Ask a Mormon Apostate 1: Polygamy Now?

The first question comes from Diane Sower:

“Why do they [the LDS church] not keep members informed of the continuing doctrine of polygamy after death?”

First, for those who may not know what Diane is referring to, some background is in order. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) teaches that marriages by the proper authority in the temple are “sealed” for “time and all eternity.” Thus, the marriage covenant and relationship continue after death. These sealed marriage relationships include plural marriages, or polygamy–strictly speaking, polygyny, in that one man could marry more than one woman–and such marriages would continue beyond death (see Doctrine and Covenants 132 for the scriptures dealing with this subject). The LDS church practiced plural marriage publicly from 1852 to 1890, though church leaders, such as Joseph Smith, had entered into many such marriages (Joseph Smith had actually practiced polygyny and polyandry) beginning in the 1830s. In the face of severe sanctions from the US federal government, the church officially ended the practice of plural marriage in 1890 (see Official Declaration 1 in LDS scripture). Secretly, however, the church continued to sanction plural marriages for some time afterward (see Michael Quinn’s article for details).

Since that time, the church has sought to distance itself from the legacy of polygamy. Church president Gordon B. Hinckley said, “This Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. … If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1998, 92; or Ensign, Nov. 1998, 71).

Given, however, that there are presumably no “civil laws” in the next life, the church teaches by practice and implication that men and women may remain in polygynous marriages in the eternities. Here is the relevant section of the church’s Handbook of Instructions:

Women. A living woman may be sealed to only one husband.

Men. If a husband and wife have been sealed, and the wife dies, the man may have another woman sealed to him if she is not already sealed to another man.

In other words, women can be sealed (married for eternity) to only one man, whereas men can be sealed to multiple women, as long as they are sealed only to him. An example of this practice (and its doctrinal basis) comes from Apostle Dallin Oaks, whose first wife, June, was sealed to him in 1952 and passed away in 1998. Elder Oaks subsequently married Kristen McMain in 2000, and their marriage was likewise sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. Elder Oaks acknowledges that, according to the church’s teachings, he will have both women as his wives in the hereafter:

There are a lot of people that live on this earth that have been married to more than one person. Sometimes those marriages have ended with death; sometimes they’ve ended with divorce. What does the next life mean to them in relation to a covenant they once made and so on? I don’t think those people have much of an answer for that question. It might not bother them because they don’t believe that people will live as married couples in the next life. And if they don’t make and live for the covenants to do that, [as for themselves] they’re right! But for people who live in the belief, as I do, that marriage relations can be for eternity, then you must say, “What will life be in the next life, when you’re married to more than one wife for eternity?” I have to say I don’t know. But I know that I’ve made those covenants, and I believe if I am true to the covenants that the blessing that’s anticipated here will be realized in the next life. (Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from PBS Documentary, 20 July 2007).

Why doesn’t the church “keep members informed” of this doctrine? It’s fair to say that the church does not spend a lot of time or ink discussing this doctrine. But the doctrine is clear (it’s still in the scriptures), and the implications and practice of that doctrine are acknowledged both in the church handbook and by its leaders.

I would guess church leaders may feel that dealing with the subject publicly and directly would highlight a doctrine and practice they have worked long and hard to remove from the collective consciousness of Mormonism. They probably don’t consider it a major enough doctrinal issue to deal with, except as it comes up in individual cases.

If you have a question about Mormonism, please send an email to runnertx@hotmail.com, with the subject line “Ask a Mormon Apostate.”

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2 Responses to Ask a Mormon Apostate 1: Polygamy Now?

  1. Diane Sower says:

    Along with the long forsaken practice of polygamy, the church does indeed believe that women who through no fault of their own, were unable to find worthy husbands in this life, will be given to another in the hereafter. It is only logical to assume that they will be given to another woman’s husband.

    • runtu says:

      That’s a different issue, though it’s related. In all fairness, the reverse is true, too: if a man is unable to find a worthy wife in this life, he too will be “given to another.”

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