Mormonism has been no stranger to controversy this year, but this week’s revelation that the LDS Church posthumously sealed former president Thomas Jefferson to his slave and lover, Sally Hemings, is the ultimate trifecta of bad PR. It’s a perfect storm of negative press, combining the three top issues that dog Mormons: racism, polygamy (Jefferson is sealed to both Hemings and his legal wife, Martha), and the ethics of performing rituals for the dead. Here, In Heaven as It Is on Earth author Sam Brown reflects on Mormon temple sealings and the genealogical database.

I have experienced a range of negative emotions since discovering this week that certain Latter-day Saints had entered requests into the church’s genealogical database requesting that certain African American women be “sealed” (a marriage-like ritual intended to assure the persistence of family relationships in the afterlife) by proxy to the men who enslaved and raped them as domestics during the horrifying period of legal American slavery. Some of these requests have resulted in the performance of Mormon proxy sealings on behalf of those relationships, even, it would appear, on behalf of the most famous of slaveholder rapists, Thomas Jefferson and the now famous Sally Hemings.

We should be outraged by this act of base insensitivity, all of us, both inside and outside the LDS Church. The Mormons with whom I have discussed this topic have been uniformly shocked and saddened by this news. Such proxy sealings, whatever their ultimate inspiration or genesis, should have never happened.

With outrage should come understanding, though. When outrageous things happen it is important to try both to criticize and to understand. We criticize to signal what is right and wrong for a community, and we understand in the hopes of bringing our communities into alignment with those standards of right and wrong.

So, in the interest of understanding, how did these proxy sealings come to be?

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