience greater penalties than simply an eternal divorce from their legal spouses at death.
These two verses explain that such individuals are “appointed angels in heaven” to be “ministering servants” to more worthy resurrected beings. They “remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity.” In other words, “exaltation,” the highest salvation, requires eternal marriage. No single person can be exalted according to Joseph Smith’s teachings.
The revelation (D&C 132) anticipates more worthy women than men as it approves a plurality of wives (vv. 34, 37–39, 52, 55, 61–65) and disallows a plurality of husbands (vv. 41–42, 61–63). Specifically, verse 63 states that a plurality of wives is “for their [the wives] exaltation in the eternal worlds.”
Polygamy in the form of “plurality of wives” is needed in eternity and therefore must be practiced by some of God’s followers on earth. While all men do not need to be sealed to additional wives, some will. Orson Pratt acknowledged this: “Thus you see that the very moment we admit the eternity of marriage . . . plurality necessarily comes along . . . plurality of wives necessarily must exist in eternity.”
Section 132 supports that eternity was the primary focus of Joseph Smith’s marriage theology rather than plurality or sexuality. Indeed, eternal marriage, not plural marriage, was the zenith doctrine taught by the Prophet. The crucial objective of polygamy was to allow all worthy women to be eternally sealed to a husband, making them worthy of exaltation.
Links to further reading:
FairMormon.org — The Initiation of Polygamy
Encyclopedia of Mormonism — Plural Marriage