Polygamy Culture and Temple Rites

In my previous discussions of polygamy culture, I mentioned that the 19th century practice of Mormon polygamy has had a lasting impact on the emotional health of contemporary LDS women, but I shied away from a detailed discussion of how the still-present practice of sealing multiple women to one man negatively impacts LDS women. At its core, polygamy culture continues to thrive because of this issue. And, in reality, the ways the current practice of temple-authorized polygamy (geared, to be clear, for the next life) are so numerous that I can only scratch the surface here. But it’s a surface that must be scratched until the problem is clearly exposed.

So let me briefly re-cap the basic doctrine of eternal marriage. Modern Mormonism teaches that a man and woman may have their marriage union “sealed” for eternity, under proper priesthood authority, in any of the many LDS temples worldwide. In other words, death does not end that marriage. In addition, it’s possible for a righteous, sealed husband and wife to ultimately progress to a state of godhood; the husband may became a perfected man (a heavenly father) and the wife become a perfected woman (a heavenly mother). Together, they would procreate spirit children and ultimately repeat the design currently set in motion by the divine being we call our Heavenly Father, or God.

Of course, to non-LDS, this is a strange doctrine and, for many, removes Mormonism from the Christian tent. But set that aside for a moment and consider how egalitarian the doctrine sounds: the Mormon Godhood contains a man and a woman, side by side, throughout eternity. I know of no other New Testament faith that teaches anything as radical: men and women may become perfected, co-creators.

This is the way the church presents the notion, applauding itself for acknowledging the divine potential of women.

But the church doesn’t openly address aspects of temple marriage that subjugate women throughout eternity. It doesn’t want to talk about how:

  • A man may be sealed to many wives, but a woman may not be sealed to more than one man. This is the definition of polygamy and disproves belief in the ever-present LDS assertion that God only sanctions marriage between one man and one woman. LDS women live mortal lives expecting to be subjected to polygamy throughout eternity.
  • If a couple divorces, the woman remains sealed to the man, even if he was an abusive husband, until and unless she finds another man to “take her to the temple” so she can, essentially, be transferred to him. Women are thought to be better off sealed to an unrighteous man than to no man at all.
  • If, in the next life, a woman is found righteous enough to become a Heavenly Mother but her husband is not adequately righteous, she is told she will be “given” to another man. There’s no hint of consent or choice; it’s assumed she will go where she is given and be grateful. Sort of like one would give a cow to a man with a better pasture.
  • The apparent purpose of a heavenly mother is to breed and raise spirit children, though we don’t have any doctrinal teaching about what this means. In effect, she represents, in her silence, eternal male sexual fulfillment.
  • Heavenly Mother has no identified purpose in the lives of her mortal children. In fact, we are forbidden attempts at connecting with her through prayer. (Prayer is only sanctioned for God the Father.)
  • Discussion about the role of the Divine Female in the afterlife is discouraged as speculative. Its commonly claimed that Heavenly Mother is too sacred for mortals to discuss or to think about. But this silencing is a theological manipulation that effectively relegates all women to a tier of lesser importance.

Each of these things effect the psyche of Mormon women. The problem is compounded by the cultural unwillingness to openly address them. Mormon women are shamed—I’ll be shamed—for bringing up the issues surrounding polygamy culture. We are told to put these concerns on a proverbial shelf and trust God (the Father, of course) to work it all out for us later.

I have more faith than that. I have faith that men and women can work these things out now, through the union of empathy, intelligence, and inspiration. But we will not if we can’t admit that the teaching of polygamous eternal marriage leaves women in the lurch every time. We may whitewash the way women are spoken of like property, but there is no denying that our salvation is dependent on a man in ways that a man’s salvation is not dependent on a woman. No LDS man has ever been told that, if his wife doesn’t measure up, he will be given to another woman. No. He will be given other women.

Married (sealed) LDS women too often live in marriages in which submission is the ultimate sign of godliness. In the temple ceremony, men covenant to obey God, but women covenant to obey their husband as he obeys God. This isn’t “the usual” religious patriarchy. Typical Christian patriarchy may chain women to outdated notions, but those chains can be broken without the risk of her damnation.

The chains of polygamy, however, can’t be broken; we are everlastingly sealed by them. To break those chains is to break the very covenants that we’re taught offer us the fullest salvation. Yet, to accept those chains means we accept that we are nothing special.

That can’t be what God intends for his daughters—not God the Father nor God the Mother, not Jesus himself who repeatedly and radically included women in ways that were counter to the religious culture of his time.

My mind keeps slipping to Isaiah 29:13, which calls out those who honor God with their lips while their hearts are far removed from him. I feel this way about my church’s claims that women have special, divine potential. Its lips tell me I’m a favored and beloved offspring of Heavenly Parents. And yet, its most sacred rituals and teachings treat me like property to be facelessly and silently exchanged. No matter how its spun, I feel no heart in that.

Indeed, polygamy culture diminishes the divine nature of the daughters of God in the hearts and minds of members of this church, while, at the same time, gas lighting women for not feeling cherished. That’s exactly why polygamy culture needs to be identified, conscientiously rooted out, and cast aside as chaff.

[T]he Lord said…this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me… (Isa. 29:13)

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10 thoughts on “Polygamy Culture and Temple Rites

    1. That’s worth a lot. Yes, there are many men both disturbed and effected. For instance, if a wife is abusive to her husband and they divorce, he remains sealed to that abusive wife. And should he return to the temple to marry again, he and his new wife become polygamous, often against their desires. Its ugly for both men and women. That’s the thing about women’s issues; the detriment is to both male and female.

      Thanks for leaving a comment. I appreciate your support and we all appreciate the reminder that many men feel solidarity with us.

      Like

  1. cloves

    My grandmother was a second wife, and I know it bothered her her whole life, that in the eternities, she was always going to be just a second wife. She was also terrified that her children would be given to the first wife in the eternities. Because she was just a second wife. She lived with this hanging over her head for more than 60 years. That’s a travesty. I’ve always felt my hackles raise at the idea of polygamy and I’ve told my husband that I would prefer no eternal spouse than to share a spouse. According to theology, will I have that option? Or is my fate sealed, so to speak.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So hard. I didn’t even touch the teaching about how children are shuffled around in the next life. It feels like we had this great teaching about eternal marriage and the feminine divine, but we didn’t have all the answers. So leaders and members just guessed, just made stuff up, that was in alignment with their culturally-rewarded sexism. The notion that all of these answers must somehow be prophetic (though may well be folklore in some cases) is like a proverbial rod lifted against women to keep us in line. Just ow. And stop it, guys!

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  2. IDIAT

    A man may be sealed to many wives, but a woman may not be sealed to more than one man.

    A living woman can only be sealed to one man. A deceased woman can be sealed to all the husbands she had in mortality after all those husbands are dead. There is nothing I can find in our official church publications that says she’ll have to “choose” which husband with whom she wants to spend eternity. In fact, quite the opposite is written — as long as deceased persons accept the ordinances performed on their behalf, and keep the associated covenants, those ordinances are binding. That instruction contains no qualifying language or exceptions.

    If a couple divorces, the woman remains sealed to the man, even if he was an abusive husband, until and unless she finds another man to “take her to the temple” so she can, essentially, be transferred to him. Women are thought to be better off sealed to an unrighteous man than to no man at all.

    Divorced women are granted sealing cancellations all the time. It used to be that leaders preferred to keep the divorced woman sealed because blessings still flow to the faithful, covenant keeping spouse, despite the husband being unrighteous. Also, people change, and they do it all the time. What if husband repents to the extent he would merit the celestial kingdom? Never say never. A divorced woman who remains sealed has nothing to worry about if her husband in unrighteous. He won’t be where she is, anyway.

    If, in the next life, a woman is found righteous enough to become a Heavenly Mother but her husband is not adequately righteous, she is told she will be “given” to another man. There’s no hint of consent or choice; it’s assumed she will go where she is given and be grateful. Sort of like one would give a cow to a man with a better pasture.

    I think this is a bit of a stretch. While “given” is a bit archaic, we’ll enjoy the same sociality in the next life as we do in this life. So, what do we do in this life? We meet, date and marry. There will plenty of time in the next phase of life for people to get together. If widowed spouses are “moving on” in mortality, what makes you think their predeceased spouses in the Spirit World aren’t “moving on,” too? What about all the people who’ve died single, as children or young adults or adults? Surely there will be plenty of time for people to develop relationships worthy of celestial kingdom.

    The apparent purpose of a heavenly mother is to breed and raise spirit children, though we don’t have any doctrinal teaching about what this means. In effect, she represents, in her silence, eternal male sexual fulfillment.

    Sorry, but I don’t associate my Heavenly Mother with eternal sexual fulfillment. Don’t know that “organizing” spirits will be something remotely close to making babies in mortality.

    Heavenly Mother has no identified purpose in the lives of her mortal children. In fact, we are forbidden attempts at connecting with her through prayer. (Prayer is only sanctioned for God the Father.)

    Can’t help you here, revelation and scripture being what they are. We pray to God, in Christ’s name, and are answered through the Holy Ghost. Maybe one day that will change, but I doubt it.

    Discussion about the role of the Divine Female in the afterlife is discouraged as speculative. Its commonly claimed that Heavenly Mother is too sacred for mortals to discuss or to think about. But this silencing is a theological manipulation that effectively relegates all women to a tier of lesser importance.

    You might want to catch up on that BYU article that addresses the many times and manners church leaders have discussed Heavenly Mother.

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    1. Hi Idiat. Thank you for your comment. It demonstrates careful attention to what I have to say. I appreciate that. I’ll try to honor you with the same.

      I’ll start with “Divorced women are granted sealing cancellations all the time. It used to be that leaders preferred to keep the divorced woman sealed because blessings still flow to the faithful, covenant keeping spouse, despite the husband being unrighteous.”

      This was, admittedly, news to me. I reached out to a friend who was recently awarded a long, drawn-out divorce from an abusive and controlling husband. She verified that she has applied for a cancellation, informing me that, at the last issuance of Handbook I, a policy change was effected as you describe, making sealing cancellation available to more women. That is welcomed news. She indicates that the policy change about the doctrine of eternal marriage includes the assurance that women will not lose the blessings associated with having been a righteous spouse in an abusive relationship. Nor will she she lose the sealing to her children.

      My friend indicated that the process of requesting a sealing cancellation is online, but that, in order to submit the request, she needed a code from her bishop. Once again, here’s the male gatekeeper with the power to decide whether or not she should have the opportunity to request her sealing be canceled.

      Perhaps this seems minor to you. But let me recap, from my vantage. A major change was made that effects women (and men, of course), but no announcement was made. Information about the change is only available through Handbook I, a manual that I, as a woman, have no access to and never will, unless I somehow am made a general auxiliary president for the worldwide church. Not much chance of that. So here I sit, unable to access the information you know (and I don’t know how you know) except for through the grapevine. Who’s fault is it that I don’t know this? And if I don’t know this, how many women, divorced from abusers prior to the change of policy listed in Handbook I, know it? The shame of this lack of knowledge does not lie on women, but on the male gatekeepers who do not allow us access to Handbook I.

      Still and all, I’m happy for the change and glad to know of it.

      Next point I’ll address. You mention that a woman may NOW be sealed to multiple deceased husbands. There are several scenarios in which this may occur, but in none of them is there equivalency to the multiple sealings a man can do for himself with living women. Two of the three members of the current first presidency were sealed to their first wives and then, after the passing of their first wives, were sealed to second wives. Each of these men has the expectation of having both wives in the eternities. Wife A and Wife B.

      A woman who is sealed to multiple dead husbands has no hope of spending eternity with both men. In fact, I’m betting most women in this situation don’t expect to have the ultimate choice, in the next life, which man they will be with. What you need to remember, Idiat, is that women who grow up and live in LDS culture have been long-effected by the consistent message that they are “given.” You admit the word is “a bit” archaic when you should be directly admitting that the word is wrongly used.

      I recently encountered a biographical story of woman, an immigrant to this country from Russia in the first half of the 20th century, who was eventually able to bring a family member to the US. Both women grew up in a country where the government controlled all. The woman who initially migrated had innately rejected the control and, for her survival, found a way out. The other woman (her sister) had known no other existence and felt her sister was foolish to leave. Once in the U.S., the sister was unable to adapt, felt fearful of the U.S. government, and lost in a world where she had the opportunity to create a life of her choice. She returned home. The psychology of the sisters may be different, but each is understandable.

      I tell the story because LDS women are children who have grown up hearing that they will be “given” in the next life, along with many other views that are sexist, subjugating and/or pedestal-placing of women. Some of us kick against those pricks; others continue tolerating it because they’ve known nothing else. A post like this one is a swift kick to the prick. Its about the history of a doctrine that reduces women. Just as taking that one woman out of an oppressive communist country didn’t suddenly undo a lifetime of repressive conditioning, a recent change to doctrine–I mean policy–doesn’t undo a lifetime of gender-based repression.

      Moving on. I don’t know why you would apologize for not associating your Heavenly Mother with eternal sexual fulfillment, except perhaps to reveal a tone that is condescending and dismissive, which is how it appears to me and which doesn’t help me to see you as somehow a champion of women within the LDS culture. But I’ll try to put that aside. I probably won’t succeed, though.

      Instead, let’s focus on the fact that this post is not about you. Or about men. Its about women. Its about what its like to live in (or grow up in) polygamy culture, a culture that, in spite of lip-service to partnership, maintains behaviors that place my status below yours in terms of authority and autonomy. So I don’t much care whether or not you think about the eternal sexual fulfillment you will receive from your wives in the eternity. Bully for you if that’s not your motive. But I’m here to clue you in: LDS women frequently hear their husbands and other men privately speak the way I describe. You may claim otherwise, but yours is the claim of one man who wants things to be perceived a certain way rather than address the reality that women are left to view eternity as a time in which they spread their legs and give birth for-ev-er. I’m sure their is a small sample of women who want to spend eternity that way, but I’ve never met one. To me, as much as I love sex and love my husband, that future is far from anything I’d call heavenly. I reiterate, for the purpose of this post and this comment thread, you’re personal view is irrelevant. What is relevant is how women function growing up and living in polygamy culture.

      How does it feel to be told your thoughts really aren’t relevant?

      Not good, I know.

      So here are my parting thoughts. The culture in which I’ve lived and worshiped (and I’m not a young woman by anyone’s definition) have shaped the thinking of LDS women in ways that have conditioned us to accept second-class status, to even imagine that somehow, being second-class makes us better than men. Some of our young women attain clarity by virtue (the word is used intentionally) of the lens the broader culture provides, and the men who lead our church are slooooooowwwwwwlllllyyyy seeing that that lens is a proper and fitting lens to use. Yes, over the last few years (beginning most specifically with Pres. Uchdorft’s talk in women’s conference; was that 2014? You can look it up) our leaders have spoken more of Heavenly Parents, and occasionally of Heavenly Mother. There is now an official church essay on Heavenly Mother, vague though it is. Most LDS I know aren’t aware that it exists. But it isn’t enough. We need more doctrinal clarity. We need leaders to improve what they say about Heavenly Mother and women. Our value is not our uterus. Its one thing when Pres. Nelson asks women to speak up, one thing when he says “we” (men) need our voices. Its another thing entirely to deconstruct a system that gives our voices no power or authority unless benevolently granted by a male gatekeeper.

      Perhaps I didn’t address all your points. I need to get on with my day. Feel free to bring them up again, but I may or may not be able to respond, depending on what life throws at me. I wish you well.

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      1. Heather B from SC

        Hold up.

        Your name is Idiot? Lisa, he’s got to be just trolling. Don’t worry, he knows he’s basically saying, “not all men,” while ignoring that “Yeah, but LOTS of them,” aspect.

        Good men think, “what? That’s horrible. I never thought about that in that way. There are guys who do that? Not on MY watch, and not in my EQ mtg! I’m going to mention this, because it’s disturbing. If this many Women are concerned, it’s a concern, and we can fix this!”

        Not “nuh-uh.”

        Like

  3. IDIAT

    Making fun of a name is the younger sibling of name calling, worthy of an elementary school pupil too ignorant to come up with a real argument. FWIW, and not that it should matter, but IDIAT stands for I Dwell In A Tent, a nod to my love of the outdoors, Lehi (1 Nephi 2:15), and the notion of dwelling in Zion and strengthening stakes (Isiah 54:2). I didn’t initially comment back because you seemed too tired for discussion. And, as is standard for a feminist blog post only wanting to hear from an echo chamber, I was reminded yet again that “it isn’t about you.” Good luck living outside the BOM belt — most of do, and we’re doing just fine.

    Like

    1. I rather like your acronym, now that I understand it. And sorry I’m so late seeing this.

      I think I gave you a well-reasoned, respectful reply, so I’m a bit befuddled by the insult about the echo chamber, seeing as echo chambers aren’t a place thought of as, well, thoughtful. I suppose you expected my response would be, “The clouds have opened and now I see the light!” If you thought that, then I suppose I could assert that, as is standard for non-feminist commenters, you are condescending, but that would be condescending. And I truly don’t think that about you. Perhaps you, too, were tired.

      I value conversation. And yes, I did make a wisecrack about the “a” in your pseudonym in response to another comment. I apologize. Pls choose to focus on my statement that I take people at face value, rather than my too-casual slip into familiarity with another reader.

      I hope you come back.

      Like

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