Thomas Jefferson’s most famous slave, and the mother of several of the third American president’s children, died in 1835, five years after Mormonism’s founding. We don’t know when news of Joseph Smith’s small but growing religious movement reached Monticello, Va., Jefferson’s grand estate where Sally Hemings spent most of her 62 years, as a house servant and eventually as Jefferson’s “paramour.” But even if Mormon missionaries had come to Monticello during Heming’s lifetime, they would, per the instructions of Smith himself, have worked first to convert the masters, and only then—with the masters’ permission—the slaves.
Heming’s chance to become a Mormon came much later, in a Mormon temple in Mesa, Ariz., 13 years after the church lifted the ban on full membership for people of African descent. On April 21, 1991, two members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints entered a baptismal font. One laid hands upon another and proclaimed, “having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of Sally Hemings, who is dead.”
It is critical to note that Mormons believe that this ceremony did not make Hemings a Mormon. Instead, Mormons assert that it gave Hemings the opportunity to obtain salvation. Even in the afterlife, Hemings maintains her “agency” (a key theological concept for Mormons) to decide whether or not she accepts this invitation. Joseph Smith, who ran for president in 1844 as a “Jeffersonian,” took as a sacred truth the American ideal made famous by Hemings’s master, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Mormons believe that Hemings has more agency in the afterlife than she did while she was alive.
After the recent furor over Mormon proxy baptism, this news about Hemings should surprise no one. We should all probably take it as a given that Mormons have baptized by proxy almost every famous person—Hemings, her master Thomas Jefferson, Queen Victoria, and (yes, Maureen Dowd) even Elvis—not to mention millions of not-so famous people who have also lived and died. Many non-Mormons think this practice odd, creepy, and perhaps even horribly disrespectful. But let’s recognize, as Arun Gandhi,* grandson of Mahatma, did after learning of his grandfather’s proxy baptism, that Mormons perform this act out of love. It is a ritual that fulfills Mormons’ desire to unite the whole of humanity into one eternal family. (Many people, of course, find this explanation unsatisfying; a Jewish friend recently quipped to me, “Mormons can baptize dead Jews when Jews can circumcise live Mormons.”)
What is surprising is that the LDS Church, according to its Family Search registry, considers Hemings to be Thomas Jefferson’s wife. (One of two—the other of course being Jefferson’s legal wife, Martha, who happens to be Sally Hemings’s half-sister; she and Hemings were both the daughters of Virginia plantation owner John Wayles.) Jefferson is also listed as the father of Hemings’s children. This means that the LDS Church recognizes Jefferson’s paternity of a sizable number of his own slaves, something that Jefferson himself refused to do when it became a campaign issue during the 1800 presidential race.* (Jefferson also failed to acknowledge he fathered Hemings’s children in the detailed logs the president kept of the births and deaths among Monticello’s slave population.)
Why does this matter? Because Mormons not only believe in baptizing non-Mormons who have died—they also believe in “sealing” families so they can spend eternity together. As Matt Bowman, author of The Mormon People, explained to me: “Mormons believe that heaven consists of a great network of families bound together through a particular sacramental ritual called sealing. Parents are sealed to children, spouses to each other, ancestors to descendants.” Like proxy baptisms, these sealings occur in Mormon temples. And, as with proxy baptisms, the LDS Church has recently stipulated that only direct descendants are sanctioned to do proxy sealings—a stipulation that is not always followed, to the consternation of church leaders.
Indeed, because of Jefferson’s fame, even those faithful Mormons who have access to the Family Search database can’t see if Hemings and Jefferson have been posthumously sealed. In recent years, “various celebrities have had proxy work done for them many times over,” Bowman told me. To avoid any more headlines claiming that the Mormons have forcibly baptized Anne Frank and other historical figures with great cultural significance, Mormons are instructed to do the work only for their direct ancestors. This has not stopped a small set of over-zealous Latter-day Saints from submitting famous and historically important names for proxy baptism. As a result, Mormon authorities have begun blocking searches for particular names; the list of blocked names grows by the day.
But the database does reveal that the LDS church recognizes Hemings as Jefferson’s wife—and also that every sacred ordinance (there are others in addition to sealing and baptism) has been performed on Hemings’ behalf. With all of this evidence, I strongly suspected that Hemings and Jefferson had been posthumously sealed as husband and wife. I asked the LDS Church to confirm my hunch. And in a rare move, the Church obliged: Sally Hemings and Tom Jefferson, I was told, have been posthumously sealed as husband and wife in an LDS Temple.
This obviously raises number of difficult questions. The nature of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship has been one of considerable historical debate. Could love actually pass between the most influential man in America and a mixed-race slave he owned? Could Hemings genuinely consent to Jefferson’s sexual advances? Could she really say no? Because slaves were denied control over their bodies, what went on between Hemings and Jefferson—and, of course, countless other slave masters and slaves in antebellum America—is rightly regarded by most as abusive. Perhaps on rare occasions these sexual acts involved true mutual intimacy; but because of the inherent power dynamic, today we’d consider this sex forced. We’d call it rape.
Sealing a slave master to his slave is at least as troubling as the baptism of Holocaust victims, the practice of which the LDS Church has officially condemned. Just last month, LDS leaders sent out a statement to every congregation and required that it be read over the pulpit; it declared that that the Church is “committed to taking action against individual abusers [who submit names of Holocaust victims for baptism] by suspending the submitter’s access privileges. We will also consider whether other Church disciplinary action should be taken.”