AskDefine | Define polygamous

Dictionary Definition

polygamous adj
1 having more than one mate at a time; used of relationships and individuals [ant: monogamous]
2 having several forms of gametoecia on the same plant [syn: heteroicous, polyoicous]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Of, relating to, or practicing polygamy.


of, relating to, or practicing polygamy

Extensive Definition

The term polygamy (a Greek word meaning "the practice of multiple marriage") is used in related ways in social anthropology, sociobiology, and sociology. Polygamy can be defined as any "form of marriage in which a person [has] more than one spouse."
In social anthropology polygamy is the practice of marriage to more than one spouse simultaneously. Historically, polygamy has been practiced as polygyny (one man having more than one wife), or as polyandry (one woman having more than one husband), or, less commonly as "polygamy" (one person having many wives and many husbands at the same time). (See "Forms of Polygamy" below.) In contrast, monogamy is the practice of each person having only one spouse. Like monogamy, the term is often used in a de facto sense, applying regardless of whether the relationships are recognized by the state (see marriage for a discussion on the extent to which states can and do recognize potentially and actually polygamous forms as valid).
In sociobiology, polygamy is used in a broad sense to mean any form of multiple mating. In a narrower sense, used by zoologists, polygamy includes a pair bond, perhaps temporary.

Forms of polygamy

Polygamy exists in three specific forms, including polygyny (one man having multiple wives), polyandry (one woman having multiple husbands), or group marriage (some combination of polygyny and polyandry). Historically, all three practices have been found, but polygyny is by far the most common in the world. Confusion arises when the broad term "polygamy" is used when a narrower definition is really meant.


Polygyny is the situation in which one man is either married to or involved in sexual relationships with a number of different women at one time. This is the most common form of polygamy. Polygyny is practiced in a traditional sense in many Middle East and African cultures and countries today, including South Africa and most of Southern and Central Africa and the Caribbean. It appears more often in highly patriarchical societies. This is the "polygamy" once practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (commonly called Mormons) and practiced today by their fundamentalist offshoots.


Polyandry is a practice where a woman is married to more than one man at the same time. It is also known as wife sharing. Fraternal polyandry was traditionally practiced among nomadic Tibetans in Nepal and parts of China, in which two or more brothers share the same wife, with her having equal sexual access to them. Polyandry is believed to be more likely in societies with scarce environmental resources, as it is believed to limit human population growth and enhance child survival. A woman can only have so many children in her lifetime, no matter how many husbands she has. On the other hand, a child with many "fathers", all of whom provide resources, is more likely to survive. (In contrast, the number of children would be increased if polygyny were practiced, and a man had more than one wife. These wives could be simultaneously pregnant). It is a rare form of marriage that exists not only among poor families, but also within the elite.

Group marriage

Group marriage, or circle marriage, may exist in a number of forms, such as where more than one man and more than one woman form a single family unit, and all members of the marriage share parental responsibility for any children arising from the marriage. Another possible arrangement not thought to exist in reality (on the social level), although occurring in science fiction , is the long-lived line marriage, in which deceased or departing spouses in the group are continually replaced by others, so that family property never becomes dispersed through inheritance.


Bigamy is the act or condition of a person marrying another person while still being lawfully married to a second person. Bigamy is a crime in most western countries. For example, in the United States, because of the contract a married person makes upon becoming married, that person is obliged not to marry again as long as the first marriage continues; stipulations of the marriage license applying.


In seventeenth to nineteenth century England, trigamy referred to the relationship of someone who had three spouses at the same time.
The term is typically used for comic reference. An example is the limerick by William Cosmo Monkhouse about a man from the town of Lyme in Dorset, England.
There was an old fellow of Lyme
Who lived with three wives at one time.
When asked, 'Why the third?'
He replied, 'One’s absurd,
and bigamy, sir, is a crime.'
From the modern legal perspective, trigamy is viewed as two counts of bigamy.

Serial monogamy

The phrase serial monogamy has been used to describe the lifestyle of persons who have repeatedly married and divorced multiple partners.

Other forms of nonmonogamy

Other forms of nonmonogamous relationships are discussed at Forms of nonmonogamy.

Benefits of polygamism

Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist, in his book, Plural Marriage for our Time, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of the American society at large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging impact of divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces are caused by the rampant extramarital affairs in the American society. According to Kilbride, ending an extramarital affair in a polygamous marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the children, "Children would be better served if family augmentation rather than only separation and dissolution were seen as options." Moreover, he suggests that other groups will also benefit from plural marriage such as: elderly women who face a chronic shortage of men.

Polygamy worldwide

According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, of the 1231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous. 453 had occasional polygyny, 588 had more frequent polygyny, and 4 had polyandry.

Patterns of occurrence

At the same time, even within societies which allow polygyny, the actual practice of polygyny occurs relatively rarely. There are exceptions: in Senegal, for example, nearly 47 percent of marriages are multiple. To take on more than one wife often requires considerable resources: this may put polygamy beyond the means of the vast majority of people within those societies. Such appears the case in many traditional Islamic societies, and in Imperial China.
Within polygynous societies, multiple wives often become a status symbol denoting wealth and power. Similarly, within societies that formally prohibit polygamy, social opinion may look favorably on persons maintaining mistresses or engaging in serial monogamy.
Some observers detect a social preference for polygyny in disease-prone (especially tropical) climates, and speculate that (from a potential mother's viewpoint) perceived quality of paternal genes may favour the practice there. The countervailing situation allegedly prevails in harsher climates, where (once again from a potential mother's viewpoint) reliable paternal care as exhibited in monogamous pair-bonding outweighs the importance of paternal genes.

Polygamy in African societies

Polygamy existed all over Africa as an aspect of culture or/and religion (mainly Islam). Plural marriages have been more common than not in the history of Africa. Many African societies saw children as a form of wealth thus the more children a family had the more powerful it was. Thus polygamy was part of empire building. It was only during the colonial era that plural marriage was perceived as taboo. Esther Stanford, an African-focused lawyer, states that this decline was encouraged because the issues of property ownership conflicted with European colonial interest. In Africa many women are very poor and their husbands have died or been murdered. They then take a husband (usually wealthy) and marry in. The husband usually already has a wife, but marries her anyway. She is then the second wife, but is most times used as a servant.

South Africa and Sudan

Polygamy is encouraged in states such as Sudan, and is very common in West Africa (Muslim and traditionalist). In South Africa traditionalist Zulu's and Xhosa's practice polygamy. The leader of the ANC, and future president Jacob Zuma is also openly in favor of plural marriages, being married to numerous wives himself. The wives live in small houses in a circle around the master compound.

Polygamy in Chinese culture

Since the Han Dynasty, technically, Chinese men could have only one wife. However, throughout the thousands of years of Chinese history, it was common for rich Chinese men to have a wife and various concubines. Polygyny is a by-product of the tradition of emphasis on procreation and the continuity of the father's family name. Before the establishment of the People's Republic of China, it was lawful to have a wife and multiple concubines within Chinese marriage. An emperor, government official or rich merchant could have up to hundreds of concubines after marrying his first wife, or tai-tai.
The Chinese culture of Confucianism and thus the practice of polygyny spread from China to the areas that are now Korea and Japan. Before the establishment of the modern democratic mode, Eastern countries permitted a similar practice of polygyny.
Situation in East Asia
After the Communist Revolution in 1949, polygamy was banned. This occurred via the Marriage Act of 1953.
In Mongolia, there has been discussion about legalizing polygamy to reduce the imbalance of the male and female population.
In Hong Kong, polygamy was banned in October 1971. However, it is still practiced in Hong Kong and Macau. One example of this is Stanley Ho. Another is Lim Por Yen. Some Hong Kong businessmen have concubines across the border in mainland China. Kevin Murphy of The International Herald Tribune reports the cross-border polygyny phenomenon in Hong Kong in 1995.
Man-Lun Ng, M.D. of Humboldt University of Berlin reported the situation in Hong Kong: it was estimated that out of the approximately two million married couples in Hong Kong, about 300,000 husbands had mistresses in mainland China (1996). In 1995, 40% of extramarital affairs involved an enduring long-term relationship with a stable partner. The Bible mentions approximately forty polygynists, including such prominent figures as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Moses, David and King Solomon, with little or no further remark on their polygyny as such.
The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygyny. Bible verse |Exodus|21:10|NIV states that multiple marriages are not to diminish the status of the first wife, while Bible verse |Deuteronomy|21:15-17|NIV states that a man must award the inheritance due to a first-born son to the son who was actually born first, even if he hates that son's mother and likes another wife more, implying that she had been divorced, and Bible verse |Deuteronomy|17:17|NIV states that the king shall not have too many wives.
The biblical institution of a levirate marriage was a positive provision towards polygynous. The institution required a man to marry and support his deceased brother's widow if he died without her having given birth to a son. (Bible verse |Deuteronomy|25:5-10|NIV) The practice has been justified that it was important for the brother to have died without an heir to continue his name, or say the prayers for the dead for him. It has also been argued that there were also negative factors for the childless widow since children and fertility were a sign of God's blessing. This practice also provided a means of provide for widows. If the eldest brother refused to marry the widow then it was the responsibility of the next brother and so forth down the family line.
The Hebrew Bible prohibits polyandry. For a woman to have sexual relations when she is married to another (which would include a situation such as polyandry) would constitute adultery, with the consequences that it would have on her status, as well as of her children from that relationship.


As noted above, in the biblical days Jewish men were allowed more than one wife and concubinage (wives with less status) was also practiced. Since the 11th century, Ashkenazi Jews have followed Rabbenu Gershom's ban on polygyny.. Gershom's ban initially applied only to Ashkenazi Jews living in Christian lands. Technically, his polygamy ban expired in 1260 (Jewish year 5000). However, its practice has spread to most Jews and been reaccepted by some Rabinical Assemblies. Polyandry was never practised.
Some Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (particularly those from Yemen and Iran) discontinued polygyny much more recently, as they emigrated to countries where it was forbidden. Israel limits the ability for Jews to enter polygamous marriages in Israel, but recognise existing polygamous marriages of people immigrating from countries where the practice was legal.
Among Karaite Jews, who do not accept Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, polygyny is non-existent today. Karaites interpret Bible verse |Leviticus|18:18|NIV to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent and Bible verse |Exodus|21:10|NIV to mean that a man can only take a second wife if he is capable of maintaining the same level of the marital duties of food, clothing, and sexual gratification as are due to his first wife. Because of these interpretations and because nearly all countries outlaw it, polygyny is considered impractical, and there are no known cases of it among Karaite Jews.


While the New Testament does not explicitly mention or ban polygamy, verses that teach on leadership (discussed below) forbid multiple marriage for church leaders; these verses are often interpreted to mean that marriage is between only one man and one woman:
"each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband." (Bible verse 1|Corinthians|7:2|NIV)
"A bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach." (Bible verse 1|Timothy|3:2|NIV)
The mainline Christian tradition for over 1,000 years has been strictly in favour of monogamy and that most Christian scholars support this position.
Saint Augustine saw a conflict between Roman civil law and Old Testament polygyny. He did not consider it in violation of scripture. He wrote in The Good of Marriage (chapter 15):
[although it] was lawful among the ancient fathers: whether it be lawful now also, I would not hastily pronounce. For there is not now necessity of begetting children, as there then was, when, even when wives bear children, it was allowed, in order to a more numerous posterity, to marry other wives in addition, which now is certainly not lawful.
Augustine noted that polygamy was not in keeping with Roman custom or law. In chapter 7, he wrote:
Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife, so as to have more than one wife living. [emphasis added]
"But here there is no ground for a criminal accusation: for a plurality of wives was no crime when it was the custom; and it is a crime now, because it is no longer the custom......The only reason of its being a crime now to do this, is because custom and the laws forbid it.
The Roman Catholic Church has subsequently taught on more fundamental grounds that "polygamy is not in accord with the moral law. [Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God which was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive." (Catholic Cathechism, para. 2387, Vatican website). This is also the normal position among Protestant Churches, and it can therefore be said that the mainstream Christian position is to reject polygamy in principle.
Periodically, Christian reform movements that have aimed at rebuilding Christian doctrine based on the Bible alone (sola scriptura) have at least temporarily accepted polygamy as a Biblical practice. For example, during the Protestant Reformation, in a document referred to simply as "Der Beichtrat" (or "The Confessional Advice" ), Martin Luther granted the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who, for many years, had been living "constantly in a state of adultery and fornication," a dispensation to take a second wife. The double marriage was to be done in secret however, to avoid public scandal. Some fifteen years earlier, in a letter to the Saxon Chancellor Gregor Brück, Luther stated that he could not "forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict Scripture." ("Ego sane fateor, me non posse prohibere, si quis plures velit uxores ducere, nec repugnat sacris literis.") Despite the approval of Martin Luther, Christian polygamy is a minority position.
"On February 14, 1650, the parliament at Nürnberg decreed that, because so many men were killed during the Thirty Years’ War, the churches for the following ten years could not admit any man under the age of 60 into a monastery. Priests and ministers not bound by any monastery were allowed to marry. Lastly, the decree stated that every man was allowed to marry up to ten women. The men were admonished to behave honorably, provide for their wives properly, and prevent animosity among them."
Although it is a minority position, there are conservative Christian groups who embrace plural marriage today. Two such groups are Biblical Families and Christian Polygyny.
The modern trend towards frequent divorce and remarriage is sometimes referred to by conservative Christians as 'serial polygamy'. In contrast, sociologists and anthropologists refer to this as 'serial monogamy', since it is a series of monogamous (i.e. not polygamous) relationships.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, there has often been a tension between the Christian churches' insistence on monogamy and traditional polygamy. In some instances in recent times there have been moves for accommodation; in others churches have resisted such moves strongly. African Independent Churches have sometimes referred to those parts of the Old Testament which describe polygamy in defending the practice.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormon fundamentalists

The history of Mormon polygamy begins with claims that Mormonism founder Joseph Smith received a revelation from God on July 17, 1831 that some Mormon men would be commanded to practice "plural marriage". The July 12, 1843 recording of a Smith revelation on plural marriage is now canonized as scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants by the LDS Church. For years the practice of plural marriage by Mormons in the United States was not publicly known. The 1835 edition of the 101st Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, written before the doctrine of plural marriage was practiced, publicly condemned polygamy. This scripture was used to quash Mormon polygamy rumors by John Taylor during 1850 in Liverpool, England. Polygamy was illegal in the state of Illinois during the 1839-44 Nauvoo era when several top Mormon leaders including Smith, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball took plural wives. Mormon elders who publicly taught that all men were commanded to enter plural marriage were subject to discipline; for example, the February 1, 1844 excommunication of Hyram Brown. In May 1844 Smith declared, "What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one." On June 7, 1844 the Nauvoo Expositor criticized Smith for plural marriage. The Nauvoo city council declared the Nauvoo Expositor press a nuisance and ordered Smith, as Nauvoo's mayor, to order the city marshall to destroy the paper and its press. This controversial decision led to Smith going to Carthage Jail where he was killed by a mob on June 27, 1844. The main body of Mormons soon followed Brigham Young to Utah where the practice of plural marriage continued.
On August 29, 1852 the church began to publicly acknowledge their practice of plural marriage through a sermon on the subject given by Apostle Orson Pratt. Additional sermons by top Mormon leaders on the virtues of polygamy followed. Much controversy ensued and many novelists began to write books and pamphlets condemning polygamy, portraying it as a legalized form of slavery. The key plank of the Republican Party's 1856 platform was "to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery". In 1862 during their first term with full control of both Congress and the White House, the Republicans issued the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act and the Emancipation Proclamation. The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act clarified that the practice of polygamy was illegal in all U.S. territories. Latter-day Saints believed that their religiously-based practice of plural marriage was protected by the Constitution. However the 1878 unanimous Supreme Court Reynolds v. United States decision declared that polygamy was not protected by the Constitution, based on the longstanding legal principle that "laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices."
Increasingly harsh anti-polygamy legislation penalized church members, disincorporated the church, and permitted the seizure of church property. Members of the church were subsequently sent to Canada and Mexico to set up communities free from prosecution and in order to keep their marriages intact; e.g., Charles Ora Card founded Cardston, Alberta at the direction of John Taylor. The church's fourth president, Wilford Woodruff, issued a public declaration (commonly called the Manifesto) announcing the official discontinuance of the practice in 1890. Woodruff indicated in his diary that his action was taken "for the temporal salvation of the Church" which had been shown to him as being in danger through a vision from the Lord. Much of the opposition against the church ceased because of the Manifesto. Opposition to statehood for Utah faded as the controversy over Mormon polygamy waned. (Utah was granted statehood in 1896.)
National attention in the United States again focused on potential polygamy among the church in the early 20th century during the House of Representatives hearings on Representative-elect B. H. Roberts and Senate hearings on Senator-elect Reed Smoot (the Smoot Hearings). Sixth church president Joseph F. Smith issued the church's Second Manifesto against polygamy in 1904 which clarified that all members of the LDS Church were officially prohibited from performing or entering into polygamous marriages, no matter what the legal status of such unions was in their respective countries of residence. In 1909 a committee of apostles met to investigate post-Manifesto polygamy, and by 1910 the church had a new policy. Those involved in plural marriages after 1904 were excommunicated; and those married between 1890 and 1904 were not to have church callings where other members would have to sustain them. Although the LDS Church officially prohibited new plural marriages after 1904, many plural husbands and wives continued to cohabit until their deaths in the 1940s and 1950s. Seventh church president Heber J. Grant who died in 1945 was the last LDS Church president to have practiced plural marriage. Leaders of the LDS church say that because they have restored the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth, plural marriage was a temporary necessity for this purpose. The LDS Church now excommunicates members found to be practicing polygamy. The "Teachings of Brigham Young" and a LDS website on Joseph Smith are some examples on how LDS Church publications now commonly characterize the history of early church leaders on the practice of plural marriage.
Although Mormons accept the prohibition on plural marriage, various splinter groups left the mainline LDS Church to continue the open practice of plural marriage. Polygamy among these groups persists today in Utah, neighboring states, and the spin-off colonies, as well as among isolated individuals with no organized church affiliation. Polygamist churches of Mormon origin are often referred to as "Mormon fundamentalist" even though, because they are practicing polygamy, they are not a part of the LDS church and therefore are not accurately considered "Mormon". They often use an ambiguous September 27, 1886 revelation to John Taylor as the basis for their authority to continue the practice of plural marriage. The Salt Lake Tribune states there are as many as 37,000 fundamentalists, with less than half of them living in polygamous households. Most of the polygamy is believed to be restricted to about a dozen extended groups of polygamous fundamentalists. The LDS Church asserts that it is improper to call any of these splinter polygamous groups "Mormon."


In Islam, polygamy is allowed, with the specific limitation that men can only have up to four wives at any one time. However, the Qur'an specifically states that men who choose this route must deal with their wives as fairly as possible, doing everything that they can to spend equal amounts of time and money on each one of them. Although many Muslim countries still retain traditional Islamic law which permits polygamy, certain elements within some Muslim societies challenge its acceptability. For example, polygamy is prohibited by law in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey.


Both polygamy and polygyny were practiced in ancient, medieval and early-modern times, among many sections of Hindu society. For example, in Ramayan, father of Ramchandra, king Dasharath has three wives but Ram has pledged himself just one wife. The only instance of polyandry in Indian mythology is seen in Mahabharat where Draupadi marries 5 brothers, the Pandavas. Krishna, the 8th incarnation of Vishnu had 16,108 wives. Hinduism during the vedic period did not prohibit polygamy, in fact it prescribed rules to regulate it (though no limit was placed on the number of spouses). Historically, kings routinely took concubines. For example, the Vijaynagara emperor, Krishnadevaraya had multiple "wives." Monogamy was only imposed by 18th. and 19th. century Christian European imperialists, especially the British Raj. Under modern Hindu Marriage Law, polygamy is forbidden for Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. However, Muslims in India are allowed to have multiple wives. Marriage laws in India are dependent upon the religion of the subject in question.


Marriage is considered a secular issue in Buddhism. According to Theravada Buddhism, polygamy is discouraged and extramatrial affairs are considered sinful. It is said in the Parabawa Sutta that "a man who is not satisfied with one woman and seeks out other women is on the path to decline". In Tibetan Buddhism, namely Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, it is not uncommon to take a consort in addition to a spouse, though it is namely for certain spiritual practices that the spouse may not be able/ready to participate in--or if the husband/wife are at different levels on their spiritual path. A consort is appropriate in such cases. Within this context, either the husband or wife, occasionally both, might take a spiritual consort. This is known as Consort Practice, and there are specific teachings and mediations that go along with it. Consort Practice is often very private, however, and not openly discussed outside of followers of Tibetan Vajrayana--which tends to be a very private form of Buddhism in general -- hence it is not very well known. Husbands and wives also engage in Consort Practice together, monogamously.
The 2008 BBC documentary series "A Year in Tibet", however, recorded three distinct cases of polyandry in and around the city of Gyantse alone (the pregnant farmer's wife in episode 1, "The Visit"; Yangdron in episode 2, "Three Husbands and a Wedding"; and the young monk, Tsephun's, mother in episode 5, "A Tale of Three Monks"). In "Three Husbands and a Wedding", a 17-year-old girl is also shown being forced into a marriage that would have been polyandrous, except that the younger, 12-year-old, brother had to attend school on the wedding day (his parents hint that he will marry his older brother's new wife at a later date). The programs include statements from the women involved that indicate they did not enter the polyandrous marriages willingly, and commentary that indicates young women in Tibet are routinely forced by their families into polyandrous marriages with two or more brothers.
Polyandry (especially fraternal polyandry) is also common among Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Ladakh, and other parts of the Indian subcontinent.

Legal situation

seealso Polygamy in the United States
Most western countries do not recognize polygamous marriages, and consider bigamy a crime. Several countries also prohibiting people living a polygamous lifestyle. In some States of the United States, the criminalization of a polygamous lifestyle originated as anti-Mormon laws, although they are rarely enforced.
Polygamists may find it harder dealing with government agencies, such as obtaining legal immigrant status.

Current proponents and opponents


David Friedman and Steve Sailer have argued that polygamy tends to benefit most women and disadvantage most men. Friedman uses this viewpoint to argue in favor of legalizing polygamy, while Sailer uses it to argue against legalizing it. The idea is firstly that many women would prefer half or one third of someone especially appealing to being the single spouse of someone that doesn't provide as much economic utility to them. Secondly, that the remaining women have a better market for finding a spouse themselves. Say that 20% of women are married to 10% of men, that leaves 90% of men to compete over the remaining 80% of women.
In the US, the Libertarian Party supports complete decriminalization of polygamy as part of a general belief that the government should not regulate marriages.
Individualist feminism and advocates such as Wendy McElroy also support the freedom for adults to voluntarily enter polygamous marriages.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, USA, is opposed to Utah's law against bigamy.
Those who advocate a Federal Marriage Amendment to the American Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage generally word their proposed laws to also prohibit polygamy. Many proponents of same-sex marriage are also in favour of maintaining current statutory prohibitions against polygamy, some arguing that while same-sex marriages do not involve toleration of pedophilia amongst practitioners, the same is not true of most polygamists in the United States.


The Roman Catholic Church clearly condemns polygamy; the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists it in paragraph 2387 under the head "Other offenses against the dignity of marriage" and states that it "is not in accord with the moral law." Also in paragraph 1645 under the head "The Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love" states "The unity of marriage, distinctly recognized by our Lord, is made clear in the equal personal dignity which must be accorded to man and wife in mutual and unreserved affection. Polygamy is contrary to conjugal love which is undivided and exclusive."
Currently the vast majority of Protestant congregations take the Catholic view on polygamy.
The illegality of polygamy in certain areas creates, according to certain Bible passages, additional arguments against it. Paul of Tarsus writes "submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience" (Romans 13:5), for "the authorities that exist have been established by God." (Romans 13:1) St Peter concurs when he says to "submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right." (1 Peter 2:13,14) Pro-polygamists argue that, as long as polygamists currently do not obtain legal marriage licenses for additional spouses, no enforced laws are being broken any more than when monogamous couples who similarly co-habitate without a marriage license.
At the present time, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supports enforcing laws against polygamy, although historically this denomination practiced polygamy which they considered to be a principle revealed by God, and fought vocally against those seeking to establish such laws. Today, the church will excommunicate any member found to be practicing polygamy.
Controversial Christian vegetarian activist and leader Nathan Braun implies a positive stance towards polygamy in his fourth edition of The History and Philosophy of Marriage.

Polygamy today

Those who live in their own communities tend to find their additional spouses from within their own communities or networks of like communities. This can involve daughters of polygamous families entering into arranged marriages with older men who already have a number of wives. This is commonly called daughter swapping. Marriage age can be young and sometimes below the legal minimum. Young men are often forced to leave the communities so that the women they would otherwise marry will be left to provide wives for older polygamous males. It is also not uncommon for fairly close relatives to marry, leading to inbreeding, though part of this comes from the difficulty of keeping track of the complex net of familial relations. Those who are geographically separated from other polygamists in their culture use other means to find additional spouses.

Mormon fundamentalism

Some sects that practice or at least sanction polygamy are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Latter-day Church of Christ and the Apostolic United Brethren. These sects tend to aggregate in communities where they all commonly share their own specific religion and thus basis for polygamy. These small groups ranging from a few hundred to about 10,000 are reported to be located in various communities of the Western United States, Canada, and Mexico including:

Muslims and traditionalist cultures

Polygamy, and laws concerning polygamy, differ greatly throughout the Islamic world and form a very complex and diverse background from nation to nation. Whereas in some Muslim countries it may be fairly common, in most others it is often rare or non-existent. However, there are certain core fundamentals which are found in most Muslim countries where the practice occurs. According to traditional Islamic law, a man may take up to four wives, and each of those wives must have her own property, assets, and dowry. Usually the wives have little to no contact with each other and lead separate, individual lives in their own houses, and sometimes in different cities, though they all share the same husband. Muhammad, for example, married many of his wives because they were war widows who were left with nothing and took care of them. Thus, polygamy is traditionally restricted to men who can manage things, and in some countries it is illegal for a man to marry multiple wives if he is unable to afford to take care of each of them properly.
In the modern Islamic world, polygamy is mainly found in traditionalist Arab cultures , Saudi Arabia, West and East Africa (In Sudan it is encouraged from the president) and the United Arab Emirates for instance , whereas in secular Arab states like Tunisia and non-Arab countries with Muslim population, Turkey for example, it is banned. However, polygamy is still practiced in Malaysia, a non-Arab Muslim country, but there are restrictions as to how it can be practiced. In traditionalist cultures where polygamy is still commonplace and legal, Muslim polygamists do not separate themselves from the society at large, since there would be no need as each spouse leads a separate life from the others.

Polygamy in fiction

The quip "Bigamy is having one spouse too many. Monogamy is the same." is popularly misattributed to Oscar Wilde.
A popular joke with Mark Twain has Twain asked to cite a Scripture reference that forbids polygamy, and he responds with, "No man can serve two masters."
A number of writers have expressed their views on polygamy by writing about a fictional world in which it is the most common type of relationship. These worlds tend to be utopian or dystopian in nature. For instance, Robert A. Heinlein uses this theme in a number of novels, such as Stranger in a Strange Land.
Polygamy is practiced by the Fremen in Frank Herbert's Dune as a means to pinpoint male infertility. It is socially accepted as long as the man provides for all wives equally. Cultures described within the Dune novel series have intentional similarities to Islamic, Arabic, and other cultures.
Similarly, the Aiel society in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series practice a form of polygamy, in which multiple women may marry the same man; in that fictional culture, women are the ones who propose marriage. Among Aiel, sisters or very close friends who have adopted each other as sisters, will often marry the same man, so that he will not come between them.
Ursula K. Le Guin describes a planet O, where the cultural norm is a four-person marriage (two of each gender).
Dan Simmons describes a culture of three-person marriages (any gender ratio) in his book Endymion.
Noted libertarian author L. Neil Smith included a character married to two sisters in his book The American Zone. The dominant culture in the novel sees one's religion and personal living accommodations as no one else's business, and "acts of capitalism between consenting adults" as the norm instead of something immoral.
Jean M. Auel in the pre-historic Earth's Children series depicted several instances of "co-mating," where a person could have more than one mate. Examples included the headwoman Tulie in the Mammoth Hunters, and a man who married a pair of twins in the Shelters of Stone. Also of note was Vinavec, the headman of the Mammoth Camp who wished to mate with the protagonist Ayla and was willing to take her Promised, Ranec, implying a bisexual relationship as well.
A Home at the End of the World is a novel by Michael Cunningham about a polygamous family. It was later adapted into a film. Both explore issues of homosexuality and families.
In the Star Trek television series Enterprise, the ship's physician, Dr. Phlox (who is a Denobulan) has three wives, each of whom has three husbands of her own (including him). One of his wives seemed to be interested in having extramarital relations with a human, which Phlox himself did not oppose, and even encouraged. It has also been stated that the Andorian species enter into group marriages (although whether this is due to societal custom or biological necessity has not been firmly established.)
In the Sci-Fi television series Babylon 5 the Centauris allow for men to have more than one wife.
In Star Wars Expanded Universe, it is explained that Cereans (like Ki-Adi-Mundi) have a much higher birth-rate of girls than boys. Thus, every male Cerean must have one wife and multiple "honor wives", to increase the chance of giving birth to another male. Jedi Cerean Ki-Adi-Mundi was allowed to marry multiple times, although Jedis were not supposed to marry at his time; but Ki-Adi-Mundi got a dispense of that norm.
Big Love is an HBO series about a polygamous family in Utah in the first decade of the 21st century. In the series, Bill Henrickson has three wives and seven children, who belong to a fundamentalist Mormon splinter group. Big Love explores the complex legal, moral, and religious issues associated with polygamy in Utah. Henrickson's three wives each have separate houses beside one another, with a shared backyard. By outward appearances, he lives with his primary wife, and has two "friends" living close by, while in reality taking turns sleeping at a different house each night. Henrickson effectively balances his work, the continuing demands of his wives, and his wives' relatives.
In Duke of the Mount Deer/The Deer and the Cauldron the Hong Kong writer Louis Cha (Jin Yung) assigned seven willing wives of different characters to the very capable hero Wai-Siu-Bo (Wei-Shao-Bao). This politics, office-politics, romance, and kung-fu survival story was based in the early Ching (Qing) Dynasty (of Kangxi reign 1654–1722). The saga has been made into films and TV series several times since the 1960s. Famous actors like Tony Leung (Leung Chiu Wai), Steven Chow (Chow Sing Chi), and Dicky Cheung (Cheung-Wai-Kin) have played the male role.
Random House will publish award-winning author David Ebershoff's next novel The 19th Wife in 2008. It is about Ann Eliza Young and the legacy of Mormon polygamy in the United States today. Ebershoff is the author of the international bestseller The Danish Girl.
In David Weber's Honor Harrington series, the inhabitants of the planet Grayson practice polygamy (polygyny) due to the human colonists to the planet acquiring a genetic defect that gave rise to a large women-to-men birth ratio combined with a high infant mortality.
Wen Spencer's science fiction novel A Brother's Price describes a society where men are very rare and protected, and multiple sisters typically marry one man



  • After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy
  • Polygamy, Bigamy and Human Rights Law
  • Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches
  • World Religions and Social Evolution of the Old World Oikumene Civilizations: A Cross-cultural Perspective
  • Mormon Polygamy: A History
  • Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

External links

  • - Provides op-eds and press releases on polygamy-related current events for the secular mass media
  • Polygamy Diaries - Phoenix, Arizona TV station profiles polygamists in Arizona and Utah.
  • - A discussion forum for both sides of the anti-polygamy debate.
  • - Chat, discussion forum, and news with a focus on polygyny (one-man, multiple wives). Note: Other forms of polygamy, such as polyandry and polyamory, are not welcome for discussion here.
  • The Weekly Standard: Polygamy vs. Democracy

Christian polygamy


Mormon polygamy

  • - Group of Fundamentalist Mormon women in Utah, called "Principle Voices of Polygamy", who advocate consensual, adult Mormon polygamy.
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