The Fragrance of Life to the Living and Stench to the Dying

What do vegetarianism, plural marriage, animal sacrifice and the lives of saints all have to do with Paul's mysterious saying to the Church in Corinthians?

For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life.
— 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

You are going to walk away from this post knowing more than most people about what that scripture intends, because a Google-search turns up next to nothing. But what a shame, because it is packed with implication. Please note that the word "savour" in this context is more aptly understood as "fragrance" or "aroma."  

Let us recall that Paul was part of that generation of saints that still remembered the days of sacrificing animals on the altar of the temple, before the great and last sacrifice of the Lamb of God. He used the imagery of the smoke and incense involved in sacrificial offerings to help the members of the Church see some parallels between those not-long-ago days of burnt offerings, Christ's Atonement and their own lives of personal obedience and willing sacrifice. He also acknowledged that sacrifice is viewed differently depending on whether a person is spiritually alive or spiritually dying.

A simple (and probably politically incorrect) way of beginning to look at sacrifice this way is to consider the following: Someone who habitually abstains from eating the flesh of animals for perceived moral/ethical reasons might tend to look at the killing of animals for food as cruel, brutal, gross and unfair. Maybe she prefers not to have any part of it. She might see those deaths as only that...death. Compare this with a person who delights in her morning bacon, absolutely thrills over a turkey sandwich with avocado and can't wait for that occasional meatloaf night. This person will likely view the killing of animals for food differently. It is LIFE to her. It is a sacrifice for which she is grateful (one would hope).*

We can extend this argument to Christ's sacrifice for all of mankind. Anyone who acknowledges His payment in suffering and uses the power of the Atonement in their daily walk is likened by Paul to those that are alive, spiritually. They view His death and sacrifice as their wonderful, merciful salvation. But I WONDER how the spiritually dying perceive His sacrifice. Does it look like pointless death to the dead? Do they see in the suffering only suffering and not the beauty behind it?

Now let's see how Paul's saying applies to the post-meridian law of sacrifice and even the law of consecration. Bruce R. McConkie, in one of his epic talks retells the story of the wealthy young ruler, a good man, who kept all the commandments from a very early age. Jesus called on him to sacrifice his worldy possessions; he asked him to live the law of consecration, in essence. Though this young man was a good person, he found that he was not willing to live this law of the celestial kingdom. Elder McConkie reiterated that we need to be "willing to sacrifice all we have...our houses, lands, and families: all things, even our very lives if need be." (April 1975 Conference Address "Obedience, Consecration, and Sacrifice)

Now for the clincher. Joseph F. Smith puts the practice of plural marriage on par with the law of consecration, in some regards, when he said:

It is a law of the Gospel pertaining to the celestial kingdom, applicable to all dispensations, when commanded and not otherwise, and neither acceptable to God or binding on man unless given by commandment.
It is a righteous principle not an unrighteous one. It is a pure and holy principle.
— Journal of Discourses 20:26

Just as the law of consecration requires a pure and holy people, a people inclined to live higher laws than the ones acceptable on earth, it appears that the same is true for this celestial form of marriage.

Joseph F. Smith called plural marriage "a principle that pertains to eternal life" and said it is "a principle that savors of life unto life, or of death unto death; therefore it is well for those who have embraced the Gospel to obtain a knowledge in relation to this matter."  (click here to see his talk in its entirety). Is he saying that your approach to understanding the deep and abiding LDS theology of plural marriage is an indicator of your aliveness in Christ? Good question. The topic of plural marriage DOES seem to be a fabulous tool for measuring where we are, personally, with our pride vs. humility, hardness of heart vs. softness, teachableness vs. thinking we already know everything we want to, or our attitude of unrelenting vs. our willingness to sacrifice.

To a woman whose hope of exaltation hinges on the practice of plural marriage in the eternities, the principle is LIFE itself. Ask Eliza R. Snow (wife of Joseph Smith), Jessie Evans Smith (third wife of Joseph Fielding Smith) or Wendy Watson Nelson (second wife of Apostle Russell M. Nelson) whether they think the idea of plural marriage in the hereafter is a degradation and oppression to women. I am sure they will attest to it being their grace and privilege. But to the spiritually dying there is only stench associated with it...unfairness, cruelty to women; they don't want any part of it.

Zina D. Huntington (wife of Joseph Smith) said of it "The principle of plural marriage is honorable. It is a principle of the Gods, it is heaven born. God revealed it to us as a saving principle; we have accepted it as such, and we know it is of him for the fruits of it are holy." (Crocheron, 1884) Also of note is something that Emily Partridge (also wife of Joseph Smith) wrote about polygamy and interestingly makes use of the word "stench": "'The principle [of] polygamy or 'Plural Marriage' is as pure as the Gods.' Then in response to the Gentile tirade against the principle, she stated that it was not the principle of plural marriage that caused the 'foul stench that taints the air' in Utah, but 'it is the corruption of our assailants that breeds pestilence.'" (Knuteson)

Bruce R. McConkie gives us a clue about what our attitude should be regarding the law of consecration that, by application, should be reasonable to extend to the principle of plural marriage:

We are not always called upon to live the whole law of gain celestial salvation we must be ABLE to live these laws to the full if we are called upon to do so.

How can this be? Isn't marriage and family a good, righteous thing, far exceeding the worth of earthly possessions? And yet Elder McConkie included it in his list of things we should be willing to sacrifice if called upon to do so. How could the Lord possible condone, let alone require, the sacrifice of one's family? Enter, here, Joseph Smith, who understood and said this: "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation." In my mind, that idea of being willing to sacrifice one's family extends to the sacrifice of one's notion of one man to one woman in the eternities. We must be willing to lay it upon the altar if need be. 

So...though sacrifice by the shedding of blood was done away we must, as Paul admonished, "present ourselves a living sacrifice." (Romans 12:1) "Ourselves" = our heart, mind and will, and in some rarer cases...bodies. Does the fact that you struggle with the concept of plural marriage make you unworthy? NO. But let's keep it moving in the right direction...the direction of life. Shelve what you have to, but don't stop learning. Keep your pride in check (even what seems to you to be righteous indignation on behalf of womanity). Remember that anger comes from a source other than God. Covetousness, even of one's own spouse, is not of Him either. Pray, and pray some more, and don't forget to study as you pray and pray as you study. This is the path to answers, and then to peace and ultimately LIFE.  

What say ye?

This is part six in a six part discussion.  Here are the links to the rest of the series: One, Two, Three, Four, and Five

* I apologize to vegetarians everywhere for the use of this analogy. It is in no way an expression of my opinion that if one abstains from eating meat he/she is in the throes of spiritual death, to which President Joseph Fielding Smith can probably attest.

(Crocheron, 1884) Zina D. H. Young quoted by Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret: A Book of Biographical Sketches, 1884, SLC, J.C. Graham & Co., pg. 15

(Knuteson) Doctrines of the Priesthood, Vol 5 No. 5, pg. 3, The Suspension of Plural Marriage and the Fulfillment of Prophecy, Knut J. Knuteson, Collier's Publishing, SLC

Listen to our discussion on this topic