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.
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.