How Can the LDS Church Clarify Polygamy in Heaven?

The LDS Church has a polygamy problem, even now, a century after the practice was discontinued.

As most everyone knows, I’m a Mormon (member of the LDS Church). It is the center of my family’s life. I love my Mormon community, the way we bring meals over when someone’s sick and check on our neighbors after a blizzard. I love the way we grapple with difficult questions and strive to find meaning in life, often through service to others and love for family. And I love our semi-radical theology, which boldly affirms the divinity of humanity and the familial nature of heaven. The Mormon-LDS community is my home.

So I care about the positions that the LDS Church takes. Or, in this case, doesn’t take.

Polygamy, in the LDS context, is the usual manner of referring to the practice of a man taking more than one wife. As recorded by the official church history, it was taught as an eternal law of marriage by the church from its early days in the 1830's until 1890. It is now clear that any Mormon who practices polygamy on earth is out of compliance with God’s laws — they are excommunicated (dismissed) from church membership if they do so. But another question remains very unsettled, and it causes rifts in families and hearts within the church: what is the status of polygamy in heaven?

An early Mormon polygamist family. From theguardian.com

Mormons believe that marriage will exist in heaven. However, there is disagreement on whether that includes polygamy. Some modern members of the LDS Church are convinced that polygamy will not be required in heaven, such as Greg Trimble, or even allowed in heaven, such as Eugene England. Based on scriptures and statements of church leaders, they state their belief that marriage in heaven will be one husband, one wife [1]. But the very fact that they must argue their point indicates that the opposite belief is also common among Mormons — that polygamy will be practiced or even required in heaven (the celestial kingdom).

This belief is not without support from past church leaders. Brigham Young has said, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” Others such as John Taylor and Joseph F. Smith are on the record with similar statements. Orson Pratt even taught that “God the Father had a plurality of wives” (pg. 109 of this PDF of ‘The Seer’). A good outline of a belief in eternal polygamy, from an apparently faithful member of the church, is in the first comment on this podcast, by ‘Buffy Snell’. As a child, I also believed in polygamy in heaven, so I must assume the belief was common among the members who surrounded me.

With such confusion on doctrine, we should not be surprised that church members differ in their beliefs on this issue. Particularly because the Church’s official position on the issue can be summarized by this statement from the 2005 manual for seminary teachers, who teach the youth of the church: “Note: Avoid sensationalism and speculation when talking about plural marriage. Sometimes teachers speculate that plural marriage will be a requirement for all who enter the celestial kingdom. We have no knowledge that plural marriage will be a requirement for exaltation.

“No knowledge.” The church has the right to take this position, of course — I don’t ask church leaders to declare God’s reasons for allowing World War I or the Syrian refugee crisis. But on the issue of polygamy, I believe the LDS Church ignores heartache caused by its own reticence on the doctrine of its eternal status.

Carol Lynn Pearson documents this heartache beautifully in The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy [2]. The book is a mixture of her personal insights about polygamy and quotations from women and men who have been negatively affected by the church’s direction (or lack thereof) on the issue. The entire book is worth reading; I quote just one person referenced by the author:

“When my husband told me one day, after many years of marriage, that he fully intended to be obedient to God in all things, including plural marriage, I felt a terrible rift being born between us. I asked him how we could be one as the Lord commands if he was desiring another woman, desiring her and her and her and her. How could this be heaven for me? He replied that I would be as happy as I would choose to be and that our children would soothe my loneliness. Plus, he added, God will make you like it. He wants you to be happy. Since then the rift is ever there. A part of me is walled off, wondering how I can be with a man who looks forward to this future, knowing it pains me terribly, but feeling my suffering isn’t his problem or concern. He has said only selfish and weak women reject polygamy because if God commands it, it is holy and pure.” — Anonymous member of LDS Church, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy (158)

It is because of this suffering, multiplied by thousands across the church, that I feel the need to speak out. I believe the LDS Church must seek revelation and make a doctrinal stand on the eternal status of polygamy in heaven, in General Conference or online. I see three likely options for a doctrinal statement:

The simplest way of dealing with the problem would be to declare that both polygamous and monogamous unions can be “exalted,” or meet the requirements for heaven. Thus Joseph’s and Brigham Young’s wives and families were within the bounds of God’s laws, but so are today’s monogamous families. This would not remove the fear of eternal polygamy, nor the sexism [3] inherent in the fact that only men can have multiple spouses, but at least it removes the looming fear that every couple hoping to live with God will have to include multiple wives.

This is the easiest way for the church to handle the problem. It would essentially make more public the statement already in the manual for seminary teachers — that we do not know whether polygamy or monogamy or both will be practiced in heaven. However, I believe this answer would be insufficient to heal the many hearts broken by the fear of eternal polygamy.

The most radical move would be a statement that only monogamous couples can be exalted. I consider this unlikely — it would require denying that Joseph Smith was inspired when he instituted polygamy within the church, or perhaps explaining polygamy as an earthly exception to an eternal law. It might require “un-sealing” the wives of Joseph and Brigham and others. But it also has the most potential to reorient LDS theology toward a radical equality of the sexes: neither man nor woman have exclusive privileges in marriage, now or in the eternities. [4]

But whatever the result, I believe we need an official statement from the church resolving the issue of polygamy in the eternities. No faith community can live in fear of such a basic doctrine. If marriage is eternal, as we radically affirm, what does marriage look like in heaven? If men and women are equal, as we also affirm, how is one man capable of splitting his love between many spouses in eternity while a woman can only handle one spouse? This doctrine is an integral part of church history and of members’ present lives, and clarity here would allow us to make an enormous step forward.

[1] I want to note the relevance of the ongoing discussion of homosexuality and same-sex marriage to this discussion. There so much to be said on the church’s grappling with this issue. However, the issue of polygamy (multiple spouses married to one individual) still needs to be resolved independent of the church’s eventual stand on same-sex marriage. Thus I confine my comments to that doctrine here.

[2] Sister Pearson’s book was the call to action which finally gave me courage to address this topic. Reference: The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men, Carol Lynn Pearson, 2016, Pivot Point Books.

[3] And sexism I believe it is. From The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy:

“It’s males who sit in the seats of authority, from God in his heaven on down to the leadership in Salt Lake City and out to every spot on the globe where Mormons congregate. It’s males we pray to and pray through. It’s males that preside at the pulpit. It’s males that pray over and pass the sacrament, the tokens of the Lord’s Supper, and officiate in all other ordinances. It’s males (nearly always) whose portraits hang on the walls of our chapels and whose faces appear on the covers of our class manuals. It’s males who pronounce every doctrine and policy from church headquarters. It’s males we read about in most of the Old Testament in and in ninety-nine percent of the Book of Mormon. (Thank you, Jesus of the New Testament, for being such a radical revolutionary, violating tradition, speaking of and to women, treating them as fully human.)

“These are the Mormon rooms that we live in, walk in, worship in. These are the mirrors of distortion in which we, women and men, girls and boys, catch glimpses of ourselves, see our gender magnified or diminished. Many religious houses in our Judeo-Christian tradition share similar mirrors, and many are quietly going about the business of mirror replacement.

“But there is room in our church home that is unique to Mormons. The polygamy room. We know it’s there, and we try not to talk about it, try not to even think about it. But something happens and we’re suddenly in it and we can’t avoid looking in those bizarre distortion mirrors: one man looming large — and two half-size women.“ (168)

[4] There are other options, of course — declaring all polygamy to be valid, including multiple husbands of a single wife, or denying marriage in heaven altogether. But these seem much less likely, so I don’t discuss them here.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’