Mormon temple sealings

This is a brief post to characterize modern Mormon temple sealing practice in light of Max’s write-up at Salon and Blair’s response.

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.


  1. Not quite sure if I agree with the “industrialized worship” aspect. True, there are plenty of times we do temple work for those we don’t know. But, we still feel (or hopefully feel) a kinship and sense of relation in doing that person’s ordinance work. If I helped someone change a flat tire on the side of the road I would not call it a completely impersonal act of service. The messiness of sealings is what has fascinated me for some time, mostly as it concerns husband and wives. The church handbook doesn’t say that we’ll have to choose among spouses with respect to plural sealings. Although anecdotally we say “seal ’em all and let God and the parties sort it out,” that is not official church doctrine as far as I know. In fact, it seems like church leaders have consistently said if the parties are faithful, all ordinances are valid. After all, why would anyone worthy of the CK not want to be sealed to someone else worthy of the CK? Harold Glen Clark was the first temple president of the Provo Temple. He was sealed to Virginia Driggs in 1929, and she died in March of 1950. He was then sealed to Mary Deane Peterson Gilbert in December of 1950. He died in 1984. The interesting thing is that Mary Deane Peterson was first sealed to Arthur Gene Gilbert in 1941. Bro. Gilbert died in 1947, so at the time she was “sealed” to Bro. Clark in 1950, she was already sealed and living. This is in direct violation of the temple sealing policies of today. Then, after Bro. Clark died in 1984, Mary Deane Peterson married a third time to Glenn Andrew in 1986. He died in 2004, then she died in 2006, and they were sealed by proxy in 2009. So Mary Deane Peterson is sealed to three husbands. And Glen Andrew was also previously sealed to a first wife. How did she get away with being sealed to two men at the same time while living? It’s amazing what you can find on!!! So, Harold Clark is sealed to two wives, Mary Peterson is sealed to three husbands, and Glenn Andrew is sealed to two wives. I know we don’t know the individual righteousness of all parties involved, but assuming they are all worthy of the Celestial Kingdom, how will the relationships shake out? This is why I would like to know what our doctrine is. And why can’t a living woman be sealed to more than one man (at least since 1998) but we can seal a deceased women to all the husbands she had in mortality? I can’t find an official explanation for that policy anywhere.

  2. Steven, what if, by contrast there was a service that allowed to you to always change a strangers’ tire at 6:00 am on Thursdays with no other preparation? But it isn’t my intention to denigrate temple worship, so forgive me if my characterization is offensive.

    Regarding current explanations, there simply aren’t any. I think that it is consequently much easier to see how the various policies develop, than to expect a comprehensive and universal explanation. And what’s more, there are skads and skads of aberrations in Mormon history, so I wouldn’t project much from single instances.

  3. When you consider the scale of temple work for the dead, and all the work that has gone into applying technology to process, “industrialization of temple worship” strikes me as an appropriate label. Although I have huge issues myself with, ti does streamline the process of submitting names for temple work. The new iPhone and android indexing apps make the old monotonous and boring work of extraction a simple function of two thumbs and a smartphone, and you can easily grind out several names a minute while waiting for a bus, or during that boring high council talk in sacrament meeting. Not that I would do that, of course.

    I have thought recently that perhaps there needs to be a lower level of temple experience that puts you in the temple, without the requirement of actually doing work for the dead. Prayer circles not associated with an endowment session, perhaps? Becoming a temple worker and only having to work two evening shifts a month, rather than every week?

  4. I had always been under the impression that men had the providence of being sealed to multiple women (after death of a spouse, etc…), but women had no such luck. Is that incorrect?

  5. Steven, I wish you good luck in finding a deeper answer on why women can only be sealed to one man in life while living. I’ve explored that question top to bottom with a temple president whom I trust implicitly and together we could not find an answer that I found satisfactory. This situation causes pain for women who wish to be sealed to a second husband and especially in families where the second husband wishes to be sealed to children produced from the second marriage. As you stated, the handbook makes clear that women can be sealed to every man they’ve been married to after all parties are dead. So why not in life?

    Hopefully someone can provide a more enlightening answer.

    The salve offered is a statement that a loving and just Heavenly Father will ensure eternal relationships are fair and right for all who maintain their covenants.

  6. I took that question (women sealed to multiple husbands) to a SP when I went to be married the second time. He explained that members misunderstand sealing blessings, thinking they are some kind of heavenly glue that sticks people together in eternity. His explanation was that they are a means to unite all the members of the human family back to Adam and thereby to God. The blessing exists for the individual, which was why my first sealing was not “canceled” until another could be issued. It was good enough for me at age 26. I think the practice is probably a matter of someone’s opinion, however, at this point in my life. Still, the kernel of what he said, that the sealing blessings are priesthood blessings for an individual in a family unit, make a lot of sense to me still. It really doesn’t matter to whom I’m sealed, just that I am partaking of a priesthood ordinance necessary for my salvation. I’m sure that’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. I guess I could just as easily have lived in the 19th century. Nice article, by the way. I enjoyed both this and Blair’s very much. Thanks.

  7. Wonderful and thoughtful post, J; thanks.

  8. Nicely done. It is wise to repeat this narrative on occasion because by its very nature, the Church does not do that sort of thing in its devotional literature. So, bravo.

  9. My grandmother who is still alive at 102 has already had her temple work done a couple times as a result of sloppy research by over-zelous temple going folk. Especially strange since she’s been a member all her life and in fact did all her own temple ordinances for herself when she was in her 20’s and 30’s. Seems like a lot of wasted spinning of the wheels. Perhaps the church needs a better, more strict vetting/research/genealogy process before we give the go ahead for proxy temple work. Measure twice, cut once.

  10. J., really wonderful post. I remember speaking at a conference last year and someone asked me that question about the potential for breaks in the chain. The fuzziness of temple sealings becomes quite apparent in such circumstances.

  11. #10: Aaron R.,
    The need for Temple sealings is also fuzzy to me . Don’t we already have a pre-earth kinship system? What makes the total kinship of earh- time important? What about something like DNA?
    I mostly don’t like asking the Youth to base their full lives on ideas that are not even clear to the Church.

  12. Bob, it is more the shape of that heavenly community which is fuzzy to me rather than the constitutive parts. For example, I do not have trouble with the idea that celestial communities are grounded on shared covenants of fidelity to God and each other. Certainly, like you observe, these covenants are a supplement to the forms of kinship which we already share (DNA and pre-mortal life) but then the forging of this new community does require something other than what we already collectively possess. In short, I can accept the need for additional bonds but I am less clear about the nature and shape of those associations.

  13. I had no idea we used to prohibit sealing to non-member parents. For the first time, I know the context behind the “There will be very few, if any, who will not accept the Gospel” quote. Thanks! I wonder when, if ever, church manuals will include context of quotes from past church leaders.

  14. Good stuff, J. Thanks. I’m glad we’re having these conversations.

  15. Nice summary, J. Stapley. I’m one of those with strong faith in the sealing ordinance while simultaneously feeling it makes no intellectual sense whatsoever. I’ve pretty much felt the same way about proxy ordinances as well (as a kid, I felt temple baptisms would only make sense if they had some sort of phone to the other side of the veil, but I felt a good spirit there and figured maybe those phones would get set up in the Millenium). So, I think the fuzziness surrounding sealings has been something I accepted at a young age and it’s never really bothered me. I just figured God would sort it out in the end. However, I do think it has contributed to a lack of urgency on my part to act on behalf of the deceased, and I don’t think that’s consistent with our faith.

  16. maggiemac says:

    I have always understood that a woman CAN be sealed to more than one man PROVIDED that the previous one is dead. I was taught this by a genealogy professor at BYU, reconfirmed by a couple of friends who like to think of themselves as “in the know” and “well connected.” (whether they are, of course, may be a different matter!) Having been doing quite a bit of genealogy myself, I also understand it to be totally appropriate to seal a deceased woman to both men she may have been married to while alive, i.e. she was a widow and remarried type of thing. Regardless, I personally consider “sealings” to be ordinances, and that it is a necessary ordinance, not a necessarily specifically and strictly bound to an exact person. That’s why I don’t find any problem with “multiple sealings” since it seems appropriate for every individual to have this ordinance and what other context could this ordinance be done except through a marriage type sealing?

  17. @maggiemac #16, if correcting your well connected and in the know friends is your thing, then this might be a worthwhile tidbit for you. According to the latest Handbook 1 for Stake Presidents and Bishops (2010), a living woman can only be sealed to one man during her life. The only way while still living that she can be sealed to another man is by gaining a cancellation of the previous sealing by the First Presidency. Once all parties involved are deceased, then a woman may be married to every man to which she might have been married in life.

    Policies may have differed in previous decades but that is the current Church policy.

    It’s true that sealing ordinances are essentially a mesh that connects us to the house of Israel and provides one of the necessary priesthood ordinances required to gain entrance to the celestial kingdom.

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