My family and I recently visited a young LDS couple that had just suffered a terrible loss. Their first pregnancy resulted in a stillborn child, shattering their hopes for welcoming a child to their home in the spring. Having been in a similar situation ourselves many years ago (and subsequently over-compensating with five daughters), I had more than a passing familiarity with what they were experiencing. But I couldn’t help but notice that, along with the tears, there were smiles and confident expressions that the loss was transitory, and that their baby boy would be restored to them. They expressed grief, but not anguish. Disappointment, but not despair.
Because Mormons believe that families are forever.
Many years ago, while reading a biography of Andrew Jackson, I came across this quote, in which he expressed his feelings about his deceased wife: “Heaven will not be heaven to me unless I meet my wife there.” That is a sentiment that I understand and share, and I suspect that most people (at least those who actually like their families) feel the same way. If there is an afterlife, and if it goes on forever, there is nothing about it that would attract me unless I could enjoy the companionship of my wife and children. If at the gates of Heaven my dad, who passed some 16 years ago, is not waiting for me, eternity would carry with it deep disappointment.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches what most people instinctively believe, but other Christian churches stop short of proclaiming: The loving ties we build with our families on earth can be carried on through the eternities through sacred covenants made with our Father in Heaven. On my mission, I sometimes asked people if they believed they would be joined with their families after this life. Almost all of them said they did. What they couldn’t do is confirm that their church actually teaches it.
The doctrine of eternal families begins with the belief that God is literally the Father of our spirits. Prior to coming to earth, we existed as spirit sons and daughters of God, meaning that the family was the basis of our organization before coming to mortality.
When God created Adam and Eve, they were husband and wife in the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall and their introduction into mortality. Thus, the first marriage was an eternal marriage. With no death, there can be no “until death do you part.” We believe that God has continued to ordain the family as the basic unit of society and that He intends for us to be saved as families.
The highest ordinance in the LDS Church is the “sealing” of families in our temples. We believe that part of the priesthood authority restored through Joseph Smith was the power to “seal” things in heaven and earth, which is the same authority that was given to Peter. In our temples, marriages are solemnized not only for time, but for eternity, and we believe that–conditioned upon our obedience–such marriages will be in full force and effect after this life. Children born to sealed couples are considered to be “born under the covenant,” meaning that there is no need for an additional ordinance to seal the children to their parents. Where the parents are sealed after a “time only” marriage (such as new converts to the Church), their current children are sealed to them in the temple at the same time they are sealed together.
This belief in an eternal family influences so much of what we do as a Church. From programs like Family Home Evening, the Church’s Proclamation on the Family, to our position on moral issues, our doctrine is driven by the belief that families are divine and that our homes should be places of sacred security. It helps to foster strong marriages by emphasizing an eternal commitment between husband and wife. For me, the goal of staying with my wife long after diamonds turn to dust makes the commitment of staying with her today, and tomorrow, far easier.
Interestingly, in the LDS Church, our priesthood is structured around the family as well. The priesthood is not restricted to professional clergy; rather, any worthy father can hold the priesthood and perform ordinances for his own family, such as baptisms, confirmation into the Church, and priesthood blessings. Each time I lay my hands on any of my children’s heads to give them a blessing of comfort or health, I am thankful for a God that puts family at the forefront of our spiritual lives.
The family is the schoolhouse in which we learn our most important life lessons. I believe that being a husband and father have taught me lessons in love, sacrifice, kindness and gratitude that I simply could not have learned in the same way in any other environment. Fatherhood has given me a deeper appreciation of how my Father in Heaven sees me, and what my relationship with Him and my elder brother, Jesus Christ, should resemble. Fatherhood is, for me, an introductory course in Godhood.
In my time as a member of the Church, no doctrine has meant more to me. I am a family guy. I always have been. After nearly 25 years of marriage, I’m always anxious to get home to my wife and daughters because home is where I find my happiness. The notion that these bonds of love that I have developed with my family are transitory, and that after this life I would live singly, is abhorrent to me. To be divided from my family would be no less of a hell to me than being separated from God. It is the hope of eternal union with my family members that has gotten me through the loss of those dearest to me and eases the sorrow that comes with missing them. It is that hope that makes heaven something worth striving for.