Sunday Evenings with the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 132. Part 7: Errors, Unconditional Sealing, and Breaking the Bonds.

This is part 7 of a series of posts on Doctrine and Covenants Section 132, Joseph Smith’s July 12, 1843 revelation on marriage. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.
The following part, part 8, is here.

The sealing of marriages, and eventually, the notion of priesthood adoption (as a kind of extension of New Testament Pauline adoption) appears as the pinnacle of Mormon liturgy in the July 12 revelation.[1] Like much of the revelation text, the relevant passages are laced with warnings about postponement or failure. This life is the time for sealings:

16 Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory.

17 For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever.

Note the reference to the synoptics: the question of the dead spouses (Mark 12:25)—always an interesting one for Mormon missionaries. Joseph’s later speeches hint that this applies to children not sealed to parents: they may be angels. Angel is a complex term in Joseph’s cosmology and it can have a pejorative sense (as it does here) as well as a progressive one. See for example the James Adams sermon, and the May 12, 1844 continuation of the King Follett Sermon. The impossibility of progress here has been troubling to some and this as well as other passages of modern revelation have been interpreted in the fashion of section 19, the “forever” clause seen as a motivator rather than an absolute “never”. These verses form a kind of subtext for the Mormon emphasis on family.

Holy Spirit of Promise

18 And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife, and make a covenant with her for time and for all eternity, if that covenant is not by me or by my word, which is my law, and is not sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, through him whom I have anointed and appointed unto this power, then it is not valid neither of force when they are out of the world, because they are not joined by me, saith the Lord, neither by my word; when they are out of the world it cannot be received there, because the angels and the gods are appointed there, by whom they cannot pass; they cannot, therefore, inherit my glory; for my house is a house of order, saith the Lord God.

The Holy Spirit of Promise trope has been thrown about in church discourse as some sort of private experience where one has something confirmed by the Holy Ghost (or possibly Jesus himself) say, as a personal witness. The revelation buys none of this. The Holy Spirit of Promise[2] is the sealing sacrament shortly to be described:

19 And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them–Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths—then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.

(Nearly) Unconditioned Sealing

This sealing of verse 19 is nearly unconditional. Joseph preaches about it here.
The sealings in the Nauvoo temple after Joseph’s death have no “through your faithfulness” clause and Joseph initiated them this way. His remarks about taking the middle road of perseverance are instructive (see the March 10, 1844 sermon link just above).[3]

Brigham Young and the apostles gained a more nuanced view of sealings and by 1853, a faithfulness clause had appeared in sealing ceremonies. Perhaps this was a practical realization of the nature of new converts in Utah and the volatile existence of Sainthood in that environment. It is perhaps also a nod to further unconditional ordinances, and that may suggest that the marriage liturgy was modified with a pessimistic clause as the apostles worked with the temple liturgy in their last few months in Nauvoo.[4] Given the sealing practice in the Nauvoo temple and finer and finer notions about salvation developed in that short but glorious time, I wouldn’t be surprised if conditional sealings were contemplated. Church leaders considered further gradations in sealings, even administering only half of the endowment, then marriage (sealing), then a probationary period before the second half of the endowment. Eventually however, the perseverance advocated by Joseph Smith gave way to a kind of Methodist pessimism, where endurance to the end was a clause in every blessing, even the remaining relatively rare unconditional ordinances (if not ceremonial, then by expectation). The threshold of loss is now much lower than murder even there, perhaps.

20 Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.

This is the explicit deification passage and one repugnant to many Protestants (for example). The Expositor writers drew attention to the idea as outside traditional Mormonism.

The Expositor reports this family of doctrines in the following shocked tones:

Resolved 2nd, Inasmuch as we have for years borne with the individual follies and iniquities of Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, and many other official characters in the Church of Jesus Christ, (conceiving it a duty incumbent upon us so to bear,) and having labored with them repeatedly with all Christian love, meekness and humility, yet to no effect, feel as if forbearance has ceased to be a virtue, and hope of reformation vain; and inasmuch as they have introduced false and damnable doctrines into the Church, such as a plurality of Gods above the God of this universe, and his liability to fall with all his creations; the plurality of wives, for time and eternity, the doctrine of unconditional sealing up to eternal life, against all crimes except that of sheding innocent blood, by a perversion of their priestly authority, and thereby forfeiting the holy priesthood, according to the word of Jesus: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered, and men gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned,”

The Laws and Higbee’s were not alone in their assessment of Joseph’s preaching and private practice, and their new church, The True Church of Jesus Christ, had some followers— but quickly disbanded after the martyrdom.[5]

24 This is eternal lives—to know the only wise and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent. I am he. Receive ye, therefore, my law.

Joseph Smith was fond of this passage from John 17 and deploys it in a number ways. See his sermons of May 12, 1844 and June 16, 1844 for example. The use of the plural “lives” rather than “life” seems to point to the “kingdom expansion” notions that circulated at the time and developed later. See part 8 of the series (in two weeks).

25 Broad is the gate, and wide the way that leadeth to the deaths; and many there are that go in thereat, because they receive me not, neither do they abide in my law.

If for nothing else, this passage is fascinating for its duality (and plurality: “deaths”?).

The Sons of Perdition and A Possible Error in the Text

26 Verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man marry a wife according to my word, and they are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, according to mine appointment, and he or she shall commit any sin or transgression of the new and everlasting covenant whatever, and all manner of blasphemies, and if they commit no murder wherein they shed innocent blood, yet they shall come forth in the first resurrection, and enter into their exaltation; but they shall be destroyed in the flesh, and shall be delivered unto the buffetings of Satan unto the day of redemption, saith the Lord God.

27 The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, saith the Lord God; and he that abideth not this law can in nowise enter into my glory, but shall be damned, saith the Lord.

This is an interesting convolution of two extreme acts: murder, and the “unpardonable sin.” Breaking the unconditional “seals” was a theme Joseph had been preaching around for several years and continued to do so until his death. Founded on his interpretation of Hebrews 6, the notions and penalties associated with murder and “the unpardonable sin” were common in his preaching after 1839. One gets the feeling that these episodes were warnings to past and future dissidents and their occasional threats of violence. The “sons of Perdition” appeared early in Mormonism (see Section 76, where a large fraction of the revelation is devoted to explaining this group) and though they are not mentioned here by name, Joseph’s sermons seem to build a bridge between the sons of Perdition and the class who commit the sin “against the Holy Ghost.”

After receiving knowledge of the new and everlasting covenant (of marriage!) if you don’t participate, you’re damned. This I think is a line directed to Emma Smith in particular, but it may be a cautionary word for any prospective wives or male initiates. The harshness is not unusual in scripture, but tying it to polygamy (as it seems to) makes the revelation discomfiting to modern eyes (see part 14).

The text of the revelation in verse 26 is not well-formed for two reasons:
(1) It eliminates the provision of missing the first resurrection due to sin (see vs 19).
(2) It eliminates the “abide in my covenant” language. A careful redaction of the revelation ought to at least revise this much.[7]

Verse 27 defines the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost in very specific terms: receive the new and everlasting covenant (of marriage) and then commit murder. Given Joseph’s preaching, I think “innocent blood” is a fairly broad category, not just a redundant reference to the blood of Jesus.[8] The interpretation of the unpardonable sin as shedding innocent blood is present in William Clayton’s report of Joseph’s preaching in May 1843. (See part 4.)

There are then, a couple of ways to see all these referents: shedding innocent blood, blasphemy (sin?) against the Holy Ghost, unpardonable sin, son of Perdition. Some of Joseph’s sermons can be read as splitting murder (of whatever sort, perhaps) and the sin against the Holy Ghost, while others, as noted, conflate them. This is problematic for at least one reason: Joseph suggests in his discussions of the fate of David, that murder, while it seems to break these nearly unconditional sealings, is not the funnel into son of Perdition status, a cohort with perhaps on of the deepest meanings in Joseph Smith’s theology.

It’s conference next week so you get a break. The Sunday following that: the punchline of “the law”: the origin and power of polygamy.

[1] On the other hand, sealings may also act as a difficult and sometimes painful boundary marker for those church members who are not in a sealed husband-wife relationship because of a sealing cancellation, never engaging the sealing ordinance, being unable or unwilling to do so for whatever reason, or desiring to sever such a bond. Add to that a number of other more complex social matrices. Believers in those categories (sealed, unsealed) may be troubled because of their own internal struggles, but perhaps also by their perceived treatment from other church members, or that “high and dry” feeling of being left out of the mainstream of church teaching, activity, or service, or even salvation. The comfort offered by the occasional word from church leaders may seem incomplete, not of the same “grade” as the written texts. I’ll return to this in the final installment (a long time from now).

[2] Ephesians 1:13. In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise

[3] See Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,Journal of Mormon History (Summer 2011) pp. 60-62. Orson Pratt included the ceremony in his short-lived The Seer. See also, Sam Brown, In Heaven as it is on Earth (Oxford, 2012).

[4] For example see Brigham Young, (scroll down to January 1844).

[5] Lyndon W. Cook, William Law (Grandin, 1994).

[6] In Utah preaching, where the phrase had the chance to percolate a bit, innocent blood ranged from the murder of children, to the aborting of a fetus, to the murder of fellow Saints, and so on. One of the more creative discussions was Heber C. Kimball’s, who offered a way back from shedding innocent blood:

Still, I believe the greater part of the inhabitants of the earth will be redeemed; yea, all will be finally redeemed, except those who have
sinned against the Holy Ghost or shed innocent blood; and they never
can be redeemed until that debt is paid. And I do not know any way for
them to pay it, unless they are brought back again to a mortal
existence, and pay the debt where they contracted it.

Universalism at its most universal. Imagine a very large library . . .

[7] Remember, this revelation took three hours to get down on paper. It takes only a few minutes to read it. The production here does not in any shape or form fit the often quoted (and rather naive) paradigm of Orson Pratt on how Joseph Smith dictated revelations. This text was drafted with considerable effort and represents a struggle to put on paper the structure, background, justification, warning(s) and theology of engaging in polygamy and the way sealing entered that picture, all directed in the main to Emma Smith. It was never intended to be a public document in my opinion. More on this later.

[8] The obvious thing that one sees here is the analogy to Judas. He gets the title of son of Perdition in the New Testament (John 17)–alternate translations are interesting, displaying fun differences. However, the 1890s apostles disputed the title in its Joseph Smith sense. See his sermon of May 16, 1841 for example.


  1. “such as a plurality of Gods above the God of this universe, and **his liability to fall with all his creations; **”

    Potential link to Adam God doctrine (or precursor)?

  2. I think Adam-God resulted from a lot of different theological bits as you suggest, and maybe this idea contributed.

  3. “It was never intended to be a public document in my opinion. More on this later.”

    I am enjoying this series, but I look forward to reading that upoming post very much. I have wondered about that, and I am interested in reading why you believe as you do.

  4. I’m a big fan of temple perseverance.

  5. Me too, J. Stapley.

  6. Ray, I mentioned that somewhere in this thing already, but it comes up again several times if I’m not mistaken.

  7. My understanding of the context of Joseph’s sermons (from your PJ) relating to the power of Elijah and sealing up to eternal life was that the ordinance referred to in verses 18 and 19 are two separate things.

    Notice 18 refers to “a covenant with her for time and for all eternity” e.g. the eternal marriage sealing sacrament and verse 19 refers to both the marriage sealing and the subsequent sealing up to eternal life as a separate event “if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise” (apparently not performed til after marriage sealings had been, first in 28 Sept 1843)– the second sealing in v. 19 being the one somewhat more unconditional.

    This seems to be the simplest explanation, or possibly I’ve misunderstood.

  8. jpv, given the unconditional nature of sealings in Nauvoo and events surrounding “fullness of the priesthood” I think there is no good contemporary evidence to suggest that vs. 18, 19 address different ideas. It seems clear that vs. 18 addressed ad hoc vows of forever marriage, not an unknown hope in antebellum times. Marriages forever, to be legitimate, had to be pronounced by the authoritative voice. “It’s not valid.”

  9. WVS,
    So if I am following your discussion… your are claiming that vss. 18-19 do NOT refer to the second anointing/fulness of the priesthood?

  10. Old Man. Right.

  11. Hmmmm… that is not what several apostles have taught, one in my presence. I believe that Ehat would disagree with you as well?

    If you (or J. Stapley) ever compiles your thoughts on 18-19 in relation to the fulness of the priesthood from a 19th century perspective, I believe many of us would love to read it.

    Thank you for your these posts and your quick response.

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