What is "Celestial Polygamy"?

By Bill McKeever 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems to be engaged in an uphill battle in its effort to convince the public that they no longer practice polygamy. An LDS Newsroom release posted on September 7, 2007, stated: 

“For the record, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued its practice in 1890, and for 117 years Mormons have followed a monogamous lifestyle.  Yet careless headline writing or sloppy reporting still causes millions of Mormons to have to answer questions from their neighbors, coworkers, friends and neighbors: ‘Are you a polygamist?’ ‘Is that your church I read about in the newspaper?’ or ‘How many wives do you have?’ We ask journalists to clearly make the distinction between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and polygamous groups. We also hope Church members and other readers will politely remind news organizations that continue to report inaccurately to make the effort to avoid these mistakes.” 

The above press release makes reference to a document released in 1890 by fourth President Wilford Woodruff. Known as the Manifesto, this document makes the following promise: 

“Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.”  

The above excerpt has often been referenced whenever the public erroneously connects modern polygamists groups with the LDS Church. It is true that the LDS Church no longer tolerates a member living in a marriage relationship with more than one woman, and in that sense it has nothing to do with modern polygamist groups. If this is what 15th President Gordon B. Hinckley meant when he stated, “I wish to state categorically that this church has nothing whatsoever to do with those practicing polygamy,” he was not lying. However, what is not entirely true is the assumption that the Mormon Church has completely renounced the practice of plural marriage. How is the public to understand this seeming contradiction? 

The solution to this confusing dilemma is found in a concept dubbed “celestial polygamy.” Having more than one wife in the “here and now” is grounds for excommunication from the LDS Church; however, the possibility of having more than one wife in the “hereafter” is still very much a part of the Mormon culture. According to an article in the April 20, 2008 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune

“Though the LDS Church had disavowed polygamy, it is still enshrined in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132) and some believe it will one day be re-established, if not on Earth, at least in heaven. In his quasi-official 1966 book Mormon Doctrine, which remains in print, the late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that ‘the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming and the ushering in of the millennium.’ And by policy, men can be ‘sealed’ for eternity in LDS temple rites to more than one wife, though women are permitted only a single sealing. Three of the church's current apostles, for example, were widowed and remarried. Each will have two wives in the eternities” (“Modern-day Mormons disavow polygamy”). 

Note carefully the last sentence, “Three of the church’s current apostles, for example, were widowed and remarried. Each will have two wives in the eternities.” 

The three Mormon Apostles referred to in this article are Dallin H. Oaks, L. Tom Perry, and Russell M. Nelson. All three men are widowers, and all three men have been “sealed” to a second wife.

During a devotional address Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks gave at Brigham Young University on January 29, 2002, he confirmed that he fully anticipates spending eternity with Kristen M. McMain, whom he was sealed to in the Salt Lake Temple on August 25, 2000. Oaks' first wife, June Dixon Oaks, was sealed to him in marriage on June 24, 1952. She died in 1998. In his BYU talk, Oaks said, "When I was 66, my wife June died of cancer. Two years later I married Kristen McMain, the eternal companion who now stands at my side.”  

What is the point of being “sealed” for eternity? Speaking in General Conference in 1994, Seventy Charles Didier stated: 

“This [marriage] union is solemnized by the authority of the everlasting priesthood into a holy and sacred ordinance, the temple sealing. It is also called the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, and its purpose is to bind couples together on earth and bring them to a fulness of exaltation in the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” (“Remember Your Covenants,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1994, p.42). 

In a January 28, 1999 City Weekly article titled “Only for Eternity,” author Andrea Moore Emmett quoted LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills who said, “We have to see sealing ordinances as a promise pending faithfulness and yes, some will live polygamy.” 

Mormon women who find the teaching of celestial polygamy unsettling will probably not find comfort in a May 31, 2006 LDS Newsroom statement that reads: 

“Question: Is polygamy gone forever from the Church?

We only know what the Lord has revealed through His prophets, that plural marriage has been stopped in the Church. Anything else is speculative and unwarranted.” 

If it is really speculative and unwarranted, what is the point of Mormon widowers being sealed in Mormon temples?  If temple sealings of this nature have significance in the hereafter, how can the LDS Church honestly say “plural marriage has been stopped”?

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