Note: The following was originally printed in the November/December 2016 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
By Sharon Lindbloom
Issues related to Mormon polygamy have long been discussed and dissected, both inside and outside of the LDS Church. Once an official requirement for a bigger and better eternal glory, the practice of plural marriage was supposed to have been abandoned by mainstream Mormonism in 1890, though the LDS Church didn’t get serious about punishing polygamist members until 1904. However, in a newly published book, LDS author Carol Lynn Pearson explains,
“‘Polygamy?’ says the church. ‘We gave that up long ago.’ But on this we do not tell the truth; we do not even tell it slant. We tell it and hope the story will not be examined closely. Any member of the LDS Church today that enters the practice of polygamy is immediately excommunicated. But polygamy itself has never been excommunicated. It is still a member in good standing, waiting on the other side to greet us in heaven and causing large injury here on earth. ‘Polygamy delayed’ is still polygamy.” (The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men, 6-7)
Mormonism holds that families are forever – that marriage is not only for time spent on this earth, but is to last throughout eternity. Marriages for time and eternity, “sealed” in Mormon temples, will continue in heaven. Though a Mormon may only be sealed for “time” to one person, due to death or divorce he may be sealed for eternity to many. According to Mormonism, all of these sealings will continue in heaven; thus, “polygamy delayed.”
Ms. Pearson’s book, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy, shares many self-submitted stories from Mormons and former Mormons who have lived with the “injuries” caused by the doctrines surrounding “polygamy delayed.” One women articulates what many others also express. After describing the deep love she has for her husband, she writes,
“…there has always been a lingering pain in my heart that makes me hold back. There is always a piece of me that wonders… ‘If I die first, will he marry again and be sealed to another woman, making us eternal polygamists?’ That thought has made me cautious, wondering if there would be a place in the universe far enough away for me to hide if I were on the other side of the veil and my dear love was having another woman sealed to him forever. Practically speaking, this has had an impact on intimate aspects of our eternal love… Could God break my heart forever and call that heaven?” (154)
Mormonism’s doctrine of eternal polygamy drives a wedge between husbands and wives, affecting their deepest feelings of love and trust. Another woman writes,
“Our legacy of polygamy invites…doubt in the safety and stability of our most private, precious relationships. It suggests to women that what amounts to deep betrayal may come to us at any moment, and that our feelings of anguish would be yet another sacrifice on the altar of devotion.” (53)
The doctrines surrounding eternal sealings (affecting spouses and children) are complicated; what’s more, they inject “the safety and stability of [a Mormon’s] most private, precious relationships” with heartache. While men are allowed to be eternally sealed to multiple women, women may only be eternally sealed to one man. This sealing determines the eternal family for the woman and her children. That is, unless she is willing and able to obtain a rare “sealing cancellation,” a widow sealed to her deceased husband will be his wife in eternity, even if she marries again on earth. Her children will be the deceased husband’s children in eternity, regardless of who their biological father may be. This makes Mormon men reluctant to marry sealed widows. They not only must relinquish their wives to other men for eternity, they must also give up their children. And the children face spending an eternity with a “father” they may have never known. This is certainly not the picture of “Families are Forever” that the LDS Church presents to the world. A story included in The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy relates,
“My oldest son, who all of his life has been an active, worthy member of the church, is married to a wonderful woman who was widowed (while pregnant) at age twenty-one. They now have two children together, who are not sealed to their own father but to a man they don’t know. My son’s heart aches to be a part of the eternal family that he was always promised by the church he believes in. He now feels his mission was wasted by teaching people they could be with their families forever. He can’t, and for no fault of his own.” (99)
How do Mormons live with such painful doctrines? One woman who told her story entered into a sort of spiritual pre-nuptial agreement with her spouse:
“My husband has promised me that he will not be sealed a second time. I have promised him the same. It’s the only way I have found peace with this horrible part of our belief system. To me, the very thought of eternal polygamy feels exactly like an affair, a replacement, a rival, an enemy living in my home.” (52)
Some have left the Mormon Church over polygamy, while others hold on with a desperate hope that somehow it will all work out in eternity. Many women who tell their stories in The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy have merely decided to reject these doctrines while still holding on to Mormonism.
Carol Lynn Pearson and other liberal-minded Mormon women hope for and believe that soon the leaders of the LDS Church will put an end to eternal polygamy. Ms. Pearson believes that,
“Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants [LDS scripture] will receive an ‘inspired revision’ with plural marriage removed…” (189)
“The doctrine of plural marriage will be disavowed entirely and no longer considered the Word of God as pertains to history, the present, or the eternal future.” (194)
Ms. Pearson cites precedent for changing LDS scripture from the Church’s alteration of 2 Nephi 30:6. For nearly the entire history of the Church, this verse in the Book of Mormon contained the promise that dark-skinned Lamanites (in Mormonism, the ancestors of the American Indians) would eventually become “a white and delightsome people.” In 1981 the wording was changed to assure Lamanites they could become “a pure and delightsome people.” This change was made to eliminate the appearance of racist language, Ms. Pearson argues; therefore, she looks forward to the day when LDS leaders will abandon “the deeply hurtful concept of male privilege and female pain inherent in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants” (191-194).
Ms. Pearson also cites precedent for the disavowal of long-held doctrines in the Church, focusing primarily on “the long-lived teaching of the inferiority of the Negro race which resulted in the well-known fact of black members being barred from the LDS priesthood and refused temple privileges.” She writes, “The ending of the priesthood ban on black men offers a ready example for a possible ending of the teachings on polygamy” (194).
However, the so-called revelation on the priesthood was quite different in scope than a disavowal of polygamy would be. Granting full membership and temple privileges to “all worthy male members” had a positive effect for everyone. Disavowing and doing away with past, present, and future eternal polygamy would have a negative effect on many who believe in Mormonism, both the living and the dead. Eternal polygamy is intimately entwined with all of the grand promises of the Mormon faith. Do away with eternal polygamy? What of the thousands of early Mormon men who sacrificed so much to “live The Principle” in obedience to “God’s mouthpiece,” the prophet, in order to obtain exaltation and build their eternal kingdoms? What of the thousands of early Mormon women who became plural wives, required by LDS doctrine to be sealed to worthy men in order to have eternal life and “forever families”? What happens to these people (according to Mormonism) if eternal polygamy is disavowed?
The change that Mormon women hope and long for seems very unlikely. LDS apostle Russell M. Nelson, currently positioned to be the next president of the church, is sealed to two “eternal companions” (one deceased), as is current LDS Apostle Dallin Oaks. Indeed, according to early LDS leader Orson Pratt, God Himself has multiple eternal wives (The Seer, 172). What can be done about this? Carol Lynn Pearson believes that “plural marriage never was – is not now – and never will be ordained of God” (21). This is true, yet the stakes are far too high for Mormon leaders to fully abandon eternal polygamy.
In The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy an LDS woman asked, “What kind of God would think this up? Not one I want to worship or adore” (185). The good news for Mormon women is that this entire painful and complicated doctrine does not come from God. It comes from those the apostle Peter called “false teachers” who blaspheme “the way of truth” (2 Peter 2).
“Taste and see that the LORD is good,” King David wrote (Psalm 34). God does not offer a “heaven that would be hell” (77). He does not require you to learn “how to love a God who hurts you” (14). On the contrary, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). The ghost of eternal polygamy cannot haunt His heaven.