The Book of Jacob: Polygamy and Social Stratification


In the Book of Jacob, the Nephite prophet, Jacob, gives a sermon in which he decries the twin evils of his day:

Wherefore, I must tell you the truth according to the plainness of the word of God. For behold, as I inquired of the Lord, thus came the word unto me, saying: Jacob, get thou up into the temple on the morrow, and declare the word which I shall give thee unto this people. 

And now behold, my brethren, this is the word which I declare unto you, that many of you have begun to search for gold, and for silver, and for all manner of precious ores, in the which this land, which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed, doth abound most plentifully. 

And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.

In the same sermon against accumulating wealth for the sake of personal aggrandizement, Jacob also rails against the sin of practicing divinely unsanctioned polygamy:

But the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son. 

Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. ... For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.

It's important to note that the Nephites were not accused of imitating Abraham, Jacob or any other righteous polygamist. Rather, they tried to excuse their particular brand of polygamy by claiming they were imitating David and Solomon. Solomon's sin was not merely the accumulation of wives but rather marrying "strange women" from other nations, who worshiped other gods(1 Kings 11:1-9).

Jacob's accusation is an indicator that the early Nephites were marrying women not descended from Lehi or Ishmael, gentile women, for that is what Solomon did. Jacob also describes the Nephite practice of polygamy as "whoredoms", as leading "away captive the daughters of my people"(Jacob 2:33) and as bringing their children to destruction(Jacob 3:10). Divorced from this sermons original context, it is difficult to imagine how having multiple wives, in any culture, would fall under the rubic of "whoredoms" for wives, by definition, are not harlots, or how exactly polygamy led their daughters into captivity, bringing their children to destruction. 

This sermon certainly has application to anyone living today, whether or not they are wealthy or are even married; but what was it's sitz im leben, it's original setting in life? To understand why Jacob and his audience would consider these two sins, accumulating wealth and polygamy, as being the twin pillars of sin that they were, as well as their relationship to whoredoms and captivity, we look to ancient Mesoamerica.


John Clark and Michael Blake, in The Power of Prestige: Competitive Generosity and the Emergence of Rank Societies in Lowland Mesoamerica, describe how social inequality came about in the lowlands of Chiapas, which, according to Sorenson's model of Book of Mormon geography, is near where the earliest Nephites found themselves.

How did simple egalitarian communities give way to socially stratified ones in Mesoamerica? First, "aggrandizers" got rich and powerful in Mesoamerica by creating a cottage industry for themselves, through the sheer sweat of their brow. The aggrandizers then leverage the workforce of their wife(or wives) and children. According to Clark and Blake "the more wives the better" for more wives mean more workers in the form of wives and many children. The aggrandizers then use their numerous children by marrying them off to other aggrandizer families, in other locales, who themselves are looking to trade their wares in the communities of other aggrandizers, who they also become related to through marriage. The aggrandizers in the network enrich each other, while insuring that the avenues of trade and alliance making stay within the network.

In the case of the Nephites, gold and silver are useless, in and of themselves; you can't eat gold but you can make things out of it, to be worn and/or traded. Since gold and silver were not valued in Mesoamerica the way, say, jade was, the Nephite leveraging of gold and silver would have been in it's pliability, in making whatever trinkets they made to be sold and traded outside of their community. As was the Mesoamerican way, success would require multiple wives and the marrying off of daughters to gentile natives and, in turn, marrying gentile women. All of this makes the before mentioned elements of Jacob's sermon more understandable.

As the granddaughters and great-grand daughters of Lehi and Sariah were married off to gentiles,for the sake of creating business alliances, this would appear very much like prostitution, and as these women live out their days in an alien culture, where Yahweh is not even acknowledged, captivity and the spiritual destruction of their children come to mind. The shift from an initially egalitarian Nephite society to a non-egalitarian one, with it's twin sins of wealth accumulation and polygamy, mirror how egalitarian societies changed to socially stratified ones in Mesoamerica.

Further Reading: A Social History of the Early Nephites.

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