As Joseph Smith secretly introduced plural marriage among the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois in the 1840s, he simultaneously presented a theological foundation to explain and justify the practice. Doctrine and Covenants section 132, recorded on July 12, 1843, contains at least four reasons explaining why plurality could be introduced into the Church at that time. These reasons are discussed here.
Somewhat surprisingly, the primary focus of section 132 is not actually polygamy. The revelation encompasses a much larger view than simply describing how a man on earth might marry multiple wives.
Instead, Joseph described eternal couples and eternal families in the celestial heaven — his zenith teaching. His expanding revelations and instructions spoke of how a worthy monogamous couple could gain exaltation and godhood if sealed by proper authority (vv.19–20). He detailed a newly restored priesthood authority that could reach beyond the veil of death to seal relationships together forever.
For well over a century, the impressiveness of the Prophet’s salvific teachings have been largely lost on both believers and unbelievers. Though not unexpected, polygamy as a practice and principle has garnered virtually all of the attention.
The public’s fascination with polygamy both then and now is understandable, but unfortunate. Plural marriage involves sex and religion, “hot button” topics for the media in any era.
Plural marriage was also unsettling for nearly all Mormons. Products of the monogamous culture of the time, Church members too had to overcome the same social discomfiture that formed the bedrock of Christian matrimonial tradition.
To most observers, polygamy quickly became the alpha and omega of Joseph Smith’s teachings. Religionists of the day could possibly ignore the Book of Mormon, biblical revisions, and doctrines like premortality. But when Joseph’s instructions required polygamy, tolerance quickly drained to zero.
Societal resistance against the practice of plural marriage mounted in 1842 and never relented. Lost in the shuffle were the doctrines that surrounded and transcended plurality.
Our discussion on this website will be limited to specific aspects of Joseph’s teachings dealing with plural marriage. But readers are encouraged to study and understand the broader doctrine known as the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.