Jacob on Polygamy in Historical Context

This week, in the Come, Follow Me curriculum, we are studying study Jacob 1–4. This includes Jacob’s temple discourse in Jacob 2–3, wherein he condemned the Nephite practice of polygamy (Jacob 2:24–30). This condemnation can be confusing since later Joseph Smith instituted the practice of plural marriage as a revealed principle, and the Latter-day Saints continued in this practice until around the turn of the century.[1]

We are all, of course, familiar with the justification given in Jacob 2:30, and the fact that the Lord did command the practice in the early part of the Restoration. The history of Latter-day Saint polygamy is not my strong suit, so I’m not really going to get into all that. If that is what you are interested in then I cannot recommend strongly enough the works of Brian Hales.[2] He has done the most thorough and comprehensive work, at least on the Nauvoo era, and made a lot of resources available online for free.

Instead, what I would like to talk about is the historical context of Jacob’s condemnation of polygamy. I think we can understand better why Jacob is condemning polygamy if we look a little closer at what is going on in Jacob’s time and place and what polygamy is being used for.

Jacob’s Teachings and the Law of Moses

First, Jacob’s teachings cannot be divorced from the broader context of Jacob’s discourse as a whole. Before going into the issue of polygamy, Jacob condemns the people for going after wealth and, when some “obtained more abundantly,” they became lifted up in pride (Jacob 2:12–18). There are only two other places in scripture, of which I am aware, in which acquiring wealth and wives is specifically condemned together. The first is in Deuteronomy 17:17, as part of the “law of the king” (vv. 14–20): “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.” The other is in the story of king Noah (Mosiah 11:2–4), which Taylor Halverson effectively argues is deliberately structured to illustrate how Noah violated every single one of the commands about the king in Deuteronomy 17:14–20.[3]

It is not an accident that Jacob has paired these same two crimes together. He is clearly accusing the Nephite elites—which no doubt includes the king at this point in time—of violating this law.[4] Thus, understanding the intent and meaning of Deuteronomy 17:17 is important for understanding Jacob’s teachings. Deuteronomy 17:17 is not a condemnation of polygamy in and of itself—it is seen as a condemnation of excessive polygamy, and especially of foreign wives that can turn the king’s heart away from the Lord (cf. 1 Kings 11).[5] As Brian J. Baird explains:

Moses’s warning was not meant to condemn all plural marriage and all wealth; he warned against excess. It was a warning to the people that their kings should not have an excessive number of wives, particularly marriages made to foreign women as a way to strengthen alliances with other kingdoms.[6]

To “multiply wives” is not merely to have more than one wife, but to exponentially increase the number of wives one has. Note, also, the condemnation is against “multiplying wives to himself” as opposed to wives being given by the Lord (cf. 2 Samuel 12:7–8). Jacob’s concerns, therefore, were less about the people practicing polygamy in and of itself, and more about how they were practicing it, in violation of God’s laws.

Indeed, Baird argues that Jacob’s stated exception, that God will command polygamy to “raise up seed” (Jacob 2:30), should be understood as a reference to the Mosaic law of Levirate Marriage, wherein a near of kinsmen was expected to marry the wife of his deceased relative for the purpose of raising up seed (Deuteronomy 25:5–6).[7] Since the nearest kinsmen of the deceased may already be married, this could often result in polygamous unions. If Baird is correct, then Jacob’s exception was not merely the abstract idea that God might at one point command polygamy broadly speaking, but rather a reference to a specific provision in Mosaic law that at times mandated the practice. Hence, there may have been lawful, acceptable practice of polygamy amongst the Nephites in addition to the “whoredoms” Jacob condemns.

A Mesoamerican Cultural Setting

In addition to these aspects of Mosaic law that seem to be at play, there are social developments going on in Mesoamerica at this time (ca. 540–500 BC) that provide a broader cultural context for what is happening among the Nephites and thus what Jacob is condemning. As Brant A. Gardner has explained, Jacob’s condemnation of the accumulation of greater wealth than others, and the pride that comes from it, makes most sense in light of outside trade bringing in luxury items, especially “costly apparel” (Jacob 2:13). Gardner has further pointed out that this is exactly what is happening in Mesoamerica at this time: increased trade through various regions of Mesoamerica was increasing social stratification, and elites were distinguishing themselves specifically by the clothing they wore.[8]

So what does this have to do with polygamy? In the ancient world, including ancient Mesoamerica, having multiple wives was tied to wealth and social status in multiple ways. For one thing, simply being able to care and provide for several women and their offspring was clearly a sign of affluence.[9] Going beyond that, however, in ancient Mesoamerica polygamy was a means for acquiring greater wealth through the exploitation of one’s wives and children.[10] Mesoamerican experts John E. Clark and Michael Blake explain when a person wanted to improve their social status, that person “first accumulates deployable resources by the sweat of his brow, and through the efforts of his wife (wives) and children. The more wives and children the better.”[11]

Thus, when situated in the historical and cultural context of ancient Mesoamerica, the Nephites were not merely practicing polygamy. Nephite men were exploiting their women and children for gain. Gardner reasonably suggests that as the Nephites began trading with outside communities, they were exposed to these practices and, seeing the economic advantage, adopted them. Gardner even goes so far as to propose that they were arranging marriages with potential trade and alliance partners—thus, Nephite men were marrying women from outside groups, but also they were marrying off their daughters to men from outside the community.[12]

Such a practice, especially if the marriages are unwanted by the women, could explain the reference to “lead[ing] away captive the daughters of my people” (Jacob 2:32). In any case, this is exactly what was going on with Solomon (1 Kings 11), and perhaps even starting with his father David before him—the two exemplars the Nephites appealed to, and whom Jacob condemned (Jacob 2:23–24)—and as discussed, it is such marriages to foreign wives Deuteronomy 17:17 is specifically meant to condemn.
What this Means

It is not hard to see why this kind of polygamy would be condemned as “whoredoms” and “abominable” by Jacob (Jacob 2:23–24). The illumination of this historical and cultural context brings clarity to what, exactly, was so morally reprehensible to Jacob—and the Lord—about the polygamous practices of his fellow Nephites. It should be clear that this is was not the intent of the principle of plural marriage as revealed by the Lord (see D&C 132),[13] even though there were no doubt some unfortunate abuses and exploitations in practice.

None of this is to say polygamy in and of itself does not pose many difficulties or challenges, or that it can or should be practiced so long as it is not exploitive. The only circumstances in which scripture justifies polygamy is when it is commanded by the Lord, full-stop. But it can be hard to understand why the Lord would command such a practice if polygamy itself is inherently immoral, as some have assumed from Jacob’s speech. In context, however, Jacob was speaking out against polygamy as practiced in his time and place, an exploitive practice that was certainly an abomination, and rightly condemned.

[2] See Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2013). For the shorter, reader’s digest version, see Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015). Another useful resource is Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy, 3 vols. (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2010–2015). For the perspectives of women in Utah polygamy, see Laural Thatcher Ulrich, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870 (Vintage, 2018).
[3] See Taylor Halverson, “Deuteronomy 17:14–20 as Criteria for Nephite Kingship,” Interpreter 24 (2017): 7.
[4] See Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 2:494–495.
[5] See Gardner, Second Witness, 2:492–493.
[7] Baird, “Understanding Jacob’s Teachings,” 231–237.
[8] See Gardner, Second Witness, 2:487–490; Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 197–201.
[9] Gardner, Second Witness, 2:492.
[10] See Gardner, Second Witness, 2:497–499; Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers, 201–204.
[11] John E. Clark and Michael Blake, “The Power of Prestige: Competitive Generosity and the Emergence of Rank Societies in Lowland Mesoamerica,” in The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica, ed. Michael E. Smith and Marilyn A. Masson (Blackwell, 2000), 252, as cited by Gardner, Second Witness, 2:498, emphasis mine.
[12] Gardner, Second Witness, 2:498–499.