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The term Polygamy (literally much marriage in late Greek) is used in related ways in social anthropology and sociobiology.

In social anthropology, polygamy is the practice of marriage to more than one spouse simultaneously (as opposed to monogamy where each person has only one spouse at a time). Like monogamy, the term is often used in a de facto sense, applying regardless of whether the relationships are recognised by the state.

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. In this sense, multiple matings are defined as promiscuous.

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.

A notable example of polyandry occurs in Hindu culture in the Mahabharata, where the Pandavas are married to one common wife, Draupadi. Today it is almost exclusively observed in the Toda tribe of India, where it is sometimes the custom for several brothers to have one wife. In this context, the practice is intended to keep land (a precious resource in a populous country like India) from being split up amongst male heirs.

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 arrangement (taken from 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.

Related terms


Polygamy is an anthropological term. A related legal term is bigamy, which is a legal term referring to someone has entered into any number of "secondary" marriages in addition to one legally-recognized marriage. Many countries have specific statutes outlawing bigamy, making any secondary marriage a crime. When a man with three wives is charged, for example, he is charged with two counts of bigamy, for the two "secondary" marriages after the first one.


Main article: Polyamory.

The term polyamory refers to romantic or sexual relationships involving multiple partners at once, regardless of whether they involve marriage. Any polygamous relationship is polyamorous, and some polyamorous relationships involve multiple spouses. "Polygamy" is usually used to refer to multiple marriage, while "polyamory" implies a relationship defined by negotiation between its members rather than cultural norms.

Poly relationship

Main article: Poly relationship.

Other forms of nonmonogamous relationships are discussed at poly relationship.

Polygamy worldwide

Polygynous societies are about four times more numerous than monogamous ones. In 1994, Theodore C. Bergstrom noted in his paper "On the Economics of Polygyny" [1] (http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Evolution/polygyny3.pdf) (U. Mich. Center for Research on Economic and Social Theory, Working Paper Series 94-11) that "Although overt polygamy is rare in our own society, it is a very common mode of family organization around the world. Of 1170 societies recorded in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, polygyny (some men having more than one wife) is prevalent in 850."

Patterns of occurrence

At the same time, even within societies which allow polygamy, the actual practice of polygamy often occurs only rarely. To take on more than one wife often requires considerable financial 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 polygamous societies, multiple wives often become a status symbol denoting wealth and power. Similarly, within societies which 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 and religion


Non-Mormon polygamy

The Greco-Roman society in which early Christianity developed was at least formally monogamous, yet the Old Testament clearly demonstrates polygamy among the Biblical patriarchs. Saint Augustine demonstrated this conflict in his consideration of Old Testament polygamy in The Good of Marriage (chapter 15, paragraph 17), where he wrote that though 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." He declined to judge the patriarchs, but did not deduce from their practice the ongoing acceptability of polygamy. In another place, 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]."

Today, the 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."

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. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther advised Philip of Hesse that although he found nothing unbiblical about polygamy, he should keep his second marriage a secret to avoid public scandal. The radical Anabaptists of Münster also practiced polygamy, but they had little influence after the defeat of the Münster Rebellion in 1535. Other Protestant leaders including John Calvin condemned polygamy, and at any rate sanctioned polygamy did not survive long within Protestantism.

The modern trend towards frequent divorce and remarriage is sometimes refered to by Christians as 'serial polygamy'.

Mormon polygamy

See main articles: Plural marriage, Polygamous clans of Utah.

Early in its history The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practised polygamy in the United States and referred to it first as celestial marriage, then later more specifically as "plural marriage". It was publicly announced by the Church in 1852, and was believed to be a sacred ordinance. Only some members of the Church practiced polygamy. The practice was introduced by prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., the Church's founder.

It should be noted that Latter-day Saints always considered plural marriage--both as it was practiced among them and as they believed it to have been observed in Old Testament times--as a rare exception to the generally applicable rule of marriage. Among the Latter-day Saints, that general rule always has been that marriage is "between one man and one woman." Even prior to the organization of the Church in April 1830 the religion's scripture, the Book of Mormon, established "the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife." Jacob 2:27. That scripture considered polygamy to be only an exception to the general rule, applicable only "if I will, saith the Lord." Jacob 2:30.

The practice of polygamy quickly led to persecution of the Church and the enacting of anti-polygamy laws. (The U.S. Congress made the practice illegal in U.S. Territories in 1862). Many members of the Church fled to Canada in an attempt to set up communities free from prosecution; for example, Cyril Ogston founded Seven Persons, Alberta. Although Latter-day Saints believed that their religiously-based practice of plural marriage was protected by the United States Constitution, opponents used it to delay Utah statehood until 1896. Increasingly harsh anti-polygamy legislation stripped Church members of their rights as citizens, disincorporated the Church, and permitted the seizure of Church property until the Church ordered the discontinuance of the practice in 1890.

National attention in the United States again focused on potential polygamy among the Church in the early 20th century during the House hearings on Representative-elect B. H. Roberts and Senate hearings on Senator-elect Reed Smoot (the Smoot Hearings). This caused Church president Joseph F. Smith to issue his "Second Manifesto" against polygamy in 1904. Since that time, it has been Church policy to excommunicate any member either practicing or openly advocating the practice of polygamy.

The ban on polygamy resulted in a schism within the Church, with various splinter groups leaving the Church to continue the practice of polygamy. Polygamy among these groups persists today in Utah and neighboring states, as well as among isolated individuals with no organized church affiliation. Polygamists of this kind are sometimes called "Mormon fundamentalists", despite their lack of affiliation with the mainstream Church. This contemporary polygamy is estimated to be practiced by about 30,000 people. Most of the polygamy is believed to be restricted to about a dozen extended clans.

The practice of informal polygamy among these groups presents itself with interesting legal issues. It has been considered difficult to prosecute polygamists partly because they are not formally married under Utah law. Without evidence that suspected offenders have multiple, formal or common-law marriages, these groups are merely subject to the laws against adultery or unlawful cohabitation. These laws are not commonly enforced because they also criminalize other behavior that is otherwise socially sanctioned. Another major concern has recently arisen with the discovery that many women are brought into these polygynous relationships prior to the age of consent, meaning that some men may be committing statutory rape.

Many modern polygamists and polyamorists deliberately classify "plural marriage" as wholly separate from other forms of polygamy.


Although classical Jewish literature indicates that polygamy was permitted, the various segments of Judaism have now outlawed polygamy. The first was Ashkenazi Jewry, which followed Rabbenu Gershom's ban since the 11th century. However, there are some who claim the ban was a temporary measure that no longer applies according to the Jewish law and want to restore polygamy. See Jewish Doctrines Pertaining To Polygamy (http://polygamy.com/Jewish/index.htm). Some Sephardi groups only discontinued polygamy much more recently, to the point that the State of Israel had to make provisions for polygamic families immigrating after its 1948 creation.


Muslim polygamy, in practice and law,differs greatly throughout the Islamic world. In some Muslim countries, polygamy is relatively common, while in most others, it is often rare or non-existent. Polygamy is most widely practiced by Muslims in West Africa (where it is also widely practiced by non-Muslims), as well as in certain traditionalist Arabian states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; in the rest of the Muslim world, it is extremely rare, with some countries even banning it.

In Muslim countries where polygamy does occur, there are certain core fundamentals found in common among most of them. 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. Thus, Muslim polygamy is traditionally restricted to wealthy men, 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.

Islam allows a man to have up to four wives at any one time. However, a woman cannot have more than one husband at a time. The Qur'an in verse 4:3 states:

"And if you fear you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry (other) women of your choice; 2, 3 or 4, but if you fear you may not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one." (English translation by Dr Muhammad Taqi-ul-Din Al Hilali and Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan).

This verse is linked to the preceding verse which relates to a man taking an orphaned girl as his wife. The caregivers of these orphan girls have an unfair advantage (especially during the time during which the Qur'an was revealed) over them if they wish to marry them. Being their guardians, they may be tempted to marry them without paying them their full dowries or in order to confiscate their inheritance. This verse is telling these men that if they fear that they cannot deal justly with the orphans whom they wish to marry, then they should marry other women (not orphaned women but free women with guardians and families who can look over and protect their rights).

It's important to note the context within which the term 'orphan girls' is being used here. Orphaned girls (that is, orphaned of both mother and father as well as any immediate family to look after them) at the time when the Qur'an was revealed had very low status in society and virtually no recognisable rights, unless a caregiver chose to take them in. The relationship of the caregiver to the orphaned girl would have to satisfy the criteria set out in the Qur'an verses 4:23 and 4:24 as to which women a man is permitted to marry under Islamic law in order for verse 4:3 to be valid.

Some Muslims, however, believe that polygamy is restricted (e.g. [2] (http://www.answering-christianity.com/polygamy.htm)). They quote the following verse 4:129 "Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practise self-restraint, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful." (Yusuf Ali translation.) This, combined with the requirement for fairness stated in 4:3 and arguments based on its context, has led them to conclude that polygamy is only sanctioned in exceptional circumstances - e.g. when there is a shortage of male adults after a war - and that monogamy is generally preferable. Opponents of this view believe that verse 4:129 does not seek to discourage polygamy, but instead guides the husband on how to treat all of his wives fairly in practice, even though, in term of (love and emotions) he will not be able to love and feel the same for them (all) equally.


In Hinduism, polygamy was practiced since ancient times. Hinduism does not prohibit polygamy but does not encourage it. Historically, only kings, in practice, were polygamous. For example, the Vijanagar emperor, Krishnadevaraya had multiple wives. In modern times, polygamy is prohibited under Indian law, specifically under those provisions which relate to Hindu marriage. However, Muslims in India are allowed to have multiple wives. As of October 2004, Muslims and Hindus are treated differently under Indian law. There have been efforts to propose a uniform marital law that would treat all Indians the same, irrespective of religion.

Legal situation

Secular law in most "Western" countries with large Jewish and Christian populations does not recognise polygamous marriages. However, few such countries have any laws against living a polygamous lifestyle: they simply refuse to give it any official recognition. Parts of the United States, however, criminalise even the polygamous lifestyle, which is unusual; these laws originated as anti-Mormon legislation, although they are rarely enforced.

Multiple divorce and marriage for polygamy

Some polygamous families use a system of multiple divorce and legal marriage. This is where the husband marries the first wife, she takes his last name, he divorces her and then marries the next wife who takes his name. For polyandry relationships, it is the wife that marries and divorces the husbands one after another. This is repeated until he has married and divorced all his wives, except possibly the last one. This way the wives feel justified in calling themselves Mrs. [husband's last name] and, while legally they're divorced from the husband, they act still married to him and expect those around them to acknowledge and respect this.

Since only one wife is married to the husband at any one time, no law was being broken and so this type of polygamous family unit could be overt about their relationship. In 2001, however, the state of Utah in the United States convicted Tom Green of criminal non-support and four counts of bigamy for having 5 serially monogomous marriages, while living with previous legally divorced wives. His cohabitation was considered evidence of a common-law marriage to the wives he had divorced while still living with them. That premise was subsequently affirmed by the Utah Supreme Court in State v. Green (http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/greeni090304.htm), as applicable only in the State of Utah. Green was also convicted of child rape and criminal non-support. In 2005, the state attorneys-general of Utah and Arizona issued a primer (http://www.attorneygeneral.utah.gov/polygamy.html) on helping victims of domestic violence and child abuse in polygamous communities. These states are emphasizing enforcement of crimes of child abuse, domestic violence, and fraud over the enforcement of the crime of polygamy. The priorities of local prosecuters are not covered by this statement.

Deseret News article about Tom Green (http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,405025347,00.html)

Current proponents and critics

David Friedman and Steve Sailer have argued that polygamy tends to benefit most women and disadvantage most men. Friedman uses this observation to argue in favor of legalizing polygamy, while Sailer uses it to argue against legalizing it.

The Libertarian Party supports complete decriminalization of polygamy.

Individualist feminism and advocates such as Wendy McElroy also support the freedom for adults to voluntarily enter polygamous marriages.

Christian fundamentalists usually oppose polygamy. Some Human Rights Activists see polygamy as an abuse issue based on law and not one that is related to religion but rather one that is hidden behind the veil of religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supports enforcing laws against polygamy.

The ACLU of Utah is opposed to Utah's law against bigamy (http://www.aclu.org/ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLiberty.cfm?ID=8318&c=142).

Those who advocate a Federal Marriage Amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage generally word their proposed laws to also prohibit polygamy.

Robert Heinlein was a science fiction writer who discussed polygyny, polyandry, group marriage, and line marriage in his works.

Compare monogamy and concubinage.

How polygamists find more spouses

Those who live in their own communities tend to find their additional spouses from within their own communities or networks of like-communities; Mormon polygamists do this. Those who are geographically separated from other polygamists in their culture use other means to find additional spouses; Christian and secular polygamists do this. Some polygamists from all groups use the Internet to find additional spouses.

Mormon fundamentalists - aggregate in communities

So-called Mormon fundamentalists (who are not associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) continue to practice polygamy today, more than 100 years after the LDS Church discontinued the practice. These fundamentalists practice polygamy by tending to aggregate in communities where they all commonly share their own specific religious basis for polygamy. Due to the Mormon revered texts of Doctrine & Covenants 132 and subsequent pronouncements making polygamy an "appointment" for obtaining religious rewards in heaven (D&C 132:40), women in such fundamentalist Mormon communities often marry polygamously as a requirement for their path toward becoming better off in the afterlife.

Historically, it was this implicit lack of choice for women in the specifically fundamentalist Mormon polygamous situations, that caused many anti-polygamists to inaccurately equate all polygamy in general as somehow being against women. With such added hostility from Western society for such "no-choice-for-women" premises, Mormon polygamists find it simply easier to aggregate into their own private separated communities and retain their privacy.

Muslims & 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. Thus, polygamy is traditionally restricted to wealthy men, 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 and the United Arab Emirates for instance, whereas in secular Arab states like Lebanon and non-Arab Muslim countries, Turkey and Malaysia for example, it is either extremely rare or even banned outright. 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.

Christians & seculars - geographically separated

Most Christian polygamists are usually quite geographically separated from other like-minded believers. Christian polygamy involves a very different model for polygamy. It is not a "rewards based" theology whatsoever. And it very much affords women rights, seeking to deliberately minister and help them be the best they can be. Based only on the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Christian polygamy is based on the Bible's Ephesians 5:22-25 instructions. Husbands are to be ministering, selfless, and loving as "Christ is to His churches." This teaching requires husbands to be genuinely caring and nurturing of women - in the same way as Christ is toward "His brides," the churches. Husbands are never to "force" polygamy upon or against any current wife. LoveNotForce.com  (http://www.LoveNotForce.com) sets the "standard of Christian Polygamy." If "God truly calls" a family to polygamy, then a husband must simply love his wife until "God truly calls" the wife to also embrace it. Until she does so, and does so without any coercion, he may not otherwise "force" polygamy upon her. Because Christian polygamy involves no religious "rewards" for polygamy, there is also no pressure upon women to embrace it. When a Christian woman does embrace Christian polygamy, she does so of her own free will, seeing her husband as a genuinely Christ-like, giving man. With that high standard, Christian polygamous families seek very moral, Christian women. In a modern Western view which is sometimes unaware of the existence of such different models for polygamous marriage, finding such high-moral Christian women who are also willing to be polygamous can be quite a challenge for Christian polygamists. That challenge becomes compounded by the fact that most Christian polygamists are usually geographically separated from other like-minded believers. Because of such doctrinal compassion for women and wanting to help women, Christian polygamous families frequently arise after the development of a relationship with a secular-divorced Christian mother whose un-Christian ex-husband had abandoned her and the children.

Secular polygamists are also usually separated geographically from others of the same mindset. When such individual secular families develop, they tend to be situational occurrences, having little or no religious background regarding the issue of polygamy. A secular married couple might either stumble into a relationship with a third person or deliberately seek for a libertine "open-minded" person to become a permanent part of their family. For them, it's all about their free choice.

With Christian polygamy's "love-not-force" (http://www.LoveNotForce.com) standard and secular polygamy's "free choice" paradigm, these "pro-woman" models of polygamy have emerged to break down the mistaken stereotypes of polygamy in general.

Perceiving that Western society simply needs to be more educated of such "pro-woman" models of polygamy, most Christian polygamists and secular polygamists have little or no inclination to separate into isolated communities.

On the Internet - polygamy personals

When it comes to seeking polygamous family situations via the internet, the options are very limited.

For polyandrists, there are no web-sites dedicated to providing ads for single men seeking polyandry or even for polyandrous families seeking such single men. The only online opportunities for such ads would likely be found on polyamory sites such as PolyMatchMaker.com (http://www.PolyMatchMaker.com). The cause of that is mostly due to how very few people are involved in polyandry and to the tendency of most polyandrous-inclined men to be bisexual.

However, the very different kinds of relationship-seekers who would advertise on such polyamory sites involve additional issues with which most polygynists would never be interested in nor comfortable with being associated. Mormon, Muslim, and Christian polygamists are all exclusively polygyny-based, and all typically do not involve bisexual issues. Even most secular polygamists tend to be polygynists too.

A handful of polygamy web-sites have attempted to offer such "polygamy personals" for polygynists. But such sites accomplish very little because they always lack the most sought-after individuals: single women who are actually and currently interested in marrying polygynously. Only one site, 2Wives.com - Polygamy Personals (http://www.2Wives.com), has actually ever been able to put a functioning system in place to provide such current ads of such real women.


  • Butt S J. Inside Christian Polygamy and the Patriarchal Christian Movement (2000); Circleville, Utah: Bfree Publishing.
  • Cairncross, J. After Polygamy Was Made a Sin. The Social History of Christian Polygamy (1974) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710077300.
  • Campbell, James. The History and Philosophy of Marriage (2005) San Francisco: Imperial.
  • Chapman, S A. Polygamy, Bigamy and Human Rights Law (2001) Xlibris.com. ISBN 1401012442.
  • Hillman, E, Polygamy Reconsidered - African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches (1975) New York: Orbis. ISBN 0883443910. - Roman Catholic Doctrine reviewed and challenged by Roman Catholic priest.
  • Van Wagoner, Richard S., Mormon Polygamy, A History (1989) Utah: Signature Books. ISBN 0941214796 (Paperback, 2nd edition, 1992).
  • Wilson, Edward O., Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 2000. ISBN 0674002350.

External links

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