From Here to Eternity: Of Mormons and Celestial Marriage

Visit the Salt Lake City Cemetery, and you’ll see headstone after headstone engraved with the Salt Lake temple, with an occasional depiction of some other LDS temple here and there. Unlike crosses adorning Catholic headstones or the Star of David on Jewish headstones, the LDS temple is not a symbol, a refined visual token of belief or belonging: instead, it’s a literal representation—announcing where the people in these graves were married.

It is impossible to understand the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints without understanding the role of marriage in the religion. Marriage is not merely a good idea in Mormonism, a source of companionship or a stable environment for raising happy children. Founder Joseph Smith did not agree with Paul’s advice in I Corinthians 7, that celibacy is superior to marriage, but that “it is better to marry than to burn.” Instead, Smith established a religion in which heterosexual marriage is not just a sacrament but a commandment, an absolutely necessary prerequisite for salvation and exaltation.

An 1843 “revelation” known as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants announces a form of marriage that is “a new and everlasting covenant,” one that allows couples to be married not merely until “death do us part” but for “time and all eternity,” provided the marriage is “sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed.” In such a marriage, the couple “shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths” (D&C 132:19).

This passage forms part of the basis for the doctrine of celestial or eternal marriage, the idea that marriages performed in an LDS temple will last beyond death and into eternity.

Faced with a decision that will endure for all eternity, many people would deliberate carefully and weigh many options before making a final choice. However, Mormons are encouraged to marry young, especially since sex outside marriage is strictly forbidden. Mormon men typically serve missions from age 19 to 21; during missionary service, they are forbidden to date or form romantic attachments. Upon returning home, they are encouraged to begin searching for a wife.

Mormon women are instructed from childhood that marriage and motherhood are their primary callings and should be their ultimate goals. A 2007 speech by Julie B. Beck, general president of the Relief Society (the women’s organization of the LDS church) stated that “all the education women attain will avail them nothing if they do not have the skill to make a home.”

The result is that marriages occur more often and between younger people in Mormon-dominated Utah than elsewhere in the country. The website Utah Marriage provides these statistics for the year 2000:

*Utah’s marriage rate is 10.6 per 1,000 populations, well above that of the United States, which stands at 8.7

*Median age at first marriage in Utah—Groom: 23 Bride: 21

*Median age at first marriage in United States—Groom: 26.8 Bride: 25.1

Marriages contracted so early face significant challenges, so it is good that the Mormon church does not forbid divorce, although the fact that Mormon couples often begin having children soon after marriage (and typically have larger families than the rest of the U.S.) does something to inhibit divorce. Even still, “Utah’s divorce rate is 4.3 per 1,000 populations, slightly higher than the United States divorce rate of 4.1.”

Of course, monogamy is not the only form of marriage discussed in the “new and everlasting covenant.” Although Smith’s first work of scripture, The Book of Mormon, expressly forbids polygamy (see Jacob 2:27), verses in D&C Section 132 lay out the doctrine of polygamy, also known as plural marriage, in very proprietary terms:

“if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else” (D&C 132: 61).

The issue of the first wife’s consent is undercut, however, three verses later:

“if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her” (D&C 132:64).

Although the LDS church officially disavowed the practice of polygamy in 1890 so that Utah could become a state, plural marriage remains an integral part of Mormon doctrine. For instance, a man who divorces or becomes a widower can be sealed to each and every one of his successive wives, with the expectation that he will be married to all of them at once in the next life. However, a woman can be sealed to one man and one man only, no matter what the circumstances, and must obtain permission from church leaders for a temple divorce even from a husband guilty of abuse—permission that is sometimes withheld.

The Eternal Companion

What do these texts, beliefs, and practices mean in the lives of real Mormons? Above all, they explain the Mormon obsession with marriage, with finding an “eternal companion” or “EC” in the parlance of Brigham Young University. Our society has many expectations for marriage; most people who marry do so expecting to find fulfillment, happiness, and growth. But informing young couples that marriage will provide them not only earthly joy but eternal salvation and exaltation puts even more strain on the institution of marriage. Certainly Mormons lucky enough to find themselves in loving, successful marriages often feel blessed and enriched by the expectation that they will be together for all eternity.

But there are also couples struggling to sustain for eternity marriages that others would not want to remain in for another week. Marriages in which one spouse remains devoted to the Church while the other loses his/her faith can be especially painful. This situation is so fraught that the 2010 Sunstone Salt Lake Symposium, a conference dedicated to the exploration of Mormonism, included a well-attended workshop on how to navigate such marriages. The description for the workshop noted:

From the true-believing spouse’s perspective, the unbelieving spouse has violated covenants and may no longer be worthy of the union (or the children, for that matter). From the unbelieving spouse’s perspective, the believing spouse has been brainwashed and is considered naive, ignorant, and unwilling to face “reality.” Can this chasm be bridged? Can (or should) the marriage be saved?

The psychic, social, and monetary costs of these types of marital failures can be enormous. Support groups designed to help people remain active in the Mormon church even after they’ve lost their faith, such as Stay LDS, can be found on the Web, as can forums for devout LDS whose spouses have rejected LDS belief, such as Faces East.

The Great Calling of Homemaking

Furthermore, these attitudes about marriage also explain the existence of Mormon feminist blogs like Exponent II, Zelophehad’s Daughters, or the more well-established Feminist Mormon Housewives, which receives in the neighborhood of a million hits a month. Given that young Mormon women are encouraged to get educations, get married, and start families, it’s no surprise that many intelligent, ambitious Mormon women end up as wives and mothers sooner than their secular counterparts. They find themselves with questions about the great calling of homemaking, especially when it fails to meet their expectations, and are equipped with analytical skills, the vocabulary, and the texts to critique the institutions and attitudes that shaped their choices.

Latter-day Saints must also come to terms with the importance of polygamy in Mormon belief, even when they don’t practice it. Thus, a question members are asked to respond to as part of the ad campaign is “Why did your church previously practice plural marriage (polygamy)?” Heather Olson Beal of Texas provides this answer in her profile:

“Honestly, I don’t know. It’s something that I used to really struggle to understand, but have decided not to worry about because it has no impact on the way I experience Mormonism in my life.”

Mormons frequently decide “not to worry about” many aspects of their doctrine, but homosexuality is currently one topic where ignoring the question is not an option. The LDS Church’s support for Proposition 8 in 2008, amending the California Constitution to make same-sex marriage illegal, has firmly linked the Mormon church to the issue of gay rights in the minds of people on both sides of the issues. As distressing as the LDS assertion that gay relationships are forbidden by God is to many outside the Church, it is often far more distressing to those inside it. For many years, the church taught that one cure for homosexuality was heterosexual marriage.

Even today, the internet hosts a large support community for Mormon MOMs, or “mixed-orientation marriages,” usually between gay men and straight women. Although some couples claim their marriages are successful, too many resemble the marriage of gay Mormon blogger Beck, who details his desire for “bromances,” freely admits to his sexual rejection of his wife for close to three decades, and even ends the story his twenty-ninth wedding anniversary to a woman he insists he loves by acknowledging that he can’t help but entertain a “vision of the same events celebrating the same day with the pronoun of ‘she’ changing to ‘he’ playing out the same play in [his] head.” Despite his ambivalence, Beck remains in the marriage because he believes it is God’s ordained path to eternal joy, and that anything else is unrighteous.

Keep these factors in mind when trying to understand any political position taken by the leaders of the Mormon Church. (Or, for that matter, Bella’s obsession with spending eternity married to Edward in Twilight, the vampire saga by Mormon writer Stephenie Meyer.) Protecting what the LDS church sees as “traditional marriage” is not just a conservative approach to family and social relations, but an absolutely vital defense of cherished, sacred expectations and beliefs about eternal salvation and life beyond the grave. It is no surprise that people so invested in a social structure would want to make sure that it remain stable, familiar, and under their control.