Polygamy and Bigamy

Sarah M. S. Pearsall

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online January 2013 | | DOI:
Polygamy and Bigamy

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  • History of the Americas
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Polygamy and bigamy provoked heated controversies in the early modern Atlantic world and formed a topic of discussion and debate much more often than people realize. Many women and men across the Atlantic world (and beyond) lived in polygamous or bigamous situations, for historically specific reasons. Yet such activities met considerable resistance from European and settler populations. Scholarship has tended to focus much more on the attacks on polygamy than on its practices or uses. European states and churches tried to prevent the contracting of marriage with more than one person. The Catholic Church had long sought to distinguish Christianity monogamy from non-Christian marriage systems, including Muslim ones, in which polygyny (marriage with more than one wife) was allowed, even condoned in certain circumstances. Carrying these traditions with them, many Europeans, especially missionaries, greeted indigenous African and Native American polygamy with horror, working to end this practice. Yet, though some Native people accepted these teachings, others, including a number of powerful leaders, met them with varying degrees of resistance. At the same time, from the earliest years of the Protestant Reformation, there had been a radical Protestant endorsement, or at least tolerance, of polygamy in certain circumstances. Radical millenarian reformers who took over the German city of Münster in the 1530s apparently practiced polygamy. Polygamy thus also became associated with religious reform and political subversion. It also became the subject of theological and social debates, as in the major controversies provoked by the publication of Martin Madan’s pro-polygamy treatise in England in 1780. Polygamy also formed a significant aspect of Enlightenment thinking, especially about gender and the position of women, the nature of religious and political authority, population growth, and the variety of human experiences around the globe. The status of women in polygamy has been the subject of much historical (and contemporary) debate. Practices of polygamy, especially by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), also continued to ignite anxious debates and to prompt confrontations with federal authorities in the United States. Most of the literature on Mormon polygamy has been focused on the American setting. Yet Mormon controversies have implications for a wider Atlantic world, in part by revealing the importance of marital monogamy in a range of settings. Polygamy also affected other issues, from relations with Native Americans to the willingness of European migrants to convert to Mormonism.

Article.  8157 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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