Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Do Mormons worship the family?

Mette Ivie Harrison
Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison

A guest post by Mette Harrison

A woman in my ward growing up gave a lesson one Sunday about how Mormons needed to repent because we tended to worship the family more than God.

She argued that when we talked about what was right to do on Sunday, we shouldn’t think about “family activities” at all. We should do things that showed our love of, and awe in, God. To her, that meant reading scriptures and praying a lot, with a possible side dish of watching church videos or having doctrinal discussions.

I have thought since then about what she said, and wonder if it’s true that Mormons worship the family.

  • Mormons believe that in order to get into the highest level of celestial kingdom, we must be married.
  • We believe that we will continue to have children into the eternities.
  • We are sealed together in family units, though what that will mean when we get to heaven and our children have their own family units sealed to them, I don’t really understand.
  • And in recent General Conference talks, there has certainly been a heavy emphasis on supporting “real” families (whatever those are) from attacks on all sides.

So on some level, this woman was right. Mormons do worship the family. That is, we regard the family as an order of heaven. Mormons talk about the family home as a kind of temple, and we will dedicate our family homes with actual prayer and a ritual blessing to protect it from evil spirits, bad influences, and (some even believe), floods or other natural disasters. We sometimes make people who do not have families attending church with them feel like they don’t belong. We talk less about individual salvation and more about how to make sure that there are no “empty chairs” in the temple. Instead of preaching free will for our descendants, we talk about how to make sure they always “choose the right,” hoping to cut off their options rather than expanding them.

I love my husband and children. I love the doctrine that tells me that in some way I will always be connected to them (though I can’t imagine that not being true, after having shared lives for so long). I love Family Home Evenings (after an initial struggle) and I know that my kids love them, too, because they are upset if we miss a week. I love our family talks on the couch, and snuggles on a now-too-small king-size bed. I love getting together as a family to do service, to compete in races, and to eat. I believe that being a parent has taught me a lot about life, eternity, and God.

But Mormons need to stop acting as if family is the only way to God. Being a parent isn’t the only way to learn the lessons that I’ve learned and value in my own development as a person. Family relationships are not the only important kinds of relationships. Many people have families that aren’t part of the church, or they don’t have families of their own. None of these people should be made to feel that Mormonism is not for them, that they are less a part of God’s family, or that the lessons in church on Sunday don’t speak to them.

As a people, we need to be mindful of what we say to single people, divorced people, and those in difficult family situations. Talking about eternal families to those who have been touched by sexual abuse is problematic at best. The “Families are Forever” theme in Primary can sound to some like a punishment rather than a blessing and to others like a mockery they have no control over. Do we want people to marry at any cost, no matter what the circumstances? Surely not. And when less than “perfect,” nuclear families exist, we need to work harder at inclusion. Yes, having another father offer to take boys on a scout trip or a father/son outing is one way this is done well. Having priesthood holders visit the homes of single women or women married outside the church is another way.

But we can do better and we can do more. We need to think more carefully about class and race issues surrounding the family unit. Instead of pressing the “eternal families” mantra, perhaps we can work harder to talk about wage inequality, childcare issues, and healthcare for all.

Our idea of the “family” needs to be more inclusive. When we talk about defending the family, we need to defend families of all kinds. We need to be less condescending to women and men who have not married or who do not have children. We can be more open to learning from them and their life lessons. We can call them to a wider variety of positions.

And we can remember that we don’t actually worship the family, despite appearances. It is just one (very good) way to feel God’s love and to find our way back to Him.

Mette Harrison is the bestselling author of The Bishop’s Wife and other novels. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post.



About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • “The basic purpose of all we teach and all that we do in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to make available the Priesthood authority and gospel ordinances and covenants that enable a man and a woman and their children to be sealed together and be happy at home. Period, exclamation point, end of sentence, that’s it,” said David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles for the LDS Church during the training.

  • ron,

    Then what is the purpose of the Church in the lives of the single, divorced, gay, . . . people in the world? What is the purpose of the Church in the lives of those facing abuse at home and, therefore, cannot be happy at home? I think we need to expand our vision to eternity, which I am sure Elder Bednar took as a given.

  • I’m curious who the “we” is that Bednar is referencing. Because he surely isn’t speaking for the whole body of the church, he isn’t speaking for me. It sounds more like a declaration of apostasy than anything inspired by the spirit. But then, none of our leaders are perfect.

  • The nuclear family is Mormonism’s niche in the marketplace of religion.

    As a Mormon, it rocks me how dismissive the New Testament is of family. Jesus, in particular, had little regard for the institution. Paul thought marriage was breeding and for hound dogs to avoid sin.

  • I don’t believe the church teaches halfway spots to exaltation. I think the doctrine is pretty plain that the only requirement to enter heaven is Baptism. No marriage, no priesthood required. The church has programs for singles. But, of course all of the programs are designed around getting married because exaltation doesn’t come without it.

    There are plenty of activities outside the church for groups of people who want to stay single. Unfortunately, most of those focus on getting married as well. It is our nature to want to pair up, and the church does try to help. But there’s no reason for the church to focus on anything but exaltation.

  • I’d be happy to respond. Can I get you to narrow that question for me? That’s a broad topic. I’m not sure what you have in mind.

  • The Bible does not speak of many things because the Bible books were put together by a council of men, they decided what was heretical and what was doctrine after much fighting, and destroyed all the other Holy writings they could find. Remember the Bible verse that says if everything was written down of what Jesus spoke, there would never be enough room to store all of it. Which is one reason why a restoration was needed. There are writings/books mentioned in the Bible that no longer exist.

    The Catholic church has books in their Bible the rest of Christianity does not use, same with Eastern Orthodox.

    I don’t think the LDS church worships family. Studies have shown that loving families are very important. The church could do a better job of including singles.

  • I don’t know if we can blame the lack of references to family in the Bible as “plain and precious parts” being taken out. There is no evidence of that. The fact is our modern concept of family and family closeness did not really exist until recently. The vast majority of humankind throughout history has had no real desire to spend eternity with their families (let alone significant time in mortality). I’d actually be interested in seeing a poll asking the world’s current population if they’d want to spend eternity with their parents and siblings. I’m guessing a majority would not. We all want to spend eternity with our children! But eternity with the family I grew up in? That would be hell.

  • It seems we empasize nuclear families with little attention to the larger human family–that we are all brothers and sisters, God’s children.

    There are many questions one could ask about the LDS concept of eternal–more nuclear– families. Like, what happens in the next life if 2 people are sealed who have great differences in adherence to religious commandments and dogma? What happens if a temple marriage ends in civil divorce but neither pursues a temple divorce? What happens if a family is sealed, but then the parents obtain a temple divorce, are the children then sealed to neither parent?

  • As a Mormon missionary I thought we were so unique in our take on eternal families. Now I realize that most religions, even nonchristian, believe in eternal relationships. Where we are unique is that we worship a God who will break up families unless they can give the secret handshake, say a codename, and give 10% of their gross. Bednar is a tool and hearkens to the worst tendencies of shaming and guilt ala Packer and Kimball. While spending what little free time I had on the high council, in a bishopric, and teaching seminary, I couldn’t help but feel major cognitive dissonance whenever I was told about how important time with family is. Bubba Bednar has even suggested a connection between children going astray and not faithfully having FHE. Thanks Dave. As if I didn’t have enough guilt on my plate.

  • Clearly God didn’t have enough FHE lessons or none of His kids would have left. Bednar should totally give God some tips on improving parenting.

  • The same Jesus who reiterated the commandment to honor your father and mother? Who reiterated the commandment not to commit adultery? The same Jesus whose one recorded instance of crying in the NT is empathizing with a friend who had just lost a brother? The same Jesus who, while dying on the cross, made sure his mother was cared for? This Jesus is dismissive of families?

    Soon after Jesus’ family, out of embarrassment because of his words, tried to restrain him from speaking the truth, they attempted to stop his preaching and have a private side conversation. He dismissed it by saying “who are my mother and my brothers”? But that is nowhere near being dismissive of the family in general.

  • Great post, Mette. This in particular is sadly so true:

    “Instead of preaching free will for our descendants, we talk about how to make sure they always “choose the right,” hoping to cut off their options rather than expanding them.”

  • And then, after “sealing” the family, the LDS Church holds them for ransom. The extortion goes like this:

    1) Indoctrinate members into believing they can only have their families with the church’s permission and authority.

    2) Tell members they risk loosing their families if they don’t remain “temple worthy” by sending their tithing checks to the church, donating their time, and affirming allegiance to church leaders.

    John Larson (one of the smartest guys on the Internet) put it succinctly:

    “The LDS Church takes what is yours [the family, in this case] and then sells it back to you.”

  • Naturally, the Church of Jesus Christ fails practice, or even preach, the standards of the post-Protestant, secular United States. This is to be expected: the LDS Church is neither secular nor post-Protestant (in that sense). Ms. Harrison laments this, and demands that the LDS adopt these secular standards.

    But why apply post-Protestant standards at all? Richard Bushman may have the answer, from his “Colonization of the Mormon Mind”:

    “The colonizing agents [Ms. Harrison, et al] who ally themselves with imperial culture…bemoan the blindness of the benighted Mormon population for failing to recognize the superior wisdom or taste of the greater culture.”

    Ms. Harrison and Ms. Riess have converted to imperial post-Protestantism; they demand that other LDS do the same. They shame the LDS for failing to convert. They evangelize their new religion.

    Through Christ, the family is the only way to God. He, Himself, has…

  • Yes, the Jesus whose own family may (or may not have been) believers in him. When asked who his mother and sisters and brothers are, said…those who believe in me. Who called disciples to leave family and friends and follow. Who was not married; those who served his need for human bonds were his disciples, and his friends, like Mary and Martha. Who also said that in heaven there was neither marriage of having children. In Luke 20, he discusses the Sadducees vs the Pharisees, and their different views on the resurrection, he says that human relations in the home do not continue in the same way after death. Those who live in this age are so because of physical birth; after death, it is the resurrection which is foundational, and it does not include the structures we find in live in this world.
    Paul, also was apparently single, and did not hold marriage as a necessity (“it is better to marry than to burn”). We call come into heaven by our individual baptism and belief.


  • I am the trustee of the family trust, on the death of my mother, two years ago. I have, sadly, learned that my brothers are not as I thought I knew them. I will be SO glad when the lawsuit is resolved. It has been a two year nightmare…and my folks did everything they thought was necessary, so to make it painless for the kids. They made wills, they established a family trust, with a special needs trust to protect my handicapped brother, and still…it has been a nightmare.

    Pr Chris

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