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In 1831, a Church founder by the name of Joseph Smith questioned the traditional Old Testament practice of having more than one spouse. This caused people to reconsider reestablishing this practice once again. 60 years later, Wilford Woodruff, a president of the church at the time, received a “revelation” in which God commanded his followers to end the practice of plural marriage. He issued a written document similar to Adolf Hitler’s “manifesto” to other members of the church and the entire public that demanded this practice be stopped. Today, members of the church respect the “sacrifices made” by those who at one point have ever practice polygamy, before Woodruff declared it was no longer permitted. However, the practice is still banned to this day, and no person may have more than one spouse and still be a member. Thus, those that practice polygamy today and some of their organizations in the Western United States are no longer members of the Church of Jesus Christ despite the fact that the term “Mormon” is occasionally associated with them. Because of this association, monogamy is revealed to be in the book of Mormon as the custom of the Lord’s people unless He reveals otherwise. Modern-day Saints believe the brief time many members of the church practiced some form of polygamy was one of the exceptions to this rule because it was not revealed yet that it was not what He wanted.
While polygamy is illegal in most modern societies today, in precolonial and hunter-gatherer societies, it was a common practice and was attempted to establish alliances between families. This was because it “increased the household size and labor power because it enhanced the ability of high ranking heads of households to organize exchanges and increased the size and competitive advantage of the descent group.” Most polygamous marriages now are formed because of the father’s desire to have more kids, but polyandrous marriages also existed centuries ago in India and Nepal. The women in these arrangements have multiple husbands and are significantly less popular because the amount of kids the woman can have is limited just as it is in monogamous marriages. Matrilineal descent has only ever existed in Native American societies, most notably the Cherokee tribe. In these societies, children are considered to belong to the women and their kinship is traced to their mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. While polyandry is uncommon, polygamy as a whole is still widely practiced.
Polygamy is “the act of being married to more than one person at a time,” and from there it is split into two branches. One is polygyny, much more common and more widely accepted because the man is married to multiple wives. The other has not been around for centuries, called polyandry, in which the woman is married to multiple husbands. According to the textbook, matrilineal descent is “when inheritance and family ties are traced to the women in the family”. Polyandrous relationships arose only in about a dozen cultures and mostly take the form of fraternal polyandry, or when the husbands are related, whether that be as siblings or as father and son. The cause of this arrangement is not clear but may be due to the need to support the availability of scarce resources such as land inherited by the brothers under the charge of a single household.
The countries that contain polygamous traditionalists and support this practice are within a Muslim majority or a large Muslim minority. In some, such as in India, polygamy is legal only for Muslims. This society is not unlike others in that many want to practice this tradition, but do not because it is illegal. Many sources claim that “seventy-five percent of the world’s societies prefer polygamy. Preference, however, does not necessarily translate to practice, because the number of men and women of marriageable age in most cultures is about the same, meaning that there are rarely more than a few extra women available as second or third wives”. Also, an issue with polygamy is that it is dying out because most that are allowed to practice it can not afford it. Therefore, monogamy is by far the norm in strictly religious Muslim countries because they can not maintain more than one family, and many who can would rather not spend their money on multiple spouses.
Because of the excessive costs, having multiple spouses has decreased significantly and yet is practiced still in some Muslim countries and parts of Africa. In these societies, such as the Mormon Latter Day Saints or Arabic-speaking Muslim societies, polygyny is indicative of a man’s wealth or heightened social status. Also, jealousy is a serious threat to the polygamous lifestyle. In sororal polygyny, sisters become co-wives because society believes that since they have grown up together, they will get along and cooperate better. In societies where the co-wives are nonsororal, cowives often establish their own living quarters or households. However, polygyny was advantageous in societies where pregnancy dictated sexual abstinence. Where postpartum sex taboos existed, new mothers were required to abstain until the child was weaned from the mother’s breast. Sociobiologists, to back up this point, have explained the widespread institution of polygyny in terms of the differences in male and female reproductive strategies. Pregnancy involves a much greater investment than male insemination. Men have evolved a desire for sexual access to a large number of women, whereas natural selection predisposes women to assess men as potential providers and for the quality of their genes. For all these reasons, polygyny has been widely distributed in human societies through prehistory and recorded history. This practice occurred in 83.5% of a large sample of modern societies, although monogamous unions were 2.5 times more frequent than polygynous unions. Its occurrence has been reported in pre-colonial South America, Africa, Polynesia, and Australia. Polygyny was practiced in ancient Hebrew society and accepted in Islamic societies. It was not officially permitted, however, in ancient Greece or Rome, or in Christian societies, with the exception of early Mormonism.
Many advantages and disadvantages have been highlighted, specifically the protection of a family’s wealth and land, but the arguments for are outdated, and explain the reason why polygamy is dying out. Especially because the practice is illegal for many countries around the world, and the birth rate of many women is a lot smaller than before. During the hunter-gatherer and agricultural time periods, people need more kids for jobs and during the industrial revolution they did not. Although these families still exist in only certain parts of the world, those who practice this custom are a large part of our history and society today. These fundamentalists practice polygamy because they are sticking to their traditions and values while conceiving as many children as physically possible. Although in many places polygamy is very much the minority, in some countries, it is still very much alive and well.
- Birx, H. J., & Birx, H. J. (2006). Encyclopedia of anthropology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Burton, N. (2018, January 4). The Pros and Cons of Polygamy. Retrieved April 24, 2019, from https://www.pschologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201801/the-pros-and-cons-polygamy
- Mcgraw-Hill. (2007). Sociology and you. Place of publication not identified: Glencoe Mcgraw-Hill Schoo.
- Polygamy. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2019, from https://www.mormannewsroom.org/topic/polygamy
- Ponzetti, J. J. (1995). International encyclopedia of marriage and family. New-York: Macmillan Reference USA.
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