I was very surprised. Sister Price was known not only for her dynamic, superbly organized Relief Society lessons, she was also a voice of authority in the ward. People rarely questioned her on points of doctrine or opposed her opinions.
Sister Price meticulously prepared each lesson. Being a scriptorian and a Church history buff, she was an extremely confident instructor.
Nonetheless, her lesson on the Church’s earlier practice of polygamy wasn’t going over well. Despite Sister Price’s learned explanation that plural marriage had been sanctioned by God in Old and New Testament times as well as in the early days of this dispensation—and is perhaps destined to be part of the order of the hereafter—not one soul in our Relief Society seemed ready to embrace it today.
“Will is a good husband,” Eliza announced to the class, “but he can barely keep up with me. Besides, on this point I’m selfish. I don’t want to share him with anyone.” Heads bobbed in agreement.
Normally, I shy away from controversy. Today, however, I sensed Sister Price was headed for trouble and decided to help her cause as best I could.
“This may surprise many of you,” I offered, “but I can see some very good points to polygamy,” Before the shocked silence evaporated, I rushed to explain. “Polygamy meant that some wives were free to pursue careers while sister wives took care of the domestic responsibilities. And today single women in the Church far outnumber the men.”
The silence was slowly dissolving into whispers of concern. Undaunted, I continued.
“But like you, I would hate to share a husband with another wife. What I’m really in favor of is polyandry—you know, multiple husbands.”
“You see,” I explained, “One of the reasons I’m still single is that I can’t find the perfect man to marry. But if I had the option of marrying two half-perfect men, or four quarter-perfect . . . things would really open up.”
“Polyandry would certainly help me,” Kate said. “I just can’t decide between Don, Roy, and Lee. If I could just marry all three. . . .”
The discomfort on Sister Price’s face was beginning to soften. This was a topic on which she was prepared to shed light. “It isn’t very well known,” she said, “but polyandry was practiced in a limited fashion when the Saints were in Nauvoo.”
“Several women who practiced polyandry remained with their first husband,” she continued. “Many of these women were plural wives to their second husband. Mary Elizabeth Rollins became a plural wife to Joseph Smith while she was married to a non-member, Adam Lightner. Nancy Marinda Johnson was married to both Orson Hyde and Joseph Smith.
“Zina D. Huntington was married to both Henry B. Jacobs and Joseph Smith. Henry didn’t mind too much as Zina continued to live with him. But on the way to Utah, Brigham Young sent Henry on a mission and decided Zina should join his plural wives. Henry was so heartbroken that I only hope he is with Zina in the hereafter. Sisters, can you imagine having a name as long as Zina’s? Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young.”
Sister Price’s face saddened. “Overall, the practice of polyandry wasn’t very successful. Henry Jacobs and others suffered great emotional turmoil over sharing their wives with another man. One polyandrous husband, Hector McLean, actually murdered his wife Elenore’s other husband, Parley P. Pratt. It appears that Elenore intended to divorce Hector, but Hector took his anger out on Parley.”
“It may have been a signaling problem,” I suggested. “There needs to be a way for each husband to signal to the others that the home is occupied. I’ve read that in some Maserabi cultures, a husband leaves his spear outside the entrance to the dung hut.”
Jenny suddenly brightened up; she had recently taken an anthropology class on comparative marriage and family structure. “It’s true,” she said. “A spear or a shield outside the hut lets the other husbands know it’s best to find another place to sleep. In Central Asia, the Mimions tied their horse near the front door as a signal. The Htimsams simply tethered a goat to fend off the other husbands.”
“Thank you, Jenny, I had no idea. Perhaps my next undertaking will be anthropology,” Sister Price said, smiling. “Unfortunately, I don’t think many of our husbands have access to spears, shields, horses, or goats.”
“Perhaps they could leave their scriptures or priesthood manual on the porch,” Eliza suggested.
“What about a tie?” Kate offered.
Beth had the best idea. “Car keys would work well,” she said. “That way while one is home the other could use the car. A Porsche would keep everyone happy,” she beamed.
“I can see the possibilities,” said Sarah. “Dan is a terrific provider and father, but sometimes I feel like I could use another husband who would go with me to the opera and ballet.”
Sister Price started to make a list on the blackboard. “Okay, sisters. One husband to provide financially, one who is good with kids, one for the arts . . . don’t make me write this list alone.”
Hands shot up. Everyone had something to offer. The number of husbands “needed” varied with each woman’s interests and activities.
“Someone handy around the house,” said Susan. “Two husbands would be plenty for me.”
“One who likes to travel,” Linda urged. “Perhaps one for each continent. Hmm, I guess seven or eight for me.”
Shauna suggested one husband who cooks and another who cleans.
“Are there men who truly enjoy shopping?” asked Eliza.
“Don’t forget religion,” Carolyn said. “One husband to go to church with; the others could be non-Mormons.”
That’s one of the benefits of polyandry I hadn’t fully considered. I could marry one of the reluctant, commitment-cautious Mormon men I know, who might well prefer a part-time marriage, then add a more suitable all-season mate from the world.
Polyandry would also be beneficial for our same-sex-attracted brethren in search of an understanding woman to marry. They are men whose creativity and sensitivity I adore, but, for obvious reasons, would never consider for anything beyond friendship. A polyandrous marriage could ensure that the afflicted brother will qualify for exaltation without placing an undue burden on his wife.
By the time the lesson was over, it appeared that even though no one wanted another wife around the house, everyone recognized the advantages of having another husband or two. Especially if he were good at . . . aaah . . . uhh . . . umm . . .
Sister Price was radiant by the end of the lesson. “Sisters, I usually claim to learn more preparing a lesson than receiving one. But today, I learned a great deal teaching this one. Just to end on a scriptural note, it might seem that verse 63 of section 132 in the Doctrine and Covenants is a prohibition against polyandry. But, don’t forget, we do believe in continuing revelation.”
The smile on Sister Price’s face made me wonder just who she had in mind for her plural husbands. Only time will tell,
Miriam A. Smith
San Francisco, California
Note: All names have been changed to protect the innocent. In fact, this lesson never actually took place—really, Bishop, I promise.