No group is more emphatically and publicly opposed to the practice of polygamy than the Latter-day Saints. The topic is, however, irresistible and perennial. While the Mormon Church banned plural marriage more than 100 years ago and promises excommunication to those who practice it, its spokespeople find themselves having to explain polygamy’s legacy over and over to reporters who watch “Big Love” or are curious about Mitt Romney’s ancestry. “I wish to state categorically that this church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy,” said LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley more than a decade ago.
Much less clear is the church’s position on polygamy in the eternal hereafter. When a Mormon man and woman are married in the Temple, they are “sealed,” which means they and their children will be bound together forever in heaven—what Mormons call the celestial kingdom. If a Mormon man becomes a widower, or if he is divorced, he can remarry in the Temple—and thus be sealed to more than one woman. (Mormon women, on the other hand, need to have their previous sealings canceled before they can be sealed again.) Doesn’t this mean, in effect, that men can have multiple wives in heaven? LDS Church officials decline to answer specifically, saying only that “the Lord has not given answers to all the details of life after death. There are some things we simply don’t know.”
All this may seem an obscure theological question, but in an age of divorce and mixed families, it’s a matter of great concern, especially to Mormon women. On the Web site feministmormonhousewives.org, women worry over celestial polygamy in all its permutations, and the topic was also on the agenda at a symposium of Mormons last month in Salt Lake City. Here are the kinds of questions that come up: Would a woman, in the event of her untimely death, be big-hearted enough to share a cherished husband with a “sister wife” in heaven? Would a divorced LDS mom have to live forever with an ex-husband she despised? “Most Mormon women are worried about the polygamy issue,” says Margaret Toscano, a professor at the University of Utah who was excommunicated by the LDS Church for her feminist writings. “They’re worried they’re going to be forced into polygamy in the next life.” As with all questions about heaven, these are unanswerable; the most devout members put their trust in God. “We have great faith that it will all work out,” says LDS spokeswoman Kim Farah.