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.
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.”