There is no getting around the fact that plural marriage is strange to us today. We are far removed from the common Old Testament practice, in time and circumstance, and if there were any help in our seeing it more clearly it would have to be with the help of individuals living nearer to us. Not unlike Truman G. Madsen’s describing the Prophet Joseph Smith as "a window to Christ" (Jan. 29 at BYU-Idaho's Religious Lecture Series), we have available to us in the lives of the early Saints of the Restoration many windows into plural marriage that allow us to see and understand it so much better than we could from studying the Bible alone. As plural wife Helen Mar Whitney testified, it is “a subject that can bear investigation;” meaning that it holds up to scrutiny.
The book of John teaches that “if any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God” (John 7:17). It necessarily follows that those who have lived the doctrine of plural marriage righteously in the past, under the Lord’s authorized servants, would have the most to offer us by way of knowledge and understanding because God’s law dictates they would have been entitled to that knowledge. We are blessed to have the words and testimonies of the members of the Church, as touching plural marriage, in abundance.
REASON FOR PLURAL MARRIAGE
Brigham Young made the remark: "If we could make every man upon the earth get him a wife, live righteously and serve God, we would not be under the necessity, perhaps, of taking more than one wife.” (Journal of Discourses 16:166) It is reasonable to surmise from some of the statements made by leaders of the Church during the practice of plural marriage that they understood it was at least in part due to the fact that good women had a right to marry an equally good man. “Plural Marriage, as a Biblical principle, we accept from necessity and duty, as a cure for your civilization’s greatest crimes against woman[, as] a stay to the ‘great social evil,’ and to answer the great national problem of ‘surplus women.’” (Benjamin F. Johnson, An Open Letter to the Editor of the Arizona Republican: Mormonism as an Issue)
Eliza R. Snow called upon the women of the Church of her day to defend plural marriage, saying “it is truly woman’s cause – a cause which deeply involves not only her present but her eternal interests.” (BYU Studies, vol. 16, 1975-1976, pg. 260). However, she also recognized that it was for the benefit of the children born into the principle - the pure and noble spirits we hear so much about, waiting to receive a tabernacle through honorable parents – for she said that, besides “tending to individual purity and elevation of character” it was “also instrumental in producing a more perfect type of manhood mentally and physically, as well as restoring human life to its former longetivity.” (Heber C. Kimball, pg. 243)
LAW OF SARAH
"When a man who has a wife, teaches her the law of God, and she refuses to give her consent for him to marry another according to that law, then, it becomes necessary, for her to state before the President the reasons why she withholds her consent; if her reasons are sufficient and justifiable and the husband is found in the fault, or in transgression, then, he is not permitted to take any step in regard to obtaining another. But if the wife can show no good reason why she refuses to comply with the law which was given unto Sarah of old, then it is lawful for her husband, if permitted by revelation through the prophet, to be married to others without her consent, and he will be justified, and she will be condemned, because she did not give them unto him, as Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham, and as Rachel and Leah gave Bilhah and Zilpah to their husband, Jacob." (Orson Pratt, The Seer, Vol.1, No.3, p.41)
Probably the clause pertaining to plural marriage that offers the fewest “warm fuzzies” is the Law of Sarah. It is easy to come away from reading about it with the impression that the woman is utterly powerless. Not so. She is just as powerful as any, man or woman, in the face of circumstances that cannot be altered; she reigns sovereign over her own soul and can choose whether or not a set of conditions leads her to be refined and made fit for glory, or cause her to dwindle and perish. Add to that the vast influence she wields over the souls of her children, who could be persuaded by her.
We could not do better than to follow the example of Sarah Leavitt, who was present during the early Nauvoo period. “It was whispered in my ear by a friend that the church authorities were getting more wives than one. I have thought for many years that the connections between man and wife were as sacred as the heavens and ought to be treated as such, and I thought that the anointed of the Lord would not get more wives unless they were commanded to do so. But still I wanted a knowledge of the truth for myself. I asked my husband if he did not think we could get a revelation for ourselves on that subject. He said he did not know. After we went to bed I lay pondering it over in my mind. I said, "You know, Lord, that I have been a faithful and true wife to my husband, and you know how much I love him, and must I sacrifice him?" The answer was, "No."
And then my mind was carried away from the earth and I had a view of the order of the celestial kingdom. I saw that was the order there and oh, how beautiful. I was filled with love and joy that was unspeakable. I awoke my husband and told him of the views I had and that the ordinance was from the Lord, but it would damn thousands. It was too sacred for fools to handle, for they would use it to gratify their lustful desires. How thankful we ought to be that we live in a day when we can know the will of God concerning our duty…The honest in heart that seek the Lord in faith will obtain all the knowledge needful for their salvation. I have seen so much wrong connected with this ordinance that had I not had it revealed to me from Him that cannot lie, I should sometimes have doubted the truth of it, but there has never a doubt crossed my mind concerning the truth of it since the Lord made it known to me by a heavenly vision.” (History of Sarah Studevant Leavitt, Autobiography)