Sorry, Your Friends Can’t Come to Your Mormon Wedding

Temple sealings are a sacred Mormon tradition. But they shouldn’t come at the cost of a civil ceremony with non-LDS friends.

A photographer takes wedding pictures of a couple at a park, August 7, 2013.
In this file photo, a photographer takes wedding pictures of a couple at a park on Aug. 7, 2013. The Mormon requirement that couples wait a year between a civil ceremony, open to non-Mormon friends and family, and a temple sealing, which excludes non-Mormons, applies in only a few countries, including the United States.

Photo by Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

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.

Temple recommend, front
Temple recommend, back

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.

The exclusive, secretive nature of the temple causes little conflict for LDS couples preparing to be married in many parts of the world, where the private religious temple ceremony doesn’t meet the requirements for a legally binding marriage. In the U.K., where Matt Dann grew up, prior to marrying before God, LDS couples must marry in front of the state, in a ceremony anyone may attend. British couples typically have a ceremony that satisfies the state in the morning and a sealing later in the day. In fact, Dann adds, “The church in the U.K. goes to great lengths to accommodate couples by making the temple available to newlyweds sometimes as late as 10 p.m.”

However, in the U.S., Canada, and South Africa, where the closed ceremony of the temple is legally valid, Mormons must choose between the two.

For people raised in Mormon communities where the policy is now deeply ingrained, this hasn’t always caused much distress. Like Anderson, I was a bridesmaid at three receptions following weddings I couldn’t attend; I accepted it as the way things are. But Wendy Reynolds of Kenmore, Wash., said that she saw the matter in a new light when she went from being excluded to doing the excluding. “I was a bridesmaid four times without being able to attend the ceremony,” Reynolds told me. “It wasn’t a big deal because I knew all along that I wouldn’t be able to go. I didn’t think it was strange until I was getting married myself and had to leave several of my closest friends and the majority of my family off the ceremony list. I was married 20 years ago, and I have never recovered from this.”

Micah Nickolaisen, a professional photographer in the Phoenix area, has observed how painful these matters often are for young Mormon couples. Host of the LDS podcast Exploring Sainthood, he states in a recent episode, “If that pain is justified, if that’s what God wants, if there’s some doctrinal or theological reason that it has to be that way, then maybe that’s the price we have to pay, but it seems so pointless. What are we accomplishing except creating distance from us and the people we’re trying to influence and put on a good impression for?”

Consequently, some faithful Mormons are asking leaders to reconsider the policy of forcing couples wherever possible to wait a year for the sealing if they also have a civil ceremony. A new website, Family First Weddings, collects statements about the policy and encourages members to write respectful letters to the church hierarchy explaining how the policy hurts them and their relationships. The stories posted are so persuasive that it’s hard to find anyone who approves of the current policy. In fact, I had to enlist the help of people who participate regularly in forums for conservative Mormons to find anyone willing to go on record defending the current policy—and even the one person who agreed decided after perusing the website that the policy is unfair and should be changed.

But there’s no clear mechanism by which members can ask leaders to change policies—even one so inconsistent. In 1978 the church changed its policy on race and the priesthood: Until then, men of African descent couldn’t hold the priesthood. Prior to the change, there were protests over the matter, but according to the church, the change occurred because Spencer W. Kimball, then president of the church, received a revelation from God that it was his will that the policy change. Many people felt the elimination of obvious racial discrimination was the answer to a great many prayers.

But not all prayers that the church adapt to the ethics and equality of the modern world result in a revelation that it’s time for change. People who clamored too loudly for change in the church’s treatment of women have sometimes been summarily excommunicated—Sonia Johnson, for instance, who protested the church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, or a group of feminists in the 1990s.

It’s hard to predict whether Family First Weddings will succeed. When I contacted LDS public affairs director Michael Otterson for a comment on the policy and efforts to persuade the brethren to change it, he would only say, “Church leaders are aware of, and sensitive to, this issue.”

The modesty of the goal of Family First Weddings baffles some outsiders: Why not make temple weddings open to everyone? I was essentially asked as I wrote this story. But that would be analogous to, say, Catholics asking their church to let a non-Catholic administer the Eucharist, or to let anyone who wants to visit every area of a cloistered monastery: It invalidates doctrine and violates not only concepts of holiness but something fundamental about the commitments and blessings inherent in joining a church.

All that Family First Weddings and its supporters are asking for is something Mormons in many parts of the world and most people in North America accept as a basic right: the option of having a civil wedding and inviting whomever they please without being religiously shamed and punished for it.