Sunday Evenings with the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 132. Part 14. Polygamy: Epilogue–Polygamy Today

This is the final post in the series on Doctrine and Covenants section 132. NB. Robert J. Woodford’s 1974 Ph.D. dissertation, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants” has been very helpful in several aspects of this series, especially in confirming my readings of earlier editions. For earlier installments in this series, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,, and Part 13. For a trivial index with links see the end of this post.

The July 12 revelation is not often referenced today. Public quotation of the revelation in general church settings came largely in the nineteenth century (despite the fact that the July 12 revelation is an underlayment for many modern Mormon values). The verses most often quoted or mentioned in general level meetings appear to be 7, 8, 19, 22 and 48. Given that, one might suppose that while sealing is alive and well, it’s twin, polygamy, given the current reference to Official Declaration 1 in the heading to the 2013 edition of Doctrine and Covenants section 132 (see part 3), is dead.

But not so.

Mormon polygamy is a living, breathing activity. Certainly there are the Musser-Johnson-Allred-Kingston, etc. non-LDS groups and their offshoots as well as other practitioners of polygamy who base their beliefs on slices of early (sometimes rather obscure) Mormon speech or tradition, and of course, the July 12 revelation.[1] But polygamy exists in much wider orthodox Mormonism.

When the end of public Mormon polygamy in the U.S. began in the 1880s, was officially announced in 1890, confirmed in 1904, and then yet more firmly solidified as world-wide policy in later years with the death of the old polygamist guard in church leadership, the sealing aspect of Mormon marriage continued and indeed grew to become a primary proselytizing tool and theme (families are forever). But, there was a silent theological corollary of the July 12 revelation: widowers may marry again, and be sealed to that new partner, without dissolving the links that bind more than memory of a former relationship and guarantee a future with a deceased spouse.[2]

Living Latter-day Saint widows and divorced women share a somewhat more difficult path (assuming their affection for a new husband demands it): they must petition for a cancellation of their first sealing, they must clear the hurdle of family discomfort over what is often perceived to be a far more massive challenge to loyalty. And women of whatever status, who seek a sealed marriage with an LDS male who is still sealed to another woman (dead or alive), must contemplate a possible shared relationship in the afterlife.[3]

Another important point is the status of the widow and the divorced. The former has a clear scriptural mandate to be nurtured. The latter carries at least some, perhaps more burden, even a kind of stigma that makes people “look away” (or down). It seems clear that though the difficulties incurred by requesting/receiving cancellation are similar for a divorced woman or a widowed woman, individual cases must vary dramatically. That has been the experience in my family, at least. Possibly that has changed in recent years for it has certainly varied through time. And of course, cancellation is usually not considered without a remarriage present or on the horizon.

Moreover, for divorced men and women, various hurdles exist or existed for hopeful “sealees” like obtaining letters from divorced partners expanding on any objection (or approval). After his death, I happened to find my father’s responding letter to his ex-wife’s letter. It was rather stunning. This is somewhat tangential, but it illustrates the difficulties faced by both hopeful marriage partners and church leaders who act as counselors or gate-keepers in such cases. The animus on both sides can be troubling to see for anyone.[4]

Since sealing is a bond durable beyond death, males may still, in Latter-day Saint belief, be partnered with two or more females in the hereafter. Moreover, with the cosmology developed in Utah, those bonds may include continuing sexual relations between those resurrected, material, glorified, but human partners. However, even without that outcome waiting in the wings, couples often have some angst over the possibility that their partner might marry another after their own death. I don’t know of a couple where this issue hasn’t been discussed even if only in semi-jest. And while people don’t normally give much thought to a future divorce, the contemplation of a former partner’s remarriage is rendered all the more complex if things involve deconstructing a sealing.[5]

The one-sidedness here is apparent: a woman might “belong” to a man with no other eternal claims interfering with that. And there is a considerable cloud of atextual tradition that has circulated about the idea that before that final judgement, every faithful man will be besieged by women desiring eternal companionship. Sometimes Isaiah 4:1 has been quoted. I think most of this has disappeared from (my) view, but perhaps it still circulates.[6] That said, it is naive to believe that there are no women who perceive a future polygamous state as anxiety inducing, undesirable, or perhaps even evil.[7]

A parallel but hyperbolically intersecting point in all this and other issues is that women don’t seem to have a “blessed” forum where their concerns can be listened to at a general level—effectively. Much of Mormon discourse on women and men still seems stuck in Victorian modalities. That early discourse was ostensibly driven by New Testament passages like 1 Pet. 3:1-6. As one handbook for the sexes in Joseph Smith’s day had it, women were in their proper place and able to exercise their natural gift as more spiritually influential, when quietly and domestically obedient to their husbands. “woman was more spiritual than man, but less intellectual, closer to the divine, yet prisoner of her most animal characteristics, more moral than man, yet less in control of that morality“[8]

Emily Spencer (1875) paints a caricature of the wife who is “strong minded,” and socially guns down her husband over his weaknesses (think: some Little House on the Prairie episodes). Her reaction to this, perhaps decomplexified straw woman, yet illustrates attitudes:

To me it is always a painful sight to see a woman stepping into a man’s place as head of the family, oftentimes treating her husband as though he were a child, turning innocent words into ridicule, smiling and winking at her own smartness, or chiding him for some slight carelessness that really was no harm. I have wondered if the feelings of the husband were sensitive enough to be wounded; or if blunted by continued repititions of the same character? Man is ahead of us, God has placed him there, and we need not fight against it. If you have husbands living their religion . . . let them lead and you follow. Let them dictate and you obey. Then you will be happy and in your proper place.

Emily obviously does not mean that men stood in their proper place in “that” way!

Polygamy had the tendency to emphasize that wives were property, just by the numerical ratios involved. This is not to say that some didn’t find domestic bliss in the institution or have praise for its effects. Eliza Roxcy Snow (p. 178-9):

there are few young men now-a-days who will prove saviors, you will have to go in groups, to the few who are worthy. Joseph Smith said (and he knew by revelation) that there were more good women than men on earth; that proves the wisdom of plurality. Girls, marry good noble men. I don’t care if they are old men if they are men of God. [Emphasis added. I find her reference to Joseph, interesting.]

Although Wilford Woodruff brought about the public end of polygamy, he also elevated the nature and position of the Millennial reign of Christ in Mormonism (at the same time, ironically, distancing that event far to the future). His revelation on sealings began an exponential strengthening of one of our favorite tropes: it will all be sorted out in the Millennium. The very idea is probably worth a book length study. The politics here may be tormenting in second marriages.

What then happens to post-mortal polygamy? Or for that matter, what happens to those sealed polygamous marriages that were emotionally troubled, physically traumatic or only for eternity, etc.? I think it has become ever more common to fall back on the Woodruff doctrine for more than this. That spinning sound you hear is those nineteenth-century Mormons in their graves.

Connected to Mormon marriage in several ways, behind all the rhetorical sparing over polygamy and sealing, is the position of unsealed single Mormons in general. The July 12 revelation is perfectly clear about their status. Angel city. However, this revelation, like nearly all of Joseph Smith’s revelations, seems to ignore that fun period that has perplexed Christians since Origen of Alexandria. The world of spirits beyond death. Yes, Joseph touches it in sermons. But Utah eventually bricked up the boundary between sermon and canon. Whatever canonical force those sermons once had, is no longer efficient, powerful though they may be for some. The twentieth century saw to that. And so, one cannot but feel the rootlessness of singles who have tried but failed in the Mormon marriage project. They have sermon assurance of their eventual opportunities, but the Woodruff doctrine just cannot bridge the chasm here. Not without a text. I’m certain that church leaders saw this kind of deficiency and moved to fill it by the addition of Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead to the canon. As important as that move was, it may fail to offer much optimism to the unsealed. Section 132 is still waiting in the background. In the words of Eliza, polygamy was designed to prevent all that. At least for the women. Men, maybe you can be librarians. LGBT folk are not present in the discussion, because their gender categories are theologically invisible in the present life in classical Mormon cosmology (the assumption is, I think, that they are temporal phenomena but therefore the same tension exists for them).

Now, I happen to believe Joseph Smith was what he claimed. Perhaps my particular beliefs may not be completely orthodox, but there are a few things I really don’t know what to do with. I’m all on board with sealing. Polygamy on the other hand, is something I really don’t get and unfortunately, section 132 makes it difficult to divorce the two. Qua polygamy: the biological reasoning of the past didn’t work, the moral tariffs supposedly imposed on avoiding it didn’t play out, the spiritually exalting power of polygamy (beyond its trials perhaps) was negated in post-manifesto rhetoric.

But I cut some slack for the early Mormons, men, women and children of faith. And yes, I’m with Elder Holland on this and all those other issues that seem overwhelming for so many. A saying noted and quoted by Joseph F. Smith and B. H. Roberts, was this (attributed to Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius): In Essentials Unity, In Nonessentials, Liberty, In all Things, Charity. I agree. It’s just that for many, the issues here can be hard to fit into the nonessential circle.[9]

Polygamy, ancient and modern: I have some charity all the way around. But I’m puzzled by it. Puzzled indeed. I feel somehow that God has asked a tricky, complex question, whose answer requires far more intuition, inspiration, or reason than I’m presently able to muster. Perhaps your milage varies.[10]


[1] I’m familiar with a number of modern plural marriages. Like other marriages, they are subject to all the nuance, happiness and difficulty involved with intimacy and commitment, adjusted and amplified by the obvious tensions in plurality. The complexities of living “the principle” are difficult to explain to outsiders and the attendant secrecy, the impulse to shield children from embarrassment, issues of government, privacy, the economics of poverty and healthcare, aside from sometimes multiplying the evils of abuse and “chattelism,” can at the same time paradoxically reinforce loyalties.

[2] As noted somewhere else in this interminable series, this was a selling point of polygamy for Hyrum Smith. Upon learning that his first wife, Jerushua, and his current living wife, Mary, could be sealed to him, and thus his marriages to both would continue in eternity, he saw the notion as a boon for many.

For an example of authorized polygamy after 1890 see here.

The rules for sealing among living and dead spouses, living persons, and dead persons, have varied over the years. At this point, a dead woman, married to two different husbands in life, may be sealed to both. No such option exists for a living woman. And even so, everyone understands that this is merely a temporary stop gap. Such women will have to choose one or the other relationship in the afterlife, at least no one has suggested otherwise. It is a patriarchal order, after all.

[3] Cancellation of sealing, sometimes called a “temple divorce,”a is technically unrelated to the legal status of a marriage in modern times. A sealing may exist between a legally divorced couple, and currently married couples could, in theory, have their sealing cancelled. “Cancellation” of sealing is contained in the July 12 revelation. The liturgical aspect of cancellation has never been elaborated by ritual: it simply amounts to a stamp or signature by the appropriate person, the church president or assignee in the seat of Joseph Smith. At least Brigham Young varied in his opinions about whether such acts were in fact effective, but he was the exception.

a Other similar terms were used– Joseph F. Smith diary, August 30, 1912: “Granted a church divorce.”

[4] A young friend recently married a young temple-married widow whose first husband died only 8 months into the marriage. The family dynamics in this instance were disturbing for all concerned. One troubling aspect of all this is the terrible interface between Divine and Human. There is the dreadful feeling that somehow, Man might control God. We struggle with this.

[5] After the manifesto of 1890, there were obvious mixed feelings regarding the announcement and its meaning. Divided loyalties over the issue were displayed in church public media. For example, the Young Women’s Journal editor candidly discussed lived polygamy and the response of many women to the manifesto. (See vol. 4 no. 6 p.275ff). Others saw the death of (mortal) polygamy as a “grave problem” for young women in the church. There just weren’t enough young men of worth (a la Eliza Snow) to marry them. Mary Howe wrote in 1891: “Years ago, such a thing as an old maid was almost an unknown person . . . now this order of things (polygamy) has vanished, owing to the determined efforts of our parental government. The question now arises, what is to become of our surplus girls? . . . mothers in this city of Salt Lake are already discussing the future and its gloomy outlook, and many are saying that it is preferable to allow girls to marry outside the Church than not to marry at all.” but Mary argued that it was better for girls to become independent professionals and remain single than marry outside Mormonism. She wrote a series of articles about entering various disciplines like dentistry, law, retail, stenography, medicine and photography. Again, I emphasize that such notions were partly predicated on the perception that women were, on the whole, far more likely to be spiritually inclined than males and at the same time far more spiritually spineless, for want of a better word and a less verbose note.

[6] I said atextual, but that is only true in a local sense, see for example JD 5:28ff or here (page 4, “remarks”). Also, if you want to view some current theology here, see the footnotes for Isaiah 4:1 in the latest LDS edition.

[7] Seeing God in the image of Man is one of the (historical at least) frank heresies of Mormonism. Within that heresy is the notion of a Heavenly Mother (see part 8 of the series). While Joseph Smith did not declare the existence of such a being, it was a clear implication of the misty world of Mormon theology in the Nauvoo period. It took only a short time for Latter-day Saints to publicly declare it. By its very nature, D&C 132 had profound implications for the idea. Namely, multiple Heavenly Mothers, a notion Brigham Young and others fortified via the folding in of “Adam” as God. The fact that post-mortal polygamy continues embedded in Mormon praxis offers literary foundation for the position that God and Goddesses rule in Heaven. The singular Goddess, Priestess, Queen, Mother, is a modern work in the image of public modern Mormonism that selectively reads (and forgets) the record of the past. This sounds much more negative than I intend. I’ll leave it at that.

Of course, not everyone dislikes hearing “sister-wife.” And that is another point here, that many who have married in the footsteps of a deceased/sealed wife, have announced spiritual confirmation of the move.

[8] This “pedestal theology” was (relatively) new in Protestant thought at the time, but continues in Mormonism. We’re always slow about things. Hardy, Works of Abraham, 128. The reference in note 6 is quoted on the same page in Hardy. See part 3 note 2 for more complete general references.

[9] Joseph F. Smith diary, October 12, 1911; B. H. Roberts, Conference Report 1912, p. 30. Roberts and Smith had some differences over the application of the saying.

[10] See Daynes, More Wives Than One, 13-14.

1. Part 1 is a general introduction to section 132 and Nauvoo polygamy.
2. Part 2 discusses the revelation manuscripts, provenance, Emma’s reaction to polygamy. The division between Joseph and Hyrum on the value and purpose of the text is revealed a bit.
3. Part 3 discusses imprints of the revelation and a little more on provenance as well as some standard mainstream references on polygamy (see note 2).
4. Part 4 speaks to the forms of the revelation headnote through time. A little on the nature of D&C section 131 a companion piece to section 132, and a short discussion on “new and everlasting covenant” language. The notes have some interesting historical bits.
5. Part 5 begins a verse by verse discussion of the revelation. A bonus is some further context in the notes. (verses 1-5)
6. Part 6 discusses some aspects of verses 6-15. Some further context of the revelation and the concept of sealing.
7. Part 7 covers verses 16-27, notes some needed redaction and speaks more about the concept of priesthood and sealing. The unpardonable sin.
8. Part 8 briefly delves into Mormon cosmology issues and the nature and purpose of marriage in eternity. Adultery and sex (including in heaven) is briefly mentioned here, but gets more treatment later. verses 28-49.
9. Part 9 renews focus on the revelation and Emma Smith. Its threatening nature resurfaces along with something called “the law of Sarah” a kind of repurposing of the Abraham-Sarah Genesis narrative. verses 51-56.
10. Part 10 treats verses 58-63 and the interesting theological meanings here (compare Orson Pratt’s footnotes as in part 12) and at the end is a short discussion of the relation between sealing and excommunication.
11. Part 11 finishes the verse by verse comments with the final address to Emma Smith.
12. Part 12 is a very short discussion of the meaning of canon and its evolving relationship to Mormonism.
13. Part 13 contains a bit of fun and a little seriousness. Among other things it has a proposed redaction of section 132 that might fit modern practice and message. SLC: if you decide to adopt this, look out for the fundamentalist literary firebombs, guys.
14. Part 14. Well this *is* part 14. What would you call it? I’ll insert the winning entry here.


  1. “And even so, everyone understands that this is merely a temporary stop gap. Such women will have to choose one or the other relationship in the afterlife, at least no one has suggested otherwise. It is a patriarchal order, after all.”

    I am not one of the “everyone” who understands that.

    A lot, perhaps most, Mormons believe this. But I am not aware of any official discussion about by Church leaders. Thus, I choose to believe that a woman is just as eligible in the hereafter to continue to be sealed to more than one man to whom she was married (though not sealed) during mortality, as a man can continue to be sealed to more than one woman to whom he was married and/or sealed. That is, I choose to believe that while there is a discontinuity in treatment during mortality (i.e., a woman must wait until in the spirit world before she may be sealed to more than one of her husbands, but a man need not wait), but I honestly don’t believe that the rules will be different for men and women in the hereafter.

    I don’t think a faith community can believe in the sealing of marriage relationships without dealing with the question of whether a person who in mortality was married to more than one person may continue in the hereafter to have a marriage relationship with each, or whether only one such relationship may continue. And if only one such relationship may continue, then one must answer the question posed by the Sadducees to Jesus. No wonder other Christians throw up their hands and theologically interpret Jesus to mean that there is no marriage in the hereafter (even though most people of all faiths believe that their families will continue in the hereafter.) And no wonder, as far as I know, correlated materials don’t really address “celestial plural marriage”. Other than it will all work out.

  2. The concerns you note about post-mortal polygamy are a very present issue among those close to me. Excellent and insightful series. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the fascinating series!

    I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have those post-mortal polygamy concerns, and I’ve been around for quite awhile. Saying that “it will all work out” offers little comfort… it’s like one of those movies where they run out of time or money enough to resolve the plot, so they skip to post-resolution without showing how they got there. And you’re sitting on the sofa watching the credits scroll by, thinking “well, that was lame. And a waste of a couple of hours.” Unless it was the Lost series, and then it was a waste of a hundred or so hours. But I digress.

    “It” has never worked out since the establishment of the latter day church; why should I believe that it will in the future? Honestly, the current LDS concept of eternity looks pretty dismal to me.

    A sincere question here, for those who believe that the sealing rules won’t be different for men and women in the hereafter: If that is so, why are they different now? Simply to cause pain?

  4. It would be interesting to incorporate the concept of adoption into our notion of sealing, in a way to fit this century better. If we think of sealing as designating familial bonds for the hereafter, creating the social structure we desire in the eternities, I don’t see why we couldn’t expand sealings beyond their current limitations. We could have adopted sibling sealings, adopted parent-child sealings, and spousal sealings, each designating a kind of preferred relationship between those getting sealed. Thus multiplying brothers, sisters, parents, and children without commodifying women to do so.

  5. DavidH – For the question of the Sadducees, I tend to work with the idea that marriage is not the same as sealing. There is no marrying or giving in marriage, since there is no marriage, only sealing. Marriage is a transaction between men, sealing is a joining of equals. So, for the question of who is married, none of them are, since none have been sealed. This doesnt preclude sealing at a later time, but speaks only to the state of the marriage.

    For the current inequality of post-widowhood polygamy, I believe that it is just the current temporary state of progression we are in. The rules of polygamy were much worse in the past, and will continue to improve in the future, as we get further light and knowledge about it.

    Thanks for the excellent set of articles. I think everyone is really looking forward to seeing how this is treated in the “Revelations in Context” series that has given us much to think about on the other sections of the D&C.

  6. Thanks for the series. Intriguing. And I loved that you provided this epilogue. Especially since, as you understatedly say about polygamy vs. sealing, “unfortunately, section 132 makes it difficult to divorce the two.”

  7. Nothing neat and tidy in the wrap up of this, is there? Of all the items on my “I don’t know” shelf, this one has its own library. However, even with all the vagaries and uncertainty, very nice epilogue here. In the IT world, rather than being the last word, this is like a “snapshot report” of how it all looks right now, and may vary when we next look again later.

  8. Leonard R. says:

    Brilliant series, all around. To be read and re-read.

    I think this question is a very important one:

    “A sincere question here, for those who believe that the sealing rules won’t be different for men and women in the hereafter: If that is so, why are they different now? Simply to cause pain?”

    Important not only in this context, but others ranging from women and the priesthood, Mother in Heaven, the place of LGBT in the gospel, etc. The question drives at both the need for continuing revelation, the tension of believing/supporting/acting on current revelation while knowing there is the potential of forthcoming revelation, and the nature of rewvelation itself (after all, it was thesame Paul who had the Damascus vision who said that we all – prophets included, apparently I see through a glass darkly). And the revelation under discussions own reference that there is “more to come” on the subject.

    As for my answer. It is because we do see through a glass darkly, influenced by culture and gender, and those to whom this was revealed did not consider the equation from the “other side”. We are more aware now, after having lived the experiment, with the challenges, pitfalls, and inequalities. But having ended the practice have largely closed the door (for now at least) to further light on the subject.

  9. Thanks to all the commenters and readers of the series. And happy thanksgiving for those of you celebrating it this week. Bonne chance, and blessings to you all.

  10. Carla Wilkin says:

    Who is WVS and what authority does he/she have? I am a single, divorced, mother of 4, with a deceased X-husband who believed he was going to have lots of women in the hereafter just because he was so great. No so! I like the concepts you all present, especially the one about marriage, as we know it here on Earth is not the same a sealing in the hereafter. I am the only one to whom he is sealed still.

  11. Carla, WVS is a math/physics professor at BYU.

  12. My comment/question is in regards to vs 7, I just couldn’t leave a comment on that page for some reason. I have read that vs. again and again, and it seems to me that it is pretty clear that according to vs. 7 in section 132 there is only one person on the earth at a time whom the sealing power is conferred upon. It does not say it is given to the prophet of the church. It says it was conferred upon Joseph Smith, who was the prophet at the time. Yet it makes no mention of his office as a prophet or suggests that he received it just by virtue of being the president of the church. Nor does it suggest that it can be conferred upon anyone else by the hand of him who was originally given the power by God. How then does the church justify having literally hundreds of men who have enough of this power to officiate marriage sealings? Does the church believe the sealing power can be broken up and portions of it given to others. And if so, is there any doctrinally based evidence that supports this and the apparent belief that the sealing power does just move with the office of church president? I can’t seem to find any information touching this subject. Am I completely misinterpreting the verse? Are there other scriptural references that clarify this that I am unaware of?

  13. Ok I was wrong, it does say others can be anointed to hold the power by revelation or command from God by him who has the sealing power. But my other questions still seem valid I think…and it does make me wonder if the power conferred upon sealers is done in the way the scriptures direct. Does this mean that everyone who holds the power to preform sealings has has the prophet lay his hands upon them?

  14. Ckad, much of the detail here was worked out over a considerable period. Sealing authority lies at the nexus of ecclesial power and for lack of a better term, temple power, the somewhat nebulous idea of “king and priest” and other, less well-defined rankings. The apostles, following Joseph Smith’s death stood in the center of these things, more or less. Traditional accounts put Brigham Young in the seat of Joseph Smith in this regard. His epiphany over the death of Joseph (the keys of the priesthood are right here with the church idea) announced the position that Joseph’s seat of “temple” power was still present with the Nauvoo insiders–not so much keys of the priesthood in current church rhetoric–and Brigham was chief among them. It was this that largely figured in succession. The identification of sealing direction and church president had its own internal logic, and it was confirmed by praxis as much as anything. Good questions, but I’m afraid really answering them well would take far more space that is available here. Succession literature touches aspects of this, but there really isn’t a good complete discussion.

  15. Thank you for taking the time to reply. Your comments provoke me to entertain the thought that perhaps the church as we know it today lies more in tradition inspired by men than by the divine. A somewhat disturbing thought maybe for some members. Regardless of where the truth of the matter lies I believe it is fairly clear that I have been seeing the world through the scope of the church, and it may prove to be a rather warped picture. However I appreciate this blog because the people who write for it and read it really appear to be searching out the truth. Thank you for that.

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