Monday, August 5, 2013

“That We May Fill the Mountains”: Marriage, Mormonism, and the Historical Context

“The principle of plurality of wives never will be done away… go ahead upon the right principle, young gentlemen, and God bless you forever and ever, and make you fruitful, that we may fill the mountains and then the earth with righteous inhabitants. That is my prayer, and that is my blessing upon all the Saints and upon your posterity after you, forever. Amen”
Heber C. Kimball, 1855 (emphasis added)


The first mention of marriage and families in the Journal of Discourses by Orson Pratt on August 29, 1852 succinctly defines the role of marriage in traditional Mormon thought:

The Lord ordained marriage between male and female as a law through which spirits should come here and take tabernacles, and enter into the second state of existence. What is the object of this union? is the next question. We are told the object of it; it is clearly expressed; for, says the Lord unto the male and female, I command you to multiply and replenish the earth.

When accompanied by the Laws of Obedience and Chastity, the Law of Marriage paints a difficult picture for many within the LDS tradition. It is this strict definition that leads directly to the complex questions faced by sexual minorities and gender ambiguous people within the church. If marriage is to be only between a male and a female with the purpose of multiplying and replenishing the earth, then what is left for the physical female who is chromosomally male and lacks the ability to reproduce? Or for other intersex people whose genitalia are ambiguous? And what for the person, like myself, who grew up to find themselves experiencing strong feelings of sexual attraction not to the opposite gender, but to people of their same sex? Is the purpose of marriage and families really to “fill the mountains,” or is it something beyond that?

The purpose of this post is to share a little bit of where I’m at when it comes to these questions and why. This last month I began reading through the mentions of marriage and family in the Journal of Discourses and early Conferences to get more of an idea of what marriage and family meant in the theology of early Mormonism, and to contrast that to what it means to us today. I find this comparison vitally important for modern Mormon thought on marriage and family and for thinking through the challenges posed to Mormon theology and culture by same-sex marriage and alternative family structures because current theological teachings and practices arose from the theological world of early Mormonism. The problem is that the reality that gave birth to these teachings and the reality we face today differ dramatically.

In order to accept Orson Pratt’s proposition that marriage is only between a man and woman with the express purpose of creating children, we must also accept the theology that encompassed, informed, and defined his assertion. Elder Pratt’s definition was not created ex nihilo; it arose from its context and was only one portion of a larger picture. Theologies are giant puzzles. Each piece needs to fit nicely with the pieces around it in order to make sense and be useful for the overall picture portrayed by a religion. In addition, the puzzle of the theology needs to fit together with the reality of its professors and practitioners in order to be useful. In this sense, a theology is a working system; it is a complete picture that reflects the way a group of people understand and relate to the world around them. It is the narrative by which they find and create structure and meaning.

But a change in reality mandates a change in the relationship of the individual to their theology. It is because we are so far removed from the reality of the early saints that their theology often seems distant to us. We are far more prone to take as metaphorical than literal their teachings of Zion and the Kingdom of God because our reality is too far removed from theirs to understand the pressing needs of building and governing a city. I posit that the world experienced by the early Saints and the stability of their explanation of it mandated a marriage with the purpose of creating offspring. I equally posit that our current reality is so far removed from their experience as to equally mandate a change in this definition. Our reality has changed; the understanding and expression of our theology must move to match it. The consequence of failing to do so is that a theology no longer in line with reality will fail to provide meaning and structure, in essence failing to fulfill the utility of theology to begin with. As the theology fails for more and more people to provide a cohesive structure that falls in line with their reality, more and more people will continue to abandon Mormonism as a way of life.

In the 1990s, Boyd K. Packer labeled the three greatest threats to the church as “gays and lesbians,” “feminists,” and “the so-called intellectuals.” A more accurate analysis, I believe, is that the church and its theology have encountered one great, prolonged threat: economics. The economic changes of the past two hundred years have removed the modern Mormon from the problems of the early Mormon, and therefore also from their solutions. In addition, the solutions given to the problems of early Mormonism fail to solve the most pressing social issues of modernity.

Mormonism was born into a tactile world: a world of chopping lumber, plowing fields, and building houses. It was born into a world where nearly every man and woman was shaped by humanity’s constant struggle against the natural world, against failed crops, famines, and deep winters. It was born into a world where death was common. Rarely did all of the children in a family survive. The families of early Mormons weren’t just there to provide comfort or mutual emotional support, but to struggle and labor together to make ends meet. As soon as they were old enough, children transformed from liabilities into assets, each laboring alongside their parents to create a more hospitable living environment.

And as the Mormon experiment grew, it largely became a project of kingdom building. From Kirtland to Farr West, and from Nauvoo to Orderville, the first century or so of Mormonism was an experiment in building cities. Zion was literal. And not just a literal gathering place, but a literal, mutual struggle against swamps and deserts, mountains and plains. And Mormons proved extremely adept at conquering the world around them. Much of early Mormon theology was economic in nature because their primary challenge was the challenge of building economies and figuring out how to distribute scarce resources among the members. Their economies were organized into family units. Marriage was just as much a division of labor as a union of love. Multiplying and replenishing the earth wasn’t abstract, but the literal, day-to-day struggle to build something new in the world: to actually establish God’s kingdom on the earth.

And when Joseph proclaimed that the same sociality that exists in this life will exist in the life to come, one cannot help but wonder what images must have been produced in the minds of a people so familiar with the physical world. I doubt they were images of couples with hands romantically entwined, staring through the mirrors of eternity, but rather visions of a labor that would continue into the world to come, a labor that would necessitate people working together in love and community to build in the hereafter cities and kingdoms even greater than the ones they had built in this life. The Celestial Kingdom, in their minds, was likely less of the imaginary fairy-land in the clouds it seemed to me as a child, and rather a more exalted version of the tactile world they encountered every day.

In this context, the words of early Mormons begin to make more sense.

“The First Command was to ‘Multiply’ and the Prophet taught us that Dominion & powr in the great Future would be Comensurate with the no. of ‘Wives Childin & Friends’ that we inheret here and that our great mission to earth was to Organize a Neculi of Heaven to take with us. To the increase of which there would be no end.”
Benjamin F. Johnson

“The Twelve…believe it to be their privilege before God to raise up as many children here in the flesh as they can, that they may have a greater kingdom to rule over in eternity…
Oliver Olney, 1845

“A man’s or woman’s glory in eternity, is to depend upon the size of the family… A husband’s rank in eternity must greatly depend upon the number of his wives.”
James H. Kennedy, 1888

“The purpose of increasing one’s family, by marrying several wives, was to have a numerous posterity. It was taught that the larger the family, the greater would be the Kingdom over which the father in the Celestial order of marriage would rule and reign in Eternity.”
Annie Clark Tanner

“According to Joseph Smith, ‘each new woman brought into an eternal union increased not only the potential size of the family kingdom but the man’s exaltation as well.’”
Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward

The command to multiply and replenish the world was, to the early Mormon mind, not the demand of a distant God to an ancient man and woman, but rather the driving force behind his or her encounter with reality. They were really to build a kingdom in this life, and in the life to come, and it was by the means of their husbands, wives, and children that they would do it.

Lying on this couch, typing away at my laptop, escaping from the summer heat by the means of air-conditioning, I am as distant as one can be from the early Mormon experience. I do not grow my food. I exchange my specialized labor for paper money. I give certain amounts of that paper money to the cashier at the grocery store in return for food that someone else produced. I did not build the mammoth apartment building I’m staying in. Nor did I help in any way to construct any of the streets I walk on every day, nor the underground train system I use to get around. The clothes I’m wearing were put together by a person I’ll never meet in a factory in a place I’ll never go. I am most often completely unmindful of the logistical aspects that make my life possible. My world is anything but tactile. My relationships to my family members will not determine my economic well-being in the long term. My career will differ from that of my parents, sisters, and brother. I can sit in an (uncomfortable) chair in a metal capsule that soars above the clouds and travel half-way around the world faster than the early Mormon could travel from Palmyra to Kirtland. The construction of my world differs entirely from that of the early Mormon, and so do my problems.

And that is why their quotes sound so foreign to me. I do not associate the Kingdom of God with the harsh realities of the Utah desert. I associate it with feelings of peace when I partake of the sacrament. I do not think of farm work when I think about reasons to have children. I think of nurturing relationships that will be an economic liability, but an emotional and existential asset. When I think of marriage, I think not of glory, dominions, and power in the kingdom-building of the world to come, but rather the need for companionship to make meaningful my sometimes meaningless walk through the monotony of modernity.

And so it is that a theology of biological “multiplying and replenishing” is distant to my life. That’s why the mandate to “fill the mountains” doesn’t resonate with me. The puzzle pieces of the theology fail to snap in place with the contours of my daily reality, and therefore the narrative as it stands fails to bring comfort, peace, or stability.

Economic realities have, indeed, come to be among the greatest threats to Mormon theology, for it was a theology whose pieces evolved to match a different reality than the one we face today.  Words spoken in a different economic context seem not just foreign, but silly (not to mention sometimes frightening) to me.

Another quote from the Journal of Discourses seems relevant at this point.

“The words contained in this Bible are merely a history of what is gone by; it was never given to guide the servant of God in the course he should pursue, any more than the words and commandments of God, given to a generation under one set of circumstances, would serve for another generation under another set of circumstances. There must be something to suggest or to draw forth the command to answer the circumstance under which we are placed at the time.”
Orson Hyde, 1854

Our current circumstances differ greatly from those of the early Mormons. The pressures and challenges facing modern families are completely different. And so we must examine anew the question of marriage and family. If we are to be a people that espouse family values, then what do family values even mean?

As I’ve written before, I stand that family values have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with commitment. A family is a group of people that love and commit to each other. Marriage is a form of commitment between two consenting adults, who in turn commit to their children. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Some are divorced, and for some, marriage never even played a role. Some children are raised by grandparents, and some are adopted by gay and lesbian parents. The most important part in the equation—the part that I would argue makes families uniquely salvific—is the commitment. A dynamic Mormonism would embrace families of every type, and endow them with the principles to strengthen the families they have instead of shaming them because their families do not match the prophetic ideal.

And while parts of Mormonism may be outdated relics from a world where building and governing kingdoms defined the realities of its participants, other parts are directly relevant and needed in our world today. The purpose of Mormonism doesn’t have to be “that we may fill the mountains.” It can be forgiveness, fidelity, and charity. It can be service, family-time, and love. It can be about singing together, bringing casseroles to neighbors, and visiting people in the hospital. It can be about sharing-time, weblos, and miamaids. It can be about mourning together, comforting each other, and always remembering Christ. These are the gifts that Mormonism can give to a world that suffers the weight of finding itself amidst broad changes in lifestyle and economic activity. These are the building blocks that made my life growing up and that shape my love for the faith that built me.

Mormonism is not incompatible with loving, same-sex relationships. But parts of it are incompatible with modernity, because they weren’t made for it. And I believe that those parts are changing. And I believe they will continue to change.