Woman as Partner or Possession:The Irreconcilable Voices of Mormonism’s D&C 132


(cross posted at the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent)

Doctrine & Covenants 132 stands as one of Mormonism’s greatest conundrums. In this one section of Mormon scripture, we have the empowering notions of eternal marriage and eternal progression, coupled later with the soul crushing commandment to practice polygamy. Embedded within the text of this section are various ideas and notions that seem simply irreconcilable, many of which surround the issue of gender.

In the first half of 132, equality between the sexes in the next life is emphasized. ““… if a man marry a wife… by the new and everlasting covenant….they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things… Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting,because they continue. Then they shall be above all, because all things are subject unto themThen shall they be gods, because they have all power…” (19-20).

Note how equitable this language is between the sexes. The inclusive pronoun ‘they’ is emphasized time and time again. There is no hierarchy between the man and woman, no patriarchy. A man and a woman journey into eternity side by side, equal partners as they both guide and shape and wield their godly power.

In the second part of the section, however, the voice changes. As soon as the topic of polygamy takes precedence, mutuality and equality between man and woman are no longer emphasized. In fact, woman is reduced to a possession.

Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him.” (37)

“And if… I reveal it unto you, my servant Joseph, then you shall have power…to take her and give her unto him who hath not committed adultery…forhe shall be made ruler over many.” (44)

Alongside all the possessive language of giving and taking women, man alone now has the privilege of ruling. Woman has lost her agency. She is now the passive object, given to and taken by men. She has now become an accoutrement. She is no longer central, standing side by side with man.

Verses 53 and 54 then go on to address Joseph Smith’s wife Emma, telling her that God has appointed Joseph ruler over many things, and that her duty is to “abide and cleave” unto Joseph, and that if she won’t obey this commandment (polygamy), she will be destroyed. These verses are difficult to read. The promise of mutuality and equality implied in the earlier verses is lost as man acquires a plurality of wives and becomes the lone ruler, and as Emma is placed in an untenable position: accept a principle that violates her conscience, or face damnation.

What can we do with these two vastly different voices and different visions presented in this one section? Is there a way to reconcile them? Can women be gods alongside their husbands, and also their husbands’ possessions at the same time? As my title suggests, I have personally not been able to reconcile the two voices. All I have is question after question, as I wonder if female subordination necessarily results when polygyny enters the equation.

I will end on this less depressing note, however. I think it’s a testament to the breadth and robustness and expansiveness of the Mormon tradition that it can encompass both these conceptions. As it paradoxically affirms in one breath that males preside, it asserts in the other that men and women are equal partners. At various points in Mormon history, one or the other of these visions has taken precedence. I can only hope that as time continues to pass the scales will weigh more and more in favor of equal partnership.

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Categories: Mormonism

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6 replies

  1. Caroline,
    I appreciate the possibilities for women you have demonstrated within Mormon doctrine, yet I’m wondering if you also see the tensions in the first section of D&C 132? It reads, “If a man marry a wife…” already you have essentialism asserting destiny for the woman and not the man. Additionally, the language of dominance and hierarchy is displayed in the pronouncement “because all these are subject unto them. they shall be gods because they have all power.” As is also evident in Catholic doctrine, there seems to be a preoccupation with patriarchal language of control and power. Ahh, the legacy & power of language! Cynthie

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  2. Cynthie, those are very valid points. I hadn’t articulated to myself the essentialism of the term ‘wife’ vs. ‘man,’ but I had seen that in that phrase, the woman is the passive object, while the man is the active subject. This is certainly problematic — though I think that it is mediated by the equality that is emphasized in the following phrases. And I agree that the language of dominance is also something to question — I’m glad you brought that up. Though for my purposes, I was just glad to see man and woman acting as equal partners, even though I’d rather their partnering not be so focused on power over others.

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  3. Caroline, duly noted. Don’t you think that in critiquing another tradition it is so much easier to find the fault lines when whatever tradition you are projecting out of has basically the same concerns? Hey, not that my tradition is not incredibly guilt of essentialism and abuse of power.

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  4. Cynthie and Caroline,
    I struggled with these questions and positions while writing a chapter in my M.A. thesis about Eliza Farnham and her prophecy about the superiority of women right around Joseph Smith’s prophecy about plural and celestial marriage.

    What you are doing Caroline, within the Mormon tradition, is truly remarkable. D&C 132 is a paradox and I wonder where feminism can go without “poking the dragon” of the male Mormon world and still be viewed as important and worth hearing. It’s easy to critique another religion from the outside and write about all the “bad” things instead of truly getting to the heart of the issues like you do Caroline.

    I would love to talk with you more because I have found myself over the past semester devouring book after book on Mormonism and North American Religion.

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  5. On another quick note, I have to ask the question (which I find myself always doing): Doesn’t everything always come down to power? Isn’t it always about power and the struggle to get it or keep it? Power is a paradox in itself. Both good and bad. If I have realized anything about being a man in women’s studies and in feminism, the issues always stem back to the question of power: who has it, who wants it, what to do with it, and how to use it respectively and responsibly (although not everyone always does this!)

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    • John, thank you for your nice comments. I would love to talk to you any time about gender issues and Mormonism.

      And regarding the power question that Cynthie and you addressed, I will add this. While these verses project a very hierarchical image of the afterlife, with “all things” being subject to gods, there is within Mormonism a strain which at its heart is actually quite anti-hierarchical. The Mormon God is in essence a god who wants peers, a god who uses power to empower others. This God wants every human to eventually be a god equal to him/her in power and glory. I like to keep that in mind as I read verses like I quoted above, ones that don’t adequately capture that vision.

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