The doctrine of celestial marriage. It is one of the distinctive doctrines of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a doctrine restored as part of the flood of light and truth that came into the world through the prophetic ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is a doctrine of divine promise and eternal glory. The doctrine of celestial marriage is a doctrine for all seasons.
The Promise of Celestial Marriage
Somewhere out there is a Latter-day Saint couple who struggles. Perhaps it is a young couple, several months into marriage, and wondering why the arguments and frustrations seem to mount so quickly despite their love for each other. Maybe it is a husband and wife who have had their third child recently, and sense that the embers of their love and commitment have become cold and in need of fuel. It may be a couple deep in the pain of infidelity and wondering if all is lost for them. Or it perhaps could be an older couple now in the twilight years, with children grown and now gone, and wondering how they have come to this time without the love or affection they once knew. I hope they might read this and ponder again upon the promise that might be theirs: the promise of celestial and continuing love.
In the magnificent King Follett Discourse, the Prophet Joseph Smith stated that he intended to edify [his listeners] with the simple truths from heaven (Comp. by Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 1979, p. 342). He then went on to preach and expound on the nature of God, the immortality of the human spirit, and the relationship between God our Father and us His children. In teaching these doctrines, the Prophet Joseph stated, this is good doctrine. It tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you. They are given to me by the revelations of Jesus Christ. . . . You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life. I know it is good; and when I tell you of these things which were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and rejoice more and more (Comp. by Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 1979, p. 355; emphasis added).
Celestial marriage is a doctrine that bestows upon us the true design of God’s plan for us as His sons and daughters. It is the doctrine that a man and woman who enter by love and faith into this new and everlasting covenant of marriage may have that relationship united forever, joined by the power of God to last beyond the powers of earth and hell forever. It is the promise of a relationship that can be not only a godly relationship, but one day in eternity a godlike relationship.
It is worth our time and attention to live for the fulfillment of such a promise. A celestial reward demands a celestial effort. It is a principle that deserves to be received as sweet, that we might rejoice in its beauty. Yet I am afraid that too often we let this doctrine lie unheeded, even unappreciated, and in our neglect we lose sight of the supernal blessing that God intends for us to enjoy as husbands and wives. We put our relationships in peril when we fail to receive such a doctrine with the thanksgiving and attention it deserves.
Teachings of the Prophet
The Apostle Parley P. Pratt, a companion and follower of Joseph Smith, recounted in expressive detail what a transforming influence it was upon him to learn the doctrine of celestial marriage from the Prophet Joseph. He wrote:
“[Joseph Smith] taught me many great and glorious principles concerning God and the heavenly order of eternity. It was at this time that I received from him the first idea of eternal family organization, and the eternal union of the sexes in those inexpressibly endearing relationships which none but the highly intellectual, the refined and pure in heart, know how to prize, and which are at the very foundation of everything worthy to be called happiness. . . .
“It was from him that I learned that the wife of my bosom might be secured to me for time and all eternity; and that the refined sympathies and affections which endeared us to each other emanated from the fountain of divine eternal love. It was from him that I learned that we might cultivate these affections, and grow and increase in the same to all eternity; while the result of our endless union would be an offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, or the sands of the sea shore. . . .
“I had loved before, but I knew not why. But now I loved with a pureness an intensity of elevated, exalted feeling, which would lift my soul from the transitory things of this groveling sphere and expand it as the ocean. I felt that God was my heavenly Father indeed; that Jesus was my brother, and that the wife of my bosom was an immortal, eternal companion; a kind ministering angel, given to me as a comfort, and a crown of glory for ever and ever. In short, I could now love with the spirit and with the understanding also.” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Revised and Enhanced Edition, 2000, pp. 361-362)
If what the Prophet Joseph teaches is true, that a doctrine which pertains to eternal life and tastes good might lift our souls and cause us to rejoice, then in no case is that more true than with the doctrine of celestial marriage. How often does each one of us, especially those who may have become weary and wandering in their marriage relationships, need to receive such a lift and raise our eyes to a more eternal perspective? This must begin by cultivating a constant and reverent appreciation for this divine doctrine and the immense practical blessings that it can bestow upon us in marriage.
President Wilford Woodruff taught of such truths:
“Principles which have been revealed for the salvation and exaltation of the children of men . . . are principles you cannot annihilate. They are principles that no combination of men [or women] can destroy. They are principles that can never die. . . . They are beyond the reach of man to handle or to destroy. . . . It is not in the power of the whole world put together to destroy those principles.“ (Journal of Discourses, 22:342; emphasis added)
We cannot destroy the doctrine of celestial marriage.
Marriage is ordained to be the principle upon which men and women may create families that last into eternity. The world cannot destroy marriage. They may abandon it or try to change it, but they cannot destroy it. Yet in abandoning it or changing it, the world may find that its own foundations are under threat of destruction. And for each individual man or woman, each couple who struggles to foresee the future of their own marriage, God holds out the promise of a celestial companionship which they themselves may either abandon or seek to attain.
The Highest in Us
The wonderful Latter-day Saint philosopher and scholar, Truman Madsen, once penned a book of essays entitled The Highest in Us. It is a marvelous phrase. He encourages us to understand that often we must see upward in order to see inward (The Highest in Us, 1978, p. viii). We must see the heavenly principles that God has revealed for our salvation, even our exaltation, for us to reach inward and bring forth the divine potential that resides within our souls. The doctrine of celestial marriage stretches us further. It not only reveals to us the potential of the celestial life, the life-in-companionship-with-God, but the foundation of eternal life as the union with an immortal, eternal companion.
The Standard College Dictionary is quite brief in its definition of celestial.
– Celestial – 1. Of or pertaining to the sky or heavens. 2. Of heaven; divine.
A celestial marriage, then, is a marriage as designed by God for divine purposes. Celestial certainly may refer to the intended quality of the marriage, or its potential quality in the eternities, but it also clearly means the type of marriage that God himself has ordained for His children. And, as is so often true, we must come to understand that what God has ordained for us is often quite different than what we might ordain for ourselves. He reminds us:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.“ (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Thankfully, we have been given the light of modern revelation to reveal the heavenly design of marriage, as God the Father has ordained it from the foundation of the world. In Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where this knowledge is revealed, a sharp and powerful distinction highlights the world‘s version of marriage versus God‘s plan for marriage.
The world‘s version:
“Therefore, if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not of force when they are dead, and when they are out of the world; therefore, they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world.” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:15; emphasis added)
The Lord‘s version:
“And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths . . . it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.“ (Doctrine and Covenants 132:19; emphasis added)
How glorious a promise. How magnificent a doctrine. How heavenly a pattern.
Though God has bestowed upon us the doctrine and the promise of an eternal marriage relationship, it is not from its inception a relationship of celestial quality. A marriage is celestial in its potential. God expects us to exercise faith and effort and obedience in seeking to love one another, forgive one another, and to bless one another, as with all blessings in the gospel of Jesus Christ. No marriage becomes an exalted marriage in a day. The constitution of our relationship will probably not be fixed for eternity until we are far beyond the veil. It takes time. And it requires of us the highest in us.
The New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage
The doctrine of celestial marriage is a different kind of covenant, the new and everlasting covenant of marriage (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:2). God does nothing which is not designed to bless and exalt us. Yet He reminds us that “all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof“ (Doctrine and covenants 132:5). His conditions are clear. He asks that we marry, or have our relationship sealed together in marriage, under the direction of one who bears the priesthood of God and exercises its power to join husband and wife in unity within the walls of a holy temple of God.
He tells us that any other covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations that we enter into, unless meeting the conditions He has specified, will be of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead (Doctrine and Covenants 132:7). God does not force us to receive this new covenant. He only invites us to receive it. And yet its power and consequences are endless. In celestial marriage, God has prepared the highest opportunity and glory for us. Do we treasure it? Doctrine and Covenants 88:32 reminds us:
“And they who remain shall also be quickened; nevertheless, they shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received (emphasis added).
That which they might have received. Exaltation. Life eternally in the loving presence of God the Father, and Jesus Christ, His Son. Is that not worth biting our tongues when we wish to criticize a companion? Is it not worth trying once again to forgive when our hearts are weary? Is it not worth striving to repair and reconcile the wounds that may have come into our relationships? These must be individual decisions, but they must be decisions in the light of eternity.
A Family Adventure
Nearly all of the ordinances and covenants that exist in the gospel of Jesus Christ are received individually. Baptism. Confirmation. Sacrament. Priesthood. Endowment. Yet life is not simply an individual venture. It a family adventure. And therein lies the significance of the doctrine of celestial marriage.
When a man and woman come together under the promise of eternal marriage, they follow the injunction of the scriptures:
“Leave [your] father and [your] mother, and shall cleave unto [each other]; and they shall be one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
How is this covenant relationship best illustrated? It is not simply an individual covenant. Prior to marriage each of us exists in one-to-one covenant relationships with the Lord. If we add a spouse and his or her relationship with the Lord, it is often conceptualized so that through the new and everlasting covenant of marriage we complete a triangle with each spouse at one corner tied together and the Lord at the apex. Yet that is perhaps not the best illustration of such a covenant. When you go to the temple and are married in the Lord’s house for time and eternity it is a new and everlasting covenant. (see Doctrine and Covenants 131:2; emphasis added). In that situation you come together in a new relationship before God, in what Elder Boyd K. Packer has called the formation of an eternal unit (The Things of the Soul, 1996, p. 227). That fulfills the revelatory proclamation that they twain (two) shall be one flesh (Doctrine and Covenants 49:16), and in that oneness there is established a family covenant. A husband and wife come together in a covenant that binds them together before the Lord in oneness, and thus a family relationship is established.
It is a covenant that bestows upon a man and a woman the opportunity for an eternal posterity, not only one‘s own children but their childrens’ children and beyond. It bestows upon a couple, jointly as husband and wife, the opportunity to affect the lives of generations yet unborn through your own seed. It is not simply an individual covenant; it is rather a generational covenant. It is the new and everlasting covenant of marriage that brings you into the state of exaltation, in which you have the privilege of eternal family possibilities and eternal family relationships. This covenant is a renewal of the Abrahamic covenant.
Covenants Represent Power
When a couple is married for time and eternity, sealed at an altar in the temple of the Lord as husband and wife, the family covenant established also makes it possible for other covenants to be established. For example, we speak of children who are born in the shadow of such an eternal marriage sealing as being born in the covenant. It is basically the covenant which gives to them the privilege of eternal parentage. The Prophet Joseph Smith uttered a powerful statement on this reality, reiterated by Elder Orson F. Whitney in a conference address:
“It may be asked, what is the advantage coming to those born under the covenant? Being heirs they have claims upon the blessings of the gospel beyond what those not so born are entitled to receive. They may receive a greater guidance, a greater protection, a greater inspiration from the Spirit of the Lord; and then there is no power that can take them from their parents. Children, on the other hand, who are born to parents who were married until death separates them, have no claim upon such parents, and such parents have no claim upon the children after the resurrection from the dead. . . .
“The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, and he never taught a more comforting doctrine, that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or in the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father‘s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.” (Orson F. Whitney, in Conference Report, April 1929, p. 110)
If we wish to secure the blessings of God upon our children and grandchildren, we can begin by remembering and giving reverence to the doctrine of celestial marriage. Through it we may be sanctified and strengthened in our path back toward God.
Reverence for Celestial Marriage
Lying in bed a few days ago, my wife looked over at me and then said, “You know, we are the two luckiest people in the world.“
I asked her, “why‘s that?
She answered, “Because we have each other. And we‘re nice too.“
My comment was: “And not just that.
Because we have each other forever.
It was an unplanned moment and a spontaneous expression. It was a simple acknowledgment of love between husband and wife. But at its heart was a recognition, our humble recognition, that in the mundane details of our daily life there exists one glorious reality he promise of eternal companionship.
I understand clearly that some will have questions about their own opportunities for this celestial blessing. Some have not had the opportunity to marry. Some have married outside of the faith. Some have not yet gone to the temple to receive this blessing. Some have been married before the Lord and then suffered the heartbreak of family loss and divorce. Some are in a marriage they wonder about. Some have married, lost a spouse, and then have married again. Each of these circumstances is understood by the Lord, who holds our eternal lives in His hands, and He has promised that no blessing in eternity will be withheld from those who live for it and desire it with all their hearts. Elder Boyd K. Packer has reminded us, “Any soul who by nature or circumstance is not afforded the blessing of marriage and parenthood or who innocently must act alone in rearing children . . . will not be denied any blessing in the eternities provided they keep the commandments.” (The Things of My Soul, 1996, p. 234)
For those who have the privilege of eternal companionship before them, there must always be the remembrance that a celestial promise requires celestial strivings-again, the highest in us. Such a knowledge and promise should condition our words, our thoughts, and our actions. Let us oft speak kind words. Let us think of our companions with better thoughts. Let us act in all things with the meekness and charity that befits a man or woman who has made a covenant to follow Christ. Let us forgive. Let us repent.
In the Doctrine and Covenants, there is great wisdom shared about the commitment we should make in our relationships to live out the promise of celestial covenants. Doctrine and Covenants 88:125 counsels:
“And above all things, clothe yourselves with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace.“
Examine your soul. Do you find therein the bond of charity? Do you feel the bond of charity toward your husband or wife? The bond of charity between us is the bond of Christ, for charity is His pure love, and it exalts our relationships as we seek it and express it. This requires the highest in us. It calls forth our hearts.
The scriptures also provide an example of the spirit and commitment in which we might receive one another in this new and everlasting covenant of marriage:
“I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love, to walk in all the commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever. Amen.“ (Doctrine and Covenants 88:133)
The Pearl of Great Price
The doctrine of celestial marriage is a pearl of great price. It is precious beyond our ability to comprehend. Its power is unfailing. And yet, our vision of that pearl‘s worth and beauty can become clouded.
Elder Boyd K. Packer has taught: “The single purpose of Lucifer is to oppose the great plan of happiness, to corrupt the purest, most beautiful and appealing experiences of life: romance, love, marriage, and parenthood. The specters of heartbreak and guilt follow him about. Only repentance can heal what he hurts.“ (The Things of My Soul, 1996, p. 229)
I once sat through the disciplinary council for a man who was to be judged for his membership in the Church. This was a good man. This was a good man who had done wrong. A moment of indiscretion had placed his eternal relationships at risk. He was excommunicated from the Church and went forth now alone, shorn of the power of the covenants that he had once enjoyed. He wept and we wept also.
As I considered this man’s grief and pain, I came to understand in a way that I had never understood before, by the power of the Spirit, the enormity of the doctrine of celestial marriage and its priceless worth. I understood that to receive such a gift is to receive the following:
The unbreakable promise of a God;
The loving companionship of an immortal being;
The sacred bond of a relationship that spans eternity;
The oneness of an everlasting gospel covenant;
The promise of a celestial resurrection;
The possibility of eternal parentage.
Who can bestow such a gift? Only God. Who can assure a relationship of an eternal bond? Only God. I sought in my mind to find among the authorities of the earth one man, one person, who might be able to grant such a divine gift. And there was not one. No president in his power. No prime minister in his authority. No pope in his majesty. No power that exists among the kings and priests and pharaohs of the earth can command the eternal worlds and grant to even one person, one man and woman, the promise of an eternal union in the presence of God.
Only one authority can grant such a gift, the authority of God himself. And, wonder of wonders, He has granted that authority and the power of sealing, welding, uniting relationships for eternity to His priesthood on the earth, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We sometimes treat it with lightness to our everlasting shame.
A sacred moment came in my life when I saw again this man who had been excommunicated come back, come back into the waters of baptism and into the arms of his forgiving companion.
Come back into the possibility of eternal companionship. Come back to the pearl of great price.
Enduring to the End in Love
It is possible, indeed probable, that the doctrine of celestial marriage will require great things of us. Things that we never expected. Things, perhaps, that we never wanted. And yet, our allegiance to our covenants is possible.
For many years I have watched from afar the life of a man who I first knew as a boy. He was a member of my stake presidency and a delight to all who knew him. His love and goodness was evident when he entered a room. And then severe difficulty entered into his life. His beloved companion of many years, his wife, became ill with a debilitating illness. It forced her to a bed. It eventually brought her to a living prison, her own body, in which she could hardly move or speak or gesture. The months became years. Two years. Five years. Ten years. Fourteen years.
To know this man was to know eternal love at its finest. To others who saw only pain and difficulty, he acknowledged the pain and difficulty. But he looked further and saw the eternal possibilities that had been promised to them as husband and wife. And he lived for them. And he cared for her. Day by day. Year by year. In love.
I cannot think of him without tears. God has counted his tears. And God reserves for him, who is now alone, a pearl of great price-an eternal companionship.
In the fading years of their mortal life together, Elder LeGrand Richards and his dear wife, Ina, also experienced the challenges of pain and physical difficulty. Her health diminished and she sustained because of spinal deterioration several crushed vertebrae. This kept her often at home and in bed. Yet she loved LeGrand, and he loved her. Elder Richards biographer, Lucile C. Tate, recounts the following of this caring couple:
“One time when [Ina] was especially ill and her daughter Nona sat with her, she turned her face to the wall and was very still. It appeared that she would die. Nona phoned her father and he came home. As Nona stepped back to leave a chair free for him, he sat close to Ina, took her hand, and pleaded with her, You can‘t leave me. I need you. I‘ve told the Lord I can‘t live without you.‘ His strength then literally flowed into her and she rallied. They clung to each other and expressed their love in such tender terms that Nona bowed her head and left the room. Later she said, I saw such pure love, I felt that I was in the hallowed halls of heaven, and that if I raised my eyes I would see the angels.“ (LeGrand Richards: Beloved Apostle, 1982, pp. 287-288)
Surely angels attend husbands and wives who believe in the doctrine of celestial marriage and then seek to make its spiritual promises a living reality in their own lives and relationships.
Hand in Hand
The English poet John Milton, in his epic poem Paradise Lost, describes in beauty the story of the Creation and the companionship of Adam and Eve. In the poem‘s closing lines, Adam has come after instruction from an angel of God to meet Eve and to go forth from the Garden of Eden into the lonely and dreary world that awaits them. Eve’s courage is magnificent and she expresses to Adam that “with thee to go is to stay here,” that to be with him is to be in Eden, and “thou to me art all things under Heaven, all places thou.” In courage together, they then stepped forward:
“They, looking back, all th’ eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
(The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., Volume 1, aradise Lost, p. 1590)
Hand in hand. We are sealed as husband and wife, hand in hand, through the doctrine of celestial marriage and the atoning power of Jesus Christ, blessed by the priesthood of God within holy temple walls. It is a gift that could be bestowed only by the love of a God. It is only possible in a covenant relationship with God. It is a pearl of great price. Let us treasure it.