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Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage
and the Christian Churches

Path: Behaviour change and sustainability African Plural Marriage Missionary and pastoral problem

Chapter 1 - The problem in historical perspective

The scene is set for this enlightening chapter by a quote from Augustine - "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."

The feeling of reading this chapter is similar to that of listening to a conjuror telling you how he did the trick which mystified you moments earlier. Mr Hillman, who would no doubt prefer to be called 'father', possibly thinking that no-one was reading, begins to tell the tale of how many ideas about marriage are not founded in Christianity, but in the ancient Roman religion which stole the clothes of the true Church and developed into the Catholic religion of today.

By his own admission, the focus on individual consent comes from the Roman idea of 'consensus', and the use of a ring, the style of the ceremony and the institution of betrothal were all imported from pre-Christian Roman law and custom. The idea that the purpose of marriage is "in order to bring forth children" is a Roman idea, as are the laws related to impediments, consanguinity, affinity and other areas. The author confidently states that the evidence shows that pagan and so-called 'Christian' marriages were essentially the same around 306 AD.

The basic principles of the Canon Law of the church concerning the obligations and nature of the marriage contract were (surprise, surprise) the same as the Roman law. As the author says, "Christianity did not introduce monogamy into the Greco-Roman world."

Instead, it is shown that while the Romans were being monogamist and abusing the Bible, those people with the original texts, the Jews, were still practicing polygamy. This can be seen from the writings of Josephus in the first century AD, of Justin Martyr in the second, and in a Roman law (not another one!) passed in 212 AD to 'tolerate' Jewish polygamy.

Tolerance of polygamy wasn't really in the Roman blood, for in 285 AD the Emporer Diocletian rescinded that law, Maximilian later reaffirmed this and in 393 Theodosius built another anti-polygamy law on top of it. Despite this, polygamy continued to be practiced by Jews in northern Europe right up to the eleventh century.


The effects of mandatory monogamy are soon seen: - "The legal monogamy insisted upon by the Greeks and the Romans was often supplemented with institutionalised concubinage and widespread prostitution, and divorce was a recurring problem." And as they held tightly to the doctrine of monogamy, 'nineteen centuries of Christianity have not entirely removed the ancient concomitants of legal monogamy: concubinage, prostitution and divorce.' It is worth saying at this stage that when Mr Hillman says 'concubinage' he essentially means the keeping of mistresses, rather than secondary wives, which is probably why he is so disapproving.

It is then considered how polygamy came to be viewed as a problem. According to Augustine 'when polygamy was a common custom, it was no crime; it ranks as a crime now because it is no longer customary.' Splendid reasoning there! You can see why Aquinas became more popular! Augustine goes on to say that polygamy was acceptable while there was a need for population increase, but now we have quite enough people and it only comes from 'an excess of lust'. Reading Augustine's "Confessions" may leave you with the question as to whether Augustine was projecting his own excess of lust on to the rest of mankind.

What was really happening wasn't a change of custom or the end of an increase in population. What happened was that "the Roman understanding and structure of marriage was basically accepted and 'baptized' by the Church." In Germanic tribes where marriage was a contract between families there was a struggle with the Roman 'consensus' idea of marriage as a contract between bride and groom. So, in 726, Pope Gregory II advised a missionary to this area that if a man had an infirm wife, he could be allowed to marry again if he could not contain himself as he lacked 'high ideals'. The Roman idea and reasoning was to prevail. Polygamy was only ever to be the exception and not the rule, and polygamists were to be branded as people of low morals.

In such a manner the idea was popularised that polygamy was only allowed by a divine dispensation. This baseless catholic teaching was followed by Augustine, Pope Innocent III, Thomas Aquinas and the modern LDS church, although they probably wouldn't like to admit that they got their ideas through the apostate Catholic Church, and ultimately from a false pagan religion. Augustine, by the way, was the same guy who couldn't see 'what other help a woman could be to a man' if reproduction wasn't important, and he came up with the idea that enjoying sex INSIDE marriage was sinful! So, modern Mormons, be careful of what company you keep!

In case any Catholics out there think I'm being harsh, this book shows that Pope Gregory II said that marital sex couldn't be 'without the pleasures of the flesh' and that' this pleasure could not be without fault'. And his successor, Pius XII said there was nothing wrong with sex in marriage. So, if two Popes fundamentally disagree, which one's infallible?

(Here's a clue - maybe none of them are!)

So, you may want to know how the Catholics went about dealing with polygamy whenever they encountered it. Well, apparently they expected a man to divorce his wives, the mothers of his children, on his conversion to the faith. Yes, that's right - when it comes to the biblical practice of polygamy the Catholic Church prefers, recommends and enforces divorce! Many marriages were dissolved by the Pope 'in favour of the faith'. Just in case you were thinking there was some rational basis to all this, such as the first wife being recognised as the proper wife, think again! In 1571 Pope Pius V said that where a man 'couldn't remember' which was his first wife, he should just remarry any one of them, and if he was actually mistaken, and his poor old first wife had been abandoned, well, it didn't really matter, because that marriage was still legally dissolved. So even the first woman a guy married, when maybe no-one thought there would be another, could end up being persecuted by Rome. If the church is the bride of Christ then surely Roman Catholicism is a religion in drag.

In case you hadn't noticed, this meant that the Catholic church permitted consecutive polygamy (marriage, divorce, remarriage) which the Bible condemns, in order to condemn simultaneous polygamy which the Bible allows. In line with this, these women were free to marry again while their first husband was alive, their marriages having been dissolved by some bloke in a dress in the Vatican, therefore encouraging polyandry, which in Bible language is adultery. This is considerably more Roman than Christian.

So what happened to the wives? "Their previously contracted conjugal rights, their social status, economic security, and even their relationship with their own children, have been radically compromised; and this in the name of the Christian ideal of marriage and family life". The women are left "to live like nuns or prostitutes."

But it would be unfair to blame the Catholic church alone for this terrible state of affairs, or to give the impression that there were no dissenting views. In 1855 John Colenso, the Anglican Bishop of Natal said "I must confess that I feel strongly on this point, that the usual practice of enforcing the separation of wives from their husbands upon their conversion to Christianity, is quite unwarrantable, and opposed to the plain teaching of our Lord. It is putting new wine in old bottles, and placing a stumbling-block, which He has not set, directly in the way of receiving the Gospel." Sadly his motion of tolerance was defeated at the 1888 Lambeth Conference of Bishops, (by 21 to 34) which in turn led to African Baptists and Methodists also becoming less tolerant of polygamists.

Since then, independent African churhes have gone many ways. Some have positively accepted polygamy. Indeed "the correlation between the occurence of these numerous independent movements and the incidence of polygamy in the same population, and the fact that independency rarely occurs among peoples with a low incidence of polygamy, suggests that this form of marriage is one of the dynamic factors behind the growth of independent churches. Some of these churches, precisely because of their stand on this question, have been excluded from ecumenical fellowship with neighbouring churches, and sometimes for this reason only, they were not regarded as authentic Christian communities."

In addition to this, Lutherans in Liberia, the Transvaal and even the Anglican Diocese of Victoria Nyanzu in Tanzania became tolerant of polygamy. But most telling is the quote from the Methodist bishop reconsidering his church's position in the light of his experience: - "Is it more Christian to have organized prostitution, marital infidelity with impunity, a rapidly growing divorce rate and increasing numbers of illegitimate children, than polygamy? Is it more Christian for young women to become prostitutes, call girls, or mistresses than to become the second or third wife of a respected member of the community?"

The author shows the problem as follows - "In areas where polygamy is a preferential and socially integrated form of marriage, missionaries have all to often been seen as persons who come to break up the natural family unity and to shatter the existing complex of marriage-related human bonds. Jesus clearly taught that marriage should be indissoluble. Yet a polygamist is told that, if he would fully obey the call of Christ, the first thing he must do is to divorce the mother of his own children."

Chapter 1 - The historical missionary and pastoral problem of African Polygamy
Chapter 2 - Cultural Presumptions of the West
Chapter 3 - Demography
Chapter 4 - Anthropology
Chapter 5 - Biblical texts
Chapter 6 - Theological Rationale
Appendix - On the Council of Trent


The African American Experiences is a collection of Black Studies to understand the Past, Present and Future of the People called African American!

"Wealth is to have your own Land, Language and Culture! Where is the Land of the African American? What is the Language? And, Where is the Culture of the people?"




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