Mormon Marriage: Use Cases

imageIn light of the updated LDS Church policy regarding same gender unions and children raised by same gender couples, I was struck by what Joseph Smith did in Nauvoo in the case of Parley P. Pratt and Mary Ann Frost [Stearns Pratt].

Parley was a widower, having previously been married to the then-deceased Thankful Halsey, a widow herself when she married Parley. Mary Ann Frost was a widow who had greatly loved her first husband.

In 1843 Hyrum Smith performed a ceremony sealing Parley to Mary Ann. As soon as Joseph learned what Hyrum had done, he annulled the sealing.

In our modern day, there would not be such a fuss. Mary Ann would have already made a decision regarding whether she was sealed to Stearns or not. Based on that prior decision, she would either be able to be sealed to Parley or not. For those of us sealing deceased parties, we are permitted to perform sealing ordinances between all who were conjugally “married” and let God sort out how the relationships ought to be in heaven.

Unfortunately for Parley and Mary Ann, theirs was the first complex marriage involving deceased spouses. Hyrum had ignored the rights of the deceased parties and had sealed Parley and Mary Ann simply because they were married.

Hyrum’s understanding of the doctrine was insufficient at that time for him to properly administer. Therefore Joseph rescinded the incorrect action. In this case Joseph was dealing with one person who misunderstood, who happened to be his brother and arguably the most senior member of the Church other than Joseph himself.

[In a similar manner, the leadership of the Church needs to correct the insufficient understanding of hundreds or even thousands of sitting Church leaders. Like Joseph, they have rescinded the ability of local leaders to act inappropriately. If there is doubt that some local leaders might act inappropriately, there is the fact of the new policy being leaked at speed, which could only have been done by an LDS leader privy to Handbook 1.]

Other marriages had presented as one (or a combination) of the following:

Man and wife, like Isaac and Rebecca. Check.

Man and wife and handmaid made wife, like Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Check.

Man and deceased wife and new wife, like Abraham, Sarah, and Keturah. Check.

Man and wife and wife’s sister, like Jacob and Rachel and Leah. Check.

Man and wife and many wives to create linkages to other “kingdoms,” like Solomon and his many wives. Check.

With Parley and Mary Ann, the best analogy would have been Boaz and Ruth. But even here, most people forget that Ruth’s covenant husband was Chilion. In the Bible record, it isn’t even entirely clear whether Chilion or Mahlon was the son of Naomi and Elimelech who married Ruth. But Deuteronomy 25 provided guidance about the child of a widow, implying the eternal relationship between a widow and her dead husband:

6 And it shall be, that the [child] which [the widow] beareth shall [bear] the name of [the] brother which is dead, that [the dead brother’s] name be not put out of Israel.

In Deuteronomy, a brother who would not perform the duty of a brother to his dead brother’s wife was in for stiff social shame:

9 Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house.

Things had softened in the four hundred years between Deuteronomy and the life of Boaz, for when Elimilech’s closest kinsman was unwilling to perform the duty of a brother to the fertile widow of Elimelech’s household (and gain the right to buy Elimelech’s land in Bethlehem), the tale went:

7 Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel.

8 Therefore the kinsman said unto Boaz, Buy it for thee. So he drew off his shoe.

No spitting involved.

Back to Parley and Mary Ann

It wasn’t sufficient that Parley and Mary Ann were married and fond of one another. As the first instance of a complex marriage involving deceased spouses, Joseph felt it necessary to reinforce the rights of the deceased spouse.

If you are unaware, my thesis is that plural marriage in the early days of the Chrch was at least in part to ensure that we didn’t fail to seal all wives to their husbands when performing posthumous proxy ordinances. Once this had been accomplished and the primacy of the sealing ordinance understood, there was no longer a need for individuals to contract plural marriages in mortality. Monogamy rocks, and so that is the recommended configuration in mortality, no matter how complex our serial monogamies might end up being in eternity.

William and Jane

Another use case was the marriage of William Law and Jane Silverthorn [Law]. Jane was a righteous woman, but Joseph Smith believed William Law was an adulterer. Thus when William sought to be sealed to Jane, Joseph refused. The love between two spouses was not sufficient when one of them was guilty of sexual sin.

William Law being who he was, he reacted to being thusly thwarted by plotting to murder Joseph Smith. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were eventually found that William was substantially responsible for Joseph’s untimely death.

[Jane asked Joseph to seal her to himself, but Joseph refused. I suspect it felt a bit too much like the tale of David and Bathsheba, to enter into a relationship that would result in the spiritual death of the woman’s current husband. Joseph refused when there was still hope for William. Alas, William rebelled and took Jane with him in his rebellion.]

Joseph and Hannah

For those who have sinned, a useful case is that of Joseph Ellis Johnson and Hannah Goddard. Hannah had married apostle Lorenzo Snow as a plural wife. Then she got cold feet. It is unclear whether the marriage had even been consummated. While Hannah’s estranged apostle husband was off on a mission, Hannah developed a close relationship with Joseph Ellis Johnson and conceived a child.

Joseph Ellis Johnson eventually got up the courage to ask Lorenzo for forgiveness. Following that, Joseph Ellis Johnson submitted himself to a Church disciplinary council. In the transcript of the council, Joseph Ellis Johnson said:

I am come purposely if possible to get the matter settled & atone for the wrong I av done—I av neglected to lay it before you before this…— all I can do is beg for mercy—I became acquainted with the girl, & the consequences r as the[y] r—I saw bro. Snow at Kanesville & he was satisfied—I am come here to atone for the wrong I av done.

Joseph Ellis Johnson was eventually able to return to full fellowship and was sealed to Hannah and her children.

[For what it’s worth, this transcript should never have been made public. It became public when Michael Quinn decided to attack Brian Hales’ thesis that Joseph Smith was an honorable man who only engaged in conjugal relations with women to whom he had been sealed in covenant. But I contend that the “Joseph” who appears to have had sex with Mary Heron was Joseph Kelly, not Joseph Smith, see my analysis of the case of Mary Heron.]

The Point

Mormon marriage is not merely a ceremony binding people who love each other. Rather, it is about binding families together in specific ways that turn the hearts of the children to their fathers and mothers.

For those who have sinned, there are options. William Law represents the going postal option. Joseph Ellis Johnson represents the submission to authority option.

Playing with Fire

During the April 2013 conference, President Monson told a story on himself. When eight, he and his friend, Danny, had wanted to play in a field that was encumbered with long grass. They decided to clear the dry grass:

I said to Danny, “All we need is to set these weeds on fire. We’ll just burn a circle in the weeds!” He readily agreed, and I ran to our cabin to get a few matches…

Both of us had been warned repeatedly of the dangers of fire. However, I knew where my family kept the matches, and we needed to clear that field…

I recall thinking that the fire would burn only as far as we wanted and then would somehow magically extinguish itself.

I struck a match on a rock and set the parched June grass ablaze. It ignited as though it had been drenched in gasoline…

We panicked as we realized there was nothing we could do to stop it. The menacing flames began to follow the wild grass up the mountainside, endangering the pine trees and everything else in their path.

[We ran for help. It took several hours for all the available men and women of the town to put out the fire caused by that one match.]

Danny and I learned several difficult but important lessons that day—not the least of which was the importance of obedience.

I remember President Monson’s meaning being very clear. Like his eight-year-old self playing with fire, I understood him to say that we are now playing with fire as we rearrange society without thought of the consequences. In lives where improper passion of two people for one another is allowed to catch hold, the initial result will be welcomed. Only too late will the dire consequences be appreciated. By then it will be beyond those who ignited the passion to correct. It will take an unknowable amout of time to fix, and many individuals will be required to sacrifice to halt or correct the damage.

That said, the people of Vivian Park continued to love Tommy Monson and Danny Larsen. In the same manner, we love all, even if their lifestyle is not in accordance with God’s law, as understood by Mormons.

You might be one of those who doesn’t believe a legal marriage could be inappropriate in the eyes of God. As in the case of young Tommy Monson, repeated warnings fall on deaf ears. Fences are thus put in place for those who don’t know enough to keep away from disaster, who don’t even believe disaster is possibe.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

14 thoughts on “Mormon Marriage: Use Cases

  1. “Following that, Lorenzo submitted himself to a Church disciplinary council.”

    Is this supposed to read that Joseph submitted himself? Otherwise I’ve missed something…

    Feel free to delete my comment either way.

    [Corrected – thanks!]

  2. It occurs to me that this policy change (regarding children of same-gender households) is actually intended to clarify how ancestors are to be sealed.

    In an odd way, this could pave the way for Family Search actually representing all legal marriages, with the sealing ordinance performed posthumously only for those marriages that conform with God’s law as understood by Mormons.

    In this I am informed by a case in my family’s ancestry. The known father of one ancestor was never the legal husband of the mother. The descendant ensured that the ordinance work of baptism and confirmation was performed for the illicit father, then (as I understand the case) destroyed all the documentation in their personal possession. Talk about disavow sinful behavior…

  3. According to Brigham Young who has given us the only account we have, Joseph annulled the sealing because it was performed without his permission. He was the “one” man on earth at the time who held the sealings keys, authority delegated now with more liberalness than practiced in the early days of the Church.

    See citation below. They really chose dramatic words back then.

    Joseph was rescued from his captors and returned to Nauvoo on June 30th. When he learned that Hyrum had sealed Parley and Mary Ann for eternity, he rebuked his brother, cancelling the sealing. Brigham Young referred to the incident in an 1845 letter to William B. Smith:

    Joseph said that the sealing power is always vested in one man, and that there never was, nor never would be but one man on the earth at a time to hold the –sealing power- keys of the sealing power in the church, that all sealings must be performed by the man holding the keys or by his dictation, and that man is the president of the church
    Hyrum held the patriarchal office legitimately… Hyrum was counseller… but the sealing power was not in Hyrum, legitimately, neither did he act on the sealing principle only as he was dictated by Joseph in every case [sic] This was proven, for Hyrum did in one case [sic] undertake to seal without counsel, & Joseph told him if he did not stop it he would go to hell and all those he sealed with him. (Brigham Young to William Smith, “City of Joseph, Aug 10th 1845,” in Brigham Young Collection, CR 1234/1; Reel 24; CHL. See also William Smith to Brigham Young, August 27th 1844, in Brigham Young Collection, incoming correspondence, CR 1234 1, Box 42, Fd. 13, Reel 55.)

  4. Hi Laura,

    I agree that there was an element of “not your authority to act in this manner” in the annulment. But that is not a reason for cancelling the sealing between Parley and Mary Ann and then not allowing the two of them to be sealed to one another again.

    Later, when Brigham had others presuming to take upon them to seal without authority, I infer he may have followed Joseph’s example of ending a marriage between two people by telling Henry B. Jacobs that Zina could no longer be his mortal wife, as Henry had performed unauthorized sealings. See Zina Diantha Huntington Young: Exploring a Confusing Legacy.

    Yet in the case of Hyrum performing this unauthorized sealing, Joseph did not punish Hyrum, but cancelled the sealing and did not re-seal Parley and Mary Ann together. According to Mormon eschatology as understood in our day, there was a clear reason for Joseph to object to the sealing of Parley and Mary Ann, aside from the matter of Hyrum performing the sealing without authorization.

    You highlight an important aspect of sealing power, however, that it resides in the hands of one person, the prophet. The prophet may delegate that authority to others, but ultimately he has the right to revoke any ordinance improperly entered into. Similarly, any sealing ordinance may not be annulled without his involvement, which is why all temple “divorces” must be approved by the Office of the First Presidency.

    Thus it would be impossible for a rogue temple sealer to start performing sealings between families that aren’t according to direction without expectation that the sealings would be cancelled.

    I saw that in my own family with John W. Taylor. He was technically sealed to the women he married in 1901 after the Manifesto. Until the day they died, his wives would refuse to say (to Sam Taylor, prolific writer him) who had performed the ceremonies, though I believe I have been told it was fellow apostle, Cowley. Then a hundred years after John W. Taylor had incorrectly defied the President of the Church over his 1901 marriages, the ordinances showed up as valid in FamilySearch. This after decades of John W. Taylor’s descendents petitioning the Church to allow the marriages to be formally recognized, without success.

    Getting to the subtext of this post, there is reason to hope even rogue polygamous marriages could someday be posthumously solemnized as eternal in Mormon temples. There is no reason to hope this for same gender marriages.

  5. Thanks, Meg, for the thoughts. Our God is a God of order, and so is his church. D&C 128:9 applies. In the same way, when a mother persuades a bishop to allow her husband to ordain her son to be a deacon at age 11 years and 11 months because the husband is leaving for a military deployment, and the bishop agrees and does the sustaining and so forth, the First Presidency will not honor the ordination on the records of the Church because it was done outside the delegation that allows bishops to ordain boys at age 12. Some bishops don’t understand this, and they add harm to error when they take up the mother’s cause after they get the notice of rejection requiring re-ordination from the First Presidency’s office.

    I have another thought, too, for the next comment…

  6. Hi ji,

    I look forward to the additional comment.

    The example of ordaining a son days before age 12 seems awfully specific. I presume it is a case with which you are personally familiar…

  7. In all this, we have lost sight of some basic principals. For example, the Church deals with adults and families — the Church does not deal with minor children directly. Anytime the Church does anything with a minor child, it should be with the permission of both parents.

    The Church will not bless a baby without the consent of both parents. The Church will not baptize a child without the consent of both parents. Ideally, in the unwritten order of things, the blessing of a baby or the baptism of a child is a church ordinance performed for the benefit of and at the request of the Church member parents. Without the Church member parents, the Church will not bless or baptize the minor child. This makes sense. There are administrative policies to deal with legally non-custodial parents and so forth, but we need to remember the underlying principle.

    The Church will not recognize a same-sex couple as the parents of a minor child — the Church looks for a pattern of father and mother — a same-sex couple might offer two fathers or two mothers, but not a father and a mother. Because the Church will not recognize a same-sex couple as a legitimate marriage, there are no honorable church member parents to bring the child forward for blessing or baptism. The Church will not administer the ordinance to the child directly, so the child waits until he or she has achieved majority. No harm, no foul on the child’s part.

    If the Church was forced to offer the ordinances, whose name would it record as the father and mother? Two fathers or two mothers won’t work.

    The Church recognizes and honors adoption. A dead or absent birth father can be replaced (not the best word, I know) by an adoptive father in the eyes of the Church and n the eyes of our God, but a dead or absent birth father cannot be replaced by a second mother. The same principles apply for a dead or absent birth mother. The key principle here is father and mother, not simply two parents.

    I understand the church’s decision not to treat with same-sex couples as legitimate married couples. The decision affecting minor children adopted by same-sex couples was made because of the adults and their illegitimate relationship, not because of the child, in my opinion. And it makes sense. The Church does not recognize polygamous couples, and will not treat with them. Similarly, the Church does not recognize same-sex couples, and will not treat with them. The policy makes sense. There may be administrative adaptations for certain situations as time passes, but the underlying principles make sense.

  8. What an interesting and thoughtful post. Really very well done. Thank you for taking the time.

    On a separate note, regarding the recent Handbook update- There seem to be a lot members (as well as otherwise friendly non-members) very on edge about this. I’ve found that after really listening to their concerns making just a simple comment can help. One that I have used is “The new policy says that same sex marriage families are more important than church ordinances.” Of course, there is a lot left out of such a single sentence; but my experience, thus far, is that a simple statement (which is all some will allow) eases some tension and increases the likelihood of additional exchange that can hopefully add understanding on both ends.

    Again thank you for the very thoughtful post and for the additional thoughtful comments by others.

  9. Hi Jordan,

    I suppose I would say that the new Church policy clarifies that family is more important that obedience that imperils family relationships.

    My own son never received a name and a blessing. He died at age eight days, and knowing that a name and a blessing isn’t a saving ordinance, we didn’t move heaven and earth to perform that despite the known risk of premature death.

    My Chinese grandparents haven’t been baptized yet, because it hasn’t been 110 years since they were born and their next of kin hasn’t granted permission for the posthumous ordinance to be performed on their behalf. So we are waiting.

  10. Very sorry for the loss of your son.
    We had two still-borns. One of the 12 shared with us his opinion (not doctrine) that we’ll get to raise those two in the eternities. I hold onto that hope. but I trust that Heavenly Father knows best. These are all his children too.
    Your comments again are well said. I agree. It will all work out in the Lord’s time.
    And of course, once one reaches majority age, individual obedience does sometimes come at the expense of family relationships (like my temple marriage in the context of a non-member family). We are all still close, but that was a difficult day. We do the best we can to be committed disciples. Sometimes hard, but so worth it. Thanks again for your wisdom and insights.

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