The early anti-Mormons that lampooned the citizens of Deseret could never have imagined that their targets would one day be recognized as paragons of puritan sexuality. The caricatures of Mormons as sexual miscreants have, for the most part, ceded to images of anachronistic sexual constraint. An historic review of Mormon discourse on intimacy reveals that just as others’ perceptions of Mormon intimacy have changed, so too, though to a lesser degree, is our own self image dynamic.
Chastity is a virtue that has always been emphasized in Mormon thought. Historically, physical intimacy was viewed pragmatically with polygamy casting aspersions upon the concept of romantic union. Brigham even threatened that, “[i]f the plurality of wives is to pander to the low passions of men and women, the sooner it is abolished the better. ‘How far would you go in abolishing it?’ I would say, if the Lord should reveal that it is his will to go so far as to become a Shaking Quaker, Amen to it, and let the sexes have no connection.” (1) It is not until the 20th century that romantic union has been sacralized.
Counsel regarding physical intimacy within marriage has been rare until recently. In 1978, the First Presidency added a statement to the Temple recommend questions that indicated that those who had not repented of “impure, unholy, or unnatural sex acts” could not receive a recommend. (2) This obviously led to some uncomfortable conversations with bishops and the First Presidency released another letter in 1982 that stated that bishops “should never inquire into personal, intimate matters involving marital relations between man and his wife.” This counsel is still contained in Temple Recommend instructions. (3)
There is no doubt that President Kimball had certain behaviors in mind when considering these “unnatural” acts. A letter that was briefly circulated by the first presidency in 1982 included oral sex to be considered among these acts. (4) This counsel, while not officially rescinded, has not been reiterated since and is generally unknown. Starting in 1985, the Temple recommend question was simplified to, “Do you live the law of Chastity?” (3)
President Hinckley categorized as spousal abuse the “demand [of] offensive intimate relations” in the priesthood session of 1990 April conference. Further, he stated that “You must judge within your heart whether you are guilty of any practice that is unholy, impure, or in any way evil before the Lord.” (5) The current General Handbook (1998) states that “sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.” This, effectually, leaves the considerations of intimacy to couples and God.
As stated in the title of a 2004 BYU NewsNet article, “LDS Church [is] not opposed to birth control.” While the LDS church once promulgated counsel that denigrated birth control as sinful, this is no longer the case. Justin, at the Mormon Wasp, has an excellent review of this counsel as it relates to fertility rates. The current general handbook states that “[t]he decision as to how many chldren to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter.”
Extra-marital petting and masturbation are not mentioned specifically in the General Handbook of Instruction and pornography was added in the 1998 edition. The GHI also offers no counsel on how Bishops should handle cases of in indiscretion; however, these activities have been generally viewed as sinful throughout Mormon history.
Masturbation wasn’t mentioned in general conference until 1956, where it was referred to as “self-abuse” (6). It wasn’t referred to as “masturbation” until the 1960’s. Not much is recorded about 19th century perceptions of the practice, however, all extant reference condemn it. It is recorded as the cause for the case of at least one re-baptism (7) and was condemned in the 1883 school of the prophets (8). William Clayton, secretary to Joseph Smith, recorded with millenarian fervor:
Recklessness, apostacy, vanity, whoredoms, self-pollution, rebellion, covetousness and kindred evils, are rampant, on every hand. These will have to be purged out before the Order of Enoch can be a success, and that the day of reckoning is close upon us I am as fully satisfied, as of anything in existence. (9 – “Self-pollution” is another euphemism for masturbation)
At a meeting in the Temple with the Twelve, Joseph F. Smith was recorded as stating in 1902:
that the practice of masturbation was indulged in by many young people in the church schools. Pres. Smith remarked that this was a most damnable and pernicious practice, and the face of every apostle, president of a stake, and high councillor [sic] should be set as flint against it. The priesthood should be called together at the stake conferences and the brethren and parents should be instructed and warned in relation to this matter. (10)
Elder Clawson recorded several instances where apostles heeded this counsel (11). Recently, there has been some focus on the act, however pornography receives the overwhelming majority of attention. A search for the terms on the church website illustrates this trend (masturbation: 20 references; pornography: over 300 references).
While Mormons were once considered aberrant hedonists, we are now considered aberrant ascetics. Despite our own changing perspectives about specific practices, the sanctity of the marriage covenant has always been maintained as the border that circumscribes the sexual union of men and women, even in the most extreme examples in our history.
- JD vol. 9 pg. 31
- First Presidency letter, June 9, 1976, Church Archives; General Handbook of Instructions, supp. 3 to #21 (March 1, 1978), pg. 4 as cited in Kimball, E. L (2005) Lengthen Your Stride, Working Draft.
- Kimball, E. L. (1998) The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards. Journal of Mormon History Spring pg. 135-175.
- Kimball, E. L (2005) Lengthen Your Stride, Working Draft. chpt. 9 pg. 4.
- Ensign vol. 20 pg. 52.
- Delbert L. Stapley, Conference Report, October 1956, Afternoon Meeting pg. 121
- White, J. B. Church, State, and Politics: The Diaries of John Henry Smith pg. 106.
- Salt Lake City School of the Prophets Minute Book, 1883 (Palm Desert: ULC Press, 1981), 54.
- Allen, J. B.Trials of Discipleship: William Clayton and Mormon Millennial Expectations of the 1860s, p. 302
- Larson, S. A Ministry of Meetings: The Apostolic Diaries of Rudger Clawson, p.411; see also the counsel of Reed Smoot at a similar meeting on pg. 414 where it was called a “secret vice.”
- ibid., pg. 518, 520, 622, 635 and 638.