Joseph Smith (1805–1844)

Seth R. Payne has posted Mormonism and Same-Sex Marriage: Towards a Mormon Theology of Gender.  Payne’s article chronicles the theological tenets that make acceptance of same-sex marriage in the present-day Mormon Church a virtual impossibility—yet he also suggests that there is reason to believe this position, at least in theory, could change.  The piece adds additional context to my post on the recent book, LDS in the USA, which can be viewed here.

Brigham Young (1801–1877)

Most people know that Mormons and the institutionalized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints played an integral role in the passage of Proposition 8, which overturned the ruling of the California Supreme Court’s decision in In re Marriage Cases, 183 P.3d 384 (Cal. 2008) that prohibiting same-sex marriage was a violation of the California and United States’ constitutions.  See Jesse McKinley & Kirk Johnson, Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage, N.Y. Times, Nov. 15, 2008, at A1.  Donations by Mormons were instrumental in mobilizing the forces that supported Proposition 8’s passage.  In certain respects, Payne articulates exactly why such donations were crucial to Mormon theological integrity.

For more on Payne’s exposition of these tenets of the Mormon Church, please follow the jump.

Payne argues that Brigham Young, successor to Smith as leader of the Mormon Church, “sexualized” God, which view eventually led to the present-day opposition of Mormonism to same-sex marriage.  While I direct the reader to the article to fully understand this difficult concept in the context of this popularly misunderstood and scholastically understudied faith, Payne lucidly illustrates the origins of this theological concept through the teachings of Joseph Smith as filtered through Brigham Young.

In essence, Mormonism understands that God is, in fact, a human being—an exalted and eternal man, and thus comprised of flesh; bones; and, indeed, a sexual nature.  Each human being has the potential to become exalted in this same manner—a God in his own right:  “God’s children represent an eternal expansion . . . of God’s glory,” says Payne; that is, human increase adds to the expansion of the “plurality of Gods.”  This conception led in part to Smith’s practice of polygamy—the cementing of his and his progeny’s dynasty of Godly beings, each reigning—as God reigns—in thrones of glory with creative and divine powers.  One can understand, then, why same-sex marriage, which generally precludes procreation, would be anathema to Mormon tenets:  In essence, its lack of procreative potential defeats the very foundation of the Mormon faith’s pluralistic conception of a godhead comprised of many exalted human beings.

But Payne contrasts Brigham Young’s teaching with Joseph Smith’s, suggesting that a return to Smith’s might, one day, make the Mormon Church more amenable to same sex marriage.

According to Payne, Smith taught that what was important was the family and its eschatological significance in realizing each human’s godly and, ultimately, creative potential.  That is, in Payne’s view, Smith’s conception of male-female relations was familial and dynastic rather than—as was Young’s—sexual and procreative. To elucidate, Payne argues that for Smith, the Mormon command of “eternal increase” was not exclusively a reference to increased offspring, but a command that human beings access the promise of the Abrahamic covenant through marriage and familial life.  While not likely part of Joseph Smith’s ideology, in contemporary thinking, marriage and family life may be possible in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

Payne illustrates, on the other hand, a break from this view in Young’s teaching, where it is not just the familial basis, but the sexual, procreative basis that drives this production of future beings who will, eventually, sit on “thrones of glory” as does God—as gods.

So, Payne offers two reasons for eventual amenability in the LDS church to same-sex marriage.  First, Brigham Young’s sexualized God-man may, according to Payne, be a mischaracterization (“a teaching yet to be discarded”)  of Joseph Smith’s familial, dynastic God-man—and so in Payne’s understanding, whether a familial couple is of the same or different sex should affect only Young’s view, not Smith’s.  Moreover, Payne asserts that openness to change is a peculiar characteristic of the Mormon Church.  (“Mormonism proudly boasts of ‘continuing revelation’ which may, as God sees fit, expand current understandings or discard previous held notions or practices.”)  Ultimately, Payne suggests, forward progress might, paradoxically, be attained by looking at the thinking of the earliest Mormon teachers, not its later ones.

—DRS, CLR Fellow

4 thoughts on “LDS in the USA: Its Theology of Gender and the Problem of Same-Sex Marriage

  1. Thank you for writing such a comprehensive review of my paper. I originally presented this at the mid-Atlantic meeting of the American Academy of Religion. My views are certainly unorthodox but, at the very least, plausible and given the way Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage, perhaps very likely. As I point out in the footnotes of my paper the only reference I can find regarding Joseph Smith and “celestial procreation” come from Parley P Pratt but this source, while not incredibly late, comes from the early Utah period when the justification for polygamy was being developed. I have posted this paper as a working paper at SSRN:

    Also, anyone with questions and or comments is free to contact me at

  2. I must confess to a great lack of insight into Mormonism, but I do find this argument puzzling. Actually, it is puzzling in two entirely different ways.

    The first mystery is that the dogmas promulgated by the founders of the Latter Day Saints are not deemed to be infallible. Since, I assume, no further scriptures are expected, there is no other way to grow in understanding except by means of the proclaimed dogmas. But if they are uncertain, that seems to leave on rather adrift.

    The second mystery has to do with the nature of God. I am not in a position to comment of the LDS dogma of the nature of God. You believe whatever you believe. But it is interesting I think to compare this doctrine with Christian doctrine on the nature of God. We believe that in God there are three distinct persons, one of whom has both a human and a divine nature. Notwithstanding, since the nature of God cannot be qualified in any way, that one like the others is a divine being. He is not a human being. (“All things are possible for God.”)

    Finally, whatever our differences may be we Mormons and Catholics stand unequivocally for the sacrament of marriage as ordained by God. For this alliance we all give sincere thanks.

  3. Hi Joel,

    In Mormonism new scripture *is* expected. Thomas S. Monson, the current president of the LDS Church could, in theory, announce a new revelation to the Church at any time. If the body of the Church accepted it in a general conference, it could be placed into the LDS canon. Mormonism’s scripture is dynamic. In practice, not much has been added since Joseph Smith but there are a few examples.

    Mormonism also has a completely naturalistic view of God. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct individuals according to Mormon doctrine. Both God and Jesus have bodies of flesh and bones and human beings, are of the same “species” as God. This is probably Mormonisms’ most radical doctrine when compared to Catholocism and mainline Protestantism. The Mormon conception of the nature of God represents a complete rejection of the Nicene and other creeds.

    If/how/when the LDS Church adjusts its views on same-sex marriage is a mystery. If change does come, I wouldn’t expect it anytime soon.


  4. Dear Seth,

    Thanks for your very illuminating comments. The theory of further revelation you cite is quite similar to the one espoused by the Catholic Church, except of course there is no necessity for the Church as a whole to consciously adopt doctrines promulgated by the pope. The Church has had many Councils through the centuries, and the principles they adopt are also deamed to be infallible.

    In that case, I think it would be unwise to speculate about what seem to be ways around doctrines promulgated by Brigham Young. From time to time various Catholics — mostly nuns it seems — engage in the same kind of speculation. Most of us however accept that our call — Catholics’ and Mormons’ call — is to do the wil of our father in heaven, whether or not the nuns approve. However, is all things our nuns are a great gift and blessing to the Church.

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