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Why Did the Church Abandon Polygamy?

by W. John Walsh

Why did the church's prophet get rid of polygamy, was it because of a revelation or was it just to appeal to the laws of man?

Due to religious bigotry over the practice of plural marriage, the United States government announced its intent to destroy the Latter-day Saint people.  Following a vision showing him that continuing plural marriage endangered the temples and the mission of the Church, not just statehood, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto in October 1890, announcing an official end to new plural marriages and facilitating an eventual peaceful resolution of the conflict with the United States government.

When outside influences affect our "... privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience ..." (11th Article of Faith), there are two general approaches to take. One can either resist or submit. The correct approach depends upon the particular circumstances.

When the issue at stake is essential to our exaltation and salvation, the Lord allows us to resist those opposing influences. As the Book of Mormon states:

"And again, the Lord has said that: Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed. Therefore for this cause were the Nephites contending with the Lamanites, to defend themselves, and their families, and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion." (Alma 43:47)

However, if the issue is not essential to our salvation, then we must be "subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." (12th Article of Faith) The Holy Bible has a story which demonstrates this principle:

"And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute [money] came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?  He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee." (Matthew 17:24-7, emphasis added)

In these passages, Jesus explains that while the requirement to pay tribute is unjust, they should pay it to keep from offending the Romans. Why? The Lord expects us to obey the constituted government on issues that do not impact our salvation. (See Teachings About Law home page)

The Church used every legal means to appeal the anti-polygamy legislation. However, once the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed it's constitutionality, President Woodruff decided to obey the law after receiving revelatory experiences and confirmation from the Lord. (See President Woodruff's contextual comments in Official Declaration 1) Since the practice of Plural Marriage is not essential to our salvation (See Doctrine of Plural Marriage), the Lord did not want the church impaired by continuing it's practice. The Lord does not always immediately show forth power to destroy the enemies of his people. The ancient Israelites were in bondage many years before they were finally released from their afflictions. For us to see all of our wrongs addressed, we will have to wait for the Final Judgment.

As stated in the Doctrine and Covenants, when our ability to keep the Lord's commandments is restricted, the Lord does not hold us accountable for them:

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings. And the iniquity and transgression of my holy laws and commandments I will visit upon the heads of those who hindered my work, unto the third and fourth generation, so long as they repent not, and hate me, saith the Lord God." (D&C 124:49-50)

Occasionally, some people find fault with the Latter-day Saints for backing down to the government persecution.  Those who hold this position deny the instructions from the Savior about not offending government officials (which were quoted above).  By finding fault with Latter-day Saints, they also find fault with Jesus.

(See Plural Marriage home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)

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