Book Review – Social History of Christian Polygamy

“After polygamy was made a sin”

by John Cairncross

Published 1974 by Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. ISBN 0 7100 7730


This book, subtitled “The Social History of Christian Polygamy”, was written by a former British civil-servant and journalist who discovered an anti-polygamy book in a Paris bookstore in the 1950’s. The book dated back to the eighteenth century and Mr. Cairncross set out to discover the movement to which this book had reacted. He found that polygamy was not the sole preserve of Muslims and South Sea islanders, but had a substantial recent Christian tradition.

The book presents the results of the considerable research done, and shows that polygamy has repeatedly been defended, advocated and even practised by leading figures in Christendom since around the time of the Reformation. The study does not however, penetrate any further back into history than this period, but does find more than enough evidence of Christian polygamy in relatively recent times to provide understanding to those who still consider the subject today.

Twenty-two years on from the book’s publication, it is now possible to review the book on the Internet. As such a time has passed, it is no longer believed that the book is in print, and it is estimated that most of the copies published will be in libraries or homes in Britain. But copyright law in Europe will prevent the publication being freely disseminated until 70 years after the author’s death. Hence it is desirable to perform an extended review of the book, with presentation and criticism of the arguments contained therein, and the quotation of a number of brief passages.

The review below tackles the book chapter by chapter. For brevity, the references cited by the author are mostly left out. Readers should note however that most of these refer to books in Latin, German or French and that Mr. Cairncross presents summaries of what he considered to be the most important material in them.

Readers should be aware that the title is not a concession that polygamy is in fact sinful, but is a reference to Dryden’s poem “Absalom and Ahithophel” which begins “In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin, Before Polygamy was made a sin”. This poem locates the prohibition of polygamy not with God but with a false order of priesthood.

Also, reading the book leaves one with the firm impression that Mr. Cairncross is looking at Christianity from the outside. While this does make him prone to certain errors, he cannot be guilty of being a biased enthusiast for Christian polygamy.


The author recounts how he came to be interested in and to research the subject. He dates the opposition to polygamy from “orthodoxy” since “at least A.D. 600″, and says that polygamy has been ruthlessly suppressed at its every manifestation, resulting in many holding the views without practising them and their writings being hard to locate. The author also stipulates that he uses the term “polygamy” to refer to “polygyny” only, as technically the former term also includes the ability of women to marry several husbands.

1) The Lordly Freedom of Man

“On 23 July in the year of grace 1534, the northwest German city of Munster proclaimed polygamy as the ideal form of marriage.” So begins Chapter 1, which analyses a short-lived experiment by a particular branch of German Anabaptists. He quotes Briffault to establish that before Christ “The terms ‘monogamy’, ‘bigamy’, ‘polygamy’ in the sense in which we use them, were unknown, and there existed no words to indicate what they denote. The ‘prohibition’ of polygyny was promulgated for the first time in any part of the world in the code of Justinian in the sixth century of our era”, and “even today, the grounds of European objections to polygamy are incomprehensible to uncultured peoples”.

The chapter locates Luther’s opposition to the re-introduction of polygamy in his belief that it would discourage potential converts to Protestantism, but this conflicted with a new emphasis on the need to “increase and multiply”, which rejected Catholic celibacy and in Munster propelled John of Leyden to adopt polygamy. Added to this, the author states “In a community that lived by the Bible, literally interpreted, the case for polygamy had been made”.

The experiment lasted less than a year before the town was crushed by military aggression, but during that time the institution of polygamy was defended passionately by many, including the women of the town. Indeed, “the theoretical inferiority of women in the town ran parallel to a status which in practice was in many ways uniquely high at that time.” This was in conjunction with a 3:1 ration of women to men, leading a Catholic historian to conclude that many a woman “preferred to share a husband than have none at all”.

Interestingly one Anabaptist preacher asserted that “the wives were such good friends with their husbands that they went out and got wives for them like Sarah for Abraham or Jacob.” Also qouted is the doctor Paracelsus, “If there is such a surplus of women let it be taken care of by marriage so that the intentions of God’s commandments be heeded. If this cannot be achieved by giving each man one wife, he should have two, or whatever number may be required to take care of the surplus.”

Even after the people of Munster were killed polygamy still was seen in Europe during the sixteenth century with John of Battemburg (arrested 1537), David Joris (died 1559) and Jan Willemsen (who set up a polygamous community in Westphalia in 1567, and was caught and burned in 1580).

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