The Polygamy Question: Missions, Marriage, and Assimilation

by Laura Rademaker

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Polygamy was a vexed question for missionaries in the Northern Territory of Australia. In the mid twentieth century, Christian missions of various denominations worked with the Australian Commonwealth Government to achieve a policy of assimilating Aboriginal people into white Australian culture. Yet there was little consensus as to how this assimilation policy could or should be applied to Aboriginal marriages. This article demonstrates that the issue of polygamy exposed divisions between church and state as well as among Christian denominations over their understandings of marriage. These differences stemmed from differing spiritual visions of assimilation in Australia. The conflicts over marriage in the Northern Territory, therefore, reveal that assimilation, and settler‐colonialism more broadly, operated on a religious plane as Aboriginal people, missionaries, and bureaucrats engaged in a spiritual contest over what represented a legitimate and acceptable marriage in that land.