Eternal polygamy? How LDS temple sealings and cancellations became a raw deal for women

Eternal polygamy? How LDS temple sealings and cancellations became a raw deal for women

(RNS) — Many tears have been shed, and much ink spilled, about gender inequalities in Mormon temple sealing rituals.

In our religion, a man and a woman can be “sealed” together in a Latter-day Saint temple for time and all eternity, meaning their marital bond will remain in effect forever. The temple sealing allows them to live together after death in the Celestial Kingdom, along with their children, forever and ever, world without end, amen.

It’s a beautiful belief, this idea that families are eternal. Except.

Complications arise when a couple gets divorced (which is far rarer among temple-married Latter-day Saints than other couples, but still happens). Or one spouse dies and the other remarries.

The tears and frustration have come because temple sealing after remarriage distinctly favors LDS men, not women.

Men can be remarried in the temple after they get legally divorced without having to obtain an ecclesiastical cancellation of their first sealing. The sealing to their first wife remains intact, and they simply add another sealing on top of it. 

Women, by contrast, can only be sealed to a second husband after petitioning the First Presidency to have their first sealing canceled. Living women can’t be sealed to more than one man for eternity, but men can be sealed to more than one woman. This leads to what author Carol Lynn Pearson has called “eternal polygamy.” The policy feels like a holdover from the days of plural marriage, when LDS men were allowed, even commanded, to wed multiple women. Even though the practice of plural marriage hasn’t been sanctioned by the church in well over a century, its legacy has endured, painfully, in our sealing policies.

Or so I have always thought. The historical reality turns out to be even stranger: Temple sealing rules used to be more favorable and equitable for women and only became grossly unequal in the 20th century … after the church abandoned polygamy.

This history unfolds in an excellent article in the fall 2023 issue of the “Journal of Mormon History.” Legal scholar Nathan Oman, a professor at the William & Mary Law School in Virginia, painstakingly traces how temple sealing rules developed in a rather piecemeal fashion over time.

It’s a complex story that I will try to boil down into five main stages, but I encourage you to read the entire article for the full context. (In fact, why not consider subscribing to the “Journal of Mormon History” and supporting such worthy scholarship? Full disclosure, I’m a volunteer board member for the journal. Here endeth the advertisement.)

Roughly, here’s what happened, a tragedy in five acts.

  1. In the 19th century, LDS temple marriage was surprisingly capacious. Some men were sealed to multiple wives, and some women were sealed to multiple husbands. If those earthly bonds were dissolved through a divorce, the temple sealings remained intact for both men and women, even if they remarried other people. This resulted, Oman notes, “in numerous living women being sealed to two or more men.”
  2. Shortly before the turn of the century, “a belief developed that the sealing power included the authority to cancel sealings.” In some cases, the president of the church began to intervene to cancel temple sealings. But this was rare — “an extraordinary action reserved for cases of abuse or apostasy” — and did not generally affect people whose first marriage had ended in divorce or death. Those church members, both male and female, could remarry in the temple without canceling their first sealing.
  3. In the early 20th century, sealing cancellations became more codified and common, and a gender divide appeared. The timing of that was ironic, to say the least: “As the century progressed … cancellation of sealings was formalized in a way that ironically emphasized the continuing theological vitality of plural marriage at precisely the moment when, in practical terms, the church was moving decisively to stamp out polygamist diehards in its own ranks.” Under the new rules, men could be sealed to two or more women so long as they were only married in life to one woman at a time — in other words, if they weren’t practicing this-world polygamy. But a woman could only be sealed to one man, either in life or posthumously. Oman says this limitation for women entered Mormon life in the 1930s, but only appeared in the handbook for the first time in 1944.
  4. Almost immediately the church was inundated for requests for exceptions, because … did you catch the timing of that handbook rule? 1944? Young women who had been made widows by WWII but still had their whole lives ahead of them naturally wanted to remarry in the temple. And the church, bless it, allowed many to do so, permitting them to remarry another man for eternity without canceling their first sealing to the husband who’d died in the war. So even after the handbook stipulated that living women could only be sealed to one man, the vagaries of life and death called for case-by-case exceptions.
  5. If the church sometimes bent the rules for individual living women, reverting to the earlier 19th-century practice of letting them remarry in the temple without requiring a cancellation of the first sealing, it was about to completely overhaul the system for all dead women. In the mid- to late 20th century, as it ramped up its genealogical efforts to do proxy temple rituals for the dead, the church confronted a major roadblock. Many of the historical marriages it was unearthing in its research had been interrupted by early death. Suppose a woman had married, lost her husband and then remarried, having children with both husbands? How were her descendants to know which husband she wanted to be with in the hereafter? Should modern strangers be authorized to make that kind of decision on her behalf? Probably not. So the church changed the policy for deceased women:

“In 1969, David O. McKay extended this rule more generally, deciding that the rule(s) for living sealings for women — which by then allowed a woman to be sealed to only one man — were unworkable for proxy work. Rather, deceased women were to be sealed by proxy to all of the men to whom they had been sealed while living …

Without acknowledging and perhaps realizing it, the church thus returned to something like the position that had existed in the early twentieth century … The shift, by simplifying the process of deciding which ordinances to perform for deceased women, eased the name crunch at temples, facilitating regular temple attendance by Latter-day Saints. In short, when forced to choose between clearly insisting on post-mortal polygamy or some other precise model of family relationships for the hereafter and being able to perform mass temple work, President McKay chose mass temple work. The result was a marriage regime that bifurcated the rules between the living and the dead.”

That’s largely where we remain today: Living women who’ve been divorced can only be sealed to one man, so if they wish to remarry they have to undergo an often protracted effort to petition the First Presidency to cancel their first sealing. Men get to marry again without obtaining any such cancellation. In 2019, the church slightly softened the gender chasm by requiring divorced men to at least ask the First Presidency for a clearance to be sealed a second time. And in 2022, new language appeared in the handbook stating that “members of either gender may seek a sealing cancellation even if they are not preparing to be sealed to another spouse” (38.4.1.4). This seems to ease the path for both men and women to cancel earlier temple sealings if they can’t stomach the thought of being with their ex for eternity.

But the basic inequality still exists: living men get to be sealed to all of their wives forever if that’s their choice. Living women can only be sealed to one man, even if that’s not their choice. Both groups routinely hear that “it will all work out” in the hereafter.

Meanwhile, dead women can be sealed to multiple men, just as dead and living men can be sealed to multiple women. (See, sisters? Equality is coming; you just need to be six feet under first.)

After reading this fascinating history I still hold the same view I did before: Our sealing practices are inequitable and damaging to women. (They’re sometimes no picnic for men either, as this family’s story attests.)

At least now I know how we got to our current, utterly convoluted, rules around temple sealings. Even more importantly, I learned that things didn’t begin this way. In a religion that is concerned with restoring plain and precious truths that have been lost, the fact that a precedent exists for greater gender equality in temple sealings is no small matter.


Related content:

Polygamy lives on in Mormon temple sealings

Mormon women fear eternal polygamy, study shows

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