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Throughout the Bible, God promises to save all mankind. One of the most famous of these promises was recorded by Luke, as being spoken by the angel announcing Christ’s birth:
Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day
in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 1
Another passage, less famous but perhaps more clear, states:
For this is good and acceptable
in the sight of God our Saviour;
Who will have all men to be saved,
and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God,
and one mediator between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus;
Who gave himself a ransom for all
to be testified in due time. 2
Throughout scripture, God and His prophets speak of the salvation of all mankind, of whosoever believeth in God.
Yet when Joseph knelt in the grove to pray as a boy, there was no theology that had a mechanism that might save all mankind through baptism. On that bright spring day in 1820, 3 Joseph simply knew that God lived, and there was something missing from the religions of the day. The glorious being he saw in vision had declared: “they were all wrong; …their creeds were an abomination in my sight;” …that “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” 4
Mormons believe God mourned the loss of doctrines that could save all mankind, doctrines they believe were present during Christ’s day, which are now found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS Church.
Lest the World be Wasted at His Coming.
Joseph’s life work began in earnest over three years later, in September 1823. Reportedly in response to Joseph’s prayers, an angel named Moroni appeared to Joseph several times in one night. Each repeat visit began with the angel describing Joseph’s missions.
Joseph’s first mission was to be retrieval, and translation, of a book written on golden plates containing the fullness of the Gospel. 5
Next the angel spoke of Elijah, who would come, and plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children would turn to their fathers. 6
If the children did not fulfill the promises made to the fathers, the whole earth would be utterly wasted, in the great and dreadful day of the Lord, when the wicked would be left without branch or root. 7
The angelic message would eventually be understood in these terms: “If the people of your day do not fulfill the promise God made, to offer deceased generations baptism, those unable to be cleansed by baptism will remain in their wickedness. They will remain cut off from God, and from both their parents and their children in eternity.”
However, Moroni spoke in language close to the biblical original, using the symbolic language characteristic of Jewish culture. 8 Joseph would not comprehend for many years, how God could keep the promises made to the fathers, or even how one could be saved with their fathers and their children.
Any modern Mormon child can explain how deceased relatives can be baptized by proxy, allowing those who were not baptized, in life, a chance to embrace this saving ordinance prior to final judgment. But Joseph had not known this. When Joseph’s older brother, Alvin, died without being baptized, the Smith family presumed that Alvin would be damned.
Weaving the Family of Mankind Together.
In 1835 Joseph had a vision of Alvin in heaven. 9 This was his first understanding that it was possible for those, who had not been baptized in life, to attain heaven.
An understanding that proxy baptisms could be performed, on behalf of the dead, arose in response to the grief of Jane Nyman, a mother who believed her teenage son was condemned to hell, because he died without baptism. 10 Believers rejoiced to offer baptism to their unbaptized dead.
But in the theology Joseph restored, it was not sufficient for individuals to merely be saved. We were to be saved as united families, with our root and branch, as prophesied by Malachi and others. Baptism was a pre-requisite to a higher good, rejoining God in Heaven with our fathers and mothers, our sons and daughters. Thus the entire family of man could be offered the saving ordinances, throughout all history and all nations.
The work of Joseph’s life was restoring the mechanisms to eternally join parents, and their children, throughout all the generations of mankind. Accepting priesthood power, organizing the Church of Christ, spreading the restored gospel, building temples, all were in service to this universal salvation of all mankind. For believers, this binding together of mankind’s families, is the clear meaning of the prophesy about Elijah. This was the promise God made, to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. This is the New and Everlasting Covenant.
The binding of children to their parents was a work so sacred, that Joseph would not allow the ordinances to be performed, outside a temple of God. 11 These ceremonies would not be performed, until after Joseph’s death. But merely binding parents and children, across generations, would not be sufficient.
Binding husbands and wives together for eternity was required, to weave the family of mankind together. Joseph could not imagine being bound to his children, without also being bound to Emma, his beloved and mother of their children. He could not think of being bound to his father without also being bound to his mother.
Orphans without Root.
A thousand years prior to Joseph Smith’s lifetime, polygamous marriages were biblically acceptable. All women could have been sealed to their respective husbands. There would have been no cognitive dissonance, if existence of a prior wife transformed a man into a “polygamist” in eternity.
But in the 1050s the Roman pope strengthened the impediment of affinity, which holds that the union of a man, and woman, creates a blood bond. This prohibited marriages between the couple’s respective kin. 12 In following years, the Catholic faithful would adjust their laws, to align with the realities of the impediments of consanguinity and affinity. 13 The term bastard was extended to any child, born outside of the marriage recognized by Church and state, even when acknowledged by the father. 14 Over the succeeding centuries, polygamous marriages would almost entirely cease to exist in Western Europe. 15
By the lifetime of Joseph Smith, monogamy was the only allowable form of marriage in Western civilization. Widows and widowers were permitted to remarry. But with the introduction of eternal marriage, a remarried widower would be transformed into a polygamist. If monogamy were allowed to remain as the only valid form of marriage, in eternity, all but first wives and their children would remain stranded, cut off forever.
It’s not clear Joseph understood this at first. He initially tried to teach eternal marriage without teaching polygamy. One early saint, William W. Phelps, wrote his wife in 1835. “Sally, you will be mine in this world and in the world to come… I have no right to any other woman in this world nor in the world to come according to the law of the Celestial Kingdom.” 16
Romantic though Phelps’s statement seems, this idea of eternal marriage, would prohibit him from remarrying were Sally to die, or would have cut him off from a previous wife had he been a widower.
Insistence on eternal monogamy would prevent the faithful, from uniting other than first wives with their respective husbands in eternity. If a loved ancestor was not the first wife, she would not be sealed to her husband for eternity. Children of women unable to be sealed might have been considered eternal orphans, never to be sealed to the family of mankind. 17
Mormons believe all are spirit children of God who lived before this life. Mormons believe that each soul only came to earth through an explicit decision, to trust Heavenly Father, and the promise that Christ would be our Savior. This Mormon God could not allow any to become eternal orphans.
The work of uniting all mankind into one great family, via Celestial marriage, required God’s people embrace the possibility of plural marriage. Only through this accommodation, would none be categorically excluded from the fulfillment, of the promises made to us before our mortal lives.
Other reasons have been given for Joseph’s teachings regarding plural marriage. Critics claimed Joseph was motivated by lust and greed. Believers proposed plural marriage protected women, or allowed more children to be born. But these reasons fail to explain such a radical institutional practice, involving thousands of families over several decades. None of these reasons explains why modern temple practices allow a widower, or divorced man, to be sealed to another wife. None of these other reasons is sufficient, to justify Joseph’s willingness to die rather than disobey.
Why Would God Command Polygamy? – Notes.
The Bible repeatedly affirms that Christ sacrificed himself to save all mankind. Yet the Christian denominations, of Joseph Smith’s day, did not retain the mechanisms, to permit salvation of the unbaptized dead. Joseph instituted proxy baptism, on behalf of the dead, but went further, to state that individuals must be united, to their parents, spouses, and children, else “the whole earth would be utterly wasted at [Christ’s Second] coming.” 18
The medieval rulers of Europe had changed marriage laws. By the lifetime of Joseph Smith, monogamy was the only permissible form of marriage. Restoration of plural marriage was required, to allow the entire human family to be joined together, via posthumous sealing ordinances.
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- Luke 2: 10-11 ↩
- 1 Timothy 2: 3-6 ↩
- John Lefgren’s analysis of local weather patterns and the science of maple syrup place the date of this vision on March 26, 1820, which was Palm Sunday. ↩
- Joseph Smith – History 1: 19 ↩
- Joseph Smith – History 1: 34-35 ↩
- Joseph Smith – History 1: 36-38 ↩
- Joseph Smith – History 1: 39 , c.f. Malachi 4:6 ↩
- Malachi 4:6, cf. Luke 1:17 ↩
- Doctrine and Covenants 137:5 ↩
- “Baptism for the Dead,” Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual, 2003, p. 251. ↩
- Hales, Brian, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 3: Theology, 2013, chapter 7. ↩
- See Calisse, Carlo, A History of Italian Law, Volume II, p. 545 for the 1054 laws declaring affinity by betrothal sufficient to create an impediment to marriage. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Affinity (in Canon Law) discusses the eleventh Council of Rome in 1059 which established the impediment of affinity (and consanguinity) to the seventh degree. ↩
- Queen Margaret of Scotland tried to persuade the Witanagemot to revise the marriage code to align with the papal position in the 1070s , but was only able to wrest an agreement that a widow ought not be forced to marry her step-son, a change to marriage law that was one of the five reasons cited for her canonization. See Turgot, Life of St. Margaret Queen of Scotland, William Forbes-Leith translation, Edinburgh, 1884, pp. 51-52. Online 9 Dec 2015 at https://archive.org/details/lifeofstmargaret00turguoft. By the time of King Henry VIII, Henry had to petition Rome for special permission to marry his brother’s widow, even though levirate marriage is very clearly a duty imposed on a dead man’s brothers (Genesis 38:8, Deuteronomy 25:5,6, 9-10, Ruth). ↩
- By the days of Saint Margaret’s grand-daughter, Empress Maude, English law had been modified to consider any child born outside Church marriage as a bastard, where Welsh law still considered any child acknowledged by its father to be legitimate. This was a plot point utilized by Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, in her historical murder stories about a Benedictine monk named Cadfael. ↩
- Though Church law made polygamy difficult, Martin Luther wrote in the early 1500s: “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.” (De Wette II, p. 459) ↩
- William W. Phelps to his wife, Sally, dated 16 September 1835, see Van Orden, “Writing to Zion: The William W. Phelps Kirtland Letters (1835–1836),” BYU Studies 33, no. 3, p. 16, 1993. ↩
- Policy prohibiting subsequent husbands from being sealed in life to a wife with an existing sealing to a prior husband do not exclude the children from being born in the covenant. Posthumous ordinances may be performed sealing spouses to each other regardless of other sealing arrangements, with the understanding that God and the affected parties will sort out which ordinances remain valid in eternity. ↩
- Joseph Smith – History 1: 39, c.f., Malachi 4:6. ↩