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 gay and 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).
From the modern legal perspective, trigamy is viewed as two counts of bigamy.
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.
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 traditional attitude toward mistresses is reflected in the saying: "wife is not as good as concubine, concubine is not as good as prostitute, prostitute is not as good as secret affair, secret affair is not as good as the affair you want but can't get" (妻不如妾, 妾不如妓, 妓不如偷, 偷不如偷不到).
In the modern day, Rabbinic Judaism has essentially outlawed polygamy. Ashkenazi Jews have followed Rabbenu Gershom's ban since the 11th century. Some Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews (particularly those from Yemen and Iran) discontinued polygamy much more recently, as they emigrated to countries where it was forbidden. The State of Israel has severely limited the ability for Jews to enter polygamous marriages, but instituted provisions for existing polygamous families immigrating from countries where the practice was legal.
Among Karaite Jews, who do not adhere to Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, polygamy is almost non-existent today. Karaites interpret Leviticus 18:18 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent (Keter Torah on Leviticus, pp.96—97) and Karaites interpret Exodus 21:10 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if he is capable of maintaining the same level of marital duties due to his first wife; the marital duties are 1) food, 2) clothing, and 3) sexual gratification. Because of these two biblical limitations and because nearly all countries outlaw it, polygamy is considered highly impractical, and there are only a few known cases of it among Karaite Jews today.
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.
The New Testament authors seem to prefer monogamy from church leaders. Paul writes in 1Timothy 3:2, " A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;" Something similar is repeated in the first chapter of the book of Titus.
However, 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.")
"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.
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.
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 allowed 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 in response to reports that plural marriages had been entered into by church members after the 1890 declaration by Woodruff. President Smith stated, "that no such marriages have been solemnized with the sanction, consent or knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 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.
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.
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.
In the US, the Libertarian Party supports complete decriminalization of polygamy as part of a general belief that the government should not regulate 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, 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..
Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, lamented the modern arguments increasingly being made by various intellectuals who call for de-criminalizing polygamy. Kurtz concluded, "Marriage, as its ultramodern critics would like to say, is indeed about choosing one's partner, and about freedom in a society that values freedom. But that's not the only thing it is about. As the Supreme Court justices who unanimously decided Reynolds in 1878 understood, marriage is also about sustaining the conditions in which freedom can thrive. Polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for social structures that inhibit and ultimately undermine social freedom and democracy. A hard-won lesson of Western history is that genuine democratic self-rule begins at the hearth of the monogamous family."
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.
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."
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.
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-Xiao-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.