Eternal Marriage in Early Mormonism

eternal marriage heaven

Eternal marriage is a doctrine that is intertwined all throughout Mormonism. It is honestly even hard to talk about Mormonism, or the Temple, without a discussion about eternal marriage. However, as pleasant as the concept sounds, it seems to not be based on scriptures. This of course doesn’t make it false, however we should at least take a moment to consider the concept before we immediately accept it as true and a core part of the entire doctrine.


I first want to make it clear that this is not going to be a discussion about polygamy. Certainly, polygamy has become synonymous with eternal marriage today, however that wasn’t always the case. I also want to highlight that I previously looked at, in some depth, the scriptural concept of marriage, and the separate concept of being sealed. If you are interested, then I would recommend that you look those up as it helps to shed some further light onto this topic.

If we look in the Old Testament, then we can find that there are no references to eternal marriage in any direct form. Certainly, many people have twisted passages to interpret things in various ways which is pretty easy to do. We can honestly see whatever we want to see. Marriage at that time though was certainly seen as a divine institution. However, there is no indication that it was to extend into the next life.

In the New Testament though, we see much more talk on marriage. Starting in Luke 18, Christ mentions that if anyone sacrifices anything for the Kingdom of God, including their marriage, then they will be blessed in this life and the life to come. This would certainly be an inconsistent thing to say if marriage was eternal.

Another instance is in Matthew 19, where the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce. Jesus responds to them and then the disciples mention to Jesus that it must then not be good to marry. Jesus responds to the disciples by commending those that are celibate for the kingdom of heaven. This of course is also inconsistent with a theology of eternal marriage.

A last example from Jesus, is the famous story in Mark 12, where the Sadducees asked Jesus a hypothetical question about a woman who married seven brothers and her status in the resurrection. It is helpful to note that the Sadducees didn’t even believe in the resurrection and held to a very literal interpretation of the scriptures. They asked Jesus, after the resurrection then, whose wife would the woman be. Jesus responded that they were completely wrong, and that the next life was not going to be like the current one at all. This included the lack of marriage.

We also have the writings from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, and elsewhere, which expressly mention that not being married is the best course of action if you are able to do so. Otherwise, you should get married to avoid temptation. Paul was clear though, in 1 Timothy 4 that no one should forbid marriage and it should be a choice for the individual. This of course is also inconsistent with the idea that marriage is eternal and the highest ordinance we can achieve.

Lastly, the Book of Mormon itself contains nothing pertaining to marriage or eternal marriage. It would make sense that if eternal marriage was the pinnacle of human existence, then the Book of Mormon would mention something. However, it sadly doesn’t.


Scripturally there is very little on marriage and certainly nothing to suggest marriage is for an infinite duration. However, it certainly seems that marriage is a special union ordained of God. We can see this confirmed in more modern times. In 1831 a group of people associated with the Shaking Quakers wanted to join with Joseph and the new church, however they still retained some of their previous beliefs which included celibacy. Joseph inquired of God and received D&C 49 which states:

And again, verily I say unto you, that whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man.

D&C 49:15

This of course says nothing about eternal marriage, but does reiterate the importance of marriage itself. Starting in around 1835 though we can see that the ideas of the leaders on marriage began a subtle shift.

On May 26th, 1835, W. W. Phelps wrote a letter to his wife and mentioned that their marriage could last forever if they were faithful. He wrote:

A new idea, Sally, if you and I continue faithful to the end we are certain to be one with the Lord throughout all eternity. This is one of the most glorious consolations we can have in the flesh.

W. W. Phelps letter to his wife, May 26th, 1835

About a month later Phelps published his thoughts in the official church newspaper of the time, the Latter day Saints Messenger and Advocate. In the June 1835 edition, Phelps wrote:

We may prepare ourselves for a kingdom of glory … where the man is neither without the woman, nor the woman without the man in the Lord.

Messenger and Advocate, June 1835

Later that same year in August the Article on Marriage was introduced and approved by all the quorums of the church. In the article the wording for marriages was given along with a description of the covenants the husband and wife were making with other. The wording for the marriage concluded with the phrase:

May God add his blessings and keep you to fulfill your covenants from henceforth and forever. Amen.

Article on Marriage

This wording is of course consistent with the idea that the marriage covenant would have some efficacy beyond this life, and it wouldn’t just stop at the point of death. Otherwise, why would we need God’s help to fulfill a covenant that no longer applies since it ended at our death?

A few months later, in November of 1835, Joseph Smith was requested to perform the marriage of Lydia Bailey and Newel Knight. It was during this marriage ceremony that Joseph first remarked that marriage was not properly solemnized unless it was done by the authority of the priesthood. This of course was a further departure from the simple idea of civil marriage for time only. During the ceremony Joseph said:

I requesteded them to arise and join hands, I then remarked that marriage was an institution of haven institude in the garden of Eden, that it was necessary that it should be Solemnized by the authority of the everlasting priesthood

Joseph Smith Journal, November 24, 1835

At this point then at the end of 1835, a marriage needed to be made valid through the priesthood however there was still no official concept of marriage being of an eternal duration. Joseph was also not clear as to the specific differences between a civil marriage and a marriage solemnized by the priesthood. However, the concept of eternal marriage was certainly hinted at through various means as we have seen and certainly would have been a natural extension.

Not much changed until the 1840’s when it is evident that the doctrine of eternal marriage was spoken about more publicly. Jacob Scott in an 1843 letter to his daughter Mary Warnock wrote:

Several revelations of great utility and common interests have been lately communicated to Joseph and the church. One is that all marriage contracts or covenants are to be everlasting.

Jacob Scott to Mary Warnock, 28 Feb.–13 Mar. 1843, typescript, CCLA

Jacob died shortly after the letter was written with his wife and daughter deciding not to move west with the rest of the church. They eventually joined the RLDS church who currently has possession of many of their letters. It seems in their minds much of the doctrines emanating from Nauvoo were exciting however many were also upsetting to them, and they decided to not move west.

A few months later on May 16th, 1843, it is recorded that Joseph now taught in small groups that marriages could only be eternal if performed by the authority of the priesthood. In this account Joseph was at the home of Benjamin Johnson and was giving some instructions pertaining to the priesthood. The record mentions:

[Joseph] said that except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity while in this probation by the power and authority of the Holy priesthood they will cease to increase when they die (ie) they will not have any children in the resurrection

Joseph Smith Instruction, May 16th 1843

This is obviously much stronger language than anything taught previously and is a clear departure from the simple idea of marriage during the Kirtland era. During that time marriage was a realization of the Garden of Eden ideal, however now marriage was a means of having eternal offspring presumably to fulfill the rest of the doctrines that we see out of Nauvoo. This however was only contingent on the married couple having been married by the authority of the priesthood and making eternal covenants. This whole concept seems to be a complete invention.

It seems then that in May 1843 eternal marriage was a concept that was privately taught among a few people only. However, about two months later on July 16th, 1843, we have the first public recording of the concept of eternal marriage. In this account, Joseph gave a speech in a grove of trees near the unfinished Nauvoo temple and spoke very clearly about eternal marriage. In his talk, he mentioned:

Went to the Grove and heard pres. J. preach on the law of the priesthood. He stated that Hyrum held the office of prophet to the church by birth-right & he was going to have a reformation and the saints must regard Hyrum for he has authority. He showed that a man must enter into an everlasting covenant with his wife in this world or he will have no claim on her in the next. He said that he could not reveal the fulness of these things untill the Temple is completed &c.

Joseph Smith – July 16th, 1843

In this talk it is very clear that the idea of eternal marriage was now openly taught and was no longer a private doctrine taught among just a few people. The differentiation now is also clear that regular civil marriages are no longer enough in the eyes of the church. Now only marriages performed in a temple, with the authority of the priesthood, would qualify a couple for eternal offspring. The idea of eternal marriage seems to also have been so widespread that some non-members visiting the area were curious about the concept and wanted to see the difference between Mormon marriages for eternity and regular marriages.

In an October 15th, 1843, letter to her sister, Charlotte Haven, who was not a member and was just visiting Nauvoo at the time, wrote that she was intrigued by the concept of eternal marriage and wanted to see the differences. In her letter she mentions witnessing a Mormon marriage and being a little disappointed that it was similar to any protestant ceremony and was for time only. Her letter to her sister reads:

I had heard that in some cases the marriage is not only for time but for eternity.

Charlotte Haven

Later in her letter she writes about her disappointment in Nauvoo and overall dislike for the lack of rational discourse there. It certainly seems though that if the concept of eternal marriage was known to non-members, then it must have been widely taught at least in some degree.

The last thing to look at would be a speech Hyrum Smith gave on April 8th, 1844. In this speech Hyrum clearly mentions the possibility of being with his wife forever. He mentioned:

If a thing belongs to me legally it cannot belong to anyone else – married me a wife and was the only one who had any right to her – we had 5 children the covenant was made for our lives – she fell in the grave before God showed us his order God has showed me that the covenant is dead and had no more force neither could I have her in the resurrection, but we should be as the angels – it troubled me. Brother Joseph you can be sealed to her upon the same principles as you can be baptized for the dead what can I do for my 2nd wife – you can make a covenant with her for eternity and be sealed to her – and she said I will act as proxy for the one that is dead – and I will be sealed to you for eternity

Hyrum Smith – April 8th, 1844

In this talk, which is the original version as far as we know, Hyrum clearly mentions the possibility of being sealed to his dead wife for eternity. It seems to me that Hyrum said that he could also be sealed to his second wife, the one who was alive, for eternity as well. For the purposes of this discussion that doesn’t matter, however many people make a lot of noise about this talk and seem to always leave that part out.


As we have seen scripturally there is very little to support the concept of eternal marriage. However, it is clear though that marriage was to be a divine institution that resembled Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Essentially men and women were to reunite into one flesh as a representation of Adam who was split into two beings to make men and women today. If we really think about it then the entire purpose of the Gospel then is to bring us back to where we originally started, but with the knowledge and experience that we gained here in mortality.

However, as we have also seen, Mormonism started out with a view of marriage very similar to any other Christian group of the time. However, slowly marriage was elevated and separated to become something completely different then when it started. Marriage was changed to require the priesthood, when it never did previously. Marriage was changed again to be eternal when it never was previously. Marriage was changed again to be the means of creating an infinite number of offspring when there previously was no mention of this.

Now today marriage is seen as a requirement to being more like God when it never was previously. Marriage is also now performed in a temple hidden away from the world when it never was previously. Frankly a Mormon marriage today is drastically different from any other form of marriage we see in the world. Does God want this, or is it a false tradition of our fathers?

I certainly agree with many members of the church that eternal marriage and eternal family really sounds like a nice concept. However, of course that doesn’t make it true. I personally struggle with the purpose of eternal marriage and eternal offspring unless many of the other Nauvoo concepts are true as well. Are women simply just eternal baby factories? Is our eternal purpose to build an ever-increasing pyramid of descendants so we can be elevated like the King Follett discourse suggests? Is there such a thing as eternal divorce? How would any of this even work over an infinite time period?

Certainly, I love my family and truly enjoy my ability to be with them. However, before this life we were all individual beings with our own individual eternal story. There is no reason to believe that after this life we won’t be similar. What would the concept of spouse, parent, or child even mean in the eternities? Do I have a claim on my wife for all of eternity as Joseph said? There is so much we don’t know. However, we still wrap things up in a spiritual pretty bow and believe we have it all figured out.

I truly think it is a mistake to imagine that the next life has to be similar to our current one. Even in joyous aspects like family relations. This is what many of the false religions of the past did. They simply made their gods after the manner of men and made their heaven an elevated version of earth. If what Jesus told the Sadducees in Mark 12 is correct, then the next life, when we assist God in his efforts, is going to look nothing like this current life.

Author: Patrick