Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


My Polygamous Heaven . . . Not

posted by Jana Riess

That's me on the right. And the left. And the right.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a lovely email from a woman who used to be LDS, and eventually left the Church over several issues, including the persistence of polygamous theology among Mormons. I’ve been meaning to answer some of her questions here on the blog. I’ve written a two-part post about polygamy in Mormonism – today’s portion being about the atavistic legacy of polygamy in Mormon belief structures, and next week’s being about how and why the Church has so often incorrectly downplayed the extent of actual polygamous practice in the 19th century.

Here is a portion of what this woman said:

How can I join a Church that teaches that I must “share” my husband with other women/goddesses in the afterlife?  This is my BIG sticking point with the LDS faith.  [My former] Bishop expressly stated to me that the Church DOES NOT and WILL NEVER promote polygamy, it was necessary in the 1800′s to “raise up a mighty generation,” blah, blah, blah. I guess he didn’t count on having a convert who is also an intelligent woman/trained researcher and debater.  Of course, I read every text available on the LDS doctrine.  When I discovered Apostle Bruce McConkie’s tome, it was the beginning of the end for me.  Obviously, “The Plan” involves polygamy!

For the record, the LDS Church is now crystal-clear that polygamy is not to be practiced in this lifetime. Despite what you may have imagined from watching Sister Wives, anyone who does so is immediately excommunicated. However, this doesn’t mean that some Mormons don’t hold out hope that plural marriage will be the order of heaven, as many interpret D&C 132 to mean.

Polygamy in Practice

Unfortunately, polygamy is not only a lingering default belief for many Mormons but also a present temple reality. For example, living male widowers can be sealed in the temple to any deceased women that were married to them in life, no matter how many there were. Widowers can also be sealed to a new wife in the temple in addition to the wife or wives who died. Presumably when widower Apostle Russell Nelson remarried in 2006 in the temple, the new sealing was an addition to, and not a replacement of, his sealing to his deceased first wife.  In contrast, church policy dictates that living women can only be sealed to one man.

And until fairly recently, men who obtained a civil divorce could remarry in the temple without also receiving a sealing cancellation, even though a sealing cancellation was required for women who wished to remarry. I understand that the Church has changed this policy and now requires any temple-married person who has been divorced to obtain a sealing cancellation before marrying a second time in the temple. (Though of course, all of the de facto heavenly polygamous relationships that were sanctioned by the previous policy are still intact.)

Polygamy in Principle

As for individual belief, I’ve occasionally heard it taught from the pulpit (and the Relief Society’s lace-draped table) that heaven will be polygamous. To be fair, in the RS lesson this declaration evoked criticism and debate of a kind not often seen in RS. But for many Mormons, particularly older ones, the belief in an afterlife of plural marriage is hardly a relic of the distant past.

To my email correspondent, and the many women (and some men) like her who have expressed private misgivings to me about plural marriage in heaven: I hope your souls can rest easy. Please don’t underestimate the power and love and mystery of a God who is going to work all this out in the afterlife—and the power and love and mystery of a heaven that is a fulfillment of God’s promise that there shall be no more tears. (Rev. 21) I’m positively baffled by the apparent self-loathing of Mormon women who can declare on the one hand that they hate polygamy with a passion but on the other hand confess that they have resigned themselves that God may well want them to live in polygamous marriage for eternity. What manner of skewed theology would posit a heaven requiring you to engage in something you find hateful?

I don’t believe in polygamy as an eternal principle. It is a historical fact from the LDS past, but not a divine mandate for my life. (Perhaps some readers have had spiritual confirmation that it is a divine mandate for theirs. Bully for them. I can only speak for myself.)  I hope that this intelligent, thoughtful woman who is yearning for faith can see that it is possible to be a faithful Latter-day Saint for whom polygamy holds neither specter nor thrall.

 



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment chris

    “Perhaps some readers have had spiritual confirmation that it is a divine mandate for theirs. Bully for them. I can only speak for myself”

    I tend to agree with the thought that polygamy was for this life, but also want to add it served and continues to server eternal purposes to this day (and I do not want to be mistaken in saying it currently being practiced today by splinter groups is serving a good purpose). Looking back, we can see the evidence of things not seen so many years ago — polygamous relationships in this life were then for the purposes of bringing seed into the covenant (as stated plainly in DC132) — although to be fair, that’s exactly what was stated in the revelation as well as by the prophets in the time of JS/BY, etc..

    It’s pretty clear the Lord’s work is to make possible our exaltation through the church and its ordinances. In this sense, polygamy was an eternal principle because it served the purpose of bringing many spirit children into the fold of the church where they could become the sons and daughters of the Abrahamic covenant.

    But let me return to your quote above. It’s a little bit dismissive or at least cocky just because you want dismiss something you disagree with. I think just about everyone who entered the world could just as easily say, “I’ve never had a confirmation of (the BoM or Jesus or the Atonement) but if you have bully for you.” Sure you can say that but it does not absolve one of the responsibility of actually seeking out the Lord’s will and doing it.

    As DC132 says, “Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter. Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same.”

    I’m not using that scripture in support of polygamy today, but certainly in both a temporal and eternal sense (as I briefly touched on above) it was used to those who were not only inquiring about the concept of plural marriage, but were in a time of living it.

    We are not in such a time, but I really don’t like the idea of just dismissing to to an historical practice with the air of suggesting those who engaged in it did so because they were either deceived or confused. (not saying you’re doing this, but it’s easy to read it that way if one is inclined to do so)

    It’s a bit tricky, but recorded history is tricky, and life is more so. Ultimately, faith and trust in the Lord is what is always required.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ckbigelow Christopher Bigelow

    My feelings on polygamy are fairly agnostic, although I suspect that the evidence points to the reality of exalted polygamy as the norm rather than the exception.

    What I would comment on now is that I find it strange how some people, including Jana on this point, think that their current understanding and consequent feelings will remain intact after this life. It is possible that when further light and knowledge are revealed post-life, most Mormons will clamor for polygamy as the only eternal family organization that makes sense. I’m not saying this WILL happen, but obviously we don’t have much information now on what the eternities will actually be like, including any polygamy that may be involved.

    As far as loathing the concept of earthly polygamy during mortality, that makes more sense to me, because there’s more real evidence at hand. As one of those guys who was still sealed to a former wife when I married my permanent one, I enjoyed teasing the new wife about her “sister wife,” although I lost out on that fun once the first wife finally got our sealing canceled. But in reality, the idea of dealing with multiple wives in this life does not appeal in the slightest, given what I know about human realities.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Austin

    I have a friend getting married for the second time in the temple this summer and his previous sealing is not being canceled (but his wife’s is)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Brian

    In response to chris’ comment “I suspect that the evidence points to the reality of exalted polygamy as the norm rather than the exception.” I have no idea what will happen in the afterlife. There have been statements that all children that died before the age of accountability were faithful in the pre-existence and will be exalted. I assume that they will want the blessings of eternal sealing and will be worthy of those blessings. All evidence suggests that throughout the course of history about 52% of births have been male, but that many more boys die before the age of 5 than women, so by the time they reach adulthood there are more women. Most statements that assume that there will be more faithful women in the afterlife were made by individuals who did not have any way of knowing this. If all righteous women want to enjoy the blessings of sealing in this life polygamy makes sense. In the eternities polyandry might be just as logical. I just bring this up to bring up another reason to believe our concept of sealing in the afterlife will probably go through major revisions.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jana H

    There is a thought-provoking article on this from Eugene England called, “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage”, found here (http://www.eugeneengland.org/selected-writings/personal-essays). I find my thoughts closely dovetailing his, which rejects polygamy as an eternal principle. The very idea doesn’t fit the demographics of the Celestial kingdom anyway, as pointed out by the previous commenter.

    I encourage anyone interested in the subject to read the England piece. I found it very interesting! (“This classic essay is a thorough examination of the ideals of marriage that also challenges the assumptions held by many Latter-day Saints that plural marriage will be the dominant order of marriage in the celestial kingdom.”)

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/ Jana Riess

    Jana H — thanks for the link. I loved this old essay from Eugene England when I read it years ago but didn’t realize it was available online.

    Chris Bigelow — good point. You’re quite right that I am showing a certain myopia in my this-world definition of what heaven will mean for me, which is precisely the kind of narrow-mindedness I decry in other people. Thanks for making me think a little harder. Even though I can’t imagine a situation in which polygamy would be part of my eternal happiness, I certainly do need to be open to whatever God has in store in an afterlife that is difficult for us to conceptualize now. God is always full of surprises.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment DavidH

    I don’t know what family life will be like in the hereafter. I do believe, though, that all of us will be connected to everyone else via sealings. I suspect that just as family relationship here can be quite complex, so they may be in the hereafter.

    I have no problem with a woman’s, who was married to several men during her lifetime, being sealed to all of them, which is the current practice once the woman passes away, and having multiple husbands in the hereafter. Nor do I have a problem with a man’s being sealed to all women who were his wives during this life, and having multiple wives in the hereafter.

    Assume the following scenario: husband (1) marries wife (a), husband (1) dies; wife (a) married husband (2), and wife (a) dies; husband (2) marries wife (b). I don’t have a problem with wife (a)’s having two husbands–being sealed to husband (1) and husband (2)–and one of her husbands (husband (2)) having a second wife too (wife (b). Not sure what that would be called. But I have no problem with it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Adam Ford

    David O. McKay allowed WWII widows to remarry and be sealed in the temple to a second husband. Many married just before the soldier shipped out to get the death benefits should the soldier die.

    This practice has again been allowed recently as my wife’s aunt and a cousin are both sealed to a second husband after the death of their first husband. So the church seems to be allowing both sexes to be sealed to more than one person–at least sometimes.

    I think our modern culture really hates plural marriage because it is based on Victorian ideals of fidelity and livelong love. But his is a recent construct. The 12 tribes came from two wives and two concubines (slave girls). The French and Chinese both still see mistresses as totally legitimate and permissible–among mourners at President François Mitterrand’s funeral in 1996 were his mistress, Anne Pingeot, left, with their daughter, Mazarine. When was the last time you read The Good Earth?

    The point here is women really really like the improved power position they enjoy in the modern world (and they should). That power positon is largely based on their improved status in the institution of marriage–as the only wife and sexual partner. “Please me or you get no sex!” The majority of women in world history did not have this vantage point and were quit accepting of plural marriage. You don’t get many complaints from women actually living plural marriage in cultures where plural marriage is accepted (like modern Africa or most Muslim countries). So this really isn’t about religion or doctrine–it is about women trying to protect the gains they have made in the last century or two. And that is just fine with me.

    But we shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say that all others that came before us would also be repulsed by plural marriage. Many knew nothing else and would miss the system were it abolished in Heaven. I think.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment djinn

    Plural marriage is intimately intertwined with temple marriage and pretty much most things templey in Sec. 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. How sharp must your scalpel be to dissect out the polygamy while leaving the rest of the temple covenants? My answer — too sharp. You can’t have one without the other. This seems to me an exercise in fooling yourself.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment djinn

    Specifically, how do you skirt around the following verses from the D&C, which requires damnation, according to Joseph Smith himself, if you do not accept polygamy?

    D&C Sec. 132 1 —Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines—

    4 For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can creject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.

    5 For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the blaw which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world.

    6 And as pertaining to the new and aeverlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my bglory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.

    7 And verily I say unto you, that the aconditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, boaths, cvows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and dsealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is eanointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by frevelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this gpower (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this hpower in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the ikeys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment mevansnh

    djinn…if a Mormon rejects this belief and revelation of the Prophet Joseph Smith as his greatest revelation, then how can he accept any of JS’s revelations, thus requiring a rejection of the whole basis of Mormonism? Either you accept polygamy as part of your religion or you do not accept the religion at all. You can’t have it both ways.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Benjamin

    djinn and Mevansnh: No skirting necessary. A fundamental tenet of Mormonism, taught by both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, is that the counsel of the living prophet is more important than any counsel that has come before.

    You both ignore the fact that the Book of Mormon clearly teaches monogamy. Further, Mormon scripture simply does not say that polygamy is required for exaltation. The “new and everlasting covenant” djinn cites is temple marriage–not polygamy.

    It is true that some Mormons in the 19th century, including some Mormon leaders, were emphatic about the role of polygamy in Mormon theology. You clearly believe that all Mormons in all times are bound by the views of their 19th century counterparts. You are clearly not the only Mormon antagonists who believe it. I think that is an odd point of view, all things considered, and odder still that you would feel so confident in telling others what they must believe about their own religion. You should know, as I think you do, that there aren’t many actual Mormons who believe they are so bound. In my view, that is a gross misunderstanding of Mormon beliefs about continuing revelation.

    I personally believe as Jacob believed: “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife…For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.” (Jacob 2:27,30.) Taken together with the other expositions regarding human sexuality in the holy scriptures and from modern day prophets, I believe the Good Lord’s position on the subject is quite clear.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment David P.

    Jana,

    Great article, though I’m not quite sure this is accurate:

    And until fairly recently, men who obtained a civil divorce could remarry in the temple without also receiving a sealing cancellation, even though a sealing cancellation was required for women who wished to remarry. I understand that the Church has changed this policy and now requires any temple-married person who has been divorced to obtain a sealing cancellation before marrying a second time in the temple.”

    Having gone through this in 2006 (and I believe that the Church Handbook backs me up on this). Men get permission from the 1st Presidency to remarry and be sealed. Women if they are to be sealed again, actually get a cancellation. Do you have a source to indicate otherwise?

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