In the United States, polygamous cult leader Warren Jeffs has been sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes including the sexual abuse of a twelve year old “wife”. Jeffs, a self-styled prophet who led an offshoot of Mormonism based in West Texas, the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, claimed to have 78 wives in all. He also exercised autocratic power in his community and was in the habit of expelling members who declined to hand over their daughters. He treated the case against him in a similarly high-handed manner, dismissing his lawyers and threatening the jury with divine retribution if they convicted him.

Jeffs’ crimes are his own, but he fits a recurring pattern in cults and other fringe religious groups, of a guru or prophet helping himself to the sexual favours of numerous female disciples. Mormon founders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both keen polygamists at a time when their religion was an object of deep suspicion by most Americans. Indeed, it was only the decision of the Church of Latter Day Saints to renounce polygamy in 1890 that made possible Mormonism’s rise to respectability in the United States.

Early Christianity, perhaps influenced by Classical pagan norms, repudiated the polygamy of the Old Testament patriarchs and kings. Monogamy is now the only permissible — or legally recognised — form of relationship (certainly the only “normal” one) in much of the world. Yet many cultures have in the past, and some still do, allowed some type of plural marriage. More than 80 per cent of societies listed in the Ethnographic Atlas accepted polygamous unions. Of course, the balance of the sexes means that most marriages, most of the time, will be monogamous. But the concept that monogamy is the only natural or morally allowable type of union is a fairly recent and specifically Western one.

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