Twists and Turns in the History of “Marriage”

April 2nd, 2015

History is full of ironies.

What is absolute blasphemy in one generation may become the law of the land in another. We’re seeing that played out today.

The dramatic shift in what is happening today and what may affect the definition of legal marriage in the United States in the next twenty to thirty years illustrates this point. And because marriage historically has its foundation in religion, there is often tension between religion and efforts to affect the legal definition of marriage.

When it comes to marriage, the biggest potential historical irony exists with respect to the future of polygamy or plural marriage in this country. While proponents of same sex marriage often argue that attempts to tie polygamy to their cause are out of line, it really is difficult to imagine that acceptance of one form of marriage won’t ultimately lead to acceptance of the other.

Here’s why. The move towards legalization of same sex marriage was enhanced by cases like Lawrence v. Texas which decriminalized certain sexual behavior. Likewise, while plural marriage is currently illegal, criminalization of it is now being legally challenged. In fact, Kody Brown and his “wives” in the Sister Wives reality show are currently fighting Utah’s statute making polygamy a crime. Currently, the Sister Wives folks say they only want to remove the specter of possible criminal prosecution from their lives and then be left alone. Still, it’s quite likely that if the day comes that there is more flexibility in the definition of marriage (and that will depend largely on the language of the upcoming Supreme Court opinion), they may want and seek more.

It’s quite ironic that this is even possible considering the place plural marriage has in our country’s history. Of course, now the big issue is same sex marriage. Before that, the nation grappled with no fault divorce. But long before that it was polygamy or plural marriage that took center stage in the marriage debate.

And here’s why it will be so ironic if polygamy ultimately does becomes legal.

Utah achieved statehood only after the leaders of the Mormon Church renounced plural marriage under tremendous pressure from the United States government to do so. Needless to say, this was a huge deal for the LDS Church. Both its founder, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young after him practiced polygamy. The basis for these two men’s multiple marriages was a revelation Joseph Smith claimed to have received calling for faithful Mormons to enter into plural marriages as “a new and everlasting covenant . . . .” This edict was so important that it was included as Section 132 of a book they regard as scripture, the Doctrines and Covenants.

Fast forward a few decades following this important addition to church doctrine, and Mormons continually sought and were denied statehood because they practiced polygamy. With each passing decade, the Mormons’ goal of Utah’s acceptance as a state became more and more difficult as resistance to this marriage practice increased. At one point, in fact, a law was passed and upheld by the Supreme Court which would have permitted the federal government to confiscate Church property. Clearly, the United States government was completely committed and determined to end the practice of plural marriage.

Finally, in 1890, the breach was settled when the then Prophet of the Mormon Church, Wilford Woodruff, issued what is now known in the Church as The Manifesto. Unlike the original revelation calling for plural marriage as “a new and everlasting covenant,” this was simply a statement calling for church members to refrain from the practice. As time passed, it became a tenet of the LDS Church to excommunicate members who continue to enter into plural marriages and it is a current source of rift between the main church in Salt Lake City and fundamentalist branches elsewhere.

So wouldn’t it be ironic (to quote Alanis Morissette sort of) if the continuation of the warp speed evolution of what constitutes marriage in this country ultimately includes legalization of polygamy? If this happens, will the main LDS Church in Salt Lake City return to the practice? That would be significant because the LDS Church is one of the fastest growing churches in the world today.

This is all, of course, hypothetical. But who knows? Someday people in the state of Utah may be allowed to legally enter into polygamous marriages.

Given history, that would truly be ironic indeed.



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