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Mormonism’s Perfect Storm: The Jefferson/Hemings Sealings

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Mormonism has been no stranger to controversy this year, but this week's revelation that the LDS Church posthumously sealed former president Thomas Jefferson to his slave and lover, Sally Hemings, is the ultimate trifecta of bad PR. It's a perfect storm of negative press, combining the three top issues that dog Mormons: racism, polygamy (Jefferson is sealed to both Hemings and his legal wife, Martha), and the ethics of performing rituals for the dead. Here, In Heaven as It Is on Earth author Sam Brown reflects on Mormon temple sealings and the genealogical database. --JKR

By Sam Brown

I have experienced a range of negative emotions since discovering this week that certain Latter-day Saints had entered requests into the church’s genealogical database requesting that certain African American women be “sealed” (a marriage-like ritual intended to assure the persistence of family relationships in the afterlife) by proxy to the men who enslaved and raped them as domestics during the horrifying period of legal American slavery. Some of these requests have resulted in the performance of Mormon proxy sealings on behalf of those relationships, even, it would appear, on behalf of the most famous of slaveholder rapists, Thomas Jefferson and the now famous Sally Hemings.

We should be outraged by this act of base insensitivity, all of us, both inside and outside the LDS Church. The Mormons with whom I have discussed this topic have been uniformly shocked and saddened by this news. Such proxy sealings, whatever their ultimate inspiration or genesis, should have never happened.

With outrage should come understanding, though. When outrageous things happen it is important to try both to criticize and to understand. We criticize to signal what is right and wrong for a community, and we understand in the hopes of bringing our communities into alignment with those standards of right and wrong.

So, in the interest of understanding, how did these proxy sealings come to be?

Sealing, and by extension proxy sealing, represents a mechanism by which Mormons aspire to be members of the vast family of heaven. Originally Mormons understood sealing to represent a copy of the great seal of Christ, by which Christ was understood to claim people as his in a way that guaranteed their salvation in the family of God. In the Mormon extension of the seal of Christ, relationships among human beings could partake of the power of Christ’s seal. Mormons believe that these forms of family attachment will persist in the afterlife. Mormons have always had to struggle with the fact that humans, and their relationships, can be monstrous. There are abusive parents, angry children, hostile or absent or unfaithful or violent spouses. Some observers and participants view with horror the propagation of such relationships through eternity. But the flaws in many difficult relationships differ quantitatively rather than qualitatively from the flaws within each of us. When we imagine ourselves in heaven, we imagine ourselves purged of our base traits and failings, of our occasional monstrosity. It is generally harder for us to imagine other humans in the same terms, particularly when they have disappointed us in life. It is easier to imagine a God who is perfect than a collection of other humans who are perfect. And yet, as Mormons and many traditional Christians understand theology, God can make his children perfect (Mormons and traditional Christians quibble over what precisely that perfection means, but they both endorse a form of human perfection in the afterlife). Even sinners, in this reasoning, will be holy in the heavenly life. Mormon sealing is grounded in the hope and belief that in the afterlife we all of us will be our best selves, and we belong together.

So when Mormons “seal” people, they are hoping, publicly and sacramentally, that human relationships will persist into afterlife and that they will be purged of the imperfections that marked them in life. Mormons historically have seen the often exquisite love of a parent for a child as central to the meaning of life, and although recent rhetoric has emphasized nuclear spousal sealings, the relationships between parents and children seem most central to the Mormon afterlife historically. Many Mormons experience a hunger to maintain all relationships between parents and children through the afterlife. This hope, sometimes so powerful as to sound absurd to outside observers, can lead to “sealings” of men and women who were not happy to be paired in life, a ritual parallel of the couples who stay married despite a desire to divorce “for the children.”

With that background about Mormon sealing, what seems to have gone wrong enough to allow the sealings of enslaved women to the men who raped them? The church members responsible for these rituals have not made public statements of their intentions in submitting the individuals for sealing, so my comments must necessarily be speculative.

First, sealing enslaved women to their owners represents an utter lack of empathy on the part of some Mormons. To attempt to stamp the unions of slaveholder rapists and their raped slaves with the imprimatur of the Church’s good name and priesthood is to not even try to understand the lives of enslaved women, serially raped by the men who owned them according to America’s laws at the time. Rather than censuring men like Thomas Jefferson, who employed something like the mythic droit du seigneur to rape enslaved women within their households, proxy sealing seems to reward the rapist. I imagine that the church members responsible might have viewed it from the perspective of the children, that the children should be with both their parents; they might also have imagined that in the afterlife the misery and injustice of that relationship would be overcome. If such were their motives, I reject them. Some actions must surely invalidate any claims to durable relationships; one must be wholly oblivious to the horrible stain of American slavery to endorse such rituals.

Second, sealing enslaved women to their owners represents poor data validation within the LDS Church’s sprawling genealogical databases. Lack of data validation has been a problem for many years, one that is becoming increasingly public in the last decade. Formal oversight is currently minimal. The church has wanted people to be invested in their ancestors and participating in temple worship and has not wanted to divert resources from other good works to support the laborious oversight and maintenance required to avoid these kinds of inappropriate submissions. Only someone who has managed and cleaned large, integrated datasets can recognize how difficult it will be for the church to improve its data system. Such architectural overhauls of huge datasets can require years and vast sums of money, but it appears to be time for the church to make the necessary changes to police new submissions to their genealogical system. Something as beautiful as the Mormon desire to connect all humanity in the intimacy of family relationships should not be stained by such disregard for the worst of the miseries we humans occasionally inflict upon each other.

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Sam Brown is the author of In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death, published this year by Oxford University Press. He is a critical care physician and an assistant professor at the medical school at the University of Utah.

The image of Thomas Jefferson is used by permission of Shutterstock.com.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: baptism for the dead, flunking sainthood, in heaven as it is on earth: joseph smith and the early mormon conquest of death, jana riess, mormon news, mormonism, mormonism and interracial marriage, proxy sealings in mormon temples, sally hemings, sam brown, thomas jefferson, thomas jefferson sealed in lds temple to sally hemings

Comments

  1. I think that the news is perhaps unfortunate but I think the intention was good, if misguided. We need to look at who the church is TODAY.  The Sisters and Elders that I know are mostly kind, decent, sweet people.  I can dredge up dirt about any group, from the excesses of John Hagee and Benny Hinn, to the molestation of the Catholic priests, to the atrocities of some Muslims. And, once the news was revealed, the First Presidency was swift to take action. There are always scoffers in the wings who are anxious to inflict pain.

  2. The old accusation that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings was revived by Fawn Brodie, previously famous for her biography of Joseph Smith. She was roundly criticized by many other Jefferson historians, but her argument was bolstered when descendants of Hemings and descendants of Jefferson’s brothers were compared for DNA, resulting in the conclusion that either Jefferson or a close male relative had fathered Hemmings’ children.  Hemings herself was the half sister of Jefferson’s wife, having been fathered by his father-in-law.

    Given these facts, it seems likely that any action done to seal Hemings and her children to Jefferson would have been done recently. And it seems to me that the most likely persons to have wanted to establish this link to Jefferson would be a descendant of Hemings.

    Brodie did not depict Hemingsnrelationship with the widower Jefferson as one of master-slave rape, but rather of mutual affection. That is how it was depicted in the movie Jefferson in Paris based on Brodie’s book. And given that historical research and the confirmatory DNA evidence, I think it is possible that at least one of Hemings’ descendants felt entitled to claim a patrimony from a man who, despite his participation in slavery, is one of the most honored men in American history.  If such a descendant also became LDS, it would be a natural result to embody that biological link in a religious one.

    I can personally think of no other reason why anyone would be interested in sealing Hemings to Jefferson.  Until we can identify precisely who sponsored the ordinance, and why, the possibility that it was done by such a descendant of Hemings mitigates my concern. 

    I remember back in the 1960s going with a friend to the old genealogical library which was housed in the former JC Penney building on Main Street in Salt Lake, as he discovered that one of his direct ancestors had been hanged as a horse thief.  With sufficient research, such discoveries are awaiting most of us. How those relationships are handled are difficult questions. They are made even more complex because. Mormons believe that people can repent after death and be transformed through the atoning power of Christ, beyond our own memories of what they were like in life. 

    I am not aware of any Church policy requiring or even suggesting that slaves be married posthumously to their masters.  I agree that there seems to be no justification for doing it, and in the general case it would be highly offensive. On the other hand, I can understand how a particular hypothetical individual couls feel it was justified in this particular case. If that hypothesis is not reality, then I agree that this particular ordinance was ill advised and misguided.

  3. To be blunt ... I am personally offended by the reference of “rape” ... coltakashi said it well ... it may be mutual love, which would be more in keeping with the image we know of Jefferson ... there is no indication anywhere that he is anything else.
    I am very familiar with the Mormonism, and this is one of their official doctrines and I do not agree with it at all ... once you are dead, your life is over and the records are sealed for judgement when He returns.
    Whether it would be condemnation or a praise the Judge will be handing down is His, and His alone.
    In this article I do sense a condemnation of Jefferson’s “extra-martial” affair ... and it is based on, and is a result of the Christian doctrine which is not biblical. In scriptures, the polygamy was never condemned even once, and the rejection of it is a fruit of the Catholic Church’s teachings which have guided and grounded the thinking of the Christians for nearly 2,000 years.
    In case any one of you wonder, I am a restored Jew who had rediscovered my roots and came to realise that what YHWH said in scriptures is just as He said, good and blessed forever.
    May we all learn of His ways and depart from the errors of our ways.
    Shalom

  4. Jana…  Wow. After reading your educational background and reading your blogs, I’m actually impressed with my high school education. What a waste of finger exercise; and I’m working my fingers over in vein as well but…  What is the big deal???  If a sealing is performed in behalf of a deceased person, What is the fuss if you don’t believe the LDS Church has any validity??? Good grief.  One of Gandhi’s sons was in Salt Lake City last month. Everybody was making a big deal of Gandhi being posthumously baptized previous to his son’s visit.

    I watched his son being interviewed with regards to this having happened. He said he “counted it as an honor that the LDS Church would think so highly of his father”. I didn’t see that in your blog…

    Why do so many people care about the LDS caring about people- and Our belief is that those people can do as they with with the ordinance anyway…

    Why don’t you go find something else to blog about; something that you have more experience and knowledge of….

    Z

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