Marriage between one man and one woman is the Lord’s law unless He commands otherwise (see Jacob 2:27–30). The Prophet Joseph Smith was commanded to restore the practice of plural marriage, which was practiced in the Church for over half a century until President Wilford Woodruff was inspired by the Lord to discontinue the practice. Plural marriage was a significant test of faith for Joseph Smith and most who practiced it. As students exercise faith, they can come to know that the practice of plural marriage in the latter days was part of the Restoration of all things.
“Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics.
“Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics.
“Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics.
“The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics.
Note: These Gospel Topics essays will provide you with far more material than you can teach in the allotted time. Please be mindful of this in your lesson preparation and instruction.
Suggestions for Teaching
The Lord revealed the practice of plural marriage
Explain that in 1831, while Joseph Smith was working on the inspired translation of the Old Testament, known as the Joseph Smith Translation, he read that some of the ancient prophets practiced plural marriage (also called polygamy). These prophets included Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. Joseph Smith studied and pondered the scriptures to know how these prophets were justified in this practice (see D&C 132:1–2). The Lord revealed the answers to his questions in a revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 132. Although the date of this revelation is July 12, 1843, it is likely that Joseph Smith was receiving revelation on the principles recorded in this section over time, beginning as early as 1831.
Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud Doctrine and Covenants 132:34–36. Ask the class to follow along, looking for why Abraham and Sarah began to practice plural marriage.
According to verse 34, why did Sarah give Abraham another wife? What does this teach us about the practice of plural marriage? (As students respond, write the following principle on the board: Plural marriage is an acceptable practice only when the Lord commands it.)
Invite a student to read Jacob 2:27, 30 aloud. Emphasize the following principle: Marriage between one man and one woman is God’s standard unless He commands otherwise. Point out that these verses also include a reason given by the Lord for the practice of plural marriage—to “raise up seed unto [the Lord]” by increasing the number of children born to faithful parents (see also D&C 132:63).
Explain that the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 132:37–43, that when His people practice plural marriage because He has commanded them to do so, they are not guilty of the sin of adultery. However, anyone who practices plural marriage without receiving a commandment from the Lord through His prophet is guilty of adultery. Point out to students that the word destroyed in verses 41 and 54 means that those who violate their sacred covenants, including their marriage covenant, will be separated from God and from His covenant people (see also Acts 3:22–23; 1 Nephi 22:20).
Invite students to silently read Doctrine and Covenants 132:40 and identify another reason given by the Lord for the practice of plural marriage.
According to verse 40, what was the Lord going to do in the last dispensation? (“Restore all things.”)
Explain that the words “all things” refer to the laws and ordinances of the gospel that had been revealed in previous dispensations. Write the following truth on the board: The commandment to live the law of plural marriage in the latter days was part of the Restoration of all things (see also Acts 3:20–21).
Invite a student to read aloud Doctrine and Covenants 132:45, 48. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what made it possible for Joseph Smith to participate in bringing about the Restoration of all things. Help students understand the following principle: Plural marriage can be authorized only through the priesthood keys given to the President of the Church.
Distribute a copy of the handout found at the end of the lesson to each student. Invite a student to read aloud the first section, titled “Plural Marriage.”
How can knowing that the practice of plural marriage was given by revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith help you better understand its practice in the early days of the Church?
The practice of plural marriage was a test of faith
Invite half of the class to silently read the section of the handout titled “A Difficult Commandment.” Have the other half of the class read the section titled “A Test of Faith.” Then discuss the following questions:
What are some reasons why the Prophet Joseph Smith and others might have been hesitant to implement the practice of plural marriage?
What did Joseph Smith, Lucy Walker, and others experience that eventually helped them overcome great difficulties so they could accept and live the law of plural marriage?
Ask several students to take turns reading aloud the section of the handout titled “Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage.”
Explain to students that there is much we do not know about the practice of plural marriage in the early Church. For instance, our current understanding of the term sealing is not exactly the same as the understanding of this term in the 1840s, when the practice of sealing was still new and some aspects of the practice were not completely understood. We hear the term sealing and automatically think of marriage, but for Joseph Smith and the early Saints, sealing did not always mean marriage in the full sense, meaning to live together as husband and wife. Many details of the practice of plural marriage were kept confidential, and historical records simply do not answer all of our questions. Encourage students to study the Student Readings listed at the end of the lesson for additional information about the practice of plural marriage.
You may want to remind students that as they study about plural marriage, they should remember the pattern that the Prophet Joseph Smith followed in his gospel learning. He studied, pondered, and prayed to gain knowledge. They should also remember that much unreliable information about plural marriage exists on the Internet and in many print sources. Some authors who write about the Church and its history present information out of context, or they include partial truths that can be misleading. The intent of some of these writings is to destroy faith.
The Lord revealed that Latter-day Saints should cease the practice of plural marriage
Explain that the practice of plural marriage expanded after the Saints arrived in the Utah area and then was later discontinued in accordance with revelation. Ask students to take turns reading aloud the sections of the handout titled “Opposition to Plural Marriage” and “The Second Manifesto.”
What consequences did the early Latter-day Saints face because they obeyed the Lord’s commandment to practice plural marriage?
Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud from the last two paragraphs of Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants and the first and seventh paragraphs of “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto,” which follows Official Declaration 1. Then ask:
What did President Woodruff teach the Saints? (Some of the principles he taught include the following: The Lord will never permit the President of the Church to lead the Church astray. The Lord directs His Church through revelation to the President of the Church.)
The following may be helpful in further explaining the decision to end the practice of plural marriage:
“President George Q. Cannon reflected on the revelatory process that brought the Manifesto about: ‘The Presidency of the Church have to walk just as you walk,’ he said. ‘They have to take steps just as you take steps. They have to depend upon the revelations of God as they come to them. They cannot see the end from the beginning, as the Lord does.’ ‘All that we can do,’ Cannon said, speaking of the First Presidency, ‘is to seek the mind and will of God, and when that comes to us, though it may come in contact with every feeling that we have previously entertained, we have no option but to take the step that God points out, and to trust to Him’” (“The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics).
Conclude the lesson by asking students:
Based on what you have learned, how would you respond if someone asked you if Latter-day Saints practice plural marriage?
Consider sharing the following statement by President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008):
“If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. … More than a century ago God clearly revealed unto His prophet Wilford Woodruff that the practice of plural marriage should be discontinued, which means that it is now against the law of God. Even in countries where civil or religious law allows polygamy, the Church teaches that marriage must be monogamous and does not accept into its membership those practicing plural marriage” (“What Are People Asking about Us?” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 71–72).
The following paragraph might also be helpful as you discuss the Church’s current practices:
“Consistent with Joseph Smith’s teachings, the Church permits a man whose wife has died to be sealed to another woman when he remarries. Moreover, members are permitted to perform ordinances on behalf of deceased men and women who married more than once on earth, sealing them to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married. The precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to trust in our wise Heavenly Father, who loves His children and does all things for their growth and salvation” (“Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics).
Before concluding the lesson, it may be wise to tell students that some people who have apostatized from the Church are practicing plural marriage today. They urge people to pray and ponder about whether it is right to practice plural marriage today. We should not seek to receive revelation that is contrary to what the Lord has revealed through His prophets. The Lord has revealed through His prophet that the practice of plural marriage has ceased in the Church. Anyone who advocates the practice of plural marriage today is not a servant of the Lord.
Share your testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith. You may want to testify that he received and obeyed revelation from God, just as did the ancient prophets Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see D&C 132:37).
“Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics.
Understanding Plural Marriage
“Latter-day Saints believe that the marriage of one man and one woman is the Lord’s standing law of marriage. In biblical times, the Lord commanded some to practice plural marriage—the marriage of one man and more than one woman. By revelation, the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to institute the practice of plural marriage among Church members in the early 1840s. For more than half a century, plural marriage was practiced by some Latter-day Saints under the direction of the Church President” (“Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics).
A Difficult Commandment
Eliza R. Snow (1804–87), the second Relief Society general president, was sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith. She recorded the following experience in which the Prophet Joseph taught the principle of plural marriage to her brother Lorenzo Snow.
“The Prophet Joseph unbosomed his heart [to Lorenzo Snow], and described the trying mental ordeal he experienced in overcoming the repugnance of his feelings, the natural result of the force of education and social custom, relative to the introduction of plural marriage. He knew the voice of God—he knew the commandment of the Almighty to him was to go forward—to set the example, and establish Celestial plural marriage. He knew that he had not only his own prejudices and prepossessions to combat and to overcome, but those of the whole Christian world stared him in the face; but God, who is above all, had given the commandment, and He must be obeyed. Yet the Prophet hesitated and deferred from time to time, until an angel of God stood by him with a drawn sword, and told him that, unless he moved forward and established plural marriage, his Priesthood would be taken from him and he should be destroyed! This testimony he not only bore to my brother, but also to others—a testimony that cannot be gainsayed [contradicted]” (Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow , 69–70).
A Test of Faith
Many who struggled with the principle of plural marriage were blessed with a confirming spiritual witness of the truth of the principle.
“According to Helen Mar Kimball, Joseph Smith stated that ‘the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.’ Though it was one of the ‘severest’ trials of her life, she testified that it had also been ‘one of the greatest blessings.’ …
“Lucy Walker recalled her inner turmoil when Joseph Smith invited her to become his wife. ‘Every feeling of my soul revolted against it,’ she wrote. Yet, after several restless nights on her knees in prayer, she found relief as her room ‘filled with a holy influence’ akin to ‘brilliant sunshine.’ She said, ‘My soul was filled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew,’ and ‘supreme happiness took possession of my whole being’” (“Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics).
Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage
Many women were sealed to Joseph Smith, but the exact number is unknown.
“During the era in which plural marriage was practiced, Latter-day Saints distinguished between sealings for time and eternity and sealings for eternity only. Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone.
“… Some of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith later testified that their marriages were for time and eternity, while others indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone.
“Most of those sealed to Joseph Smith were between 20 and 40 years of age at the time of their sealing to him. The oldest, Fanny Young, was 56 years old. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, … who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens. Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being ‘for eternity alone,’ suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations. …
“… Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married. Neither these women nor Joseph explained much about these sealings, though several women said they were for eternity alone. Other women left no records, making it unknown whether their sealings were for time and eternity or were for eternity alone.
“There are several possible explanations for this practice. These sealings may have provided a way to create an eternal bond or link between Joseph’s family and other families within the Church. These ties extended both vertically, from parent to child, and horizontally, from one family to another. Today such eternal bonds are achieved through the temple marriages of individuals who are also sealed to their own birth families, in this way linking families together” (“Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics).
After the Prophet’s death, many women were sealed to him who had no mortal relationship with him.
Opposition to Plural Marriage
Many religious and political leaders in the United States opposed the plural marriage system, which they considered immoral and uncivilized. Latter-day Saints were ridiculed in public speeches, books, magazines, and newspapers. The United States Congress passed laws that limited Church members’ freedom and hurt the Church economically by restricting the amount of property the Church could own. “This legislation ultimately caused officers to arrest and imprison men who had more than one wife and to deny them the right to vote, the right to privacy in their homes, and the enjoyment of other civil liberties” (Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , 97). By 1890, hundreds of faithful Latter-day Saints had served time in prison. Others went into hiding to avoid arrest and imprisonment. In these conditions, many families suffered from stress, grief, poverty, and hunger.
Although the world ridiculed them for practicing plural marriage, many faithful Latter-day Saints defended the practice and testified that they knew it had been revealed by God through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
These difficult circumstances led President Wilford Woodruff to prayerfully seek the Lord’s guidance concerning the Saints’ practice of plural marriage. In 1889, President Woodruff instructed Church leaders to discontinue teaching the principle of plural marriage. By 1890, very few plural marriages were performed, and these were done against the counsel of President Woodruff. However, some people published reports that the Church was still promoting the practice of plural marriage. These reports brought further opposition against the Church. In September 1890, President Woodruff issued a Manifesto, which is now known as Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants.
The Second Manifesto
“The Manifesto [Official Declaration 1] declared President [Wilford] Woodruff’s intention to submit to the laws of the United States. It said nothing about the laws of other countries. Ever since the opening of colonies in Mexico and Canada, Church leaders had performed plural marriages in those countries, and after October 1890, plural marriages continued to be quietly performed there. … Under exceptional circumstances, a smaller number of new plural marriages were performed in the United States between 1890 and 1904, though whether the marriages were authorized to have been performed within the states is unclear” (“The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics).
“At the April 1904 general conference, President [Joseph F.] Smith issued a forceful statement, known as the Second Manifesto, making new plural marriages punishable by excommunication” (“Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics, lds.org/topics).
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