Eugene England’s Worst Argument Ever (on Plural Marriage)

28 Apr

Jacob J on New Cool Thang penned this response to England’s anti-polygamy article –

I know, we all love Eugene England. You do and I do. Nevertheless, someone needs to point out that the arguments in his famous On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage are not good arguments, and it might as well be me that does it. Twenty years after being published this paper is still influential and gets semi-regular mention in the bloggernacle. The main point of the paper is to argue that there will be no plural marriage in the celestial kingdom. Not for Abraham, not for Brigham Young, and not for your grandpa who was sealed to a second wife after his first wife died.

I don’t have a firm opinion either way as far as this conclusion is concerned. I am not as upset about polygamy as some people are, but I’ll be perfectly happy if Eugene England is correct. My problem with the paper is that I think the arguments he presents are not good arguments. My suspicion is that the arguments frequently get a pass because there are so many people who want the conclusion to be correct that they are not as critical as they would otherwise be. Sometimes I really want a conclusion to be true too, so I know how it feels.

He has two preliminary arguments, then a list of five reasons to disbelieve in celestial polygyny. Let’s take them one by one.

Quote 1: First, we must consider the possibility that polygyny really does not violate fidelity, that if people are good enough they can have trust and sexual wholeness with more than one person. This could well have been true of our polygynous ancestors. Might it be even more likely in the celestial realms where the conditions and our capabilities will be much better than what we know now? I have found that this is the hope and assumption of many, perhaps most, Latter-day Saints who have seriously considered the possibility that they might eventually be required to live in plural marriage. (pg. 143)

England finds two serious problems with this hope.

Problem 1

First, it is based on a dangerous notion: that simply getting more of a good thing is always better—that a great love for one person is even better if extended into great love for many persons.(pg. 144)

This is an obvious (almost embarrassing) straw man. Does anyone believe that the “hope” described in quote 1 is based on the notion that “getting more of a good thing is always better”? Ummm, no. The reason people hold out the hope described is that they believe God commanded Joseph to practice polygamy which would extend into the eternities and they don’t believe the celestial kingdom will be a place of misery. Their hope is based on their faith that God is good and that when they ask for a fish he will not give them a stone.

We observe in the historical record that some plural marriages worked better than others. Some things that seemed to help were an abundance of love and a minimum of selfishness, jealousy, and envy.  Since we believe the celestial kingdom is a place exemplifying these things, it is natural to suppose that polygamy could be more successful there than it is here. Couple this with the some people’s belief that polygamy will exist in the celestial kingdom and the hope described in quote 1 seems very reasonable. Clearly, they could be wrong in believing that polygamy will exist in heaven, but let’s not be silly when we analyze their thought process. They don’t get to their belief by way of the idea that “more of a good thing is always better.”

England’s argument goes on to say that although unconditional love is capable of being multiplied, romantic love is not. His evidence for this is …well… he doesn’t give any evidence. He just states this position dogmatically: “those unique and exclusive extra qualities, which give married love the greatest potential of any relationship, require the fully mutual fidelity only possible between one whole woman and one whole man” (pg. 144, emphasis mine). That is a perfectly fine opinion to hold, but he provides no argument and no evidence in support of this view. He simply states this position as a fact. (Check my work on this. Read page 144 and the first paragraph of 145 and point me to his argument.)

Problem 2

England’s second “serious problem” with the hope in quote 1 is that:

such an expectation can tempt us to love inclusively and superficially—even promiscuously—in this life” (pg. 145).

We can all agree that infidelity and promiscuity in this life are evils which must be condemned and eschewed, but does this really have any bearing on whether or not polygamy will exist in heaven? If the
doctrine of consecration leads some numbskull to be too free with other people’s property, would this be an argument against consecration per se? Of course not.

The meat of his argument on this point comes when he claims that having a superficial relationship is required by the nature of polygyny. His evidence is that when polygyny was practiced in 19th century Utah, “those who lived it best …apparently found they could do so only by making the relationships more superficial—that is, less romantic, less emotionally intense and focused (pg. 146). He gives some
examples and draws on quotes from those who were called to live in polygamy.

Wait a second. Weren’t we considering the possibility that things might work better in the celestial kingdom where people and circumstances are more holy and favorable? Isn’t it possible that the reason people in polygamous relationships had more superficial relationships was precisely because of the earthly limitations that won’t exist in heaven—division of time between wives, jealousy, favoritism, and so forth? Just because someone wrote in 1869 that “a successful polygamous wife must regard her husband with indifference …for love we regard as a false sentiment,” it does not necessarily follow that such an approach is actually required by the nature of polygyny.

I could point to plenty of quotes from women living in polygamy in the same time period who describe polygamy in positive terms and speak of it as a higher law which teaches them to godly virtues. England
would have very legitimate reasons to discount or contextualize such statements, but those reasons usually cut both ways. I am suspicious of arguments on either side of the issue that rely on the public statements of those who lived polygamy to establish the fundamental nature of the practice.

England’s five reasons polygyny is not an eternal principle.

He closes by offering five reasons to believe polygyny is not an eternal principle.

(1) – “A requirement so central and important to our eternal salvation should be firmly grounded in the scriptures, but it is not.” (pg. 147)

I think his best point here is that there is no scriptural evidence that polygyny is required for all of those who are to be the most exalted (pg. 148). However, the lack of a scriptural requirement is not good evidence that Joseph Smith will not be married to his plural wives in heaven. D&C 132:39 clearly implies that David would have received his plural wives in the eternities if he had not sinned. England’s mentions this, but offers no reason to question this obvious reading of verse 39.

Moving on. From a historical standpoint, this complaint is quite unreasonable. We received 99% of our modern day scripture during a time when polygamy was a secret practice. It is strange, then, to come along
and complain that Joseph Smith did not adequately ground polygamy in his canonized revelations. It is beyond dispute that Joseph himself believed that his plural marriages would extend into the eternities. His closest confidants were clearly taught that polygamy existed in the celestial kingdom. Thus, the fact the
doctrine made it into only one canonized revelation is an extremely weak argument against the idea that there will be some amount of polygyny in the celestial kingdom.

(2) – “My second reason for questioning eternal polygyny …is that if polygyny were the highest order of marriage, surely the Lord would want us to practice it whenever and wherever we could on earth. But he does not.” (pg. 150-151)

This argument works equally well (i.e. poorly) as an argument against the law of consecration. I am already far too long, so I won’t elaborate.

(3) – “There is a general Mormon assumption that plural wives who were sealed to polygynists (or are sealed to widowers) are bound in eternal sealings that cannot be broken …But this assumption has been essentially refuted by the modern Church practice, initiated by President David O. McKay, of sometimes sealing a woman to more than one man.” (pg. 151)

This is not an argument for why polygyny is not an eternal principle (as it was advertised to be), but an argument attempting to debunk the reasoning used by believers in celestial polygamy. Even for what it is,
it is not a great argument. It seems obvious to me that David O. McKay’s practice was initiated to deal with cases where we could not tell who to seal someone to because they were all dead and we couldn’t ask them. Sealing the person to both possible spouses with the belief that this would be sorted out on the other side of the veil seems like a perfectly pragmatic thing to do. Thus, I don’t see any reason to believe that the David O. McKay policy refutes the obvious implication of our policy allowing men being sealed to multiple women (but not vice versa). The two policies are more different than they are similar.

(4) – England’s fourth argument is that he does not believe the “popular rationale for polygyny” that “there are and will be more righteous women than men” (pg. 151)

Again, this is not an argument for why polygyny is not an eternal principle (as it was advertised to be). It is only a list of five arguments, c’mon. That said, I agree with him that this popular rationale is a bad one.

(5) – “My fifth reason for believing celestial marriage is not polygynous …is that it seems to me, from reflection and from talking with Mormon women, that the devaluation of women inherent in the expectation of polygyny is destructive of their sense of identity and worth now. (pg. 152)

Once again, he doesn’t give any support for this very controversial statement that the devaluation of women is inherent in polygyny. There is prima facia reason to believe that it is not inherently devaluing to women if God commanded it, so if he is trying to convince me of his position, shouldn’t there be some sort of
argument in support of this statement? Further, his larger point is that if some women feel devalued by the prospect of polygyny, it must not exist in the celestial kingdom. Why don’t we just use this same argument to do away with historical polygyny? If women feel devalued by historical polygyny, it must not have happened, or God must not have commanded it. This is a non-sequitor. If he is saying that we should
choose not to believe in celestial polygamy because we aren’t forced to believe it and it is damaging to our women, then perhaps this is reasonable. However, I don’t see how the reaction of some people to the
idea has anything to do with the truth value of the proposition.


So, there you have it. In general I love Eugene England’s writings, but there is very little I can recommend in this paper. Have at me.


Posted by on April 28, 2008 in Marriage



3 responses to “Eugene England’s Worst Argument Ever (on Plural Marriage)

  1. Geoff J

    November 8, 2008 at 12:55 am

    Why not just link to the post rather than plagiarize the whole thing?

    • mahonri

      April 30, 2009 at 3:48 pm

      I have tried to make it obvious that the thoughts are not my own, and link to those who wrote them.

      I used to find from time to time that old posts would disappear along with the websites they were on, and invaluable research and insightful thoughts were lost forever, so I set this site up just for myself to preserve (what I considered to be) the most interesting comments I came across.

      So this site is really only for me and maybe some interested friends, as a compilation and backup of posts I wanted to have copies of. I would encourage anyone else to read the original blogs.

  2. rachael

    February 20, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    “However, I don’t see how the reaction of some people to the
    idea has anything to do with the truth value of the proposition”— well, only if you don’t believe in a God who embodies principles that we recognize and love. I certainly do, however. So I certainly look to my own intuitive reactions and my spiritual response to a proposition (like Moroni 7 clearly indicates) to know whether something is of God or not.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: