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Polygamy, Patriarchy, and Tyranny: What Are We to Do?

I might have finally figured out why I experienced such mixed feelings while watching on television the authorities take into protective custody 416 or so children of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who lived on the Yearning for Zion ranch in west Texas. Once again, we may have done more harm than good by treating a chronic problem as though it were an acute crisis.

Not everyone agrees that polygamy is a problem. University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Gary S. Benson commented on this issue in 2006. In the United States and similar nations, he wrote:

Women choose their partners, and refuse to marry men who [sic] they do not want to marry, regardless of their parents’ feelings or the ardor of suitors. In this world, a woman would not have to enter into a polygamist household if she would not want to. Would-be polygamist men would have to persuade second or third wives that it is worth it, because of their wealth, good looks, kindness, or in other ways. If she is willing to become an additional wife, why should laws prevent that?

Until sometime last week, I agreed with such thinking. But I began to change my mind as I watched what struck me as the languid forms, vacant stares and excessively measured words of some of the women from Yearning for Zion. The more I considered these scenes, the more I developed a different line of thought.

In brief, here it is: (1) polygamy tends toward extreme patriarchy; (2) extreme patriarchy tends toward tyranny against women; and (3) tyranny against women tends toward the physical and sexual abuse of children. The idea is that these tendencies are not perplexing happenstances; they are built into the very dynamics of polygamous unions.

The more wives a man has the less power they have. A home with, let’s say, six wives and twenty-four children, is likely to function more like a monarchy than a democracy in order to prevent unworkable chaos. Even an oligarchy is likely to need a very strong “Enforcer,” and almost always this will be the man. Polygamy is almost impossible without extreme patriarchy.

But this is only one part of the equation. Another is that husbands and wives in monogamous unions often foster more desirable behavior in their spouses by providing all kinds of positive and negative inducements. But a patriarch in a polygamous union rarely has to cope with such frustrating complexities. If one wife is upset about something, instead trying to understand and correct what is troubling her, he can easily turn to another. This robs all the wives of much power. They would do well to join forces and engage in collective bargaining; but apparently this rarely happens. Extreme patriarchy easily becomes tyranny against women.

Many say that polygamous households are especially dangerous places for children. Although their mothers appear to take excellent care of them when they are young, their vulnerability often spikes once the girls become sexual targets and the boys sexual threats. Outsiders often complain that the women do not provide their pubescent children adequate protection. But their feelings of helplessness are not entirely misplaced. They actually possess very little power, and this is why the abuse of their children is unsurprising. This is one of the inherent dynamics of polygamy.

We know that women do not always enter polygamous marriages as adults who exercise free, informed, and mentally competent consent. But my growing objection to polygamy goes deeper than this. It is that the inherent dynamics of polygamous unions make them tend toward tyranny against women and the abuse of children, even when this is not intended. We can count on such things happening whenever the power of people cannot be challenged and checked. Even the most admirable polygamous unions allow men too much uncontrolled power. This is the big danger.

In view of considerations such as these, I have come to disagree with positions like Gary S. Benson’s. Laws and other public policies that discourage the practice of polygamy without causing more harm than good are necessary. By laws I mean ones like those in Texas that do not legally recognize polygamous unions and deny marriage licenses to women who are less than eighteen years old, or sixteen with formal parental consent. Men and women who are convicted of violating these should receive the maximum penalties.

By other public policies I mean things such as zoning decisions, building permits, property tax codes, required school attendance, health and safety laws, welfare rules, and the omnipresence of state and federal officers of the law. It probably should not be the goal of such measures swiftly to eradicate polygamy but over time to make it too expensive in every way to practice.

For more than one hundred years, those of us who live in the United States have swung between marshalling excessive coercive power against those who form polygamous unions and a malign neglect that allows this chronic problem to worsen until it explodes in an acute crisis. We need stronger, steadier, and subtler approaches, ones that maintain constant and uncomfortable pressure on polygamists without requiring the women and children to suffer more than they already do.

It is difficult to imagine that the authorities in Texas had no idea that those at Yearning for Zion had long been breaking the law by practicing polygamy and allowing statutory rape, partly because there are only a few thousand people in the entire county. We also know that the construction projects at Yearning for Zion did not always conform to the pertinent requirements, especially sanitation and environmental protection mandates. But the authorities did very little to enforce the relevant laws and public policies. Instead, at long last, they allowed an unidentified “reporter” of physical and sexual abuse to trigger an acute crisis. The result is that we now observe hundreds of women and children tearfully moving back and forth between protective custody and the ranch. But we rarely see the men. Why should we be surprised?

David Larson teaches in the School of Theology at Loma Linda University.

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