Apologists often state that the LDS practice of polygamy was a commandment from God, and that is the only reason that it happened. The Church would have us believe that Joseph Smith, Jr., in total innocence, approached the Lord in humble prayer to know if Old Testament prophets were justified in taking several wives (D&C 132:1), and that as a response Smith was commanded to begin taking more wives. In fact, in most of his proposals (of which we know much detail), Smith claimed that God had commanded him to marry these additional women. This applies even to many of the women who were already married to other men. For example, Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs was already married when Smith proposed to her. She wrote that Smith said he had been commanded to marry Zina, and that "an angel with a drawn sword had stood over [Smith] and told him that if he did not establish polygamy, he would lose 'his position and his life'" (Quoted in Compton, 2001, pp. 80-81; see also Bushman, 2005). Indeed, the current position of the Church is that the taking of multiple wives was a commandment (source), and never something that members sought out of their own accord.
These statements all make it seem as if polygamy was nothing but a trial for Smith and the early members of the Church. They seem to suggest that Smith was reluctant at best to take another wife, and perhaps that he pleaded with God to excuse himself from this commandment. On a few occasions, Smith publicly expressed disdain for the idea of multiple wives, and threatened others with excommunication if they practiced it (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 410-411; William Clayton's Diary, Oct. 19, 1843), even though he already secretly had multiple wives.
These images of a reluctant and humble instrument of God notwithstanding, there are several pieces of evidence that tell us more clearly what was going on in Smith's mind where polygamy was concerned. Firstly, I find it very strange that Smith would specifically inquire about the practice. With so much else to take up his time and attention, and so many other principles that were pertinent to the salvation of humankind, why was he thinking about multiple wives? I believe that Smith had had his eye on his first plural wife, and was wondering how he might justify his desires for her while keeping in line with the doctrine he was preaching. After all, Fanny Alger, Smith's first plural wife married him while she was living with Smith's family (source; see also Compton, 2001). It is not as if this commandment caught Smith by surprise, and he had no idea whom he would choose to be his Number Two.
The second hint as to his true motivation is the sheer number of plural wives he took. For a man who was reluctant to practice polygamy to take at least 34 total wives during his life is very strange. If Smith was commanded to take more than one wife, why did he choose more than two? If a man has moral hesitations about paying tithing, does he decide to pay 90% instead of 10% of his income?
The third hint that struck me recently is in the scripture where he dictated the alleged commandment. When Smith would recite a "revelation", it came fluidly, often uninterrupted. He would have us believe that that is because he was merely repeating what God had told him. Were this true, then the scripture should read exactly as God willed it. The more realistic and likely possibility is that he was speaking on his own accord, saying his thoughts as they streamed through his consciousness. Thus, mistakes would certainly be present, and he would often say things before having the chance to think them through. The latter would explain why the 132nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants (and so much other LDS scripture) seems to jump from topic to topic. More importantly, however, I think it also reveals some of his hidden motivations as he did not have the time and cognitive resources to edit his thoughts. What I find most telling is his word choice in verse 61. It states, "...if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another... then is he justified" (emphasis added). What a strange place for the word "desire"! If this truly was a commandment that Smith was so reluctant to follow, should not the passage read, "if any man espouse a virgin, and I command him to espouse another..."? The verse sounds less like a commandment from God, and more like a permission slip for Smith.
If this truly were a dictation from God, He is essentially saying, "Take as many wives as you like! No problem!" This is a strange statement from a deity whose followers are already hesitant to follow his edict. It seems even stranger considering the strict conditions under which polygamy was supposed to take place. Jacob 1:15, 2:23-35, and 3:5 make it clear that plural marriage is a potentially damnable practice, so why would God write a blank check for the LDSs at that time?
I see this phenomenon nowhere else in LDS doctrine. Nephi was supposedly commanded to kill Laban in order to fulfill the higher purpose (1 Nephi 4:10-11). Nephi was reluctant to follow this supposed commandment. Did God tell Nephi in that instance, "Slay him. In fact, slay as many people as you want."? Abraham was probably reluctant and heartbroken at the commandment to slay his son (Genesis 22). Did God tell Abraham "Offer your son for a burnt offering. If you desire to also burn your wife, or anybody you meet along the way, that's acceptable too."?
I know of no other "commandment" where God explicitly states that there is no limit. Tithing is, by definition, 10%. Why did God not add in, "Just to clarify, 15% is okay too."? Why is this law of polygamy the only place where the Almighty specifically says, "you can have as many wives as you want."?
The best explanation that I have is that it was never a revelation from deity, but this "New and Everlasting Covenant" was Joseph Smith, Jr.'s way of justifying his lust. He desired to marry many women, and that is exactly why he did it. This fact is stated in his own documentation of the alleged commandment. If there is a better explanation, please share it with me.