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.”
Certainly these efforts are partly about public relations. But they also reflect a recognition on the part of the hierarchy in Salt Lake City that there are ethical limits to the what the LDS Church claims as its God-given mandate: to unite the whole of humanity into one eternal family through temple rituals. History—especially the history of atrocities against religious and racial minorities—must inform, and in some cases, limit this sacred work.
And just as Mormon leaders have restricted the practice of proxy baptism when it comes to Holocaust victims, they must review who is considered “married” in the Family Search database. Hemings and Jefferson are only the most sensational instance of what is, in fact, a broader concern. In the LDS Church’s earliest years, several southern slave owners converted to Mormonism. Mormon leaders encouraged these slave-owning converts to free their slaves, but several nonetheless brought their slaves to Utah when the Mormons settled in the intermountain west in the late 1840s and ’50s—and, in 1852, the LDS-dominated legislature legalized slavery in Utah, making it the only western territory where slavery was sanctioned.
In 1850, North Carolina-born Mormon convert John Hardison Redd brought his slave Venus and her enslaved children to Utah with the rest of his family. In the 1850 territorial census, Venus is listed as “black” and her children are listed as “yellow,” a common designation for mixed-race slaves. According to family history, after John Redd’s untimely death in 1858, Venus stayed with the Redds—and with the church. Though Venus left no written recollections of her own, the Redd family remembers her as a devoted Mormon who attended each Sunday’s services, often singing in the choir. One family member said that when Venus found out she could not go to the temple because she was black, she scratched her arm until blood poured forth. “See!” she is said to have proclaimed, “my blood is as white as anyone’s.”
Venus would have her day in the temple, more than a century after her own death. While a record of her proxy baptism is no longer available, on Oct. 6, 1992 she was, according to Family Search, sealed by proxy to John Redd as his wife in the Provo Temple. (Redd was also sealed to another female slave, “Chaney,” in the Spokane, Wash. Temple in August, 2006.)
If we take the Redd family’s word for it—and it’s not a given that we should—Venus probably would have welcomed the proxy baptism. Yet the same questions that Jefferson and Hemings’s union presented arise for Redd and Venus: Even if she was a committed Mormon, would she really want to spend eternity with the man that held her in bondage and enslaved their shared children?
Even more troubling is the case of Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Mississippian Mormon convert Robert M. Smith brought Biddy and her mixed-race children—as well as dozens of other slaves—first to Utah and then to the Mormon settlement in San Bernardino, Calif. In 1856, Biddy and Smith’s other slaves sued him for their freedom, arguing that since he had moved them into the free state of California, then they are “forever free.” Judge Benjamin Hayes agreed.
Mason won her freedom just in time: A year later, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that the U.S. Congress had no right to prevent slavery in any state, and that African-Americans, free or enslaved, had no right to sue in court.
This fortunate timing forever changed the history of Los Angeles. Biddy took the last name of “Mason” (most likely the last name of her first master); newly self-christened, she quickly became an in-demand nurse and midwife. Investments in real estate made her wealthy and famous, the matriarch of black Los Angeles. She helped establish an elementary school for the city’s black children. In 1872, after a vision from God commanded her to do so, Mason founded the city’s oldest black church, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME). Today FAME is a megachuch of some 19,000 members and 13 corporations and a center of black pride and power in Los Angeles—which is also home to Biddy Mason Park. The city named Nov. 16, 1989, “Biddy Mason Day.”
Unlike Venus Redd, who reportedly remained with the LDS Church, when Mason gained her freedom, she built her own religious institution, one that welcomed her as a full member.
Despite this well documented history, on May 21, 2004, Bridget Biddy Mason was baptized by proxy in the Oakland, Calif. Temple, with the rest of her temple ordinances to follow in the months after. According to Family Search, Mason has not yet been sealed to Robert M. Smith. But the LDS Church’s genealogical database does recognize her as Smith’s wife (and Smith as the father of her children). The actual sealing between Mason and Smith is, according to Family Search, “ready” to be completed.
Two weeks ago, when the existence of such sealings was first brought to the LDS Church’s attention, communications passed quickly between high-ranking officials in both the Church History Department and the Church’s Family History Department. The sealing of Venus to John Hardison Redd was removed from the Family Search website. (Because this massive database often contains multiple entries for individuals, however, one of John and Venus’ duplicate sealings is, as of this writing, still retrievable.)
Ideally, removing these sealings from “public” view is not about the church covering its tracks. Rather, it should—and may—signal the beginning of what will be an agonizing process in which LDS Church leaders figure out what to do with such sealings. To undo them—which would require formal approval from church leaders—might serve to end the symbolic violence of such rituals, which link slave masters to slaves they sexually abused. It would also send a loud and powerful message about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to this aspect of Mormon temple practice.
When performed according to church policy, and in the true spirit of the ritual, this often misunderstood practice can be quite moving. Margaret Young, co-producer of the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold History of Black Mormons, told me about a proxy baptism and sealing that she witnessed. Young sat with an African-American convert named Susie as she watched her two sons, who “had died violent and tragic deaths” without being baptized, receive this ritual by proxy in the Provo Temple in 1998. “For Susie, this was a redemptive experience,” Young told me, “recalling her sons’ names and, in some measure, returning them to her and to the principles she had raised them to believe.” That same day, Susie was sealed to her late husband, Arthur, with Darius Gray—emeritus president of the Genesis Group, the largest organization of black Mormons—serving as proxy for Arthur.
“This is what temple ordinances should be,” Young told me, “the hearts of the children return to their mothers and fathers, and the hearts of their fathers and mothers return to their children.”
*Correction, March 29, 2012: This article origianlly misspelled Arun Gandhi’s last name. It also misstated the year of Jefferson’s presidential race. It was 1800, not 1802.