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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