New Language for Outdated Theology: “Salvific Coverture” and Modern LDS Temple Practice
When I sat down to casually read something from the April 2021 Journal of Mormon History, I expected to find something interesting (because, clearly, I am very cool). I did not expect to have one of those rare moments as a reader when I suddenly felt seen and understood. I was given words to describe something for which language had evaded me for years.
The article was, “‘I Would Not Risk my Salvation to Any Man’: Eliza R. Snow’s Challenge To Salvific Coverture,” by Brooke R. LeFevre, a history master’s student at Utah State University. LeFevre worked at the Church History Library on the new Discourses of Eliza R. Snow, and I was pleased to see an article emerging from this project. But as I came to understand the meaning of “salvific coverture”—a term that LeFevre coins and defines—I realized that this article was going to be personally important to me.
As LeFevre explains in the article, “salvific coverture” has two main parts. “Salvific” means something that leads to salvation, and “coverture” refers to the common law practice in which the legal existence of a married woman is suspended and consolidated into that of her husband. Under coverture, women do not have individual rights or legal standing upon which to enter contracts, own property, vote, etc. Their rights are under the protection or “cover” of their husbands. And thus “salvific coverture” refers to “the tendency within Mormonism to believe that female salvation came through the husband to whom she was sealed, that husbands were salvifically responsible for their wife or wives, and/or that a woman could rely on her husband for salvation.”
The focus of the article is how salvific coverture functioned in the public teachings of Brigham Young and his contemporaries, and how Eliza R. Snow challenged these teachings in favor of women taking individual responsibility for their own salvation. While Brigham Young taught, “Let our wives be the weaker vessels, and the men be men, and show the women by their superior ability that God gives husbands wisdom and ability to lead their wives into his presence,” Eliza wasn’t having it.
Eliza, temple High Priestess and acting General Relief Society President, travelled throughout the Utah Territory speaking to women to train them in the female auxiliaries. She was not a modern feminist, and she regularly deferred to male priesthood leaders, but she did not believe that women could defer to their husbands in the matter of salvation. For example, she said, “Remember, you have to work out your own salvation: neither father, brother, or husband can do it for you. Your eternal existence depends on how you spend your life.”
If you have access to the Journal of Mormon History through a personal subscription or via a university or local library, the entire article is worth a read. To be clear, LeFevre’s argument is limited to public discourse related to salvific coverture by nineteenth century Mormon leaders—she does not detail how it plays out in temple liturgy. But from a personal standpoint, I could see the way that salvific coverture has lingered in Mormon theology and temple practice.
It is hard to overstate the cognitive dissonance I experienced going through the temple in 2008. It was the first time I noticed salvific coverture in Mormon theology. I didn’t have a term to describe what I saw, but it seemed clear that in the Endowment, the Atonement of Jesus Christ was presented as functioning differently for women than for men. After Eve and Adam partake of the fruit and are informed of their consequences, Elohim explains that because Eve partook of the fruit first, she must obey the Law of the Lord and harken unto Adam’s counsel, as Adam must harken unto Elohim and obey the law of Elohim; a Savior would be provided that he [Adam] may return to the presence of God. Eve then covenants to Adam, while Adam covenants to Elohim. Eve does not make covenants with Elohim directly. Her salvation is presented as coming through her obedience to Adam—her husband.
As a twenty-year-old going through the temple for the first time days before my wedding, I was blindsided by this theology. I had understood Jesus Christ to be my personal Savior, and it was disorienting to be instructed that women (whether married or not) covenanted to their husbands instead of God. It was contrary to what I believed about my Heavenly Parents and my relationship to them.
In January 2019, the temple ordinances underwent significant changes that removed much of the overtly sexist language and actions. Now, Eve covenants directly to Elohim, but just as the Ghost of Eternal Polygamy haunts the temple, the concept of salvific coverture lingers on. While previously Eve was anointed to become a queen and priestess unto her husband, she is now anointed to become a queen and priestess in the New and Everlasting Covenant. After spending some time reading D&C 132, I’m not convinced that this is a theological improvement for women. It is still not an equal promise as men are anointed to become kings and priests directly unto God.
For years, I struggled to find anyone who would talk with me about this theology. When I reached out to active, temple-attending members, I would generally be shut down or shamed for finding anything in the temple problematic. I felt gaslit and alone.
As I studied more of Mormon history, particularly the teachings of Brigham Young and his male contemporaries, I found that I was not misinterpreting the temple ceremony—I was identifying an oft-repeated belief of these men. While some suggest that biological sex in the temple is only symbolic, I can’t accept that interpretation when the theology surrounding biological sex also matches the public teachings of 19th century Mormon patriarchs.
The problem is not academic. There are real-life consequences in Church structure and family dynamics from a theology that holds up heterosexual, married men as the saviors to their wives and children. Bad theology hurts people. It hurts all of us, but especially the marginalized who are left out of the proposed order of heaven altogether.
LeFevre’s work naming this theology and contextualizing it in framework of legal coverture is helpful in understanding the particular culture of the men who wrote the temple ceremonies. I knew that while the Endowment was introduced by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo in 1842, it was not written down and standardized until Brigham Young directed an all-male committee to do so in 1877 upon the completion of the St. George Temple. I did not realize, however, that even as these men secured their belief of salvific coverture into the ceremony for generations to come, there was an alternative theology being widely preached by Eliza R. Snow.
I can’t help but wonder what the results could have been if Eliza was included in the committee to write the temple ceremonies. Would she have prevailed with her belief that men and women worked out their salvation individually before God? What if the committee was equally composed of men and women?
And today, what if we fully abandoned the notion of salvific coverture and leaned into the idea that all individuals—men, women, nonbinary, and gender minorities—stand before God, every individual dependent upon the Atonement of Jesus Christ for Salvation? If human men were no longer burdened with their entire family’s salvation, would they feel renewed in Christ? Would women better trust in Christ and their own strength? Would this make room for real partnership among all genders? If heteronormativity was not presented as the only way to salvation, could we openly embrace our queer siblings? Could the Church treat unmarried adults as being whole, complete, and loved by God exactly as they are?
The ramifications of removing the vestiges of salvific coverture and really trusting Jesus Christ to be the Savior could be transformative. Healing. I hope for such a time. But in the meantime, I’m resting a little easier in my own mind, no longer searching for the language to describe a concept that I could see but not name. It is such a gift to have new language to discuss outdated theologies.
 Brooke R. LeFevre, “’I Would Not Risk My Salvation to Any Man:’ Eliza R. Snow’s Challenge to Salvific Coverture,” Journal of Mormon History 47, No. 2 (April 2021), 52.
 Brigham Young, June 15, 1862, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: LDS Booksellers Depot, 1854-86), 9:308, cited in LeFevre, 58.
 Weber Stake Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association, September 9, 1881, LR 9970 17, cited in LeFevre, 64.
 Devrey S. Anderson, The Development of LDS Temple Worship 1846-2000: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2011), xxxi.