Chapter 15: Eternal Marriage

Chapter 15: Eternal Marriage

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, (2013), 191–202

During 2014, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith. We will evaluate this book regularly, chapter by chapter, by showing interesting quotes and providing an Evangelical Christian take on this manual. The text that is underlined is from the manual, with our comments following.


“The fullness and blessings of the Priesthood and Gospel grow out of Celestial marriage. This is the crowning ordinance of the Gospel and crowning ordinance of the temple.”

As we will see in this review, there is no biblical support for “celestial marriage.” If this doctrine is supposed to be the religion’s crowning ordinance, then something has gone awry with this religion.

From the Life of Joseph Fielding Smith

Eighteen-year-old Joseph Fielding Smith had been told that a young woman named Louie Emily Shurtliff would be coming to live with the Smith family while she attended college. But he was still surprised—and pleased—when he came home from work one day and found Louie playing a hymn on his family’s piano. Beginning that day, in the late summer of 1894, Joseph and Louie developed a friendship that gradually deepened until they fell in love. They were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple on April 26, 1898.

Louie and Joseph enjoyed a loving relationship. When he was called to serve a two-year mission in England shortly after they were married, she worked for her father to support him financially. She also supported him emotionally and spiritually by sending him encouraging letters. After he returned, they established a happy home and welcomed two daughters into their family. But after 10 years of marriage, Louie became gravely ill during her third pregnancy and died at the age of 31.

Joseph found comfort in the assurance that Louie had departed “for a better world,” and he recorded in his journal a prayer that he would “be worthy to meet her in eternal glory, to be united again with her.” But despite the consolation and hope he found in the gospel, he missed Louie terribly. He also worried about his daughters without a mother at home. Soon after Louie’s death, Joseph met Ethel Georgina Reynolds. Although his love for Louie had not diminished, he came to love Ethel, and so did his daughters. With the approval of his parents, Louie’s parents, and Ethel’s parents, Joseph asked Ethel to marry him. They were sealed on November 2, 1908. They had a joyful and eventful life together as they had nine more children. Their home was characterized by order, hard work, respect, cleanliness, tender discipline, love, and wholesome fun.

After 29 years of marriage, Ethel died of a debilitating illness that had sapped her strength for 4 years. Once again, Joseph was lonely but comforted by the assurance of eternal marriage. And once again, he met someone with whom he could share his life. He and Jessie Evans were sealed on April 12, 1938. “During their 33 years of life together she accompanied him most everywhere, near and far. He in turn helped her do the grocery shopping, dry the supper dishes, and bottle fruit in the fall. He had no qualms about being an apostle with an apron on.”5 Jessie often said of her husband: “He is the kindest man I have ever known. I have never heard him speak an unkind word.” He would respond, with a smile, “I don’t know any unkind words.”

Biographer John J. Stewart wrote of President Smith’s gentleness and compassion toward Jessie: “From the pulpit he admonished husbands to be loving and devoted to their wives. But the sermon that touches me is his climbing nine blocks up Salt Lake City’s steep north avenues to the Latter-day Saint Hospital on a hot July day in 1971 and spending his 95th birthday anniversary sitting at the bedside of his sick wife Jessie. As her condition worsened, he stayed right with her day and night for several weeks keeping an anxious vigil, giving her what comfort and encouragement he could to the end.”

Jessie died on August 3, 1971. Two months later, President Smith gave the opening address at general conference. His testimony showed that his sadness was calmed by trust in the Lord and hope for eternal life:

“I feel to say with Job of old, whose knowledge came from the same source from which mine has come: ‘For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth,’ and that ‘in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold. …’ (Job 19:25–27.)

“And as I join my testimony with that of Job, may I also unite with him in thanksgiving, for the cry, uttered out of the anguish and sorrow of his soul: ‘… the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1:21.)

“I pray that we may all be guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we may walk uprightly before the Lord, and that we may inherit eternal life in the mansions and kingdoms that are prepared for the obedient.”

After President Smith’s address, President Harold B. Lee, who was conducting the meeting, said: “I am sure that all members of the Church everywhere, realizing the circumstances under which he has delivered this powerful message, are greatly uplifted by the power and strength he has manifested before us here this morning. Thank you, President Smith, from the bottom of our hearts.”

Let’s be clear from the start. Joseph Fielding Smith was married to each of these women in the temple for “time and eternity” and believed on his deathbed that he would be married to each of his wives in eternity. (Note: If he had died before any of his wives, that woman would not have been allowed to get sealed for eternity for women can only be sealed to one man each.) Thus, polygamy will reign in the future spiritual world. If plural marriage in this life is a distasteful practice for most people (especially women!), why should one God having multiple wives have any appeal at all?

Teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith

Celestial marriage is the crowning ordinance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is no ordinance connected with the Gospel of Jesus Christ of greater importance, of more solemn and sacred nature, and more necessary to [our] eternal joy … than marriage.

The fullness and blessings of the Priesthood and Gospel grow out of Celestial marriage. This is the crowning ordinance of the Gospel and crowning ordinance of the temple.

I want to plead to my good brethren and sisters, good members of the Church, to go to the temple to be married for time and all eternity.

In contrast to the practices of the world, marriage endures forever in the gospel plan.

Marriage is considered by a great many people as merely a civil contract or agreement between a man and a woman that they will live together in the marriage relation. It is, in fact, an eternal principle upon which the very existence of mankind depends. The Lord gave this law to man in the very beginning of the world as part of the Gospel law, and the first marriage was to endure forever. According to the law of the Lord every marriage should endure forever. If all mankind would live in strict obedience to the Gospel and in that love which is begotten by the Spirit of the Lord, all marriages would be eternal. …

… Marriage as understood by Latter-day Saints is a covenant ordained to be everlasting. It is the foundation for eternal exaltation, for without it there could be no eternal progress in the kingdom of God.

Before going any further, we should point out the D&C 132 was speaking specifically about plural marriage. In fact, celestial marriage was once synonymous with plural marriage. (See Orson Pratt’s talk on polygamy in Watt, ed., Journal of Discourses, 6:361–62 as well as Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 340.) According to BYU professor Charles Harrell, “it was firmly held and fervently taught through much of the latter-half of the nineteenth century that plural marriage, at least when in force, was essential to exaltation.” (“This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology, 319). Today, “celestial marriage” has come to mean marriage for time and eternity performed in a Mormon temple.

According to Mormonism, “only in the temple can we be sealed together forever as families” (Gospel Principles, 235). At the October 2008 general conference, Apostle Russell M. Nelson said, “To qualify for eternal life, we must make an eternal and everlasting covenant with our Heavenly Father. This means that a temple marriage is not only between husband and wife; it embraces a partnership with God.” (Ensign (November 2008), 93.)

Marriages performed outside the temple are considered binding only “until death.” Children born to a couple married in the temple are automatically “sealed” (known as “born in the covenant”) to their parents for eternity. Those couples not married in the temple will not only lose the right to be together after death, but they have no “claim upon their children, for they have not been born under the covenant of eternal marriage.” ( A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1976), 193. Also see Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism, 229.)

Those not born “under the covenant” of celestial marriage must have their families sealed in a separate temple ceremony. President Howard W. Hunter wrote: “If children are born before the wife is sealed to her husband, there is a temple sealing ordinance that can seal these children to their parents for eternity, and so it is that children can be sealed vicariously to parents who have passed away.” (Ensign (February 1995): 2.)

Although continued good works are essential, Mormonism teaches that a person must be married in the temple to have a chance at exaltation, which will allow them to be “united eternally with their righteous family members and [they] will be able to have eternal increase” (Gospel Principles, 277). Focusing on the meaning of “eternal increase” within the exalted state, another church manual explains, “By definition, exaltation includes the ability to procreate the family unit throughout eternity” (Achieving a Celestial Marriage, 129).  The idea of residing with one’s family as a reward for a job well done on earth has been a consistent theme throughout much of Mormonism’s history.

In the mind of the Latter-day Saint, it makes sense that heaven includes the family unit. Certainly Christians should invest heavily in their earthly families, but nowhere does the Bible teach that mom, dad, grandparents, children, or others will live together as a family unit in heaven.

“Marriage as understood by Latter-day Saints is a covenant ordained to be everlasting.”

It is very apparent to all of us who read the newspapers, who listen to the news accounts on the radio and who watch what comes over television that all too many do not hold marriage and the family unit in that respect which the Lord intends.

Marriage is a sacred covenant, yet in many instances it is made the butt of coarse jokes, a jest, a passing fancy, by the vulgar and the unclean, and, too, by many who think themselves refined but who do not regard the sacredness of this great principle.

Christians believe in the sanctity of marriage. They just don’t hold that marriage is meant to continue past death. Having a secure and solid marriage should be important to Christians because the idea is stressed in the Bible.

The Lord has given us his everlasting gospel to be a light and a standard to us, and this gospel includes his holy order of matrimony, which is eternal in nature. We should not and must not follow the marriage practices of the world. We have greater light than the world has, and the Lord expects more of us than he does of them.

We know what the true order of marriage is. We know the place of the family unit in the plan of salvation. We know that we should be married in the temple, and that we must keep ourselves clean and pure so as to gain the approving seal of the Holy Spirit of Promise upon our marriage unions.

We are spirit children of our Eternal Father, who ordained a plan of salvation whereby we might come to earth and progress and advance and become like him; that is, he provided a gospel plan which would enable us to have eternal family units of our own and to enjoy eternal life.

Marriage was never intended by the Lord to end at death of the mortal body; but to add honor, dominion, power to the covenanting parties, and the continued and eternal unity of the family in the kingdom of God. Such blessings are held in reserve for those who are willing to abide in this covenant as the Lord revealed it. It is not merely a partnership between a man and a woman, for as the Lord has said, in marriage they become one flesh and enter into a partnership with God.

Faithfulness to the marriage covenant brings happiness and leads to blessings of eternal glory.

I am thankful to the Lord for the knowledge of the eternity of the marriage covenant, which gives the husband the right to claim his wife, and the wife the right to claim her husband in the world to come, providing they have gone to the House of the Lord and been united for time and all eternity by one holding this sealing power, for in no other way can this great blessing be obtained. I am also thankful for the knowledge that the family relation, and the unity of the family, shall continue, where properly organized, in righteousness in the life to come.

I want to plead with those who have been to the temple and have been so married to be faithful and true to their covenants and their obligations, for in the House of the Lord they have made solemn covenants.

This begs the question: Where in the Bible do we ever see marriages taking place in the temple? While there is full disclosure about the temple ceremonies in the Pentateuch, no such ordinance ever took place in the Jerusalem temple. Rather, this building served as a slaughterhouse where animals were killed in the place of those making a sacrificial offering. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that marriages ever took place there.

Nothing will prepare mankind for glory in the kingdom of God as readily as faithfulness to the marriage covenant. …

If properly received this covenant becomes the means of the greatest happiness. The greatest honor in this life, and in the life to come, honor, dominion and power in perfect love, are the blessings which come out of it. These blessings of eternal glory are held in reserve for those who are willing to abide in this and all other covenants of the Gospel.

Notice what it says: the “covenants of the Gospel” must be kept. In fact, dwelling together as a family unit presupposes that each member of the family was able to follow the whole law during their mortal probation. Mormonism teaches that only those who are truly obedient will qualify for the benefits of the celestial kingdom. According to President Joseph Fielding Smith, “To enter the celestial and obtain exaltation it is necessary that the whole law be kept” (The Way to Perfection, 206).

For the sake of argument, suppose that keeping the whole law is possible. Where will all the billions and billions of family members from the beginning of time physically reside? Are we to assume that the God of Mormonism continues to reside with his extended earthly family? Does he worship the God who preceded him? And since Jesus is our spirit brother from the preexistence, will He become “Uncle Jesus” to the offspring of a Mormon who becomes a god? Will the heavenly Father be known as “Heavenly Grandfather” to these offspring?

What about those members of a Mormon family who do not qualify for celestial glory? Mormonism teaches that a person can’t reach the celestial kingdom on the coattails of another faithful member; each person must individually qualify. Even if this concept ended up being true, the odds are that most LDS families will be incomplete because some of their loved ones will fail to live up to the proper standards during their mortal probation. Does this sound like “heaven” to you?

“The family relation, and the unity of the family, shall continue, where properly organized, in righteousness in the life to come.”

What does marriage mean to members of the Church? It means that they are receiving in that ordinance the greatest, the crowning blessing, the blessing of eternal lives. Now that’s the way the Lord puts it, “eternal lives,” which means not only will the husband and the wife enter into eternal life, but their children who were born under the covenant likewise will be entitled through their faithfulness to eternal lives. And further, that the husband and the wife after the resurrection of the dead will not come to an end. By that the Lord means that they will have a continuation of the seeds forever, and the family organization does not come to an end. [See D&C 132:19–24.]

What does the Bible have to say about this topic? In an account given in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was approached by members of the Sadducees, the Jewish religious party that did not believe in a bodily resurrection from the dead (Matt. 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–28). Trying to trick Him, these leaders presented what appears to be a hypothetical situation involving seven brothers. When the oldest brother died, he left a wife and no children. According to the Mosaic law, the next oldest unmarried brother took the woman for his wife. However, the second brother died, as did the third through seventh brothers. Before they died, each of them had married the oldest brother’s wife, making her a widow seven times over.

In Mark 12:23 they asked, “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” Jesus chastised His inquisitors in verse 24, saying they did not know the scriptures. Verse 25 reads, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (ESV)

At face value and as it has been historically interpreted, Jesus appears to be saying that heaven will be much different from life as it is known on earth. While the gifts of sex and procreation are important parts of the earthly life, these will not be a part of the afterlife. The joys in store for the believer are incredibly more magnificent than the temporary pleasure of sexual fulfillment.

In addition, there will be no need to procreate in heaven. Thus, while it appears we will be able to recognize fellow believers in heaven, there is no indication from the Bible that we will be eternally paired with a particular mate. Historically, Christians view all believers as part of God’s great family rather than millions of smaller groups. However, Mormon leaders have interpreted this passage quite differently than the historic Christian view. Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote:

What then is the Master Teacher affirming by saying, “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven”? He is not denying but limiting the prevailing concept that there will be marrying and giving in marriage in heaven. He is saying that as far as “they” (the Sadducees) are concerned, that as far as “they” (“the children of this world”) are concerned, the family unit does not and will not continue in the resurrection. Because he does not choose to cast his pearls before swine, and because the point at issue is not marriage but resurrection anyway, Jesus does not here amplify his teaching to explain that there is marrying and giving of marriage in heaven only for those who live the fulness of gospel law—a requirement which excludes worldly people. (McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:605–6).

Saying that this was not “the Lord’s final word on the subject,” David H. Yarn Jr., a former BYU professor of philosophy and religion, said, “The Lord did not say there would be no people in the married state in the resurrection but that there would be no marriages made in the resurrection” (A Sure Foundation: Answers to Difficult Gospel Questions, 115). Some Mormon leaders have read their own interpretations into this passage, explaining that the fictional wife in the parable had been eternally sealed to the first husband. For instance, Apostle James E. Talmage wrote:

The Lord’s meaning was clear, that in the resurrected state there can be no question among the seven brothers as to whose wife for eternity the woman shall be, since all except the first had married her for the duration of mortal life only, and primarily for the purpose of perpetuating in mortality the name and family of the brother who first died. ( Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1981), 548.)

While these explanations may sound good to a Mormon audience that cherishes the institution of marriage, the ability to read between the lines of Jesus’ teaching does not make a doctrine true. In its chapter on “eternal marriage,” Gospel Principles lists only three biblical passages as support for this teaching (listed as “additional scriptures” on page 223): Genesis 1:26-28, Genesis 2:21-24, and Matthew 19:3-8. The first passage deals with the command for Adam and Eve to procreate and fill the earth. The second describes the creation of Eve and how she and Adam were to become “one flesh.” The third talks about divorce and for man not to undo what God intended to be a life-long relationship. All three deal with situations in this life; none of these references has anything to do with eternal marriage.

A person would have to presuppose that these passages were meant for eternity; the context of each passage, however, prevents this conclusion. How many people would, on reading this Synoptic Gospel account alone in conjunction with the teachings of the Bible, exclaim, “Here’s evidence for the biblical principle of eternal marriage!”? Rather than supporting the view of eternal marriage, Jesus explained that the institution of marriage was for this life only and not the life to come. To assume anything more is biblically and exegetically unsound.

In order to fulfill the purposes of our Eternal Father, there must be a union, husbands and wives receiving the blessings that are promised to those who are faithful and true that will exalt them to Godhood. A man cannot receive the fulness of the blessings of the kingdom of God alone, nor can the woman, but the two together can receive all the blessings and privileges that pertain to the fulness of the Father’s kingdom.

Smith and the LDS editors provide absolutely no biblical evidence to support this presupposition.

Every soul whose heart is right will have the opportunity to receive the blessings of eternal marriage, whether in this life or the next.

In the great plan of salvation nothing has been overlooked. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most beautiful thing in the world. It embraces every soul whose heart is right and who diligently seeks him and desires to obey his laws and covenants. Therefore, if a person is for any cause denied the privilege of complying with any of the covenants, the Lord will judge him or her by the intent of the heart. There are thousands of members of the Church [without access to temples] who have married and reared families in the Church, who were deprived of the privilege of being “sealed” for time and all eternity. Many of these have passed away, and their blessings are given them vicariously. The gospel is a vicarious work. Jesus vicariously performed a labor for us all because we could not do it for ourselves. Likewise, he has granted to the living members of the Church that they may act as proxies for the dead who died without the opportunity of acting in their own behalf.

Furthermore, there are thousands of young men as well as young women, who have passed to the world of spirits without the opportunity of these blessings. Many of them have laid down their lives in battle; many have died in their early youth; and many have died in their childhood. The Lord will not forget a single one of them. All the blessings belonging to exaltation will be given them, for this is the course of justice and mercy. So with those who live in the stakes of Zion and in the shadows of our temples; if they are deprived of blessings in this life these blessings will be given to them during the millennium.

If it’s possible to do this important work in the next life, then why is there so much emphasis in getting married in the temple in this life? If I’m wrong, I guess I’ll have another shot, at least according to this particular LDS leader.

As a husband and wife faithfully observe all the ordinances and principles of the gospel, their joy in marriage grows sweeter.

Marriage was ordained of God. It is a righteous principle when in holiness it is received and practiced. If men and women today would enter into this covenant in the spirit of humility, love and faith, as they are commanded to do, walking righteously in the ways of eternal life, there would be no divorce, no broken homes; but a happiness, a joy, beyond expression.

I want to impress upon all my good brethren and sisters who have been married in the temple that they should never forget the great blessings which were bestowed upon them: That the Lord has given unto them, through their faithfulness, the right to become his sons and his daughters, joint heirs with Jesus Christ, possessing, as stated here, all that the Father has [referring to Romans 8:13–19 and Doctrine and Covenants 76:54–60].

And yet, there are members of the Church who fail to comprehend this and after they are married for time and all eternity, … receiving the promise of the fulness of the Father’s kingdom, they permit things to come into their lives that bring friction and separate them. And they forget that they have made a covenant for time and all eternity with each other; and not only that, but they have made a covenant with their Father in heaven.

As a husband and wife faithfully observe the gospel together, their joy and happiness in marriage “grow sweeter.”

If a man and his wife were earnestly and faithfully observing all the ordinances and principles of the gospel, there could not arise any cause for divorce. The joy and happiness pertaining to the marriage relationship would grow sweeter, and husband and wife would become more and more attached to each other as the days go by. Not only would the husband love the wife and the wife the husband, but children born to them would live in an atmosphere of love and harmony. The love of each for the others would not be impaired, and moreover the love of all towards our Eternal Father and his Son Jesus Christ would be more firmly rooted in their souls.

If Christianity doesn’t teach that wives and husbands will reenter their roles in the next life, then what is Christianity’s heaven like? Some Mormons have created a stereotype about the Christian’s view of heaven, assuming it means sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp, and singing hymns to Jesus throughout eternity in a most boring fashion. While this is certainly not a completely accurate picture of heaven, perhaps the Latter-day Saint should consider Mormon 7:7 in the Book of Mormon. It reads,

“And he [Jesus] have brought to pass the redemption of the world, whereby he that is found guiltless before him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a state of happiness which hath no end.”

The Bible teaches that all forgiven humans are a part of God’s family. As such, all redeemed believers will live in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God will be the focus of our attention in eternity, not us. Sadly, Christians will not experience eternity with unforgiven loved ones. However, in Mormon teaching this same situation exists. Faithful Mormons will not be joined by family members who were unfaithful in mortality.

On the surface, the idea of eternal family units may sound very appealing to some, but once the LDS concept is carried to its logical conclusion, it breaks down quickly.


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