In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Polygamy and Bigamy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Atlantic History Polygamy and Bigamy
Sarah M. S. Pearsall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0119


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.

General Overviews

There is no single book covering the issue of polygamy in the early modern Atlantic world. However, Cairncross 1974 and Miller 1974 are two older but still useful intellectual histories of polygamy, especially in terms of debates of the Reformations, both Protestant and Catholic, and the Enlightenment. Both largely cover European debates on polygamy in the early modern period. Zeitzen 2008 provides a useful anthropological overview of this topic in a global context. Finally, as for texts of use in undergraduate and graduate courses, Cott 2000 deals with polygamy as part of wider political controversies about marriage in the United States, while Gordon 2002 explores the legal and political implications of the conflicts around Mormon polygamy.

  • Cairncross, John. After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy. London: Routledge, 1974.

    Despite its subtitle, this work is in fact an intellectual history of polygamy discussions among Christians. It covers major treatises such as those by Bernardino Ochino, Johan Leyser, and Martin Madan, as well as controversies surrounding the Münster Anabaptists, the dissolution of Henry VIII’s marriage, Native American and Muslim polygamy, and Mormon polygamy.

  • Cott, Nancy F. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

    While not specifically about polygamy, this book, which begins with the founding of the United States, offers a compelling and sustained analysis of the political implications of controversies over marriage in modern American history. It focuses on federal regulation of the marriages of Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and Mormons, among others.

  • Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

    This book elegantly tracks the polygamy controversies that occupied so many Americans between 1852, when the Mormon Church officially endorsed polygamy, and 1890, when the church renounced it. The analysis considers the constitutional crisis of religious freedom and federal power within a larger political and legal framework of states’ rights, territorial jurisdiction, slavery, religion, and the Civil War.

  • Miller, Leo. John Milton among the Polygamophiles. New York: Loewenthal, 1974.

    Written by a Milton scholar of a previous generation, this book centers on John Milton’s On Christian Doctrine (De Doctrina Christiana), which argued for polygamy. The book places Milton’s advocacy within the larger Christian traditions of debates on polygamy. It has a helpful set of appendices and notes.

  • Zeitzen, Miriam Koktvedgaard. Polygamy: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Oxford: Berg, 2008.

    This work, largely a summary of anthropological literature, offers a useful overview of polygamy in a global perspective. It begins by defining polygamy, considering its forms and foundations. The second part includes studies of Malaysian Muslims, Mormon fundamentalists, and Hindu polyandrists. The final section discusses issues of gender, polygamy, and modernity.

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