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Doing the “Works of Abraham” 

Some interpret D&C 132:32-33 as a command to practice plural marriage:  “Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved.  But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham.”

In fact, Abraham did many good “works.” He sought for the priesthood (Abr. 1:2-3), he presided righteously over his family, he paid his tithing (Alma 13:15),[1] he kept his covenants, he received revelation, he was married by proper authority (D&C 132:37), he practiced polygamy,[2] and significantly, he offered up burnt offerings (Gen. 22:13).[3] Latter-day Saints recognize that God has commanded them today to “do the works of Abraham” (D&C 132:32), but acknowledge that He has not authorized or commanded them to do all of Abraham’s works. Specifically, Church members are not expected or permitted to offer up burnt offerings. Equally, they believe that God has also withdrawn His authorization and command to practice plural marriage. However, these limitations do not remove the divine directive for believers to emulate Abraham’s other good works.

Also of immense importance is realizing that freelance polygamy is not doing the “works of Abraham.”  Many authors in the past few decades have, in their writings, failed to distinguish between the marriages of Mormon fundamentalists and those authorized by Church presidents between the 1840s and 1904.  For example, Carmon Hardy is in ground-breaking Solemn Covenant, tabulates 220 plural marriages that were performed between 1890 and 1910.[4]  But he makes no distinction between those entered into prior to the Second Manifesto in April, 1904 and those occurring after when Church President Joseph F. Smith stopped issuing new authorizations.  Clumping them all together implies the same level of legitimacy to those that were authorized by the Church President and those that were not.  Similarly, Will Bagley seems critical of the “ironic attempts of the modern LDS church to distance itself from the doctrine of plurality by vilifying those who continue the practice, using the same tactics their religion’s enemies exploited in the 1880s.”[5]  Writer Ken Verdonia notes that “The fundamentalist groups that practice polygamy in the contemporary setting have been marginalized.  They’ve been isolated.”[6]   Perhaps there is a need to clarify the differences between authorized and unauthorized eternal marriage ceremonies.

Concerning Abraham’s marriages, he “received” his wives; they were “given” to him (D&C 132: 29, 37; see also 38-39) by the Lord through His authorized servants and “There is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred” (D&C 132:7).  Several verses in section 132 specify that proper authority is absolutely necessary in all cases.  LDS Educator Danel Bachman explained:


Joseph’s background evidently left him thinking plural marriages were sinful, yet the scriptures make clear that a number of polygamists, including Abraham and Moses, were special friends and powerful prophets of God.  Joseph asked the Lord why, and in answer the Lord explained a general principle pertaining to any gospel covenant.  He said that if such covenants do not meet four conditions – i.e., if they are “[1] not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, [2] of him who is anointed, [3] both as well for time and for all eternity, [4] and that too most holy by revelation and commandment [2 again] through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power” – then they “are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead” (D&C 132:7).

The Lord then applied this principle to the covenant of marriage in three different cases detailed in verses 15-17, 18, and 19-20.  In the first the Lord poses the situation of a marriage that is not performed according to these conditions – in other words, a civil or sectarian marriage.  The revelation declares of those so married: “They are not bound by any law when they are out of the world (v. 15).  The second case concerns a marriage that is made for “Time and for all eternity” – one in which the correct wording is used, but otherwise does not meet the other three requirements.  Again the declaration is that “it is not valid neither of force when they are out of the world” (v. 18).  In the final situation the four conditions are met and the Lord declares that such a covenant “shall be of full force when they are out of the world.” (v. 19).[7]


Marriages performed without the authorization of the “one” man are freelance plural marriages.  It seems that the Lord anticipated freelance plural marriages when he revealed D&C 132:18.  “If a man marry a wife, and make a covenant with her for time and for all eternity, if that covenant not… through him whom I have anointed and appointed unto this power, then it is not valid neither of force when they are out of the world.”  In this verse God reveals that tradition, sincerity, personal revelation, and/or correct language cannot compensate for the lack of proper authorization.[8]  Unauthorized priesthood ordinations are “dead works” in the eyes of the Lord (D&C 22:3).  Twice in section 132 God emphasizes that His house is a “house of order” (D&C 132:8, 18), suggesting that order is important in establishing the validity of an eternal marriage.[9]

The scriptures demonstrate that unauthorized ordinances do not bring God’s blessings.  King Saul in the Old Testament was commanded by the prophet Samuel to “smite Amalek and utterly destroy all” (1 Samuel 15:3).  Saul smote the Amalekites, but spared “the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them” (v. 9).  Saul’s intent was to offer them up as a burnt offering, an unauthorized burnt offering (the animals were to have been destroyed).  Saul’s disobedience caused Samuel to grieve.  He approached Saul:




And Samuel came to Saul: and Saul said unto him, Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD.

And Samuel said, What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?

And Saul said, They have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.

And Samuel said, When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the LORD anointed thee king over Israel?

And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.  (1 Samuel 15:13-15, 17, 22-23; italics added.)


In the story above, Saul planned to perform priesthood ordinances (offering up burnt sacrifices) contrary to divine directives given through the prophet Samuel.  He thought his own wisdom was superior to the directions he had received and that God would accept the unauthorized priesthood ordinances.  Samuel was not impressed, referring to Saul’s behavior as “rebellion and stubbornness… as iniquity and idolatry.”  Ultimately, Saul’s actions caused him to be rejected by God as King of Israel.  Perhaps there is a parallel between unauthorized plural marriages performed today and Saul’s intentions to perform unauthorized burn offerings, which were condemned by the Lord. 

Religious history shows that God does not reward unauthorized ordinance work, even if the individuals are sincere.[10]  It is true that Joseph Smith taught:  “The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.”[11]  But receiving truth and revelation from heaven does not authorize priesthood ordinances.  The Prophet also plainly instructed:  “All the ordinances, systems, and administrations on the earth are of no use to the children of men, unless they are ordained and authorized of God; for nothing will save a man but a legal administrator; for none others will be acknowledged either by God or angels.”[12]

For example, W.W. Phelps was sent on a mission in 1847.  While serving in the eastern states, he married three wives polygamously, his mission companion, Henry B. Jacobs, performing the marriages without having first obtained permission from Brigham Young.  Upon returning to Salt Lake City with the three women, Brigham Young heard the story.  Hosea Stout, an attorney and police officer in Nauvoo and Winter Quarters, noted:


Went to a council today which had been called to investigate the cases of H[enry]. B. Jacobs and W. N. Phelps [sic] while they were East on a mission.

It appeared that Phelps had while East last summer got some new ideas into three young women and they had consented to become his wives and got Jacobs to marry them to him in St. Louis and he lived with them as such all the way to this place. After a long and tedious hearing of the matter which was altogether their own admissions, President Young decided that Phelps had committed adultery every time that he had laid with one of them.[13]


Phelps was excommunicated on December 6, 1847.  This account demonstrates that W.W. Phelps was sincerely trying to follow Church teachings regarding polygamy.  However, his plural marriages were unauthorized and therefore considered adulterous by Brigham Young. 

In looking at the admonition to “do the works of Abraham,” we readily acknowledge that plural marriage might be considered part of the “works” he performed on earth.  But his polygamous unions were also commanded, authorized, and orderly.  Freelance polygamy is none of these things.

            It appears that many researchers, outsiders, and even Church members believe that L.D.S. theology teaches that the more wives a man had sealed to him here on earth, the greater his eternal exaltation.  Despite, it popularity, a closer look at the scriptures and teachings of priesthood authorities demonstrate that while obedience to specific commandments always brings blessings, no such general doctrine has ever existed.



[1] See also History of the Church, 7:319-20.

[2] All of Abraham’s plural wives were given to him by proper priesthood authority through the “one” who held the keys of sealing authority (see D&C 132:29).  Freelance polygamy has never been seen as eternally valuable; Church presidents have taught that such relations constitute adultery.  See James R. Clark, ed. Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965- 71), 5:242, 249, 292-303, 317.

[3] According to William Smith, Smith’s Bible Dictionary (Old Tappan, N.J.: Spire Books, 1975), 92: “Throughout the whole of the Book of Genesis (see 15:9, 17; 22:2, 7, 8, 13) [burnt offerings] appear to be the only sacrifice referred to; afterwards it became distinguished as one of the regular classes of sacrifice under the Mosaic law.” The Old Testament contains 247 references to “burnt offerings” made by Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham, Moses (Exod. 10:25), Jethro (Exod. 18:12), and other prophets and leaders.

[4] Hardy, B. Carmon, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1992, chart beginning on page 394 with 220 names [no pagination].

[5] Will Bagley in Forward, B. Carmon Hardy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its Origin, Practice, and Demise, Norman, Oklahoma: Arthur H. Clark, 2007, 16.

[6] Ken Verdonia, quoted in Helen Whitney, The Mormons, PBS Home Video, 2007.

[7] Danel W. Bachman, “The Eternity of the Marriage Relationship,” in John K. Challis and John G. Scott eds., Riches of Eternity: 12 Fundamental Doctrines from the Doctrine and Covenants, Salt Lake City: Aspen Book, 1993, 213. [195-221]

[8] See discussion in Brian C. Hales, Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations after the Manifesto, Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006, 465-68.

[9] The need for the authorization from the key holder is illustrated by a story.  Imagine a group of teens playing baseball.  After many hours of enjoyment, they congregate to decide if they should quit or play one more inning.  Just then, the boy who owns the groups’ only baseball grabs the ball and states:  “I’m going home now.”  He walks away with the ball leaving the other players.  Those players could gather and pray or give strong testimony that they should keep playing.  They might feel strong personal burnings that they should not stop.  Regardless, they could not proceed because they have no baseball.  Similarly, it is impossible to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage as a monogamist or polygamist without the authorization of the “one” man who controls the sealing keys.  Personal revelation, sincerity, or tradition cannot compensate for the lack of proper priesthood authorization.

[10] See Brian C. Hales and J. Max Anderson, The Priesthood of Modern Polygamy: An L.D.S. Perspective, Salt Lake City: NPI, 1992, 237-47.

[11] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Four 1839–42, p.190.

[12] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Five 1842–43, p.274.  At another time, Joseph Smith acknowledged that written revelation and scripture alone cannot bring salvation.  Priesthood authorization is always required:  “There is no salvation between the two lids of the Bible without a legal administrator” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Six 1843–44, p.319).

[13] Juanita Brooks, ed., On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, 1844-1861, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1964), 1:289.