What Makes A Marriage?

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Rhetorical bombs were bursting last May, but the shock waves are just now being felt. The issue: “What is the civil definition of marriage?” Faced with the possibility that Hawaii might be judicially ordered to legalize marriages between homosexual couples (which other states might then be constitutionally obliged to recognize), Congress followed the lead of several states and this fall passed a “defense of marriage” law that would reserve the term (and its benefits) exclusively for the legal union of one man and one woman. In making this pre-emptive strike, Republicans hoped to force President Clinton into a position on the matter that would alienate either socially conservative Democrats or gay and lesbian voters. Clinton promptly promised to sign the bill; at press time the final outcome remains to be seen.

The key argument deployed by supporters of undiluted “traditional” marriage is that it is the best and only system for nurturing stable families, as all modernized societies, at least, have found. Is that historically the case? Well, suppose I were to tell you that quite recently, as history goes, there was a religious community of orderly, abstemious, hardworking Americans who firmly believed that marriage could and should constitute the lawful joining of one man with two or even more women. Suppose I were to add that its leaders authorized such pairings for nearly forty years and then changed their minds only because the government of the United States (with the undoubted consent of a majority) ignored its commitment to religious freedom and used arbitrary power to make them do so. And—but let me stop supposing and tell the story as it happened.

I am referring, of course, to the rise and extinction of polygamy (technically polygyny) among the Mormons, the subject of a number of intriguing studies by dispassionate modern scholars. The account must begin with the briefest possible outline of the early history and wanderings of the Mormons, or, in their full title, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in 1830 by a youth, named Joseph Smith, who had grown up in upstate New York. Smith claimed to have received a revelation from God to restore the original but corrupted church of the apostles to its former purity. His followers believe that with the help of an angel he found and “translated” the Book of Mormon, a Gospel that links biblical history to that of America.

Despite secessions and schisms, converts to Mormonism grew by the thousands. They began a long search for a place to establish their Zion, and by 1847 the Mormons had settled in the Great Basin “wilderness” around the Great Salt Lake, where they began to build a community under the leadership of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, who called himself “Prophet, Seer and Revelator.” They expected to be safely isolated there, but the outside world impinged on them inexorably, leading to strife with fast-growing numbers of incoming “Gentiles,” the Mormons’ term for all who did not share their beliefs. It was in this already turbulent state of things that “plural marriage” was formally asserted as church doctrine in 1852. Polygamy now became the symbolic focus of a long struggle between the Mormons and their enemies in the swiftly developing West.

Anti-Mormon writers found that polygamy perfectly fitted a propaganda that painted Mormonism as a malign anti-Gentile conspiracy with secret armies and dastardly crimes. (See the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet , for an example.) Polygamy struck at two Victorian sacred codes, domesticity and chastity. The idea of a man legitimately bedding more than one partner was uncivilized—“loathsome and poisonous to … social purity”—fit only for backward peoples. The very first national Republican platform in 1856 linked polygamy with slavery as a relic of “barbarism,” and a party leader labeled it “an Asiatic and African pestilence.” A distinguished ethnologist affirmed: “Modern society reposes upon the monogamian [ sic ] family. The whole previous experience and progress of mankind culminated and crystallized in this preeminent institution.”

Outsiders had visions of Mormon seraglios. One woman wrote a distinctly unauthorized biography of Young entitled The Mormon Prophet and His Harem . Sermons and editorials echoed the judgment of one church gathering that polygamy was “a system of masked sensuality” with its origin in “lust.”

Mormon spokesmen made little headway in explaining that sexual gratification was the last thing contemplated by “plural” or even “celestial” marriage. Its purpose was strictly procreative—to enable the faithful to be fruitful and multiply. This was not merely to replenish the earth, for in Mormon doctrine God had created millions of spirits in heaven that must descend and pass through a cycle of human life before final resurrection and glorification. New births provided the necessary bodies for these celestial souls. Moreover, since women’s postresurrection salvation was dependent on that of husbands, and vice versa, it was also a religious duty to “seal [to men] for time and eternity” as many women as possible, even when no sexual relation was involved.