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The History and Philosophy of Marriage   [ Menu ]

The History and Philosophy of Marriage

Chapter 4
Origin of Polygamy


Having thus fulfilled my promise to analyze and demonstrate

the fundamental laws of love and marriage, I shall now

attempt, with equal candor and simplicity, to trace the

origin and indicate the moral characteristics of the two

social systems of monogamy and polygamy, and to apply to them

the same tests of philosophical analysis and comparison. And

here allow me again to say that it is necessary to arm

ourselves with patient candor, or we cannot appreciate the

truth and justice of any fair analysis of these systems. As

we have been brought up under the system of monogamy, we have

inherited the prejudices of that system; and, having been

taught to look upon the opposite one with detestation and

contempt, we are, on that account, but ill qualified to judge

between them.

Page 58

Let us remember that, whether our prejudices are right or

wrong, they are prejudices only. We have not stopped to

reason; we have been content to cherish our opinions on this

subject without examination and without reason. We have

always accustomed ourselves to believe that polygamy

originated in barbarism; that it is perpetuated by barbarians

only, and that it panders to the basest and most depraved of

human passions. But let us now think for ourselves. For

one, I claim that right. I dare to question the superior

purity of monogamy; and on behalf of the despised and

persecuted system of polygamy, I venture to appeal from the

rash decisions of prejudice to the solemn tribunals of divine

and natural law; and in support of this appeal I cite the

facts of sacred and profane history, and plead the

inalienable rights of man.


If European monogamists have hitherto surpassed all other

men in civilization and social happiness, it is not on

account of their monogamy, but, no doubt, on account of their

Christianity. Even a perverted Christianity, a corrupted


Page 59

tianity, a Roman Christianity, is better than idolatry or

Mohammedanism. What, then, may we not hope when Christianity

shall become free and pure, and restored to its pristine

simplicity and glory?

An idolatrous nation practising monogamy has never been able

long to exist. History does not furnish one example. Such

nations soon become so incurably corrupt as to incur the

wrath of God, and are swept from the face of the earth.

Neither civilization nor barbarism; military power or

pusillanimity: tyranny or freedom; monarchy, aristocracy, or

democracy; literature, art, wealth, genius, or stupidity has

ever been able to save them. Many such States and nations

have started in the race of glory and perpetual empire; but

each of them has come to premature decay. Such were the

different States of ancient Greece and ancient Italy, many of

them distinguished for having produced men of the most

brilliant genius and the most renowned experience in the

various arts of peace and war, and several of them achieving

extensive conquests and becoming vast empires; yet they very

soon collapsed and went to ruin. And such was the fate of


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many scores or perhaps hundreds of the petty States of all

Europe before the establishment of Christianity. They rose,

they flourished, they became licentious, they fell. Wave

after wave of the purer races of the polygamists of Asia

rolled over them, and assumed their places; and as these, in

turn, fell into their social habits, and adopted their

monogamy, and became corrupt, they also became extinct, and

were succeeded by newer and purer immigrations. On the other

hand, the polygamists of Asia have preserved their social

purity, and along with it many of their nationalities,

through every age, notwithstanding their idolatry and

Mohammedanism. Such are the nations of China, Japan, Persia,

and Arabia, whose living languages and existing laws date

back to the very earliest records of antiquity. An

intelligent Christian nation practising polygamy has never

yet existed, simply because the two institutions have

hitherto been falsely deemed incompatible and irreconcilable.

The Gnostic heresy had so soon corrupted the springs of

Christian learning, and the Grecian and Roman hierarchies had

so soon usurped the seats of Christian authority, that the

freedom and simplicity of the pristine

Page 61

faith were perverted, even before such an experiment could be

made, as I shall fully demonstrate in the next chapter; and

now it is most probable that if such an experiment shall

ever be made, it will be somewhere upon the continent of

free America.

"Westward the course of empire takes its way;

The four first acts already past,

A fifth shall close the drama with the day,-

Time's noblest offspring is the last."

Polygamy is not barbarism, for it has been maintained and

supported by such men as Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon;

whose superiors in all that constitute the highest

civilization - knowledge, piety, wisdom, and refinement of

mind and manners - the world has never known, either in

ancient or modern times. Yet polygamy, though it be not

barbarism, has almost always and everywhere prevailed, where

a simple, natural, and inartificial state of society

subsists. Its origin is coeval with that of the human race.

It is mentioned before the flood. It is mentioned soon after

the flood. As soon as mankind were multiplied upon the

earth, it was discovered that the number

Page 62

of the women exceeded that of the men; and also that the

amorous passions of the men were stronger than those of the

women. Polygamy brings both these inequalities together, and

allows them to correct each other. It furnishes every woman

who wishes to marry, a husband and a home; and gives every

man an opportunity of expending his superabundant vitality in

an honest way.


If it be objected that God created but one woman for Adam, it

is sufficient answer to reply, that both the man and the

woman were also created perfect. They were perfect in

health, and perfect in morals. But we are now imperfect in

both respects; and we now need a social system adapted to men

and women as they are. If humanity shall ever be restored to

its pristine strength and beauty, the [numerical] equality of

the sexes will also be restored, and there will be a man for

every woman, and a woman for every man; a true woman without

imperfection, whose accomplishments will not be superficial;

but whose rosy cheeks and pearly teeth and swelling breasts

and clustering

Page 63

ringlets shall be all her own. God speed the day! Should I

live to see it, I would become an advocate for monogamy.

But, as it now is, there is not a man for every woman; and

either some women must remain unmarried and "waste their

sweetness on the desert air," and be entirely deprived of

their birthright, and denied all matrimonial advantages, or

they may, several of them, agree to share those advantages in

common with each other, by having a single husband between

them. Polygamy does not compel them to do this: it only

permits them to do it in case they have no opportunity to do

better. On the other hand, it does not compel a man to marry

even one woman, much less to have more; but, if the intensity

of his passion urges him to such lengths that he must have

and will have more than one, it requires him to take them

honestly and honorably, and to support them and be a true

husband to them.


The Sacred Scriptures represent the wisest and best men that

ever lived, as practising polygamy with the divine blessing

and approval. David had

Page 64

seven wives before he reigned in Jerusalem, "and he took more

concubines and wives out of Jerusalem, after he was come from

Hebron," for God "gave him the house of Saul and the wives of

Saul into his bosom."*1 When God reproved Abimelech, king

of Gerar, for his intended adultery with, Sarah, wife of

Abraham, he did, at the same time, approve of his polygamy;

for Abimelech said, "In the integrity of my heart and

innocency of my hands have I done this." "Said he not unto

me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself, said, He is

my brother." And God said, "I know that thou didst this in

the integrity of thy heart:" "now, therefore, restore the man

his wife." "And God healed Abimelech and his wife and his

maid-servants." God could allow him to live in open polygamy,

without reproof, and "in the integrity of his heart," but

could not allow him to commit adultery, even ignorantly.*2

Solomon was reproved for multiplying the number of his wives

to an unreasonable and ostentatious degree, but more

especially for having taken them

Page 65

from heathen nations; for "they turned away his heart after

other gods:" but these are the only reasons assigned for his

reproof, there being no intimation that polygamy was wrong in

itself. But it is unnecessary to cite other examples from

the Bible. No one familiar with that book has ever denied

that polygamy is taught in the Old Testament, and yet most

Christians suppose it to be forbidden in the New. Have we

any right to such a supposition? Are we right in entertaining

any supposition on this subject? If it is forbidden in the

New Testament, have we not a right to demand the most

unequivocal and undoubted proofs of such prohibition? Is the

God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob the Christian's God, or is

he not? Is it possible that this supposition is an error?

And, if it be an error, is it not possible that it has been

one means of lessening our reverence for the Old Testament,

and thereby undermining our confidence in the Bible as a

whole? If this supposition be an error, has it not been

tending to make infidels of us all? I copy the following

paragraph from an essay of the Rev. S. W. Foljambe, recently

delivered by him, at a Sabbath-

Page 66

school Teachers' Convention at Boston, with my most hearty


"It is sad to believe that infidelity in some form prevails

throughout our State, yet we cannot doubt that it is even so,

generally covert with an outward profession of regard for

Christianity, but nevertheless real, accompanied by a

disregard and disbelief of the scriptures of the Old and New

Testaments. I refer to this not as any proof that

Protestantism or Christianity is or can be a failure, or that

the Scriptures are in any real danger, but as indicating a

responsibility resting on us to maintain and defend the equal

authority and inspiration of the Holy Scriptures; that "all

scripture is given by inspiratation of God;" that its

writers, whether Moses or David, Isaiah or Paul, Ezekiel or

John, were 'holy men of God who wrote as they were moved by

the Holy Ghost.' Is it not true, that, among many who hold to

the truth and reality of a divine revelation, there has come

to be a feeling that in some way the New Testament has

superseded the Old, and that the Old has ceased to be

'profitable for doctrine, for correction, for reproof, for

instruction in righteous-

Page 67

ness'? Now, if this can be demonstrated, what is there to

prove that in a still more advanced stage of spiritual life,

as is claimed by many, the New Testament itself may not be

superseded by some wiser interpretations of the meaning and

purpose of Christ's life, and the Gospels of Matthew and of

John be superseded by the gospel of Strauss or Renan; or the

interpretations of Paul as to the person and work of Christ

be superseded by the interpretation of Parker and of Music


"It seems to me that our Lord is explicit on this point, that

the Jewish Scriptures were not and could not be superseded by

any later revelation even by himself: 'Think not that I am

come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to

destroy, but to fulfil;' and again- 'Had ye believed Moses,

ye would have believed me, for he wrote of me;' and he is

continually quoting them as authority, showing that there is

no inconsistency between the two revelations. Together they

form one continuous and connected divine word. True, the

Scriptures are composed of books that are cumulative and

progressive, but they are interdependent. The internal

meaning of the two parts

Page 68

is entirely harmonious. The divine Spirit is in the both.

they never contradict, but always interpret, explain, and

illustrate other."

But let the inspiration and perpetual authority of the Old

Testament be fully admitted, yet the modern Christian may

say, "We do not live under the First Covenant, nor observe

the ceremonies of Moses; but we live in the New

Dispensation, under the full light of the gospel: Christ has

fulfilled the ritual and emblematical ordinances of the law,

and set them aside; and it is presumed that the ancient

marriage laws have been set aside among the rest, and

superseded by the purer system of monogamy." But this

assumption cannot be supported either by sufficient testimony

or by valid reasoning. The social system of polygamy had

existed before the time of Moses, and had no dependence upon

the ceremonial law which was instituted in his day. That law

only confirmed it as a pre-existent institution. Marriage

laws cannot be regarded as merely ritual and emblematical:

they are moral and fundamental, guarding the dearest rights

and punishing the deepest wrongs of mankind. They are,

therefore, equally permanent with those laws

Page 69

protecting life and property, those inculcating obedience to

parents and rulers, and those maintaining the sanctity of

oaths. All these, together with the marriage laws, existed

before the time of Moses, and have survived the time of

Christ. They are among those "laws" that Jesus came not to

subvert but to ratify; as Dr. George Campbell of Edinburgh,

has in Matt. v. 17, very exactly translated the terms [from

Greek: kataluo and pleroo as subvert and ratify]. Hence the

marriage system of polygamy never formed a part of that

ceremonial dispensation which was abrogated by the New

Testament; nor has it ever been proved that the New Testament

was designed to affect any change in it; but the presumption

is that this new dispensation has also left it, as it found

it,- abiding still in force, If any change were to be made in

an institution of such long standing, confirmed by positive

law, it could obviously be made only by equally positive and

explicit ordinances or enactments of the gospel. But such

enactments are wanting. Christ himself was altogether

silent in respects to polygamy, not once alluding to it; yet

it was practised at the time of his advent throughout Judaea

and Galilee, and in all the other countries

Page 70

of Asia and Africa, and, without doubt, by some of his own


The Book of the Acts is equally silent as the four Gospels

are. No allusion to it is found in any of the sermons or

instructions or discussions of the apostles and early saints

recorded in that book. It was not because Jesus or the

apostles durst not condemn it, had they considered it

sinful, that they did not speak of it, for Jesus hesitated

not to denounce the sins of hypocrisy, covetousness, and

adultery, and even to alter and amend, apparently, the

ancient laws respecting divorce and retaliation; but he never

rebuked them for their polygamy, nor instituted any change in

that system. And this uniform silence, so far as it implies

any thing, implies approval. John the Baptist was thrown

into prison, where he was afterwards beheaded, for reproving

King Herod on account of his adultery: and we cannot doubt,

that, if he had considered polygamy to be sinful, he would

have mentioned it; for Herod's father was, just before that

time, living with nine wives, whose names are recorded by

Josephus, in his "Antiquities of the Jews;"*3

Page 71

but John only reproved him for marrying Herodias, his brother

Philip's wife, while his brother was living. He

administered the same reproof to Herod that Nathan had

formerly done to David, and for similar reasons. The

apostles always denounced the sins of fornication and

adultery, but never denounced polygamy, nor intimated in any

way that it was a sin. In all the long and painful

catalogues of sins enumerated in the first, second and third

chapters of Romans, many of which relate to the unlawful

indulgence of the amorous propensities, polygamy is not once

named. It is the very place where it is morally certain

that it would have been named if it were sinful; and, that it

is not there named, we are fully warranted to believe that it

is not sinful.


The only portions of the Sacred Writings which seem to

disapprove of polygamy are found in the epistles of Paul

concerning the qualifications of bishops and deacons. These

passages have been variously interpreted by various

commentators. Some suppose that it forbids

Page 72

these officers of the church from contracting a second

marriage after the death of the first wife; others that

forbids any but married persons being inducted into these

sacred offices - that they must be the husbands of one wife,

at least, - but that it does not forbid them taking more. But

the commonly received opinion, and the one to which I am

myself inclined, is, that in choosing men for these offices,

such men should be chosen who are not much inclined to

amorous pleasures, and each of whom has one wife only. They

should be men of peculiar temperance and sobriety. This

implies that polygamy was still practised in the primitive

Christian churches; for otherwise it would have been

superfluous and irrelevant to mention this as a special

qualification in a candidate for one of those offices. And

even this recommendation applies only to candidates, and not

to those who have been already ordained. In confirmation of

these views I here cite the authority of James McKnight,

D.D., one of the most learned commentators on the New


"As the Asiatic nations universally practised

Page 73

polygamy, from an inordinate love of the pleasures of the

flesh, the apostle ordered, by inspiration, that none should

be made bishops but those, who, by avoiding polygamy, had

showed themselves temperate in the use of sensual pleasures.

. . . It may be objected, perhaps, that the gospel ought to

have prohibited the people, as well as the ministers of

religion, from polygamy and divorce, if these things were

morally evil. As to divorce, the answer is, all, both clergy

and people, were restrained from unjust divorces by the

precept of Christ. With respect to polygamy being an offense

against political prudence, rather than against morality, it

had been permitted to the Jews by Moses, and was generally

practised by the Eastern nations as a matter of indifferency;

it was, therefore, to be corrected mildly and gradually, by

example rather than by express precept, without occasioning

those domestic troubles and causeless divorces which must

necessarily have ensued, if, by an express injunction of the

apostles, husbands, immediately on their becoming

Christians, had been obliged to put away all their wives

except one." - Commentary on 1 Tim. iii. 2.

Page 74

This testimony is specially valuable as being extorted, by

the force of truth, from an avowed advocate of monogamy.

Although it is highly colored by that system, yet these four

points are distinctly admitted.

1. That polygamy was commonly practised by the primitive


2. That it had been expressly permitted in the Old


3. That it was not prohibited in the New Testament.

4. That it was from political and prudential considerations,

and not from any immorality in it, that candidates for the

ministry were recommended to abstain from it.

Hence, we conclude that this recommendation of the apostle

was made out of respect to the prejudices of the Greeks and

Romans, under whose laws they were then living, and who

practised a corrupt licentious monogamy, which I shall

describe in the next chapter. It was doubtless for similar

reasons that the same apostle recommended to the Corinthian

Christians not to marry; but no one except a Shaking Quaker

or a Roman Catholic can believe that such a recommendation

was intended to apply to all persons, at all times and

places, or that it was proper then, on any

Page 75

other ground than the notorious corruption of Corinthian

morals. See Appendix, page 253.

Now polygamy is either right or wrong. If it is wrong, it is

contrary to the will of God. If it is contrary to the will

of God now, it always has been, ever since the fall of man;

for God has not changed, human nature has not changed, and

the mutual relation of the sexes has not changed. If it is

contrary to the divine will, God would certainly have

expressed decided disapprobation of it in his word, and

denounced those who practised it. But on the contrary, it

was, by the Mosaic law, expressly sanctioned, and, under

certain circumstances, expressly commanded, as fully appears

from Deut. xxii. 28, and xxv. 5. In the former passage it

was commanded that if any man (whether married or unmarried)

had had illicit intercourse with an unbetrothed virgin, then

he must marry her, and must not put her away all his life. In

the other passage it was commanded that when a married man

died without issue, his brother must marry his widow. And

this command is positive, whether the surviving brother have

a wife already, or not; and even if several

Page 76

such married brothers should die, and leave no offspring, the

surviving brother would be obliged, by this law, to marry

all the widows; and in each case, the first-born children

would succeed to the inheritances of their mothers' first

husbands, but the younger children would belong to their own

father. This was a law in Israel long before the ceremonial

law of Moses, as we learn from the 38th chapter of Genesis,

where it is stated that Onan the son of Judah was required to

marry the widow of his brother Er, and because he took a

wicked course to prevent having offspring by her, he was put

to death by the immediate act of God. The entire Book of

Ruth, also, constitutes a beautiful illustration and

commentary of this ancient law; and it is mentioned in the

New Testament in such terms as to imply that it was still in

force in the time of Christ (Matt. xxii. 24-28).


I sum up the divine testimony thus: If polygamy is now a vice

and a sin, like adultery or lying or stealing, it always has

been and always

Page 77

will be a sin; and God would never have approved or commanded

it: but we have seen above, that he has commanded it in two

cases at least, viz., in case of the married man's illicit

intercourse with an unbetrothed virgin, and in case of the

married man's brother's widow; and in these cases, therefore,

it cannot be a sin. In further proof of its innocence, let it

be remembered that it was practised without rebuke by

Abraham, when he was styled "The Friend of God;" by Jacob,

when his named was changed to Israel on account of his piety

and his faith; by David, when God himself "gave testimony,

and said, I have found David the son of Jesse a man after my

own heart;" and by many others whose names will be held in

everlasting remembrance, being preserved in Holy Writ, long

after those of modern pseudo-religionists, who now denounce

polygamy as barbarous and sinful, shall have perished in



*1 2 Sam. iii. 2-5, 14; v. 13; xii. 8.

*2 Gen. xx.

*3 Antiq. Jud., book 17, chap. 1, & 3.


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The History and Philosophy of Marriage
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Chapter Menu
Chapter 1 - Introductory
Chapter 2 - Primary Laws of Love
Chapter 3 - Primary Laws of Marriage
Chapter 4 - Origin of Polygamy
Chapter 5 - Origin of Monogamy
Chapter 6 - Monogamy After the Introduction of Christianity
Chapter 7 - Monogamy As It Is
Chapter 8 - Relation of Monogamy to Crime
Chapter 9 - Objections to Polygamy
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