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If polygamy became legal in this country, would the LDS Church, which abandoned it in 1890, embrace it again?
After all, some say, it remains part of Mormon doctrine, enshrined in LDS scripture, and many Latter-day Saints believe it will exist in the afterlife. Even the late Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that the "holy practice" would resume after Jesus Christ's Second Coming.
But Brigham Young University political science professor Valerie Hudson challenges all those assertions about polygamy's future on Earth and in heaven.
Hudson sees an urgency in confronting these notions because she predicts the United States will, within a decade, allow same-sex marriage, polygamy, polyandry and all kinds of relationships among consenting adults.
So it's time, she says, for Mormons "to come to grips with the whole doctrinal mess."
The LDS Church has posted on its website, lds.org, several statements about its historical practice of polygamy, but declined to comment on polygamy's future on Earth or in an afterlife.
Hudson explored the topic during a speech this month at the annual FAIR conference for Mormon apologists in Sandy and in a phone interview.
Any discussion must begin with Mormon doctrine, not just so-called cultural doctrine or folk beliefs. Thus, Hudson limits her analysis to LDS scripture, most notably Doctrine and Covenants Section 132.
These passages, considered a divine revelation to Mormon founder Joseph Smith recorded in 1843, spell out many of the faith's beliefs about marriage. Such unions between a man and a woman, the LDS prophet declared, were not just for this life, but for eternity.
In the section's second half, however, Smith describes plural marriage but introduces it with a discussion of the biblical patriarch Abraham and his two wives, Sarah and Hagar, who together were able to produce a vast posterity.
"Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation [for having plural wives]?" verse 35 asks. "Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it."
Then next passage mentions God's mandate that Abraham kill his son Isaac.
"God wishes us to see how and why he views the two situations as analogous," Hudson said in her speech. "The Lord is telling us that the term 'Abrahamic sacrifice' refers not only to the story of Isaac but applies to the story of Hagar, as well."
In the story of Isaac, God asks Abraham to depart from the law against killing. In the end, an angel stays Abraham's hand, Hudson says, relieving him from an "exceptional commandment."
God does not then change the rule and say it's now OK to kill.
Likewise, Mormon polygamy was an exception to the eternal principle of monogamy, she says, and it was removed when the sacrifice no longer was necessary.
This interpretation helps explain why the Utah-based faith does not baptize polygamists even in countries where plural marriage is legal. And, she says, it "casts doubt on the widespread nondoctrinal belief among Mountain West Latter-day Saints that God will command the Saints to practice polygamy again before the Second Coming."
Hudson says this view also should debunk the notion that polygamy will be the form of married life in the eternities.
Even McConkie, in his encyclopedic Mormon Doctrine, writes that plural marriage "is not essential to salvation or exaltation."
But what about the fact that, even today, Mormon men can marry more than once for eternity in an LDS temple ritual, but women can marry only one man?
That, Hudson quips, is "a vestige of androcentric [male-centered] understanding of the sealing order of the temple."
She notes that deceased women can also be sealed to more than one husband, but has no comment on those arrangements beyond this: "If polygamy is truly an Abrahamic sacrifice, it is clear no one can be required to practice it in the Celestial Kingdom [the highest Mormon heaven]."
Persistent beliefs about the return of polygamy or plural marriage in the afterlife, she adds, have had many negative consequences in the here and now.
Hudson knows Mormon men afflicted with what she calls "celestial lust." They spend time figuring out how many wives they will have in the next life and LDS women who say they don't want to go to heaven or be married in the temple because of the possibility of polygamy.
The late Mormon teacher and writer, Eugene England, came to similar conclusions about contemporary fallout from believing in future polygamy and about the church's 19th-century practice.
The prospect of heavenly polygamy "seems to diminish women," England wrote in a 1987 essay, On Fidelity, Polygamy and Celestial Marriage, "reducing them, in some essential way, to less than full equivalence with men."
It is both possible and "spiritually healing," England concluded to "affirm our [polygamous] ancestors for their obedient sacrifices and courageous achievements ... and yet to reject the expectation of future [polygamy]."