FAIR Examination 9: Polygamy as an Abrahamic Sacrifice–Dr. Valerie Hudson

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The Book of Mormon condemns polygamy, and calls it abominable. Modern leaders of the Church have condemned the practice. In light of this, what are we to make of the ancient practice of polygamy and of the practice of polygamy by early Mormons? Does the Book of Mormon contradict the Doctrine & Covenants? What of polygamy in the next life? Is polygamy necessary to exaltation? If polygamy is legalized in the United States, will the Church reinstitute polygamy? In this episode of FAIR Examination, Dr. Valerie M. Hudson shares her thoughts on these and other questions.

While Dr. Hudson was a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, she was listed as one of the “100 Top Global Thinkers of 2009” by Foreign Policy Magazine. In January 2012, she became a Professor and George H.W. Bush Chair in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, teaching in the masters of international affairs program. More of her views on polygamy, women and the priesthood, and other women’s issues are discussed in the book Women in Eternity, Women in Zion that she co-authored with Alma Don Sorenson.

For further information on polygamy, see the FAIR Wiki article posted here.

The opinions expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or of FAIR.

15 thoughts on “FAIR Examination 9: Polygamy as an Abrahamic Sacrifice–Dr. Valerie Hudson

  1. buffy snell

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. I thought I had a good grasp on the topic of polygamy, but you’ve brought up some new challenges for me—some I’m going to have to think about more and one I’d like to address.

    One challenge you’ve brought up is that Polygamy is not doctrinal. I do agree that since we aren’t currently commanded to practice it, it is not part of the current doctrine that we teach. At the same time, I believe that polygamy is a higher law that when lived (at some point in our progression) will refine us enough to actually become what God is. We will not be fit for our exaltation unless we have the opportunity to overcome the jealousies and insecurities that are a natural part of our flawed natures.

    Orson Pratt said that God is himself a polygamist. Even if this was simply conjecture, I believe that Gods (and goddesses) could be perfectly content in an eternal polygamist marriage because they have overcome every fear and insecurity they’ve ever possessed.

    This statement was issued by the First Presidency and would therefore be considered binding (not currently binding, of course, but correct)

    “We, the First Presidency and Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, beg respectfully to represent to your Excellency the following facts:

    “We formerly taught to our people that polygamy, or celestial marriage, as commanded by God through Joseph Smith, was right; that it was a necessity to man’s highest exaltation in the life to come.”–Reed Smoot Case, v. 1, p. 18

    While it may be an an abhorrent idea there are other witnesses who have attested to the fact that polygamy is necessary to attain one’s highest exaltation:

    “And we… are believers in the principles of plural marriage or polygamy… as a principle revealed by God, underlying our every hope of eternal salvation and happiness in heaven… we cannot view plural marriage in any other light than as a vital principle of our religion.”
    – Millennial Star, v. 40, pp. 226-227

    “Damnation was the awful penalty affixed to a refusal to obey this law [polygamy]. It became an acknowledged doctrine of the Church; it was indissolubly interwoven in the minds of its members with their hopes of eternal salvation and exaltation in the presence of God…”
    – Millennial Star, v. 47, p. 711

    “… [Joseph Smith taught] the doctrine of plural and celestial marriage is the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on the earth, and that without obedience to that principle no man can ever attain to the fullness of exaltation in the celestial glory.”
    – William Clayton, Joseph Smith’s secretary, Historical Record, v. 6, p. 226

    “[If I] had not obeyed that command of God, concerning plural marriage, I believe that I would have been damned.”
    – Apostle George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses, v. 23, p. 278

    “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.”
    – Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 11, p. 269

    Polygamy is not a happy topic to think about. And most of us are probably thankful that we don’t have to live it right now. But there does appear to be evidence that plural marriage is more than an Abrahamic test. There does appear to be evidence that Plural Marriage is doctrinal and that it must be lived (eventually) by anyone who wants to obtain their exaltation.

  2. SteveDensleyJr Post author


    You have raised an important point, and I must say, I am impressed with your faith and willingness to do whatever God asks. The reason I wanted to interview Dr. Hudson was that I think she makes two very important points. First, Section 132 draws a connection between Abraham’s sacrifice, surely a painful and confusing episode for Abraham, with polygamy. Second, God wants us to be happy and heaven is not a place of confusion or suffering. I think it is possible that there are people who do not, or will not after becoming perfect, find the practice of polygamy to be painful and confusing. I agree with you that polygamy may not merely be a test and a sacrifice for everyone. However, it quite clearly has been, and continues to be a painful test for many. I think that people can at least take comfort in the fact that God recognizes how asking Joseph to restore the practice of polygamy was comparable to asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son. I think people can also take comfort in the fact that God wants all of His children, men and women alike, to be happy.

    With respect to the quotes you reference, I think the best way to understand these things is to place it all in context, and also to keep in mind, as you have, that not every utterance by a general authority, or even by a president of the Church, is doctrinal. Clearly, to enter into polygamy would be a violation of the laws of God for people living on the earth today. It seems fair to conclude that for those in the past who were commanded to enter into polygamy, that if they refused to follow that commandment, such would be evidence of an unwillingness to do the will of God and would disqualify them from exaltation. It seems that the same could be said of Abraham: that if he was unwilling to sacrifice his son, that he may not have been worthy of exaltation. Of course, Abraham is not required to ascend Mount Moriah on a regular basis and no one else has been subjected to such a test. So although in the nineteenth century, the saints were subjected to the test of polygamy, and although polygamy may for some have been a test of their worthiness to be exalted, that does not necessarily mean that all who are exalted must necessarily be polygamists.

    Note that in response to a letter “received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

    Question 4: Is plural or celestial marriage essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come?
    Answer: Celestial marriage is essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come, as explained in the revelation concerning it; but it is not stated that plural marriage is thus essential. . . . These questions are answered, so that it may not be truthfully claimed that we avoid them. . . .

    It is also interesting to note that the Church has given the following instruction to LDS seminary teachers: “Sometimes teachers speculate that plural marriage will be a requirement for all who enter the celestial kingdom. We have no knowledge that plural marriage will be a requirement for exaltation.” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History: Seminary Teacher Resource Manual (Intellectual Reserve, 2001, [updated 2005]).

    You may find these articles helpful in addressing the quotes you cited: http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_polygamy/Requirement_for_exaltation

    I don’t expect my response to clear up all confusion on the issue. There is much that we simply don’t understand about the history and practice of polygamy. But I hope this helps.

  3. buffy snell

    Thanks Steve! And I must say that Dr. Hudson’s connection between Abraham’s sacrifice and polygamy was one I hadn’t made before. I also really appreciate the scriptural contrasts between Jacob 2 and D&C 132. Polygamy is a very tricky issue from a political view point because traditionally we think of it as immoral. Until recently, laws in this country have been rooted in morality. At the same time, polygamy was practiced in biblical times and when Joseph “restored” the practice the women of the church defended it as their Constitutional right; they defended their right to practice it under the freedom of religion.

    From reading the arguments of the early saints, I came to the conclusion that it WAS their Constitutional right and that it should indeed be lawful. On the other hand, after hearing Dr. Hudson’s reading of Jacob 2 where the Lord condemns the unauthorized practice of it, I’m not sure. Is it tradition that says polygamy is immoral or God? Should polygamy be legal? And was the authorized practice of it only morally “right” because it was commanded by the Lord? Certainly murder would not be legalized just because Abraham was commanded to break that one law. On the other hand, the sacrifice of Abraham’s son has never been referred to as something that might be “restored” where the biblical practice of polygamy was. Though there are clearly parallels that we can make between Abraham’s sacrifice and polygamy, I’m not sure how many. And I definitely appreciate the opportunity to think about that some more.

    As far as God wanting people to be happy, of course He does. But the ONLY way we can be truly happy is to stop filling our lives with false joy. The faster the law of sacrifice can loosen our grip on false security, false comfort, etc. the faster we free our hands to receive the real thing. Our work, our test in this life is to do “all” that the Lord has commanded. The minute we draw a line in the sand, saying “I will go no further (because that won’t make me happy)” is the minute we stop progressing. And the minute we stop progressing is the minute we stop short of ultimate joy. According to Joseph Smith, we must be willing to sacrifice “all” things, counting them as “dross” before the “excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”—Lecture on Faith

    Thank you for the link to Brigham Young’s statement. It’s certainly better in context. I think everyone can agree that “you will be polygamists at least in your faith, or you will come short of enjoying the salvation and the glory which Abraham has obtained.” I think I am also content with the statement that “polygamy may for some have been a test of their worthiness to be exalted” but “that does not necessarily mean that all who are exalted must necessarily be polygamists.” After going back and re-reading all of the quotes I can definitely see how that could be right.

  4. gvogt

    Has anyone who thinks of polygamy as some kind of righteous test or a path to glory ever suffered the unfaithfullness of a spouse? I have, and can tell you that sharing a man with other women cannot be construed as celestial. If there’s an LDS man out there who has had a wife who had a relationship with another man, he will also know the pain it brings.

  5. Jason Echols

    A friend pointed me to this podcast and quipped that polygamy would only be an Abrahamic sacrifice if an angel had stopped Joseph from marrying some 30 women.

  6. buffy snell


    My husband has never been unfaithful so I don’t know what that feels like. It must be very painful. And I can see why your experiences would make this topic unbearable. I think it is easier to face the prospect of something like polygamy when you are naively unacquainted with the ramifications. I’m sorry for your hurt.


  7. Kris

    So do you think it follows that Isaac may have received a commandment similar to the one Emma received in D&C 132:54? That verse has always troubled me, though I suppose Joseph was also threatened with destruction (angel with the sword). Most lessons I’ve heard on the sacrifice of Isaac mention that Isaac was complicit, though I wonder at what cost.

    Also, in v. 55, “wives” (plural) is specifically listed among the blessings Joseph would receive. While I very much appreciate the idea of polygamy as an Abrahamic sacrifice, this verse gives the impression that the plurality of wives is in fact a blessing and not a sacrifice (though perhaps the two are not exclusive?). Thoughts?

    Thanks for the thoughtful interview. I appreciate Dr. Hudson making this connection and also recognizing the painful reality this is for many women. I skip D&C 132 and have often wondered if I want to go to the celestial kingdom. It was surprising to hear these feelings articulated and nice to recognize that I’m not alone.

  8. JTurn

    This podcast afforded me the occasion to reread D&C 132 in light of this Abrahamic covenant perspective.

    Among other bits, I am puzzled by the following verse that seems to point to the core of Dr. Hudson’s argument.

    50 … I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.

    This suggests that just as Abraham’s “ram in the thicket” provided him an “escape” from having to murder Isaac, Joseph should have been provided with an escape from having to consummate his various sexual congresses over the span of a decade or more. Either there is a fundamental asymmetry here or Joseph failed the test.

    Close your eyes and imagine holding a knife to your child’s throat, ready to slice it open because God commanded it.  Seriously, experience this for a minute.  If you are a faithful Mormon, own it.

    Now, at least if you are a typical man, close your eyes and imagine the devoted attention of  attractive young woman living under your roof with God commanding you to take them to bed.  

    These are fundamentally different kinds of tests. The bias required not to see this is profound.

    Thus is just the beginning of what I find deeply disturbing about D&C 132 which I wouldn’t have revisited if I was not somewhat first disturbed by Dr, Hudson’s argument.

    An interesting bit did jump out that did not register with me before. Verse 51 points to a counter Abrahamic test that the Lord (through Joseph I presume) offered Emma.

    51 Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.

    The obvious difference is that Emma was offered an “escape,” again through Joseph.

  9. JTurn

    Has Dr. Hudson thought through the implications of basing one’s (or a group’s) moral philosophy on Abrahamic tests? particularly when they are administered through admittedly imperfect men who may be found to have had problems distinguishing true doctrine from mere teachings?

    Imagine 1000 religions with 1000 prophets all invoking God’s will to practice moral exceptionalism to promote their ambitions or to confront internal or external stresses. But wait, this IS human history – which hasn’t been pretty.

    In my opinion the world would be much better off if every group would accept the moral obligation of dialing back their sense of such privileged insight in recognition of the mischief it breeds in the other 999.

    Finally, has Dr. Hudson thought through the implications of how D&C 132 inextricably ties celestial exaltation to being willing to pass Abrahamic tests? This places Abrahamic tests at the center of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Is this really the corner that Mormonism must force the Gospel into in order to preserve its faith in its own legitimacy? Is this need to preserve Joseph Smith’s authority Mormonism’s mess of pottage? Isn’t Joseph Smith a dead prophets who can now be superceeded by a living prophet?

  10. SteveDensleyJr Post author

    No analogy is perfect. There is always a difference between two objects in an analogy, otherwise, it would not be an analogy but would be a comparison of identical objects. Therefore, as in all analogies, it is possible to poke holes in this particular analogy. Therefore, the challenge is not in demonstrating that the two objects are not identical; they never are in an analogy. The challenge is in seeking to understand the ways in which they are the same. However, note that it is not Dr. Hudson that is making the analogy. She merely identifies an analogy that is drawn by God as He speaks to Joseph Smith.

    So how can we reconcile the apparent problems? One way is to extend our perspective on this analogy beyond this life. While the ram in the thicket for Abraham appeared almost immediately, for those who were called upon to practice polygamy, perhaps the ram in the thicket is not meant to appear until the next life.

    Also, while it may seem that for a man, marrying multiple women is not comparable to being asked to sacrifice your son, I can imagine that for a woman, the pain of sharing her husband with another woman is not wholly dissimilar to being asked to sacrifice a child. As for the man, remember that Joseph Smith was highly reluctant to enter into polygamous relationships. He clearly realized that polygamy would bring serious challenges to the saints and to him personally if it was publically known that he was practicing polygamy. Ultimately, it seems that polygamy, at least in part, led to his death. In anticipation of the significant challenges and sacrifices that would follow the practice of polygamy, I can imagine that Joseph Smith viewed his entrance into the practice with fear, trepidation and even as a great sacrifice.

    With respect to “wives” being a reward for practicing polygamy, it does not make sense that if Joseph Smith agrees to practice polygamy that he would literally be given multiple fathers and mothers in this world. Yet, read literally, that is what the verse says. So it seems that the verse is meant to be read figuratively. In that light, multiples wives is not a literal reward any more than multiple fathers and mothers would be. The phrase “I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundredfold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children” seems to simply be a rhetorical flourish meaning that the reward for Joseph would be great.

    Finally, with regard to celestial exaltation being tied to an Abrahamic test, see: http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/sperry-symposium-classics-old-testament/abrahamic-test

  11. JTurn

    Thanks for the response Steve. I hope you can leave this discussion open for a several more days to give me time to think on what you wrote, to listen again to this interview, to review Genesis 16, D&C 132, and Jacob 2, and to read this piece on Abrahamic tests – all before reply and offering additional comment which are now only loosely formed intuitions. This is a very important topic to me. I have two daughters, one who will be married in the D.C. temple this June and another who is a freshman at BYU.

  12. Kris

    I would appreciate leaving the discussion open as well and would like to read the links you’ve given. Thanks for the response on the lands, houses, mothers, fathers, wives issue. I can see your logic, though it still feels like “wives” is the most troubling. Fathers and mothers can potentially be pluralized–Lehi calling his grandchildren “sons and daughters,” having mother- and father-in-laws, people who act like mothers and fathers to us. All of that seems like a multiplicity of blessings that I can understand. But wives is still hard for me, even figuratively. I’m not trying to be argumentative or dismiss your thinking; it’s just my feeling toward that verse.

    Also, perhaps one of my favorite parables (and one that I rely on heavily) is that of the laborers in Matt. 20:1-6. Many, many times I’ve realized that I am one of those arriving at the eleventh hour. I have not been called on to sacrifice to any great degree, Abrahamic or otherwise, and yet I believe there will be grace for me. I feel all of the unfairness of this (Dr. Hudson articulated the feeling a bit when she said there will be “special medals struck” for those who practiced polygamy–some special reward), and yet I believe the possibility of my salvation with only one hour of “work” to be true. While this gives me an immense amount of hope, I also want to weep for those who have labored all day during the heat. I’d like to contrast this parable with the idea expressed in the Sperry Symposium link that exaltation requires an Abrahamic sacrifice from everyone. Perhaps the parable does not refer to exaltation?

  13. Dennison

    I like what the professor says and would like to believe it is true. The problem is that I have heard so many “authoritative” pronouncements from General Authorities over the years that it is hard sometimes to know what true doctrine (versus teaching) is. If this is the direction the church is taking it would be nice to hear comments like this coming from the prophet. I am saddened by the many friends I know who are looking forward to having multiple wives, which makes me feel sad for their present partners.

  14. Sunflow

    Having not read Dr Hudson’s article it is difficult to comment on the specifics raised therein; other than to say that I have read the Abrahamic sacrifice argument, before, circa 1980’s. It is a interesting argument and one that poses a range of questions which I have not had time to fully process … this is not an issue that lends itself to instant thoughts; as, it begs so many other questions along the way.

    We live in an imperfect, yet striving, evolving, religious LDS world; and, whilst the key issues of the re-establishment of the church in modern times are sound and clear to understand. However, the polygamy principle seems to be quite fraught. I for one, have never felt comfortable with it; and neither, has my husband … This is not due to a lack of faith in Christ; but rather, it doesn’t make sense at a fundamental, interpersonal, relationship level.

    Logically, polygamy, doesn’t allow for the development of marital fidelity in any way, shape, or form. Fidelity presupposes that there is no relationship static to impede the process of two becoming one; as, per the scriptures of the New Testament. In marriage, static of the simple kind abounds, aplenty. Having several wives, to my way of thinking, would constitute, major static!!!

    This leads to the following related comment.

    Could the point be raised; that, the entire notion of polygamy smacks of reverse sexism. Simply put, it discriminates against men; and, would impede their ability to cleave??? As it most assuredly would have challenged the womenfolk …

    I wonder sometimes, if Joseph Smith’s zealous efforts in this particular area of religious understanding were effected by revelatory static??? It is not the first time, in early church history, where what was expected by God, was misconstrued.

    As a non-academic, occasional, FAIR consumer, happy for more commenting on this difficult topic.

  15. michaelhoggan

    Is a woman who marries a widower in the temple performing an Abrahamic sacrifice?

    I wanted to post that question first to start the discussion on what I think is the most relevant footing.

    I personally believe that some exalted men will be sealed to more than one wife in the hereafter. I do not expect (or particularly desire) to be one of these men with more than one spouse. However, that does not mean that all exalted men are only sealed to one spouse.

    Given that the death of a wife has most likely occurred in the history of the Restored Church more often than plural sealings to men with living spouses (to say nothing of the full history of mankind), I think the majority of men with more than one spouse in the hereafter will be remarried widowers. This point is key to understanding my problem with the “mortality only” theory of plural marriage.

    If a woman married a widower and was his only spouse for the time she was married to him, then is it an Abrahamic sacrifice? Since she did not need to share her husband with another wife during mortality, has she undergone the same trials as a woman who entered into plural marriage in mortality? I really don’t think so. I think her Abrahamic sacrifice will be something else in mortality!

    If she did not suffer as Abraham did during mortality due to her marriage to a widower, then is her status as a “plural wife” in the hereafter a daily walk up Mount Moriah? I dont think it is.

    I know that exaltation is a state of full and incomprehensible joy. We cannot even fathom the glory of the telestial world, let alone the blessed state of the exalted. If these women who married widowers are not in eternal agony as “plural wives”, then what about women who did have a plural marriage in mortality? Does their sacrifice in mortality confer on them a state of agony in the hereafter that their cohorts who married widowers need not experience? I consider that idea to be utterly absurd.

    Note: I have a master’s degree and just because I don’t teach at a university doesn’t mean I’m not as smart as those who do.

    Regarding the possible future legalization of plural marriage in Western society, I am not concerned. I would certainly prefer if it remained illegal, but I agree that the “sexual revolution” and what I term the “homosexual revolution” have made legalization a likely future outcome.

    I suspect the Church will oppose the legalization of plural marriage. I have no special authority in the Church, but I see no reason for the First Presidency to do otherwise. This is no more hypocritical than Church support for war efforts during World War II (just to name one example) despite that plainly worded “though shalt not kill” in the Ten Commandments.

    The rules vary depending on circumstances and God is the ultimate arbiter of the rules. The scriptures offer countless examples of this all important principle.

    I personally will be very surprised (akin to my surprise if our sun goes nova tomorrow at precisely 1:00 p.m. GMT) if the First Presidency reinstates plural marriage if/when it becomes legal in the U.S. I personally do not expect plural marriage to be practiced in the Church again in mortality. It’s time has passed.

    Given the length of time that plural marriages were performed in the Church and the heavy sacrifices the practice entailed for the early saints, I cannot regard the practice in general as a mistake. To my mind, that is tantamount to saying Joseph (and all those who followed him) was not a disciple of Jesus Christ, let alone a prophet,seer, and revelator.

    I realize that plural marriage is an emotionally charged topic. That does not remove from us the requirement to trust in our Heavenly Father and his chosen servants. Women should also be careful in assuming that men somehow “just don’t get it” and that the opinion of a male should automatically be suspect!

    That’s all I have to say.

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