Gordon Monson: LDS polygamy has been ditched in the here and now, but it lives on in the hereafter — unfortunately

Like a scarlet letter “P,” it confronts members on Earth today and spurs questions about heaven tomorrow.

(Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society) This photo of Brigham Young with some of his wives is from 1898.

One of the biggest hurdles for some Latter-day Saints to clear in sealing and stabilizing and solidifying their faith in their church, in the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is … yeah … wait for it … it’s right around the corner … uh-huh … polygamy.

Ah, the biggie, the oldie but goodie, the vexing stumbling block, the long-standing point of contention for modern-minded members who often are troubled by that largely 19th-century practice, and who are bothered by it still because, inside their own logic and sense of propriety, they cannot find a way to justify it, even when the spirit whispers.

Some try. Some apologists have found enough elasticity in their imaginations to stretch to the point of calling it an exception to God’s law, a test of faith from on high, considering it an honorable sacrifice, blah-blah-blah.

Are you buying that?

The practice, the historical record and installation of it, confronts members even now. Here’s one reason why (there are more): When outsiders, friends and neighbors find out they are Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons,” the first notion that beams up on the big screen in their brains is polygamy and everything negative associated with it. Way too many members have heard some iteration of the questions: How many wives do you have? How many wives are in your family? How many wives are too many?

It lives on, like a scarlet letter “P” carved into their foreheads, identifying them with an antiquated concept that most of the faithful don’t and can’t grasp, can’t relate to at all, don’t want to relate to. To them, it’s weird. And yet, it bangs around in pop culture and in history books, tying innocents to days of yore, to chapters of church history that many devout members wish could be erased.

The idea of not just a man marrying more than one woman at a time, but also being encouraged to do so under church teachings, is simply a belief bridge too far, at least for a lot of folks who feel sincerely connected to most of the doctrines, but not to that one.

Never that one, especially when early male Latter-day Saint leaders wedded — and bedded — relative youngsters. And yet it was God’s will?

Celestial sealings

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

While that significant portion and percentage of today’s Latter-day Saints are wholly uncomfortable with this bit of history, the aforementioned apologists rationalize on reasons for the practice, from saying that Old Testament prophets had their concubines to young women in the 1800s needed shelter and protection provided by adult males to the church population having to grow God’s kingdom. Some even argue polygamy is “necessary,” especially in the afterlife, because there are more “righteous” women than there are “righteous” men, thereby necessitating a leveling of the discrepancy.

None of those theories fully sanitizes the image of a man surrounded by two, three, four or 40 wives.

Why bring this up now, more than a century after the church did away with polygamy, not only ending it but also booting out any members who practiced it? And given that other in-depth stories, including multiple ones written for this publication, have been posted about its effects and implementation?

The reasons are fundamental. First, figuratively, because polygamy never goes away. It’s always there, facing the faithful. And, second, literally, because the church still practices it, still sanctions it, at least theologically — not in a terrestrial manner but in a celestial one.

True, no married men are allowed to pick up an additional bride, say, a Relief Society president here and a Young Women counselor there. There are no approved ceremonies for a married Latter-day Saint man to take on more than one wife at once.

But there are religious rites — called sealings — in church temples in which men can be hitched to more than one woman for all eternity. If a Latter-day Saint man loses his spouse on account of sickness or disease or accident or old age, via any form of death, he can eternally marry another in the temple.

As Latter-day Saints believe all women and men when they die are at some point resurrected to live forever, they also believe relationships will go on, too.

Husbands and wives who are sealed together in a temple on earth are believed to be inalienably attached in the great beyond. Their children also are sealed to them, together forever. It’s a beautiful doctrine, really — the idea that families and family relationships can live on and endure, making partnerships and connections in this life permanent.

The inherent inequity

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Russell Nelson waves to the audience with wife Wendy after at General Conference in 2022. Nelson is sealed to Wendy and to his late wife, Dantzel.

Here’s the particular problem baked into that promise, one that’s been underscored previously: Men, while they’re alive, can be sealed to more than one woman, but women cannot be sealed to more than one man. (Women can be sealed — posthumously — to two men for eternity, often at the prompting of their children, as long as all parties are deceased. From there, a woman, some believe, would choose in the afterlife which husband to keep.)

So eternal polygamy, which the faith has not deep-sixed, will, according to church doctrine, stand firm in the celestial realm.

This principle has caused difficulties for some temple-married couples who have a serious falling-out and later have to untangle the permanence of their partnership. It is said by some that God understands human imperfections and will find a way, in love and mercy and goodness, to have eternal relationships all work out.

But the church continues to sanction a form of one-day-some-day polygamy — pioneer-prophet Brigham Young was sealed to more than 50 women back in the day, and current church President Russell Nelson is sealed to two today — that some say will blow past limited human understanding of love and romance, transcending into something more profound and meaningful, something liberating even, whatever that might look or be like. Many Latter-day Saint women I know recoil at that prospect, women who simply do not want to share their man, not in heaven, not for a gazillion years and certainly not forever.

None of that means anything to nonmembers, nonbelievers who think all of this is a bunch of baloney.

For a good number of believers, though, the notion that men, at least some of them, can and will have more than one wife is difficult to embrace or accept. The additional teaching that women do not have the same “privilege” is the unbalanced, unequal kicker that makes polygamy not just a strange principle that still haunts the church but also a plainly chauvinistic one.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson.

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