Paradise Lost?

A new television program is accused of glorifying polygamy. As Scott McLemee discovers, the literary canon may be even more culpable.

March 15, 2006

A carefully worded memorandum appearing last week on the Web site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints informs the public that the expression “Mormon polygamist” is now offensive and inaccurate -– no matter what used to happen, back in the day. The occasion for this official statement is, of course, the new HBO series "Big Love," about a Utah businessman and his three wives living behind a facade of suburban normalcy in Salt Lake City.

Not content with making semantic demands, the memo also ventures into the field of applied cultural studies, calling HBO’s program “essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.” (Insert Osmonds joke here.) The show has also met with criticism from anti-polygamy activists in Utah, who worry that "Big Love" will treat an exploitative practice as just another alternative lifestyle.

Based on a viewing of the first episode, I think some of the complaints are premature. There is a formal statement, before the closing credits, that the LDS policy now forbids polygamy. But more, the narrative will clearly be driven by tensions between “official” Mormonism and the splinter sect presented in the series. And there is already more than a hint of violent menace in the character of Roman, the splinter group’s “prophet,” played by Harry Dean Stanton, whose presence on screen always carries the Gothic aura picked up from appearing in the films of David Lynch.

The prophet’s newest bride is 14 years old. Patriarchal authority has rarely looked this sleazy.

But perhaps there is a complaint to lodge about "Big Love" after all. By default, it perpetuates the common notion that the Mormon polygamy was a unique mutation in the history of Christianity. On the contrary, the practice goes back very nearly to the beginning of the church -- and it has popped up again, from time to time, sometimes finding the most surprising advocates.

The pioneers in this were the Adamites, a sect from the second century. Being redeemed from sin, they held, meant being restored to mankind’s original innocence; hence the Adamites worshiped in the nude and practiced a kind of group marriage. This went over with church authorities about as well as might be expected. But the heresy proved remarkably durable, reemerging in various forms throughout the Middle Ages and on into the Enlightenment.

Another way of looking at it would be to say that the Adamites were the original manifestation of the counterculture. Raoul Vaneigem -- whose theoretical writings were an inspiration to student radicals around the world in 1968 -- hailed this dissident current as an inspiration. His 1994 book The Movement of the Free Spirit, published by Zone Books and distributed by MIT Press, is subtitled “General Considerations and Firsthand Testimony Concerning Some Brief Flowerings of Life in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and, Incidentally, Our Own Time.”

But Christian departures from the monogamous norm were not limited to the occasional group of proto-hippies. Following Luther’s challenge to the authority of the established church, some early Protestant theologians argued for a return to the example of the ancient Jewish patriarchs as described in scripture. (Strictly speaking, they were advocates of polygyny, marriage to multiple wives. By definition, the term “polygamy” is more inclusive; it would cover the somewhat rarer practice of polyandry, in which a woman has several husbands.)

Luther himself concluded that it might be doctrinally permissible to be married to more than one woman at a time, at least in theory. Some of the more radical reformers in his wake also considered it a practical possibility. A fascinating account of this tendency in early Protestantism appears in After Polygamy Became a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy by John Cairncross, published in 1974 and now out of print.

The author, a journalist and independent scholar, not only wrote history but made a little. Before turning his attention to Reformation theology, Cairncross was part of the Soviet spy ring recruited among students at Cambridge University during the 1930s.

But the biggest surprise of all, I suppose, is the endorsement of polygamy by another famous British subversive -- a poet by the name of John Milton, who, before writing Paradise Lost, was de facto Minister of Propaganda for the Puritan regime that executed Charles I in 1649.

Apart from his poetry, Milton was a pamphlet-writing machine. John Keats referred to his prose as “delectable,” which is, on the whole, a minority opinion, though one I would endorse. There is no greater defense of the freedom of the press than Areopagitica. And the autobiographical passages in some of his tracts were, in their time, an extremely bold departure from the norm. (His polemical opponents respond by accusing him of egomania and bad taste.)

Only in 1823 did an archivist discover the manuscript known as De Doctrina Christiana, a systematic theological work attributed to Milton. (Controversy over whether or not he wrote all of it has never died.) The text contained a number of surprises concerning Milton’s religious beliefs -- some of which it would take an hour to explain for anyone not up on the fine points of Christian theology.

But the argument of one section is plain enough: “Polygamy is allowed by the law of God,” wrote Milton at the end of his analysis of relevant passages from both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It was practiced by Abraham, Moses, and King David, among others -- “men whose holiness renders them fit patterns for imitation, and who are among the lights of our faith.” And among Christians, it was forbidden only to “the ministers of the church alone, and that not on account of any sinfulness in the practice.” Rather, as Milton argued, having more than one wife would be a distraction from doing their duties. Other than that, polygamy would simply be a form of marriage -- and  “marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled.” (The whole section is available online here).

In 1825, the English translation of De Doctrina provided the occasion for a long article in The Edinburgh Review by Thomas Macaulay, who would go on to become the Victorian era’s most prominent essayist. ( This piece, which was much discussed at the time, was actually his debut in a major literary venue.)

Macaulay referred to the section on polygamy only in passing -- but he threw out a line that must have been amusing for readers familiar with the poet’s domestic miseries. In 1642, Milton married a young woman named Mary Powell, who promptly left him. Although they were later reunited, it was a joyless pairing. Milton went on to write a series of pamphlets arguing that there ought to be grounds for divorce besides adultery. In short, total incompatibility should be enough.

As for Milton’s posthumously revealed views on polygamy -- well, Macaulay thought they were cut from the same cloth. “We can scarcely conceive,” wrote Macaulay, “...that any reader, acquainted with the history of his life, ought to be much startled....”

At one level, Macaulay’s comment reflects a “common sense” -- if not terribly sensible -- understanding of why an unhappily married man would prefer polygyny. After all, if things were going badly with one wife, you could turn to another.

On a more serious note, I see that even a scholar who questions whether or not Milton wrote all of De Doctrina believes that the section on polygamy might well reflect Milton's thinking in the matter. Throughout the 1990s, William B. Hunter made perhaps the most exhaustive argument for skepticism, culminating in his book Visitation Unimplor’d: Milton and the Authorship of De Doctrina Christiana, published by Duquesne University Press in 1998. In the course of an almost page-by-page analysis of the original manuscript, Hunter states that “the section on polygamy” and “the pages on divorce” were probably by the same author -- that is, “Milton, in my opinion.”

Well, that’s good enough for me. But assuming that Milton did think polygamy through in this fashion, how much of it was driven by idiosyncratic personal considerations? And how much by the avant garde theological debates of his day? I contacted Michael Bryson, an assistant professor of English at California State University's Northridge campus to pick his brain.

Bryson is particularly interested in the overlap between Milton’s politics and his theology. (And if you have any doubt that marriage is all about politics...) His study The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King was published by the University of Delaware Press in 2004.

His argument is not quite identical to William Blake’s wily notion of how come Satan gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost -- namely, that Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Instead, Bryson’s thesis is that Milton, while certainly a Christian, challenged the established conception of God. The old image treated the deity as a really, really powerful authority figure. (A human sovereign, on a superhuman scale: a tyrant without limits.) The theology emerging on the other side of this critique is, in effect, rather more libertarian than one might expect from a Puritan.

I asked Bryson how he understood the poet’s thinking on polygamy. “Milton,” he wrote back by email, “was an advocate for throwing off what he saw as man-made restrictions of, or infringements upon, the freedoms that God created mankind with originally.” That, he explained, was a current running throughout his pamphlets defending the English Revolution of the 1640s. It was also “the essential logic of his case for overthrowing canon law regarding marriage and divorce.” And likewise with the defense of polygamy.

“I think,” said Bryson, “that Milton, in general, saw humanity as having been more free in the past (in the days of the patriarchs, in the days before monarchy, in the days of the early Christian church) than they had come to be in his day.”

The effort to recover that lost liberty guided Milton in how he applied the Reformation principle of “sola scriptura,” of arguing strictly from the text of the Bible. In doing so, Milton gave things, “a twist in whatever direction he saw as leading to a lessening of external restrictions on thought and action,” as Bryson puts it. He quotes Milton’s appeal to "the pre-eminent and supreme authority [...] of the Spirit, which is internal, and the individual possession of each man."

And by “each man,” of course, the author meant ... well, ”each man.” The right to variety was, as one says nowadays, a gendered prerogative. (No wild Adamite polyandry on the horizon for John Milton.) The limits to his conception of freedom were the product of his era.

Still, Bryson thinks we should avoid reading too much autobiographical subtext into the poet’s defense of polygamy. “Milton’s ‘life,’” he points out, “was lived largely in the realm of thought. Milton’s physical/domestic life seems to have been much less radical than his theopolitical thought.... Knowing the history of Milton’s domestic life would not necessarily lead us to think: ‘Well, here’s a guy who will probably defend polygamy.’ ”

I suspect, in any case, that he would want to watch "Big Love," because it is interesting to study the practice as well as the theory. Besides, you occasionally feel the hankering for “essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds,” as they say in Utah.


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