Yesterday, Religion Dispatches contributor Max Mueller published a piece at Slate detailing posthumous marriage rites performed in LDS temples that have wed Mormon and non-Mormon slaveholders to their former slave concubines—including Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.
The article sheds light on another form of posthumous religious rites performed in LDS temples. In addition to posthumous baptisms, LDS Church members routinely perform proxy temple marriages or “sealings” for their ancestors and other deceased couples. Church doctrine teaches that marriages performed within LDS temples “seal” husband and wife together not only for mortality but for eternity.
Mormonism uniquely emphasizes eternal marriage as a rite necessary to enter the highest levels of heaven. Viewed through this theological prism (and with a generous dose of romantic idealism about the quality of most human marriages), the practice of posthumous sealings has special warmth for LDS people.
But sealing deceased slaves to their slavemasters? Thomas Jefferson to Sally Hemmings? A relationship that emblematizes slavery’s most complicated and intimate forms of exploitation?
Because such relationships entailed coerced concubinage and, often, rape, Mueller writes, “Sealing a slave master to his slave is at least as troubling as the baptism of Holocaust victims, the practice of which the LDS Church has officially condemned.”
I’m not sure how to judge which is more troubling. But I do know that Mueller’s thoughtful, well-researched, carefully composed essay not only hits hot button issues like Mormons’ historic racial discrimination and contemporary racial insensitivity and the doctrinal persistence of polygamy—after all temple sealing policies permitted a polygamous sealing of Jefferson to Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemmings—but also gestures towards profound ethical and religious questions.
For their part, Mormons have tried to answer questions about posthumous baptisms and sealings by explaining that no posthumous rite is considered binding and that the efficacy of all rites depends on acceptance by the soul of the deceased.
But one element that has consistently gone missing from conversations I’ve witnessed in LDS circles is the acknowledgment that other religious traditions also have theological views of memory, the afterlife, and the connection between the dead and the living. From these non-Mormon perspectives, Mormon posthumous rites appear as a presumptuous claim on humanity’s dead.
Can one religion claim humanity’s dead? What if humanity’s dead are a sacred collective resource—a sacred public domain? There are norms of civility and respect that govern religious conduct in public domains, conditions absolutely necessary to the free exercise of religion without the fear of encroachment or imposition. Extraction of the names of strangers from public records for religious rites, as has been historical Mormon practice, may be viewed by non-Mormons as an uneasy fit with commonly held norms of religious freedom, interfaith deference, and cooperation.
What do Mormons owe to the other human beings with whom we share custody for humanity’s dead: human beings who may have similarly strong religious feelings about their ancestors, and who would like to see those ancestors rest in peace, without their names being said by strangers in unwelcome ceremonies? Or to those who would like to see their ancestors travel on, without being summoned by name back to traumatic relationships they did not choose?
To whom do the dead belong?