Last week I wrote about Albert Mohler’s choice to speak at Brigham Young University. The topic interested me, not so much because Mohler was involved, but because it provides a good case study for Christians who wish to think about their associations biblically and carefully. As part of my discussion, I distinguished questions of biblical obedience from questions of wisdom. Then I argued that Mohler’s decision to speak on a civic matter at a Mormon university, with no hint of Christian mutuality implied, was not disobedient to Scripture. Nevertheless, I left open the question of its wisdom.
Now I want to come back to that question. Was the choice to link hands with Mormons over a moral issue within the public square a wise decision? Specifically, should Christians and Mormons recognize that we are defending the same, traditional view of marriage, and should we act as allies to gain cultural and political credence for that view? Mohler appears to think so. Much of his speech was framed by the fact that Mormons and Christians are against some of the same abuses of marriage. What Mohler overlooked was that they are not for the same things. He observed, “We stand together for the natural family, for natural marriage, for the integrity of sexuality within marriage alone, and for the hope of human flourishing.”
The fact is, however, that Mormons do not defend marriage either as the Bible teaches it or as Western tradition has understood it. No view of marriage could be less Christian or less traditionally Western than polygamy, yet no other Mormon practice has become as distinctive for that group. Mormon founder Joseph Smith practiced polygamy secretly from the 1830s onward. In fact, some accounts charge that he was shot to death because he was using his teaching of plural marriage as a way of bedding other men’s wives. Having relocated to Utah Territory, the principal body of Mormons (the group centered in Salt Lake City) began to practice polygamy publicly in 1852. Not until 1904 did church president Joseph F. Smith formally disavow the practice and enforce a ban upon plural marriages. Even then he personally continued to cohabit with his multiple wives.
The Salt Lake City Mormons have abandoned the practice of public polygamy, but other Mormon groups continue to perpetuate it. Indeed, the four-corners area is rife with Mormon polygamists who are rarely prosecuted. Furthermore, while the Salt Lake City Mormons have abandoned the practice of polygamy, they cannot denounce it as immoral.
The obvious reason is that, by declaring polygamy to be immoral, Mormons would be exposing the extreme depravity of their founders. Records show that Joseph Smith married at least 33 women. Brigham Young married 55. Multiple marriages were the norm for the Mormon leadership through much of the 19th century.
Mormons have another and more important reason for not denouncing polygamy as immoral. It is that, in a very real sense, even the Salt Lake City Mormons still believe in and practice polygamy. Plural marriage remains quite important to the Mormon system of doctrine. To understand the current Mormon practice of polygamy, one must grasp two distinctions that Mormon theology draws.
The first is a distinction between heavens. Unlike Christians, Mormons believe in levels of heavenly glory or three heavenly kingdoms. From lowest to highest they are the Telestial, the Terrestrial, and the Celestial kingdoms. Non-Mormons can attain to the lowest heaven, the Telestial. The highest, the Celestial, is reserved for Mormons who (among other things) are married. That means that unmarried people cannot attain to the highest heaven, for this is the heaven in which every male becomes a god who will populate his own creation.
For Christians, marriage is important as a creation ordinance and as the chief of God’s blessings in the temporal order. For Mormons, however, marriage is a crucial requirement for enjoying the most exalted degree of glory throughout eternity. In Mormonism, failure to marry carries an eternal price tag.
Since the number of marriageable males and females is never exactly equal, polygamy is the only means by which some Mormons can attain the Celestial heaven. Consequently, polygamy is not merely an accretion to the Mormon system, but an essential aspect of it. Without polygamy, some Mormons would forever be denied the Celestial blessing.
While polygamy is a Mormon essential, the Salt Lake City Mormons have formally disavowed the practice. How can that be? The answer lies in a second distinction drawn by Mormon theology: a distinction between civil marriages and sealed marriages. Civil marriages are merely temporal. They are dissolved when one partner dies. Sealed marriages, which are performed in a temple by a proper Mormon authority, endure forever.
Even among Salt Lake City Mormons, it is possible to be sealed in marriage to a person who is not one’s civil spouse. In fact, this kind of sealing takes place regularly. These marriages can even be performed by proxy for the dead. Furthermore, Mormons are often sealed to more than one spouse for eternity. In other words, Mormonism is actually committed to a form of eternal, eschatological polygamy.
Traditionally, Mormon men have often been sealed to multiple wives, even when they have been party to only a single civil marriage. Mormons usually assume that these polygynous marriages will endure throughout eternity. Since the 1990s, it has become possible for Mormon women to be sealed to multiple husbands. Mormons have yet to address the question of whether these polyandrous relationships will also be eternal, or of what complicated family structures may be result from simultaneous polygyny and polyandry.
One thing is certain. Mormons may say that they stand for marriage, but they do not stand for biblical marriage. They do not even stand for marriage as it has traditionally been understood in the West. The fact that some Mormon groups do not allow plural civil marriages does not make them less polygamous, nor does it make their view of marriage any less bizarre.
Given the extremes of the Mormon theory of matrimony, it is difficult to see how Christians and Mormons can stand together for marriage at all. Granted, they object to some of the same things (e.g., homosexual marriages). Their values, however, are poles apart.
At the end of the day, I think it is a mistake to say of Mormons that “We stand together for the natural family, for natural marriage, for the integrity of sexuality within marriage alone, and for the hope of human flourishing.” The difference between Christianity and Mormonism is not simply over the gospel. It is also over marriage. The difference is serious enough that Christian leaders cannot wisely position themselves as allies of Mormons on this important social issue.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
O Father, All-Creating
John Ellerton (1826-1893)
O Father all-creating,
Whose wisdom, love, and pow’r
First bound two lives together
In Eden’s primal hour,
Today to these thy children
Thine earliest gifts renew,
A home by thee made happy,
A love by thee kept true.
O Saviour, guest most bounteous
Of old in Galilee,
Vouchsafe today thy presence
With these who call on thee;
Their store of earthly gladness
Transform to heav’nly wine,
And teach them in the tasting
To know the gift is thine.
O Spirit of the Father,
Breathe on them from above,
So mighty in thy pureness
So tender in thy love,
That, guarded by thy presence,
From sin and strife kept free,
Their lives may own thy guidance,
Their hearts be ruled by thee.
Except thou build it, Father,
The house is built in vain;
Except thou, Saviour, bless it,
The joy will turn to pain;
But naught can break the union
Of hearts in thee made one;
And love thy Spirit hallows
Is endless love begun.