Although doctrines and decrees change in the LDS Church — think polygamy and blacks — one consistent teaching from the time of Joseph Smith to today is that the righteousness of parents can provide salvation to wayward (read: unrighteous) children. This is a big deal to many LDS parents ( I can think of a score or more, who worry about children who have moved away from church activity.) It’s important to understand that because Mormonism teaches that its church is the only true church, the definition of “wayward” extends far beyond a child that may have picked up criminal habits, lax moral standards or a particular vice. For example, the child of devout Mormon parents who becomes the devout follower of another religion, can often be tagged as “wayward.”
Anyway, one of the more recent pronouncements on wayward children being saved due to their parents’ earthly exertions came from LDS Apostle James E. Faust in the April 2003 General Conference. In his talk, “Dear Are the Sheep That Have Wandered,” Faust quoted the early 20th century LDS Apostle Orson F. Whitney, who was himself quoting LDS founder Joseph Smith: “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.”
Here’s another quote from LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer, in the April 1992 General Conference: “Who are these straying sheep — these wayward sons and daughters? They are the children of the covenant, heirs to the promise, and have received, if baptized, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which makes manifest the things of God. Could all of that go for naught?”
LDS doctrine differs from many churches in that it associates works, as well as faith, as criteria for judgment and ultimate reward from God. In that sense, the promise of salvation for wayward children is less an act of “grace” as a declaration that something can be accomplished for them in the afterlife. In his talk, Faust, who died in 2007, adds this caveat: “Repentant wayward children will enjoy salvation and all the blessings that go with it, but exaltation is much more. It must be fully earned. The question as to who will be exalted must be left to the Lord in His mercy.”
In Mormon doctrine, there is a difference between salvation, which is available to virtually all members of humanity, and exaltation, a higher, divine afterlife status. In fact, the Mormon view of human salvation is far more liberal than many churches, which sometimes draw a line separating humanity into a traditional heaven and traditional hell. It may be that the promise to concerned LDS parents that wayward children will belong to them in the afterlife — if the parents are righteous — is simply a consequence of a parent achieving exaltation and having the ability to interact with others, including children, who have been resurrected into a lower kingdom? The late LDS Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith seems to say exactly that in this excerpt from the LDS tome “Doctrines of Salvation”: “Children born under the covenant, who drift away, are still the children of the parents; and the parents have a claim upon them; and if the children have not sinned away all their rights, the parents may be able to bring them through repentance, into the celestial kingdom, but not to receive the exaltation.”
Also in the “Doctrines of Salvation,” Fielding Smith quoted LDS Prophet Brigham Young, who says: “Let the father and mother, who are members of this Church and Kingdom, take a righteous course, and strive with all their might never to do a wrong, but to do good all their lives; if they have one child or one hundred children, if they conduct themselves towards them as they should, binding them to the Lord by their faith and prayers, I care not where those children go, they are bound up to their parents by an everlasting tie, and no power of earth or hell can separate them from their parents in eternity; they will return again to the fountain from whence they sprang.” Several other quotes from LDS leaders on this topic is compiled in the September 2002 LDS magazine The Ensign.
In the early days of the LDS Church, huge importance was placed on how numerous a family a righteous Mormon priesthood holder could accumulate. The example of patriarchs, such as Abraham, was heavily emphasized. This was one reason, I believe, for the polygamy doctrine. However, the early LDS church also sanctioned “adoptions,” in which groups and families of church members became “children” of church leaders. John D. Lee, for example, was an “adopted” son of Brigham Young. This quote from Joseph Smith seems to underscore how the sealing process of children to parents provided an advantage in the next world:
“When a seal is put upon the father and mother, it secures their posterity, so that they cannot be lost, but will be saved by virtue of the covenant of their father and mother.
“Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.” (For more quotes on this topic, go here.)
As I have mentioned, salvation for wayward children is a doctrine that likely scores of thousands of active LDS parents fervently cling to. The LDS Church’s belief that family ties are eternal is not public relations. It is frankly regarded as a promise tied to strict theological obedience. As a result, parents are serving as proxies for countless children, battling for their status in the afterlife even as many of these children have long put Mormonism out of their minds.