Polygamy, Christian Doctrine Concerning
Polygamy, Christian Doctrine Concerning.
Jesus does not directly forbid polygamy, nor even revert to the subject, since it had been almost universally given up. No case of polygamy among the Jews is presented in the Gospel narrative; and when a wife is mentioned, it is stated or implied in the account that she is the only wife. The special evil of Jewish society was the facility of divorce-men putting away their wives for any, often a trifling, cause. Our Lord, when the Pharisees asked him (Mt 19:3-9) whether it was lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause, replied that God at the beginning made them a male and a female (ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ), thus indirectly condemning polygamy as contrary to the original institution of marriage: with a male and a female only polygamy was impossible. He then declares that the bond of marriage is indissoluble; the husband and wife are no more twain, but one flesh; and what God hath thus joined together let no man put asunder; and afterwards replies to their question on divorce: "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so." The practice of polygamy then existed by permission, not by command. It was a positive temporary regulation of Moses as a political governor, not of God as a moral ruler. The Jews had become hardened in their hearts; they were harsh and severe even to their own flesh. Their nearest relatives they treated with cruelty and injustice. Until the people could be brought into such a state that they could feel and understand the force of law, it was necessary for their rulers meanwhile to devise prudential regulations for the purpose of checking their lawlessness. All the evils of that early and idolatrous age of the world could not be remedied in a moment; and such was the state of society that not even until the advent of the Savior was the institution of marriage restored to its primeval integrity by revoking the permission of polygamy and divorce. The teaching of the apostle Paul, too, is worthy of most serious attention, as the subject of polygamy must have come immediately before him. The Christian converts in the apostolic age may be divided into three classes: Jews, Romans, and Greeks. Polygamy, though not unknown among the Jews, had fallen, as we have said, into general disuse. It was positively forbidden by the Roman law, though divorce was even more frequent among the Romans than the Jews; but it undoubtedly was the common usage of the Greeks. Thus Theodoret says: Πάλαι γαὶ εἰώθεισαν καὶ ῎Ελληνες καὶ ῾Ιουδαῖοι καὶ δύω καὶ τρισὶ καὶ πλείοσι γυναιξὶ νόμῳ γάμου κατὰ ταυτὸν συνοικεῖν (Com. in 1 Timothy 3:2). The epistles of Paul were generally addressed to Grecian converts; let us see, then, how he dealt with the question, which must have come directly before him. Two ways were open to the apostle: either a partial or temporary toleration, or an immediate and direct prohibition of the custom. The multitude of Greek converts were undoubtedly polygamists; it might seem a hard measure, and would produce much domestic discontent and misery, to compel converts to abandon their wives legally married according to the Grecian law. Did, then, the apostle permit the usage temporarily, either till that generation had passed away, or until polygamists themselves were willing to conform to the higher Christian standard? We most emphatically reply that the apostle never for even the briefest period tolerated polygamy among baptized or Christian disciples, and that it never existed in the Christian Church at all. Had it been tolerated even temporarily, some notice or reference to it would be found in the apostolic epistles. Tie sincerity of converts must have been put to a severe test: to give up their wives no doubt often involved a painful sacrifice to Christian duty, yet so emphatic and peremptory must have been the apostle's prohibition that not a murmur of opposition was heard from Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, and other Christian communities.
The apostle often censures Grecian converts for their violation of Christian duty, some of them having fallen from their regenerate state, and abandoned themselves to their old sins; but we find no reference to polygamy in his epistles, nothing which implies that it was continued or even known among them. There is no mention, however remote or indirect, of a believer's wives. This silence can only intimate the utter abandonment of the usage among Christians as clearly as the most emphatic statement. It could not have been tacitly allowed as indifferent, or permitted even for a brief period; since it must be remembered that the apostle had expressly forbidden polygamy, and if it existed at all in the Christian communities he planted, it could only have been in defiance of his direct prohibition. No language can be plainer than that of 1 Corinthians 7: "Let every man have his own wife, and every woman her own husband; let not the wife depart from her husband, let not a husband put away his wife." Again, the non-existence of polygamy in the apostolic churches is implied in the same apostle's comparison of marriage to the union of Christ and his Church. The apostle says: "The husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the Head of the Church" (Eph 5:23). But as Christ's Church, as Paul says, is one body (Eph 4:4), there would be no meaning in the comparison, no similarity in the things compared, if the husband might have a plurality of wives: the marriage union would not then have a typical representation of the union of Christ with the one body, which is his Church. Taking, again, the testimony of the Catholic Church, the evidence against polygamy will appear most positive and decisive. The mind of the divine Legislator was so clearly and ineffaceably stamped on his followers that the usage in early and later ages of the Church was utterly unknown; there is no instance on record of a baptized polygamist for fifteen hundred years after Christ. Catholic, schismatic, and heretic, amid all their differences, agreed at least on this point. No professing Christian, however erroneous his belief or scandalous his life, ever ventured to revive the interdicted usage. The testimony of the Church, clearly brought before us by the consentient practice of Christians in all ages, is too explicit to leave room for further controversy, or any real doubt of the teaching of the New Testament on the subject. Besides, the practice of the whole world was strictly uniform, with one exception in the 16th century. In an evil hour Luther unhappily gave permission to one of his followers to marry a second wife during the lifetime of the first the landgrave of Hesse. He was the first and the only Protestant polygamist of the Christian Church.
In recent times the question of polygamy has reopened in the Christian Church, and has resumed great importance. Bishop Colenso in Africa, and missionaries of several denominations in India, have deemed it expedient to allow heathen polygamists to retain their wives after baptism; though, on becoming Christians, they are forbidden to add to the number of them. Polygamist converts are not allowed, as being it is supposed in an inferior state, to bear office in the Church.f1 Now this view of the subject and corresponding practice can only be founded on an opinion or theory, which, if true, would render polygamy universally allowable among Christians. Let us ask ourselves the question, Is polygamy, according to the new dispensation, allowable, or indifferent, or sinful? If allowable or indifferent, why should it only be partially conceded, and not permitted at all times? If it be wrong or sinful, how can we be justified in allowing it even during the shortest period? Its temporary permission among heathen converts rests on no authority, scriptural or patristic, or any valid plea whatever: no primitive precedent can be quoted, though it is obvious that the same reasons for it might have been alleged in the apostolic age, and also, it may be added, by missionaries in any subsequent period, as in modern times. In truth, its permission under any circumstances can only by logical sequence lead to its full sanction, as in the foul and degraded system of Mormonism. But the defenders of modern polygamy will perhaps say that their strongest argument in its defense has not yet been examined: they lay especial stress on the examples of the Old Testament saints, which is probably the real reason why they venture to allow it, maintaining that God would not have permitted it for many ages had it been necessarily immoral or sinful. But are they prepared to say-which is the real question at issue- that in the New Testament there is no precept on the subject of marriage? If there be, the argument derived from the permitted usage of the old dispensation is of no value whatever, and may thus be stated: there was no positive law on the subject in the old dispensation. and hence many of the Jews were polygamists; there is a direct law or precept in the New Testament, and as such binding on believers, by which the Christian is limited to one wife. But should it be asserted that there is no positive precept on marriage in the New Testament, we shall thus have to fall back upon the old dispensation for instruction and guidance; in which case, why should we permit polygamy only for a time, or in the case of heathen converts, instead of allowing Christians universally to follow, if they please, the example of the patriarchs and saints of the Jewish Church? If polygamy be permitted to converts from heathenism, on the ground that there is no positive precept on the subject in the New Testament, and that we may have recourse to the permission of the Jewish law, no reason most assuredly can be given why Christians generally may not be permitted to avail themselves of the sanction given to polygamy in the old dispensation, and by the example of its patriarchs and saints. "Experience," says Dr. Spring, 'has abundantly and painfully proved that polygamy debases and brutalizes both the body and the mind, and renders society incapable of those generous and refined affections which, if duly cultivated, would be found to be the inheritance even of our fallen nature. Where is an instance in which polygamy has not been the source of many and bitter calamities in the domestic circle and to the state? Where has it reared a virtuous heaven- taught progeny? Where has it been distinguished for any of the moral virtues; or, rather, where has it not been distinguished for the most fearful degeneracy of mankind? Where has it even been found friendly to population? It has been reckoned that the number of male infants exceeds that of females in the proportion of nineteen to eighteen, the excess of the males scarcely providing for their greater consumption by war, seafaring, and other dangerous or unhealthy occupations. It seems to have been 'the order of nature that one woman should be assigned to one man.' And where has polygamy ever been friendly to the physical and intellectual character of the population? The Turks are polygamists, and so are the Asiatics; but how inferior a people to the ancient Greeks and Romans!" The practice of polygamy has sometimes been alleged to originate in the influence of climate, but the fact cannot be denied that in the coldest as well as in the warmest climates it is found to exist. And though it must be admitted to prevail more extensively in regions situated towards the south, the more probable cause of this peculiarity will be found in ancient usage or religion. The manners of different countries have varied in nothing more than in their domestic constitutions. Less polished and more luxurious nations have either not perceived the bad effects of polygamy, or, if they did perceive them, they who in such countries possessed the power of reforming the laws have been unwilling to resign their own gratifications. Polygamy is retained at this day in all Mohammedan countries, and throughout the whole Eastern world (see a recent article on this subject in the Westminster Review, Oct. 1867, art. 1); and even in countries like Algiers, where the French controlling influence is manifest, the Jews practice polygamy to a large extent.f2 But among Western, or, better, Christian nations, it is universally prohibited. In Sweden it is punished with death. In England, besides the nullity of the second marriage, it subjects the offender to transportation or imprisonment and branding for the first offence, and to capital punishment for the second. About the middle of the 16th century, Bernardus Ochinus, general of the Order of Capuchins, and afterwards a Protestant, published Dialogues in favor of polygamy, to which Theodore Beza wrote a reply. In 1682 a work entitled Polygamia Triumphatrix appeared under the name of Theophilus Aletheus. The true name of the author was Lyserus, a native of Saxony. In 1780 Martin Madan published Thelyphhora, or a Treatise on Female Ruin, in which he defended polygamy on the part of the male. The only exception in the West to monogamous practice occurs among the Mormons (q.v.). This strange sect teaches that the use and foundation of matrimony is to raise up a peculiar, holy people for the kingdom of God the Son, that at the millennium they may be raised to reign with him; and the glory of the man will be in proportion to the size of his household of children, wives, and servants. Quoting the Scripture that "the mall is not without the woman, nor the woman without the man," they affirm that it is the duty of every man to marry at least once, and that a woman cannot enter into the heavenly kingdom without a husband to introduce her as belonging to himself. The addition of wives after the first to a man's family is called a "sealing to him," a process which constitutes a relation with all the rights and sanctions of matrimony. This introduction and continuance of the baneful and immoral practice of polygamy is likely, sooner or later, to prove destructive to the whole system of Mormonism.
f1In 1834 the conference of missionaries of various denominations in Calcutta, including those of the Baptist, the London, and the Church Missionary Societies, of the Church of Scotland, land the American Presbyterian Board, after having had the whole subject frequently under discussion, and after much and serious deliberation, unanimously agreed on the following propositions, though there had previously been much diversity of opinion among them on various points: "If a convert before becoming a Christian has married more wives than one, in accordance with the practice of the Jewish and early Christian churches, lie shall be permitted to keep them all; but such a person is not eligible to any office in the Church. In no other case is polygamy to be tolerated among Christians" (Brown, Hist. of Missions, 3, 365, 366). If proof had been given that polygamy was allowed in the early Church, all controversy on the subject would have been at all end; its permission in modern times to converts from heathenism might have been allowed, or even in many cases be desirable; but the statement itself as no support whatever either from Scripture or the writings of the fathers, or ecclesiastical history.
f2 Since 1870, when they were made citizens, they have been obliged to conform to the order of French law.
The argument against polygamy from a strictly ethical and social standpoint is thus presented by Paley: "The equality in the number of males and females born into the world intimates the intention of God that one woman should be assigned to one man; for if to one man be allowed an exclusive right to five or more women, four or more men must be deprived of the exclusive possession of any; which could never be the order intended. It seems also a significant indication of the divine will that he at first created only one woman to one man. Had God intended polygamy for the species, it is probable he would have begun with it; especially as by giving to Adam more wives than one the multiplication of the human race would have proceeded with a quicker progress. Polygamy not only violates the constitution of nature, and the apparent design of the Deity, but produces to the parties themselves, and to the public, the following bad effects: contests and jealousies among the wives of the same husband; distracted affections, or the loss of all affection in the husband himself; a voluptuousness in the rich which dissolves the vigor of their intellectual as well as active faculties, producing that indolence and imbecility, both of mind and body, which have long characterized the nations of the East; the abasement of one half of the human species, who, in countries where polygamy obtains, are degraded into instruments of physical pleasure to the other half; neglect of children; and the manifold and sometimes unnatural mischiefs which arise from a scarcity of women. To compensate for these evils, polygamy does not offer a single advantage. In the article of population, which it has been thought to promote, the community gain nothing (nothing, I mean, compared with a state in which marriage is nearly universal); for the question is not whether one man will have more children by five or more wives than by one, but whether these five wives would not bear the same or a greater number of children to five separate husbands. And as to the care of children when produced, and the sending of them into the world in situations in which they may be likely to form and bring up families of their own, upon which the increase and succession of the human species in a great degree depend, this is less provided for and less practicable where twenty or thirty children are to be supported by the attention and fortunes of one father than if they were divided into five or six families, to each of which were assigned the industry and inheritance of two parents." Thus far Dr. Paley. We shall close this article with the words of an excellent writer on the same side of the subject: "When we reflect," he says, "that the primitive institution of marriage limited it to one man and one woman; that this institution was adhered to by Noah and his sons, amid the degeneracy of the age in which they lived, and in spite of the example of polygamy which the accursed race of Cain had introduced; when we consider how very few (comparatively speaking) examples of this practice there were among the faithful; how much it brought its own punishment with it; and how dubious and equivocal those passages are in which it appears to have the sanction of the divine approbation; when to these reflections we add another respecting the limited views and temporary nature of the more ancient dispensations and institutions of religion, how often the imperfections and even vices of the patriarchs and people of God in old time are recorded, without any express notification of their criminality— how much is said to be commanded which our reverence for the holiness of God and his law will only suffer us to suppose were for wise ends permitted; how frequently the messengers of God adapted themselves to the genius of the people to whom they were sent, and the circumstances of the times in which they lived; above all, when we consider the purity, equity, and benevolence of the Christian law, the explicit declarations of our Lord and his apostle Paul respecting the institution of marriage, its design and limitation; when we reflect, too, on the testimony of the most ancient fathers, who could not possibly be ignorant of the general and common practice of the apostolic Church; and, finally, when to these considerations we add those which are founded on justice to the female sex, and all the regulations of domestic economy and national policy, we must wholly condemn the revival of polygamy." See Paley, Moral Philosophy, 1, 319-325; Madan, Thelypthora; Towers, Wills, Penn, R. Hill, Palmer, and Haweis, Answers to Madan; Monthly Rev. 63, 338; and also vol. 69; Beattie, Elements of Moral Science, 2, 127-129: Wuttke, Christian Ethics, 2, 306 sq.; Harless, Ethics (see Index); and the literature quoted in the article MARRIAGE SEE MARRIAGE .