The only real experience that western European has had of polygamy in comparitively recent times is the German city of Münster which was, for a brief time, under the control of the polygamist sect called the Anabaptists. The sect and its adherents were persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike and after a bloody siege was forever destroyed. The presence of a polygamous city in those times was simply unthinkable and to this day both Catholics and Protestants have vehemently denounced the practice of patriarchal marriage.
Martin Luther, the prime mover of the Protestant Reformation, was approached by certain nobles who wished the patriarchal practice re-introduced for various reasons, both biblical as well as carnal. Though Luther resisted their call for the introduction of this holy estate of matrimony, this was not because he considered it to be unbiblical but because he was convinced it would retard the progress of the Reformation and possibly tip the balance in favour of the Catholics who sought its erradication. Sixteenth century Germany was not like late twentieth century and early twenty-first Western Europe where new religions have (for now) the right of expression and assembly. When Protestantism rose to challenge a Church that had enjoyed temporal power for neary one and a half thousand years the response was violent and bloody. Whatever war of mind, heart and spirit that took place was matched with equal fervour by the sword and canon.
That the Anabaptists did not succeed was, in my view, both providential and in the will of Yahweh. Not only would a major Christian polygamous Church have been undesirable but it would almost have certainly divided the Protestants and paved the way for a Catholic triumph. Luther's decision to reject polygamy was not, in the final analysis, based on religious but political grounds anyway. We have to remember that whilst Luther and many of the educated classes and nobes were themselves converted to the Protestant cause, this was not usually the case of the lower classes who, in those days, adopted the religion of their nobles as a matter of course. Luther had little time for the peasant classes who often fomented rebellion. And the Anabaptists were basically of that ilk - radical and poor.
Torture of the Polygamist Leader Jan van Leiden
'Protestant' though the Anabaptists were, they in many respects had more in common with the nineteenth century Mormons than with what we understand today to be a 'Protestant', and not because of their polygamy. The great weakness of the Anabaptists, and that which excited the fury of both Luther and the Pope alike, was that they claimed to be under an exclusive manadate from God not unlike the claims of the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. They regarded themselves as the elect and everyone else, including the Lutherans, were regarded as heretics. This stance more than their polygamy was undoubtedly their ultimate undoing. And like the early Mormons who believed that only they had the keys and authority to legitimise marriages (both mongamous as well as polygamous), the Anabaptists regarded marriages contracted by Lutherans and Catholics as invalid. The result was a predictable decline in morals. And as the Mormon leader Joseph Smith felt free to help himself to the wives of 'gentiles' not married under Mormon auspices, so too did the Münsterites view the marriages of other Christians, with fatal consequences for them. Thus a woman who was not converted to the Anabaptist doctrine might find herself 'divorced' and abandoned by her husband who was.
We need not have to say, I hope, that such a belief by the Anabaptists was unbiblical, and that by persuing such a doctrine they automatically placed themselves outside the Body of Christ in an important area of practice. Their fate in abandoning the biblical revelation in this and others areas led to their final demise and accrued for polygamy a stigma which on its own it did not deserve.
The parallels between the Anabaptists of Münster, the Mormons and other cults are quite interesting for both were millennarian, teaching that the end was upon them and working the people up into a religious frenzy. Like the converts to the early Mormon Church who were attracted from the poverty of the working classes by the promise of a Zionic paradise in America, so the Anabaptists gathered mostly from the poorer classes of Westphalia (Westfalen) who were promised a paradise on earth following an imminent apocalyptic end. What they received was death at the hands of a combined Protestant-Catholic army.
Though it may seem strange to the reader hearing a polygamist condemning another polygamist movement I am doing so with the view of underscoring a point: for a principle like polygamy to be valid it must be done in Yahweh's own time, in His own way, and according to the commandments (Torah). The fact that a group or church practices polygamy doesn't necessarily make it right. Christian/Messianic polygamy is a holy principle whose purpose is to exalt Christ - it was not ordained of Yahweh to be practiced for its own sake. Were the latter to be true we would be endorsing the lifestyle of 30,000 plus Mormon polygamists, millions of Muslim polygamists, and others, which we do not. Whilst we grant them or anyone else the right to live plural marriage that does not mean we acknowledge all their other beliefs or even the way in which they practice this lifestyle.
What is interesting about the Münsterite experiment is not that it was a form of Christian polygamy but that it arose at all. Why did men and women stake all in a sea of hostile forces and then provoke the latter to finally destroy them? It must be remembered that not all Anabaptists were polygamists - it was only the Münsterite group that adopted the principle. Like many religious movements the moving force was in certain personalities. In Mormonism it was Joseph Smith who claimed that an angel threatened to kill him with a sword if he did not practice polygamy, hardly a biblical basis for practicing marriage and one which certainly denied his free agency (assuming his claim is true). With the Anabaptists of Münster, it was the Dutchman, John of Leyden, who claimed to have received a revelation from the Lord commanding him to take a widow called Divara to be his second wife. As to the source of the revelation I cannot say for we are not in a position to question John on the matter. He claims that he was terrified by the call, not so much because of the woman herself, but because the implication of the call was that he would have to challenge the ubiquitous monogamy-only status quo.
My own view is that the call was from Yahweh but like many men, John of Leyden went far beyond what Yahweh intended. We believe that Joseph Smith was called to take the Reformation to its completion but, under demonic influence occasioned by unrepented and unforsaken occult involvement, ambition and greed, went instead and organised his own church and claimed all others were false and devilish. The parallels with John of Leyden's Münster community are startlingly similar. Like the early Latter-day Saints who gathered first to Nauvoo and then Salt Lake City, the Anabaptists were persecuted and gathered to the only Anabaptist city in history, Münster, both for protection against Catholics and Lutherans and from the imminent apocalyptic end which was scheduled for the spring of 1534. Like Joseph Smith who was tutored in false revelation by Free Masons and Kabbalists, it seems that John was influenced in his apocalyptic beliefs by a falsely inspired German millennialist called Hofman. This satanic spirit persuaded him that it was his duty to murder all Catholics and Lutherans remaining in the city but was prevented from his dastardly scheme by moderating influences amongst the Anabaptists - this did not however prevent him from expelling the non-Anabaptists into the wintery snow without food or adequate clothing. Those who were not expelled were forcibly baptised.
The Protestant-Catholic reaction was understandable if hardly on a higher level of light than the Anabaptists themselves. These were dark times where standards of morality were low. The nobles were afraid by this revolutionary 'Christian' socialistic enterprise which threatened their own power-base and it is not hard to understand why irreconcilable foes, Protestants and Catholics, whose power bases were in any case the nobles, formed an unholy alliance for the extinction of this troublesome sect, whatever the appeal of polygamy might perhaps have been to certain of the Protestant nobles.
There were many things wrong with the Anabaptist teachings which was hardly surprising given the times. They were, however, correct is analysing the biblical data on the subject of polygamy. And once this doctrine had been presented and debated, it was clear in the minds of most of the Münsterites that it was not a sin to practice it. If we are to fault the Anabaptists in this area it was their lack of tolerance of dissenters who were threatened with excommunication or the sword, a fruit of the 'one and only true church' mentality that has plagued polygamous as well as non-polygamous cults since. And once the doctrine's biblical basis was established, the women fell behind it as enthusiastically as the men, as was the experience amongst the majority of women of polygamous Mormon Utah. As with the Mormons, the Münsterite leaders had no more fervent supporters than amongst the women. To what extent this was engendered by the feverish emotional pitch of the time (to which women are more susceptible) or a genuine conviction of biblical principles is hard to say, and was probably a mixture of both. Suffice to say that the atmosphere that persuaded women to embrace this principle was radically different from the one that obtains amongst Patriarchal Christians/Messianics of the 1990's and 2000's where a calmer and more sober spirit prevails (modern polygamy cults nothwithstanding).
There were false visions and revelations in abundance at this time by both leaders as well as ordinary folk, not to mention the women. Their behaviour was not at all unlike some of the extreme charismatic churches of our time and involved hysterical dancing amongst other things. The number of wives a man had was a matter of status not unlike the fundamentalist Mormon belief that the more wives a man had the greater would be his exaltation in the next world.
The Anabaptists of Münster had three conditions for divorce: (1) Marriages contracted under duress or force; (2) Impotency on the part of the husband; and (3) An absense of Anabaptist conviction on the part of one of the spouses. Needless to say the Bible does not allow for the latter two at all. There were also a number of marriages of under-age girls (11-14), attrocious conduct for a supposedly Christian people, though this was subsequently admitted to be an error by them. And yet this was not atypical of the times - Catholic boys were permitted to marry at 14 and girls at 12, and sometimes earlier. In Protestant England 14 was regarded as the best age for marriage, and sometimes 13. Luther was untroubled by the practice.
Judging by the social relations amongst the wives of polygamous husbands in Münster their practice of patriarchal marriage was a failure. Abuse and bickering amongst the women was commonplace. The Anabaptist leaders solved this problem by putting the more quarrelsome wives in prison and if that failed threatened them with the sword. Some were executed. Whatever these marriages were, they were not truly Christian and hardly endowed with love. Little wonder, then, that the protective hand of Yahweh was not over this people. Nevertheless there were successful polygamous marriages in Münster and in some households the spirit was so good that the wives actively went out to recruit more wives for their husbands. In spite of the good marriages there was too much rottenness and the experiment as a whole was doomed to failure.
Münsterite polygamy lasted a little under a year. How it would have ended (or continued) had it not faced a bloodthirsty Protestant-Catholic army bent on destroying it is impossible to say. Perhaps it would have become reformed and moderated. Certainly the movement would have passed through a painful period when the Easter 1534 apocalyptic prophecy failed to materialise. I suspect it would have fragmented and only those families who had successfully implemented polygamy would have survived intact and lived to perpetuate a reformed version of Anabaptism. We shall never know. Or perhapes the dominant Protestant/Catholic society would have snuffed it out by other means.
What if the Protestant-Catholic Confederate Army had been defeated? It came close to being so on at least one occasion. It is possible that the Münsterites would have dominated north-western Germany and started a wholly new religious tradition, dividing the Western Church into essentially three camps instead of two. But it was not to be. The extremist millennialist fantasies of the leaders were their undoing. Like Joseph Smith who had himself secretly ordained King in Nauvoo, so too did John of Leyden receive this monarchic honour but in public. Not content to be King of Münster, he claimed to be King of the whole world, thus challenging the princely rule of the Catholic and Protestant nobles and exciting them to even greater wrath.
The demise of Münsterite polygamy and the trials of its leaders provide some interesting insights into the estate of marriage as viewed by the Lutherans (whose logic was practically the same as the Catholics). They argued that marriage was the province of the secular authorities alone who were themselves God's representitives. And since the secular authorities had declared polygamy to be illegal, this then was God's will. This is much the same argument that has been used by Lutherans and their successors ever since even though it is without a firm biblical foundation.
John of Leyden was interrogated and eventually executed by the Lutheran authorities by being tortured to death with red-hot tongs. To his credit, he died with heroic fortitude. The cages in which he and other leaders were hung are still to be seen in Münster today, which was returned to the Catholics. I wish I had know about this aspect of the city's history when I visited it as a student many years ago but this was in my pre-Christian days.
In matters of sex the Anabaptists were extremely strict. Fornication and adultery were punished by death, and this even before the introduction of polygamy. 'Fornication' also embraced sexual intercourse during menstruation or pregnancy! Anabaptist writer, Rottman, wrote in his book, The Restitution:
This form of puritannic marriage was not unlike that of the early Mormons who viewed the purpose of polygamy as being similar (at least on the temporal plane).
"The aim of marriage is to beget children who will parise God for all eternity. Husband and wife marry to live according to God's love, in order to beget children, and for no other reason. Only for this purpose did God create man and woman to unite them."
After the Anabaptist demise, polygamy went underground in Europe. The few who dared practice it risked life and limb. Many polgamists were executed by the Lutherans and Catholics including another Westphalian, Jan Willemsen, who had 21 wives. He was tortured and burned at the stake, the most common way of arguing against the truth by Catholics and Protestants in those days. One sometimes gets the feeling they would do it again were the secular laws of our liberal democracy not an obstacle to their rabid hatred of this godly principle.
And yet history is against the 'traditional' western hostility to polygamy. E. Mestermarck points out in his little book on Marriage (London, 1929) which is a summary of his major work opus in three volumes (The History of Human Marriage, London, 1921):
For example, it was practiced in Ireland and amongst the Merovingian kings (p.62). Pope Gregory II, in a decretal in the year 726, laid it down that:
"The New Testament does not expressly prohibit polygyny...No Council of the Church in the earliest centuries opposed polygamy, and no obstacle was put in the way of its practice..."
The early Lutherans, like the early Catholics, displayed the same sort of contradictory logic and duplicity. Had the Lutherans accepted polygamy they probably would have been overwhelmed by the Catholics and the Reformation been crushed. And if Luther had not permitted the German noble, the Landgrave of Hesse, the captain of the Protestant forces (as well as an adulterer and occasional homosexual), to take a second wife, the Reformation might have swept through all of western Europe. As it was, concubinage (the practice of taking 'half-wives') was covertly accepted in Catholic Europe but Philip of Hesse insisted on a second wife while his first was still alive and got Luther's and Melancchton's permission to do so. In 1532 bigamy had been made a capital offence. The Münsterite Anabaptist revolt was suppressed two years later and the polygamists tortured to death. And yet, after this débâcle, here were the leading Reformers countenancing secret polygamy under pressure from their secular champion in what came to be known as the Wittenberg Deliberation! Philip did not, incidentally, wish to enter polygamy because it was a holy principle, but because he disliked his first wife and had an uncontrollable libido. He insisted that if his first wife died, he would return to monogamy.
"when a man has a sick wife who cannot discharge the marital functions, he may take a second one, provided he looks after the first one".
The marriage went ahead and was approved by the Reformers on condition that Philip "abstained from fornication, adultery and boys". Ironically, the marriage made Philip a brother-in-law of Martin Luther himself! The secret marriage soon became public, though. The Catholic Emperor, who had fathered children all over Europe and had the Pope legitimise them, thought it was a big joke, but his successor, Ferdinand, was prevented from defecting to Protestantism when he heard the news. Thus the Holy Roman Empire might have had a Protestant Emperor. Faced with possible schism, Luther retracted his countenance of Philip's polygamous marriage and urged him to lie about it, which he refused to do, and was thereafter abandoned by Luther. Various political intrigues followed leading to a weakening of Protestantism in Europe, and specifically outside Germany, most notably in France.
The affair of Philip of Hesse illustrates the dilemma faced by Protestants when facing the issue of polygamy. Though Calvin and his associates repudiated it as anti-Christian, Martin Luther never could, for he knew what the Word taught on the matter. He even defended Abraham as the "first Christian" and defended his morals - only the Calvinists and their allies have queried the morality of the patriarchs. Yet he opposed polygamy but on one ground: "It would give offense". In that he was honest. Polygamy is offensive, not to Yahweh, but to the adherants of man-made POLITICAL TRADITION.