I was recently reminded of Elder Orson F. Whitney’s  famous statement:

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. (In Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 110.)

It was repeated and elaborated many times, including famously by James E. Faust in the General Conference of April 2003 and more recently in the March 2014 Ensign magazine by David A. Bednar.

If this doctrine is important, it is worth tracing back to it’s origin to make sure it is understood. Elder Whitney (and those who have since echoed him) was attempting to reproduce a doctrine taught by Joseph Smith that was imperfectly passed on.

What Joseph actually taught was that to be saved requires us to make our calling and election sure, which is a covenantal promise from God of our exaltation. Accompanying that promise is the bestowal of the power to seal on earth and in heaven, allowing you to have claim on your posterity in the afterlife. However, your children are not exempt from the requirement to make their calling and election sure.

Joseph’s 13 August, 1843 sermon defines the sealing we are seeking as the “doctrine of election,” which is the exalting covenant God made with Abraham made by the power of Elijah. It is there that he discusses the way in which it is inheritable:

¶ A measure of this sealing is to confirm upon their head in common with Elijah the doctrine of election or the covenant with Abraham–which which when a Father & mother of a family have entered into their children who have not transgressed are secured by the seal wherewith the Parents have been sealed. And this is the Oath of God unto our Father Abraham and this doctrine shall stand forever.

The  “doctrine of election” is the defining characteristic of this sealing that is often overlooked. To obtain it is to make one’s calling and election sure, as Abraham did.

“Who have not transgressed” is the important caveat to the heredity of the sealing, also often overlooked. If they prove worthy of the same covenant their parents received, as Isaac did after Abraham, they will remain sealed. It will require, as it did with Isaac, their own interaction and covenant with God.

Joseph’s letter to his Uncle Silas directly contradicts the notion that the revelations given to parents are sufficient to save their children:

But you will admit that the word spoken to Noah was not sufficient for Abraham, or it was not required of Abraham to leave the land of his nativity, and seek an inheritance in a strange country upon the word spoken to Noah, but for himself he obtained promises at the hand of the Lord, and walked in that perfection, that he was called the friend of God. Isaac, the promised seed, was not required to rest his hope alone upon the promises made to his father Abraham, but was privileged with the assurance of his approbation, in the sight of Heaven, by the direct voice of the Lord to him. If one man can live upon the revelations given to another, might I not with propriety ask, why the necessity, then, of the Lord’s speaking to Isaac as he did, as is recorded in the twenty-sixth chapter of Genesis? For the Lord there repeats, or rather, promises again to perform the oath which he had previously sworn to Abraham; and why this repetition to Isaac? Why was not the first promise as sure for Isaac as it was for Abraham? Was not Isaac Abraham’s son? And could he not place implicit confidence in the veracity of his father as being a man of God?

If salvation cannot be inherited, in what sense did the parents’ covenant bind their children? I think a more correct interpretation of Joseph’s teaching about the sealing’s effect on children is that if you establish a covenant with God and are sealed, and your children perpetuate that covenant, you have claim on them by virtue of their perpetuating and abiding in the covenant you established. There are two transactions being spoken of in this sealing: one which confers exaltation on an individual, and another which seals the child to the parents. When a child born to saved parents obtains or preserves the covenant of salvation by their own faith and diligence, the seal between parent and child is in place already by virtue of the covenant made with the parents. Where we end up depends on our agency. If we cannot abide a celestial law with our agency fully intact, we cannot abide a celestial glory (D&C 88:22). Nothing can override that, including our parents’ choices.

This is essentially what Joseph says in his 10 March 1844 sermon:

¶ Again the doctrin or sealing power of Elijah is as follows if you have power to seal on earth & in heaven then we should be Crafty, the first thing you do go & seal on earth your sons & daughters unto yourself, & yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory, & go ahead and not go back, but use a little Craftiness & seal all you can; & when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven I will walk through the gate of heaven and Claim what I seal & those that follow me & my Council

Obtaining the power of Elijah would allow Joseph to extend that sealing to others, on the condition that they “follow me and my counsel.” The same promise and condition applies to parents and their children who they hope to seal.

We have taken much of what Joseph taught about sealing (meaning being unconditionally sealed up to eternal life) and applied it out of context to the (entirely conditional) modern LDS temple sealing ritual. The result is we vainly claim we are “forever families” when have received no promises yet, in violation of the wise counsel of Lecture on Faith 6:8:

8 It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him.

Joseph spoke often of the nature of sealing toward the end of his life, and nobody should read D&C 132 or participate in a temple sealing without also thoroughly reading Joseph’s sermons on the subject.

From the the 10 March 1844 sermon:

¶ This power of Elijah is to that of Elias what in the architecture of the Temple of God those who seal or cement the Stone to their places are to those who cut or hew the stones the one preparing the way for the other to accomplish the work. By this we are sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise ie Elijah

¶ To obtain this sealing is to make our calling and election sure which we ought to give all diligence to accomplish

¶ there are two sins agains which this power does not secure or prevail they are “The sin against the Holy Ghost” And “shedding of innocent Blood” which is equivalent to “crucifying the Son of God afresh & putting him to an open shame”

Note the many data points here defining this sealing as equivalent to the one defined in D&C 132: it seals people together as temple stones are sealed by mortar, sealing by the holy spirit of promise, sealing up against all sin save the unpardonable, etc. There is much more expected and required of us than we have been prepared to pursue. There is a reason that Joseph once began his 13, August 1843 sermon on sealing by saying

could I tell the fact as it is all that heard me would go home and never say one word more about God or Christ or religion until they had received that assurance from Heaven which would set their souls at rest by placing all beyond a doubt.

We certainly would be more modest about our claims about how many eternal families we create through our temple rituals if we read enough of Joseph’s teachings about sealing to glimpse the truth of it.

Christ gave a sobering appraisal of our efforts and spelled out plainly the requirements for sealing in his great revelation on the subject, D&C 132:

22 For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it, because ye receive me not in the world neither do ye know me.

23 But if ye receive me in the world, then shall ye know me, and shall receive your exaltation; that where I am ye shall be also.

24 This is eternal lives—to know the only wise and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent. I am he. Receive ye, therefore, my law.

25 Broad is the gate, and wide the way that leadeth to the deaths; and many there are that go in thereat, because they receive me not, neither do they abide in my law.

This requires us to exercise more caution about which blessings we claim to possess, and may seem like a daunting task, but it is absolutely within the reach of every human soul.

1 Verily, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am;