Does Exaltation Mean Polygamy?
Does Mormon doctrine teach that in order to obtain exaltation, men must have multiple wives? Does Mormon doctrine teach that exaltation for women means that we will be baby making machines, eternally pregnant?
I don’t believe it does. I haven’t ever believed it does. And honestly I had never even heard such odd claims until a few years ago when I started reading more about Mormon women online, trying to find out more about what it meant to be a Mormon woman. Due to the nature of my searching, most of the blogs and websites I stumbled on were Mormon feminist blogs. One of the most disappointing doctrines to many of these women is the supposed doctrine that polygyny (multiple wives with one husband) will be required of all who obtain exaltation, and women will be eternally pregnant.
I knew that I did not believe polygyny was a principle that would be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom. From everything I had heard and read, exaltation was one man, one woman – God – that is how exaltation worked. But I could never put into words why I felt that way.
Yesterday I read an essay by Eugene England that helped me find the explanation I have been searching for to defend my belief that polygyny is a law for this world, not for the eternities.
Read it here: On Fidelity and Polygyny and Celestial Marriage
(Note: Brother England uses the term polygyny in his essay, which is the more precise term for the plural marriage practiced by the Church – that is, men having more than one wife. In order to be fluid in my discussion, I have used the term that he uses, rather than polygamy.)
When Brother England started out with this statement, “This is an essay in speculative theology,” I was immediately intrigued. After all, I feel like that is a big part of this blog, Real Intent. I feel that we are trying to question everything (something I am very good at) and write in a way that, as Brother England puts it, is “unauthoritative but serious.”
My essay is not a critique of official Mormon practice or doctrine but an invitation to reexamine some unofficial ideas and expectations that persist among many Mormons because of a past practice, a practice I believe was divinely inspired but also divinely, and permanently, rescinded.
I cannot tell you how refreshing it was to see these words, “to reexamine some unofficial ideas and expectations which persist among most Mormons because of past practice.” This is something I think we should do more often as members of the Church, rather than just accepting some members’ ideas and expectations. We need to know where these ideas came from, understanding things in a historical context, and search out our own continuing revelation, as well as the continuing revelation of our living prophets and apostles.
If you would like to read Brother England’s essay, I invite you to do so now. If you don’t want to read it in its entirety, I will offer some excerpts, but I encourage you to read the entire essay – more because I do not wish to misrepresent any of his comments by taking them out of context, but also because the read is worth it.
In the first large chunk of Brother England’s essay, he speaks mostly of the principle of celestial marriage, and of marriage in general. He speaks of intimacy, becoming “one flesh,” as well as other principles of stable marriage. I found all of his comments about marriage to be particularly useful in recommitting myself to my own marriage. If nothing else, his essay is an excellent guide to happiness and fidelity in marriage.
One of Brother England’s main arguments against polygyny in the eternities, to which he devotes most of his essay, is its inability to produce the one-to-one fidelity that he believes (as do I) is a gospel principle of celestial marriage.
What, then, about polygyny? It, of course, does not fit the model of one-to-one fidelity I have described. First, we must consider the possibility that polygyny really does not violate fidelity, that if people are good enough they can have trust and sexual wholeness with more than one person. This could well have been true of our polygynous ancestors. Might it be even more likely in the celestial realms where the conditions and our capabilities will be much better than what we know now? I have found that this is the hope and assumption of many, perhaps most, Latter-day Saints who have seriously considered the possibility they might eventually be required to live in plural marriage.
I find two serious problems with such a hope. First, it is based on a dangerous notion: that simply getting more of a good thing is always better — that a great love for one person is even better if extended into great love for many persons. … The unconditional, redemptive love God has for all his children and commands us all to learn is certainly capable of being multiplied. But such unconditional love is only a part of married love. And the other elements of a complete, married love, including restrictive obligations, covenants of complete and exclusive sharing, and the creative sexual love that makes new children and universes possible, are not improved by multiplication. In fact, they are usually destroyed or at least weakened by it. Romantic, married love is, I believe, strengthened by being exclusive, even for the gods.
… Celestial married love differs from mortal love not because it includes a larger group of individuals but because it includes more kinds of love than any other relationship — sexual love and quite idiosyncratic “liking” as well as charity or Christ-like love. But those unique and exclusive extra qualities, which give married love the greatest potential of any relationship, require the fully mutual fidelity only possible between one whole woman and one whole man.
…And that brings me to a second problem with the dubious argument that celestial marriage will be polygynous because we will be morally superior there, more able to love inclusively. Such an expectation can tempt us to love inclusively and superficially — even promiscuously — in this life.
…I fear that many Mormon men and women let the expectation of polygyny as the ideal future order justify their inclination to be vaguely promiscuous or superficial in sexual relationships, to flirt or share their identity with a number of people, or simply to withdraw from the struggle into blessed singularity — and there, too often, to be satisfied with some version of love of self. In short, some Mormons, assuming future polygyny, practice for it now by diverting their affections and loyalties away from the arduous task of achieving full spiritual and physical unity with the one person they would otherwise inescapably have to face, an imperfect spouse.
… [In the 19th century], those who lived [polygyny] best, most devotedly and successfully, apparently found they could do so only by making the relationships more superficial — that is, less romantic, less emotionally intense and focused.
…Diaries, letters, and reminiscences of polygynous wives and children reveal that regular down-playing of the romantic dimension of married love was indeed one of the costs of polygyny, whatever its compensating values.
… I fear that such a flight from the complete love that includes romance may actually appeal both to overly idealistic unmarried Mormons and to Mormons who are not completely happy in their marriages now.
In addition to these logical explanations for why polygyny interferes with complete fidelity in marriage, Brother England discusses what godhood really means. I think one of the reasons I have not been overly concerned with issues of gender inequality in the Church is because I believe that exaltation, godhood, is not a separate thing for man and woman. My understanding of exaltation has always been that my husband and I, together, will be God. Just like I believe that Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, together, are God. I don’t believe that God made the world with Jehovah and Michael while Heavenly Mother sat around knitting (and pregnant). I have never believed such nonsense, and all the gospel teachings about women lead me to believe it is definitely nonsense.
But speculations about Heavenly Mother will have to wait for another day.
Another discussion, whose full exploration will have to wait for another day as well, is what Brother England describes as a third priesthood order.
The ideal celestial order of marriage — of power, of creation, and of administration — will be the one the temple marriage sealing ceremony invites us to look forward to if we are faithful: a full and equal complementarity of a queen and a king, a priestess and a priest. It will be what President Ezra Taft Benson has called, after giving the term his own unusual definition, the “patriarchal order.” In What I Hope You Will Teach Your Children About the Temple, President Benson lists three priesthood orders, the Aaronic, Melchizedek, and “patriarchal,” pointing out that the third is “described in modern revelation as an order of family government where a man and woman enter into a covenant with God — just as did Adam and Eve — to be sealed for eternity, to have posterity, and to do the will and work of God throughout their mortality.”
As one who also has no problem with women not being ordained to priesthood offices, this helps me explain why it isn’t an issue. I think the term patriarchal can be very misleading, but I believe that the patriarchal order or priesthood is the one where man and woman become one flesh, one entity.
Female-male unity (which God has powerfully imaged in the concept of becoming “one flesh”) ideally involves complete sharing — with a separate, co-eternal individual and without loss of our own individuality — of all our singularity, vulnerability, trust, hopes, and potentialities.
We become, with our spouses, one. We don’t lose ourselves, but we become more than ourselves, with our spouses. This is similar to the idea that God and Christ are one – they aren’t the same person, they have separate purposes, but they are one entity, and it is impossible for them to work separately. Not because one is inferior to the other, but because alone they cannot do the work they have to do. Again, this is a topic that deserves a more thorough discussion, but we should move on.
At this point, if you haven’t read Brother England’s essay, I encourage you to jump down to the last section of his essay where he numbers his reasons for why he believes polygyny will not be a requirement of the Celestial Kingdom. There are five points, and I believe it won’t take long to read through them, and doing so will be enlightening to you, and also help you participate in an informed discussion here on Real Intent.
Especially important is the first point Brother England makes, which I think goes hand-in-hand with the purpose of our blog.
If a Church practice which served valuable historical purposes is rescinded, thus proving false some statements which were made in the process of defending it as permanent because it is based in some eternal doctrine, then all such statements are called in question and can be thoughtfully and prayerfully assessed in relation to other fundamental scriptures and doctrines (as I am trying to do here) without opening the Pandora’s box of complete skepticism. I can (and do) believe that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were divinely called prophets who received direct revelation across a remarkable range of important practices and doctrines. I am not thereby constrained to believe (and do not) that they never made a mistake or never suffered from human limitations of understanding that plague us all. Modern prophets themselves have explicitly renounced specific practices and teachings of both those earlier prophets (the Adam-God theory, for instance), sometimes even supplying rational arguments to help us understand how such mistakes or changes could occur, without thereby calling into question those prophets’ general inspiration or prophetic authority.
What are your thoughts as you read through Brother England’s essay?
Image credits: Martin Zook, eugeneengland.org