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What Do Mormon Sealings Do?

I remember a dear friend of mine whose husband had died, wondering over the question of marrying again. Would anyone want to marry a woman who already had children with another man, to whom she would be sealed forever? If she had children with her second husband as well, what man would be all right with those children (biologically his) sealed to another man? The simple answer came when she spoke to her bishop: It will all work out in the next life. She didn’t have to worry about being sealed to both men. God would make it right. Somehow.

Another dear friend was questioning whether or not she could stay in Mormonism. Her husband was anxious that if she had her name removed, then his own temple sealings would be dissolved. She read up on the issue and determined that the sealings that occur in a Mormon temple marriage are not to each other, but to God directly, and her bishop confirmed that having her name removed would not alter her husband’s sealing to their children together, nor his sealing promises to God. So she had her name removed, and her husband assured her that he knew it would all work out in the next life. It didn’t matter if her name was on the church records. He knew her heart and he was certain God did, as well.

These stories could be almost any woman you know. But if I swapped genders, the same questions don’t always work. A Mormon man who is sealed to his dead wife can easily be sealed to another wife. No one suggests that he cannot be with both wives in the next life. There is no choice that will have to be made. He does not have to be reassured that “God will make it right.” If he removes his name from the records of the church, however, his wife might be told not to worry because she will be given to another man in marriage in the celestial kingdom, and her children with her husband will belong to this other man. The only problem then will be sharing her husband with his first wife — because he can’t possibly get to the highest degree of Mormon heaven without having been married once before.

So, other than the fact that Mormon heaven seems to see spouses as replaceable and women as possessions of men, who can own many of them, one wonders naturally what is the point of sealings. If God can, indeed, make everything right, what is the point of all the work that we’re doing here and now in Mormon temples? Why are we so busy gathering names to do baptisms for the dead and endowments, couple and family sealings? If God can make it all right, are these ordinances really so vitally important to anyone’s salvation? If God can make it all right, why are we told that our dead ancestors have been waiting generations for their work to be done? Why are we told that they can only rejoice when we have crossed the veil of the temple into the celestial room?

I am going to admit that I have come to the cynical conclusion that temple work was never about God’s rules at all. God is omnipotent and all-loving. God does not need ordinances done, paperwork filed, names sought out, dates verified, or any of the dutiful work done by Family Search. I can almost hear the progressive Mormon telling me, perhaps not, but we do. We need to be sealed to our family members. We need to do the work to find our ancestors. We feel God’s presence when we do service. And we feel God’s presence in the temple.

Well, and good. I am glad that you do. Truly, I am. I have no wish to take anything away from you if this works for you.

But I am going to say that sometimes that cynical part of my brain whispers to me that perhaps the real reason that the Mormon church is so anal about names and dates is simply to create a lot of busywork to distract members from problems within. Or possibly a kind of one-up-manship in insisting that we can make everyone part of our church through these ordinances, and no other religion can claim that big of a reach, back through time itself — and maybe forward, too.

And that cynical part of me whispers again that temple work also keeps Mormons busy and convinced that they are doing IMPORTANT work, work that God needs them to do, that can only be done if they pay their tithes and get recommends and help to pay money to build those temples. And to go on missions in their retirement years. And make sure their children and grandchildren and on down the line go to the temple and do the same, forever and ever, amen.

When I see the church, which is losing membership numbers in the United States, announcing new temples all over the place here nonetheless, I have to say that I don’t believe it’s because there’s so much temple work that needs to be done or that we need to have temples open twenty-four/seven to keep up with the press of the angelic dead who are begging for our attention. I think it might be that the church wants visibility of temples to remind people of the hold the church has over them, the stick that is always the hidden side of the carrot of eternal families — losing your families in the after-life.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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