Death, Sealing Power, and “Trusting into Transformation”

Death, Sealing Power, and “Trusting into Transformation” September 3, 2015

Joseph Smith's death mask.
Joseph Smith’s death mask.

[Preliminary note: This is the first of two posts relaying insights from a few years of reflecting on Mormon ideas about salvation and family in light of Sam Brown’s masterful study of early Mormonism, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death.]

My favorite invocation/description of what Mormons call “the sealing power” comes from the eulogy that inspired the King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith’s boldest challenge to the brand of Calvinism popular among many early Americans.[1] Rather than insist, whatever the cost, on the absolute sovereignty of an arbitrary God, Joseph wryly encouraged his followers to “use a little Craftiness and seal all you can and when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven.” As Sam Brown writes in his dense and fascinating In Heaven as It Is on Earth, Joseph’s depiction of the Calvinist God is a folksy caricature. It was less about accurately representing God (Mormon or Calvinist) and more about provoking thought about an important theological question. As with his well-known quip about his preference for hell with his friends over heaven alone, Joseph was making a serious point while scandalizing folks with a joke about cornering God with a contract. His point, I take it, was that God desired his children to have confidence in the face of prevailing anxieties about salvation and reassurance that life in the flesh with friends and family could persist after death.[2]

One of Brown’s fundamental arguments in In Heaven is that this message—that God’s power is sufficient to reunite relationships in the face of death—was central to early Mormonism. He marshals a stunning array of sources that suggest that Joseph’s revelations were in large part catalyzed by and responsive to the various troubles caused by death—the personal (the death of his brother Alvin affected Joseph throughout his life), the communal (the King Follett Discourse, like other significant sermons from Joseph, was provoked by the funeral of a member, King Follett, of the early Mormon community), and the theological (death without baptism, for example). Brown shows how Joseph’s revelations can be understood as a response to the deadening anxiety that defined common Protestant responses to death in antebellum America. If you inhabited this culture, worry about a dying family member’s salvation inhabited you, and it persisted if your loved one failed to die with the confident calm that was taken as a sure sign of God’s acceptance. And this worry, Brown explains, was a natural element of the age’s widespread commitment to a rigid sense of Providence. Love and allegiance to God were to be prized above all, and events were in His hands. This meant that the sudden death of a young child could be taken as a sign that one’s attachment to family inappropriately rivaled one’s attachment to God.

With his playful recommendation of craftiness, Joseph rejects the premise of these anxieties, that God owes no duty to bless his children. I hear in his response to guilt about attachment to kin and deadening religious anxiety something like George MacDonald’s claim that “The idea that God would be God all the same, as glorious as he needed to be, had he not taken upon himself the divine toil of bringing home his wandered children, had he done nothing to seek and save the lost, is false as hell.” But more important for this post is the way Joseph’s description of the sealing power offers a way of describing his perplexing legalism. There are various ways to account for Joseph’s frequent use of the language of law and government, some more favorable to his character and intentions (desire to build community) and some less (lust for power). Brown’s book helped me to see another possibility—namely, that the language of law and government was suited to the task of reassuring the saints that God would honor their sacred relationships.

However right that answer may be, I think that appraising contemporary Mormon culture with it in mind might be useful. Does the sealing power, along with other temple ordinances, provide the kind of divine reassurance of God’s investment in our relationships that enables a less worry-ridden enjoyment of them? The death culture of Joseph’s day involved a greater intimacy with various kinds of death than many of us have in the age of modern medicine. But different as health and mortality was in the 19th century, Mormons are still confronted with the troubles of death (and some in conditions that are not radically different from Joseph’s day). Even the most affluent Mormons live in modern cultures that likely avoid reflection about death or indulge audacious fantasies that it can be conquered by technology. In my judgment at least, most of us still fear the Reaper.

Still, in my experience, Mormon temple theology and practice often produce a profound reassurance of resurrection and post-mortal family reunion. My own large Mormon family, for instance, greeted the recent death of my grandmother with hopeful tears. The sadness of losing her was swallowed up in the joy of gathering and celebrating her life. She lived long and died without too much struggle, so her death was easier to face than many others. But I have witnessed countless Mormon families deal with more difficult deaths with a similar sense of hope, invoking trust in Christ’s resurrection and temple ordinances as the source of their reassurance.

Such reassurance is not universal, of course. Death can be extremely difficult, even for the most faithful. Sometimes our common legalistic framing of temple ordinances even compounds that anxiety. Who is sealed to whom? What about relationships that have not been (or cannot be) sealed? Why are you not doing your family’s temple work? People are waiting in the spirit world to be baptized for the dead! These anxieties can certainly sap us of strength and confidence or distract us from the grace of life and the needs of the living.

What has been more concerning to me recently, however, is the way in which our common discourse about and orientation towards temple ordinances fail to address anxieties we all face relating to time and change. This failure is especially disappointing in light of Mormon ideas about heaven. These ideas are, I think, implicit in many things that Mormons generally say and do, but they are often obscured by the typically narrow conception of ordinances commonly employed in our public discourse. Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple, the devotional follow-up to In Heaven, is a fantastic spur to a broadening of that conception.[3]

Instead of seeing ordinances as “merit badges” to be earned individually, Brown encourages Mormons to see them as they see heaven—that is, as essentially relational (74). “Belonging to heaven,” in Mormonism, is “belonging to other people” (147). To be sealed together in the temple, then, is to make “a sort of connection within time that operates to obliterate time” (82). Families can last forever because temple ordinances are divinely designed to create “relationships strong enough to trust into transformation” (24).

I love that phrase—trust into transformation—for two reasons. First, it is a personal one for Brown. In the book, he describes how being sealed to his wife has worked to conquer the anxiety he felt when they were married. “[W]e loved each other and felt a deep kinship,” he explains, “but we both were hesitant about marriage. We both remember, sheepishly now, looking at each other across the temple altar in utter, wordless panic. Inside my head ran a confused conversation about whether I should stay or go” (22). He stayed, and his ensuing family life has been rich and rewarding.

The other reason is that the idea of “trusting into transformation” captures what temple ordinances might offer us by way of wisdom and insight about the gift of eternal life. In Mormonism, heaven is not only relational; it’s also material and temporal. Like ordinances, it requires bodies, elements, time. Heaven is a story and a project, one made possible by God’s grace-filled creation. We miss all of this if we think of ordinances as mere legal requirements that ensure that family life will be just what we want it to be after death, that we’ll get everything back just as we remembered it. Being crafty doesn’t free us of the demands of life. In Mormonism, life after death entails all kinds of work and transformation, new relationship and communal projects. In this light, we might think of the sealing power as something that allows us to live abundantly as bodies in time rather than simply obliterating it. Temple ordinances might have something to teach us about the transformation inherent in the gift of an embodied life that God is giving us and will continue to give us, despite the apparent finality and silence of death. If we saw the legalism of ordinances as descriptive of God’s commitment to repairing and renewing life, we might perceive things about eternal life—God’s life—that, in our anxiousness (in the face of both life and death), we fail to see. After all, the logic of the temple is such that everyone will receive the necessary ordinances. So as we repeat the ordinances over and again, I think we are free to ask a more urgent question than “Have we (or they) got the required badge?” Instead, we can wonder, “What do these ordinances mean for us, the human family? How do they teach us to live?”

In his letter on the temple in Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller writes, “You’ll know an ordinance worked when, having passed through its door, you’re no longer sure where you are.” That doesn’t necessarily sound reassuring, but it suggests the possibility of growth, transformation, adventure—key elements of Joseph Smith’s vision of heaven. It also reminds me that anxiety is not always a bad word; Joseph’s revelations chronicle and celebrate “anxious engagement” with life. Finally, it makes me think that the sealing power and ordinances of the temple are about much more than death, more than restoring breath and communion. Maybe they are also about preserving time and memory and the potential for growth and change. The temple, in this light, houses the reassurance we can find in Christ that no moment—of death, sin, or otherwise—can put an end to the promise of our human story. And if that’s true, then perhaps the temple can help us see heaven less as a place inhabited by people who have met a set of requirements, and more as the privilege and experience of belonging to a family: being gathered and gathering, sharing time and a specific history, preparing a home, tending a garden, being forgiven and forgiving, treasuring memories, receiving the kindness of forgetting, teaching and being taught, assembling for a meal, making another’s joys and troubles your own—or trusting that, as Josh Ritter says, “only a full house gonna make it through.”

[1] The eulogy was of King Follett, an early Mormon who had died tragically while digging a well. Joseph preached what came to be known as “The King Follett Discourse” at a church conference a month later.

[2] I should note that my thinking about Brown’s book was challenged and greatly enhanced during the Maxwell Institute Summer Seminar of 2013. Thanks to my friends from Mormon Camp!

[3] It’s also a great spur to enlarging ideas and deepening the practice of faith and repentance.

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