After the recent “Bottgate” hullabaloo and opposition to proxy baptisms of Shoah victims, we might have expected a bit of a break. But a new Slate column has again called our attention to skeletons in our communal closet. The column’s author, Max Mueller, is a Ph.D. candidate in religious history at Harvard University and specialist in early Mormon history and race relations. (See my recent podcast interview with him on blacks and the priesthood here.) He writes about the discovery that Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings has been sealed by proxy to him. He relates several other troubling historical examples of proxy sealing in a balanced, informative, and sensitive approach that deserves our careful attention. I look forward to other forthcoming responses from those who are more familiar than I am with all of the historical nuances. In this post I’d like to call attention to two specific theological tools Mormons might use to help mitigate these problems.
I don’t yet understand all of the details of Family Search, or the processes of verifying and entering names into the database for proxy work performance. Mueller himself suggests Church leaders “must review who is considered ‘married’ in the Family Search database,” ostensibly in order to take appropriate action in cancelling or blocking such actions. That sounds like a massive project and it may be more feasible to refine the whole process starting as soon as possible and looking forward.
Once we recognize the illegitimacy of sealing Sally to Thomas (and undoubtedly I personally find it illegitimate, absurd and repugnant), we’re really opening a can of worms. What about all of the other problematic sealings which must have been and will yet be performed on behalf of women who were in abusive relationships with men or vice versa, regardless of their race, and who would look at an eternal union with such a person as terrible bondage as well? What about divorced women whose temple sealings remain intact until and unless they are sealed to someone else in mortality? The “sealing” itself has been the rationale for so remaining, it’s better to be sealed than not, no matter to whom. But this seems to be a policy decision without formal revelations backing it up, and thus more easily reviewed and adjusted.
Two interesting “doctrinal” caveats to all LDS ordinances deserve notice in this discussion, one which Mueller himself mentions, and the other he doesn’t. First, the “agency” issue. All ordinances for the dead are performed with the caveat that the free will choice of the deceased is required in order to make the ordinance efficacious. Mueller highlights this teaching, and recent press releases have emphasized it. But we still need a solid historical treatment of the concept of “agency” being a factor in the acceptance of proxy work in such circumstances. We still need to examine and note all scriptures used to teach that idea, and trace the real-time development of it in our sermons, journals, other records, etc. as closely as we can to find out what its basis is and from whence it grew.
The second doctrinal caveat might be called the “D&C 132:7 clause”:
And verily I say unto you, that the conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.
According to this verse, God, through the “Holy Spirit of Promise,” is the ultimate catch-all approver of all ordinances performed. This notion is reiterated in several places in LDS manuals and so forth (see here, here, here, etc.) but I’m not sure how well-emphasized it is when we discuss or perform ordinances themselves.
One suggestion might be to introduce this concept directly into ritual practices, including proxy ordinances. Perhaps the issue of the agency of the deceased could also be incorporated into the rituals themselves as well. This would have the advantage of ritually reinforcing the concepts of 1) God being the ultimate gate-keeper on all ordinances, and 2) individual agency as the other key to the process. This could be done in addition to whatever process and policy changes to help fill in the doctrinal or theological justification necessary to prevent overheated imaginations. I’m relying on the idea that changes in the present can be facilitated by drawing on our records themselves for help in visioning a better, clearer, more just Mormon understanding of the afterlife.
Such emphases are also a possible double-edged sword, though. They could also be used to foster a “seal first, ask questions later” attitude. “Well, if God has to approve and the people have to accept, better be safe than sorry.” This could result in a plethora of confusing, sometimes offensive, never-really-coherent sealings all over the place. I’d argue that such a scatter-shot approach is disrespectful to the ordinances and those who ordinances were performed for. But to the extent that ordinances might be easily performed without better gate-keeping makes my personal objections are quite weak.
*The image is “Eternal Slave” by Andrès Monreal.