Several months ago, I shared an excerpt from my article on adoption, in which I tried to describe the heaven revealed by Joseph Smith in conjunction with the introduction of the Nauvoo temple liturgy. This heaven was a network of people linked as husband and wife, child and parent, and these linkages were forged in the temple through ritual sealings. Those not sealed as spouse and as child within this network were “single & alone” in the eternities. Mormons were literally creating heaven on earth.
Those children born of parents sealed in the temple were considered “heirs to the priesthood,” that is part of the network of heaven (see link above). Those not born to such parents needed to be sealed to someone who was part of the heavenly network. For the balance of the nineteenth century the fidelity of those linkages were the primary concern. As such, in the nineteenth century, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could not be sealed to anyone who had passed away before joining the church. If being found outside the relational network was being cut off from heaven, and as Mormons believed that everyone who was dead had free agency, it was very possible that one’s ancestors might choose, in spite of proxy ordinances, to reject the gospel after death. Church leaders felt that sealing church members to those who were not surely integrated into heaven was simply too risky. No one, living or dead, could receive sealing ordinances to those who had not accepted the gospel in this life (there is one significant caveat to this I treat in the broader article).
The solution to this predicament was something that looks very peculiar to non-Mormon observers and modern Mormons alike. Church members whose parents were outside the church were sealed as children to other church members, often church leaders. This practice is outlined in detail in the article linked above, but it was terribly confusing to just about everyone in the church, leaders and lay members equally. But there is a real predicament. If these sealings really matter, and Mormons want to be part of the network of heaven, then they really don’t want to be sealed to people that don’t want any part of it. Church leaders took the responsibility to wield the authority of God seriously and the First Presidency approved every single proxy child-to-parent sealing performed in the Temple.
Church leaders debated what to do for decades. However in 1894, Church President Wilford Woodruff announced that he had received a revelation on the subject and directed the Latter-day Saints to seal all their ancestors to each other according to the relationships in which they had lived. Quoting my article on adoption about Woodruff’s announcement in General Conference (p. 110-11):
Woodruff…spoke on the practice of temple marriage and indicated the change in policy regarding those being sealed as spouse to those who died without joining the Church. In doing so, Woodruff invoked a principle which may have catalyzed his change in perspective regarding adoptions. Reminiscent of Joseph Smith’s penchant for sacramentalized universalism and contemporary trends in liberal Protestantism, [n154] Woodruff stated plainly, “There will be very few, if any, who will not accept the Gospel.” Woodruff described those that suffered in Hell, and how they would “doubtless gladly embrace the Gospel, and in doing so be saved in the kingdom of God.” [n155] Woodruff thus broke with decades of logic which reasoned that one’s ancestors could not be relied upon to function as links in the chain of divine inheritance.
This announcement was in my estimation, one of the single most important events in the construction of modern Mormonism. And many members wondered what all the rituals they had previously performed meant. Again from my article (p. 116):
[O]ne temple president wrote the First Presidency with regard to the past adoptions and future temple work of several individuals. He needed direction. Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith considered each case and responded accordingly with tailored advice. In the final case, they wrote that, in the eternities, the individual to whom one group of relatives had been adopted “will not interfere with justice being done” and that “all will be made right.” Woodruff and Smith then added that this principle “will apply to a great deal of this work which has been done and you can so explain to the saints.” [n173]
The shift in thinking outlined in this letter is the basis for modern temple work; sealings became fuzzy. However, there was an evolution of sorts to get where the church is today. After the Woodruff revelation a policy was formalized to have a “family heir” manage all the proxy ritual performance for a given converts’ ancestors. But after a few decades the number of descendants were so many and the work so rapid, that there was no way for heirs or the Church to formally approve of specific ritual performance.
In some ways, I wish that I could republish the article and incorporate some of the recent events into the footnotes of the conclusions (p. 116-117):
Perhaps the greatest ramification of the adoption revelation was a shift away from micromanaging eternal relationships to a position of aspiration—a belief that a just God will ensure that no blessings are kept from the faithful. Church members are currently free to perform proxy rituals for the dead as they generally see fit. [n174] Furthermore, modern Latter-day Saints are instructed that all the faithful, including the childless and unmarried, will eventually receive the eternal blessings of family. [n175] In light of sealing cancellations, some Church leaders have even instructed that it is the covenant one is born in that is important and not necessarily the person to whom one is sealed as child. [n176] The precise structure of heaven is no longer defined by Church leaders; however, Woodruff’s comments while announcing his revelation are likely still applicable. A great work must yet be done “to satisfy our Heavenly Father, satisfy our dead and ourselves.” [n177]
n174. This open policy allows, for example, dead women to be sealed to more than one man, but it has also created public relations problems as some LDS Church members perform proxy rituals for “unrelated persons, celebrities and unapproved groups, such as Jewish Holocaust victims.” Mark Thiessen, “Clinton, Hatch Discuss Holocaust Baptisms: Jewish Group Wants Church to Keep 1995 Deal,” Deseret News, April 10, 2004, B3; Handbook 1 (2010), 20–21.
In the nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints generally went to the temple to perform rituals for themselves and only a few church members regularly attended to perform proxy rituals for their dead. For various reasons in the twentieth century, the temple became a locus of worship for all church members and as a consequence, the church essentially industrialized the process of proxy ritual preparation. Proxy rituals for the dead are generally now performed completely acontextually by members who have no relationship to them. The temple as a consequence has become a place for church members and only peripherally for their dead. What this industrialized worship allows for, when coupled with the freedom to prepared individual records at will, is the opportunity for overly zealous members to perform rituals that would be otherwise viewed (by church members and others) as completely inappropriate. At the same time perhaps the risk of such abuses are worth it to the church. The reality is that this life is a mess (divorce, abuse, meanness of all sorts, etc.) and this flexibility allows for the most benevolent aspirations of God to find strength at the same time as the cosmology is in some measure preserved.