Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Benefits of Polygamy?

Opponents of same-sex marriage sometimes say, using the slippery slope argument, that recognition of such marriage would lead to approval of polygamy also. I have argued, correctly I think, that those are two completely separate issues and the slippery slope argument is not valid.
But recently I have thought more about the subject of polygamy and have, surprisingly, come to the conclusion that perhaps it should be legal in this pluralistic country. (Please note: neither I nor any man I know is wanting a second wife!)
There has been no legal polygamy (or even practice of polygamy with only a few exceptions) in the Western world for centuries. Perhaps to a large degree this been because of Christianity. But maybe there should be some provision for polygamy in the U.S. now.
As we know, there was widespread polygamy in the Old Testament, and because of that there have some instances of polygamy in Western history. For example, in the 1530s polygamy was practiced in Münster, (in what is now) Germany.
Under reforms made by Jan van Leiden, the self-proclaimed King of Münster, polygamy became mandatory because it was the practice of the Old Testament and thus sanctioned by God. (Also on a practical level the woman/man ratio was something like 3 or 4 to 1, so there was an overabundance of women in the city). Leiden would take 16 wives for himself.
There was also approval, in 1540, of the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse, one of the most important in 16th century German political leaders. His taking of a second wife had the approval of some of the leading Protestant theologians of the day, including Martin Luther’s reluctant consent.
But still, in most “Christian” nations, bigamy/polygamy has overwhelmingly been recognized as being opposed to the teachings of Christianity and made illegal. And for good reason.
But there are other ways to look at the issue. I first glimpsed a benefit of polygamy when reading about Afghani women in A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) by Khaled Hosseini (b. 1965), the Afghan-American novelist whose first book The Kite Runner (2003) was an overwhelming success.
In Hosseini’s second novel, also a bestseller, Rasheed is an Afghani man who takes a second wife, much to the dismay of Mariam, his first wife. But Rasheed was an increasingly abusive husband, and the two wives became close friends and mutually supportive in their resistance to their common “enemy.”

Then, I happened to come across a most interesting online article titled “Islam’s Position on Polygamy.” (This is on the website called The article gives many reasons why the practice of polygamy is superior to monogamy. Let me share just one: 

Polygamy protects the interests of women and children in society. Men, in Western society make the laws. They prefer to keep polygamy illegal because it absolves them of responsibility. Legalized polygamy would require them to spend on their additional wives and their offspring. Monogamy allows them to enjoy extra-marital affairs without economic consequence.
(The same article also makes the following highly questionable assertion: “In the West today, most married men have extramarital relations with mistresses, girlfriends and prostitutes.”)
This posting is partly a response to comments toward the end of my 1/20/14 blog article, especially the one calling outlawing polygamy a “religious bias.” So, perhaps making some legal provision for polygamy is needed for the religious freedom of Muslims (and fundamentalist Mormons).
But are there sufficient benefits of polygamy that such should be legalized? I’m not convinced that there are. And is polygamy generally beneficial for women? Most probably not.


  1. Thinking Friend John Tim Carr, a boyhood friend who has long lived in California, wrote,


    "I feel that God meant for us to have only one wife and polygamy is against the teaching of the New Testament.

    "Just because some men have affairs and prostitutes outside of marriage doesn't make polygamy justified. The Bible says were are to reject the sins of the flesh and I can`t think of a worse sin than having sex with anyone other than my wife."

    "This is my belief and what say you?"

    1. John Tim, thanks for your comments.

      Yes, I think the New Testament is clear that marriage is between one man and one woman. (Same-sex marriage is not mentioned in the NT, and such marriages would have been unthinkable then.) The ideal excludes multiple wives--at the same time or one after another; that is, divorce and remarriage as well as polygamy is a violation of the ideal. (I am not sure it is much different, or much worse, to have two (or more) wives at the same time than to have two (or more) wives one after another.) Like many other cases, I think the teaching of monogamy is true not just because it is in the Bible, but it is in the Bible because it is true--it is best for individuals (especially women), for families, and for society.

      Part of the problem, though, is how legitimate is it for those of us who are Christians to expect, or to force, people of other religions to follow the teachings of the New Testament? Islam considers it legitimate for a man to have up to four wives. Most Muslim men in the U.S. would not take a second (or third or fourth) wife even if it were legal. But there might be a few cases in which they would. Should the law permit Muslims to follow the teachings of their religion instead or expecting (forcing) them to live by the teachings of Christianity?

      It has long been legal for people to divorce and remarry, even though such is frowned upon in the New Testament. So should the law also allow for plural marriages, especially for those whose religion sanctions such marriages, in spite of the teachings of the New Testament?

      But if monogamy is really best for individuals, families, and society as a whole, then perhaps polygamy should be opposed not because it is contrary to Christian teachings but because it is contrary to what is best for all concerned.

  2. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson was the first to respond early this morning. He wrote,

    "Once again you invite me to think about a topic in new ways. I need you and others like you to keep my brain working and not just reinforcing past convictions. After reflecting, however, I am comfortable with the absence of protected polygamy. We can work on equality and justice in other more progressive ways in this country."

  3. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard send the following comments a few minutes ago:

    "Thank you for the very interesting comments, Leroy. In the interests of fairness, if polygamy were legalized, then both polyandry (multiple husbands) and polygyny (multiple wives) should be legalized. Of course, the slippery slope here is the possible (perhaps likely) emergence of group marriage, a la the Oneida Community from the 19th century. Do we really want to go that route? Probably not."

    1. Yes, I originally planned to mention polyandry also, but then decided not to make the article any longer. To this point, though, I haven't thought much about group marriage. But I am strongly inclined to agree with your conclusion: we as a society don't want to go that route.

    2. Eric closed his previous comments with what I assume is a joke:

      "On the other hand, if my wife had another husband, I might have more free time. Hmmm...." (!).

  4. Local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman sent this brief comment:

    "What an informative blog, a history that I somehow missed. I resonate with your conclusions."

  5. I think there is probably plenty of room for variation in intimate human relations in a modern secular society. Already we have co-habitation, life-time monogamy, serial monogamy, a great deal of single-hood, and we'll soon have widespread same-sex marriages. I'm not afraid of polygamy (polyandry and polygyny), nor do I fear group marriage. I'm confident that heterosexual monogamy, albeit probably also serial which we already have, would remain the dominant form in the bell-shaped curve of committed intimate human relations. Polygamy and group marriage would have some legal wrinkles that would have to be ironed out, but probably not much more complicated and challenging than our current practices of co-habitation and serial monogamy.

    I'm not sure we could make exceptions for certain religions without making the option available to all, although I think we have some precedent with regard to the Amish; notably public education and perhaps also vehicles.

    I know my wife would be better off with another husband or two. :-D

  6. In the first chapter of "The Refiner's Fire" by John L. Brooke he writes about "Dreams of the Primal Adam" as he looks at Munster and hermeticism as early roots of the Mormons, whose history is the primary subject of the book. I find it interesting that Leroy references the same era at Munster in reviewing the subject of polygamy. Brooke suggests they are connected. Certainly both groups created similar uproar in the surrounding Christian communities.

    What interests me is that the mega-denomination of modern LDS is a recent phenomena. When I was born back in the dark ages there were about 200,000 RLDS (my group) and 800,000 LDS. Today there are about 20 times that many LDS, while still just about 200,000 RLDS, who even gave up on being RLDS, and are now the Community of Christ. Meanwhile, I joined a Baptist church that was in the process of easing out of the Southern Baptist Convention, and now is in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which last I heard was even smaller than the Community of Christ.

    I guess what that has to do with the issue of polygamy is that sometimes we just need to get past what we think we know to explore what we really do not know. As polygamy was practiced in ancient Judah and modern Islam, I am not particularly bothered by it. In both groups most marriages were monogamous, and problems and limits are openly discussed. What does bother me is the cult-style polygamy practiced by the FLDS, where wives and children are poorly educated, and excess sons are cast adrift in an alien world for which they are unprepared.

    In Russia, after the decimation of World War II, there was widespread informal polygamy for the simple reason that there were far more women than men who survived the war. During the 60s there were hippie communes scattered around America, sometimes sporting amazing social arrangements. The world survived both. Perhaps if Christians put more time and effort into sharing the good news, and less into trying to micromanage the private lives of others, the world would be a better place.

  7. It is senseless that we would have it entirely legal for a woman to live with both fathers of her children, but we don't allow her to be legally married to both of them even though that's what all of them want.

    1. To be clear, I support the freedom to marry ALL consenting adults regardless of gender. Polygyny is just ONE form of polygamy.