Theological breakthrough? LDS scholar sees a path for same-sex temple sealings that honors church teachings

Law professor’s approach builds on church precedent, not on a social agenda.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A sealing room in the Washington D.C. Temple.

Mormonism’s practice of hallowing marital relationships into the eternities — called “sealings” — has been complicated throughout its nearly 200-year history but, says one scholar, that mortal messiness might provide an unexpected post-mortal opening for same-sex couples.

These practices, which have evolved over time, have required The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to figure out how to ritually endorse multiple marriages, heavenly polygamy and gender equality.

By studying the history of sealings both in real time and by proxy for the afterlife, Nate Oman, a Latter-day Saint law professor at William & Mary in Virginia, discovered what he sees as a potential theological defense for same-sex sealings in Latter-day Saint temples that remains “true to the [faith’s teachings].”

What informs sealing practices “is a basic uncertainty about the precise nature of eternal relationships,” Oman writes in an essay he posted earlier this week titled, “A Welding Link of Some kind: Exploring a Possible Theology of Same-Sex Marriage Sealings.” Seen through a lens of uncertainty, “there is a better way forward for the church, one that could ameliorate the destructive internal contradictions in our current teachings, [and] give to righteous same-sex couples the blessings of the temple.”

(Courtesy photo) Nate Oman, professor of law at William & Mary in Virginia.

Since its public posting, Oman’s careful, lawyerly essay has won plaudits as well as criticism across social media.

By Common Consent blogger Sam Brunson, a Latter-day Saint law professor at Loyola University Chicago, calls it “the most important and consequential piece of Mormon theology” he has read in a long time.

A woman who goes by “Leona” on the site, says it represents a “watershed moment” for the Utah-based faith.

Others deride it as wishful thinking or jumping ahead of church leaders and divine revelation on the LGBTQ issue.

“You can find no doctrinal support for same-sex marriage at any point, in any dispensation, from any prophet or any scripture or from any society that has ever lived any version of the gospel of Christ,” writes “M.” “It doesn’t exist. Not even if you torture the text or context beyond recognition.”

If same-sex marriage “exists in the heavens, it will require an entire rewrite of the doctrine and teachings of the gospel to make it happen on earth,” the blogger goes on. “Only God can do that.”

For many commenters, though, Oman offers an intriguing option built on church precedent, not on a social agenda.

Who is married to whom?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church founder Joseph Smith

To defend his conclusions, Oman traces the history of the sealing practice from its introduction in the 19th century to its current iteration.

In the beginning, church founder Joseph Smith saw sealing as a chance — through “a welding link of some kind or another” — to bond everyone to everyone else, and to connect them all back to God “as the divine king,” Oman writes, “through a series of nested kingdoms created by networks of sealing ordinances.”

Hence, some women — who were never married to or involved with Smith or his immediate successor, Brigham Young — were sealed to the Latter-day Saint prophet-presidents to secure their place in the highest heaven.

Similarly, in a tradition known as “the law of adoption,” adults were sealed to church leaders, Oman reports, as “adopted sons and daughters” even though they weren’t biologically related to them.

This eternal kingdom building dominated the practice from the 1840s to 1894, but after the church abandoned polygamy, starting in the 1890s, it began to instruct members to do proxy work only for their own ancestors.

That was the approach from 1894 to about 1955, the scholar writes. After that, it changed again up until the present, when the nuclear family was seen as the way heaven was organized.

Yet “each era has blessed temple sealings,” Oman writes, “that depart from a model of the nuclear family.”

Despite extensive genealogical records, for example, those doing proxy work for relatives cannot know if a woman has previously been widowed or divorced when she married the husband in the record being harvested.

In 1968, then-church President David O. McKay changed the sealing rules to allow men and women to be sealed “to all of the spouses to whom they had been married in life,” Oman notes, “even though such sealings can create networks of polygynous and polyandrous sealings that do not correspond to mortal family relationships.”

No ‘single model of marriage’

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A sealing room in the Fortaleza Brazil Temple.

These days the church opposes same-sex marriage and allows only a heterosexual man and a woman, who are legally married, to be sealed to each other in a temple.

However, the church “regularly” performs sealings, Oman says, “that do not reflect this model of a heavenly dyad.”

The church simply gives a collective shrug and says, any “tangle of sealings will be resolved into heavenly dyads to everyone’s satisfaction in the hereafter, although if we assume that all …earthly marriages were happy and successful, it’s difficult to see precisely how this would happen,” Oman writes. “We just don’t know.”

The church throughout its history, he writes, has not had “a single model of marriage.”

Latter-day Saint scripture, in Doctrine and Covenants 132:7 mandates that the sealing authority extends to “[a]ll covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations.”

The church has never sealed same-sex marriages in its temples, Oman points out, but such unions could fit under the categories of “covenants,” “bonds,” “vows” and “connections.”

As to the precise theological status of sexual identity in the eternities, he believes the church could say, “We don’t know.”

Oman is a scholar, not an activist, and acknowledges he has no power — or interest — in telling Latter-day Saint leaders what to do.

“Whether this is what the Lord wants for his church,” he concludes, “is not my question to answer.”

A ‘significant contribution’

(Courtesy photo) Taylor Petrey, Dialogue's editor.

Oman’s essay is a “significant contribution to the theological question of same-sex relationships by offering a deep dive into the history of LDS sealing ordinances” says Taylor Petrey, a religion professor at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College who analyzed similar same-sex temple possibilities in his 2011 essay, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

“Oman helpfully argues that theological ‘uncertainty’ about the afterlife has been a driving force in making sense of the sealing ordinance,” says Petrey, now Dialogue’s editor. “Therefore, our uncertainty about the place of same-sex relationships in the afterlife is fully consistent with how we have practiced sealing in the past.”

Such rigorous historical and theological work “is necessary to evaluate the range of possibilities for LDS teachings on marriage and family,” adds Petrey, author of “Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism.” “Whether the church will be open to reconsidering its recent teachings is an open question, but it can expect to see further reevaluation of LDS history and theology from its scholarly class.”

Blaire Ostler, who wrote “Queer Mormon Theology,” also applauds Oman for “looking at the complexities of plural sealings in early church history, and deconstructing notions of certainty around what sealings mean.”

Issues surrounding sealings can be tough not just for LGBTQ members but also for Latter-day Saint women who don’t fall into the one-woman, one-man model, says Emily Jensen, web editor for Dialogue.

Single women, divorced women, women whose husband is sealed to another woman via death or divorce, women who have remarried and are not sealed until they and their husbands have both passed, “talk about the pain of not knowing how it will work out and wish for more clarification,” Jensen says. “Sealings can be and should be the most comforting of our church doctrines, and, for these women, it’s a source of confusion.”

Parents of LGBTQ children express their desire to see their kids sealed to the ones they love “because they want them to share in the highest expression of love and devotion in the church,” she says. “Saying your marriage isn’t good enough for that causes confusion and so much pain and people leaving the church.”

For his part, Oman hopes his research might provide some direction to those seeking to explore possibilities for change.

“I long for a way in which gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints can live within the kind of faithful, covenanted and committed companionship that the church rightly holds out as the good life,” he writes. “Same-sex marriage sealings could enfold such lives into the church and bless them with the power that comes through temple ordinances.”

In the past, the Lord has directed “dramatic changes in church practices when the continuation of those practices threatened the future of the Lord’s kingdom.”

Oman prays that God “will do so again.”

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