How Many Wives is Too Many?

|| Graphic by Bernadette Berdychowski.

|| Graphic by Bernadette Berdychowski.

The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.


Famous 20th-century scholar and Journalist G.K. Chesterton attempted to explain the flaws of polygamous marriage in his famous work Orthodoxy. He said, “a man is a fool who wishes to enter Eden by five gates at once.”

In a culture of lingering Judeo-Christian values similar to Chesterton’s, many Americans believe monogamous marriage is just “natural” or “orthodox” and polygamy, whether found in the Mormon or Islamic faith, is inherently flawed. While there are some valid critiques of plural marriage, there are also many valid defenses which often go unspoken.

For starters, not all Mormons nor all Muslims practice polygamy. It is a select group of fundamentalists in each of these faiths who feel called to plural marriage.

American (Western) intolerance of polygamy is perpetuated by polemic, “orthodox” teaching. Perhaps the insights from two modern female scholars and an overview of the Mormon and Islamic teachings on polygamy might help Americans to understand the religious beliefs which lead some people to polygamous marriage.

According to Michelle Gamburd, professor of Anthropology at PSU, marriage is culturally universal—from the east to the west, from past to present, marriage has been a relevant institution. Fundamentally, across these cultures, marriage is a way of organizing society. Rather than being right or wrong, polygamy and monogamy, simply put, are merely building blocks of any society.

Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, A History,” adds that marriage historically had nothing to do with the relationship between a man and a woman—that is a modern (HeteronormativeHetero-normative) notion of marriage. Historically—yes, even Biblically—marriage has been a way to get in-laws and to expand one’s family. This may be problematic to defenders of plural marriage in that it has historically reduced women to chattel. But as will be demonstrated, Fundamentalist Mormon and Islamic beliefs about plural marriage grind against these chauvinistic tendencies. Whether or not this theory of a healthy polygamous marriage is always put into practice is a conversation for a different piece.

If it is true that marriage is a means of organizing society (even if you believe that it is God’s way of organizing society) and that it has traditionally been concerned with expanding family and estate, then why aren’t many Americans willing to be accepting of other people’s choice of a religious polygamous lifestyles?

When many Americans confront the practice of polygamy, they see a patriarchal nightmare in which one man is granted undue power over multiple women. However, Mormon and Islamic teachings are quite the contrary—plural marriage is about the husband and wives overcoming the simple problems of plurality (jealousy, inattentiveness, frustration, etc.) and, in doing so, becoming more like God.

In her book “Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time,” describing the life and mission of the Prophet, Karen Armstrong defends the Islamic origin of polygamy, saying: “polygamy was not designed to improve the sex life of the boys—it was a piece of social legislation.” Muhammad used plural marriage as a means of looking after widows and slaves in the newfound Muslim community. Whereas polygamy prior to Muhammad’s teaching meant using women as chattel to increase wealth and estate, polygamy after Muhammad meant the protection of marginalized women.

According to traditional Muslim teaching, Islam did not perpetuate an existing fallen practice, Islam redeemed it: Islamic polygamy in the Qur’an was first concerned with justice. If a husband thinks he will be incapable of mediating between his wives, he is commanded by Qur’an to keep to only one.

A community of fundamentalist Mormons living at Rockland Ranch, Utah asked a documentary crew to film their lives for an entire year to dispel some popular misconceptions concerning polygamy. In the documentary, “3 Wives One Husband”, Lydia Rose, a potential third wife to Enoch, Catrina, and Lillian, said when asked about her choice to participate in plural marriage: “What better way to change the world than to become a mother to nations?”

For some Mormons, polygamy is a framework for thinking about gospel.

In a proper functioning fundamentalist Mormon community, the wife or wives of the husband have as much say in proposing another marriage as the husband does. It was Enoch’s first wife Catrina who suggested they court Lillian, now his second wife, and it was both of his wives who decided it was not time to take a new wife, Lydia, into their family.

While there are many arguments to be made about whether plural marriages foster child neglect and domestic abuse, people ought to remember that the Mormon and Islamic beliefs about plural marriage are not inherently bad. Chesterton’s primary issue with polygamy is that it is incommensurable with the terrible excitement which is marriage itself. However, the polygamous practices of fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims are not concerned with excitement in marriage, but instead with responsibility. Maybe instead of criticizing the religious foundations of other marital practices, people should learn to embody this ideal of responsibility in their own marriages.