The notion that the family is eternal is central to modern Mormon identity. The definition of the family that has been adopted in this vision is the 20th c. nuclear family. This is in stark contrast to how some early Christians envisioned eternal earthly relationships. It was not the family that was eternal, but friendships. Interestingly, this view may have some resonance in early Mormonism as well.
Classical theories of friendship saw it as an extremely intimate relationship of like minds and shared souls, much more intimate than modern friendships. When early Christians began to seriously theorize about friendship in the 4th c., they took over the vocabulary, virtues and values of the classical philosophical heritage, and attempted to merge it with a Christian ethics. For some, this meant adding an eternal, eschatological perspective on friendship. For Augustine, the heavenly community was made up of friends, not families. There, spirits will be joined in “perfect peace and friendship” (On the Trinity 3.4.9). In Sermon 16, he says, “in that place you shall have God as your friend, you will not be without your closest friend.”
Part of the emphasis on friendship in antiquity, it must be admited, is rooted in a kind of misogyny. Augustine famously said, “if it was company and good conversation Adam needed, it would have been much better arranged to have two men together, as friends, not a man and a woman” (de Gen ad litt. 9.5.9). While mixed-sex friendships were not impossible in antiquity, even among Christians, friendship was generally considered to be something between members of the same sex, and in some cases, males only. Because friendship represented the highest virtues, some considered it to be possible only among the more virtuous sex, males!
While Mormonism now has little to nothing to say about friendship that goes beyond the shallow theorization of broader society about male-female relations, and has adopted the language of friendship to overlap entirely with family relations, so that family relations are imaged through the discursive lens of friendship, this was not always the case. To choose the most famous example, Joseph Smith taught, “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.” Here, it is not family that is reduced to friendship, but friendships which are transformed into family. It is friendship, not family, that has the powerful effect of revolutionizing the world. Such language is not far from Smith’s eschatological vision, I’m sure.
As in antiquity, 19th century American ideals of friendship were rarely mixed-sex, and the homosociality that governed those relationships peformed the division between the sexes. If we are to recover friendship as an ideal, either as a virtue in itself, or an instrument for changing the world for the better, or even as an alternative model for imagining the divine realm, we will need to better theorize mixed-sex relationships. This presents an opportunity, not a problem, for thinking of new and better ways of relating to one another.