Addenda: Adoption: Complex eternal family

In continuing with my addenda project, I’d like to highlight a document relating to my article, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism.” One of the arguments I present in this paper is that Wilford Woodruff’s 1894 revelation on adoptive sealing rituals resulted in “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.” (117) I’m convinced that this 1894 revelation is the single most important contributor to current Mormon beliefs regarding eternal families and the blessings of heaven.

I think I did a decent job in outlining the pressures that led to the various practices of micromanagement regarding temple sealings. However, after publication, I found a letter in the L. John Nuttall Papers at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections (BYU) which really highlights the issues at play in a way that is, I think, very easy for modern church members to identify with.

Nuttall was the secretary to President John Taylor. In his papers is some of the correspondence he wrote on behalf of President Taylor. In 1884 he responded to a letter written to Taylor by a Mary Glover Johnson and her mother-in-law. Mary was married with children when her husband passed away. Likely due to their living away from Salt Lake City, this man was a baptized member, but had not participated in the temple liturgy. Mary then married Joseph Hills Johnson, a prominent man in Southern Utah, in the temple. The question: to whom should her children be sealed?

[John Taylor] decides that it will be proper for Sister Glover’s living children to have their choice as to whom they will be sealed or adopted. If the children decide to go with herself and Bro. Johnson, there should be then as much work done as possibly can be, in behalf of their father. He having been a member of the Church, will not have to be baptized for, but he should have his endowments, and some one or more women that he had been acquainted with or that would be suitable for him should be sealed to him, so that he will not be alone. In regard to the children of Sister Glover who are dead, she can have those children sealed to her, yet the President suggests that if she feels like letting two of the children that are dead go with their father it will be all right, but in this she can use her own pleasure and judgement. . . (1)

This is, I think a very reasonable response, and yet it highlights the tension inherent in the realities of mortality. If the children want to be sealed to their biological father, he needs to have a woman sealed to him as wife. But his wife is already sealed to another man. What I would really like is to find some evidence for the reactions of Mary and her children to this letter, and what the children ultimately chose.


  1. L. John Nuttall, Letter to Jane E. Johnson and Mary Glover Johnson, November 22, 1884, L. John Nuttall Papers, Vault MSS 790, Box 4, book 3, letter 245, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Provo, Utah.


  1. pangwitch says:

    if god just “sorts everything out after we die” in regards to complicated sealing issues, why do we bother sealing at all? why not just wait til we’re dead?

  2. Pangwitch, perhaps because it is in the struggle to realize zion/heaven on earth/eternal families, despite our abject failures, that we ultimately find them.

  3. J. Stapley, to me, John Taylor’s response was quite fascinating. My history is a bit rusty, but John Taylor’s presidency fell in a time period where by and large women (and any children) were considered the property of the husband and father. I find it quite refreshing, inspired, and progressive for this widowed mother to have been able to choose! Granted, the goal is for all of us to end up as an Eternal Family again, but to give her such choices and peace in her mortal life must have made quite a bit of difference. Especially considering these waters were sort of being navigated as they (the early Saints) went. I love this whole series, btw, thank you for again posting some of it.

  4. J.,

    Could you direct me to some additional material regarding the 1894 revelation? Was it published in any official manner in the following decades?


  5. Thanks EOR, though I don’t think that women and children could have ever have been considered property. Is there something in specific with regard to the Taylor administration that you are thinking about?

    Tod, all the details are in the article linked above, but I’ll give you a brief rundown. Unfortunately, I am unaware of any extant revelation text. Woodruff left a page in his diary to transcribe the revelation, but he never did it. The revelation announcement was printed in the Deseret News as part of the Conference proceedings. It was printed in redacted form in the Genealogical Society Mag and Clark reprinted this version in his Messages of the FP.

  6. Nothing about the Taylor administration specifically, just the time period of 1880-1887 when he was the President.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Sealings and adoptions are something that I in particular struggle with. I was “born under the covenant” to my biological mother and father. Given the church’s current policy of having children of record who were born under the covenant be sealed to those parents for eternity, even if the parents divorce or there is abuse that happens, can seem insensitive to those in the middle of unfortunate situations. It is actually refreshing to hear that at one point a prophet felt it was appropriate to let children decide who to be sealed to.

    I am choosing “anonymous” as my name for this post because of the intimate details I am going to choose to share.

    My parents were sealed before I was born, before I was conceived. I wasn’t part of their decision to marry or to be sealed in the temple. I am the oldest of five biological siblings, all of us were born under the covenant. We were all blessed and baptized by our biological father.

    During that same time period my biological father was regularly molesting me. It was a regular, systematic and damaging part of my formative years. Long into my adulthood it stayed in the nightmares and darkest fears of my mind. As those memories clarified, and I learned to see myself as a survivor instead of a victim, I started to become the woman I want to be.

    I had made a number of good decisions in my life, but I had also made some terrible ones. In working through the consequences of those decisions, and getting my heart and life in line with the promptings of the Spirit and the interpretation of the gospel that I learned when I was finally able to learn “in the light,” outside of the darkness that molestation had brought to my life.

    My biological father and mother divorced when I was a teenager. They both remarried. I tried to follow the advice of church leaders and have relationships with both my parents.

    I have a loving and supportive relationship with my mother and stepfather. They have listened when I just needed to rant, they have been supportive and loving as I have tried to understand and change behaviors left over from the knee jerk reactions of someone who has been molested. They have let me share my story in my time, even when it would have been easier for them to explain my circumstances and their support for me.

    Eventually my biological father was excommunicated, both for molesting me and for apostasy. He may repent someday, but given his continued outrage at the church, and his attacks against my mother and me, I don’t know that it is unlikely.

    So, here is where I personally stand on eternity:

    I grateful that I had the experience of being excommunicated and rebaptised. My father’s name is no longer listed on that part of my church records. However, his name is still all over my church records.
    Everytime I have to write his name down on a church document, I feel his oppressive presence in my life, crowded into the tiny clerk’s office, running his hands down my back with the icy dread of his touch.

    My stepfather has offered to adopt me, and we have started the process to do an adult adoption. While that will change my legal status, it will not change the fact that the church does not allow children who were “born under the covenant” to be eligible to be sealed to anyone else, as their parents.

    I don’t know how to explain the dread that I feel when I have to go over my church records and see “his” name. I sometimes get the sense that church leaders, my siblings, and other people who are aware of the situation wish that I would “just let things go.” I sympathize with their desire to not think about unpleasant things, but those unpleasant things are written on my body and soul. I would LOVE to be able to let things go, really, I would.

    If there was the option to be sealed to my mother and stepfather, after the adoption was complete, I would not hesitate to be sealed to them.

    I find an extreme irony in the fact that my biological parents’ temple sealing was cancelled so that they were free to be sealed to other people, but their children are stuck in “limbo” until some random time in the eternities.

    I do understand that many kids of divorced parents are comforted by still being covered by their parent’s former sealing. I am not one of them, but I do understand that my feelings and ultimate desire is probably not “mainstream.” For the most part I simply don’t think about it too much, I stay away from church on Fathers Day, and I hope that someday my heart won’t hurt when insensitive comments are made about people who don’t honor their parents not being worthy of the blessings of the gospel.

    I guess this makes me wish for a way to ask for micromanagement of select temple ordinances, while at the same time I know that it isn’t realistic to expect in a large, worldwide church.

  8. When I encountered this revelation in the introduction to the Wilford Woodruff manual on my mission, I figured the same thing: this was probably even more important than the renunciation of polygamy to the development of the modern concept of the LDS family and the purpose of temple work…

  9. You’ve illustrated the very difficult and poignant realities that any theology of the family has to deal with, Anonymous. Thanks for sharing.

  10. KaralynZ says:

    I, too, have wondered at being part of a church that believes in an all powerful God who cannot impart certain blessings on his children if… um, the right paperwork isn’t filled out.

    I suspect we will someday find that some of these revelations were not fully understood and that God does the best He can with the mortals he has to work through.

  11. themormonbrit says:

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve never really understood the whole concept of proxy ordinances. To my mind, if God wishes to spend eternity with someone, He won’t be unable to do that simply because no-one’s been dunked under the water and had the right words said over them.

  12. I consider it to be more of an “in training” deal than an absolute necessary for both the deceased and the proxy. It fulfills one of the Gospel messages to “…turn the hearts of the father to the children and the children to the fathers.” I was baptized by proxy for my great-grandmother (with whom I shared an important link in mortality) and that experience when I was 16 has served to buoy me up and tether me to the rocky shores of Mormonism ever since and I am almost 32. So, I personally have a testimony of the importance of proxy ordinances. In my mind just because God will have to sort it out at the end anyway we should still put forth our best efforts to provide the ordinances for our OWN dead (I’m looking at you baptizers of Holocaust victims, and slave sealers!). Those are just my 2 cents.

  13. whizzbang says:

    I may have a copy of the 1984 Wilford Woodruff revelation or a talk at least, and I believe I got it from Brian Stuy’s collection of talks from that Time period and I am under the impression that Pres. Packer has used it in various talks. I am hesitant in all of this as I haven’t read it quite awhile and can’t recall where for sure i got it!!

  14. Anonymous,
    I am sorry to hear your story. I wonder if you could send a request to the First Presidency for an exception to be sealed to your mother and stepfather. There is one difference between your circumstance and the children of Mary Glover-Johnson, her children were not born in the covenant and were not sealed to anyone. The stipulation Pres. Taylor gave to Sister Glover’s children would still apply today if their parents had not been sealed and one of the spouses remarried. What is interesting is that clearance was given to seal Brother Johnson to another spouse (who he had presumably never married) and that the children may be sealed to that union.

  15. whizzbang, that is most certainly the revelation announcement and not the actual revelation text. Stuy reprinted the Deseret News sermons.

  16. whizzbang says:

    @15 I found this brief article, but I don’t know if it sheds light on the matter!

  17. I just want to say that some of the questions be asked about the nature of eternities and temple work are very good questions, but speaking for myself, in going to the temple and pondering these questions over a series of years I have experienced some of the most profound revelation(s) in my life. I don’t talk about it, as I immediately became aware that the “ownership” of the answer was as much a result of my questioning and the “work” I put into pondering the issues and going to the temple. That may sound like I just convinced myself of whatever I wanted to be true to the skeptic, but I had various thoughts come to my mind over years of temple attendance (combine with reading and studying scriptures and words of the prophets). When I formulated my question after all these experiences, I received a tremendous outpouring of the spirit and a lot of light entered my mind where answers and conclusions flowed forth. I guess I’m being pretty specific and vague at the same time.

    But ultimately, I am just sharing my experience to say I think it’s good to ask these questions and seek out the answers for yourself doing the things God asks of each of us (in our various situations) to receive revelation.

  18. Anonymous #7 So sad to hear about your early life but you are most definitely a survivor!

    I think the key here is once again the eternal nature of the principle of agency. Pres Taylor had it right. We always have a choice–in this life and the next. We can’t threaten our children that they’ve been sealed forever to us so there’s nothing they can do about it. We do the ordinances but then have to so live that our spouse/children will want to be with us forever. It’s daunting.

  19. salth2o says:

    My aunt died before she was sealed to her husband. Her husband remarried in the temple, then my grandmother convinced his new wife to go through the temple again, as proxy for my Aunt. I can not begin to express the amount of pain this has caused in our family for decades- not because of the fear of what is going to happen in the life to come, but because of how it greatly and negatively impacted this life.

    When my in-laws and got sealed to their adopted children, the family felt different, more unified.

    I see Temple sealings as a temporal blessing, which flows into the next life. If something crazy happens, God will work it out.

  20. StillConfused says:

    Since I don’t come from a moron background, I have never really felt any kind of a pull towards the sealings etc. I personally feel that my God doesn’t need actions of man in order for him to do what he wants; hence, I really don’t feel pressure on the sealing thing. If there is a Heaven and if people are still in some form which enables them to marry (I personally do not believe in humanoid form in heaven), I have no doubt that my ancestors, who were good solid Christians, will have that opportunity. On the other hand, the sealed families that I know of who treat their family members like crap… I don’t think that God is bound by their sealing because I am not sure how mean people like that get to go the highest heaven.

    Not a very Mormon way of looking at things, I know, but I have always had a stronger pull to very basic Judeo-Christian-Spiritualist leanings.

  21. StillConfused #20 It’s actually a very Mormon way of looking at things.

    Doc & Cov 82:10 “I, the Lord, am abound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.”

  22. abound should be bound… the a was a footnote…

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