Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
The recent high-profile divorce of homosexual Mormon blogger Josh Weed, who ended his “mixed orientation marriage,” has once again revealed that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is actually a protean ideology that alters with the times. In the new HBO documentary Believer, Dan Reynolds of the rock group Imagine Dragons calls for the LDS church to change its beliefs on LGBT issues.
Much has changed since the days of Brigham Young who taught the “Adam-God doctrine” (that the God ruling our world was formerly Adam) and that interracial marriage could only be “forgiven” through “blood atonement.” Blacks weren’t ordained to the “fullness of the priesthood” until 1978, barring them from “ordinances” deemed necessary for “exaltation” to divinity.
The constant morphing of the LDS Church is in pointed contrast to the changeless truths of Catholicism. What can Catholics learn from the Mormon experience?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints works hard to evoke wholesomeness and a family-values image: Family Home Evenings, clean cut young men wearing suits going door-to-door, and cocoa-drinking teetotalers.
During the battle over Proposition 8 in California, which passed in 2008, the LDS Church presented itself as the proponent of “one man, one woman” marriage and champion of the traditional family. This put the Mormon church in open contradiction with itself.
In the 19th century, the Mormon practice of polygamy was condemned in the original 1856 Republican platform as one of the “twin pillars of barbarism.” Sam Brannan, the Mormon who founded the Napa Valley town of Calistoga and publicized the California Gold Rush in February 1849, showed himself to be even more radical than his fellow Latter-Day Saints when he espoused belief in “spiritual wifery” — now called polyamory — in upstate New York. But Brannan was only taking the doctrine seriously, concluding that having multiple partners logically leads to “open marriage” — a euphemism for sexual license. Once monogamy is rejected, there are no principles to constrain hedonism.
But sexual sin is a complicated thing, and inevitably leads to more deviance. Under the now discontinued “Law of Adoption,” which lasted from 1846 to 1894, men were “sealed” to each other, albeit as “father” and “son.” Present-day Mormons claim the “sealings” between men were purely spiritual; the historical record is unclear whether there was a physical aspect. While siblings were also “sealed” to each spiritually under the “Law of Adoption,” it is clear that polygamy did lead to incest. Joseph Smith married four pairs of sisters — the Huntingtons (1841), Johnsons (1842), Lawrences (1843) and Partridges (1843). He also married a mother — Patty Sessions and her daughter, Sylvia Lyon in 1842. Though Joseph Smith used the Old Testament to defend his polygamy, citing the examples of Abraham and Jacob, even the Holiness Code of Leviticus 18:17-18 condemns such unions as incestuous. The first biblical polygamist is Lamech, Cain’s violent descendant (Genesis 4:19-24) a connection that symbolically illustrates God’s condemnation of the practice.
Nonetheless, the LDS Church insists that it actually does uphold traditional family values. It teaches “eternal marriage” and “eternal families.” It appears to take marriage more seriously than the dominant culture, with “sealings” that go beyond “till death us do part.” Yet these doctrines don’t affect the actual practice of marriage; they don’t help marital stability in this life. According to Brigham Young University’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Records of the number of divorces granted between 1847 and 1877 show a relatively high rate of divorce for polygamous marriages.” In fact, 10 of Brigham Young’s 55 wives divorced him.
While divorce and remarriage is suddenly a controversial issue among Catholics in light of “Amoris Laetitia,” they are considered a fact of life among Mormons. According to a February 2014 survey by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Utahns are more likely to remarry after divorce. In addition, the survey states that Utah’s divorce rate is higher than the national average.
The progressive, utopian concept of “plural marriage” is an unattainable goal because it flies in the face of divine and natural law. It contradicts Jesus, who told the Pharisees that Moses allowed divorce and remarriage only because of “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5). Jesus goes further saying that remarriage after divorce is adultery (Mark 10:6-12). He teaches the original monogamous marriage of Adam and Eve in Eden — God’s own plan.
Mormonism’s radical views on sexuality ran into problems when trying to proselytize, as most people at the time knew and agreed with Scripture. The post-Christian attitude that undergirded Mormonism’s ideology forced early proselytizers to overcompensate by preaching a sanitized view of history and Scripture. At Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Adam and Eve are depicted as fully and modestly clothed before the Fall, contradicting the Scriptural account (Genesis 2:7-11).
Moreover, while Catholics, Protestants and Jews consider the Song of Songs divinely inspired Scripture, the Latter-Day Saints are uniquely squeamish about this biblical book. Joseph Smith deemed it merely human, though he used the quote “Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?” (Songs of Songs 6:10) in Doctrine and Covenants.
In 1984, the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dismissed the Song of Songs as “biblical trash” in a Brigham Young University talk titled “The Bible: A Sealed Book.” The LDS Church not only has additional Scripture such as the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, but also redacts and rewrites what already exists.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has experienced several seismic shifts in its theology — the end of polygamy and ordination of blacks — since its founding in 1844 in upstate New York.
An example of this is can be seen in the case of Amasa Lyman, a member of the LDS hierarchy who founded the Mormon colony of Rancho San Bernardino on the site of the former asistencia (sub-mission) in present-day Redlands, California. He started the colony in 1851, bringing his five wives and his black slaves. Brigham Young would mandate polygamy as necessary for salvation and legalize slavery in Utah the following year. Both fell afoul not only of California law but public image, with Young eventually “calling” Lyman and his associates to return to Utah in 1857.
Lyman would join an offshoot group, the socialistic “Godbeites,” and was excommunicated from the LDS Church as a heretic in 1870 because of his open defiance toward Brigham Young. Time marches on however, and Lyman was posthumously restored to his former titles and good standing in 1909. The LDS Church would shift its positions on race and marriage, rendering its prior positions as well as heresy itself meaningless.
The current turmoil in the Catholic Church over divorce, remarriage and the reception of the Eucharist is whether there should be a “paradigm shift” to suit the times. But Catholic teaching on marriage comes from God, who is outside of time. Saints such as St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher laid down their lives to proclaim this changeless truth. St. John the Baptist wasn’t “pastoral” when he condemned Herod’s adulterous lifestyle; he didn’t “accompany.” St. John the Baptist called Herod to repentance. Jesus praised his cousin, saying (Luke 7:28), “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
The LDS church can teach us, if we are receptive, the consequences of abandoning the timeless teaching of the Church, the apostolic tradition. It leads to sin and dangerous relativism.
Jesus bluntly says (Matthew 5:17-18), “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus sees God’s Law as an outpouring of His Wisdom, a grace to be celebrated, not bigotry or bias. In a society that scornfully asks (John 18:8), “What is truth?” Jesus’ simple, powerful response is (John 14:6), “I am the way, the truth and the life.”