Apologetics Index

Celestial Marriage

Celestial marriage (also called the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage, Eternal Marriage, Temple Marriage or The Principle) is a doctrine of Mormonism as taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church, also known as the Mormon Church [1] ) and in Mormon fundamentalist sects.

In media reports regarding the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) the term ‘celestial marriage’ is often referred to as — or used interchangeably with — ‘spiritual marriage’ or ‘spiritual wedding.’

Women (or, in the case of the FLDS, underaged girls) married under this concept are referred to as ‘spiritual wives.’

Wikipedia says

In the 19th century the term celestial marriage referred more to the practice of plural marriage, a practice which the LDS Church abandoned in 1890. The term is still used in this sense by Mormon fundamentalists not affiliated with the mainstream LDS Church.

In the current LDS Church, both men and women may enter a celestial marriage with only one partner at a time. A man may be sealed to more than one woman. If his wife dies, he may enter another celestial marriage, and be sealed to both his living wife and deceased wife or wives. Many Mormons believe that all these marriages will be valid in the eternities and the husband will live together in the Celestial Kingdom as a family with all to whom he was sealed. In the 1998 edition of the Church Handbook of Instructions, the LDS Church clarified that a woman may also be sealed to more than one man. A woman, however, may not be sealed to more than one man at a time while she is alive.
– Source: Celestial Marriage, Wikipedia entry. Last accessed Tuesday, March 27, 2012 – 8:26 AM CET

arrow Why the Mormon Church abolished polygamy, “the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed.”

Celestial Marriage & Eternal Exaltation

The Mormonism Research Ministry explains the significance of celestial marriage in Mormonism:

Exaltation according to Mormonism means gaining a fullness of all God has to offer. It includes reaching the “highest level” of the LDS heaven (called the celestial kingdom), attaining all knowledge available, and becoming a “God” over your own creation. Former LDS Apostle Bruce McConkie wrote that those who attain exaltation “…inherit in due course the fullness of the glory of the Father, meaning that they have all power in heaven and on earth…” (Mormon Doctrine pg. 257). The LDS Doctrine and Covenants also teaches that “then shall they be gods, because they have no end…then shall they be gods, because they have all power…” (D&C 132:16-26). This is the ultimate goal in Mormonism.

One of the requirements to reach this goal is what Mormons call “celestial marriage.” Today celestial marriage is simply defined as a marriage in a Mormon temple designed to last not just until death but throughout all eternity. Couples joined in such marriages are considered “sealed” to each other. Their children afterward are automatically “sealed” to them as well. This, they believe, ensures that their family will continue in heaven eternally as a complete unit.

McConkie wrote, “Celestial marriage is the gate to exaltation, and exaltation consists in the continuation of the family unit in eternity. Exaltation is…the kind of life which God lives” (Mormon Doctrine pg. 257). Celestial marriage is an absolute necessity to reach this desired goal. Its importance in the place of salvation and exaltation cannot be overestimated. “The most important things that any member of (the LDS Church) ever does in this world are: 1) To marry the right person, in the right place, by the right authority; and 2) To keep the covenant made in connection with this holy and perfect order of matrimony…” (Mormon Doctrine pg. 118).

All Mormon men who desire Godhood are required to marry; if they do not, their leaders have taught that their actions will be displeasing to God.
– Source: Lane Thuet, Celestial Marriage & Eternal Exaltation

The Mormon Church — which believes in ‘continuing revelation’ (the notion that God continually reveals new teachings and edicts — even if they contradict his previous revelations) — officially abolished polygamy in 1890 under pressure from the U.S. federal government.

How Polygamy / Celestial Marriage Became Part of the Mormon Faith

In her book, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America, Sarah Barringer Gordon explains how polygamy became part of the Mormon faith:

Polygamy was not one of the original tenets of the faith. The official association of polygamy and Mormonism is dated to the “Revelation on Celestial Marriage” received by Smith in 1843, the year before his death. Rumors at the time, and evidence of experimentation disclosed by subsequent research, date the practice considerably earlier than 1843, however. Smith dictated the document to his secretary after his marriage to a young woman who had been living with his family. The extraordinary difficulty of accepting such a revelation was apparent even in the prophet’s household. Joseph’s first wife, Emma, declared after Smith’s death that she had never consented to the match, and her children denied it had taken place.

The revelation proclaimed that the marriage of one man to more than one woman was “justified” by the example of Abraham. In these latter days, the heirs of Abraham were once again commanded to work “for their exaltation in the eternal worlds” (that is, the stages of heaven) by siring “the souls of men.” Men called upon to enter the celestial principle were thus sanctified in their union with additional “virgins,” in the interest of procreation by righteous patriarchs as of old. A wife’s consent was required for her husband to take additional wives, but wives who for selfish reasons refused to consent to their husbands’ polygamy would be “damned.” The new covenant of celestial marriage celebrated on earth would endure for eternity, governing relations in heaven as in life, and dictating the degree of exaltation achieved in the afterlife. Only marriages celebrated in accord with the revelation would endure after death, and “whatsoever things” that did not conform to God’s Words “shall be shaken and destroyed.” Phrased in terms of “the law which was appointed . . . before the foundation of the world,” the revelation asserted control over marriage for church members, in the interest of their salvation and as an essential prerequisite to achievement of the kingdom of God.

Through this combination of legal exceptionalism (the assertion that Mormons were not subject to the law of marriage that governed the rest of the country) and state-building (the projected construction of a “kingdom” based on an alternative structure of private governance), Smith also reinterpreted the political authority of religion. Especially in the series of revelations received shortly before Smith’s death, Mormon metaphysics and political theory reestablished the cords of power that explicitly tied church and state. Smith, for example, had himself crowned “king” and became a candidate for president in 1844; his closest counselors also held the highest political offices of the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois. In the rest of the country, the cords linking church and state had painfully (and productively, according to most Americans) been cut over the past half century. Even more poignant to outsiders, Mormon leaders were themselves polygamists, tying political power to plural marriage. The sweep of the Mormons’ assertion of religious authority over politics and law would become apparent in future decades, as the Saints struggled to defend their practice and to explain to themselves why the defense was fundamental to the integrity of their faith.

At the time of the revelation in 1843, and for almost ten years afterward, polygamy remained secret, revealed to a few trusted church leaders and the women who married Smith and his closest advisers. In public, Smith, before his death, and other Mormon leaders after Smith’s martyrdom, denied rumors of plural marriage. Missionaries in Europe, for example, published tracts denying polygamy and quoting passages from the Book of Mormonthat condemned the taking of more than one wife. Polygamy remained only one of many rumors about Mormons and their alleged iniquities.

The “Revelation on Celestial Marriage,” which described the law and established that celestial marriage was essential for the faithful, is, of course, the single most important text in the conflict between Mormons and their opponents. Polygamy shocked and offended those outside the faith; and it was not readily accepted by many Mormons when they first learned of “the Principle” of plural marriage. Yet the Saints’ embrace and defense of polygamy makes sense only in light of the role of revelation and the promise of exaltation in all aspects of the faith. Joseph Smith galvanized his followers into profound expressions of faith and commitment to practice. Plural marriage was evidence of obedience to God’s law of celestial marriage and the hope of eternal progression through stages of heaven to eventual godhood. The sacrifice of deeply ingrained convictions in this life in return for rewards in the celestial worlds to come created a tangible tie between acceptance of the most difficult and controversial of all the prophet’s tests here on earth, and glory in the afterlife. Crystallizing political, legal, and sexual commitments in the service of the faith, polygamy transformed ordinary tasks into spiritual exercises.
– Source: Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America [Kindle edition | Buy a Kindle]

Another Look at Joseph Smith’s Celestial Marriage (and Polygamy) Revelation

In a 2008 republication of the the book, Exposeé of polygaymy in Utah: A lady’s life among the Mormons, Mrs. T. B. H. Stenhouse provides “a record of personal experience as one of the wives of a Mormon Elder, during a period of more than twenty years.” The introduction to the current printing says:

The origins of polygamy in the Mormon church are shadowy. Joseph Smith, the founder, spoke of the ancient Israelite practice of polygamy soon after the 1830 organization of his new church, and there were rumors in the first few years of his unseemly conduct toward other women. Fanny Alger, a young servant girl in Smith’s household in Kirtland, Ohio, may have been his first plural wife in the mid-1830s, although the first official record of such a marriage dates to April 1841, when Smith was sealed to Louisa Beaman. During the three years before his death in 1844, Smith secretly introduced the doctrine to his inner circle and commanded them to take additional wives. He was himself taking them at a furious rate (more than thirty total), among them women already married to other men.

It was not until July 12, 1843, that Smith dictated and thus committed to writing the “Revelation on Marriage” (now section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, accepted as scripture by the Utah Mormon church, officially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), which provided the rationale and justification for plural wives.

The revelation lays out the path to reach the highest level of heaven through sealing in a celestial marriage for time and eternity. It explains that all earthly contracts, including marriage covenants, end at death, but those who marry in the “new and everlasting covenant” and are sealed by the priesthood power given to Joseph Smith will be exalted in heaven, have thrones and kingdoms and eternal increase of children, and be gods themselves. Moreover, a man can, with the consent of his wife, take additional wives in order to “multiply and replenish the earth.”

The justification rests on God’s apparent approval of Abraham and other Old Testament patriarchs having multiple wives and concubines; the recipients of the revelation are exhorted to go and do likewise. God reassures Smith that his sins are forgiven, his throne is prepared, and he will be exalted, while also strongly warning his wife Emma that she must accept “all those given to Joseph” and cleave to him or be destroyed.

From the early years of the church until the time of Joseph Smith’s death, there were rumors, charges and countercharges within the church membership, about licentiousness, polygamy, adultery, and “spiritual wives.” Official denials alongside the truth known to a few but suspected by many created unstable social tension and resulted in several church members, many of them close associates of Smith, either leaving the church or being excommunicated as apostates.

The tension over polygamy was one of the factors that led to Smith’s death and the abandonment of the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, where Mormons had settled, on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Amid the chaos and uncertainty after the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, as head of the powerful Council of the Twelve Apostles, successfully fought off other claims to legitimacy and assumed leadership of what eventually became the Utah branch of Mormonism. Young and several other apostles were already secretly engaged in polygamy, allowing the practice to continue surreptitiously during the next year or two while the faithful were busy completing a temple in Nauvoo and looking forward to the new blessings promised once sacred ceremonies could be performed there. However, the Mormons were forced to leave Nauvoo soon after the temple’s completion, beginning their long trek westward in early 1846 and settling in the area that became Utah in 1847.

By the time of the westward migration, those who had stayed with Brigham Young and the Twelve instead of following any of several splinter groups had generally come to accept the open secret of polygamy, and isolation in the West initially allowed the Utah Mormons to practice plural marriage with a minimum of outside interference. Efforts to achieve statehood quickly were not successful, though, and rumors continued to circulate, both in the United States and abroad, about Mormon marriages.

Soon after Fanny Stenhouse converted to Mormonism in England in 1849, she became aware of whispered conversations, rumors of multiple wives, and denials by church elders. Finally Apostle Orson Pratt announced polygamy as the official policy and practice of the church in an August 1852 address.

That announcement offered religious justification for the practice by harkening back to the prophets of the Old Testament and also explicating a theology of polygamy as a means of providing more bodies for pre-existent souls and quickly building up the Kingdom of God on earth. Pratt stressed that polygamy was incumbent on the Saints because it was a revelation to Joseph Smith and claimed it would help prevent social problems such as adultery and prostitution.

Even after the public acknowledgment of polygamy, however, there was less than unanimous support and enthusiasm for the practice among Mormons. What became known as the Mormon Reformation of 1856 and 1857 was the most strident of periodic attempts on the part of church authorities to motivate members to live the law of polygamy more fully. This was done through exhortations, sermons, rebaptisms, and other forms of ecclesiastical and group pressure.

Still, though scholars’ estimates vary and have generally increased in recent years, polygamy remained a minority’s practice among Mormons. It was more common among church leaders and the elite in the community than among rank and file members, partly because of greater pressure on prominent members to conform and partly because such men had greater economic ability to support additional wives.
– Source: Introduction, Exposé of Polygamy: A Lady’s Life Among the Mormons by Fanny Stenhouse (first published in 1872)

See Also

arrow Polygamy in Mormonism
arrow Polygamous sects of the Mormon Church


  1. Note: Just like attaching a Roll Royce logo to a Volkswagen does not make the latter a Rolls Royce, using the name of ‘Jesus Christ’ does not make Mormonism “Christian.” Suggesting the Mormon Jesus is “Christian” is, in fact, as dishonest as selling a counterfeit watch as a “Rolex.” After all, the “Jesus” created by the Mormon Church is far different from – and incompatible with – the biblical Jesus Christ

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Category: Celestial Marriage
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First published (or major update) on Tuesday, March 27, 2012.
Last updated on March 30, 2012.

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