One Wife or Many—Does It Matter?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Nigeria
THE convention in Ibadan, Nigeria, had come to an end, and the joyous—yet weary—conventioners were heading home. A man named Johnson, however, stayed behind in the bamboo convention booth with his three wives and ten children. He was making arrangements to dissolve his polygamous marriage.
What Johnson and others heard at that convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses touched them so profoundly that they were moved to renounce an age-old part of African life: polygamy. But what did they hear? Was their decision to make this change based on purely practical considerations? Or were they somehow convinced that polygamy is wrong?
Polygamy Versus Monogamy
Some sincere people would question Johnson’s actions, no doubt due to the fact that polygamy exists in many cultures inside and outside of Africa. Many argue it has practical benefits. For example, where polygamy is illegal, adultery is often common. People thus, in effect, take on additional mates anyway—through the process of divorce and remarriage. Plural marriages, however, are said to eliminate promiscuous extramarital relationships. Some even claim that polygamy is a protection against prostitution and venereal disease.
However, the main reasons polygamy persists are social, not moral. A polygamous household with many sons gives a man social prestige and security. His daughters eventually earn a sizable bride price, or dowry. In rural areas, children and wives work on the farm, increasing the family’s wealth. African men are thus under pressure to marry many wives. For example, an African man named Moses stated: “I had decided to marry only my first wife. But seeing that she bore me only a daughter, my father insisted that I take a second wife, saying: ‘How can you have only one child? A daughter at that!’”
In spite of such seemingly persuasive arguments, though, polygamy has serious inherent problems. Having many wives does not stop immorally inclined men from having extramarital affairs. Nor are women always happy with the idea of sharing a husband; some have resorted to prostitution. Polygamous marriage is often, therefore, little protection against venereal disease.
And there are other disadvantages. Moses recalls: “My father had five wives and much trouble because the women were constantly fighting and trying to harm one another.” This is the reason Moses originally wanted only one wife. With reference to Johnson, who was mentioned at the outset, his son Rufus further observes: “There used to be fights among my father’s wives over cooking and other work. They also fought over the disciplining of the children. Then there was the matter of jealousy. They hated to share their husband. This made life quite miserable for all of us.”
Closeness is therefore lacking in polygamous families. The man relates to the family as an overlord rather than as husband and father. Training and disciplining of his many children is usually left to the wives with their conflicting methods and standards. Children grow up in a loose, even confused, institutional arrangement rather than in warmth and intimacy.
A More Important Consideration
Many argue that God approves of such an arrangement, since he permitted polygamy among the ancient Israelites. True, the Bible shows that some outstanding servants of God had many wives. Polygamy, however, did not start among God’s people. Remember that he created just one wife for the first man, Adam, “as a complement of him.” (Genesis 2:18-24) It was not until violent Lamech came on the scene that we read of polygamy. He took two wives. But the specific mention of this suggests that it was an unusual thing in human society even at that time.—Genesis 4:19-24.
Later on, men like Noah, his three sons, and Lot practiced monogamy. But what of Abraham? Until he was at least 85 years old, Abraham confined his sexual relations to his wife Sarah. But because she failed to bear children, Sarah invoked ancient custom and suggested a substitutionary arrangement. Her maid Hagar would bear him a child for her. (Genesis 16:1-11) There is no indication, though, that Abraham had further relations with Hagar after he fathered her son Ishmael. Indeed, Jehovah continued to speak of Sarah exclusively as Abraham’s “wife,” but of Hagar as his “slave girl.” Furthermore, Abraham later dismissed Hagar from his household.—Genesis 17:19; 21:8-16.
Polygamy, however, was already a fixture in many tribal societies. So when the Law later given to Moses discussed polygamy, it was not introducing something new. The Law simply regulated an existing institution and prevented its abuse. This it did by regulations and restrictions, which tended to discourage plural marriages. (Exodus 21:9-11; Deuteronomy 21:15-17; 1 Samuel 21:3-5; 2 Samuel 11:11) Consequently the majority of Israelites were not polygamists. Polygamy was practiced mainly by the wealthy and the ruling class. Jehovah did warn, however, that the king should “not multiply wives for himself, that his heart may not turn aside.” (Deuteronomy 17:17) And Jehovah consistently spoke of model marriages in terms of a single wife.—Psalm 128:3; Proverbs 5:18; 31:10-31.
No, Jehovah did not institute polygamy. It had his approval no more than did divorce, which was also practiced by his people.—Malachi 2:14-16.
Polygamy and Christianity
Jesus observed: “Moses, out of regard for your hardheartedness, made the concession to you of divorcing your wives, but such has not been the case from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8) The same can be said of polygamy. It was not “the case from the beginning.” “Did you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and will stick to his wife, and the two will be one flesh’? So that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has yoked together let no man put apart.”—Matthew 19:4-6.
Jesus thus confirmed the original standard for marriage. (Matthew 19:3-8) The Bible further shows that an overseer in the Christian congregation must, if married, be “a husband of one wife.” Likewise, the “widow” should also have been the “wife of one husband.” This is further evidence that monogamy is the standard for all Christians. Overseers, as “examples to the flock,” cannot claim that their position of oversight entitles them to a standard for marriage different from the one for others in the congregation. (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:9; 1 Peter 5:3) So Christian options are clearly either singleness or monogamy. Either is perfectly acceptable to God. (1 Corinthians 7:8, 9) Polygamy, though, is quite out of the question.
This divine standard gives dignity to both men and women. Married women need not anxiously fear that their husbands will take secondary wives. Nor does a single Christian woman contemplate becoming someone’s secondary wife—even when there are few unmarried men locally. She waits until she can “have her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:2) Yes, marriage mates truly belong to each other. They can unitedly provide a wholesome and balanced family life for their children.—1 Peter 3:7; Ephesians 5:21-31; 6:1-4.
The Christian Standard
It was these basic facts that moved Johnson, back in 1947, to make drastic changes in his life. His son Rufus recalls: “My father sent two of his wives back to their parents. He provided for their maintenance but left no opening to be enticed to resume living with them. He wanted to obey God’s requirements.”
It was not easy for Johnson to give up his polygamous life. Doing so involved serious moral, emotional, and cultural adjustments. More was involved than choosing between two social systems. It was a matter of obeying God and becoming free to serve him. So while Johnson’s polygamous arrangement may have brought him and his wives certain material benefits, remaining in it debarred all of them from gaining God’s favour.
Many have followed Johnson’s courageous course. Théodore, for example, says: “I was attending the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses and wanted to be baptized. But I had eight wives. How could I send away seven of them? I lived in that situation for five years, praying to Jehovah to help me out of it. I continued to study the Bible and associate with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Gradually my increasing knowledge of God’s Word and my desire to please him strengthened me to make the right decision. I explained to my wives that the Bible says that my first wife is the ‘wife of my youth’ and that I should remain married to her alone. (Malachi 2:14-16) I then dismissed the seven junior ones from my home and provided separate accommodations for them and their 12 children. So I brought my life into harmony with Christian standards and realized my desire to serve Jehovah. My former wives, too, were now free to serve Jehovah acceptably and to get married again if they chose to.”
Results Despite Opposition
Such changes often brought strong opposition from relatives and neighbours. Warigbani’s experience illustrates this: “I was the second of my husband’s two wives and had two children for him. When I learned that the first wife is the rightful wife in the eyes of the Creator, these questions confronted me: Should I leave my husband? If I did and was allowed to take the children, how would I feed them and me? Should I suppress my conscience and deprive myself of this great joy of finding the true religion? You see, I was studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I prayed to Jehovah for help.
“When I told my husband that I had to leave and wanted to take the children, he became very angry and refused to listen to me. Finally I was allowed to go with the children, but without any financial assistance—not even transport fare.
“Next I had to face the wrath of my own family. They said I was mad. My brother called me a ‘prodigal daughter’ and laughed at me. But I kept preaching to them and, after some time, several of them started to study the Bible. Now five of these family members are joining me in serving Jehovah. True, I have had to do without many things I used to enjoy. I have to work hard in order to earn a living for myself and my two children. But the joy of knowing the truth and obeying it surpasses material things. Wealth cannot be compared to pleasing Jehovah.”
Moses similarly concludes: “I now have the joy of a clean, harmonious family relationship. My children have grown up to be dedicated, faithful worshipers of Jehovah. This has made me very happy.”
Reflecting on how Johnson’s action brought benefits, his son Rufus says: “There were no more fights in the house, and my father was able to give us close supervision and training in harmony with the Bible’s teachings. He became a pioneer [full-time preacher] for the greater part of 20 years, and remained faithful to Jehovah until his death two years ago.”
Do you wish to learn more about God’s standards? We invite you to ask Jehovah’s Witnesses to study the Bible with you. They will be pleased to tell you about the coming Paradise earth where God’s standards will prevail!—Isaiah 11:9.
[Blurb on page 10]
In polygamy a woman must share her marriage mate with others
[Picture on page 11]
In monogamy marriage mates truly belong to each other and they can unitedly provide a wholesome family life for their children