Stare Decisis and Polygamy

Poor Wayfaring Man

Here is an example of LDS Church leaders retiring unwanted doctrine by playing with the concepts of “policy” and “doctrine”, and then making overtures of respect to the originators of that doctrine, in order to avoid violating LDS stare decisis.

In the nineteenth century, leaders of the Church taught that the practice of polygamy was an inextricable doctrine of Mormonism, and the only way to reach the highest levels of heaven.

President Brigham Young taught:

The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory and may even be permitted to come into the presence of the Father and the Son; but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them.

Journal of Discourses, Vol 11, p. 269, August 19, 1866.

Apostle Heber C. Kimball declared:

You might as well deny ‘Mormonism,’ and turn away from it, as to oppose the plurality of wives. Let the Presidency of this Church, and the Twelve Apostles, and all the authorities unite and say with one voice that they will oppose the doctrine, and the whole of them will be damned.

Journal of Discourses, vol. 5, p. 203

Apostle Joseph F. Smith said:

Some people have supposed that the doctrine of plural marriage was a sort of superfluity, or nonessential to the salvation of mankind. In other words, some of the Saints have said, and believe that a man with one wife, sealed to him by the authority of the Priesthood for time and eternity, will receive an exaltation as great and glorious, if he is faithful, as he possibly could with more than one. I want here to enter my protest against this idea, for I know it is false…whoever has imagined that he could obtain the fullness of the blessings pertaining to this celestial law, by complying with only a portion of its conditions, has deceived himself.

Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, pp. 28

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the LDS Church encountered massive rejection of its doctrine of polygamy among the people of the United States, which caused Church leaders to very reluctantly rethink the religion-defining doctrine. The United States enacted and enforced laws that severely punished the Church and its leaders for embracing the doctrine, culminating in the dissolution of the Church as a corporate entity and seizure of all of its assets. The Church made a formal announcement that its practice of polygamy had ended, and after attempts to continue performing polygamous marriages in secret, eventually stopped polygamy altogether in the early 1900s.

That is not to say that the Church completely abandoned the doctrine of polygamy after that time, rather, it merely instituted a policy suspending the practice. Belief in the doctrine as described in the quotes above was not changed.  The doctrine, Mormons believed, would never go away, and the practice would return again. That’s what I was taught when I was a kid. But now, 100+ years after suspension, the practice has never resumed. In fact, a President of the Church has denied, without apology or retraction, that it is a Church doctrine (see below), and the Church has since become America’s most earnest, organized, and outspoken opponent of laws that attempt to define marriage as anything other than a union between one man and one woman.

President Gordon B. Hinckley professed:

I condemn [polygamy], yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal. It is not legal. And this church takes the position that we will abide by the law. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates in honoring, obeying and sustaining the law.

Larry King Live, CNN, 1998

Does this mean that now polygamy is doctrinal only when it is legal?  Possibly.  Nobody really knows.  One thing that it does seem to make clear, however, is that the practice of polygamy has gone from being an essential, permanent, religion-defining doctrine of Mormonism, to a non-doctrinal1 policy that can be suspended as needed.

So what does all this say about the prophetic chops of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor, the first three (uber-polygamist) Presidents of the Church, who went to their graves teaching that practicing polygamy was, had been, and always would be, essential to the salvation of humanity?  Were they fallen prophets?  Never prophets in the first place?  How do people still trust these guys when they were so obviously wrong about fundamental LDS beliefs?

Take Brigham Young, for example.  President Hinckley not only denied Brigham’s eternal doctrine of polygamy as anything more than a quirky artifact of LDS Church history, but Hinckley’s tenure as President also saw Church curriculum used to hamfistedly repurpose Brigham Young as a stalwart monogamist.

How could a modern LDS prophet like Gordon B. Hinckley so thoroughly dismiss key beliefs and teachings of Brigham Young without also undercutting Young’s authority as a prophet of God (as well as his own)?  Well, Hinckley clearly made an effort to at least pay lip service to stare decisis–putting forth the appearance of deference to Brigham Young’s prophetic authority, even if it may not have been completely sincere.  Hinckley was not shy about connecting his own authority to that of Brigham Young.  He kept a large portrait of “Brother Brigham” on the wall in his office, and he referred to it often in his speeches and writings:

At the close of one particularly difficult day, I looked up at a portrait of Brigham Young that hangs on my wall. I asked, “Brother Brigham, what should we do?” I thought I saw him smile a little, and then he seemed to say: “In my day, I had problems enough of my own. Don’t ask me what to do. This is your watch. Ask the Lord, whose work this really is.” And this, I assure you, is what we do and must always do.

An Ensign to the Nations, a Light to the World, President Gordon B. Hinckley, General Conference Speech, October 5, 2003

Hinckley was also willing to lean on Brigham Young for words of wisdom, sometimes even taking those words from statements Brigham made about the doctrine of polygamy (and then reworking them to apply to other things Hinckley wanted to emphasize2 ).

Even though Hinckley tried to subtly erase much of what Brigham Young taught and believed as a prophet of God, his choice to align himself with Brigham Young and draw from Young’s teachings can be explained by the LDS concept of stare decisis: Hinckley’s own authority was legitimized through his demonstrated respect for the authority and wisdom of Brigham Young.  For members of the Church given to skepticism, who paid attention to the differences between the beliefs and teachings of the two men, Hinckley’s approach made him look like a spin doctor or a slick politician, posing for cheesy pictures with Brother Brigham, while secretly stabbing him in the back.  For most faithful members of the Church, however, Hinckley looked like a humble servant of the Lord providing modern guidance for the Church, while remaining part of an unbroken chain of authority–another in a long line of LDS prophets.



  1. Well, it’s a non-doctrine only if you exclude non-physical living/loving arrangements, like my parents apparently had for 20 or so years as a divorced, but still sealed, couple.  Otherwise, Hinckley’s description of the practice of polygamy as a non-doctrine is deceptive doublespeak, and Mormons don’t do that.  (Just kidding.)  And LDS Prophets definitely don’t do that.  (Kidding again.) []
  2. Here is an example of Gordon B. Hinckley taking a (slightly veiled) Brigham Young teaching about the Gospel principle of polygamy and reapplying it to other Church doctrines:

    [Brigham Young said,] “Every principle God has revealed carries its own convictions of its truth to the human mind, and there is no calling of God to man on Earth but what brings with it the evidences of its authenticity.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, Jan. 12, 1862)   That’s a remarkable statement, really…I’ve never found a man who paid tithing who had any doubt that it represented a commandment of the Lord…And so I might go on with every principle of the gospel.  Each one, as we observe it, brings convictions of its divine source.

    President Gordon B. Hinckley, July 16, 1995 speech, reported in the LDS Church News, week of July 22, 1995 []

3 Responses to “Stare Decisis and Polygamy”

  • Seth R. Says:

    I don’t disagree with your overarching point that stare decisis gives us some useful insight into how things work in the creation of LDS policy and doctrine. Also thank you for the attempt at being fair and balanced.

    I just thought I’d add in the entire quote from Brigham Young (the first one you reference) since this one often gets taken out of context:

    “We wish to obtain all that father Abraham obtained. I wish here to say to the Elders of Israel, and to all the members of this Church and kingdom, that it is in the hearts of many of them to wish that the doctrine of polygamy was not taught and practiced by us…It is the word of the Lord, and I wish to say to you, and all the world, that if you desire with all your hearts to obtain the blessings which Abraham obtained, 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. This is as true as that God lives. You who wish that there were no such thing in existence, if you have in your hearts to say: “We will pass along in the Church without obeying or submitting to it in our faith or believing this order, because, for aught that we know, this community may be broken up yet, and we may have lucrative offices offered to us; we will not, therefore, be polygamists lest we should fail in obtaining some earthly honor, character and office, etc,”—the man that has that in his heart, and will continue to persist in pursuing that policy, will come short of dwelling in the presence of the Father and the Son, in celestial glory. The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory and may even be permitted to come into the presence of the Father and the Son; but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them.” (emphasis added)
    Brigham Young, “Remarks by President Brigham Young, in the Bowery, in G.S.L. City,” (19 August 1866) Journal of Discourses 11:268-269.

    It seems that Brigham was not necessarily requiring everyone PRACTICE polygamy as a pre-req for exaltation, but rather was requiring assent to the teaching on principles of general obedience to Priesthood authority.

    Which is a good thing, since the vast majority of Mormon settlers in Deseret were not polygamous and not in a position to ever become so. Brigham had to be aware of this.

    Just thought I’d add that in.

  • Poor Wayfaring Man Says:

    Seth R.,

    Thanks for the comment, and for putting that quote in better context. I agree with your point (if I got it right), that the actual practice of polygamy was not necessary if there was no opportunity for a person to practice it. I was hoping that the last part of the quote I used (“because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them”) would indicate that rationale for his statement. I think the same idea exists today in the Church with respect to temple marriage.


  • by's cougar Says:

    “…since the vast majority of Mormon settlers in Deseret were not polygamous and not in a position to ever become so. Brigham had to be aware of this.”

    Obviously Brigham had to be aware of this, since his marrying 50 wives would leave 49 men 49 fewer women eligable for marriage. Then he has the audacity to preach that any man not married by a certain age is a menace to society. What an asshat.

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