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Mormonism and polygamy/Requirement for exaltation
Plural marriage as a requirement for exaltation
Summary: Some Church leaders taught that plural marriage was a requirement for those wishing to enter the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. Because the Church does not currently practice plural marriage, some claim this means that either the leaders were wrong, or that current members are not destined for exaltation.
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- Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual: "Do not speculate about whether plural marriage is a requirement for the celestial kingdom"
- Gospel Topics: "During the years that plural marriage was publicly taught, all Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God"
- Charles W. Penrose (Improvement Era): "it is not stated that plural marriage is thus essential"
- Question: Did early Mormon leaders teach the plural marriage was a requirement for exaltation?
- Question: Because Mormons do not currently practice plural marriage, does this mean that early leaders who taught that is was required were wrong?
- Question: If early Church leaders taught that plural marriage was required, does this mean that current members are not capable of achieving exaltation?
- Question: Does D&C 132 state that polygamy is required for our exaltation?
Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual: "Do not speculate about whether plural marriage is a requirement for the celestial kingdom"
Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, LESSON 140:
Do not speculate about whether plural marriage is a requirement for the celestial kingdom. We have no knowledge that plural marriage will be a requirement for exaltation.
Gospel Topics: "During the years that plural marriage was publicly taught, all Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God"
Gospel Topics on LDS.org:
During the years that plural marriage was publicly taught, all Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God. Not all, however, were expected to live it. Indeed, this system of marriage could not have been universal due to the ratio of men to women. Church leaders viewed plural marriage as a command to the Church generally, while recognizing that individuals who did not enter the practice could still stand approved of God. Women were free to choose their spouses, whether to enter into a polygamous or monogamous union, or whether to marry at all. Some men entered plural marriage because they were asked to do so by Church leaders, while others initiated the process themselves; all were required to obtain the approval of Church leaders before entering a plural marriage.
Charles W. Penrose (Improvement Era): "it is not stated that plural marriage is thus essential"
Charles W. Penrose in the September 1912 Improvement Era:
Question 4: Is plural or celestial marriage essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come?
Answer: Celestial marriage is essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come, as explained in the revelation concerning it; but it is not stated that plural marriage is thus essential.
Question: Did early Mormon leaders teach the plural marriage was a requirement for exaltation?
Some 19th century Church leaders taught that plural marriage was a requirement for those wishing to enter the highest degree of the celestial kingdom
To obey the Lord's commands in all things is necessary for exaltation. (Our inevitable failure to live perfectly requires the grace of Christ's atonement.) Members of the Church in, say, 1860 who refused to follow the counsel of prophets and apostles put their spiritual standing in jeopardy. Likewise, members who refuse to obey present counsel are at risk.
Question: Because Mormons do not currently practice plural marriage, does this mean that early leaders who taught that is was required were wrong?
The purpose of modern prophets is to give the Saints the will of God in their particular circumstances
Joseph Smith wrote specifically of the issue of plural marriage:
This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed...in obedience there is joy and peace unspotted, unalloyed; and as God has designed our happiness—and the happiness of all His creatures, he never has—He never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which He has designed, and which will not end in the greatest amount of good and glory to those who become the recipients of his law and ordinances. 
LDS doctrine also holds that the prophet, when speaking in an official capacity, speaks on behalf of the Lord:
whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same. (DC 1:38)
Critics of the Church often come out of an inerrantist background, or draw on arguments first formulated by religious inerrantists or fundamentalists. In an inerrantist religion, God's instructions cannot change with circumstances—if they did, then the Biblical record would not be sufficient, on its own, to guide us. Since inerrantists require, above all, that the Bible be the sole authority, they must assume that God's requirements are always the same.
However, even the Bible gives many examples of God giving new instructions because of new circumstances, or contravening previous instructions:
- Noah (but no other prophet) was to build an Ark (Genesis 6:14)
- Moses implemented the Passover, which was hitherto unknown (Exodus 3:12-28)
- Jesus revoked the celebration of Passover, and modified the ordinance and its performance at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19)
- Hosea was commanded to marry a prostitute as a sign to Israel Hosea 1:1-3
- Jesus told his disciples only to preach to Israelites (Matthew 10:5-6, Matthew 15:24)
- The Lord later told the prophet (Peter) to preach to all people (Acts 10:14-28)
In each case, failure to obey carried significant penalties. Yet, when proper authority altered or rescinded a command, spiritual disaster followed those who did not obey the new instructions.
President John Taylor said:
Where did this commandment come from in relation to polygamy? It also came from God. It was a revelation given unto Joseph Smith from God, and was made binding upon His servants. When this system was first introduced among this people, it was one of the greatest crosses that ever was taken up by any set of men since the world stood. Joseph Smith told others; he told me, and I can bear witness of it, "that if this principle was not introduced, this Church and kingdom could not proceed." When this commandment was given, it was so far religious, and so far binding upon the Elders of this Church that it was told them if they were not prepared to enter into it, and to stem the torrent of opposition that would come in consequence of it, the keys of the kingdom would be taken from them. When I see any of our people, men or women, opposing a principle of this kind, I have years ago set them down as on the high road to apostacy, and I do to-day; I consider them apostates, and not interested in this Church and kingdom. 
Question: If early Church leaders taught that plural marriage was required, does this mean that current members are not capable of achieving exaltation?
There is no doctrine in the Church that states that plural marriage is the norm, or that it is something that will be required for exaltation
The fact that the modern Church does not approve of or practice polygamy does not mean that present members of the Church believe that the principle of plural marriage is false—rather, they believe that it is a principle only to be practiced when the Lord commands it for His purposes.(See Jacob 2:27-30.) There is no doctrine in the Church that states that plural marriage is the norm, or that it is something that will be required for exaltation.
Question: Does D&C 132 state that polygamy is required for our exaltation?
The verse that is cited as supporting this cannot be logically read as a support of polygamy being required for exaltation
Some critics have claimed that D&C 132:4 supports the notion that polygamy is required for exaltation in the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The text reads as follows:
For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory
There are a number of problems with the assumption that this supports polygamy. The following points should demonstrate the appropriate context and thus provide a better exegesis of the relevant passages:
- An 1831 revelation through Joseph Smith defines the everlasting covenant as “the fulness of my gospel, sent forth unto the children of men, that they might have life and be made partakers of the glories which are to be revealed in the last days” (D&C 66:2; see also 133:57). All mortal who inherit celestial glory will enter into this covenant (D&C 76:101; D&C 131:2), which is comprised of bonds that cannot be broken (D&C 78:11).
- The everlasting covenant existed even before the world was organized. “Wherefore, I say unto you that I have sent unto you mine everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning” (D&C 49:9; italics added). From the beginning, God has made covenants with mortals on earth and as they comply with them, they are blessed with exaltation (D&C 6:1, 14:7, 132:23). Compliance begins with baptism (D&C 22:1-4) and is completed through temple ordinances including eternal marriage sealings (D&C 131:2, 132:4, 18-20).
- The Lord's pattern is to reveal the everlasting covenant to believers on earth. Then, when it is lost through apostasy, He reveals it again to a living prophet as a “new” covenant. That prophet is authorized to teach and is given priesthood authority to administer the requisite ordinances. Joseph Smith taught “…in all ages of the world, whenever the Lord has given a dispensation of the priesthood to any man by actual revelation, or any set of men, this power has always been given” (D&C 128:9).
- The scriptures indicate that this covenant was made with Adam (Moses 6:54-55), Enoch (JST Genesis 9:21-23, 13:13), Noah (Genesis 9:16), Abraham (Genesis 17:7, 13, 19), Jacob (1 Chronicles 16:17), and Moses and the Children of Israel (Leviticus 24:8, Numbers 25:13, Jeremiah 32:40). Although Christ came in the meridian of time, He is the mediator of this covenant (Hebrews 13:20). Joseph Smith taught that the everlasting covenant would be reestablished through him (D&C 1:17-22; see also 15) “to be a light to the world, and to be a standard for my people, and for the Gentiles to seek to it, and to be a messenger before my face to prepare the way before me” (D&C 42:9).
- The first public references to the new and everlasting covenant of marriage came in May 1843 when the Prophet taught that “[w]e have no claim in our eternal comfort in relation to eternal things unless our actions and contracts and all things tend to this end.” Then two months later, on July 16, he became more specific. According to William Clayton, “He [Joseph Smith] showed that a man must enter into an everlasting covenant with his wife [notice the use of the singular] in this world or he will have no claim on her in the next.”
- The verses surrounding verse 4 explain that once the covenant is revealed to a people, this covenant must be obeyed—that is, once the sealing ordinance is introduced among God’s followers on earth, they must marry according to that covenant or incur divine condemnation. The revelation reads:
4 For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.
5 For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world.6 And as pertaining to the new and everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.
- Later verses in the revelation demonstrate that the “covenant” that must be obeyed is eternal marriage, not plural marriage. Verse 19 promises exaltation to a man who marries a wife monogamously by proper authority and they live worthily. The threat of damnation in these verses is directed at individuals who have the opportunity to be sealed in eternal marriage, but instead choose a civil union or some other form of matrimony. They are “damned” in the sense that they “remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity” (D&C 132:17) and are not married in the next life. This threat of eternal consequences is similar to that accompanying other covenants and ordinances. For example, a person cannot reject baptism when the opportunity is presented and thereafter expect a second chance to accept it without penalties (see Alma 34:33-35; D&C 45:2).
- The revelation further explains how a husband and “a wife” will be exalted if they are sealed by proper authority and they live worthily: “Verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, . . . [it] shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things” (D&C 132:19). Modern polygamists are all condemned because their marriages are not authorized. See D&C 132:18, 38.
Verse 19 does make use of the indefinite article "a wife" instead of a possessive pronoun (i.e. "his wife") or the definite article (i.e. "the wife" which wouldn't make sense grammatically), but that can simply be because both monogamous and polygamous marriages are in harmony with the covenant.
What all of these points should demonstrate is that the covenant of eternal marriage was necessary for exaltation and not specifically polygamous sealings.
D&C 132 itself that a man must marry a wife "by his word, which is his law". Thus, it is likely that plural marriage was necessary for exaltation when commanded (and exaltation would be an appropriate reward for keeping such an extremely difficult commandment) and it is not necessary for exaltation now since that the commandment was rescinded by the Lord's word to his prophet Wilford Woodruff in 1890.
- "LESSON 140: Doctrine and Covenants 132:1–2, 34–66," Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, 488 (2013).
- "Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah", Gospel Topics (2013)
- "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15:11 (September 1912)
- Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:135. Volume 5 link
- John Taylor, "Our Religion Is From God," (7 April 1866) Journal of Discourses 11:221.
- Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" April 2013 edition
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:4–6