The pros and cons of polygamy, 1696-7

"Woe be to him or her who is guilty, be the clamour most silent"

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This Respondent being not naturally endowed with the gift of Continency from heaven, had license by God’s Law to marry. And being married his wife… did obstinately deny him the use of her marriage bed. In this case what should this Respondent do?

In late 17th century Britain there was a lively debate within the church about the merits or otherwise of polygamy (in this context, exclusively referring to one man having several wives). I happened upon the subject while rummaging in the Harleian Miscellany (the same collection which yielded this amusing advice for travellers), in the form of an anonymous document entitled ‘A letter of advice to a friend upon the modern argument of the lawfulness of simple fornication, half-adultery, and polygamy’. More on that shortly.

No less a luminary than Martin Luther had written this in a letter in 1524: “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.”

Some Anabaptists had argued in favour of polygamy in this era, and of course in the 19th century many Mormons enthusiastically embraced the practice, which continues to have its fans.1 And in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was clearly a hot topic. The Bigamy Act 1604 had made multiple marriage a capital offence, but a century later there was much discussion about allowing polygamy as a ‘solution’ to sexual predation by men. Supporters of polygamy included Gilbert Burnet (1643–1715), Bishop of Salisbury, whose tract ‘A Defence of Polygamy and Divorce’ was partly inspired by Charles II’s failure to produce a legitimate heir; and in the same era the author Henry Neville’s 1668 satire The Isle of Pines2 told the story of shipwrecked George Pine who peopled his eponymous island through four wives.

But not everyone was convinced. The author of the ‘A letter of advice to a friend’, dated 17th July 1696, was in fact Charles Leslie (1650–1722), a former Church of Ireland priest and supporter of the Stuarts after William III’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. His other works included a tract against the Quakers entitled The Snake in the Grass.

Here is an extract of ‘A letter of advice to a friend’ (the identity of said friend is unknown, and we can only imagine the dinner party banter that led to Leslie’s diatribe) as the case for the prosecution, as it were.3 (The defence will follow…)


THE Discourse which happened in our Company last night, has obliged me to write this Letter to you. I am astonished to see such Paradoxes of Iniquity set up, and to prevail so unreasonably among Men who think themselves the greatest Masters of Reason. To think Polygamy and Fornication lawful; nay, and as some maintained (for there is no stop in wickedness) even Adultery too.

There is nothing in this Matter; but that Men, having their Appetites unbridled, by any Restraint or Discipline of Religion, have given them a loose, are resolved to pursue them whithersoever they go; and invent the best Arguments they can to defend them. Nay, some come at last to believe what they have at first offered in jest, and to try what it would do…

[After a lot of railing against lust and fornication, he comes to polygamy.]

… And I will now go on to consider the other Point, which you heard discoursed of, that is, Polygamy.

This is bottomed upon the same loose Principles as the other; to give the Range to our Lusts, and let them endure no Limits. But it has more pretence than the other; because God did Dispense with it, as with Arbitrary Divorces, in many Ages of the World… God at the Beginning made only One Male, and One Female. And, for this cause, a man shall leave Father and Mother, and shall cleave to his Wife; and they twain shall be one flesh

The first who broke in upon the Original Constitution was Lamech, of the Posterity of Cain, who took Two Wives, Gen.iv. 19. But we find not that it prevail’d in the Posterity… Noah, and his three Sons, had but each of them One Wife, who made up the Eight Persons in the Ark.

And even when Polygamy was most in use, it was thought, though (in strictness) lawful, because then Dispensed with, yet an Imperfect, a Miserable, and Inconvenient State… Christ… gives a plain Rule Mark x. 11. against Polygamy, when he made it Adultery to put away one Wife and Marry another. For, if Polygamy be Lawful, how comes it to be Adultery to Marry another Wife, whether he put away the First or not? … And yet against the Doctrine of Christ, as Understood and Practised by the Apostles, and the Church of that Age, and all the Ages since, our thin Beaux would oppose their little Criticisms; and cover themselves with Cobwebs; who one Day, if they Repent not, will call to the Hills and Mountains to fall upon them, and hide them from their Judge and their Guilt…


So much for the standard party line. Enter the witness for the defence, who had his own personal reasons behind his views. John Butler (d.1682) was a canon at Windsor and had been chaplain to both Charles II and Prince Rupert. He had married his wife Martha Perkins in May 1651. He quarrelled with her over one of their sons becoming a Catholic, and spent a period in debtor’s prison. Martha refused to share a bed with him and he found solace in the arms of a servant, Mary Tomkins, with whom he had further children, while living in Holland and back in England. Martha decided to prosecute him for fornication, which prompted a robust and extraordinarily self-absorbed polemic, The true case of John Butler…, which he published in 1697 – in the course of his bad temper, he widens a defence of his own adultery (while still denying it as such) into a broader one of polygamy or what he terms “lawful Concubinage in a Case of Necessity; wherein lawful Marriage conveniently or possibly cannot be obtained”. The full text, all 15,000+ words of it, is here but here are some selections:

That I am charged, and that deep and widely, with great offence, hurts me not so far as I am innocent: But woe be to him or her who is guilty, be the clamour most silent. Adultery is a foul crime, and Fornication, a dangerous sin; and both these are laid at my door… trumpetted both in City and Countrey to the ruin of my reputation, That I am or was a man deprived and cast out of the ministry, and my benefice, for misdemeanors, and that I have two wives at once; am a whoremaster, a contentious man, a bankrupt, and a beggarly fellow, an enemy to the Goverment, and abundance of such like stuff, which was almost every title false. 

God is my witness how unapt I always was to harbour an ill opinion of this woman my somtimes, (as I verily thought) loving wife. For tho there was just suspition of her overmuch familiarity with other men, and of her want of love to my self; because of a purloining knack she had of private selling my goods, over and above her allowance, and by keeping up a private purse; and by a coldness of affection, in case of any difference with her intimates, or kindred, being all ways apt to take party against me. But especially for that, when by meanes of adverse fortunes in the world, I was driven to lurk at some distance in remote places, for about three years space, she never was the woman that gave me one visit, during that kind of restrained exile; no, tho for near ten months of the said time I was a close prisoner in the Fleet: And for as many months before that, had not so much as once seen her face; and yet she knew well where I was, and wanted for no conveniency to come at me… And now it is more than eleven years since she has thus deserted me, and yet now at length she chargeth me with Adultery, or Fornication, or Incontinency

To [Martha’s] Charge, That this Respondent as one unmindful of his conjugal vow, and seduced and instigated by the Devil, did about ten years since commit the foul crime of Adultery with the said Mary Tompkins his maid-Servant… this is a pernicious and slanderous lye, invented by the Complainant Martha her self at the insinuation and instigation of the Devil, and her foul mouth’d sons. For as for matter of Adultery, it is a thing utterly inconsistent with her own charge. For the said Mary Tomkins being no man’s wife, but a maid-servant, as her own self avers, and the said Respondent being no woman’s husband as she also her self must needs know, unless of the said Mary Tomkins; with what face of impudence could she call it Adultery, had such a thing been done as she alleges? For the Complainant her self has so often confest it that it is out of her power to deny it, how that above one year before, that ten years since, wherein she charges this Adultery to be done, she had clearly Divorced her self from this Respondent’s bed by a malicious and obstinate Desertion… 

And as for the said Mary Tomkins, this Respondent farther saith, That until utterly relinquished by his wife, and above one whole year after, she never had any child by him, nor was she with child by him: And after that time he was guilty of no other nor greater Fornication with her, than what our holy Father Abraham the Father of the faithful was guilty of, when purely for issue sake, and not of any lustful concupiscence, he went in to Hagar his Wives Maid, or unto Keturah his concubine in the life time of Sarah his Wife…

Lastly, as for Incontinency, which in its self is no sin, unless it be expressed in unlawful uses. This Respondent doth confess and allege, that he is one of those men… of whom St. Paul hath declared, Saying, They who cannot contein, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn. 1. Cor. 7, 9. Now this Respondent being not naturally endowed with the gift of Continency from heaven, had license by God’s Law to marry. And being married his wife denied him her conjugal duty; that is, she did obstinately deny him the use of her marriage bed. In this case what should this Respondent do? To go in unto a Whore, he might not do. And to marry another wife, without a lawful license from lawful Authority, it was not convenient because of a statute law in force, that under a severe penalty, no man might have two wives. And tho in the truth of this case, it was not having of two wives, for that the marriage with the first was of course dissolved…

… ’Tis true indeed, that it was alleged, as if this Respondent should say, that he had another woman with child by him, at that time, for-which cause his wife the Complainant pretended to have relinquished him: And she alleges she can prove such words uttered by him. Unto which he answer’s, that true it is he was in a great passion, because of his son turn’d Papist, and his wife violently siding with him, to excuse and justify him against this Respondent: And what words in the heat of passion were utter’d by him, he does not perfectly remember; it is a matter on her part to be proved. 

Confusingly Butler then goes on to say that Mary Tomkins “had no Bastard Child born” in Holland, but then says she did indeed have a daughter baptised in Delft in 1688 “and of this child, this Respondent does confess, he is (as he verily believes) the true Father”. His core theological argument appears to rest solely on comparing himself to the Old Testament patriarchs, and he cannot help his own lack of the “gift of Continency”.

Butler’s rant in support of “honest concubinage” was needlessly to say not very well received, and there were numerous tracts published appearing to be shocked by his arguments. One noted, “Had a Pamphlet of this Nature been writ by an avowed Debauchee, or a Play-house Beau, it had been no surprise: But to have anything printed in Defence of Concubinage by a Batchelor of Divinity, and a minister of the Church of England, may Justly astonish us…”

But the debates if anything were amplified in the century that followed, with a wider questioning of the authority of Scripture in the first place, and those rakish beaux sought to defend their lifestyles, just as Butler did his. Sexual politics has always been alive and well.


See here for a detailed survey of Christianity’s historical agonising over polygamy.


Some have argued that Pines was a deliberate anagram…


The full text is here.