Sally Hemings and the Gods Themselves

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Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens

[Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain]

—     Friedrich Schiller, The Maid of Orléans

The vicarious temple ordinances performed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Mormons”) are back in the news.  This time, it is because someone has reportedly sealed Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson. (Hemings was a slave owned by Jefferson.  She bore children that have Jefferson DNA.  [1])

As usually happens with such things, the media and the blogosphere are a-bubble.  Some are well-intentioned expressions of concern, others are ill-informed, and some seem to just want to pile on and make the Church look bad, or use this as an opportunity to push their own reforming agenda on the Church.

The unspoken assumption seems to be that the Church can be “shamed” or at least “public-pressured” into “doing the right thing.”  In this case, the right thing would presumably be not performing vicarious sealing of slaves to former masters.  (The more hostile want temple work vastly curtailed or stopped altogether, but we’ll leave them to one side—it isn’t going to happen.)

This is not, however, simply one more case of “Mormon institutional insensitivity” to go with performing temple rites for Holocaust victims (despite what some have suggested).  LDS policy forbids performing Holocaust victims’ temple rites.  The people who did so had to circumvent fairly significant warnings and technological obstacles to do so.  (Those obstacles have since been increased even further.)

Likewise, it has never been LDS policy to seek out female slaves and seal them to their former masters and/or rapists.

Now, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of not sealing slaves to masters.  The idea is obscene.  I don’t know any sensible person that would endorse it.  And that, unfortunately, is precisely the problem—I said sensible person.

Let me explain.

No sensible person

I’ve been in the Church for nearly forty years, in two languages, on both sides of North America, in Europe, and a few other places.  I have never heard, been taught, or read that we ought to be sealing slaves to former masters.  Never.  At all.  There is no “slave and master record extraction program.”

I also don’t know anyone else who has heard such things taught, likely for the simple reason that it never has been.  I do know of one case, however, in which a member announced that her family wanted to seal Jefferson to Hemings.  Despite the ward family history representative pointing out (with some heat) that this was contrary to Church policy, the member persisted in thinking this was a good idea.  I don’t know if she succeeded, but apparently someone of a similar bent did.

Now, be honest: we’ve all met this person in any reasonably large group or organization, especially if the group is a voluntary association. He or she is part of the human condition—the one who does or says something that makes everyone else cringe and wonder, “What was he thinking?”  And, some people do this more spectacularly—or more frequently—than others.

If you haven’t met him, please write and tell me—I might just move to your area.

Or, you might be him.

Feeling Sheepish

I was once complaining to my father (with less charity than I ought to have had) about one particular specimen.  He told me a story.

You see, my great-grandfather owned a farm in the foothills of Alberta.  Every summer, Dad would go there to work.  One of his jobs was herding sheep.  This summer activity gave him a slightly different twist on Jesus’ label of us as his sheep.

The sheep my Dad tended seemed determined to conspire in their own deaths.  They were always getting lost, stuck, and according to him would have followed each other off a cliff if given half the chance.

So, he told me, whenever he now hears Jesus’ command to “Feed my sheep,” he thinks back to the herd he had on the farm, and hears an admonition to, among other things, “Look after the dummies.”

I don’t know if that’s what Jesus intended, but it’s a sort of “liken it unto ourselves” perspective that I’ve found useful.

In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that these people are stupid, or intellectually challenged—they can be bright or dim, just like anyone else can.

But, sometimes we just seem to have blinders on our common sense.  We have difficulty understanding how others will see things, and we tend to charge on blithely regardless.  We should simply count ourselves lucky if our own areas of dumbness aren’t presently on public display, causing unintended harm to the Church we love, and offense where none was intended.

And so, this is the big problem with the expectation of some in the media and blogosphere: they seem to think that if the Church would just teach and train members better, things like sealing Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson would be stopped.  (Others quickly decide that nothing can be done, and the whole temple project should be shut down—which, I repeat, is never going to happen.)

But, the problem is not that Church leaders and members don’t care about such things—almost all care very much, since doing such things contravenes policy and doctrine.

The problem is that these things are done by a very small percentage of Mormons.  And, they are the percentage who are least likely to listen when told they aren’t supposed to do something—as the case I mention above illustrates.  Tell them not to do it, and some people just dig in their heels.  Maybe you or I have even done something similar when we were convinced we were right about something.

When in this mindset, you and I are also the least likely to, say, read angry blogs about the matter, and decide we need to change our behavior.  Sometimes, people just don’t get it.[2]

The Body of Christ

One could speculate about the psychology or psychiatry involved, but that’s not the issue.

What is important is that as members of the Church, we’re not to reject or cast people out when they do something like this and make everyone else look bad.    People are not clueless or insensitive just in matters of temple work—sadly, someone among us will struggle in just about any area of their lives.  We all do.  If you haven’t had the experience of putting your foot in your mouth, or doing something you thought was a good idea, only to have it blow up in your face—well, you just aren’t paying attention.

But, if people with these types of troubles cannot be loved, accepted despite their faults, and welcomed in the Church of Jesus Christ, where can they be? Where can we be?  Where can I?

Members of the Church who seem to “have it all together,” are much more congenial to us.  But, as Paul emphasized, in the Church we really ought to treasure the “uncomely” or “shameful” parts of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:22–27).  And, that will be all of us at some point or another.  If we’re lucky, it won’t be front-page news.

None of us is perfect, and we’re all going to rub someone wrong at some point.  We’re all “sheep,” we all do stupid things, and we’re all dummies who need looking after sometimes.  Perhaps the greatest danger is to those who are more highly functional, because they can be tempted into a feeling of superiority, or frustration with the rest of us who don’t measure up to the standards they think people should meet.

We have, then, no grounds for feeling or being unkind or acting superior here.  I’m trying to explain how this sort of thing happens, and will likely keep happening occasionally despite all the teaching, training, and policies that get put in place.

The people who will need the message have a problem that just isn’t easily amenable to teaching, training, and policy.  If you have to be told that sealing slaves to masters is a bad idea, despite LDS policy and doctrine, you’re not likely to “get it” when you are told.  Or, you won’t remember.  Or you’ll think your case is an exception.

Sadly, as LDS temple work has become more publicized, the ability of a few to alienate many has just increased.

Besides, the dead are immune to offense or disturbance regardless–or at least I hope so.  If the Mormons are right, then the targets of misguided temple work have nothing to worry about—they aren’t bound to Thomas Jefferson or anyone else that they don’t accept with joy.  If the Mormons are wrong, then temple work is of no consequence anyway.

Ironically, those who accuse Mormon temple work of trying to “take over” or “speak for” the dead are themselves doing just that.  The Mormons are offering an ordinance which the dead must accept for it to be of any validity at all.  And, we’d like to do it privately—we don’t do it for worldly attention, praise, or to act triumphalistic.

Are the Mormons so potent or intrusive a force in the hereafter that our faux pas victimize and traumatize those who have gone before?  I suspect not—especially in the critics’ view, where LDS ordinances are of no value whatever.  It would be a strange kind of hell if the dear departed were forever at risk of being tormented or victimized by whatever random dumb thing some mortal somewhere said or did.

Some of those doing the complaining are, by contrast, getting outraged in behalf of the dead.  They’re putting words in the mouths of the dead, and insisting that these people need to be protected.  But, protected from what?

As for this world, and any offense caused the living, virtually all the Mormons themselves don’t want this sort of thing going on either.  So, why take offense when some few individuals do something forbidden by both policy and doctrine?  Those who expect perfection from humans are doomed to disappointment.  Let the appropriate Church department know if there’s a problem, but don’t assume bad faith and insensitivity on everyone’s part.


I regret what some few of our disobedient or clueless members did.  But, apologies from people about things they didn’t do (and tried to prevent) always strike me as cheap theatre, and altogether too easy.  If I offend, I want to apologize.  But, I won’t presume to do so on others’ behalf.

So, speaking only for myself, if you’re offended or upset, I can only say:

We get it.  We’re not happy about such things either.  But, we’re not going to just boot the people responsible.  Even if we could identify them, that would be the easy, and comfortable way out. We’re going to keep working with them, because they’re our brothers and sisters too, and need help and love more than almost anyone else. And, I might need it next time around.

I suspect technological barriers will prove the only effective way to decrease these sorts of incidents. The Church seems committed to on-going efforts to improve these strategies.  (We must remember the computer programmer’s adage, though—as soon as you make software foolproof, someone goes and invents a smarter fool.) 

So, some few will probably still slip through. (The Hemings/Jefferson sealing may be an old entry, though—the problem or loophole might not even exist now. People may be upset over something that happened years ago.) 

If you choose to be outraged each time it happens, you are going to spend a lot of time being upset over something you can’t control, caused by a miniscule fraction of LDS members.

If you have a way to keep dummies from occasionally doing silly things, you should let us know—and then market the method, because it would make a killing in industry, government, and PTA meetings.


We’re doing our best to feed the sheep.  We know there are people doing dumb things.  Can’t be helped. We’re all labeled as “sheep,” which maybe ought to tell us something about our tendencies. But, we trust the Shepherd to get us all—member and non-member, living and dead, dummies all—safely home if we are willing.


[1] [10 April 2012 edit] – The original article disputed Jefferson’s paternity, based upon  Robert F. Turner, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy:  Report of the Scholars Commission (Carolina Academic Press, 2011 [2001].  This was unwise, and since my footnoted addendum didn’t make this clear enough, I’ve removed the sentence from the main article–I normally try to avoid this after-the-fact revision, but don’t want readers distracted by what is a peripheral (to my argument, not to Jefferson-Hemings scholarship) point.  I apologize, but have left the comments below intact.

[2] We also cannot ignore, I think, the possibility that at least some unauthorized entries in temple databases are the work of those who have malicious intent—they want the Church to look bad.  Here again, stopping them entirely is difficult if one wants to maintain a computer system that allows people all over the world to contribute to family history work and research.  Such things don’t work well in a climate of suspicion or paranoia.

17 thoughts on “Sally Hemings and the Gods Themselves

  1. coltakashi

    In light of the DNA comparison of the Heming descendants and Jefferson family descendants which indicates that Jefferson or one of his brothers was father of Heming’s children, that Hemings was actually the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife, and the “forbidden romance” cachet that has been placed around this by movies like “Jefferson in Paris”, there is a small possibility that one of the Hemings descendants has converted to the Church and actually submitted for this ordinance. Though Jefferson was a slave holder, he was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a president of the US, and presumably among the men who appeared to Wilford Woodruff and asked for their temple ordinances to be done in the St. George Temple. If Jefferson has been forgiven to the extent of having those saving ordinances, one assumes he could be eligible as well for a sealing. And it may not be objectionable to an actual descendant of Hemings to want her to be sealed to the presumed father of her children.

    Since that circumstance would be one where there would be a legitimate argument in its favor, until we learn who pushed for this ordinance, we might want to hold up on a blanket condemnation. Few if any of the slave pairings ever got official legal sanction in that era. It would have interfered with the treatment of the participants as alienable chattels. It is of course certainly possible that someone got starry eyed, and thinks it is the work of God to do Elvis’s temple work, and the temple workers were so historically ignorant they did not pick up on who the deceased were. But there is another reason not to get into witch hunt mode on this.

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  3. Greg Smith Post author

    Colakashi: I agree that this is a possible scenario. I was taking more the stance that even assuming a kind of “worst-case-scenario” type of thinking, the vast majority of Mormons are not really on board with what we were being charged with. I definitely agree that no witch hunts need come down the pike, despite the fact that a few Mormon and non-Mormon commentators and bloggers seem to think otherwise.

  4. christopherjones

    Most scholars believe, however, that another Jefferson fathered the children, not Thomas.

    Among professional historians, that is simply not true. There is, in fact, almost no doubt whatsoever that TJ fathered Sally Hemmings’s children.

    Re: this post more generally: Is it typically FAIR policy to respond to articles without linking to (or even citing/mentioning) the article in question?

  5. Greg Smith Post author

    ChristopherJones: I don’t think the historians are as convinced as you are claiming. Again, please see the resources in the first footnote. The majority of the special commission on the matter disagree.

    As for responding to an article, in this case I am not. I’m referring to several things I’d seen over the last few days, both blog posts and people in the comments–more of a gestalt or “vibe.” (This is why I don’t like blogging, generally–one doesn’t get to set up the whole context, background, etc.)

    If I’m responding to specific author(s), they and the reader will have no doubt. 🙂

  6. Greg Smith Post author

    Christopherjones: See, for example, Amazon’s summary on the volume I mentioned above:

    In 2000, the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society asked a group of more than a dozen senior scholars from across the country to carefully examine all of the evidence for and against the allegations that Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children by Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, and to issue a public report. In April 2001, after a year of study, the Scholars Commission issued the most detailed report to date on the issue. With but a single mild dissent, the views of the distinguished panel ranged from ”serious skepticism” to a conviction that the allegation was ”almost certainly false.” This volume, edited by Scholars Commission Chairman Robert F. Turner, includes the ”Final Report”–essentially a summary of arguments and conclusions–as it was released to the press on April 12, 2001. However, several of the statements of individual views–which collectively total several hundred carefully footnoted pages and constitute the bulk of the book–have been updated and expanded to reflect new insights or evidence since the report was initially released.

  7. christopherjones

    ChristopherJones: I don’t think the historians are as convinced as you are claiming. Again, please see the resources in the first footnote. The majority of the special commission on the matter disagree.

    Yes, I’m familiar with the book, Greg. But it hardly settles the matter and to be quite frank, you’re out of your league in discussing this matter. A book that set out to “poke holes in some of the claims of what might be regarded as the pro-Sally school” is hardly the objective measuring stick you apparently believe it to be. Please trust me–the majority of professional historians acknowledge TJ’s illicit relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and his paternity of her children. You should probably read Annette Gordon-Reed’s _The Hemingses of Monticello_ (published in 2008, 7 years after the “conclusive” study you cite). And you might consider that both the Smithsonian and Monticello accept and recognize TJ’s paternity of the Hemings children. Consider, for example, this statement from their joint-exhibit “Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” (which debuted just a few months ago):

    “While there were other adult males with the Jefferson Y chromosome living in Virginia at that time, most historians now believe that the documentary and genetic evidence, considered together, strongly support the conclusion that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.”

  8. Greg Smith Post author

    “Yes, I’m familiar with the book, Greg. But it hardly settles the matter and to be quite frank, you’re out of your league in discussing this matter.”

    If you say so. 🙂

    “A book that set out to “poke holes in some of the claims of what might be regarded as the pro-Sally school” is hardly the objective measuring stick you apparently believe it to be.”

    I don’t believe in “objective measuring sticks” in history, especially about a matter so freighted with ideological and political implications.

    I am happy, though, to have my comment from “most” changed instead of “some,” if you like. My point was simply that the sealing may have been done in an era when the relationship was seen as a virtual certainty.

  9. maxabelg

    Hi Greg–

    Interesting post. Chris suggested I check your post out. I do think your readers would, as part of your assessment the “gestalt,” benefit from a listing of some of the sites beyond your own here where this story was discussed.

    This one comes from one of FAIR’s own bloggers, and thus of particular interest to this community.

    This one from an expert on these issues, an author and scholar who can speak directly to the ideas of “agency” in this life and the life beyond the veil that saints are so engaged with.

    To answer your question.

    “Some of those doing the complaining are, by contrast, getting outraged in behalf of the dead. They’re putting words in the mouths of the dead, and insisting that these people need to be protected. But, protected from what?”

    I don’t think the dead need to be protected. If we take LDS theology seriously, you are right (and as I pointed out in my initial piece) they can accept or reject such offers of sealings or adoptions. And we don’t need to put words in the mouths of the dead. Biddy Mason, for example, made her wishes abundantly clear during her lifetime.

    More importantly for me is a concern for the living: those who participate in these rituals. Many saints hope that such work is done with the seriousness and holiness that the Church policy requires.

    The tendency to scapegoat the “fools” or even to point to a conspiracy of some anti-Mormon Cabal I think misses the real work that this important moment calls us to do: to reconsider the audacious and loving claim that the world can and should be united into one eternal and universal family through the acts that take place in the temple; and as such to recognize that at the core of LDS theology is the divine right to refuse to join this family. The beauty, power and love of the first claim is diminished by not taking seriously the second.

    Thanks for a provocative post. I hope that we all can continue to dialogue about these important issues with respect and empathy that these issues deserve and require.


  10. Greg Smith Post author

    Max: thanks for stopping by. I thought you handled a difficult subject nicely. (And, I think you chose some of the much more sober responses in your links above!)

    I hasten to point out again that I’m not trying to “scapegoat” anyone–scapegoats get driven out of the camp, after all. I’m more interested in trying to explain/understand what went down. And, as I also said, I’m not really addressing those who want all rites stopped, etc.–the “anti-Mormon cabal” angle. There’s a story there, but a boring and well-told one that is utterly predictable.

    “More importantly for me is a concern for the living: those who participate in these rituals. Many saints hope that such work is done with the seriousness and holiness that the Church policy requires….The beauty, power and love of the first claim is diminished by not taking seriously the second.”

    Yes. I think the vast majority look at it that way.

    But, that’s precisely the problem–the majority aren’t the ones who did this, or who would think it appropriate. “Reflection” changes little or nothing for them, nor should it. (I’ve not encountered a single Mormon, since this story broke, who thinks what happened is ‘a good thing.’)

    And, we must not overlook–as I emphasized–that those who DID think this was a good idea may have approached it with every bit as much seriousness and holiness. I suspect that they almost certainly did. They could say something to themselves like,

    “The social rules/mores of Jefferson-Hemings day made marriage between them impossible. Yes, the relationship is irregular, but I can’t believe that it was coerced, despite Hemings’ status as a slave. I’m going to perform this ordinance so that _if_ I’m right, they’ll have the blessings of it. If I’m wrong, no harm done.”

    They could even be right, and theologically there’s nothing wrong with this in the least. What that small group don’t understand, though, is how this might look or the subtext that they are inadvertently promoting.

    By the same token, I don’t think someone else’s poor judgment could or should affect my own experience–whether temple rites are serious and holy rests entirely with me, not with someone else. Even if they act with complete frivolity, that ought not affect me one bit. And, it doesn’t. (Me worrying about someone else’s behavior is the quickest way to spoil any religious observance–we don’t pray to be seen of men, as Jesus reminded us, but nor ought we to be watching other men out of the corner of our eye either.)

    The only impact on me is the “political” or public fall-out targeted at “Mormons” that results–or the chance for some (not you) to beat up on my Church and advance their broader agenda.

  11. chs

    The statement that most historians believe that some other Jefferson fathered Hemings’s children gets it exactly wrong. Most scholars who have studied Jefferson’s life for years believe he was the father. That is the position of The Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) which has Jefferson on the Hemings family tree in their Visitors Center. It is what they say on the film introducing Jefferson’s life. It is what they say in the new exhibit at the Smithsonian. Read any serious work of history on Jefferson or the early American republic, or the articles in scholarly journals, and you will see that Jefferson’s paternity is accepted. The theology of celestial baptisms and marriage is a topic for the Church. Whatever anyone thinks of that practice, the Church is well within bounds in thinking that Hemings and Jefferson had children together.

  12. Greg Smith Post author

    Proof, at least, that we can all be “dummies.” 🙂 I’ve edited the main article for accuracy and again changed the footnote. My apologies for derailing the issue on what I intended as merely a throw-away line, trying to paint a “worst case scenario” of what had happened with regards to the temple ordinances.

  13. brettogden

    “Ironically, those who accuse Mormon temple work of trying to “take over” or “speak for” the dead are themselves doing just that.”

    Love this. Great article, I particularly enjoyed and agree with your “Body of Christ” section.

  14. Velska

    I am a Family History Consultant, and I would not advise anyone to go ahead with the idea of sealing a slave to her (seldom it would be his) master. Nor would I advocate submitting Shoah victims (unless one is related to one, and then just one’s own relatives), celebrities or people whose names are well known otherwise. First of all, often it would be robbing their relatives of the opportunity.

    Neither would I help them in it.

    There is a consideration or two I wished to add. The first is the obvious, that we are to submit primarily names of those of our immediate relations, not complete strangers. That should be obvious.

    However, there seems to be a culture of aspiring to “bragging rights” among other temple work enthusiasts. Some will have done the work for King Arthur, another brags of having 10,000 names in his/her PAF database and is miffed that he can’t just upload the whole bunch into (a real case, by the way). When I try to explain that that would likely include thousands of names that are already there, there’s a well-discernible drop in temperature.

    I have advocated the following: Do your own direct family line as far as you feel possible and reasonable (unless one feels a strong push to look for a specific person); then go ask someone else if they need any help. That would advance the work of redeeming the dead far more.

    My idea of agency in this context is that few families will likely resemble what we imagine here. I don’t know how the “restoration of all things” can be thought of any other wise than setting right the mistakes we do here.

    As far as sealing of spouses or parents/children, I feel it matters more that the sealing ordinance has been done than whom we are sealed to.

    But I’d still say that slavery was and is such a revolting institution that it should not be imagined as something as beautiful as a temple marriage. Some slaves may have grown fond of their masters, and vice versa. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but that does not remove the stigma from slavery. But when the slave woman (girl) has been raped by her master, it is a compound damage.

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  16. joannbrinton

    As a former history teacher, I would just ask peoplemtonreal research. Anyone who really studies Jefferson’s life can see he never would have fathered children from this slave girl who was his daughters age or any other. Do your homework and don’t believe the rumors because they were printed. “The Real Thomas Jefferson” is a great book to study as it contains so many quotes and writings of his. Most recently “The Jefferson Lies” is a good one too. The DNA evidence was all refuted- only proving that two of her children could’ve been fathered by one of 27 Jefferson men and it made headlines to detract from the Clinton impeachment hearings and make him look better when it came out. The man who started the rumor was blackmailing Jefferson for a job- makes me so sad to see people ready to believe anything they read.

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