Comments: I wrote this paper in December 2003 for my History 382 “Mormonism in the American Experience” class with David J. Whittaker. I had just recently gotten married in November of that semester, and I do not consider it a horribly strong paper. So few studies have been conducted on LDS interfaith marriage that I had to make due with some rather dated ones. Still, it’s data you generally won’t see unless you go out and research it yourself. Beyond that, I wrote it in a hurry and it is not an example of my finest writing. But here it is just the same.
Interfaith Marriage and the LDS Experience
Bridget Jack Jeffries
Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. ~ Deuteronomy 7:3-4 (NIV)
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? ~ 2 Corinthians 6:14 (NIV)
Admonitions from religious leaders against interfaith marriage are as old as the Bible—and older—and most of those admonitions do not come without good reason. As social psychologist Carrie A. Miles points out, “survey data show that people who marry spouses of another faith are more likely to divorce and are less likely to be active participants in either church.” She further adds that “those who marry within their own faith are more religious than they would be if they had not married.”1
“Interfaith marriage” or “intermarriage” is a term that is usually understood to refer to a marriage between a Christian and a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim, a Catholic and a Protestant, or a religious person and a non-religious person. On rarer occasions it can even refer to a marriage between two different types of Protestants. However, as Brent Barlow noted in his Ph.D. dissertation, “certain religious denominations define intermarriage or exogamy2 as marriage to anyone outside their own specific denomination. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints… is such a group.”3
For the exogamous members of most religions, the decision to marry outside of their faith may have been a difficult one, but it was one that did not directly affect their salvation. For example, a Protestant man may marry a Jewish woman and still be just as “saved” according to Protestant soteriology as he would have been if he had married another Protestant. However, LDS interfaith marriages are unique in that the LDS Church is one of the only religions to teach that those who marry outside of the faith will not obtain “exaltation” (salvation). As Karen Marguerite Moloney writes, “[Exogamous] Latter-day Saints must wrestle with the question of the eternal status of their marriage: does choosing to marry someone other than a Latter-day Saint effectively exclude one from exaltation—or even from the celestial kingdom?”4
The study of interfaith marriage and how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members have handled it is an intriguing one. This paper will cover (1) information on interfaith marriages in general; (2) official and semi-official LDS Church teachings on marrying outside of the church; (3) studies that have been conducted on LDS interfaith marriages, and (4) testimonies from people who have been involved in these marriages.
General Interfaith Marriage Information
Throughout history interfaith marriages have almost always automatically been viewed as a negative thing, a factor that can bring about social turmoil, religious deviance and often divorce. At the very least, interfaith marriages are almost never recommended by the leaders and scriptures of most faiths. In his 1954 book If You Marry Outside Your Faith, James Pike points out these problems with religious intermarriage: (1) People are “once again taking religion more seriously and noting its bearing upon everyday life, especially in the marriage relationship”; (2)There are greater differences between believers and nonbelievers, and people are thus “more likely to be wedded to the way of life which their particular religious faith implies,” and (3) Marriages in general have been failing a lot more in recent times than they had in prior days.5 His points are arguably as relevant today as they were when he wrote them.
Yet, in spite of these facts, it is generally agreed that religious intermarrying is on the rise. As Iris M. Yob notes in Keys to Interfaith Parenting:
…with the expanded mobility of people today and growing multicultural and multiethnic composition of society, our circle of friends, workmates, and neighbors is likely to be increasingly diverse—and so are our intimate families. More and more people are choosing partners from different ethnic partners, different cultural groupings, different faiths.6
The upward trend in interfaith marriages is likely to continue. Gordon… has stated that religious exogamy will not only continue but will increase because of the decline of religious authority, the recent increase of geographical and social mobility of our society, and the anonymity afforded in our gradual transition from a rural to an urban nation… In general, interfaith marriages occur and will continue to occur because people in our American society, in ever-increasing numbers, come in contact with each other socially, industrially, educationally, culturally and politically.7
This increase in the number of interfaith marriages notwithstanding, the practice continues to be viewed in a portentous light. However, not everyone agrees with a star-crossed portrayal of interfaith marriage; according to Yob, “Religious differences have often fallen into [the] category of irreconcilable differences… [And yet] many of these families are not only coping with their internal differences, they are thriving on them and making them work for them.”8 In her book on nineteenth-century intermarriages involving Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, Anne C. Rose argues that “it was not unusual for one intermarriage to encourage others, creating sprawling, religiously diverse clans.”9 Thus interfaith marriages are on the rise, but so are people’s attitudes towards them and willingness to make them work.
LDS Church Teachings on Interfaith Marriages
As noted before, the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states that marriage to a non-Mormon can have serious eternal repercussions, for worthy members of the church can only obtain exaltation/salvation if they marry other worthy members of the church in an LDS temple.10 With this teaching in mind, one would expect that very few Latter-day Saints would choose to marry outside of their faith. However, this has not been the case; interfaith marriage has been common enough in the LDS Church that leaders have had to regularly speak out against it ever since George Q. Cannon first did in 1884—a time when “Church officials saw that a significant number of Mormons were marrying non-Mormons.”11
The Church’s admonitions against intermarriage have only continued since then. In the official student manual Achieving a Celestial Marriage, LDS church President Spencer W. Kimball spoke out against the idea that marriage to nonmembers is justified solely by the possibility of conversion:
One of the more prominent reasons for non-temple marriages is marriage to nonmembers. This figure is frightening. In those same stakes, more than twenty-five percent of the marriages were those with nonmembers. Again, this worries us greatly. Certain studies in the past have indicated that in these marriages some wonderful people have later joined the Church and become faithful members… but the chances are against conversion. The study shows that for every nonmember spouse who joins the Church there are approximately six who never join the Church, and this unequal yoking brings problems… what happens often is that neither is faithful to the Church, or both fall away, or there are frictions, ending frequently in divorce.12
The manual also includes advice for members on how to activate or convert the inactive or nonmember
spouse.13 Nevertheless, the Church has never been an advocate of marriage to non-Latter-day Saints, not even for the purpose of the member hopefully converting his or her non-member spouse.
However, other religious camps have often felt the same way about their members making marriages with Mormons. In a 1958 tract entitled If My Daughter Should Want to Marry a Mormon, Protestant P. Malcolm Hammond offers this advice:
St. Paul wrote to the people of Corinth: “Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (II Corinthians 6:14). I do not mean to suggest that Latter-day Saints are necessarily unbelievers. However, the differences in the beliefs of Protestants and Mormons are so great that it is likely that the partners in such a mixed marriage will come to regard one another as unbelievers.
To insure happiness, harmony, and usefulness over the years to come, here is the advice that I would give my daughter if she should want to marry a Mormon: Look a little longer and find someone whose faith is more nearly like your own. This I would say to all my Protestant young friends and to my friends among the Latter-day Saints as well.14
Hence other faiths have tried to discourage Mormons from intermarrying among their own as well.
Studies of LDS Interfaith Marriages
As several sociologists have pointed out, while there has been much research in the field of interfaith marriages among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, there has been a considerable lack of research on LDS interfaith marriages.15 As far as the author can tell, the most recent studies were conducted by Jack Harold Peterson in 1969, Brent A. Barlow in the 1970’s, and Howard M. Bahr in 1981. In spite of the small number, these studies have yielded some very interesting conclusions on LDS interfaith marriage trends, and in all likelihood, these trends continue to be relevant today.
Peterson’s study was conducted among 142 LDS women who answered and returned a questionnaire that had been sent to them.16 In the study, Peterson noted that factors affecting other types of interfaith marriages included (1) “parental religious commitment and the nature of the parent-child relationship;” (2) “religious distribution in a community,” and (3) “church and parental guidance on interfaith marriage.”17
Peterson set out to determine whether or not the same factors were important influences in respect to the types of marriages these LDS women contracted. He concluded that the religious commitment of a woman’s parents, the relationship between a woman and her parents, and the level of comfort a woman feels with counseling about important problems with her parents were all significant factors in a woman’s decision to marry endogamously or exogamously.18 He further concluded that a woman’s own Church commitment, social life, her bishop’s counsel regarding her marriage, and her reasons for marriage were also important factors.19
One of the most significant studies on LDS interfaith marriages was Barlow’s 1972 Ph.D. dissertation on the subject and his subsequent article, “Notes on Mormon Interfaith Marriages,” in the April 1977 issue of The Family Coordinator. In his study, Barlow set out to determine the number and percentages of (1) “Mormons who had married non-Mormons;” (2) “Mormon males compared to Mormon females who married a non-Mormon spouse,” and (3) “non-Mormon spouses who had converted to Mormonism.”20
His study was conducted among 94 endogamous Mormons and 76 exogamous Mormons who returned his questionnaire. Some of his conclusions were as follows:
- 60% of the subjects who had been LDS prior to their marriages had married exogamously.
- “61% of the exogamous Mormons were females, compared to 39% who were males, nearly a ratio of three to two.”
- 34% of the non-LDS spouses had converted to Mormonism.
- 48% of the exogamous LDS males had been successful in converting their spouse, compared to only 25% of the exogamous LDS females.
- 9% of the exogamous Mormons had defected from the Church.
- Most (57%) of the subjects neither converted their spouses nor defected.
- “Parental temple marriage was highly correlated with an endogamous marriage.”
- Endogamous Mormons attended church more after their marriage than their exogamous counterparts did.
- “Former full-time missionaries… seldom entered interfaith marriages.”21
Barlow’s study was closely related to Peterson’s and yielded some similar conclusions. However, interestingly enough, Peterson’s study concluded that parental temple marriage was not a significant factor affecting the type of marriage an LDS woman contracts.22
A third study was conducted in 1981 by Howard M. Bahr and was reported in a paper entitled “Religious Intermarriage and Divorce in Utah and the Mountain States.” Bahr set out to determine which types of marriages (both same-faith and interfaith) had the highest and lowest divorce rates. His study involved marriages between Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, and members of an “Other” category (usually a designation meaning “not religious”). Bahr reported in his findings that the “three same-faith denominational categories (Mormon-Mormon, Protestant-Protestant, and Catholic Catholic) consistently [had] the lowest divorce rates.”23 Of the interfaith marriage combinations, husband-Catholic-wife-Mormon marriages by far had the highest divorce rates, followed by husband-Mormon-wife-Catholic marriages and husband-Protestant-wife-Mormon marriages. Meanwhile, interfaith marriages in which one spouse was religious and one was not seemed to be the most successful.24 Bahr concluded that the “probabilities that an interfaith marriage will end in divorce depend not only upon the specific faiths involved, but also upon which spouse belongs to
Testimonies Concerning LDS Interfaith Marriages
There is more information available on interfaith marriage and the LDS experience than simple sociological studies and statistics. A number of people have written on their experiences, both nonmembers married to Latter-day Saints and Latter-day Saints married to nonmembers. And although few people know this, there are even faculty members at BYU living in interfaith marriages today.26
These first-hand accounts of LDS interfaith marriage have been published in magazines like Dialogue and Sunstone. In the summer of 1990, Dialogue released a series of essays in which five Latter-day Saints shared their experiences with interfaith marriage. One of the essayists was Richard L. Popp, an active Latter-day Saint who married a Lutheran minister. In his essay, Popp recalls his reasons for marrying outside of the faith:
In truth, I married my best friend. We met while working in the same office one summer. She says I was one of the few people to encourage her when she decided to enter seminary… Was I rebelling against the church? Was I dissatisfied with Mormon women?… I don’t think so. I married my best friend. We were both uncomfortable about marrying someone of a different faith and made that decision only after careful deliberations.27
Popp and his wife both remained active members of their respective faiths after their marriage.28 However, not everyone does. Carrie A. Miles recounted in her essay how, after her marriage to a non-LDS Christian, she hadn’t been to an LDS service since her and her husband moved from Chicago.29 Finally, not every LDS interfaith marriage works out. The only essayist whose marriage ended in divorce, Karen Lewis, recalls some of the problems that destroyed her marriage to an active Presbyterian:
My husband found out quickly that because he was a “nonmember,” he was not completely acceptable to many LDS people… He occasionally heard talks in sacrament meeting by family members who were praying for their father to join the Church so that they could be sealed in
the temple. My husband did not enjoy feeling like a second-class citizen and did not want his children to see their father as inferior. His proposed solution was to raise our children as neither LDS nor Presbyterian, but something “neutral,” like Episcopalian.30 That did not go over well with me.31
In spite of this one example of an LDS interfaith marriage that failed, in part due to religious conflicts, almost all of the essayists reported that they had somehow been able to make their marriages work.
Personal Testimony and Conclusion
As I did the research for this paper, I could not help but reflect on my own LDS interfaith marriage, young as it is. I think my marriage is very unlike almost every other interfaith marriage I’ve ever heard
of. For example, our marriage seems to buck every conclusion drawn by Barlow and every statistic ever created: the male in our marriage is the LDS partner, he is a returned missionary for the Church, he comes from a loving LDS home, his parents are devout members of the Church who met while attending BYU and were married in a temple (furthermore, his identical twin brother got married in a temple ten weeks before our wedding), and he met me while attending BYU—a school that is approximately 98.6% LDS. Also, when I first came to BYU, having been in a bad relationship with an young man who was Mormon, I absolutely swore that I would date no LDS guys—and I kept good on my word until I met Paul. The odds of a devout Latter-day Saint and a devout evangelical Christian meeting at Brigham Young University and building a successful marriage seemed ridiculously small. It is still too soon to tell how successful our marriage will really be, but at this point in time, I’m more in love with my husband now than I was the day I married him.32
Interfaithmarriage is a phenomenon that is so often viewed as a negative one. In spite of the fact that it is on the increase, religious leaders are often so staunchly against it that those involved in it feel that they have nowhere to turn, and most of the studies that have been conducted in regards to LDS interfaith marriage seemed to be aimed at how to prevent it. However, it is the opinion of this author that the personal testimonies from those who have contracted successful interfaith marriages show
that it is not inherently a bad thing, and that interfaith families have the potential to enjoy the same love and togetherness as same-faith families—and sometimes much more.
Bahr, Howard M. “Religious Intermarriage and Divorce in Utah and the Mountain States.”
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1981, 20 (3): 251-261
Barlow, Brent A. “Notes on Mormon Interfaith Marriages.” The Family Coordinator April 1977: 143-150.
—. Mormon endogamy and exogamy in northern Florida. Florida State University: Unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1972.
Boerio-Goates, Juliana. “Through a Stained-Glass Window.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Spring 1991: 121-126.
Church Education System. Achieving a Celestial Marriage. Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 1992.
Hammond, P. Malcolm. If My Daughter Should Want to Marry a Mormon. Nashville: Tidings,
Lee, Wendy S. “To Celebrate the Marriage Feast Which Has No End.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Spring 1991: 116-120.
Lewis, Karen. “One View of Interfaith Marriage.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Summer 1990: 115-120.
McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979.
Miles, Carrie A. “Same Religion, Different Churches.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
Summer 1990: 129-133.
Moloney, Karen Marguerite. “Eternity Be Damned? The Impact of Interfaith Vows.” Dialogue:
A Journal of Mormon Thought Summer 1990: 109-110.
Peterson, Jack Harold. A Study of Selected Family Background Factors Influencing Women to Marry Outside of the L.D.S. Church. Brigham Young University: Unpublished master’s thesis, 1969.
Pike, James A. If You Marry Outside Your Faith: Counsel on Mixed Marriages. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954.
Popp, Richard L. “Two Faiths, Two Baptisms.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Summer 1990: 125-129.
Rose, Anne C. Beloved Strangers: Interfaith Families in Nineteenth Century America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
15 Jack Harold Peterson, A study of selected family background factors influencing women to marry outside of the L.D.S. Church (Brigham Young University: Unpublished master’s thesis, 1969), 2; Brent A. Barlow, “Notes on Mormon Interfaith Marriages,” The Family Coordinator, April 1977, 145.
26 For example, Dr. Juliana Boerio-Goates, who is an active Roman Catholic, and her husband, Dr. Steven Goates, who is an active Latter-day Saint, have both been members of the faculty in the BYU Chemistry Department since the early 1980’s. See Dr. Boerio-Goates’s essay, “Through a Stained-Glass Window,” in the Spring 1991 issue of Dialogue.