Society may no longer define marriage in the only way marriage has ever been defined in the annals of recorded history. Many societies allowed polygamy, many allowed child marriages, some allowed marriage within families; but none, in thousands of years, defined marriage as the union of people of the same sex. — Dennis Prager


Polygamy is a broad term and when applied to human society refers to plural marriage which means having more than one spouse. Facets of this term include polygyny which refers to a form of plural marriage in which a man is allowed to have more than one wife. Polyandry describes the form of plural marriage in which a women has more than one husband. Polyamory is a form of plural marriage where a family consists of multiple husbands and wives at the same time. These kinds of marriages existed historically in human societies and continue in some societies in the present. However, in the Western world monogamous marriage (between one man and one woman) became the norm and was enshrined in law with the rise of the Roman Empire and the ascendance of Christianity as the dominant faith. In the current controversy over same sex marriage raging across the U.S. critics and opponents of same sex marriage often refer to polygamy as a reason to deny marriage rights to same sex couples. The common assertion is that if monogamous marriage is redefined to allow same sex couples to marry, then people who want to enter into polygamous marriages will demand the right to to so pointing to the fact that same sex couples are free to marry. Is there any merit to this claim?

Polygamy was prohibited in Christianity from its inception and this prohibition remains in effect in the present. The prohibition of polygamy is emphatically articulated in Roman Catholicism in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states:

2387 The predicament of a man who, desiring to convert to the Gospel, is obliged to repudiate one or more wives with whom he has shared years of conjugal life, is understandable. However polygamy is not in accord with the moral law.” [Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive.”180 The Christian who has previously lived in polygamy has a grave duty in justice to honor the obligations contracted in regard to his former wives and his children. (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Despite the prohibition of polygamy in effect in Christianity the issue of polygamy and the validity of its prohibition was challenged at times in history. For example, during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century the question was raised as to whether or not the prohibition on polygamy instituted by the Church was supported in Scripture. To this question Martin Luther initially answered, in 1523, “a man is not absolutely forbidden to have more than one wife; I could not prevent it, but certainly should not counsel it.” (Biblical evidence for Catholicism) However, by 1526 Luther affirmed the prohibition on polygamy in Christianity asserting: “it is my earnest warning and counsel that Christians especially shall have no more than one wife, not only because it is a scandal, which a Christian should avoid most diligently, but also because there is no word of God here to show that God approves it in Christians.” (as cited in Wikipedia) The validity of this prohibition of polygamy was challenged in the 19th century by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) when it was said that in 1831 Joseph Smith received a revelation sanctioning the practice. Polygamy as Mormon Church doctrine was proclaimed in 1852 by Orson Pratt who wrote:

It is well known, however, to the congregation before me, that the Latter-day Saints have embraced the doctrine of a plurality of wives, as part of their religious faith. … I think, if I am not mistaken, that the Constitution gives the privilege to all inhabitants of this country, of the free exercise of their religious notions, and the freedom of their faith, and the practice of it. Then if it can be proven … that the Latter-day Saints have actually embraced, as a part and portion of their religion, the doctrine of a plurality of wives, it is constitutional. … There will be many who will not hearken, there will be the foolish among the wise who will not receive the new and everlasting covenant [plural marriage] in its fullness, and they never will attain to their exaltation, they never will be counted worthy to hold the sceptre of power over a numerous progeny, that shall multiply themselves without end, like the sand upon the seashore.

Despite the assertion on the part of the Mormon Church that their “doctrine of a plurality of wives” was constitutional, that is, protected by the First Amendment, U.S. society flatly rejected this doctrine and in 1862 the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act that expressly prohibited plural marriage in any territory of the U.S. Despite efforts on the part of the Mormon Church to defend its doctrine, on January 6, 1879, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in the judgement it handed down in Reynolds v. United States. George Reynolds, a Mormon, was convicted of bigamy by a lower court. The Supreme Court ruled religious duty was not a suitable defense to a criminal indictment stating “to permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” (as cited in Wikipedia) Given this reality, the Mormon Church declared polygamy invalid and the “doctrine of a plurality of wives” was repudiated with the publication of the 1890 Manifesto by the President of the the Mormon Church Wilford Woodruff which states in part:

Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I heareby[sic] declare my intention to submit to those laws, to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise. (as cited in Wikipedia)

While the mainline Mormon Church repudiated polygamy more than a century ago, there are sects on the fringes of Mormonism that continue to defy the law and claim the right to practice polygamy on the grounds of the First Amendment. U.S. courts continue to rule against them, as was the case in State of Utah v. Green  in 2004.

Monogamous marriage remains, without any doubt, the norm in the U.S. despite legal challenges based on religious belief that support polygamy. Legal challenges against laws prohibiting polygamy in the U.S. go back to the 19th century, long before the issue of same sex marriage came up and remain an issue in their own right. The reality is that polygamy is a separate issue rooted in religion and religious beliefs that condemn homosexuality in particular. On that basis, the claim that the redefinition of monogamous marriage to allow for two persons of either sex to marry somehow lends credence to the demand for a repeal of laws prohibiting polygamy is dubious to say the least.

Posted by Geoffrey

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