The first mention of Jacob 2 that I could find is from the Journal of Discourses, in general conference, by Orson Pratt in July of 1859.1 This is 15 years after the death of Joseph Smith. Before jumping in, it’s worth noting Pratt’s influence on Mormon scripture, especially with regards to polygamy.

Orson Pratt

Orson Pratt was given the task to publicly announce the practice of polygamy in 1852,2 by presenting D&C 132.3 In 1859 he becomes the first to venture into Jacob 2 and suggest an interpretation. He doubles down on his interpretation in his 1869, “Celestial Marriage” talk.

In 1874, he was tasked with expanding the Doctrine & Covenants, published in 1876. This is when Doctrine & Covenants section 101 was removed. The original section 101 is notable because it reads, “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”

“In 1879, Elder Orson Pratt divided the Book of Mormon into small chapters and verses for easier reference. His numbering system became the standard for all later Latter-day Saint editions.”4 These are the chapter and verses that we live with today, and for our purposes we should know that Jacob chapters 2 and 3 were combined as a single chapter in the 1830 edition.


Polygamy is a Constitutional Right

As I read these early general conference talks I can’t help but notice that the leaders of the church were constantly trying to justify the practice of plural marriage. It’s as if they were preparing their statements for a future courtroom battle in a defense against the United States government. They pushed it as a foundational doctrine and thus protected by the constitution, as Pratt states, “Point out in the Bible where polygamy is a crime, and then you may say we have no right to embrace it as a part of our religious creed, and pretend it as a part of our constitutional rights.”

This talk comes 29 years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, and the first time I could find the use of our conventional interpretation from Jacob 2. Pratt seems to be exploring the loophole that would go on to define our modern conventional interpretation. He states,

“If the Lord permits what is termed polygamy to exist as a crime among the Latter-day Saints, he will bring us into judgment and condemn us for that thing. It is necessary that we, as Latter-day Saints, should certainly understand this matter, and understand it, too, beforehand, and not wait until we are brought to an account.”

Pratt recognizes the potential danger of the practice and that we will be held accountable for our actions. Too often we ignore the warnings in the Book of Mormon, he’s right, we “should certainly understand this matter.”5 The Book of Mormon has a few things to say about our accountability before God’s judgment bar.6 “For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.”7 Pratt continues,

“Let us, therefore, carefully investigate the important question—Is polygamy a crime? Is it condemned in the Bible, either by the Old or New Testament? Has God ever condemned it by his own voice? Have his angels ever been sent forth to inform the nations who have practiced this thing that they were in transgression? Has he ever spoken against it by any inspired writer? Has any Patriarch, Prophet, Apostle, angel, or even the Son of God himself, ever condemned polygamy? We may give a general answer, without investigating this subject, and say to the world, We have no information of that kind on record, except what we find in the Book of Mormon. There it was positively forbidden to be practiced by the ancient Nephites.
The Book of Mormon, therefore, is the only record (professing to be Divine) which condemns plurality of wives as being a practice exceedingly abominable before God. But even that sacred book makes an exception in substance as follows—“Except I the Lord command my people.” The same Book of Mormon and the same article that commanded the Nephites that they should not marry more than one wife, made an exception. Let this be understood—“Unless I the Lord shall command them.” We can draw the conclusion from this, that there were some things not right in the sight of God, unless he should command them.”

Twice in the same paragraph he misquotes Jacob 2:30. “Except I the Lord command my people” and “Unless I the Lord shall command them.” His conclusions seem to be drawn from the “happiness letter,”8 an unsubstantiated letter attributed to Joseph Smith.9 Pratt continues,

“The substance of the idea in that book is that—When I the Lord shall command you to raise up seed unto myself, then it shall be right; but otherwise thou shalt hearken unto these things—namely, the law against polygamy. But when we go to the Jewish record, we find nothing that forbids the children of Israel from taking as many wives as they thought proper. God gave laws regulating the descent of property in polygamic families.”

Again he misquotes the verse, but we see here the beginnings of the idea of the now commonly accepted conventional interpretation. Orson Pratt was considered the scriptorian of the day.10 Here he is opening the door for a potential loophole by introducing the concept delicately for the first time in the 1859 general conference.

“You cannot condemn us temporally, or spiritually, or by the civil law; neither can you condemn us by the Bible. There is no law that condemns us, unless the law in the Book of Mormon does so; and I have already shown that the Book of Mormon does not, provided the Lord has commanded it. But if we have not been commanded in regard to this matter, then there is one thing that will condemn us, and that is the Book of Mormon. This is a little more strict than any other Divine revelation, in regard to polygamy.”

We ought to reflect on these words and ponder whether or not we have been condemned, “There is no law that condemns us, unless the law in the Book of Mormon does so… But if we have not been commanded in regard to this matter, then there is one thing that will condemn us, and that is the Book of Mormon.”11

I wonder if Pratt knew how universally accepted this interpretation would become and that it would eventually be the scaffolding for the official church statements 165 years later. As you read his statements you can see that his confidence is weak, he won’t commit 100%, he has to state honestly that the potential for condemnation exists. His confidence in this reading will grow over the next decade as we’ll see.

Pratt’s talk in 1859 was titled “Polygamy,” and in 1869 he returns to the title, Celestial Marriage.” Again, he begins with an exploration of whether it is legal or not, “In the first place, let us inquire whether it is lawful and right, according to the Constitution of our country.” Finally, he gets to the Book of Mormon account starting with Lehi:

“Let us now come to the record in the Book of Mormon, when the Lord led forth Lehi and Nephi, and Ishmael and his two sons and five daughters out of the land of Jerusalem to the land of America, the males and females were about equal in number. There were Nephi, Sam, Laman and Lemuel, the four sons of Lehi, and Zoram, brought out of Jerusalem. How many daughters of Ishmael were unmarried? Just five. Would it have been just under these circumstances to ordain plurality among them? No. Why? Because the males and females were equal in number and they were all under the guidance of the Almighty, hence it would have been unjust, and the Lord gave a revelation—the only one on record I believe—in which a command was ever given to any branch of Israel to be confined to the monogamic system. In this case the Lord through His servant Lehi, gave a command that they should have but one wife.”

This becomes the reasoning for God to command monogamy among Lehi’s posterity, there just weren’t enough women. Were there no more righteous souls in the city of Jerusalem available to bring along?

“By and by, after the death of Lehi, some of his posterity began to disregard the strict law that God had given to their father, and took more wives than one, and the Lord put them in mind, through His servant Jacob, one of the sons of Lehi, of this law, and told them that they were transgressing it, and then referred to David and Solomon, as having committed abomination in His sight. The Bible also tells us that they sinned in the sight of God; not in taking wives legally, but only in those they took illegally, in doing which they brought wrath and condemnation upon their heads.”

The Nephites “began to disregard the strict law” after the death of Nephi, not Lehi, as Lehi had been dead for 25 years.12 The timeline is important to understand, we’ll visit this in part 2.

I want to point out that I’m noticing a common theme from our previous post, legally vs. illegally, or authorized vs. unauthorized. The reason seems to be the same, it’s acceptable when God allows it.

“But because the Lord dealt thus with the small branch of the House of Israel that came to America, under their peculiar circumstances, there are those at the present day who will appeal to this passage in the Book of Mormon as something universally applicable in regard to man’s domestic relations. The same God that commanded one branch of the House of Israel in America, to take but one wife when the numbers of the two sexes were about equal, gave a different command to the hosts of Israel in Palestine.”

There is a lot to consider once we introduce the “different command to the hosts of Israel in Palestine.” While the Bible is obviously related to our topic, I won’t address it until much later. We have to stick with the Americas for now, Lehi’s covenant land, not the land of Israel, yet.

“But let us see the qualifying clause given in the Book of Mormon on this subject. After having reminded the people of the commandment delivered by Lehi in regard to monogamy, the Lord says, “For if I will raise up seed unto me I will command my people, otherwise they shall hearken unto these things;” that is, if I will raise up seed among my people of the House of Israel, according to the law that exists among the tribes of Israel I will give them a commandment on the subject, but if I do not give this commandment they shall hearken to the law which I gave unto their father Lehi. That is the meaning of the passage, and this very passage goes to prove that plurality was a principle God did approve under circumstances when it was authorized by Him.”

Finally Pratt has quoted the verse correctly, other than leaving out, “saith the Lord of Hosts.” Now Pratt, ten years later, is confident, he’s read “the qualifying clause” over and over again until he can, with utmost confidence, state, “That is the meaning of the passage.” He no longer warns the saints of the potential for condemnation, only the Nephites were the ones condemned, not us.13

So now that we’ve unearthed the root of the conventional interpretation, the only question now is should we nourish it or root it out?

The Book of Mormon makes it evident that the spirits we hearken unto are like trees growing inside of us. As King Lamoni’s father cried, “What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day?”14

Alma suggests we nurture a different seed, or tree, “But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you…”15  

Other Talks Referencing Jacob 2:30

Pratt’s sermons seem to be the foundation, but I wanted to post the rest of the talks that I could find for your own research and reference. It seems that 1885 was the last mention of Jacob 2:30 and “raise up seed” in any official discourse from general conference. I won’t comment on them as they don’t add anything to this study, you can dive into those quotes below, or continue to the next section.

>>> Part 1.4 | Chapter & Verse

“Well, now, in regard to those who are seeking for an excuse to reject plural marriage and are inclined to receive the statement of young Joseph Smith, I wish to say that I know that Joseph Smith is entirely ignorant of what he says, or he is a liar; for I know that he does not speak the truth. How far his mind has been blinded or how he has been influenced to look upon these things as correct, or to think that he speaks the truth, I do not know. But he is woefully in the dark if he thinks he does speak the truth in regard to this matter. I do not wish to accuse him of lying knowingly and intentionally. But there are multitudes of witnesses who know better, and know that when his father was murdered this son Joseph was in his eleventh year, and like other children of that age knew little either of his father’s life or his teachings and the principles that governed his life. He knew but little of what was being taught among the people. But there are multitudes of witnesses that were older than he, and that were intimate with the Prophet Joseph, that know better. Now, those who take this other view, and are trying to convince themselves that this is an institution of man and not of God, bring forth the law that was given to the Nephites of old upon the American continent, which was given them by Jacob, the brother of Nephi, and which you can read, as doubtless you have often read, in the Book of Mormon. Jacob arraigned some of the people because the men were giving way to the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life, and whoredoms, and they attempted to justify themselves in their whoredoms by referring to what is written in the Jewish Scriptures concerning David and Solomon and other men having many wives and concubines, which Jacob informed the Nephites was an abomination in the sight of the Lord, and gave unto them a commandment that not any man among them should have save it be one wife, and concubines they should have none, saying that the Lord “delighteth in the chastity of woman.” And in the same connection the Lord said: “For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.” Now, there was a reason why the Lord gave this commandment to the Nephites. But this reason did not exist when the Lord called Abraham and promised that his seed should be like the sand upon the seashore for number. He recognized the righteousness of a plurality of wives, and never at any time did he restrict them from the days of Abraham until Christ, so far as we have any record in the Jewish Scriptures. But there were reasons, as I said before, why he restricted the Nephites, but in this restriction He intimated that when the time should come that He should raise up seed unto himself, He would command His people.
Now, Joseph—I refer now to the young man that is alive and who was a mere boy at his father’s death, and who with his mother and her children remained behind, though his mother did know for herself that her husband did teach and practice this order of marriage, yet she was not willing to own or acknowledge it to her children, and her children, the oldest of which, as I have said, was only eleven years old when his father was murdered—were studiously kept ignorant of the facts of the case as far as she was concerned, and therefore we can make allowance and excuse in part for what they assert. But there are great numbers that I can call to mind who know for themselves that the Prophet Joseph did receive from the Lord and teach this order to the first Elders of this Church, and did receive and commit to writing this revelation on the subject of plural marriage which is contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, and did teach it and did practice it, and I am one of those witnesses. I know that he taught to me as early as in the spring of 1842 what God had revealed to him on the subject; I know that he gave to me my second wife and assigned his brother, Hyrum, to seal her to me; and I know that he taught this doctrine to quite a good few others—the Twelve Apostles and others of the faithful Elders of Israel—and that very many of the faithful and good women of Israel know and understand and are witnesses of these things for themselves. And we testify of these things, that God has reserved to Himself this right to command His people when it seemeth to Him good and to accomplish the object He has in view—that is, to raise up a righteous seed, a seed that will pay respect to His law and will build up Zion in the earth.”16

“When we come to the sacred books that have been received by the Church we find that, in regard to this dual idea of marriage—marriage in the monogamic form, and marriage in the polygamic form—the Book of Mormon expressly declares that it was necessary in the first colonization of this country that marriage should be monogamic, because the sexes were equal, and the people realized that marriage was an indispensable thing to both man and woman; but there is also indication that necessity would give final enlargement to this practical question.”17

“It is high time that the Lord, who wishes to raise up seed unto Himself, should command His people and renew upon them the obligations placed upon our first parents. It is to the Latter-day Saints that this mission has been committed, and the result is the multitude of school children that we find all over this Territory. Over fifty thousand Sabbath school children in the Territory of Utah—nearly one-third of the entire population, as shown in our statistics at our various Conferences—are children under eight years of age. This is a startling fact to that class of the Christian world who are pursuing the opposite course. One of the Sabbath school superintendents of the City of New York, recently expressed himself very pointedly and plainly upon this subject in relation to the wealthy portion of the church-going people of New York. In several thousand families attending the popular churches of New York, there could be mustered only about eighty Sabbath school children, and he attributed it to this prevailing desire for pleasure, wealth, and the shirking of the cares and responsibilities of the household, until the rearing of families was left almost entirely to the poor, to what is termed the vulgar people.”18

>>> Part 1.4 | Chapter & Verse


Notes & Sources

  1. Polygamy, A Sermon by Elder Orson Pratt, Sen., Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, July 24, 1859
  2. “It is quite unexpected to me, brethren and sisters, to be called upon to address you this forenoon; and still more so, to address you upon the principle which has been named, namely, a plurality of wives.

    It is rather new ground for me; that is, I have not been in the habitof publicly speaking upon this subject; and it is rather new ground to the inhabitants of the United States, and not only to them, but to a portion of the inhabitants of Europe; a portion of them have not been in the habit of preaching a doctrine of this description; consequently, we shall have to break up new ground.”

    Celestial Marriage, A Discourse by Elder Orson Pratt, Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, August 29, 1852

  3. “But, says one, how have you obtained this information? By new revelation. When was it given, and to whom? It was given to our Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, Joseph Smith, on the 12th day of July, 1843; only about eleven months before he was martyred for the testimony of Jesus.”id.

    It was quite a shock for me to realize that section 132 was not public until August of 1852. The section header states, “Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843.” I did not realize the original doesn’t exist and we only have a copy. I’ll dive into this later, for now we stick to Jacob

  4. “The first edition of the Book of Mormon had consisted of large, unnumbered chapters, which made citing a particular passage difficult. In subsequent editions, some of these large paragraphs were divided and verse numbers were assigned to the paragraphs, but the paragraphs were still generally long. In 1879, Elder Orson Pratt divided the Book of Mormon into small chapters and verses for easier reference. His numbering system became the standard for all later Latter-day Saint editions.” – History of the Scriptures
  5. His reasoning here is why I began with an attempt to set out an understanding the risks of condemnation
  6. When the Lord visited the Nephites, he commanded them to, “Write the works of this people, which shall be, even as hath been written, of that which hath been. For behold, out of the books which have been written, and which shall be written, shall this people be judged, for by them shall their works be known unto men.” 3 Nephi 27:24–25

    We now know “their works,” and Jacob 2 qualifies as, “that which hath been.”

  7. 2 Nephi 29:11
  8. “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill, at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” – Letter to Nancy Rigdon, circa Mid-April 1842
  9. The Joseph Smith Papers “Historical Introduction” informs us, “On 3 August 1842 John C. Bennett, formerly a close associate of JS, forwarded to the editor of the Springfield, Illinois, Sangamo Journal the text of a letter he claimed JS wrote to Nancy Rigdon, daughter of Sidney and Phebe Brooks Rigdon. Because JS’s authorship of this letter is uncertain, the letter is presented as an appendix to this volume rather than a featured document. The Sangamo Journal published the letter, embedded in a letter from Bennett himself, in its 19 August 1842 issue.” In other words, we do not have the original.

    It would be well worth your time to research this letter, and I recommend you begin here: Martha Brotherton Affidavit and the “Happiness Letter”
    I would post an alternative view, but those are plentiful.

  10. “As the most qualified scriptorian in the Church, Orson Pratt was extremely well-versed with the Book of Mormon…”Orson Pratt and the Expansion of the Doctrine and Covenants

    “…he was to become as devoted a student and proponent of the Book of Mormon as any in Church history.”Orson Pratt: Early Advocate of the Book of Mormon

  11. I am reminded of the Lord’s visit to the Nephites where he warns us that we will only get the “lesser part of the things which he taught the people” in the Book of Mormon “to try their faith,” “And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation.”3 Nephi 26:8–10
  12. “And it came to pass that Nephi died… And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son.”Jacob 1:12, 15
  13. It seems easy for us to look back on the failures of a group like the Nephites and see the errors they fell into and how they were destroyed. Nephi, on the other hand, looks forward and sees us, “And now behold, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you; for I, Nephi, would not suffer that ye should suppose that ye are more righteous than the Gentiles shall be. For behold, except ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall all likewise perish; and because of the words which have been spoken ye need not suppose that the Gentiles are utterly destroyed.” 2 Nephi 30:1
  14. Alma 22:15
  15. Alma 32:41–42
  16. Discourse by Apostle Erastus Snow, delivered at the Quarterly Conference, Parowan, Sunday Afternoon, June 24, 1883
  17. Discourse by Elder Henry W. Naisbitt, delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Sunday Afternoon, March 8, 1885
  18. Discourse by Apostle Erastus Snow, delivered in the Tabernacle, Provo, Sunday Morning, May 31 (Quarterly Conference), 1885