Presentism is the latest “go to” rebuttal by Mormon apologists. It’s just not FAIR that seems to be playing this card, but even church historian Matt Grow used it in a devotional with Elder Cook:
It is really easy to play gotcha with the past. To pull an incident or a quotation out of its context and make it look alarming. As a historian, I try to follow the advice of a British novelist—and I love this—he said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” And to me, that means that when we visit the past, we don’t want to be an ugly tourist.
There are some valid points, but there are also some pitfalls as pointed out here.
But I’d like to examine the other side of this, how we Mormons use it to assume what we are doing today was always like this. The item I’d like to discuss is eternal marriage and the sealing.
It has only been in the last 200 years that marriages have been for love. Couples wed to make political alliances, to raise capital, to expand the workforce and for a whole array of practical purposes. From an article entitled Love And Marriage: A History That Challenges The Notion Of ‘Traditional Marriage’
But any link between love and matrimony is relatively recent, said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
And a radical one at that.
“Through most of human history, love was not at all the point of marriage,” Coontz said. “Marriage was about getting families together, which was why there were so many controls.”
The notion that a couple would marry for love was considered almost anti-social, even subversive; parents could disown their kids for doing it.
“The Greeks thought lovesickness was a type of insanity, a view that was adopted by medieval commentators in Europe. In the Middle Ages, the French defined love as a ‘derangement of the mind’ that could be cured by sexual intercourse, either with the loved one or with a different partner,” Coontz writes in her 2005 book, “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.”
The article goes on to explain that the ideal of love as a primary reason for marriage began to spread in the late 18th century and early 19th century, partly due to the French and American revolutions.
Eventually, the development of a wage labor economy moved coupling away from economics. Women didn’t have to depend on their parents’ ability to put up a dowry, and men didn’t have to wait for their inheritance. Families moved away from farms into urban settings, so they didn’t need so many children. More options opened up.
That created a sea change for marriage in the mid-19th century, including the possibility of unions founded on love, Coontz said. “We convinced ourselves that was the traditional ideal.”
Another article here asks what role love played in marriage through history. The answer is that for most of human history, almost none at all. Marriage was considered too serious a matter to be based on such a fragile emotion.
So that brings us to the presentism that we have when we go to the temple and conduct a sealing for a couple married 200 years ago. The idea that they had a loving marriage, that they want to be together for eternity is based on a modern notion of marriage. We are forcing our modern idea of love and romance on a couple that most likely married out of necessity or obligation.
When Joseph Smith introduced the sealing ordnance, one could argue it was mostly focused on polygamy and sealing the entire human family to one another. Not the monogamous romantic bonding/sealing we have today.
What are your thoughts? Is our current practice of sealing everybody to their spouse an eternal principle, or our modern world projecting itself back through history? Is the thought that “they won’t have to accept the sealing if they don’t want to” enough to justify the time and energy we spend sealing people that never loved each other?
Wow! This is an awesome post and a perspective I have never considered. Of course as a gay Mormon the subject of eternal marriage does not fit in to my paradigm. But a few years ago I did travel to the Salt Lake Temple to seal my parents and grandparents. Since I knew they all truly loved each other, it was a sacred and spiritual experience for me and the closest I will come to participating in a temple marriage. I do think, however, that not knowing the true nature of the relationship between a couple for whom we are performing a proxy sealing is the equivalent of interjecting ourselves in to a situation in which perhaps we do not belong or are not welcome….whether they accept it or not. Isn’t that what the Millenium is for…sorting this all out? At least that’s the response I get when I ask questions about the eternal nature of being gay.
When you stop and analyze it, much of the work for the dead is illogical. I would rather concentrate on the living: the poor, the refugees, the displaced, those living in developing countries, the disadvantaged, etc. Christ’s message is firmly directed toward the living.
It seems like the charge of presentism is easy to wield against others but hard to apply to ones own views. Given the lack of theological training and practice at the higher levels of LDS leadership, it is to be expected that presentism will be more evident in the LDS approach to the religious past than in other denominations. Even off the top of my head right here banging out a comment, I can think of how LDS leadership structure is projected onto the New Testament, as if Peter, James, and John were a “First Presidency”; the projection of 19th century racialist thinking in a temple and priesthood ban that was eternal; and the nuclear family of 20th century America (father, mother, kids) as God’s chosen eternal family unit when extended multi-generational family units, not to mention polygamy and polygyny, have been widespread throughout human history.
So it’s an odd tool to deploy against LDS critics. It might boomerang.
“…enough to justify the time and energy we spend sealing people that never loved each other?”
This assumes just as much as those performing the ordinance, but with a pessimistic spin on it. I think I prefer the optimistic view of life.
A certain song from Fiddler on the Roof comes to mind… surely many couples developed love after a life-time together.
If it weren’t for such a strong witness from the Spirit a long time ago, I’d view temple work in general as a waste of time. God knows our hearts. I used to think that was sufficient. But it’s not, and temple work has real power.
I really do think the thought that they won’t have to accept it still justifies doing all the work. Who are we to know? I also think we’ll be surprised how many of these marriages stay intact. Love was the result of many of these marriage, not the cause. I also think our perspective changes in the Spirit World and as we are taught the Gospel. I had some grandparents that didn’t get along well in life. My mom was almost certain they’d choose not to be together in the next life. Shortly after the second one passed away, she had a fairly distinct impression of them both saying “We’re fine.”
Plus, as we become more perfected and like our Heavenly Parents, I’ve always felt that two perfect people should be able to perfectly get along and perfectly love each other for a perfectly long time (eternity). Yes, agency and personality remain, but I think we’ll be surprised how many follow through with what they started in mortality.
Nonsense. Any informed student of Joseph knows that Joseph’s marriage to Emma was based on a deep love between the two.
As for polygamy, what Joseph was doing, in sealing to himself a dynastic network of saints (men and women, by the way) was very different from what Brigham introduced.
The church’s concepts of divorce can be similarly analyzed. One of the “signs of the times” leaders use about the “breakdown” of the family is increased divorce rates over past periods. What they don’t realize is divorce was generally not an option for women in the past. They had to endure deplorable conditions and abuse. I home taught an elderly sister who would tell me about her grandmother who was essentially “traded” by her parents to her grandfather for the grandfather’s agreement to pay for the rest of her family’s passage to America. This grandfather was abusive, but the young women had no place to go. They are sealed now – is that a good thing?
I saw the following, posted today, on Twitter by @LdsSay:
Phoebe Woodruff, first wife of Wilford Woodruff, was a defender of polygamy in public settings. However, she abhorred it privately. Consider the following account of Phoebe from “Mormon Polygamy: A History” by LDS author Richard S. Van Wagoner:
“Phoebe Woodruff, first wife of Apostle Wilford Woodruff, also shared the ambivalent feelings of Mormon women in polygamy. She was asked to defend the principle in a mass meeting of Mormon women, a few days later in a conversation with a long-time friend she was asked, “How is it Sister Woodruff that you have changed your views so suddenly about polygamy? I thought you hated and loathed it… “I have not changed,” was her response: “I loathe the unclean thing with all the strength of my nature, but Sister, I have suffered all that a woman can endure. I am old and helpless, and would rather stand up anywhere, and say anything commanded of me, than to be turned out of my home in my old age which I should be most assuredly if I refused to obey counsel.”
I don’t know the answer, but lately I have been wondering just how much time people will spend in the afterlife looking for someone that they really want to be married to for all eternity. I know that most people didn’t marry for love until, as you said, about the last 200 years. There must be a lot of spirits in the spirit world who have been sealed together who really don’t want to stay together, for whatever reason. Yes, some of them probably found love as they grew old together. I would think that most just tolerated each other at best and would hope for something better.
Maybe the mortal people alive on the earth during the Millenium will be doing a lot of proxy marriage ceremonies for people who found their eternal companions after they died. I think sealing is an eternal principle, but maybe our current practice is more for us than for them.
Wow this is a point of view I had never considered. I have no great insights at this time other than to say thank you for the post.
I suppose one corollary to this is that many children probably don’t want to be sealed to their parents. I’m guessing that for much of human history the parent / child relationship was often abusive and children used for labor. How would Malachi respond to that (hearts of the children turning to fathers etc)?
Maybe I am not fully understanding your interpretation of what is meant by marriage for love, but your time frame of only the last 200 years for this being a recognized reason to marry seems off. If your primary source for this time frame really is an essay from a faculty member at a small community college, I have to wonder how rigorous the peer review was on the essay. While I would agree with the notion that one should primarily marry out of affection for another and not out of economic/political necessity is relatively recent in the long history of human societies, I would point out that Shakespeare wrote his sonnets and comedies 400 years ago. So it would seem to me that the notion of marriage out of affection for the betroth certainly was at least considered by then, even if it was not the predominant motivation. Which is not to take away from the main points of your OP, just that I don’t think your time frame for when things began to evolve is necessarily very accurate. I would agree that it seems quite possible that the majority of proxy temple sealings are for those if given the chance for a do-over, would not choose their previous spouse. That seems kind of sad, but there it is.
I suspect the vast majority of proxy sealings are for marriages from the mid-1700s forwards (better records, better access to records, etc.) when marriage “for love” was becoming more common. Additionally, I suspect that for the common man (and woman) marriage for love was common for centuries. The other rationales (political alliances, social status, raising capital, etc.) applied to a very small percentage of the population at the top of the socio-economic ladder. To cite literature, the problems of marriage faced by Jane Austen’s characters were entirely different than those faced by the unwashed masses of Londoners in Charles Dicken’s novels.
What about prehistory? Before people started acquiring things and inventing writing to keep track of it, are tens of thousands of years. And depending on the definition of human, millions of years. Whether hunting and gathering from a cave along the seashore, or across the mammoth steppes, some sort of coupling appears to have been going on under moonlit skies.
Are the rules of the elite about property really the model for eternity? I doubt people jumped the broom for dynastic purposes.
But then again, perhaps the real reason for people being properly sealed, is to get a deed to a mansion on high.
The blog post is quoting Stephanie Coontz who is considered a leading authority on the history of marriage. Her research spanned many years and is well documented. I have read her book, “Marriage, a History” and also her book, “The Way We Never Were”. They are fascinating and eye opening reads. I highly recommend them. The “Leave it to Beaver “ idealization of family life is pretty much a myth.
When Joseph Smith introduced the sealing ordnance, one could argue it was mostly focused on
polygamy andsealing the entire human family to one another
I agree with that (as modified). It remains a strong reason to continue family history work. Somebody on the bloggernacle once pointed out that the sealing ordinance for couples never uses the phrase “I seal you to”–the phrase is “I seal upon you.” Big difference. Nobody will spend eternity stuck with somebody they loathe. But they need the blessings that are sealed upon them in the ordinance.
Someone in the extended family performed a proxy temple sealing for my husband’s grandfather and grandmother. The thing is, the grandfather abandoned his family—leaving no forwarding address—when his son was just 12 yrs old. Grandfather finally turned up 30 yrs later. Needless to say, grandmother would’ve been irate to know she is now sealed to her philandering and absent husband.
10ac, Stephanie Coontz has published 5 books on the history of marriage, more than just an essay. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephanie_Coontz
Has Coontz never read Romeo and Juliet. Or the story of Jacob and Rachel.Or Anthony and Cleopatra.Or Alexander and Roxanne. I think her thesis is not only counterintuitive but historically weak.
Lois – why would she be irate? Do you believe that a proxy sealing forces an unwanted relationship on someone? Do you believe proxy ordinances void someone’s agency? By having your husband’s grandparents sealed, their children can then be sealed to them. The purpose of proxy sealing ordinances isn’t to force our ancestors together for eternity but to link all of humanity together.
Romeo and Juliet is actually a very good example to support this post. Today we view it as the ultimate love story but four hundred years ago it was widely read as a cautionary tale. Their love story would have been seen as an example of the wrong kind of marriage – of what NOT to do. The right kind of marriage would have been one where both families approved.
This is a really interesting question, Bishop Bill. My thought is a bit of a tangent, but I kind of wonder if the support of the idea of marrying for love isn’t as strong in the Church as it is in the broader culture (certainly American culture). My impression is that GAs, although they definitely talk about how much they love their wives, also sometimes scold young adults for being slow to marry, and the implication (at least to me) is that they need to stop being so picky and lower their expectations.
FWIW, I think it’s worth considering other issues in addition to love. But I married pretty young and am now middle aged, and I’m sure my thoughts are colored by that experience and the stage of life I’m in now.
Sealings are how we obtain certain blessings. No one has to be together.