[This is the second post in a series. To read the series from the beginning, go to A Faithful Joseph.]
This week our home teacher stopped by to cheer us. For his lesson, he told us the Christmas story from memory. Two verses stood out in particular:
Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 1
Joy to All People
The manner in which we are to be saved is explained in the story of Nicodemus, recorded in the Gospel of John:
Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 2
God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 3
Throughout scripture, the Lord speaks of the salvation of all mankind, of whosoever believeth in God. Yet when Joseph knelt in the grove to pray, there was no theology that had a mechanism that might save all mankind. On that bright spring day in 1820, 4 all Joseph knew was that God lived and there was something about the religions of the day that was not right in God’s eyes.
I submit that it was the loss of the doctrines that would save all mankind that God mourned.
Lest the World be Wasted at His Coming
Joseph’s earnest prayers years later provoked the visions that truly commenced Joseph’s life work. In September 1823, the Angel Moroni appeared several times to Joseph. While each repeat visit covered additional material, the angel’s initial description of Joseph’s missions was the same each time.
Joseph’s first mission was retrieval and translation of a book written on gold plates containing the fullness of the Gospel.
Next the angel spoke of Elijah, who would come and plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children would turn to their fathers.
If the children did not fulfill the promises made to the fathers, the whole earth would be utterly wasted in the great and dreadful day of the Lord, when the wicked would be left without branch or root.
I like to think that if Nephi were the angel, he would have spoken more plainly: “If the people of your day do not fulfill the promise God made to save all mankind through baptism, those unable to be cleansed by baptism will remain in their wickedness. They will remain cut off from God and from both their parents and their children in eternity.”
However, Moroni spoke in language close to the biblical original. 5 Therefore Joseph would not comprehend for many years how God could keep the promises made to the fathers, or even how we could be saved with our fathers and our children (with our branch and root).
The Two Joseph Loved and the Book in the Hill
There were two people in Joseph’s life who were set apart to be symbols of God’s salvation. These were the two individuals Joseph was told to bring with him if he was to successfully retrieve the ancient writings from the hill.
The first person crucial to understanding the salvation of all was Joseph’s brother, Alvin. The designation of Alvin as the one required to bring forth the book 6 endowed Alvin with intense importance for Joseph.
Then Alvin died.
How could this be, that the person identified by the angel could die? Joseph would have mourned Alvin’s death in any case. Having Alvin die under these circumstances was soul-wrenching. Joseph pondered the fate of his dead brother intensely for years.
Since Alvin died while the ancient writings remained hidden in the hill, Joseph was commanded to bring another, The angel reassured Joseph he would know who that right person was. This second person, so important to the emergence of the restored gospel, was Emma Hale.
When Joseph realized she was the one that was to accompany him, 7 it became clear to him that she was not merely to stand at his side in retrieving the book from the hill. She was to stand at his side in life, as his partner and helper, the Eve to his Adam.
Weaving the Family of Mankind Together
We know that Joseph eventually realized baptisms needed to be performed on behalf of those who had died without baptism. The message contained in the book from the hill is the salvation of all mankind via baptism. The comprehension that baptism could be performed on behalf of the dead was inspired by Joseph’s vision of Alvin in heaven. 8 It was brought to a head by the grief of Jane Neyman, a mother who believed her teenage son was condemned to hell when he died without baptism. 9 But the salvation of all mankind was not to be accomplished by merely performing masses of anonymous baptisms on behalf of unknown generations gone before.
The promise made to the fathers was the binding together of the human family. This is the great promise Jacob [Israel] wrested from God. 10 This was the promise Abraham received of his seed like the stars in heaven or the dust of the earth. 11 This was the covenant Isaac obeyed when he married an unknown woman from a distant land because such an one alone would honor the authority of Melchizedek. 12
The work of Joseph’s life was to put in place the mechanism to eternally join parents to their children throughout all the generations of mankind. To us who believe Joseph Smith, this is the clear meaning of the prophesy about Elijah. This was the work of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
The binding of children to their fathers was a work so sacred that the ordinances would not be performed until after Joseph died, as he wouldn’t allow them to be performed outside a temple of God. 13 But merely binding parents and children across generations would not be sufficient any more than simply stringing the warp threads on a loom is sufficient to create cloth.
Binding together husbands and wives would be required to weave the family of mankind together, like the weft thread on the shuttle in the weaver’s hand. How could Joseph imagine being bound to his children without also being bound to Emma, their mother, his beloved? He could not think of being bound to his father without also being bound to his mother.
Orphans without Root
If Joseph had lived a thousand years earlier, he could have restored the sealing ordinances without any complications. A thousand years earlier, the occasional polygamous marriage was accepted. All wives would have been able to be sealed to their respective husbands, with no cognitive dissonance if existence of a prior wife transformed a man into a “polygamist” in eternity.
But in the 1050s the Roman pope strengthened the impediment of affinity, which holds that the union of a man and woman creates a blood bond that should prohibit marriages of their respective relatives as though they themselves were related by blood (the impediment of consanguinity). 14 In following years, the Catholic faithful would adjust their laws to align with the realities of the impediments of consanguinity and affinity, 15 leading to almost total cessation of polygamous marriages. 16
If monogamy were allowed to remain as the only valid form of marriage, huge tracts of the human family would remain stranded, forever cut off. It’s not clear Joseph understood this at first, since he initially tried to teach eternal marriage without teaching polygamy. One early saint, William W. Phelps, wrote his wife in 1835. “Sally, you will be mine in this world and in the world to come… I have no right to any other woman in this world nor in the world to come according to the law of the Celestial Kingdom.” 17
Romantic though Phelps’ statement seems, this idea of eternal marriage would prohibit him from remarrying were Sally to die.
Even if Mormons could have lived strict eternal monogamy from that point forth, imagine our anguish as we did the work for our dead. Think of how you would feel if a loved ancestor couldn’t be sealed to her husband because she wasn’t the first wife. The children of women who couldn’t be sealed would be considered eternal orphans, never to be sealed to the family of mankind. Imagine how conflicted we would be sharing the gospel with a friend who had remarried after the death of a first spouse.
How could God allow Joseph to restore the sealing ordinances if we in these last days still held fast to strict monogamy? We children of God trusted our Father’s covenant that Christ would be our Savior if we came to earth. God could not allow any of us to become eternal orphans, unless it was by our own choice.
I contend God refused to allow Joseph to restore the sealing ordinances until it was clear that every woman and every child had a way to be sealed into the family of mankind. This required God’s people embrace the possibility of plural marriage, so none would be excluded from the fulfillment of the promises made to us before the world began. Thus the reason Joseph instituted polygamy was to permit universal salvation through baptism and sealing for all who love God.
Over the next few weeks, I will demonstrate how every story about Joseph and polygamy can be understood through the lens of God’s desire to save all mankind.
The next post on 12/30 discusses important precursors to Mormon polygamy.
- Luke 2: 10–11 ↩
- John 3:3 ↩
- John 3:16 ↩
- John Lefgren’s analysis of local weather patterns and the science of maple syrup place the date of this vision on Palm Sunday, 1820 ↩
- Malachi 4:6, cf. Luke 1:17 ↩
- Smith, Lucy, “Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations,” Liverpool, 1853, p. 88 ↩
- Joseph Knight holograph, see Jessee, Dean, Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History, 1976 ↩
- Doctrine and Covenants 137:5 ↩
- Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual, (2003), p. 251, Baptism for the Dead ↩
- Genesis 28, Genesis 32:24–30, Genesis 48:16 ↩
- Genesis 13:16, Genesis 15:5 ↩
- Genesis 24:1–7, 58–67 ↩
- See Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 3: Theology, chapter 7 ↩
- See Calisse, Carlo, A History of Italian Law, Volume II, p.545 for the 1054 laws declaring affinity by betrothal sufficient to create an impediment to marriage. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Affinity (in Canon Law) discusses the eleventh Council of Rome in 1059 which established the impediment of affinity (and consanguinity) to the seventh degree. ↩
- Queen Margaret of Scotland tried to persuade the Witanagemot to revise the marriage code to wholly align with the papal position in the 1070s , but was only able to wrest an agreement that a widow ought not be forced to marry her step-son, a change to marriage law that was one of the five reasons cited for her canonization. By the time of King Henry VIII, traditional biblical forms of marriage were so suppressed that Henry had to petition Rome for special permission to marry his brother’s widow, even though levirate marriage is very clearly a duty imposed on a dead man’s brothers (Genesis 38:8, Deuteronomy 25:5,6, 9–10, Ruth) ↩
- Even though Church laws had fought strenuously to end polygamy for hundreds of years prior to the reformation, Martin Luther wrote in the early 1500s: “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.” (De Wette II, p. 459) ↩
- William W. Phelps to his wife, Sally, dated 16 September 1835, see Van Orden, “Writing to Zion: The William W. Phelps Kirtland Letters (1835–1836),” BYU Studies 33, no. 3, p. 16, 1993. ↩