Book Review – Social History of Christian Polygamy


“After polygamy was made a sin”

by John Cairncross

Published 1974 by Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. ISBN 0 7100 7730

See Below for Extended Review



This book, subtitled “The Social History of Christian Polygamy”, was written by a former British civil-servant and journalist who discovered an anti-polygamy book in a Paris bookstore in the 1950’s. The book dated back to the eighteenth century and Mr. Cairncross set out to discover the movement to which this book had reacted. He found that polygamy was not the sole preserve of Muslims and South Sea islanders, but had a substantial recent Christian tradition.

The book presents the results of the considerable research done, and shows that polygamy has repeatedly been defended, advocated and even practised by leading figures in Christendom since around the time of the Reformation. The study does not however, penetrate any further back into history than this period, but does find more than enough evidence of Christian polygamy in relatively recent times to provide understanding to those who still consider the subject today.

Twenty-two years on from the book’s publication, it is now possible to review the book on the Internet. As such a time has passed, it is no longer believed that the book is in print, and it is estimated that most of the copies published will be in libraries or homes in Britain. But copyright law in Europe will prevent the publication being freely disseminated until 70 years after the author’s death. Hence it is desirable to perform an extended review of the book, with presentation and criticism of the arguments contained therein, and the quotation of a number of brief passages.

The review below tackles the book chapter by chapter. For brevity, the references cited by the author are mostly left out. Readers should note however that most of these refer to books in Latin, German or French and that Mr. Cairncross presents summaries of what he considered to be the most important material in them.

Readers should be aware that the title is not a concession that polygamy is in fact sinful, but is a reference to Dryden’s poem “Absalom and Ahithophel” which begins “In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin, Before Polygamy was made a sin”. This poem locates the prohibition of polygamy not with God but with a false order of priesthood.

Also, reading the book leaves one with the firm impression that Mr. Cairncross is looking at Christianity from the outside. While this does make him prone to certain errors, he cannot be guilty of being a biased enthusiast for Christian polygamy.


The author recounts how he came to be interested in and to research the subject. He dates the opposition to polygamy from “orthodoxy” since “at least A.D. 600”, and says that polygamy has been ruthlessly suppressed at its every manifestation, resulting in many holding the views without practising them and their writings being hard to locate. The author also stipulates that he uses the term “polygamy” to refer to “polygyny” only, as technically the former term also includes the ability of women to marry several husbands.

1) The Lordly Freedom of Man

“On 23 July in the year of grace 1534, the northwest German city of Munster proclaimed polygamy as the ideal form of marriage.” So begins Chapter 1, which analyses a short-lived experiment by a particular branch of German Anabaptists. He quotes Briffault to establish that before Christ “The terms ‘monogamy’, ‘bigamy’, ‘polygamy’ in the sense in which we use them, were unknown, and there existed no words to indicate what they denote. The ‘prohibition’ of polygyny was promulgated for the first time in any part of the world in the code of Justinian in the sixth century of our era”, and “even today, the grounds of European objections to polygamy are incomprehensible to uncultured peoples”.

The chapter locates Luther’s opposition to the re-introduction of polygamy in his belief that it would discourage potential converts to Protestantism, but this conflicted with a new emphasis on the need to “increase and multiply”, which rejected Catholic celibacy and in Munster propelled John of Leyden to adopt polygamy. Added to this, the author states “In a community that lived by the Bible, literally interpreted, the case for polygamy had been made”.

The experiment lasted less than a year before the town was crushed by military aggression, but during that time the institution of polygamy was defended passionately by many, including the women of the town. Indeed, “the theoretical inferiority of women in the town ran parallel to a status which in practice was in many ways uniquely high at that time.” This was in conjunction with a 3:1 ration of women to men, leading a Catholic historian to conclude that many a woman “preferred to share a husband than have none at all”.

Interestingly one Anabaptist preacher asserted that “the wives were such good friends with their husbands that they went out and got wives for them like Sarah for Abraham or Jacob.” Also qouted is the doctor Paracelsus, “If there is such a surplus of women let it be taken care of by marriage so that the intentions of God’s commandments be heeded. If this cannot be achieved by giving each man one wife, he should have two, or whatever number may be required to take care of the surplus.”

Even after the people of Munster were killed polygamy still was seen in Europe during the sixteenth century with John of Battemburg (arrested 1537), David Joris (died 1559) and Jan Willemsen (who set up a polygamous community in Westphalia in 1567, and was caught and burned in 1580).

2) Bigamy, Sir, is a crime

This chapter is concerned with Philip, the Landgrave of Hesse, and specifically the willingness of Luther and certain other Reformation theologians to allow polygamy in his case and admit it was a moral activity, but who refused to back it publicly, due to a belief that it would not be expedient in their competition against the Roman Catholic Church.

3) The Pope and Henry VIII

This chapter focuses on the attitude of Catholicism itself to polygamy, as the author seems to accept that Catholicism is Christian, which most of the other groups featured would dispute. Apparently Pope Clement VII was ready secretly to countenance bigamy in Henry’s case, and a highly regarded theologian of the time, Cardinal Cajetan, maintained that the Bible did not condemn polygamy, and that whereas if a man divorced a wife and married another, he thereby committed adultery, “the offence could be avoided by retaining her”. He also stated that “the law of one wife for one man” was not to be found in the canonical scriptures.

Around this time, theologians agreed that “should the male population be decimated by wars or the plague, the Pope, after a special revelation from God, could sanction the temporary introduction of polygamy to replenish the earth”, and Duns Scotus and the Summa Angelica were two authorities which gave this ruling.

There is also a hint in this chapter of earlier practice of polygamy by Roman Emperors such as Charlemagne, Lothair and Pepin, and Pope Gregory II’s permission in 726 AD to remarry in cases where the wife, because of an infirmity, could not discharge her conjugal debt.

Interestingly, at the 24th session of the Council of Trent in 1563 polygamy was anathematised, but seeing as the Church had a tendency to dissolve marriage on thin excuses, the perceived need for it was much less.

This attitude has continued ever since. The doctrine of the Catholic church is “despite the findings of Biblical scholarship from Selden on, that it was not permitted in the Old Testament”. Mr. Cairncross does not say it, but such an attitude is bizarre.

4) The Two-nosed Head: Ochino

This chapter deals with Bernardo Ochino, an Italian polygamist who started off Catholic and ended up Anabaptist, gaining a great deal of fame and respect along the way. He published a book “XXX dialogues” (the XXX representing 30, rather than any ratings system) which justified polygamy by citing the examples of the Old Testament patriarchs.

Dialogue XXI, on polygamy, takes the ancient teaching method of Dialogues, used successfully by Socrates and Plato, and uses them to present convincing arguments for polygamy. It reads very much like modern polygamy debates, as follows.

One man claims that as God made only one Eve, men should be limited to one wife. This brings the response that we are not under obligation to follow Adam in all respects – like wearing sheepskins. The idea of cleaving to one’s wife is contrasted with that of loving one’s neighbour – there is no problem in cleaving to or loving more than one. Polyandry is outlawed as a woman cannot have two masters and it does not further the cause of procreation. God’s gift of many wives to King David is mentioned, as is the Mosaic Law regulating polygamy. Perceived restrictions on bishops in the New Testament are seen as implying the freedom for others to be polygamous. Population is seen as the main justification of polygamy and “the souls of men are of so great a price that we should in no ways hinder existence” and our resistance to polygamy comes from our upbringing, and “just as the celibacy of the clergy is a novelty for which there is no biblical warrant if the Church has erred for so long, ‘this is man’s error, not God’s’.”

Ochino fell victim to Calvinists, as Calvin had held that, while Abraham had a special reason for polygamy no longer valid today, Jacob had been wrong to take Rachel as a second wife.

Ochino’s doctrine resulted in a counter-attack by De Beze, which focused on the idea that polygamy, while not condemned, was always sinful. He compares it with incest, apparently forgetting that the law of Moses actually did condemn incest.

5) A Life for polygamy: Leyser

The scene moves to the seventeenth century when, at Nurnberg in 1650 the Regional Council of Catholic Franconia decreed that laymen could take two wives for the next ten years, due to shortages in the male population. This regime was endorsed by local Protestants, and reflected conditions in Europe which made the whole debate on polygamy come alive once more.

In 1673 a book appeared under a pseudonym which had the surface appearance of an anti-polygamy tract, but which in fact criticised the anti-polygamy movement. The writer was Johan Lyserus (Leyser), a former army chaplain much persecuted for his polygamist beliefs.

A particular concern of Leyser’s, again presented in dialogue form, is that several wives need not be more expensive than one, reminding his readers that God clothes the lilies, feeds the birds, and will certainly look after his people. He alleges that monogamy drives women to arrogance and domination over men, and points out both that Adam walked around naked and was married without the presence or assistance of relatives or priests. He contests that viewing wives as expensive does them a disservice, for they can often fend for themselves and indeed feed the men. Of polygamous wives he writes “They will be far easier to keep in hand than one wife who feels that her husband must kowtow to her” and that they will all compete for their husband’s favours. Monogamy is seen as flowing from the Devil, through the priestcraft of Rome, enforcing monogamy and priestly celibacy as well as Church control of marriage, which had previously been a civil affair.

Leyser, regrettably, confined his writings to Latin and therefore the learned elite. Hence his writings never gained popular appeal or approval and were limited in their effect. He is concerned with womens’ love of luxury, and claims Spinoza and Pufendorf as supporters, and the Englishman, John Selden as a man who had proven that polygamy was permitted by the Mosaic law and was also practically universal in ancient times.

Pufendorf, a seventeenth-century jurist, does indeed state that “the objection drawn from the example of the Old Testament patriarchs constitutes an insoluble difficulty for those condemning polygamy”, so Leyser’s claims may not be so extravagant.

Leysers life ends sadly with a declaration that “My conscience has compelled me not to hide my message or keep it from the world” and he condemns those who know the right and do the wrong.

Leyser is followed by Beger, who makes a fray into demography, showing that the numbers of marriageable men and women are very different, and he is in turn followed by an anti-polygamist counter-attack emphasising the expensiveness of polygamy.

This chapter closes by noting the support of the eminent German philosopher Schopenhauer for polygamy. He portrays the beauty of women as “often devastating, usually short-lived and always deceptive”. And he sees prostitutes and spinsters alike as “human victims on the alter of monogamy”. He claims that polygamy is a boon for women on the whole, eradicating these problems, and is also beneficial to men. His views on biology are effectively summarised thus – “Nature’s aim is to increase the species, and man can engender a hundred children in a year, whereas women can only bear one during that period. Hence monogamy is unnatural. Man is always looking for another woman, and woman is faithfully attached to one man. Fidelity in marriage is thus artificial for man and natural for woman.”

Schopenhauer also hints at earlier history, asserting that up to the Reformation, concubinage was both common and recognised. It was only when Luther, in ending the celibacy of the clergy, denounced the rights of the additional wife that the practice was banned and degraded.

6) The Virtuous Savage and the Enviable Moslem

This chapter introduces French approaches to polygamy, focusing on those resulting from the discovery of polygamous islanders, and those related to Islam.

Jean de Lery wrote of an island he encountered in the Caribbean whose inhabitants were unselfconsciously naked, had hardly any sense of property and practised polygamy, with additional wives acquiring additional status for their husbands. Montaigne interpreted this system as follows, “the same jealousy our wives have to keep us from the love and affection of other women, the same they have to procure it. They endeavour and apply all their industry to having as many rivals as they possibly can, for as much as it is a testimonial of their husbands’ virtue.” And compares it with Leah and Rachel bringing their handmaidens to Jacob’s bed.

The chapter considers French Utopian writings and the effect of the discovery of island communities in South Sea islands, such as Tahiti, before moving on to consider Montesquieu and the Muslim harems. Montesquieu is a renowned political theorist whose “Persian Letters” are full of allusions to the polygamist lifestyle in a harem, and who maintained that women had far too many rights in marriage.

7) Moslem and Christian Dogs

The theme of harem life is continued, but there are a few items of interest. We are told that once a woman has joined a harem she enjoys its safety and calm. We are also treated to the British philosopher David Hume, quoting Mahomet Effendi, a Turkish Ambassador to France saying “We Turks are great simpletons in comparison with the Christians; we are at the expense and trouble of keeping a seraglio each in his own house; but you ease yourself of this burden and have your seraglio in your friends’ houses”, thereby neatly condemning the adultery that often flourishes under an allegedly monogamous system.

The theme then changes via various polygamists and their supporters to Napolean. He declares “We Western peoples do not understand anything about women. We have treated them too well and made them almost our equals. The eastern peoples have much more sense and feeling of what is the right approach. They have declared them the property of man, and indeed nature has made them to be our slaves. It is only because of our own silly ideas that they claim to be our sovereigns”. He then goes on to advocate polygamy, although it should be noted that few supporters of polygamy now adopt quite this attitude.

However Napolean sees polygamy as what we would now refer to as an anti-racist device, the ability to marry wives from different ethnic groups enabling a family to combine various races and colours.

8) When Nature Prompted

English thinking on polygamy is considered in this chapter. The author first notes the concern with the population and cost aspects, and asserts that between 1680 and 1750 the campaign for polygamy was in full swing. Freethinkers and demographers led the movement with clerics joining in after the eighteenth century had begun.

It is revealed that John Milton advocated his polygamy in his book De Doctrina Christiana. While Milton erred in other matters, his defence of polygamy went largely unnoticed until long after his death when the book was translated. However, there are hints as to his views in other works. His History of Britain (published 1670) “contrasts ‘the liberty, not unnatural, to have many wives’ with the alleged polyandry of the ancient Britons whom Milton denounces ‘as much more absurd and preposterous in their licence’.”

Milton’s chief concern is “to refute those who have charged ‘the holy patriarchs and pillars of our faith, Abraham and others who had more than one wife at the same time, with habitual fornication and adultery’. For if the accusation were justified, one would ‘be forced to exclude from the sanctuary of God as spurious the holy offspring which sprang from them, yea, the whole of the sons of Israel for whom the sanctuary itself was made’.” And this because of Deuteronomy 23v2 which prevents a bastard entering into the Lord’s congregation even to the tenth generation. “And so ‘either polygamy is a true marriage, or all the children born in that state are spurious, which would include the whole race of Jacob’. But, Milton goes on, ‘as such an assertion would be absurd in the extreme, not to say impious, it appears to me that, so far from the lawfulness of polygamy being trivial, it is of the higest importance that it should be decided’.” And indeed this is true, for if polygamy is wrong, then Solomon would be made a bastard and denied a place in the congregation, and yet the Bible shows him as the wisest of men and the King of Israel.

Milton also plainly says that a man can be one flesh with each of his wives “just as a father can feel paternal love for each of his children.”. Milton points out that David’s acceptance of God’s gift of many wives shows “His heavenly and prophetic understanding saw not what we in our blindness fancy we discern so clearly” and also shows that God represents himself in Ezekiel 23 as having espoused two wives.

Milton portrays these things in his poetry. “In Paradise Lost, for example, the roles of Adam and Eve are clearly demarcated – ‘He for God only, she for God in him’.”

An interesting point is made by Mr. Cairncross concerning the apparent scholarly ignorance of Milton’s views in this regard. He says “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that scholars are still influenced, probably unconsciously, by the view that anything so distasteful as polygamy cannot possibly have any connection with matters of serious learning.”

Miltons views are also compared with his fellow poet’s Dryden (quoted above) and Donne “How happy were our sires in ancient time, Who held plurality of love no crime”.

9) A Doctrine Daily Defended

In 1737 an Irish clergyman, Patrick Delaney wrote “polygamy is a doctrine daily defended in common conversation and often in print by a great variety of plausible arguments”, and feeling that no-one had dealt with the arguments he devoted a 200-page book to attacking this doctrine. William, First Earl of Cowper, Lord Chancellor of England is alleged to have lived with two wives.

Delaney’s book contains some of the most hopeless argumentation known to man. The best he can do is say “God’s revelation as to polygamy was neither clear nor full”, and “God suffered the revelation to be lost or obscured by the corrupt glosses and comments of idle and wicked men”. And of the biblical requirement that a wife’s rights should not be diminished by another marriage Delaney concludes that since such a diminution is impossible that the text is actually banning polygamy.

Delaney was later joined by De Premontval who ambitiously sets out to prove that the Old Testament condemns polygamy. Mr. Cairncross says of this “As an exercise in wishful thinking, tortuous reasoning and soliciting of the text, he is a model of truly mathematical rigour”.

Meanwhile, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s companion Boswell writes “If it was morally wrong, why was it permited to the most pious men in the Old Testament, nay especially blessed with fruitfulness? Why did Our Saviour say nothing against it, if an alteration was to take place by a new positive institution? Suppose a man is too many for one woman, to use a common phrase, may he not be allowed to have more? The Elector of Hesse had an indulgence from Luther to have two.”

And Westley Hall, a Methodist, “publicly and privately recommended polygamy as conformable to nature, preached in its defence and practised what he preached.”

Have you ever sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”? Its author, Martin Madan, wrote a three volume work called Thelyphthora in 1780-1 that “contains practically every argument that can be adduced in favour of Old Testament polygamy…But the essence of Madan’s teaching is his insistence on the appaling situation of the unmarried girl who is seduced, cast off and indeed punished for her crime, whereas the seducer goes scot free. He insisted that, as in the Old Testament, the seducer, married or unmarried, must marry the girl. This would diminish child murder, suicide and abortion. As things are at present, observes Madan, such a step on the part of a married man would be punishable by death.”

As Madan himself states “The only real and substantial difference between the ancient Jews and the Christians is this: The former took a plurality of women whom they maintained, protected and provided for agreeably to God’s word. The latter take a plurality of women and turn them out to ruin and destruction not only against God’s word but against every principle of justice and humanity. Or in other words, if the jew took as many as he could maintain, the Christian ruins as many as he can debauch…We may boast of our marriage and condemn polygamy, but there is not a nation under heaven where polygamy is more openly practised than in this Christian country, for, though a man can marry but one at a time, he may have as great a variety as he pleases without ever marrying at all…To punish a poor deserted creature for being a prostitute, when it is put out of her power to force her seducer to provide for her as the divine law enjoins, is equally cruel and foolish, not very unlike the man who threw his child into a ditch and then beat him for being dirty.”

The best his opponents could do was concentrate on the economic issue of polygamy costing a man too much, evidently being beaten on principle and retreating to practicalities which are themselves doubtful – as the possibility of an extra wife producing an extra possibility of income is not explored.

10) Singular Creed

Mr. Cairncross claims that Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, had thirteen affairs, eleven of which were with married women. He places polygamy at the centre of Smith’s death, with his opponents exposing his polygamous doctrine in their journal, the Nauvoo Expositor. Smith had the printing press smashed. Smith was arrested for riot and a mob stormed the prison killing him and his brother Hyrum on 27 June 1844. Mr. Cairncross attributes this to conflict resulting from polygamy being practised as a secret doctrine.

11) …And Plural Wives

This develops the Mormon theme by focusing on Brigham Young, who is credited with twenty-five wives and fifty-six children. He taught that extra wives and extra offspring contributed towards a husbands elevation from humanity into becoming a God, and that Paul’s first letter to Timothy, far from restricting polygamy, was requiring bishops to have at least one wife.

Some Mormon’s came up with the defence to the “Adam had only one wife” argument by retorting that “the marriage was exhaustive. Adam married all the women in the world”, thereby anticipating arguments that have appeared on this site before the author had read this book.

Mormons found that economics worked in favour of polygamists in Utah, contrary to previous criticism, and there were Mormon wives who “accepted polygamy as a comforting principle and were happy in its practice”, as there was “the comfort to a simple family …in having two wives to lighten the labours and duties of the household”, and while plural marriage had been a severe trial, “it had also proved one of the greatest blessings”. Consequently “wives often went out and found additional wives for their husbands”. The system also enhanced the mothers role in child rearing and in family controls generally, and helped them develop an independence unknown in monogamy.

The US government came into conflict with polygamists and rather amusingly passed a law giving Utah women the vote, anticipating that they were oppressed by polygamy, only to find that the Mormon candidate was thereby elected. In any event, polygamy was banned and the then Mormon President capitulated, prohibiting plural marriages in any part of the world in order to get back property that had been seized from the church.

At around the same time “A Christian philanthropist” brought out “Polygamy and Monogamy Compared” – this book is available as a freeware etext from the God’s Free Men web site. The most interesting comment by Mr. Cairncross is that “Like all his predecessors, he does not realise that he is part of a long tradition”, even quoting Milton without appreciating that Milton supported him.

12) Modern Times: A Summing Up

This chapter charts instances of polygamy, polyandry and group marriage. There is nothing of apparent doctrinal significance, although there is the useful observation that if two wives live in the same house, there will be a considerable economy. There is also a consideration of African and Asian polygamy.

In summing up, Mr. Cairncross makes the following points:-

  • Polygamy is found along with a belief in the literal inspiration of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament and with a strong millennial current. The situation was normally advanced by a charismatic leader who had compelling reasons for desiring to change the form of marriage.
  • Also, the analysis of the polygamous movement “has been seriously distorted as a result of highly emotional prejudice, sometimes unconscious”, with polygamists being portrayed as morally sordid when the reverse was often the case. In line with this, when women were supposed to be oppressed, the polygamists often offered a better life and position to women than was otherwise available at the time, and consequently they became some of its fiercest defenders. They were often assured of a home and a husband when otherwise none would be available.
  • Polygamy became less popular as people abandoned belief in the Old Testament (a corollary of this might be that people who accept Biblical Inerrancy would be more expected to be led into acceptance of polygamy).

The book closes with a quote from George Bernard Shaw – “Women will always prefer a tenth share of a first-rate man to the exclusive possession of a third-rate one.”

Comment by the Reviewer

In general Mr. Cairncross is excessively liberal in his definition of what counts as “Christian” and so includes far too much, and in his appendix shows a fundamental misunderstanding both of the Bible and its doctrines related to the roles of men and women.

However he makes important points that cannot be denied, and shows that a concern for polygamy is neither something lost in the ancient past, nor a purely modern idea. It flows from the biblical texts, but has continually been denied by the majority of Christians and their representative organisations. Yet throughout history there have been advocates of Christian polygamy.

Most importantly, the book shows that today’s Christian polygamists are not the first. They have their predecessors who, independently of them, have often discovered the same teachings and arguments in the Bible.

The book’s greatest mistake is its belief that Christian polygamy is something which has a complete history. That history is still being written, and is still therefore incomplete. But the history that does exist may provide reassurance to those who believe and practice the principle today.

Overall this book is well worth the cost of purchase and the time spent in reading it. Regrettably it is currently out of print, but copies can be secured through the Out-of-Print sections of major online booksellers.

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1 Response to Book Review – Social History of Christian Polygamy

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