“Mercy Thompson and the Revelation on Marriage,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“Mercy Thompson and the Revelation on Marriage,” Revelations in Context
Robert Thompson was in the prime of life when he passed away unexpectedly in the fall of 1841, a victim of the malarial fevers that laid low so many Latter-day Saints in the mosquito-ridden swamplands on the banks of the Mississippi River. The private secretary of Joseph Smith and a coeditor of the Church’s newspaper, Times and Seasons, Thompson appeared to have a bright future. One day he was healthy. Ten days later he was gone, cut down at age thirty, his wife and three-year-old daughter now alone.
Thompson was not a difficult man to love. Friends remembered him as a “fond husband, a tender parent and a true and faithful friend.”1 His wife, Mercy, admired his bravery at the end. “He endured his sufferings with great Patience, not a murmuring word escaped his Lips.” He spent his last moments, she said, testifying “that he had not followed cunningly devised Fables, that he had been raised from the Dunghill and made to sit among Princes.”2
The premature death of a family member has been an all-too-common occurrence throughout human history. Often it was a woman whose death in childbirth left little ones without the gentle caress of their mother’s hand. Not until the 20th century could most families in the industrialized world expect not to lose an infant or a young child to accident or disease. From the beginning of time, death has lurked as a reminder of both the fragility of life and our longing for its continuance.
Over and against this culture of death, a revelation received by Joseph Smith promised that our most cherished relationships can persist in the next life. Mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, parents and children can be with one another again, our kinships and friendships enduring into the eternities. The remarkable terms of these promises are found in this revelation, known today as Doctrine and Covenants 132.
Two main conceptions of heaven have predominated during 2,000 years of Christian history.3 The most common view imagines single and solitary angels worshipping and praising God in perfect union. This view draws a sharp distinction between this world and the next and privileges the role of the intellect in the afterlife. The focus is on the contemplation of God and His greatness, not on human relationships. Earthly connections are temporal and thus destined to end at death.4
The other main conception emphasizes the presence of friends and family in the afterlife. The worship of God persists, but the society of loved ones becomes essential to eternal bliss. The material and the eternal worlds overlap, and ordinary life becomes part of God’s holy work. The idea of a social heaven grew in popularity during the 19th century. American novelist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps captured the great appeal of this view for a generation that had lost relatives prematurely in the U.S. Civil War. “Would it be like Him,” Phelps’s novel The Gates Ajar asks, “to suffer two souls to grow together here, so that the separation of a day is pain, and then wrench them apart for all eternity?”5
Joseph Smith’s revelation on marriage, recorded in July 1843, made no effort to model the afterlife on sentimental Victorian life as Phelps did. The revelation confirmed that human relationships will persist, but only on condition. All social commitments are destined to end at death unless they are made in view of eternity and performed by one with the priesthood authority to seal on earth as in heaven. Marriages that persist after we die, section 132 says, are entered into “for time and for all eternity,” and are “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him … whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power.” Those who do not enter into such covenants, prior to the Resurrection of the dead, become “angels in heaven,” appointed to remain “separately and singly.”6
Mercy Rachel Fielding was born in 1807 to pious Methodists who tenant farmed in a tiny rural village 60 miles north of London. At age twenty-four, she immigrated to York (now Toronto), Canada, along with her older brother Joseph. Soon joined by their sister Mary, the three Fieldings started attending meetings of a group of Methodist seekers who believed that all the churches they knew had lost their way. When missionary Parley P. Pratt arrived in York in the spring of 1836, the Fieldings found the answer to their problem. Mercy, Mary, and Joseph were baptized in a local creek, and they moved to Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, the following spring.7
In Canada, Mercy met Robert Blashel Thompson, whose path mirrored her own in many ways. Born in 1811 in Yorkshire, England, he had joined as a young man a group of dissenters called the Primitive Methodist Society, who sought a return of spiritual gifts. He moved to Canada in 1834, heard the message of Parley P. Pratt, and was baptized the same month as the Fieldings. Robert Thompson and Mercy Fielding were kindred spirits, and soon after their arrival in Kirtland, the two married in June 1837.8
After the marriage, Mercy’s sister Mary began boarding with cousins of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and in this way became better acquainted with these brothers, whom she quickly grew to love. Her heart drew out in sympathy to Hyrum when his wife, Jerusha, died in the fall of 1837 after a difficult childbirth that left their five children under 10 years old without a mother. Joseph inquired of the Lord what Hyrum should do. The answer was that he should marry Mary Fielding right away. Trusting Joseph’s inspiration, Mary married Hyrum on Christmas Eve 1837.9
Thereafter, Mercy and Robert’s lives became intertwined with Mary and Hyrum’s. Hyrum led the Thompsons on the thousand-mile trek from Ohio to Missouri, where the Saints relocated in 1838. Later, when Hyrum and Joseph were incarcerated in Liberty Jail, Mercy and Mary visited the prisoners on a cold February night, bringing with them Hyrum’s new infant son, little Joseph F., the future prophet. Having recently given birth herself, Mercy nursed Joseph F. on that occasion when Mary was too sick to do so. Mercy and Robert kept Mary and Hyrum’s children during Hyrum’s incarceration, and in Nauvoo, the two families built homes next to one another.10
The Smiths and the Thompsons grew even closer after Robert’s death. One night in the spring of 1843, Mercy was sleeping at Mary’s home, keeping her sister company while Hyrum was away from Nauvoo on business. Mercy dreamed that she was standing in a garden with Robert. She heard someone repeat their marriage vows, though she couldn’t make out whose voice it was. As one attuned to the variety of ways God spoke, Mercy understood the dream as a message from God. “I awoke in the Morning deeply impressed by this Dream which I could not interpret.”11
Later that night, Hyrum returned home and reported having had “a very remarkable Dream” while he was away from home. He had seen his deceased wife Jerusha and two of their children who had died prematurely.12 Hyrum was no clearer on the meaning of his dream than Mercy’s was on hers. But the timing of the dreams was uncanny. Upon his arrival home, Hyrum found a message from his brother Joseph asking him to come to his house. “To his amazement,” Mercy reported, Hyrum found that Joseph had received a revelation stating that “marriages contracted for time only lasted for time and were no more one until a new contract was made, for All Eternity.”13 This revelation would later be recorded and canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 132.14
Robert Thompson was dead, and so was Jerusha Smith. How could a new marriage contract be made when only one spouse was living? Joseph Smith’s answer was that a living person could stand in as a proxy for the dead person. Since the fall of 1840, the Saints had performed vicarious baptisms for deceased ancestors who had died before hearing about the restored gospel. Now the same principle was to be extended to marriage. Husband and wife could be “sealed” to one another, bound in heaven as they had been bound on earth.15 A marriage that once ended in time—“till death do you part”—could be performed again “for time and for all eternity,” sealed by priesthood authority. In this way, the marriage could last into the eternities.16
The prospect thrilled Mercy. There was no question that, if given the chance, she would choose to spend eternity with Robert. She missed him and wanted to be near him. He was the sort of man who inspired her to become the person she most wanted to be, a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. “In meekness, humility, and integrity he could not be easily exceled if equald,” she said of Robert.17
On a Monday morning in late May 1843, Mercy Thompson and her sister Mary, along with Hyrum and Joseph Smith, met in a room on the second floor of Joseph’s house. Joseph married Mercy and Robert for time and eternity, with Hyrum standing in for Robert.18 Following this ceremony, Joseph married Hyrum and Mary for time and eternity. Mercy’s exuberance knew no bounds. “Some may think I could envy Queen Victoria in some of her glory,” she said. “Not while my name stands first on the list in this Dispensation of women sealed to a Dead Husband through divine Revelation.”19
Mercy Thompson’s sealing to her deceased husband offered profound comfort in the midst of loneliness and uncertainty. But the promises applied to the distant scene, to some undetermined time when the Thompsons would be reunited. Until then, Mercy had a life to lead and a child to care for. Who would provide? In Mercy’s place and time, few occupations were open to women. After Robert’s death, she did what widows for centuries had done: she took in boarders. “With diligence and the blessing of the Lord,” she recounted, “our wants were supplied.”20
Still, “it was a lonesome life,” and “being deprived of the Sosiety of such a Husband caused me to mourn so deeply that my Health was much impaired.” In Latter-day Saint belief, the earth is alive with heavenly communication, the angels invested in comforting the burdens of the bereaved. During that summer, an angel visited Joseph Smith. It was Robert Thompson, his former clerk. He “appeared to [Joseph] several times telling him that he did not wish me to live such a lonely life,” Mercy recounted. The angel proposed a shocking solution: Hyrum was to “have me seal’d to him for time,” Mercy recalled.21 In other words, Robert Thompson requested that Hyrum marry Mercy as a plural wife for this life, “for time.” Mercy and Robert, meanwhile, would remain sealed in the eternities.
Around the same time as Robert Thompson’s appearance, Joseph Smith committed section 132 to writing, dictating the revelation to his secretary William Clayton in the small office at the back of Joseph’s red brick store.22 Parts of the revelation had been known to Joseph long before, probably as early as 1831 while he worked on his inspired revision of the Old Testament.23 Why, Joseph had asked God in prayer, did He justify Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others in “having many wives and concubines”? The answer was not immediately apparent because Joseph’s own culture and upbringing shunned plural marriage. The revelation answered simply and directly: God had “commanded” plural marriage, and because the biblical patriarchs “did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation.”24
Section 132 thus answered a question long debated within Western culture. On the one side were those who argued that God approved plural marriage among the ancients. St. Augustine thought Old Testament plural marriage was a “sacrament” that symbolized the day when churches in every nation would be subject to Christ.25 Martin Luther agreed: Abraham was a chaste man whose marriage to Hagar fulfilled God’s sacred promises to the patriarch.26 Luther hypothesized that God might sanction plural marriage in modern times under limited circumstances. It “is no longer commanded,” he observed, “but neither is it forbidden.”27
On the other side of the debate were those who argued that the Old Testament patriarchs had gone astray in practicing plural marriage. John Calvin, Luther’s 16th-century contemporary, believed that plural marriage perverted the “order of creation” established with the monogamous marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.28 Calvin had a profound influence on early American religious attitudes. Not all Americans agreed that the biblical patriarchs had erred, but Joseph Smith’s contemporaries overwhelmingly followed Calvin in the belief that plural marriage in modern times was wrong under any circumstance.29
Section 132 stood above this debate, approving of the patriarchs’ actions in God’s own voice. Plural marriage, the revelation said, had helped fulfill the promise God had made to Abraham that his seed would “continue as innumerable as the stars.”30 Nevertheless, the revelation went on to take a much bolder step than vindicating the patriarchs. As the seed of Abraham, Latter-day Saints were commanded for a time to practice plural marriage. “Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham.”31
Joseph Smith had been reluctant to enter plural marriage at first, fully realizing the persecution it would bring to the Church. Monogamy was then the only form of marriage legally accepted in the United States, and opposition was sure to be fierce. Joseph himself had to be convinced of the propriety of plural marriage. Three times an angel appeared to him, urging him to move forward as directed.32 He eventually entered plural marriage and introduced the principle to other followers in Nauvoo as early as 1841. Committing the revelation to writing allowed him to more easily spread the message of this new commandment, which was introduced cautiously and incrementally.33
Eternal marriage struck Mercy Thompson far more favorably than plural marriage did. By training and disposition, she opposed marrying an already married man. The prospect of living in the same home with her sister and closest friend, Mary, did nothing to diminish her unease. Joseph sent Mary to open up the subject with Mercy, thinking it would be better received. The choice of emissary had no effect. “This subject when first communicated to me,” Mercy recounted, “tried me to the very core all my former traditions and every natural feeling of my Heart rose in opposition.”34
Hyrum spoke to her next. He was sympathetic to Mercy’s feelings, having once opposed plural marriage himself. Joseph had sought to gauge his brother’s feelings, holding back this most difficult and controversial of teachings until Hyrum was open to persuasion. Hyrum was ultimately converted to the principle when he realized that he had married two women on earth whom he could not bear to part with in eternity. On the same day he was sealed to Mary for time and eternity, Mary stood as proxy while he was sealed to Jerusha, thus sealing Hyrum to both his wives for eternity.35
Mercy was not being asked to become the wife of Hyrum Smith for eternity. The message from Robert Thompson was that Hyrum should marry Mercy for time; or, in Mercy’s words, until such time as Hyrum “would deliver me up on the morning of the day of the resurrection to my husband Robert Blashel Thompson.”36 The marriage with Hyrum was like the levirate marriages of the Old Testament in which the man was commanded to marry the wife of his deceased brother.37 This combination of patriarchal practice and angelic appearance made sense to biblical restorationists like Hyrum Smith. He told Mercy that when he first learned of Robert Thompson’s request, “the Holy Spirit rested upon him [Hyrum] from the Crown of his Head to the Soles of his Feet.”38
Latter-day Saint women who were converted to the principle of plural marriage in Nauvoo often reported spiritual experiences confirming their decision. They saw a light, felt peace, or, in one case, saw an angel. Mercy Thompson left no record of such experiences. She later said she believed the principle “because I could read it for myself in the bible and see that that it was practiced in those days, and the Lord approved of it and sanctioned it.”39
But biblical logic alone was not enough for Mercy. Joseph himself eventually spoke with her, and it was his testimony that won her over. Robert Thompson appeared to him more than once, he explained, the last time “with such power that it made him tremble.” Joseph was not inclined to act on the request at first. Only after he prayed to the Lord and learned that he was to “do as my servant hath required” did he tell Hyrum about the vision.40
As a believer in spiritual gifts, Mercy Thompson trusted that her deceased husband had made a communication.41 And, after half a dozen years of closely observing Joseph Smith, she believed that he was “too wise to err and too good to be unkind.”42 The request to marry Hyrum, she concluded, was “the voice of the Lord speaking through the mouth of the prophet Joseph Smith.”43
Joseph Smith took the protestations of women like Mercy Thompson seriously. No one, woman or man, found plural marriage easy to accept on first hearing.44 Joseph did not compel women to accept plural marriage by the force of his own command any more than he did men.45 Women and men were encouraged to reflect and pray and arrive at their own decision. Mercy called for the manuscript copy of the revelation written on foolscap paper and kept it in her home for four or five days, studying over the contents in her mind.46 Only after much prayer and pondering did she give her consent. On August 11, 1843, Joseph Smith married Hyrum and Mercy at Mary and Hyrum’s house on the corner of Water and Bain Streets in Nauvoo. On Joseph’s recommendation, Hyrum built an additional room to the house, and Mercy moved into it.
During their brief life together, Hyrum’s projects became Mercy’s projects, and vice versa. Mercy helped write out the inspired words that flowed from Hyrum’s mouth as he blessed Church members in his role as Patriarch to the Church. The great project that consumed hearts and minds was the Nauvoo Temple. At some point, after seeking the Lord earnestly to know what she could do to accelerate the completion of the temple, Mercy heard these words enter into her mind: “Try to get the Sisters to subscribe one Cent per Week for the purpose of buying glass and nails.” She said Hyrum was “much pleased” with the revelation and did everything he could to push it forward by urging public audiences to subscribe as Mercy had requested.47 With Hyrum’s help, she and Mary raised over $1,000—no small sum in those days—for the cause.48
Mercy and Hyrum had been married just 10 months when a mobber’s bullet took Hyrum’s life at Carthage. Mercy had lost another husband in the prime of life. She grieved the loss of Hyrum, whom she described as being “an affectionate Husband, a loving Father, a faithful Friend, and a warm hearted Benefactor.”49 But her connection to Mary would always be a source of strength. Mercy and her daughter, Mary Jane, now six, were left to tend the house with Mary and her two children with Hyrum, along with the five children of Hyrum and Jerusha, for whom Mary had become stepmother.
In 1846, Mercy and Mary, along with their brother Joseph, set out on a new journey together. They joined thousands of their fellow sufferers on a 1,400-mile trek to a new Zion that was beyond the boundaries of the United States at the time. They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley the following year. Mary died of pneumonia in 1852. Mercy lived the next four decades in Salt Lake City, faithful to the end, serving in the Church wherever she could and helping to mother the children Mary and Hyrum had left behind.
Mercy’s connection to Hyrum would always be a source of deep gratitude. But she lived for a reunion with Robert, her “beloved” husband and the choice of her youth. Through her death in 1893, she retained the name Mercy R. Thompson, the name she had taken upon her marriage to Robert. Doctrine and Covenants 132 had promised her that she and Robert would one day, if faithful, “inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers.” They would enjoy “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.”50 She believed in these promises and lived her life so that she might one day realize them.