When the Mormon Jesus Was Married

It is a staple of anti-Mormon literature (and evangelical countercult literature more generally) that the Mormon Jesus is not the Christian Jesus.

One subject that repeatedly surfaces in such arguments is that nineteenth-century Mormon leaders believed that Jesus married, married more than once, and had children. As the film The God Makers explains, “Mormon apostle Orson Pratt taught that after Jesus Christ grew to manhood, he took at least three wives, Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene. Through these wives, the Mormon Jesus, from whom Joseph Smith claimed direct descent, supposedly fathered a number of children.” It’s an effective critique of Mormonism, as most Christian viscerally recoil from the idea of a married Savior, let alone a polygamous Jesus. 

I wanted to know how common these ideas were among nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints. In my research for The Mormon Jesus: A Biography, I discovered that the notion was rather common and apparently uncontroversial within the church. Leaders who taught that Jesus was married included: Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, Jedediah Grant, Brigham Young, Joseph F. Smith, George Q. Cannon. I could not find any example of church leaders opposing the idea, though it’s quite possible some did.

Orson Hyde (longtime President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) was among the most persistent exponents of a married Jesus. For Hyde, as for many other church leaders, Jesus himself was the bridegroom at Cana, the wedding at which he turned water into wine. Why else would Jesus have been so concerned about the wine shortage? Hyde claimed to know his scripture. Indeed, he bragged of having memorized the Bible in English, German, and Hebrew, and he insisted that the Bible taught that Jesus had fathered children, fulfilling the prediction of Isaiah that “he shall see his seed.”

Hyde, Pratt, and other Latter-day Saint leaders used other arguments from scripture, but they also reasoned that Jesus Christ would have fulfilled all of the commands given by God for the salvation of men. Joseph F. Smith once said that he did not think “that Jesus who decended through Polygamous families from  Abraham down & who fulfilled all the Law even baptism by immersion would have lived and died without being married.” And Jesus had set an example for future generations by marrying a number of women. The Latter-day Saints, or at least some of them, were among their Savior’s descendants.

Where does the story go from here? After the abandonment of additional plural marriages in the LDS Church, Latter-day Saint leaders publicly dropped the idea of a married Jesus, quickly. It was a potential source of embarrassment. Some church leaders taught the idea privately over the course of the twentieth century.

By contrast, the idea of a married and polygamous Jesus persisted among those Latter-day Saints who persisted with polygamy. Ogden Kraut, for example, published a book in 1969 titled Jesus Was Married.

No doubt some percentage of contemporary Latter-day Saints continue to believe in a married Savior. But especially as the church expands internationally, the idea is probably increasingly uncommon.

What should one make of this? There isn’t time for a full discussion here, but here are a few thoughts:

1. The New Testament and early Christian writings lead me to believe that Jesus was probably not married. Clement of Alexandria, writing in the late second century, observed that some Christians “proudly say that they are imitating the Lord who neither married nor had any possession in this world.” For a full discussion of the subject, see Anthony Le Donne’s helpful The Wife of Jesus.

2. That Latter-day Saints preached this in the nineteenth century is not surprising. In that century and in the twentieth, several Mormon leaders commented that Jesus would have performed all of the ordinances that God requires for human exaltation. Those ordinances, for Latter-day Saints, include sealing in marriage. Thus, Jesus would have married, just as Jesus submitted to baptism. More basically, it’s not surprising that nineteenth-century Mormons partly remade Jesus in their own image. Many other groups of Christians have done the same.

3. When discussing Mormon beliefs, it is important to distinguish between the statements of nineteenth-century church leaders and the beliefs of contemporary church members (or leaders). Given the high regard in which Latter-day Saints hold their former leaders, those statements are not irrelevant, but they are not simple guides to contemporary beliefs or teachings. Indeed, contemporary Latter-day Saint beliefs about Jesus Christ far more closely resemble those of Protestant or Catholic Christians than was the case in the second half of the nineteenth century.

4. While I do not think there is solid biblical evidence for a married Jesus, I don’t think Christians need to reflexively recoil from the idea. Most Christians imagine an entirely asexual Savior, which is not easy to square with the Christian belief that Jesus “in all things” was “made like unto his brethren,” that Jesus is both “perfectly God” and “perfectly human.”

 

 

 

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  • DivineWind

    I’m half way through “Mormon Jesus” and I’m enjoying it immensely, almost as much as I enjoyed “Pioneer Prophet.”

    And I appreciate this insightful essay as well, though I must point out that the “Da Vinci Code” pretty much settled the question about Christ’s status as a husband and a father. I don’t know how, in all of your research, you could have possibly missed that!?!

  • John Turner

    Well, you haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet!

    Thanks for the kind words.

  • tyson355

    A few more hints that Jesus could have been married. Jesus and His parents were known to properly follow all the Jewish customs of the day. If that is true, included in those customs would be that of the father arranging for his son’s marriage, as early as 16 years old; which means that Jesus could have been married for as many as 10 to 15 years before He started His ministry.
    Also, during His ministry, none of those critical of Jesus made any accusations of Him not following the strict tradition of marriage; possibly because they knew that He was married. It is interesting to note also that Jesus was referred to by a title only given to married teachers, that of Rabbi(John 1:38, 49; 6:25).
    The fact that it was to Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appeared after His death, rather than to His Apostles, would suggest that she might have been His wife. She called Him, “Rabboni,” an Aramaic term sometimes reserved for one’s husband (John 20:1-18).
    Mary Magdalene was often referred to as “woman” The Greek word for “woman” and “wife” is the same. Translators must rely upon the context in deciding how to translate it. Sometimes, the translation is arbitrary. When Mary is referred to as a “woman” who followed Jesus, it can just as easily be translated as “wife”.

  • Beth Allison Barr

    I don’t think Jesus was married (for a lot of reasons–in fact, I would strongly argue that the New Testament and early church provide sufficient evidence that Jesus was single). But I wonder if the ‘recoiling’ of Christians from the very idea stems from Augustinian interpretations about original sin and his association between sex and sin. The idea that sex itself is sinful, which pervaded early medieval and medieval Christianity, certainly would make Christians gasp in horror at those proposing a married Jesus.

  • John Turner

    Absolutely.

  • sfcanative

    “Truth is reason, truth eternal, tells me . . .” Was He not the Example? Was He not on earth to live all of the commandments as an example? Isn’t one of the Ten Mosaic Laws multiply and replenish the earth?

  • stefanstackhouse

    Another possibility that nobody ever seems to consider is that Jesus HAD been married but had become a widower by the time He began his ministry. We know nothing about him between the Temple incident and His encounter with John the Baptist. It was more than enough time to do what virtually all Jewish men would have done at the time: get married. It would also have been more than enough time to experience the tragedy that was all too common right up to the last century: a wife dying in childbirth, or soon thereafter, along with the child. This did happen a lot, and it is the sort of thing that would not be talked about very much. There may be more than one reason why the scriptures are silent about this time period.

  • John Turner

    In the book by Anthony Le Donne I reference above, he raises what you suggest as a possibility.

  • philipjenkins

    A couple of years ago, I did a blog on this at this site.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2012/09/jesuss-wife/

    Part of that read as follows:

    But can we not read the canonical four gospels as evidence of Jesus’s unmarried state, if not a religiously-based celibacy? The gospels, clearly, never mention a wife, and if she had existed, it is likely that she would feature in any one of a number of passages. We think for instance of moments where locals say they know this Jesus – they know his mother, his brothers and sisters. They tell him how worried his family is about him – but again, never a wife. Why? Really, there are three plausible reasons:

    1.Jesus really was married, but all four gospel writers deliberately and explicitly chose for whatever reason not
    to mention the wife, to conceal her existence and paint her out of the picture. Some speculate that this amnesia arose from early power struggles in the Christian community, leading to the intentional exclusion of Mary Magdalene.

    2.Jesus indeed had been married, but his wife had died before he began his ministry, the era of interest to the evangelists. His marital history was not relevant to them.

    3.Jesus was never married.

    I have a very difficult time with the first of these explanations,
    because it is so utterly unsupported, and because sweepingly successful conspiracy theories are so implausible. The wife left not a trace in any of the four gospels, not to mention anywhere else in the New Testament or the Apostolic Fathers? Also, there is ample reason to explain why later writers postulated the Mary Magdalene link, because their theologies so often demanded a kind of spiritual gender balance, and a role for feminine figures to balance male. Jesus had to be given a female counterpart, and Mary was the obvious figure in the gospels to be assigned this role.

    On a minor note, it is interesting that the early church placed such heavy weight on blood relationship to Jesus, and venerated the descendants of his brothers. Nobody, though, ever cited a child of Jesus, at least before Dan Brown. It is quite possible that Jesus and a hypothetical wife had no surviving issue, but there is no evidence for the gospel writers having suppressed a whole family. If they had existed, we would have heard about them.

    I can say nothing about the second explanation, which remains wholly unknowable.

    But the third, an argument for celibacy, is quite possible given what we know about some of the Jewish mystical traditions at this time, and the existence of celibacy among the contemporary Essenes and the Dead Sea sect.

    I would suggest, then, that the gospels themselves do make the case for a Jesus who was unmarried, if not necessarily celibate.

  • John Turner

    Thanks, Philip. It’s by far the most logical explanation to me as well.

  • Linda K

    Excellent points. I was just reading a book by a feminist author who claims that Jesus “shocked” people because he was single, which made me wonder if the author had ever read the Gospels, because there is certainly nothing to indicate that his being single shocked anyone. Given what Paul wrote about marriage and singleness, I think it’s highly likely that he might have been married also.

  • JQ

    The Bride of Christ is the Church.

  • senile_old_fart

    Having a polygamous Jesus would justify their own polygamy. We remake God in our own image with great regularity.