Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

‘Mormon Families Are Forever’ shouldn’t be a threat

A guest post by Mette Harrison

Mormonism has done a great job of making “families are forever” its catch phrase. It’s one of the ways the church has been successful in transitioning from the days of “crazy polygamists” to our more squeaky clean, Mitt Romney, Donnie and Marie, “I’m a Mormon,” kinder, gentler modern Mormonism.

But is it a promise or a threat?

I’ve explained to countless non-Mormons that we don’t believe that abusive parents will be with their children in the afterlife. We don’t believe that men who abuse wives will be able to force them to stay with them in the celestial kingdom. Are we walking the walk on this or not?

  1. We’re mindlessly doing temple work for people without waiting for a spiritual witness that this family should be together.

Yes, I know all the caveats that if these spirits don’t want to be together, they can reject the work. But does this mean that if one child is worthy and wants to join Mormonism from beyond the grave, they have a choice beyond accepting any family sealings that are performed on their behalf? That is, what if they don’t want to be with that family, but with another family?

I’m not sure I see any way within current Mormon doctrine to get around this, other than saying that we believe people will be different when they are resurrected (which is directly contrary to what The Book of Mormon says in Alma 40-41 about us being resurrected to evil if we are evil). Repenting of sins is one thing, but becoming a different person entirely is something else. If you’ve spent your life as an abuser or are just selfish, there’s no guarantee you will suddenly become someone else, repentance or not.

2. We as a church are still doing a lot of things that look like we care more about checking boxes so that everyone is sealed to someone than we care about them being sealed to those they consider their loving family in this life.

I’ve watched as the church makes it difficult for those who have been in terrible marriages to get an official cancellation of sealings to enable them to cut ties from an abusive former spouse and to formalize the new relationship with a loving step-parent.

3. The promise of being together forever in the celestial kingdom is sometimes used as a tool to bludgeon those whose ties to the church have become more tenuous or who have left it completely.

Parents feel distraught that their children are either unworthy or unwilling to be with them in Mormon heaven and pressure them to continue in the church for the sake of the family, or don’t know how to maintain a relationship that isn’t based on coercion or manipulation to return to church activity.

If every one of your contacts with your parents is them offering you a conference talk, a copy of a new book by a General Authority, or a scripture and a promise to “pray for you,” it can feel like the idea of an eternal family is nothing good. If we focused a little less on eternal family relationships and a little more on making them the best we can in this life, we might be closer to the right path.

4. My family isn’t just my husband and my children.

Blood relationships are only one way of creating family, and while the church is good about formal adoptions, I wish we extended our sealing ordinances beyond that. Increasingly as I grow older, my idea of “family” extends to deep friend relationships.

It used to be that those kinds of relationships were recognized in the temple through adoption sealings, at least for men who were “adopted” by other men in the church with more authority. Brigham Young was sealed by this law of adoption into Joseph Smith’s family; and early in 1846, he was sealed by adoption to 38 young men in the Nauvoo Temple. Likewise, Wilford Woodruff was sealed to 96 men between 1843 and 1896. I wish that we could find some way to do that now. It could really be wonderful to give and receive promises of love from some of my dear friends who have been with me through thick and thin.

“Families are forever” is a concept that I think could use some updating and some reinterpretation. I love my family, but how I want them tied to me may be different than the way it used to be. As my own children work out their relationship to the church and their own belief in God, I’d like them to feel that being together is something I want them to look forward to—not fear.

Mette Harrison is an acclaimed novelist and regular guest columnist at RNS. Visit her website as


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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  • “Families are Forever” is a tagline that somehow became part of Celestial Marriage and Sealing doctrines, even to the point where we forget what Celestial Marriage is and what it isn’t.

    What does FrF mean? That my parents, children, and other relatives will eternally live in close proximity to me? No. That my children will remain eternally in their subordinate role to me? No. That my memory will be wiped of all non-sealed relationships? No. That someone in the Celestial Glory will be eternally cut off from family in a lesser Glory? No.

    Think about it. FrF is kind of meaningless. In the hereafter, I will see and remember my parents as being my earthly parents, regardless of our Glory. This would be true of every relationship. It’s incorrect for us to suppose people in lesser Glories will have their closest relationships obliterated. “That same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” And if not coupled with eternal glory…? Not only is FrF doctrinally meaningless, it is cruel and doctrinally incorrect when we tell others who are not of our faith that their family will be split apart.

    Celestial Marriage is the only question mark. Celestial Marriage is the eternal union between spouses for the purpose of creation that leads to eternal progression and infinite increase. Those who do not qualify for it will be limited to what they can accomplish in their single state. But even in an eternal union, the only person who is going to uniquely connected to you is your spouse. That’s it.

    I’d love to hear others’ thoughts. This is speculative and perhaps wrong. For example, how will the hereafter be different with my children if they are sealed to me? I have no clue, but I’m pretty sure it’s not like we imagine.

  • The corp preaches “agency”, it doesn’t practice it. The families are forever is just another cult-ish means to keep the tithing money flowing in. The church practices obedience thru guilt.

  • “Yes, I know all the caveats that if these spirits don’t want to be together, they can reject the work.” It’s not just that. If they’re not worthy of the blessings, they won’t be together.

  • There is a special relationship between parent and child that endures even after adulthood. I don’t know how things will work in the hereafter, but I believe the sealing power will preserve that relationship in a special way. What that means, exactly, I don’t know.

  • I have a few thoughts on some of your comments: 1. “We’re mindlessly doing temple work for people without waiting for a spiritual witness that this family should be together.” As members of the faith, our mandate is to perform all the work we can do based upon the best information that we have. We don’t know if the dead will accept it. We do the best we can and have faith that if there are errors or mistakes that those things will get worked out. No one will be forced to be with someone for eternity that they do not want to be with because someone recorded something wrong on earth. As a side note, I have a friend who’s parents were neglectful and abusive. He was sealed as an adult to his grandparents. Things like that can and do happen.

    It seems to me like you are trying to take an incredible restored doctrine and twist it in a way that is negative and short-sighted. While some things are not yet known or clear at this time, the promise of eternal families is something beautiful; not a club that people are hit over the head with. We have to have faith that in the end, that all wrongs will be righted, all pain will end and that all tears will be wiped from our eyes. We have the ability, through Jesus Christ, to become exalted beings and to live with those we love for eternity.

  • I am not trying to get into a theological argument here, but I have to say that we can become better people. We can get an education. We can be nicer to people. If we steal then we can stop stealing. Those and countless others are things that we can do to make ourselves better people. Now if you are talking about being “saved,” then yes, I agree with you. That is only possible through the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  • Oh boy. It looks like a few Sunday School lessons went amiss along the way. Some key concepts are off angle. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel (3rd A.F.).
    The Atonement of Christ allows repentance and rebirth as a new person, with an eternity only as bright as one’s continuing obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. Temple work takes care of the ordinances part–if the ordinance was missed in this life but accepted in the next. The obedience part each individual gets to supply (including the repentance of ourselves and forgiveness of others). Our salvations requires a working partnership between us and Christ. We also have a duty and a privilege of inviting our friends, family, and others to apply the Atonement of Christ and obey His laws and ordinances. We attempt to create families who aspire to the same eternal goals. Not all will. Hopefully we do it in a kind, but also bold way.
    You don’t need to fear about being sealed to a bad family. You are NOT in the true sense sealed unless you have become a new person–repentant, obedient, forgiving, charitable, and clean–and so have those you are to be sealed to. A sealing ordinance must be accepted by our choices and confirmed by the Holy Spirit who cannot be deceived and will not pass the fakers. Families CAN be together forever, not WILL be together forever (the First Presidency usually gets the wording right). You are right, the whole “families ARE forever” is a once positive vision turned to PR hype generously applied to help parents with rebel children feel better about things (I have been there on both sides). Nobody is going to force me to repent, obey, forgive, or even want to be with family in the end. We can all easily keep our relationships as low-level, transitory, and superficial as we prefer by our choices. Or we can aspire and covenant with those who also aspire, to something much more. Qualifying for a sealing ordinance, and ending a sealing ordinance, should take some time and be difficult–it is serious business. The First Presidency knows that, so should we.

  • I think you are right, for what it is worth, and I very much like the way you have explained it. I don’t understand what sealing means other than perhaps the possibility that parents will be able to continue parenting children in the next life as they have in this one. I think of it like teachers I’ve had. My teachers continue to influence my life even if it has been many decades since I last sat in their classes. But if I signed up for a new class from one of them, then that person would still be in a position to continue teaching me.

    You are also right that we have very little knowledge about what the next life will look like. I trust that my heavenly parents are good, kind, wise, and intelligent, and that is enough. I also think there will be many important issues to sort out and decide. We are not qualified to do that work now because we don’t know enough to do it right. This life is enough to worry about anyway; I don’t need to worry about the things I don’t (and can’t) understand until later.

  • Mette, you are spot on with your points. I agree with you that so often doing temple work is mindless and we are just checking the box.

  • I can relate to what you’re saying here, sisters Mette Harrison and Jana Riess. The Mormon missionaries in my life have, indeed, “done a great job of making ‘families are forever’ [their] catch phrase”, too. It’s just that they and I didn’t have the luxury at the time to open that subject up to discussion. We were mostly comparing The Book of Mormon with The Bible, see. Otherwise, I would’ve brought up counter-scriptures that reveal the opposite of “families [being] forever”. For Christ Jesus and His former-day saints, it was the other way around, actually, on account of people’s responses to His gospel of salvation. Surely you remember Him telling them:

    “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39)

  • Ah nothing like an insider’s joke, an in-house chit-chat, keep-it-to-ourselves psst-psst-psst. 1 word there, though, does stick out like a sore thumb, a deer in the headlight, and Jimmy Kimmel’s crocodile tears. A.T.O.N.E.M.E.N.T. The Book of Mormon’s version, of course, right? Not the version found in the gospels, epistles and revelation, am I right? So, sure. You’ve got this family-religious-stuff derived from the former but you’ve also such stuffing from the latter. Point is, can we talk? Or you’d rather keep it to yourselves. What goes on among Mormons, stays with Mormons, kind of a thing. Fine with me. … But oh, anything around here coming from the Christian Right arm of Trump, boy, oh boy, now that’s up for open discussion, debate, 2nd-guessing, put-down, up-vote, you name it. So, c’mon, Mormons, open your stuffs up for outsiders to butt in once in a while. What say you? Start with this “the Atonement of Christ”-whatever. Thanks, man.

  • Are you kidding me, libmo brother or sister? Sister Mette should be able to speak out to her fellow Mormons like yourself. The rest of Christendom is doing it; why be insular, provincial and all that? I’m not a Mormon but I could relate to what she’s saying. Not, though, to this “sealing” bitzness. What in the world is that, honestly? Who came up with that notion? Did the Hebrew Bible prophets even thunk it? What about the Former-Day Saints of Jesus Christ, you know, them guys spinning the gospels, epistles and revelation? I gave Mette one verse upstairs, you know, Matthew 10:34-39. No sealing stuff got mentioned by You-Know-Who. There was talk of “sword”, though.

    If I’m a prog Christian, I’d say that “sword” there is in line with Mette’s questioning of this sealing bitzness among Mormon families. Not all-good.

  • Now see this is where truth becomes irrelevant. To the discussion at hand, I mean. Had you wrapped your head and heart around this “Families Are Forever” beliefs and practices of LDS, and taken the time to retrieve similar or opposite versions coming from the Former-Day Saints of Jesus Christ, the writers of the gospels, epistles and revelation, then present the discrepancies and glitches here and there to Mette and libmo – who knows? Maybe, just maybe, this Jesus of ours and theirs, can suddenly speak to both parties. My conviction anyway, and 2 cents worth, before taxes.

  • This pro-family stuff is not religious for my fellow born-again Christian brothers and sisters from the Christian Right sect. It’s all political, and Trump is such a schmoozer with them on that, and it pays off.

    If this pro-family stuff is truly religious, they won’t be divorcing, porn-consuming, lusting others’ spouses, and literally caught with their pants down and bras on the ceiling fans.

    So don’t equate their political junk with what our Mormon friends here are having a good go at it. Mette’s kind of posting 95 Theses on their Temple Gates, so to speak. You should love watching this spectacle. I am. Here, want some of my microwaved buttered popcorn, 800 cals?

  • Suggestion: Think outside the box. The Mormon Box. The Box of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) of Jesus Christ. Get inside another box. The Box of the Former-Day Saints (FDS) of Jesus Christ. Check out all these “concepts” in their gospels, epistles and revelation. Zero Existence. Matthew 10:34-39 sets the record straight on that score. The Hebrew BIble, the pre-FDS Box, talks about dedicating children to God. That’s it.

  • Exactly. If someone refuses the Gospel, they will not become a child of God. God will not make them a new creation.
    I know that Mormons believe we are all procreated children of God the Father and god the mother. But Scripturally that is not true.
    John 1:12, “Yet to all who received Him (Jesus), to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God–”
    You don’t become someone’s child if you are already their child.
    Ephesians 1:5, “…He (God) predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will–”
    You don’t adopt your own children.
    John 3:7, “You should not be surprised at My saying, ‘You must be born again.'”

  • Christianity shouldn’t be a threat, but there you have it.

    “ But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me. ”

  • “Families Are Forever” is the very cornerstone of Mormonism. Without that premise set in stone, temples and virtually every other function of the LDS church becomes commonplace. For those who have left, many are baffled that nowhere in scripture does the concept of the eternal family ever get mentioned. Not once (other than the D&C). One has to wonder how such an eternal concept which really defines the very purpose of our existence, is never mentioned anywhere other than the often quoted phrase, “what is bound on earth is bound in heaven.” While that references the keys/powers, it makes no reference to the eternal nature of family. Is the “forever” family a modern invention?

  • Nope. It’s a Smithian invention, fully forged in his own mind.
    Ask any conservative Christian who posts here. They will tell you the same

  • Even more than my testimony from the Holy Ghost as to the truth of the restoration, is the common sense that All persons will have the choice in this life or the next, to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ or not accept.

  • Did you just pick some aspect of Mormon doctrine you disagree with and bring it up here? Because I don’t see how any of this relates to the discussion prior to it.

    At any rate, in Mormonism we talk about being children of God in (at least) two senses. First, as you point out, is to point out that we are of spiritual offspring of God. Paul recognized this in Acts 17:29 (Paul acknowledged the truth of the heathen poets’ observation that we are the offspring of God, people who had not yet received Christ). It’s also evident in the Savior’s instruction on prayer. He instructed his hearers to address God as “Our Father”. There is no corresponding instruction to wait until being saved before doing so.

    But, as imperfect beings, we each become estranged from God in our mortal existence, and must reenter the family, so to speak, through Jesus Christ. Because we are estranged from God, we must be reunited through this sort of spiritual adoption and be born again in Christ.