POLYGAMY AND POPULATION
The arguments for and against polygamy were evidently already being widely discussed around 1700, in sermons, conversations, and private writings, as well as in print.1 In her best-selling New Atalantis (1709), Delarivier Manley included several passages based on both her own marriage to a bigamist (from whom she soon parted), and the menage of William Cowper, the leading Whig politician and Lord Chancellor, who had simultaneously kept (and had children with) two women, both claiming to be his wife. His second mistress, Manley claimed, had been persuaded by Cowper’s ‘learned discourse of the lawfulness of double marriages’:
Indeed he owned that, in all ages, women had been appropriated: that, for the benefit and distinction of children, with other necessary occurrences, polygamy had been justly denied the sex since the coldness of their constitutions, the length of time they carried their children and other incidents seemed to declare against them; but for a man who possessed an uninterrupted capacity of propagating the specie[s] and must necessarily find all the inconveniences above-mentioned in any one wife, the law of nature, as well as the custom of many nations and most religions, seemed to declare for him. The ancient Jews, who pretend to receive the law from an only god, not only indulged plurality of wives, but an unlimited use of concubinage. . . The Turks and all the people of the world but the Europeans still preserved the privilege. That it was to be owned their manners in all things are less adulterated than ours, their veracity, morality, and habit of living less corrupted: that, in pretending to reform from their abuses, Europe had only refined their vices. . . That, true, he condemned a promiscuous pursuit, because it was irrational and polluted, but if one or more women, whether married or not, were appropriated to one man, they were so far from transgressing, that they but fulfilled the law of nature.2
Amongst the mid-century thinkers who were fascinated by the idea was Samuel Richardson. In the later 1730s, he printed two editions of a long and learned book against polygamy by his friend Patrick Delany, the leading Irish scholar, who noted that the doctrine was by then ‘daily defended in common conversation, and often in print, by a great variety of plausible arguments’. Shortly afterwards, in the second part of Pamela (1741), Richardson made Mr B’s supposed fondness for polygamy a central plot device. Lovelace, too, ponders the pluralism of the patriarchs, ‘who had wives and concubines without number!’ – no wonder the idea was nowadays so ‘panted after’. By the early 1750s, when grappling with the problem of Sir Charles
Grandison’s simultaneous love for two different women, Richardson privately confessed that he could see no very good reason against the practice. It was obviously not against the law of nature, nor against scripture. On the contrary: both seemed to encourage it, as did almost every modern civilization. If it were to become legal in England, he mused, ‘I know not my own heart, if I would give in to the allowance’; and he was pretty certain that, in general, polygamy would bring greater happiness, rather than increasing licentiousness. (Mrs Richardson’s views are not recorded.)3
The same conclusion was eagerly and repeatedly drawn by James Boswell. When as a young man he travelled to Switzerland in 1764 to meet his hero, Rousseau, this was one of the topics upon which he most urgently sought the great man’s approval. ‘Morals’, he explained,
appear to me an uncertain thing. For instance, I should like to have thirty women. Could I not satisfy that desire? . . . Consider: if I am rich, I can take a number of girls; I get them with child; propagation is thus increased. I give them dowries, and I marry them off to good peasants who are very happy to have them. Thus they become wives at the same age as would have been the case if they had remained virgins, and I on my side, have had the benefit of enjoying a great variety of women.
When Rousseau unexpectedly demurred, Boswell blurted out the other variations on his fantasy: ‘But cannot I follow the Oriental usage?’ or else ‘I should like to follow the example of the old Patriarchs, worthy men whose memory I hold in respect’. Years later, long after he had married, he was still obsessively proposing the same arguments to himself, his friends, and his wife. Around the same time, the charismatic dissenter Westley Hall, John Wesley’s pupil and brother – in-law, was going about preaching that monogamy was no part of real, primitive Christianity: he also put his beliefs into practice with several women.4
The idea equally gained the support of more disinterested thinkers. In the early 1780s, Martin Madan, a popular evangelical preacher, great-nephew of Lord Chancellor Cowper, and chaplain of the Lock Hospital for diseased prostitutes, published an immense and bestselling ‘Treatise on Female Ruin’, advocating that ‘on pain of death, or at least of perpetual imprisonment till compliance, every man who had seduced a woman, whether with or without a promise of marriage, should be obliged to wed her publicly’, even if he was already married. This was, he argued, the obvious, divinely ordained solution to the twin evils of seduction and prostitution – had God not commanded that ‘if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife’ (Exodus 22.16)?* In response a huge popular debate erupted on the question, which rehearsed and extended all the arguments for and against polygamy that had been accumulating over the previous two centuries. Months after Madan’s book first came out, the minister of a Cheshire parish, far away from London, marvelled that it was ‘still the general topic of conversation, in almost every company where I go’.5
There were three main reasons for the subject’s prominence. The most basic was that the Bible seemed to provide considerable support for men taking multiple wives. The polygamy of the patriarchs, and the absence of any clear condemnation of it in the New Testament, was a longstanding theological conundrum.6 After the Reformation, as we saw in Chapter 2, the authority of scriptural precedent had led various early Protestants to experiment with multiple marriage. Interest in the practice was further revived in the 1650s, when it seemed that a radical refashioning of society might truly be underway. Amongst those who became convinced at that point that polygamy was ‘a true form of marriage’, ‘lawful and honourable’, and wholly approved by God, were Milton, the republican MP Henry Marten, and Hobbes’s ‘great acquaintance’, the celebrated author and judge Francis Osborne, whose widely read writings deprecated monogamy as but the invention of ‘wily priests’. In 1657, one of Osborne’s friends published an English translation of Bernardino Ochino’s famous defence of polygamy; the following year, the Lord Protector was publicly urged to allow multiple marriage. As Hobbes himself pointed
* Exactly the same arguments had been put forward in a letter to The London Chronicle of 12-14 July 1759, signed ‘M. M.’ – if, as seems likely, this was by Madan, he evidently spent over twenty years composing his thoughts on the subject.
out, its prohibition was purely a matter of arbitrary, human convention: ‘in some places of the world, men have the liberty of many wives: in other places, such liberty is not allowed’. Even clerical opponents of polygamy sometimes conceded this. It was silly not to admit that the Bible permitted considerable licence, wrote a Cambridge professor in 1731: ‘not only a plurality of wives, but a number of concubines into the bargain’.7
Throughout the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the biblical and patristic texts continued to form part of all serious discussions of polygamy. When, in 1780, Madan made scriptural exegesis the main foundation of his argument, he self-consciously placed himself in this intellectual tradition. He was, he believed, simply completing the vital work, begun by the first Protestant reformers, of stripping away popish accretions and returning the marital practices of Christianity to God’s original design. (The true message of the Old and New Testaments, he asserted, was that sexual intercourse itself created an indissoluble marriage, and that any man could be husband to multiple women; all other rites and interpretations were but later, priestly inventions). In the 1580s such detailed biblical scholarship would have been the only way of proceeding. Even in the 1680s it would have remained the most respectable approach. Madan’s recourse to it in the 1780s demonstrates how central the fundamentalist reading of scripture was to the late eighteenth – and early nineteenth-century religious revival, and how powerfully it could inspire evangelicals to radical social reform. Yet by then it also lay far outside the mainstream of ordinary clerical culture, let alone of lay opinion.8
After 1700, in fact, interest in polygamy was mainly bound up with the general development of sexual freedom. This was the second reason for its growing prominence. Increasingly, scriptural arguments were outnumbered by other presumptions – the natural promiscuity of men; the artificiality of sexual ethics; the priestly concealment of primitive Christianity; the appeal to natural law; the example of other cultures; the patriarchal ownership of women and children. Like the evangelical urge to recover the true meaning of scripture, this approach presumed that recent marital customs were mainly of human invention, but its conclusion was the opposite – that the rules of matrimony ought to follow human policy, rather than biblical tradition. By the middle of the eighteenth century, this had become the more common view. ‘Thank God!’ exclaimed the Attorney General Sir Dudley Ryder in Parliament in 1753, rejecting the idea that marriage was an immutable divine institution, ‘we have in this age got the better of this, as well as of a great many other superstitious opinions’. Already as young men in the 1710s, he and his friends had debated the desirability of polygamy and divorce, and presumed that ‘the interest of the world’, not of God, should determine such questions.9
The question of whether polygamy was in the national interest had previously arisen in the context of royal marriages. In the early sixteenth century, Luther, Bucer, and Melanchthon had all advised Henry VIII that it would be lawful for him simply to take Anne Boleyn as a second wife – this was apparently also the view of several authoritative Catholic theologians. Later in the 1530s, the same arguments were used to justify the actual bigamy of Philip of Hesse. Exactly the same situation recurred in the later seventeenth century, when Charles II found himself unable to conceive a legitimate heir by his queen. Amongst the various solutions seriously contemplated were divorce or polygamy. John Locke, secretary to Lord Ashley (the future first Earl of Shaftesbury), repeatedly set down for his patron the arguments for why either practice might be tolerated. In 1671, Ashley and some of the king’s other close advisers sought the further authority of leading lawyers and churchmen to show that neither course contravened divine law. Four years later, the zealous MP Michael Malet, keen for the king to renounce his papist whores and beget a Protestant successor, tried to introduce a bill to allow multiple marriage, arguing that its prohibition was but a remnant of Catholic superstition.10
In the eighteenth century polygamy became linked to a more general political issue: the state of the nation’s population. Demographic concerns had always had a general influence on thinking about sexual mores. During the high middle ages, population pressure was one reason why theologians argued that virginity was superior to marriage, even though God had commanded Adam and Eve to ‘be fruitful, and multiply’ (Genesis 1.28).11 Increasing overpopulation in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries similarly coincided with the tightening of attitudes against sexual immorality, as we saw in earlier chapters. The same correlation would again arise from the early nineteenth century onwards: the adoption of Malthusian ideas at that point led to renewed concern over the dangers of excessive population, which in turn gave new urgency to the cause of sexual restraint. It was only the advent of mass contraception at the end of the twentieth century that severed this close connection between attitudes to sex and to population.
Within this longer story, the era between about 1650 and 1800 formed a crucial watershed. This was the period in which social science as we know it was born, and demographic thought (which previously had been a much vaguer and more specialized concern) first became central to social and governmental attitudes to sex. One of the earliest manifestations of this was the development of a new approach to population called ‘political arithmetic’. ‘Arithmetic’ was short-hand for the new practice of scientifically collecting and manipulating large amounts of data on population, fertility, mortality, wealth, social structure, and so on. The practice was ‘political’ because its ultimate aim was to improve national prosperity. This revolution in demographic attitudes occurred at a time of relative demographic and economic ease, but also of continual war, economic competition, and imperial expansion.1 2 As a result its impact was considerable: henceforth, every social question was subjected to such calculations. This was the final reason why polygamy became a topic of particular interest at this time.
The most basic effect of political arithmetic was namely to establish that a nation’s strength depended above all on the number of inhabitants – as Paley put it, ‘the decay of population is the greatest evil that a state can suffer; and the improvement of it the object which ought, in all countries, to be aimed at, in preference to every other political purpose whatsoever’.13 The paramount concern was hence to maximize fertility, and to find out which marital and sexual arrangements would best promote it. What was the effect of promoting celibacy, as many prosperous Catholic nations had, of tolerating prostitution, of permitting divorce – or of encouraging polygamy, as the Turks did? Did any of these customs give other nations an advantage?
Most orthodox commentators thought not. There was already a long-standing tradition of explaining why monogamous marriage was in every way superior to other sexual practices (and its Protestant, English variant most excellent of all). Now the demographic aspects of this argument were increasingly elaborated. Fornication, adultery, celibacy, and prostitution were held to detract from population: such practices were less fertile, and their offspring less likely to be healthy and loved, than licit sex. As a popular tract put it in 1700, everyone knew that ‘the beaten paths are always barren, and never productive of any fruit’; equally, ‘whatever springs from an adulterous bed is rarely of long continuance’. Nor, it was generally agreed, was multiple marriage more productive, for there was no surplus of women over men in the general population, and the practice put intolerable strain on the unfortunate husbands. ‘As polygamy debilitates the fathers’, explained a patriotic writer, ‘so it naturally creates a weak and infirm issue [and] hinders the increase of mankind’.14
The increasing prominence of demographic concerns also stimulated many new practical initiatives. The growing desire to save every possible life fuelled the great mid eighteenth-century efflorescence of new charities for the health and procreation of the labouring classes – beginning with the London Foundling Hospital, which opened in 1741 to take in illegitimate and otherwise unwanted infants. This concept was not new, but had previously always been rejected by the English on grounds of morality. Its acceptability by the 1730s and 1740s owed much to the increasing primacy of political arithmetic. Mounting anxiety about the spread of seduction and the decline of marriage was equally fuelled by the new way of thinking. Many observers feared the Marriage Act would reduce marriage, and in turn the population, because it mandated expensive and cumbersome church weddings instead of the cheap, quick, clandestine weddings that had become popular amongst the poorer sorts. As a political arithmetician urged in 1750, ‘people of this class should be encouraged to marry for procreation, and all hinderances removed as much as possible by the legislature’. The Act wrongly favoured wealthy families at the expense of the public good, argued the Duke of Bedford in 1765: ‘in order to save thousands, it has undone millions’.15
In consequence, and in emulation of other classical and modern cultures, measures to encourage wedlock and childbirth came to be widely advocated. Between 1695 and 1706, the war against France was partly financed by a special annual levy on all childless widowers and bachelors over twenty-five, graded according to status – so that, for example, an unmarried duke was fined £12 11s per year, a bishop £5 is, and a labourer one shilling. Throughout the eighteenth century there were many further proposals to tax bachelors, debar them from public office, or otherwise pressure them into doing their public duty by becoming husbands and fathers. Single men should be heavily penalized, argued Josiah Tucker, especially the wealthiest, for ‘they are the people, who set bad examples, and by their station, riches, intrigues, and address, debauch those young women at first, who afterwards become the common prostitutes of the town’. And thence, concurred a clergyman in 1782, ‘this monster, prostitution, with giant- strides, proceeds to depopulate the land’ – thus were every year thousands of lives ruined, marriages prevented, and children left unborn. The harm was incalculable.16
Yet the basic notion that population increase was good was also taken up by many advocates of greater sexual liberty. As procreation was enjoined by God, and vital to the well-being of the body politic, they argued, every act of intercourse strengthened the nation. This attitude fitted beautifully with the presumption that sex was healthy and natural, and it was part of almost every discussion in favour of sexual freedom. If fornication were freely permitted, urged a young clergyman in 1735, facetiously summarizing the arguments, the nation’s wealth and population would exponentially increase, so that ‘we should soon become the terror of all Europe, and the most formidable power upon the face of the globe’:
Here then is an action in which both parties mean well; that is vastly pleasing while they are about it, and attended with good consequences with respect to society; it must therefore be suitable to the main scope and tenor of the Bible, agreeable to what we call reason, and worthy the dignity of our natures.17
Polygamy attracted serious supporters from both sides of this debate. Many commentators presumed that it would enhance the population, and was preferable to prostitution. As one author noted in 1695, whoring was ‘very pernicious to the state, and hinders the great increase of people’ – ‘bigamy, polygamy, or any gamy is better than that’. Allowing men to take multiple wives would also prevent the horrible, depopulating infanticide of thousands of bastard children per year. Moreover, it was obviously more natural than the rigid, artificial restraint of monogamy, which was only a recent, popish imposition on one small corner of the globe – throughout the rest of the world, and in the European past, polygamy was the norm, and brought greater felicity and prosperity. As the influential politician and philosopher Henry St John, the first Viscount Bolingbroke, urged, ‘It has therefore prevailed always, and it still prevails generally. . . was authorized by God himself. . . and provides the most effectual means for the generation and education of children’ and increasing the population. In short, its ‘prohibition is absurd’.18
It also held out the promise of balancing male freedom with social responsibility. That is why it tempted Boswell, Thomas Jefferson, and untold lesser men with fantasies of patriarchal sexual dominion. They did not consider themselves to be libertines: they cared about morality and abhorred seduction. Boswell, who slept with countless married and unmarried women, from every rank of society, nevertheless had a firm ‘principle of never debauching an innocent girl’. Instead, the examples of the Old Testament patriarchs and the mighty potentates of the East seemed to provide a responsible, ethical model of how masculine freedom and power could be exercised over women without destroying them. ‘Were it not better, honester, and more becoming our duty, and to prevent worse disorders’, asked a modern philosopher in 1759, if men were obliged to marry, rather than abandon, all those they debauched? Would it not add ‘much to the health, credit, strength, policy and increase of our species’? If multiple marriage were adopted, urged Madan, ‘millions of women (especially of the lower sort) would be saved from ruin’.19
Polygamy was therefore often seen as a means of expanding marriage and bolstering sexual discipline, against the rising tide of upper-class male rapacity. What was ‘the most common and most powerful of all moral Evils’, the greatest social problem of the century, asked the followers of Emmanuel Swedenborg in 1789? It was surely not ‘the attachment of one unmarried man to one free woman, and simply concubinage, which under certain regulations never ought to be forbidden in a Free State’, but rather:
(1.) Adultery. (2.) The lust of variety. (3.) The lust of defloration. (4.) The lust of violation. (5.) The lust of seducing the innocent. If these five species of lasciviousness are not rooted out from a society, and especially from among men in office, both ecclesiastical and civil, and from all such as by their exalted sphere in life, should be examples to others; then that society. . . can be nothing else but a nest for vice of every kind, and an habitation for misery in every degree.20
The same attitude animated a female reader of Madan’s work who, having ‘made the causes of female ruin, a subject of her particular attention’, organized a public debate ‘upon the consequence of allowing in this country a plurality of wives’ so as ‘to prevent seduction and prostitution’. Boswell’s friend, Peggy Stuart, was likewise
clear for it, because she said there were so many men who could not afford to marry that a number of women were useless; that supposing as many men as women in the world, a man who can maintain many wives or women, having them, is not depriving some other men of their share; because you deprive a man of nothing when you take what he at any rate would not have.21
These were the reasons why the idea of limited polygamy attracted Richardson, Madan, and other serious Christian moralists, whose chief concerns were not to advance sexual freedom but to rein in male licence, promote marriage, patriarchy, and family life, and protect ‘the weaker sex, from the villainy, treachery, and cruelty of the stronger’. ‘What mischiefs can result from polygamy being practised by a comparatively small number of persons’, asked another of its proponents in 1786, compared with
those infinite disorders, that follow from our not compelling every man, who seduced a virgin, to marry her, as the Deity ordained. Is it not owing to this cause, that every city, town, village, is filled with prostitutes? Is it not owing to this that infanticide is so frequently perpetrated? Is it not owing to this that celibacy [i. e. bachelorhood] is so prevalent, since men may gratify their passions, without having the hazard of having a family to support? Is it not owing to this that the most shameful of diseases is so common? To this in great measure may be attributed, the almost general prophaneness, irreligion, debauchery, selfishness, the enemy of patriotism and every virtue: in a word, almost all the evils of society.22
Polygamy was thus so widely discussed by the later eighteenth century because it appealed in one way or another to so many different points of view. It illustrates the continued inspiration and fertility of biblical ideas, the influence of demographic thought, the patriarchal mind-set of most eighteenth-century men and women, and the intellectual overlap between proponents and opponents of greater sexual liberty. Exactly what different observers meant by ‘polygamy’ varied accordingly. When Boswell dwelled upon ‘patriarchal’ or ‘asiatic’ precedents he evidently was often fantasizing about fairly casual liaisons, but he and many others also speculated about real, life-long marriage to multiple women. It was never proposed that all men should engage in polygamy, nor that it was necessarily superior to monogamy – merely that it was ‘not bad in itself’, that it was not explicitly prohibited by divine or natural law, and that it might be expedient to allow it, at least to a certain ‘number and quality of persons’, to mitigate greater evils such as barrenness, seduction, or simply (as Boswell mused, likening himself to Philip of Hesse) if ‘a man is too many for one woman’.23
Yet this spectrum of meanings also helps to explain why the idea was never widely embraced as a public policy. Countless men (and women) appear to have solaced themselves privately with the idea that their unmarried relationships resembled the natural, divinely sanctioned concubinage of other, glorious, times and places. All the same, when polygamy was proposed as a serious, publicly enforced expedient against seduction, its longstanding associations with immorality damned it in the eyes of most observers. His arguments were pure ‘poison’, Madan’s critics told him; they contained ‘many very dangerous, and pernicious tenets’; he had put forward a plan ‘which, if adopted by the world, must lead to the introduction of licentiousness, and must terminate in the overthrow of every principle of social com – fort’.24 The panic about moral degeneration and social disintegration that followed the American and French Revolutions gave fresh impetus to the arguments for traditional Christian monogamy as the perfect building block of a civilized society. So did the growth of empire and of missionary activity in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: polygamy came increasingly to be associated with backward, dark-skinned heathens, and their alien faiths. Meanwhile, the practical incentive for propertied men to develop serious arguments in its favour was lessened after 1700 by the gradual rise of parliamentary divorce, the decline of sexual regulation, the ease of informal concubinage, and the movement towards natural rather than biblical arguments for sexual freedom – for if marriage itself was essentially unnatural and unnecessary, why multiply it?
It had also long been reasoned that polygamy detracted from wifely status. With the growing appreciation of feminine perspectives on marriage, this became an increasingly important point. ‘What do I care for the patriarchs!’ exclaimed Lady Bradshaigh, opposing polygamy, ‘If they took it into their head to be tyrants, why should we allow them to be worthy examples to imitate?’ For Hume, Priestley, and, later, Wollstonecraft too, this came to be the central objection.25
When, in 1776, the tireless abolitionist and social reformer Granville Sharp met the celebrated Tahitian Omai, he consequently drew on many of these themes to explain that polygamy, like adultery, offended every principle of modern, enlightened ethics: the laws of nature, the principles of divine justice, the rights and sensibilities of women, and the natural empathy between all human beings. ‘Mr Omai,’ he recounted later, was ‘a black man, who by custom and education entertained as inveterate prejudices in favour of keeping several wives, as any Maroon or African whatsoever’:
‘Ohh!’ says he, ‘two wives – very good; three wives – very, very good.’ – ‘No, Mr Omai’, I said, ‘not so; that would be contrary to the first principle of the law of nature.’ – ‘First principle of the law of nature,’ said he; ‘what that? what that?’ – ‘The first principle of the law of nature’, I said, ‘is, that no man must do any thing that he would not like to be done to himself. ’ . . . ‘Well, Mr. Omai,’ said I, ‘suppose, then, that your wife loves you very much; she would not like that you should love another woman; for the women have the same passions, and feelings, and love toward the men, that we have toward the women; and we ought, therefore, to regulate our behaviour toward them by
8. Omai in his early twenties, around the time of his meeting with Granville Sharp.
our own feelings of what we should like and expect of faithful love and duty from them towards ourselves.’26
As a result, even though polygamy had come to be widely discussed, by the end of the eighteenth century various intellectual and practical developments also made it increasingly unacceptable. In 1795, the law against it was reaffirmed in parliament. Shortly afterwards, the Malthusian sea-change in attitudes towards population further undermined its general intellectual credibility. Yet even then the ideal lived on. This was partly because, by 1800, many of its presumptions had become part of the general language of sexual liberty. Martin Madan’s own godson, Samuel Wesley, the nephew of the Methodist leader, grew up convinced that sexual intercourse alone was the true basis of a valid union between two people. Though no ‘stickler’ for it, his godfather’s book and his own reading of the scriptures had ‘confirmed him in the lawfulness of polygamy’ – once a man and woman achieved
9. Granville Sharp, who was in his early forties when he encountered Omai. He never married.
‘mental and corporal conjunction. . . a marriage is perfect, without any additional ceremony invented or enforced by priests of any religion’. On this basis he lived openly for many years with his lover Charlotte Martin, and conceived a child with her, in defiance of his family’s horrified disapproval. ‘She is truly and properly my wife by all the laws of God and Nature,’ he wrote angrily to his mother in 1792. ‘She never can be made more so, by the mercenary tricks of divine jugglers. . . [not] a million of ceremonies, repeated myriads of times, by as many successors and imitators of Simon Magus, can serve to make her more happy, or more honourable.’ Eventually they went through a ceremony; but subsequently Wesley set up house with their housekeeper, Sarah Suter, with whom he then lived unmarried, having many more children, for almost thirty years. It is clear from the practice of several of its early nineteenth-century exponents that free love and multiple marriage were not always far apart. As Edward
Trelawny, Byron and Shelley’s friend, declared, polygamy was ‘not only lawful, but meritorious’.27
Its influence also persisted within various radical Protestant sects, who even after 1800 continued, like their sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century forebears, to apply scriptural precedents to modern circumstances. In England, those attracted to the Swedenbor – gian advocacy of pre – and extra-marital concubinage included the artist William Blake, who appears to have been fascinated by polygamy. Even as an elderly man, in the 1820s, he continued to preach that the scriptures showed ‘there should be a community of women’ (see plate 4). James Edward Hamilton, the self-styled ‘Ebionite’, likewise thought it obvious ‘that polygamy is, even now, permitted by God’ – only ‘bigots and prejudiced persons’ could fail to appreciate the clear meaning of the Bible.28
Above all, the idea flourished in the United States. Already by the early 1780s it is possible to find New Englanders speaking and publishing that God’s word favoured polygamy. After the turn of the century, several messianic leaders on the fringes of the religious revival embraced the practice. From the 1810s onwards, in Maine and then in upstate New York, it spread amongst the followers of Jacob Cochran, who taught that monogamous marriage was incompatible with biblical teaching and the practice of the apostolic church. In the 1830s and 1840s it came to be adopted by some members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (also known as Mormons), whose early membership in New York overlapped with that of the Cochranites. From the early 1830s onwards plural marriage was privately embraced and taught by the Mormons’ founder and prophet, Joseph Smith Jr, who claimed to be inspired by recurrent angelic visitations. In 1843, as the practice was spreading amongst the leaders of the church, Charlotte Haven wrote excitedly to her family about ‘wonderful revelations not yet made public’. After one of the elders returned from England with a second wife, the first was
reconciled to this at first unwelcome guest in her home. . . for her husband and some others have reasoned with her that plurality of wives is taught in the Bible, that Abraham, Jacob, Solomon, David and indeed all the old prophets and good men, had several wives, and if it is all right for them, it is all right for the Latter Day Saints.
In 1852, after the community had moved to the western territory of Utah, Smith’s successor Brigham Young publicly announced it as the church’s official doctrine. Exactly the same arguments underpinned the Mormon revelation as had inspired their eighteenth-century predecessors: the model of the Old Testament patriarchs, the tenor of Christ’s teachings, God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, the reasoning of earlier reformers such as Luther and Milton, the concealment of divine truth by ‘prejudice and priestcraft’, the fact that most of the world’s civilizations rejected monogamy, and the basic principle of religious liberty.29 Only in 1890, after decades of fierce military and political pressure from the Federal Government, did the church renounce the practice.
Nowadays, though polygamy remains legal and fairly widespread in many African and Asian societies, especially Islamic ones, in the west it is routinely dismissed as essentially misogynist, as the product of atavistic religious beliefs, or as both – for modern polygamists normally only allow men the right to multiple wives. Yet the continued prohibition of multiple marriage between consenting men and women also sits somewhat uneasily with the fundamental principles of modern, secular sexual ethics, as recent debates in the United States show. Already in the 1850s this point had been stressed by John Stuart Mill. At the height of English and American condemnation of Mormon polygamy, he chose to make it the culminating example of his famous manifesto on human liberty. It was evident, wrote Mill, that Mormon – ism was, like all religion, ‘the product of palpable imposture’, and marriage in general was obviously unjust to women: so that, as for polygamy, ‘no one has a deeper disapprobation’ of it than he himself. But that was irrelevant. The polygamists of Utah deserved exactly the same rights of religious and personal freedom as everyone else. After all, the general principle of liberty was that
as it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.30