Redefining Celestial Marriage

By studying the frequency and usage of words over time within a religious movement, we can better understand the rhetoric of the movement as it pertains to their beliefs and how these beliefs and the emphasis of the movement changes over time[1].  In this study, we consider only terms and their frequency of occurrence in the meetings of the General Conference of the LDS church.

In the LDS faith, the concept of polygamy was introduced around 1840.  However, due to its secret nature and the accusations surrounding it, the subject was not openly publically addressed until the 1850s.

Terminology for this form of relationship varied.  Non-believers used terms like adultery, bigamy, and fornication.  Believers in the faith called it polygamy, plural marriage, the plurality of wives (or simply the plurality), patriarchal marriage, and celestial marriage.

When the LDS church publicly abandoned the practice in 1890, it began a period of transition.  While some in upper leadership continued to practice polygamy and even take new wives, many in the movement tried to distance themselves from the practice.  The terms used to describe it also evolved.  One term in particular – that of ‘celestial marriage’ was completely redefined[2].

Relative Frequency of Marriage related terms in General Conference, 1850-2019

Polygamy as practiced within the LDS faith had been a ceremony associated with the temple rites.  As Mormons began to distance themselves from the practice of polygamy, discussion of the topic and its various descriptive terms decreased significantly after 1890.  However, in 1930 the concept of temple marriage was introduced to describe a monogamous marriage in the temple using the ceremony previously associated with polygamy.  The term “Celestial Marriage” was reintroduced in 1949 with a new meaning.  After having not been used for a generation, it was redefined to refer primarily to monogamous temple marriages.  The wording of these ceremonies had not changed significantly, but now they were monogamous and could provide exaltation to the participants.  Up to 1890, Mormons were taught that they could only be exalted and become like God if the male was a polygamist.

Details of the process of redefining the term ‘celestial marriage’

Prior to 1900, all references to celestial marriage by Mormons appear to refer to the religious practice of polygamy within Mormonism.

In 1891, George Q Cannon remarked:

I heard one of the Twelve say that if he were called upon to testify, he believed he could say truthfully that the Latter-day Saints were more pleased to hear the manifesto than they were to hear the revelation given on celestial marriage. Now, I could not say that, and yet I believe there is a great element of truth in the statement. I believe that it was a very great trial to this Church, and I believe, too, that there are a great many people glad that the manifesto has been given, because they feel relieved in their feelings.

Celestial marriage was mentioned in a talk in 1894 by Joseph F. Smith and 1895 by George Q. Cannon.  Cannon remarked:

The Latter-day Saints, in obedience to the law of celestial marriage, took to themselves wives and lived with them as wives; but one ever heard of a man who observed this law in the Spirit of it apostatizing because of that.

In 1902, Joseph F. Smith used the term in one talk, and while it likely referred to polygamy, the usage is ambiguous.

Between 1902 and 1917, the definition of the term started to shift.  In 1917, William C. Parkinson noted:

Some people when they read the great revelation found in this book of D &C, 132nd section, imagine that it refers only to plural marriage, when the fact is that it refers to the eternal or celestial order of marriage, including the plurality of wives, which has been done away. But this celestial order of marriage, this divine system of marriage, is something that should be taught to our children.

Usage of select marriage related terms in General Conference

Usage of “Celestial Marriage”, “Plurality of Wives”, and “Temple Marriage”

Celestial marriage was again mentioned in 1937 in a talk by Stephen L. Richards.  Referring to temple work, he talks about “celestial marriage of man and wife” without referencing polygamy.

The next mentions were in 1948 and 1949 by Eldred G. Smith and Milton R. Hunter.  By this point, the redefinition of the word was complete and it no longer primarily referred to polygamy.

In modern usage, the idea that celestial marriage used to refer only to polygamy has been either forgotten or ignored by LDS leaders.  Celestial marriage has been redefined to be synonymous with monogamous temple marriage[3].

A summary of terms:

  1. Polygamy: Used in the 1830s and 1840s, but generally in denial of the practice.  First used widely in the 1850 and peaked in the 1880s.  Not used widely after the 1890s.
  2. Plurality of wives: Introduced in the 1850s and peaked in the 1860s.  Not used commonly after 1890.
  3. Plural Marriage: Introduced later than the term polygamy, and effectively replaces the term after 1890.  Appears to be a gentrification.
  4. Patriarchal Marriage:  Introduced in the 1860s and widely used into the 1880s.  This term refers to the patriarchs – particularly Abraham as he was widely considered the example that one should follow in this type of marriage.  One polygamist sect which was popular in the 1940s was the “order of Aaron” which used similar terminology.
  5. Celestial Marriage: Synonymous with the term polygamy between 1850 and 1910.  Redefined and reintroduced to refer to monogamous temple marriages around 1948.
  6. Temple Marriage: A new term introduced in 1918 by Joseph F. Smith when listing some statistics to differentiate from civil marriage.  Used a few times in the 1920s.  Preaching and encouragement for this type of marriage significantly increased in the 1930s, roughly 40 years after polygamy had been abandoned as a widespread practice.
Usage of various Marriage terms in General Conference


  1. When the organization is redefining a term or religious concept, they often fail to discuss it for a period of 20 or more years.  Between 1902 and 1948, there were only 2 references in General Conference to celestial marriage.
  2. It can be useful to introduce new terminology to express new desired norms – in this case “temple marriage”. This new term does not have the baggage of the old term “celestial marriage”.
  3. Word usage is important when gentrifying concepts. “Plural marriage” is much easier to stomach than “polygamy”, even though they are describing the same practice.  As such, it has become the preferred term.
  4. Of all of the terms associated with polygamy, “celestial marriage” is the only one that has been definitively redefined.

Future work:

Is it possible to project which concepts, teachings, or doctrines are likely to be re-evaluated or changed based on word usage?  Concepts such as a world-wide flood[4] or a literal tower of Babel[5] and biological evolution are becoming less mainstream in society.  Can one predict when the church will re-evaluate their views on these subjects based on a lack of mention in General Conference?

[1] This technique was pioneered by sociologists Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd in their seminal work, A Kingdom Transformed.

[2] This is acknowledged by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars.  For example, see


[4] The word “ark” with reference to Noah was used 11 times by 6 speakers between 2002 and 2010.  It has not been used since 2010 in General Conference.

[5] The tower of Babel was mentioned 3 times between 2000-2010.  The last mention in general conference was in 2009, nearly a decade ago.

4 thoughts on “Redefining Celestial Marriage”

  1. What about the term “millennium”? Has its usage dropped since Y2K came and went without Jesus returning?

    1. The term “millennium” is only one of several terms dealing with the 2nd coming. Sociologists studying religion are particularly interested in this group of terms as increased usage is associated with the birth of religions and religions in crisis. This term was last used in 2004, and was used by a total of 10 different speakers between the year 2000-2004. The lack of the term after this date suggests a deliberate change, though it is difficult to speculate regarding the motivation. Some speculate that the LDS church is currently in a crisis due to increased secularization in society and increasing disaffection. This is not substantiated based on what sociologists would predict regarding the usage of millennial related themes.

      Associated or related terms include, “second coming” and “thousand years”. The term “thousand years” is more ambiguous and often refers to other events including the creation, but is generally associated with a fundamentalist or literal interpretation of the bible.

      Looking through all related terms, we see peaks in usage during the 1870s and the 1970s. During the 1870s, many members believed that the 2nd coming would happen during their lifetime. There is some evidence to suggest that Brigham Young believed that the millennium had begun with the death of Joseph Smith. Patriarchal blessings promising members that they would live to see the 2nd coming were abundant during this period. The church was in a very real crisis due to their ongoing conflict with the US government over polygamy during this period. Regarding the peak in the 1970s, I do not have a good explanation, but can only speculate that it was related to anticipation regarding Y2K. As a youth growing up in the 70s, I can recall local leaders hinting that the savior would come around the year 2000.

    1. I am happy to send you the raw data. It is all taken from which anyone can access with a free account. My methodology is not 100% rigorous, as I have looked at the total number of references but have not eliminated duplicate references from the same talk or looked at the total number of words from any given decade to ensure that the relative usage trends are 100% accurate. I do believe that the trends noted are accurate however.

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