Katrina Anderson was thrilled when her best friend from Brigham Young University asked her to be a bridesmaid. She bought the green top and multicolored skirt chosen by the bride, got a plane ticket to Ohio, and took her place at the celebration: outside the LDS Columbus temple greeting the bride and groom after the ceremony. At the time, Anderson says, “I didn’t think this strange at all.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has garnered a lot of attention over the last few years for its opposition to gay marriage, but the church has another, less publicized divisive marriage policy: expecting its members in the U.S. and a few other countries to marry in ceremonies that exclude everyone who is not a fully active Mormon adult—and punishing couples who have separate civil ceremonies by making them wait a year for a temple marriage. While the temple marriage, also called a sealing, is an important Mormon tradition, excluding family and friends from the larger celebration doesn’t need to be.
A sealing is an ordinance established by Joseph Smith in the early days of the church. According to Smith, whatever is bound or sealed in a special ceremony on Earth will be bound or sealed in heaven. The point of the sealing today is to establish a covenant for a marriage that survives death. It’s considered absolutely crucial to salvation, to the point where Mormons not only perform it for themselves, but do proxy sealings for dead ancestors because no one can enter the most exalted realms of heaven without it.
Jean Bodie—who spent 39 years as a faithful, temple-married Mormon but left the church in 2006 after a crisis of faith—saw how much turmoil this marriage policy created in part-member families and began working to get the church to change it, for it wasn’t always so. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when travel was difficult and time-consuming, young Mormons regularly wed in civil ceremonies before traveling to the nearest temple. Couples so often made the trek from Mormon communities in southern Arizona to the St. George temple in southern Utah that the route was nicknamed the Honeymoon Trail.
In trying to understand how the policy came about, Bodie traced it to a 1960 church handbook stating, “Where couples deliberately refuse temple marriage for reasons of their own, and afterward desire a sealing, they should be asked to wait for at least a year in which to demonstrate their sincerity and worthiness to receive this blessing.”
In other words, couples who desire a civil ceremony in addition to a sealing must wait a year between the ceremonies. Over time, the policy of exclusion has become so important that “young Mormons think it’s a commandment, and they think they’re breaking a commandment and doing something sinful if they get married outside the temple,” says Bodie. “Rejecting and excluding your inactive or nonmember family is a mark of being a good Mormon,” because the alternative is so shameful.
It’s shameful in part because of another reason couples might have to wait a year: if they can’t get temple recommends. Mormons hold Sunday services in utilitarian meeting houses instead of temples because the space is accessible only to Latter-day Saints who meet specific criteria, including being an adult member of record for at least a year; tithing 10 percent of one’s income to the church; abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs; and passing a worthiness interview with a local lay priesthood leader delving into orthodoxy and sexual behavior. Meet those criteria and you’ll receive a temple recommend, a card a bit like a driver’s license, that you must show in order to enter.
To get your initial temple recommend, you must also have a compelling reason to complete the basic temple rituals (meaning primarily the endowment, a highly sacred and guarded ritual in which you make covenants and learn secrets required for admission into heaven). Typically, one completes the rituals when called to serve a mission or when engaged to marry. You can’t simply turn 18 and decide to visit the temple.
Engaging in premarital sex is a primary way to fail the interview process, and the subsequent repentance process takes a year. As a result, “If you marry civilly first, the assumption is that you weren't sufficiently worthy to get married in the temple,” says Mary Ellen Robertson, executive director of the Sunstone Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Salt Lake City dedicated to the study of Mormonism.
That’s one reason Robertson’s mother was horrified when Robertson and her fiancé inexplicably chose to marry outside the temple. “It was important to me and my fiancé, Mike, to have a wedding that all our friends, family members, and his children [from a previous marriage] could attend. I didn't want to start our marriage by shutting out so many loved ones from the celebration,” says Robertson. But it’s not the standard choice.