Question: Is plural marriage the same as eternal marriage?

FairMormon Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Is plural marriage the same as eternal marriage?

Plural marriage not the same as eternal marriage

A common mistake that is made is the combining the ideas of plural marriage and eternal marriage. It is true that these ideas were later treated as parts of the same doctrine, as they are today; however, it is fairly clear that Joseph was teaching a few about plural marriage by 1831 (see here). The idea that marriages could last beyond the grave seems to have come later—but, still not as late as some critical authors assume. On May 26, 1835, WW Phelps wrote to his wife of "[a] new idea, Sally, if you and I continue faithful to the end, we are certain to be one in the Lord throughout eternity; this is one of the most glorious consolations we can have in the flesh." [1] In June, Phelps discussed the doctrine in print, writing:

We shall by and bye learn that we were with God in another world, before the foundation of the world, and had our agency: that we came into this world and have our agency, in order that we may prepare ourselves for a kingdom of glory; become archangels, even the sons of God where the man is neither without the woman, nor the woman without the man in the Lord: A consummation of glory, and happiness, and perfection so greatly to be wished, that I would not miss of it for the fame of ten worlds. [2]

Phelps reinforced this "new idea" in a September 1835 letter to his wife, declaring that he would have a "right to" her "in the world to come according to the law of the celestial kingdom.” [3]

Even if eternal marriage (i.e., marriage relationships which survive beyond the grave) was not "formulated until after 1839–1840," this would not mean that teachings about plural marriage did not appear until the 1840s. Plural marriage and eternal marriage are distinct concepts, which were formally merged by the revelation(s) included in D&C 132, but they had a long history in Joseph's thought before then.

William Clayton provides an excellent illustration of the conceptual division between the two types of marriage. He entered into plural marriage on April 27, 1843, but would write nearly a month later of his desire "to be united in an everlasting covenant to my [first] wife and pray that it may soon be." [4] Even for Clayton in 1843, plural marriage and a legal first marriage did not subsume or eliminate eternal marriage with the first partner.

Similarly, Parley P. Pratt married his plural wife Belinda on 20 November 1844. Belinda was not endowed until their return from an eastern mission in August 1845, at which point they were again sealed. [5] Clearly, in the early Church plural marriage was conceptually separate from eternal marriage, though the doctrines were related. We cannot, then, use the appearance of one to date the introduction of the other.


  1. W.W. Phelps to Sally Phelps, letter (26 May 1835), off-site
  2. WW Phelps, "Letter No. 8," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 9 (June 1835), 130. (italics added)
  3. WW Phelps to Sally Phelps, letter (16 September 1835); cited in Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 3 n. 2.
  4. William Clayton Journal (16 May 1843).
  5. David J. Whittaker, "Early Mormon Polygamy Defenses," Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 54.