Redefining celestial marriage

Mormon temples and the rituals performed in them constitute one of the more important disciplines of the LDS faith. While a great portion of the activity in a Mormon temple is on behalf of the dead (baptisms for the dead, endowments for the dead, etc.), marriage ceremonies for the living, called celestial marriage, also plays a very important role in the LDS view of salvation.

Like many other unique doctrines brought about by the LDS Church, celestial marriage has gone through its share of redefining and development. Today, celestial marriage merely means to be married for time and eternity in an LDS temple. To the 19th century Mormon, celestial marriage was synonymous with plural marriage. Mormon historians concede that celestial and plural marriage were at one time inseparable. According to David John Buerger,

“Celestial marriage was applied to and equated with plural marriage until the late nineteenth century” (The Mysteries of Godliness, p.59).

Thomas G. Alexander, on page 60 of his Mormonism in Transition, wrote,

“Generally, the terms ‘new and everlasting covenant’ of marriage, ‘celestial marriage,’ and plural marriage were thought to be equivalent.”

When compelled by the U.S. government to abandon plural marriage in the late 1800s, LDS leaders redefined celestial marriage. For example, President Heber J. Grant and his counselors stated in 1914,

“Celestial marriage-that is, marriage for time and eternity-and polygamous or plural marriage are not synonymous terms. Monogamous marriages for time and eternity, solemnized in our temples in accordance with the word of the Lord and the laws of the Church, are Celestial marriages” (Messages of the First Presidency 5:329).

It doesn’t take much of a sleuth to discover that this was a new and different definition. Take, for instance, the following quote by Brigham Young:

“You will recollect, brethren and sisters, that it was in July, 1843, that he received this revelation concerning celestial marriage. This doctrine was explained and many received it as far as they could understand it. Some apostatized on account of it; but others did not, and received it in their faith” (Journal of Discourses 16:166).

The obvious question that arises from this statement is: If celestial marriage was always just another term for eternal marriage, why would it cause those who understood it to apostatize on account of it? The answer is simple. Celestial marriage was originally associated with plural marriage, which was a difficult concept for even some Mormons to grasp.

Not even Joseph Smith was naive to think celestial marriage would be easily accepted. The History of the Church, Vol. 5, p.xxxii, records the following:

“On the morning of the 12th of July, 1843; Joseph and Hyrum Smith came into the office in the upper story of the brick store, on the bank of the Mississippi river. They were talking on the subject of plural marriage. Hyrum said to Joseph, ‘If you will write the revelation on celestial marriage, I will take it and read it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.’ Joseph smiled and remarked, ‘You do not know Emma as well as I do.’ Hyrum repeated his opinion, and further remarked, ‘The doctrine is so plain, I can convince any reasonable man or woman of its truth, purity and heavenly origin,’ or words to that effect. Joseph then said, ‘Well, I will write the revelation and we will see.’ He then requested me to get paper and prepare to write.”

It is clear from this discourse that celestial marriage and plural marriage were meant to be synonymous terms. Redefining celestial marriage causes us to ask why Emma would be so vehemently opposed to being sealed to Joseph for eternity. If Mormons want to embrace this redefinition, they need to also explain why Emma was threatened in D&C 132:52-54 should she refuse to “receive all those that have been given” to Joseph.

Brigham Young declared that plural marriage was a requirement for exaltation. On August 19, 1866, he said,

“The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy” (Journal of Discourses 11:268).

Many fundamentalist groups of Latter-day Saints, a number of which thrive in the state of Utah, continue to follow Young’s admonition. They view the current LDS position as proof that the Utah Mormons have denied the faith since the LDS Church excommunicates any member who marries more than one wife at a time. This is not to say that plural marriage is a dead issue in the Utah Church.

It appears that the monogamous relationship currently stressed by the LDS Church is but a brief interlude before polygamy commences again. As Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote on page 578 of Mormon Doctrine,

“Obviously the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming of the Son of Man and the ushering in of the millennium.”

To be sure, this is one teaching that few investigators will hear while taking the missionary lessons.