Feb 17, 2017

LDS doctrine leaves potential for 'eternal polygamy'

Brian Passey
St. George Daily Spectrum
February 16, 2017

Will there be polygamy in heaven?

The official doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today still teaches that the principle of plural marriage has the potential to be acceptable when ordained by God, using examples like Abraham and King David in the Old Testament as evidence. These teachings are based on LDS scripture found in the book of Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132, which Joseph Smith claimed was a revelation from God to once again institute the practice of plural marriage.

Smith, the church’s founding president and prophet, incrementally established the practice in the 1830s and 1840s, according to an essay at lds.org. However, its practice was not widely known until after Brigham Young assumed leadership following Smith's death in 1844. It soon became a fundamental aspect of early Mormonism. But the practice also put the church at odds with the law. A series of moves by church leaders, beginning with President Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 “Manifesto,” eventually led to the end of church-sanctioned plural marriage.

Some separatists still practice polygamy in fundamentalist offshoot of the mainstream church. But members of the mainstream church are excommunicated if they choose to practice plural marriage, even in countries where polygamy is legal.

Decades have passed since male members of the mainstream LDS Church were allowed to marry more than one wife at a time, but the church still allows a man to be “sealed” to another woman in the temple if he remarries following the death of a first wife, according to an essay at lds.org. However, a woman whose husband has died cannot be sealed in the temple to a second man after remarrying.

Because Latter-day Saints believe the sealing ordinance binds mortal relationships in the afterlife, many also believe situations like this will result in eternal polygamy — the implication of plural marriage relationships in heaven. It’s an idea that causes confusion and heartache among some church members. Other Latter-day Saints, who look at the unknown nature of relationships in the afterlife, do not view it as a subject of concern.

In a 2007 interview on PBS, Elder Dallin H. Oaks addressed this topic. He is a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body in the church. and is also among the LDS men who have remarried after the death of a first wife. During the interview, Oaks attempted to answer the question: “What will life be like in the next life when you are married to more than one wife for eternity?”

“I have to say I don’t know,” Oaks said in the interview. “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.”

When contacted for comment on this story, a representative from LDS Public Affairs referred The Spectrum & Daily News to the following passage from an essay at lds.org: “The precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to trust in our wise Heavenly Father, who loves His children and does all things for their growth and salvation.”

Mindy Deschamps, a St. George resident and active member of the LDS Church, said she is following the path of hope.

A few years ago, her mother was killed in a car accident. A couple of years after her mother’s death, Deschamps’ father remarried in an LDS Temple and was sealed to his second wife. That meant he was now eternally sealed to two women. Some family members had a difficult time with her father’s decision, but Deschamps said she chooses to look at the situation with faith.

“My take on it is that all will be made well," she said. "God is a fair God. All will be made right in the next life.”

At the time, Deschamps was not actively attending church. Yet she felt at peace with her father’s decision and put her faith in the belief that God would sort it all out to the happiness of all involved.

“I felt like this was a good thing, a progression,” she said. “My dad needs companionship. It was his choice, not mine.”

But Deschamps admitted it is still a complicated issue. She descends from Mormon polygamists and has read about the hardships endured by some of the women who were forced to share their husbands with other wives. Deschamps is single, but she said if she were married she might be more concerned about the prospect of a husband being sealed to someone else in addition to her.
‘The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy’

Author and LDS Church member Carol Lynn Pearson wrote about the topic extensively in her new book, “The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy.”

“Any member of the LDS Church today that enters the practice of polygamy is immediately excommunicated,” Pearson writes in the introduction. “But polygamy itself has never been excommunicated. … ‘Polygamy delayed’ is still polygamy.”

Pearson describes this doctrine of eternal polygamy as “inflicting profound pain and fear, assuring women that we are still objects, damaging or destroying marriages, bringing chaos to family relationships, leading many to lose faith in our church and in God.”

While researching the book, Pearson conducted an informal survey that spread mostly via social media. About 8,000 current and former Latter-day Saints responded to her with their concerns about the doctrine of eternal polygamy, including about 2,500 stories of the emotional and spiritual pain it has caused them and their loved ones. The LDS Church has more than 15 million members worldwide.

The Spectrum & Daily News spoke with Pearson, who lives in California, by phone. Pearson, who is the author of more than 40 books and plays, said she felt compelled to write “The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy” because her advocacy was needed to bring attention to the place of women within her religion.

“I don’t want to go to my deathbed without doing something important for Mormon women,” she said.

The book looks at the church’s early practice of polygamy, its legacy in terms of eternal polygamy, and how it is all connected within a church built on a patriarchal form of leadership. Pearson said her goal is to help her fellow Latter-day Saints move from patriarchy to partnership. In order for that to happen, the stories of heartache caused by that patriarchy must be told.

“This particular thing drags us down,” she said. “Nobody should have to weep in the night because God is promising a polygamous heaven.”

From the 2,500 stories Pearson received in response to her survey, she kept dozens to reprint in the book. Shared anonymously, they offer a wide variety of viewpoints that illustrate the hurt and heartbreak caused by this doctrine.

One story from her book begins: “Polygamy in heaven has caused me pain that cannot be quantified. It is the only reason that I fear death.” In another story, a former church member said she had a habit of praying that her husband would die before her so he couldn’t be sealed to another woman and force her to live in polygamy for eternity. “What a way to conduct a marriage!” she writes.

One 15-year-old writes about the conflicting feelings that come from the implications of eternal polygamy.

“The thought is disgusting and outrageous, and I refuse to believe that a loving Heavenly Father would have anything to do with something so unjust, so sexist, so unequal and objectifying as polygamy,” the teen writes.

Even some lower-level church leaders shared stories with Pearson. A former bishop writes that he sees the damage that polygamy still inflicts as it destroys marriages and causes many to leave the church.

“I am disappointed that none of our church leaders have been willing to officially change the practice and policy to be in harmony with equality and agency,” he writes. “Sadly, we continue to give preferential privilege to men while perpetuating suffering upon women.”
Spiritual self-worth

The stories from Pearson’s book are echoed by Southern Utahns who have also faced concerns about eternal polygamy. Ivins City resident Kerry Perry said she first learned about the possibility of polygamy in heaven when she was 17.

“I was really depressed at the thought for many years,” Perry said. “It certainly did not help to think that if I fell madly in love and did the very best I could on this Earth that my eternal reward for obedience would be to just be one of many in a harem.”

Yet as she studied the issue, Perry said her thoughts on the subject began to change. An active member of the LDS Church, Perry said she does not believe that polygamy will necessarily be the norm in the next life. She views it now as a form of faithful sacrifice for certain people at a certain time.

“We are all here on this Earth to learn and grow and love and, for the really righteous, to see if we will submit our will to God above all else,” she said.

The doctrine has been harder for others to accept. St. George resident Aubrey McBride said it was one of the factors that contributed to her decision to no longer attend the LDS Church.

McBride, who has not attended church for about five years, said she feels as if polygamy is connected to a general misogynistic attitude toward women that comes from church leaders and the doctrine they espouse.

“The daunting idea of eternal polygamy caused me to question my spiritual self-worth, even though I had a powerful witness that God loves me,” she said. “The LDS Church leaders talk frequently about the different roles of men and women and praise women on their gentility and service as wives and mothers. Women are acclaimed for supporting their husbands. But I feel this only divides partners and narrows women’s expectations of their mortal and eternal role. It placates women’s gnawing self-doubt and continues to promote a subservient view of womanhood.”

McBride said she looks to her own family for evidence of the damage caused by the possibility of eternal polygamy. Like Deschamps’ step-mother, McBride’s step-grandmother was a second wife, sealed to her grandfather in the temple following the death of his first wife, McBride’s grandmother.

McBride’s step-grandmother married her husband when he still had five small children, all under the age of 10. She raised the children as her own alongside her biological child from her first marriage.

A few years ago, about a decade after her grandfather died, McBride said her step-grandmother opened up about her feelings of being a second wife “eternally.”

“She said, ‘I really don’t know if your grandfather thought I was pretty,’” McBride said. “She wanted to know how it would work in the eternities. Would he have to pick one of them? Would she always be a servant to the first wife? She was a devout woman. She would do anything for God. She just kind of wanted to know what to expect, and there really was no comfort in the doctrine for women who have been deemed the second or third wife.”

McBride said she could tell that the unknowns created by this doctrine really worried her step-grandmother, who had selflessly raised the children of her husband’s first wife. McBride said she can understand why any woman would not want to be placed second in line or get the “leftovers of love.”
Will it ever change?

Recent decades have brought slight changes to church policy on marriage sealings, which can also be performed by proxy for deceased ancestors. In 1998 the church changed its policy to also allow women to be sealed to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married, but only by proxy after they have died. The church statement about the unknown nature of these relationships in the next life also applied here.

In “The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy,” Pearson takes the point of view that the practice of polygamy was never ordained by God. Although she continues to believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, she argues that he was wrong about this particular part of God’s will. As a result, she writes that the idea of eternal polygamy “exists today from error” and was never “ordained of God.”

Pearson doesn’t just leave it there. She writes that Latter-day Saints have an obligation to put things right by viewing polygamy as an error and working to correct the problems and confusion it has caused. She also argues that there is precedent for this type of “correction,” referencing past church controversies, such as the prohibition of black men from the LDS priesthood, which ended in 1978.

“The ending of the priesthood ban on black men offers a ready example for a possible ending of the teachings on polygamy,” she writes. “The first is highly charged with racism, and the second is highly charged with sexism. Both take a class of people and place them in a lesser position. Both make the error of assuming that God gives special standing to white males.”

Pearson notes that even the way in which the church addresses the past priesthood ban has changed in recent years. An essay published on the church’s official website in 2013 acknowledges that church leaders and members advanced various theories about why the priesthood was restricted. Now, however, it says church leaders “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

Perhaps more importantly, the essay indicates that the priesthood ban was a product of its time, described as a “highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege.” Pearson argues the essay seems to suggest that the priesthood ban was the result of church leaders reacting to that culture with a church policy rather than basing doctrine on God’s will. And that gives her hope that someday a similar logic might be applied to polygamy and its legacy.

Near the end of her book Pearson writes of this hopeful future: “The writings and folklore around polygamy, the old stories and the statements even of prophets, will have been put away in the drawer marked ‘expired,’ and will generate no more fear than ghost stories told around the campfire.”

Email reporter Brian Passey at brian@thespectrum.com or call him at 435-674-6296. Follow him on social media at Facebook.com/PasseyBrian or on Twitter and Instagram, @BrianPassey.


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