Eternal Marriage

F. Burton Howard

Of the First Quorum of the Seventy


If you want something to last forever, you treat it differently. … It becomes special because you have made it so.

A number of years ago my wife and I went to a garden wedding reception. Earlier that day we had been to the temple, where two young people we knew had been married for time and all eternity. They were much in love. The circumstances of their meeting had been almost miraculous. Many tears of happiness were shed. We stood in the reception line at the end of a perfect day. Ahead of us was a close friend of the family. As he approached the couple, he stopped and in a beautiful, clear tenor voice sang to them the stirring words from the book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die” (Ruth 1:16–17).

We were deeply touched and felt reassured about their prospects for happiness—this in part, I suppose, because my wife and I have had these same words on the wall of our home for many years.

Sadly, the significance of these beautiful words is subsiding. Far too many marriages today end in divorce. Selfishness, sin, and personal convenience often prevail over covenants and commitment.

Eternal marriage is a principle which was established before the foundation of the world and was instituted on this earth before death came into it. Adam and Eve were given to each other by God in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. The scripture says, “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; Male and female created he them; and blessed them” (Gen. 5:1–2; emphasis added).

The prophets have uniformly taught that the consummate and culminating element of God’s great plan for the blessing of His children is eternal marriage. President Ezra Taft Benson stated, “Faithfulness to the marriage covenant brings the fullest joy here and glorious rewards hereafter” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson [1988], 533–34). President Howard W. Hunter described celestial marriage as “the crowning gospel ordinance” and clarified that “while it might take somewhat longer [for some,] perhaps even beyond this mortal life,” it would not be denied to any worthy individual (Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, ed. Clyde J. Williams [1997], 132, 140). President Gordon B. Hinckley has called eternal marriage a wonderful thing (see “What God Hath Joined Together,” Ensign, May 1991, 71) and a “gift, precious beyond all others” (“The Marriage That Endures,” Ensign, May 1974, 23).

However, notwithstanding the grandeur and glory of the gift, it is not free. In fact it is conditional, and having been given, it may be withdrawn if we do not keep the conditions of the covenant which accompanies it. Section 131 of the Doctrine and Covenants tells us that “in the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest, a man [that means a woman too] must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]” (D&C 131:1–2).

A covenant is a sacred promise. We promise to do some things, and God binds Himself to do others. To those who keep the covenant of marriage, God promises the fulness of His glory, eternal lives, eternal increase, exaltation in the celestial kingdom, and a fulness of joy. We all know that, but sometimes we don’t give much thought to what we have to do to receive these blessings. The scriptures seem to clearly say that at least three obligations are inherent in this covenant.

First, an eternal marriage is eternal. Eternal implies continuing growth and improvement. It means that man and wife will honestly try to perfect themselves. It means that the marriage relationship is not to be frivolously discarded at the first sign of disagreement or when times get hard. It signifies that love will grow stronger with time and that it extends beyond the grave. It means that each partner will be blessed with the company of the other partner forever and that problems and differences might as well be resolved because they are not going to go away. Eternal signifies repentance, forgiveness, long-suffering, patience, hope, charity, love, and humility. All of these things are involved in anything that is eternal, and surely we must learn and practice them if we intend to claim an eternal marriage.

Second, an eternal marriage is ordained of God. This means that the parties to the marriage covenant agree to invite God into their marriage, to pray together, to keep the commandments, to keep wants and passions within certain limits that the prophets have outlined. It means to be equal companions and to be just as true and pure outside the home as inside the home. That is part of what ordained of God means.

Third, eternal marriage is a kind of partnership with God. He promises a continuation of lives to those who are sealed together in the temple. There is a oneness with the Creator implied in the commandment given to Adam and Eve to multiply and replenish the earth. There is an obligation to teach children the gospel, for they are His children too. Thus we have family home evening and scripture study, gospel conversations, and service to others. There would seem to be an obligation to support and sustain each other in callings and roles that each is given to perform. How can we claim to be one with God if we cannot sustain one another when the wife is called to serve in the Primary or the husband in the bishopric?

So the covenant of marriage implies at least these things and probably others. I may miss the mark, but I don’t think by far, when I say that those who verbally or physically abuse their wives or husbands or those who degrade or demean or exercise unrighteous dominion in a marriage are not keeping the covenant. Nor are those who neglect the commandments or who fail to sustain their leaders. Even those who merely decline callings, neglect neighbors, or moderately adopt worldly ways are at risk. If we are not keeping our part of the covenant, we have no promise.

Most of all, I think eternal marriage cannot be achieved without a commitment to make it work. Most of what I know about this I have learned from my companion. We have been married for almost 47 years now. From the beginning she knew what kind of marriage she wanted.

We started as poor college students, but her vision for our marriage was exemplified by a set of silverware. As is common today, when we married she registered with a local department store. Instead of listing all the pots and pans and appliances we needed and hoped to receive, she chose another course. She asked for silverware. She chose a pattern and the number of place settings and listed knives, forks, and spoons on the wedding registry and nothing else. No towels, no toasters, no television—just knives, forks, and spoons.

The wedding came and went. Our friends and our parents’ friends gave gifts. We departed for a brief honeymoon and decided to open the presents when we returned. When we did so, we were shocked. There was not a single knife or fork in the lot. We joked about it and went on with our lives.

Two children came along while we were in law school. We had no money to spare. But when my wife worked as a part-time election judge or when someone gave her a few dollars for her birthday, she would quietly set it aside, and when she had enough she would go to town to buy a fork or a spoon. It took us several years to accumulate enough pieces to use them. When we finally had service for four, we began to invite some of our friends for dinner.

Before they came, we would have a little discussion in the kitchen. Which utensils would we use, the battered and mismatched stainless or the special silverware? In those early days I would often vote for the stainless. It was easier. You could just throw it in the dishwasher after the meal, and it took care of itself. The silver, on the other hand, was a lot of work. My wife had it hidden away under the bed where it could not be found easily by a burglar. She had insisted that I buy a tarnish-free cloth to wrap it in. Each piece was in a separate pocket, and it was no easy task to assemble all the pieces. When the silver was used, it had to be hand washed and dried so that it would not spot, and put back in the pockets so it would not tarnish, and wrapped up and carefully hidden again so it would not get stolen. If any tarnish was discovered, I was sent to buy silver polish, and together we carefully rubbed the stains away.

Over the years we added to the set, and I watched with amazement how she cared for the silver. My wife was never one to get angry easily. However, I remember the day when one of our children somehow got hold of one of the silver forks and wanted to use it to dig up the backyard. That attempt was met with a fiery glare and a warning not to even think about it. Ever!

I noticed that the silverware never went to the many ward dinners she cooked, or never accompanied the many meals she made and sent to others who were sick or needy. It never went on picnics and never went camping. In fact it never went anywhere; and, as time went by, it didn’t even come to the table very often. Some of our friends were weighed in the balance, found wanting, and didn’t even know it. They got the stainless when they came to dinner.

The time came when we were called to go on a mission. I arrived home one day and was told that I had to rent a safe-deposit box for the silver. She didn’t want to take it with us. She didn’t want to leave it behind. And she didn’t want to lose it.

For years I thought she was just a little bit eccentric, and then one day I realized that she had known for a long time something that I was just beginning to understand. If you want something to last forever, you treat it differently. You shield it and protect it. You never abuse it. You don’t expose it to the elements. You don’t make it common or ordinary. If it ever becomes tarnished, you lovingly polish it until it gleams like new. It becomes special because you have made it so, and it grows more beautiful and precious as time goes by.

Eternal marriage is just like that. We need to treat it just that way. I pray that we may see it for the priceless gift that it is, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.