Singled Out: One Goal for Young Mormon Singles—Get Married!

During the April 2011 priesthood session of general conference, President Thomas S. Monson dedicated one fifth of his speech to encouraging single men to marry—a subject on which Church leaders have been preaching almost since Mormonism began.

“Brethren, there is a point at which it’s time to think seriously about marriage and to seek a companion with whom you want to spend eternity,” he said.

During the Sunday morning session of the same conference, apostle Richard G. Scott told single young men, “Don’t waste time in idle pursuits. Get on with life and focus on getting married. Don’t just coast through this period of life.”

Days after President Monson’s speech, LDS leaders announced the disbanding of all student wards in Utah Valley and the formation of new all-single stakes and wards for people 18–30. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack connected this reorganization to the pro-marriage preaching in conference the week before, noting that persuading “young men and women to stop postponing marriage . . . is, after all, the goal of all these singles wards.”

What challenges do LDS singles confront? Does being single in the Church promise more than becoming a “ministering angel” who will wait tables in the celestial kingdom, as Pat Bagley has humorously imagined? Is singlehood a condition to be frowned on and pitied, or could it be accepted as normal–perhaps even celebrated?

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From Condemnation to Accommodation

Authors Marybeth Raynes and Erin Parsons trace LDS statements against singlehood back to 1831, when Joseph Smith penned a revelation for Leman Copley, a former celibate Shaker, declaring that “whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man” (D&C 49:15). By 1843, Joseph Smith was privately marrying plural wives and teaching that only those married for eternity by the power of the priesthood would “have an increase” in the resurrection.

As soon as Mormons settled in the West, Church leaders vigorously promoted marriage as the only way for men—naturally sinful and lazy—to become devout Christians, righteous patriarchs, and productive citizens. An 1857 Deseret News article invoked both theological imperatives and practical benefits to marriage when urging Mormon bachelors to “make one grand attempt for blissful days, comfortable nights, posterity, and an honest future.”

While Brigham Young probably never actually said that every single man over 27 is “a menace to society” (one of Mormonism’s most famous misquotes), George Q. Cannon’s statement in an 1878 general conference sounds about as severe: “A large number of unmarried men, over the age of 24 years, is a dangerous element in any community.” Ten years before that, Brother Brigham had admonished: “Let every man in the land over 18 years of age take a wife.”

While single men have been characterized as “selfish, sinful, and possibly suffering from a chemical imbalance,” women have generally been treated as “gentle victims of man’s selfishness,” with Church leaders consoling them that “they will yet receive all the blessings of matrimony in the hereafter.” As Lavina Fielding Anderson and Jeffery O. Johnson note, “Whatever single women may suffer, they still need not cope with the pressure and guilt single Mormon males must face in a culture where the initiative rests with the man and where the responsibility to take it is preached by precept and example in every ward in the Church.”

A century later, President Ezra Taft Benson worked in the same rhetorical vein as had Brigham Young and George Q. Cannon when he implicitly questioned the manhood of unmarried males, urging them to “arise from the dust . . . and be men” (2 Nephi 1:21).

Delmont R. Oswald, a 47-year-old divorced Mormon, responded to Benson’s speech at the next Sunstone Symposium. “The tone of President Benson’s speech troubled me,” Oswald said. “I heard his words as those of an adult lecturing a child. Too often [in the Church] adulthood comes to be defined by marital status rather than by age and maturity.”

At that same symposium, BYU sociologist Lawrence A. Young noted that the activity rates of single females in the Church can be five times that of single males. “There is strong evidence that as a Church, we are not meeting the needs of LDS single members, particularly single men,” he said. Young pointed to data showing that “single women over 30 have higher levels of education, occupation, and Church activity than single men.” Consequently, Young cautioned, “If never-married men were to arise en masse from the dust and seek marriage, we can only wonder who they would go out to marry. Based on available studies of marital success, we would have to be very concerned about the quality and long-term stability of a marriage between the typical never-married LDS male over thirty and the typical never-married LDS female over thirty.”

In retrospect, Benson’s 1988 address may have been a “last hoorah” for the harsh nineteenth-century style of preaching on male singleness. The quarter century since that address has seen some attenuation in Church leaders’ admonitions to marry. In fact, in 1987, President Hinckley declared that “marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or behavior.” In an even more recent speech to 5,000 singles, apostle M. Russell Ballard admitted that “not every one of you may find an eternal companion.”

In 2001, Jeffry H. Larson, chair of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at BYU, made headlines at the university’s paper, the Daily Universe, by stating that LDS singles needed to put more thought and preparation into marriage. “Don’t rush even if you’ve found the right person,” Larson wrote. “I don’t think the Spirit will tell you, ‘Don’t get to know him or her better first.’” Larson explained that pressure to marry and marrying too young are factors that hamper the success of a marriage: the divorce rate, he warned, is 70 percent for people who marry before age twenty.

Video: Deseret First Wants You To Save for You Engagement Ring NOW!

Famous Bachelors

Despite the tremendous pressures single men and women face in Mormon culture, there have been some Mormon men who have defended their bachelorhood and Mormon women who rose to positions of prominence in the Church despite their single status.

None may be more peculiar than Evan Stephens (1854–1930), who served 26 years as director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A confirmed bachelor who took a series of younger men under his wing and into his home, Stephens was also a gender-transgressive artist who sometimes sang in falsetto and impersonated “the old maid of ninety-five.” When world-renowned soprano Nellie Melba asked how many wives he had, Stephens quipped: “I am sorry you pressed the question. It is almost unlawful to talk about.” Ultimately, however, Mormon theology cured Stephens of his inveterate bachelorhood: on 5 November 1930, a year after his death, Stephens’s housekeeper Sarah Daniels was sealed to him.

In the twentieth century, perhaps no Mormon bachelor has received more media attention than legendary quarterback Steve Young. Successful, athletic, attractive, well-adjusted, and still single in his mid-thirties, Young was living proof that not all Mormon bachelors suffer from “a chemical imbalance.” At age 35, Young was asked by Mike Wallace about his single status. “Do you wanna talk about the pressure I feel?” Young answered candidly. “Brigham Young once said, right here on these grounds, that anyone over 27 years of age that’s not married is a menace to society. So here’s my grandfather telling me to get with it. You don’t think that I feel the pressure? I guarantee it.” Young escaped his “single cursedness” at the ripe age of 38, when he married fellow Mormon Barbara Graham, a former model. They have two sons and two daughters.

Not even the shortest short list of famous single Mormons would be complete without Sheri Dew, possibly the most prominent single woman in Church history. C.E.O. and president of Deseret Book, Dew is also an inspirational speaker, writer, former counselor in the general presidency of the Relief Society, and former White House delegate to the United Nations.

Dew has spoken about her single status on many occasions, characterizing that status in essentially negative terms—as a cross to be borne. She has said that her singleness indicates that her prayers “have not been answered the way [she] asked them to be.” Dew has presented herself as an example of remaining chaste for life, if necessary. “As someone who has remained unmarried two-and-a-half decades beyond a traditional marriageable age, I know something about the challenge of chastity,” she stated at age 46. “It is not always easy, but it is far easier than the alternative.”

At the same time, Dew has reiterated traditional LDS teachings, affirming marriage and parenthood as normative. In October 2001, Dew affirmed that motherhood is “the essence of who we are as women” and preached on the topic, “It is not good for man or woman to be alone.” The dissonance between these ideals and Dew’s singleness has made her vulnerable to criticism. At an interfaith event in 2004, Dew found herself at the center of a controversy after speaking in defense of traditional marriage. Displaying a photo of two men getting married at the San Francisco City Hall with their adopted twin daughters in their arms, Dew said, “This is hard for me to stomach. What kind of chance do these girls have being raised in that kind of setting?” (Dew was unaware at the time that one of the men pictured, Eric Ethington, is a former LDS missionary.) In a statement expressing “outrage” over Dew’s remarks, Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons pointed to Dew’s singleness in an attempt to undermine her credibility: “While Ms. Dew, who has never married or raised children, pontificates about families, Eric Ethington, with his husband and his daughters, shows to the world what it really means to have one.”


The Emergence of Single Wards

In settings such as Brigham Young University, LDS leaders treat singlehood as a transitional period in which youth must be encouraged to keep the faith while being given opportunities to socialize, date, and find a spouse. “Church members who have never married or are divorced or widowed make up a significant portion of Church membership,” the 1998 General Handbook of Instructions frankly states. “All members, regardless of their age, circumstance, or interests, need the blessings of the gospel and a full range of Church experiences.”

Starting in the mid-1960s, Church leaders contemplated the creation of student wards, branches, and stakes, and established rules regarding who could belong to these units. During the 1970s, the only single wards were student wards (meaning only students could attend them). The 1980s saw the creation of some wards for singles 18–30, as well as units for those over 30, regardless of their student status. But Church leaders were ambivalent about this development. Participation in such units, they insisted, should be considered “somewhat transitory.” Indeed, Church policy held that the best place for singles to “enjoy a full range of church experience” is the conventional family ward.

The driving aim of singles wards is simple: To create more opportunities for singles to find a spouse. BYU wards, with their frequent admonitions to marry, pictorial ward directories, and classes on dating, have generated a subculture revolving around the ideal of celestial marriage. Members who do not find suitable dates in their assigned wards sometimes engage in “ward-hopping.” According to the Deseret News, some BYU bishops have gone so far as to call ward members to serve as “dating specialists” to help other ward members find a spouse. A few years back, one BYU stake dedicated a meeting to the theme, “every member a matchmaker.”

“A goal of mine is to get them married,” Walt Plumb, bishop of the University of Utah 16th Ward, acknowledged to the Deseret News in 2007. Plumb encouraged his ward members to date at least once a month and occasionally gave men $25 to take a woman out.  “I know some people aren’t going to have the option of marriage for some reason or another,” Plumb said, “but it sure seems to me that people are a lot happier being married.”

In a culture influenced by a TV series such as Friends, concerned LDS leaders have noted a trend among young Mormons at BYU and elsewhere to “hang out” rather than go on traditional dates. BYU student Elisee Newey told the Deseret News that she prefers hanging out because it allows people to get to know each other and this “leads to better dates.” But Church leaders have recently voiced disapproval of “hanging out,” reaffirming the ideal of traditional dating. “Young women, resist too much hanging out, and encourage dates that are simple, inexpensive, and frequent,” apostle Dallin H. Oaks preached in 2007. “Don’t make it easy for young men to hang out in a setting where you women provide the food. Don’t subsidize freeloaders.”


Sex and the Single Mormon

Despite LDS leaders’ efforts to create a culture of sexual abstinence among young Mormon singles, evidence suggests that these efforts have been only partially successful. In 1992, BYU sociologist Tim B. Heaton combined data from three surveys taken in the 1980s and concludes that “60 percent of LDS women will have had sex before marriage.” A study Wilford E. Smith conducted in the 1970s indicates that “nearly half of active LDS males of university age and a quarter of the active LDS young women” masturbate.

In the face of these realities, Church leaders have become less prone than previously to describe sexual immorality as a sin “next to murder” (Alma 39:1–7). “It appears that Church leaders are becoming increasingly aware of deviations from sexual standards,” Tim Heaton observed in the 1990s, but “feel somewhat frustrated in knowing how to deal with immorality. Changes in sexual norms may have also created a generation gap between the youth and their leaders or parents. These trends could make it more difficult to deal with the discrepancy between official codes of conduct and actual behavior.”

Twenty years after Heaton wrote those words, the LDS Church may be facing a new generation of young Mormons who are openly questioning the Church’s standard of chastity. A 2005 story in the Washington City Paper spotlighted Janna Taylor, a single Mormon living in northern Virginia. At age 28, sitting through yet another Relief Society lesson on chastity, Taylor finally felt she had to stand up and vent. “We all know what the law of chastity is, and we all know the reasoning behind it,” Taylor said, getting teary. “What I want to know is how I’m supposed to live this law as a 28-year-old virgin. Because the reality of the situation is that every single cell in my body is telling me to have babies.”

“I’m a sexual being, and that doesn’t change because of my faith,” Taylor told the Washington City Paper. “The question is how to reconcile that faith with my physical body. How can I embrace my sexuality as a single woman and a Mormon?”

In a more recent essay in the New York Times, Mormon author Nicole Hardy went a step further, writing about her decision, at age 35, to leave her Mormon virginity behind and become sexually active by dating non-Mormon men. “As I grew older, I had the distinct sense of remaining a child in a woman’s body,” Hardy writes. “It wasn’t just sex I lacked but relationships with men entirely. Too independent for Mormon men, and too much a virgin for the other set, I felt trapped in adolescence.”


New Wards, Same Goal

Addressing some 5,000 singles from Salt Lake Valley on 26 April 2011, apostle M. Russell Ballard announced the dissolution of nearly 150 student wards and the integration of single students and non-students into 12 new stakes and 121 young single adult wards. According to Ballard and other Church leaders, the goal of the reorganization is to quell the massive loss of members in the 18–30 age group.

“The reason we’re anxious for you to reach out and to encourage some of the young single adults that are not active is because one of the great places where there can be peace and joy and fellowship, a sense of belonging, is by being active in the Church,” Ballard said. “Would you do what you can to try to draw some of those who are less active back into fellowship in the Church?”

“As an eternal unit, families go to the eternities forever—together forever,” Ballard added. “That’s why we’re drawing you into these young single adult stakes and young single adult wards under the tutelage of bishops and stake presidents who have keys of the power of the holy priesthood of God to answer your questions, to guide you, to give you blessings, and to help you along the way.”

Seventy David Evans explained that pilot programs were run in Ogden, Cedar City, St. George, and other Utah areas in 2010 and were deemed a success: of 4,500 inactive singles visited, 1,000 had returned to the Church.

And, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, LDS leaders concluded that the program also succeeded in “getting [singles] to the marriage altar.”