All Christians believe in a hereafter. But it’s here, in this life, that they disagree about the after, the next life.
Brigham Young, the second “prophet, seer and revelator” in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, fell clearly in the second camp.
Young, who led Mormon pioneers in a mass exodus to Utah and was seen by members as the “Lion of the Lord,” believed “glorified” bodies would have plenty of sex in the highest realms of heaven — but just the reproductive kind.
He taught that exalted women and men would produce “spirit children” in the literal sense of how babies are created on Earth.
To Young, “sexual procreation [was] a foundational law of the cosmos,” historian Jonathan Stapley reports in his piece “Brigham Young’s Garden Cosmology.”
For heavenly women, that meant being pregnant for eternity in a cycle of “endless procreation.”
The polygamous prophet “asserted that all humans are the children of God but in a very different manner,” Stapley writes. “They are children, not in an adoptive sense or in some vague mirroring dating to the creation, but in a fundamentally material and biological sense. In this way Young’s cosmology is extremely and literally naturalistic.”
Not many in today’s church teach such a literal and stark idea, he says, but it remains “a wildly popular folk belief” and, from time to time, still is preached over the pulpit.
Similar ideas about eternity continue to be reflected in modern church doctrine — with profound effects on the here and now.
In its simplest form, Latter-day Saints preach a heterosexual heaven, where only male-female couples enjoy the creative processes and live with God in the afterlife.
And, by extension, those with other sexual orientations will either be made straight or be alone for eternity.
A vision beyond time
For many in the Latter-day Saint belief system, divine reproduction remains “a central tenet,” scholar Taylor Petrey writes in his landmark piece, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” despite “its rather thin canonical support.”
The problem, he notes, is defining what this “eternal increase” means.
Church founder Joseph Smith taught that individual identities — known as “intelligences” — were not created but rather always existed independently.
Young tried to reconcile Smith’s view with his belief in “spirit birth,” suggesting four steps on human progress toward godliness: intelligences, spirit bodies, mortal bodies, followed by resurrected bodies.
“Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother may not be the ‘parents’ of intelligences, but are parents of spirits — in some sense having given ‘birth’ to them,” Petrey writes of Young’s teachings. “Advocates of ‘spirit birth’ based on heterosexual reproduction generally insist that it is similar, if not identical, to the birth of mortal bodies.”
Such a notion may be tied to “the promises of eternal increase, ‘a continuation of the seeds forever and ever’ [from the Latter-day Saint scripture in Doctrine and Covenants 132:19)] in the revelation given on celestial [plural] marriage.”
In this approach, wives and husbands are eternally engaged in the reproduction of spirit children.
In the second half of the 20th century, these ideas resurfaced to “combat the rise of feminism,” Petrey says in an interview.
If the eternal destiny of women is literal childbirth throughout infinity, he says, why should they seek anything else in this life?
Sex in heaven becomes ‘official’
In the 19th century, sex in heaven was “more or less official,” says William V. Smith, author of a book on Joseph Smith’s most famous sermon, the King Follett discourse. “It really gets going by the 1850s as the metaphysics of polygamy. After polygamy fades, its public teaching fades some, but it remains much of the logic of eternal marriage and it appears as the reason for God’s tutoring mankind — mankind are deserving because their spirits are God’s offspring in real gestational terms.”
It may have begun in an early era, Smith says, but it was continuously “nurtured” by later leaders in the 20th century, including apostles James E. Talmage, Boyd K. Packer, Bruce R. McConkie and Marion G. Romney.
In August 1916, Talmage wrote “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles” for an official church publication.
In it, Talmage concludes: “So far as the stages of eternal progression and attainment have been made known through divine revelation, we are to understand that only resurrected and glorified beings can become parents of spirit offspring. Only such exalted souls have reached maturity in the appointed course of eternal life; and the spirits born to them in the eternal worlds will pass in due sequence through the several stages or estates by which the glorified parents have attained exaltation.”
Because mortals are “‘literally’ children of God,” William Smith says, “it is the fulcrum on which anti-gay marriage rests because sex is eternal and thus sexual intercourse in heaven is, too — it is the meaning behind heaven.”
What about same-sex relations in heaven?
What would it mean for Latter-day Saint same-sex relationships, Petrey asks, if the church substituted the tentative doctrine of literal divine reproduction for other models of “birth”?
The story of Adam and Eve in Latter-day Saint scripture and ritual is often “cited as the example of divinely authorized heterosexuality,” he writes. “Yet the creation of both Adam and Eve does not in any way affirm heterosexual reproduction as the method of divine creation either spiritually or materially.”
God the Father and Jesus Christ created Adam, Petrey writes, while Eve was “reproduced” from a male body.
While the church sees a “necessary link between marriage and procreation, in practice having children is neither a requirement for Latter-day Saint marriages after they have been sealed, nor is the ability to have children a prerequisite for ‘sealing.’ Neither marriage nor sex is thought of in exclusively procreationist terms.”
If heaven is not primarily a place “for reproductive sex between married couples,” Petrey says, “could there also be nonreproductive sex?”
And could that include same-sex couples?
Is queerness eternal?
“All human beings — male and female — are created in the image of God,” the church’s family proclamation says. “Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of Heavenly Parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
If gender is eternal, is queerness as well?
Latter-day Saint Conor Hilton describes himself as “asexual,” a person who is not involuntarily aroused by the sight of beautiful women or naked photos of either sex.
Hilton, who is working on a doctorate in English at the University of Iowa and is married to an asexual Latter-day Saint woman, finds himself in the LGBTQIA world — under the queer category. And it feels central to his being, not something he necessarily wants to discard in the hereafter.
“It feels as much a part of who I am as any other facet of my identity,” Hilton writes in an online essay. “Sexual orientation feels eternal to me — that’s not to say that there’s not a fluidity there, but I don’t think that fluidity is going to be more or less than it is here. …It feels right to me … that sexual orientation is a part of our eternal identity.”
Some Latter-day Saint leaders have suggested that after death everyone will be “restored,” which to them means everyone will be heterosexual.
“The implication that I will die, have the veil removed, and suddenly have some raging desire for sex,” Hilton writes, “is just weird and strange and bizarre.”
He says it also implies that he is “broken and missing something and needs to be fixed.”
That isn’t a “pleasant” proposal, Hilton explains. And it doesn’t “resonate with the spiritual experiences I have had communing with the divine about being ace [asexual]. I’ve only felt love and acceptance and an embrace for my better understanding of who I am.”
The best solution is to believe “there won’t be any sex in heaven,” he writes. “Like, no one will feel any sort of sexual attraction — not to say that there won’t be love or romance or physical attraction, but that sexual attraction just won’t be a part of the picture because celestial creation is a totally different process and doesn’t require sex. That sounds fine/great to me, but I get that I am probably in a very small minority.”
In this life, it can push LGBTQ members to self-loathing.
“If queer people will be ‘fixed’ upon mortal death,” Ostler points out, “mortal death becomes the quickest path to end our pain.”
Does ‘eternal increase’ remain a belief
Early teachings on eternity still resonate in some quarters like the idea of “divination.” Joseph Smith’s King Follett discourse inspired a popular Latter-day Saint couplet: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.”
Yet in a 2001 interview with Time magazine, then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley was asked about whether members believe they will become gods.
“I don’t know that we teach it,” Hinckley replied. “I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse.”
The same could be said for the idea of eternal reproduction.
Some members say they were taught this idea while growing up — by church education teachers, lay leaders or their parents — while others have not heard it.
Utahn Sherri Park was told about eternal increase but says on Facebook she “expected it to be different from earthly pregnancy and less painful.”
Jen Blair, who lives in Idaho, did not hear about “eternal pregnancy, but I was absolutely taught the phrase ‘eternal increase’ as a reward for righteousness. It was a phrase that I heard dozens and dozens of times.”
On the other hand, Texan Karyn Dudley is a lifelong Latter-day Saint and says she has never heard or been taught the “eternal pregnancy theory.”
In her family, it was “eternal increase of the ancestral line. … As African Americans, culturally we call upon our ancestral line and believe they provide wisdom, insight and protection from the other side of the veil, and, as we join them, we provide the same upon our future generations…finding our eternal family connections.”
When she hears about sex in heaven, she thinks: “The Utah and Idaho Latter-day Saints are at it again.”
Jaxon Washburn, an “older zoomer/young millennial” in Boston, says he never heard this notion.
“Not once in any LDS setting was I taught that pregnancy for eternity was part of the equation of ‘eternal increase,’” Washburn writes. “It was always framed as spiritual adoption rather than viviparous spirit birth.”
Justin Martinez, who lives in Nevada, echoes that.
“In my nearly 16 years of church membership, I have attended and been part of dozens of English and/or Spanish speaking wards, branches and groups throughout the western United States and southwest Peru and have never heard such rhetoric or reasoning among any of them,” Martinez writes on Facebook. “Only in anti-Mormon material have I ever seen this assertion made.”
Indeed, these days the idea is used as a joke and punchline, invoking much mockery on social media.
The church’s official essay, “Becoming Like God,” refers to such ridicule.
“Latter-day Saints’ doctrine of exaltation is often … reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets,” it states. “… While few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.”
For Utah essayist Jody England Hansen, eternal increase was a lovely concept well beyond physical pregnancy.
“Most discussions in my family or academic settings saw eternal increase as involving increase in intelligence, understanding, wisdom and inspiration,” Hansen writes on social media. “This was in line with what I learned was a foundational teaching of Joseph Smith, that we all coexist eternally with the gods, and that we became their spirit children by being inspired by them, and following them into greater spheres of existence.”
It was not, she notes, about biology.
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