Most contemporary Mormons are renowned for their overly conservative approach to human sexuality. In recent decades, the leaders of Mormonism’s larger denominations have tended to align themselves with Evangelicals and Christian Fundamentalists in their views on this subject.
This is surprising considering that during the 19th and early 20th centuries what most set Mormons apart from others was their radical view of human sexuality. As the character of an LDS missionary in the recent film “Latter Days,” states: “Our ancestors were the original non-traditional families.”
Early Mormons believed that not only was sexuality a human attribute, it was also an attribute of the Gods. Sexual union with another could play a significant role in the individual’s progression towards Godhood. Within Mormonism marriage was not a rite administered by the Priesthood-as in Catholicism. Within Mormonism, marriage in fact became an Order of the Priesthood (See Doctrine & Covenants 132)-the highest Order. Thus, sexual union within marriage became the highest expression of religion.
We have explored the Mormon doctrine of the human soul-which is the union of the spirit/mind and body. Early Mormons also taught that there was no such thing as “immaterial matter”-meaning, that everything-including the spirit-has a material existence. Such a doctrine completely undermines the traditional notion that the human body and the human spirit are in conflict with one another; that the spirit is good and the body is somehow bad.
These unique Mormon doctrines set the foundation for early Mormonism’s positive view of human sexuality.
Nowhere is the early Mormon view of human sexuality presented more thoughtfully than in the writings of early Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt.
Parley P. Pratt’s “Intelligence and Affection” was published in Nauvoo in 1840, and was distributed by the Mormon press and Mormon missionaries as being representative of the liberal and enlightened Mormon views on human love and sexuality. “Intelligence” refers to the rational processes of the human mind, while “affection” was a euphemism not only for familial love and the love between friends, but also sexual love.
Excerpts from this classic early Mormon missionary tract are presented below. One wonders how contemporary Mormon attitudes towards sex might differ if more people were familiar with the writings of Parley P. Pratt and of Mormonism’s other founding fathers and mothers.
KNOWLEDGE & EXPERIENCE: THE FOUNDATION OF LOVE
“The human mind in infancy, like the body, is small and weak indeed. It neither possesses intelligence [knowledge] or affection [love] to any great degree; for the latter is the production of the former….
“The infant mind commences to expand, and continues to enlarge itself just in proportion to the truths that are presented for its food, and the time and opportunity it has to digest and comprehend them. If unassisted by other intelligences, it expands but very little, –all its powers remain in a great measure inactive and dormant.
“For instance, let an infant be cut off from all communication with other intelligences, let it grow to manhood entirely alone, and it still knows little more than in infancy…
“It is true, that, in this life the progress of the mind in intelligence, is not only gradual, but obstructed in various ways. It has to contend, not only with its own prejudices and the errors of an opposing world, but with innumerable weakness, temptations, cares, and troubles with which it is continually beset…
“In infancy, our love is as narrow as our intelligent capacity. But as our intelligence increases, so our affection grows, till from knowing and loving our mother, we begin to know and love the circle of our immediate kindred and family…As we advance in the knowledge of all our social connections, duties, dependencies, relationships, and obligations, our affections still increase…Thus love, or affection is dependent upon knowledge, or intelligence, and can only be increased by an increase of knowledge.
“These two principles [knowledge and love] are the foundations, the fountains of all real happiness.
SEXUAL REPRESSION/ RESISTING HUMAN LOVE
“Some persons have supposed that our natural affections [sexual feelings] were the results of a fallen and corrupt nature, and that they are ‘carnal, sensual and devilish,’ and therefore ought to be resisted, subdued, or overcome as so many evils which prevent our perfection, or progress in the spiritual life. In short, they should be greatly subdued in this world, and in the world to come entirely done away. And even our intelligence [knowledge] also. Such persons frequently inquire whither they shall recognize their kindred or friends in the life to come. They also caution themselves and others, lest they should love their child, their companion, their brother, sister or mother too well; for, say they, if you love them to well it will offend your God and he will take them from you.
“Such persons have mistaken the source and fountain of happiness altogether. They have not one correct idea of the nature of the enjoyments, or happiness of heaven, or earth; this life or any other. If intelligence [knowledge] and affection [human love] are to decrease to such a low ebb that we shall neither recognize or love our kindred and friends, then a stone, a block of wood, or a picture on the wall is as capable of the enjoyment of heaven as we are.
“So far from this being the case, our natural affections [sexual feelings/human loves] are planted in us by the Spirit of God, for a wise purpose; and they are the very mainsprings of life and happiness–they are the cement of all virtuous and heavenly society–they are the essence of charity, or love; and therefore, never fail but endure forever.
“There is not a more pure and holy principle in existence than the affection which glows in the bosom of a virtuous man for his companion; for his parents, brothers, sisters, and children….
“These pure affections are inspired in our bosoms, and interwoven with out nature by an all wise and benevolent being, who rejoices in the happiness and welfare of his creatures. All his revelations to man, touching this subject [human love, human sexuality] are calculated to approve, encourage and perfect them; that man, enlightened and taught of God, may be more free, more social, more cheerful, happy, kind, familiar, and lovely than he was before; that he may fill all the relationships of life, and act in every sphere of usefulness with a greater energy, and with a readier mind, and a more willing heart.
CELIBACY & SELF-DENIAL
“All the monkish austerity all the sadness and reserve, all the unsocial feelings and doings of priests, and monks, and nuns; all the longfacedness, unsocial sadness, groanings, sighings, and mortifications of secretaries, whether ancient convents, where men and women retire from all busy scenes and pleasures of life, to live a life of celibacy, self-denial and devotion; and whether in the more modern and fashionable circles of the camp meetings, or the ‘mourners bench.’
“All these, I say, are expressly and entirely opposed to the spirit and object of true religion; they are so many relics of superstition, ignorance, and hypocrisy, and are expressly forbidden and condemned by our Lord and Savior.
BEING DISSATISFIED WITH YOUR NATURE/ PRAYING FOR GOD TO CHANGE YOU
“In all these things, man has mistaken the source of happiness; has been dissatisfied with the elements and attributes of his nature, and has tried, and sought, and prayed, in vain to make himself into a different being from what the Lord has wisely designed he should be…”
“…The man who, through a mistaken zeal, or through the influence of ignorant teachings or incorrect traditions, so far mistakes the object and purpose of his being, as to withdraw from all these; to shut himself from the world, and seek to overcome and subdue the natural affections [sexual feelings] with which God has endowed him, is not a religious man at all. On the contrary, he is opposing the will and commandments of God and neglecting the duties of religion…
STUDY YOURSELF, KNOW YOURSELF
“Man, know thy self,–study thine own nature,–learn the powers of thy body,–the capacity of thy mind. Learn thine origin, thy purpose and thy destiny. Study the true source of thine own happiness, and the happiness of all beings with which thou art associated. Learn to act in unison with thy true character, nature and attributes; and thus improve and cultivate the resources within and around thee. This will render you truly happy, and be an acceptable service to your God. And being faithful over a few things, you may hope to be made a ruler of many thing….
DON’T PRAY THAT YOUR NATURAL AFFECTIONS BE CHANGED; PRAY THAT THEY BE INCREASED
“Know then, O’ Man, that aided and directed by the light of heaven the sources of thy happiness are within and around thee. Instead of seeking unto God for a mysterious change to wrought, or for your affections and attributes to be taken away and subdued, seek unto him for aid, and wisdom to govern, direct and cultivate them in a manner which will tend to your happiness and exaltation, both in this world and in that which is to come. Yea, pray to him that every affection, attribute, power and energy of your body and mind may be cultivated, increased, enlarged, perfected and exercised for his glory and for the glory and happiness of yourself, and of all those whose good fortune it may be to be associated with you…
THE ETERNAL EXALTATION OF THE HUMAN MIND & BODY
“Having discovered and set forth in plainness the origin, purpose and destiny of man’s physical organization and the powers, attributes, energies, affections and capabilities of his intellect, we find him standing erect in God-like majesty, with organs of strength beyond the reach of death: and powers of thought, capable of spanning the heavens, and comprehending all things…”
While other denominations within world-wide Mormonism have, over the past century and a half, retreated from the liberal, optimistic view of human nature and human sexuality embraced by many first generation Mormons, Reform Mormonism embraces this view.
When contemplating human nature and human sexuality, Reform Mormons tend to take a more rational, positive approach.
Reform Mormonism rejects the idea that God has legalistically issued a set of commands regarding human sexuality to which the individual must render mindless obedience. Such a notion seems out of harmony with the broader implications of Mormon theology-that there is no inherent contradiction between the mind/spirit and the body; that the individual is an eternally free and autonomous entity who, being in the image and likeness of God, has the ability to grow in knowledge and eventually progress towards Godhood.
“The Book of Mormon” teaches that men and women are that they might have joy. Joseph Smith taught that “happiness is the object of our existence.” (Interestingly enough, Joseph wrote this in a letter dealing with marriage and sexuality.) Sexuality plays an essential role in human happiness and fulfillment. One’s sexuality is not something to be sacrificed, repressed or overcome.
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