Sealings and Adoptions

By March 10, 2018

After talking to some folks about some material in my recent book, a friend suggested I write a short primer on nineteenth-century sealings based on my work.

First some nineteenth-century premises:

  • Heaven is comprised of people sealed together in various ways. People called this construction variations of “the priesthood.”
  • All sealings, regardless of type, are durable, and bestow a measure of “perseverance” (the unpardonable sin notwithstanding).
  • All of the various temple rituals can be performed outside of the temple except child-to-parent/adoption sealings.

Sprouting from these premises, we have some interesting observations of Mormon belief and practice during the period:

  • One cannot be sealed to another person who is not demonstrably a faithful Latter-day Saint (or close enough thereto).

I think this is hard for modern Mormon’s to wrap their heads around. While you could perform proxy baptisms for all of your deceased ancestors, you could not be sealed to them, nor they to each other (in child-to-parent relationships). A living women could also not be sealed to a dead spouse if he hadn’t been a faithful member in mortality (mind you, the converse was not the case). If they didn’t accept the gospel in this life, how could you know that they would be reliable linkages to connect you to the material network of heaven?

There were less than 100 child-to-parent sealings performed in Nauvoo, primarily the children of church leaders. And while church leaders were willing to perform the balance of the temple liturgy in various places, they did not perform child-to-parent sealings again until the St. George Temple was dedicated in 1877. So if you had a bunch of adult converts (e.g. Nauvoo), most of whose parents were either deceased or disinterested, how would you construct a network of sealings that joined everyone together? The answer was adoption (and I’d argue to a certain exten, polygamy). So in Nauvoo, more adoptions (child-to-parent sealings to non-biological relations) were performed than biological child-to-parent sealings in the temple.

Everybody seamed sort of confused by this over the next couple of decades, but with the St. George Temple, and subsequent pioneer temples, these sealings booted up quite quickly, albeit with some interesting tinkering to the liturgy by BY.

  • Men often got sealed to deceased single female relatives?a lot.

Basically, even if you were faithful in mortality, if you didn’t get sealed to someone, you were out of luck. The temple mattered, and it was definitive. However, the possibility was there to help some people. E.g., as people needed to be sealed to someone to be part of heaven, church leaders directed men to be sealed to deceased single women in their family trees. Because women were supposed to only have one sealing, however, deceased single men were out of luck. If someone didn’t have a sealing performed by an authorized minister, then no sealings were possible.

  • Things have changed a lot, it seems.

Indeed, they have. Wilford Woodruff announced a revelation in 1894 which said we should perform child-to-parent sealings for all of our deceased relatives. The way that he justified this change was the assertion of Universalism. In GenCon when he announced the revelation he declared that “there will be few if any” who don’t accept the gospel eventually, and consequently be reliable linkages within the network of heaven. There were still problems?namely the folks that were out of luck finding and maintaining relationships in mortality. There were some really interesting attempts to address the challenge, but a premise emerged that took the twentieth century theology by storm:

  • God is just, and will not deny any blessings from the faithful, even if they don’t receive them in mortality.

This required a deemphasis on perseverance, and pushed Mormonism a lot closer to Protestant conceptions of heaven. That is the urgency was not to create a material heaven now, the urgency was to be worthy to get heaven when the time came.

  • By the end of the nineteenth century “priesthood” was no long a dominant way of looking at the work of the Temple liturgy.

This has a lot of implications for things like the temple/ecclesiastical restrictions on Black church members during the period. It also opened up the possibilities for new ways of looking at priesthood in the twentieth century.


If you are interested in the details and sources, you can check out chapters 1-2 of The Power of Godliness and my article on adoption.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. J. When you say “perseverance” do you mean the same thing as a Calvinist? How do you define it?

    Comment by jpv — March 11, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

  2. jpv, that is an important question, considering the baggage that term has. My argument is that as heaven is comprised of sealings, and that as sealings endure despite earth and hell, then one’s position in heaven is assured despite earth and hell. The evidence for this is in various documentary sources, but the 1843 polygamy revelation is pretty explicit on the matter, but also various contemporaneous letters, journals, and other documents.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 11, 2018 @ 8:46 pm

  3. Thanks, J, for sharing this helpful distillation of hard-earned knowledge.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — March 12, 2018 @ 9:27 am


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