Temple Square, in downtown Salt Lake City, is home to a kaleidoscope of sacred sculptures. From the 11-foot-tall Christus to the bronze Handcart Pioneers Monument, statues of all shapes, sizes, and materials tell the Mormon story.
In a back hallway on the top floor of the North Visitor’s Center sits a life-sized statue of Adam and Eve by Elaine Brockbank Evans, who lived to see 102. The piece was famously commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair and is a throwback to Mormonism’s first two prophets, Joseph Smith Jr. and Brigham Young. These men believed Adam to be a figure of staggering significance; their doctrines touched off controversies that persisted for generations.
But, today, Adam’s role has been pushed to the periphery of LDS theology; controversies that once raged are all but forgotten. Let’s find out why.
Adam According to Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith’s view of Adam is extremely novel. Adam, he says, disobeyed knowingly so as to bring mankind the joy of child-rearing (2 Nephi 2:23-25) and the possibility of eternal life (Moses 5:11). Without Adam’s necessary transgression, in complete accordance with the plan of Heavenly Father, mankind would never have left the Garden of Eden for mortality.
Smith goes on. He declares Adam to be both Michael the Archangel and the Ancient of Days from the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel (D&C 27:11). Adam holds the keys to an everlasting priesthood (D&C 84:16-18) and even to salvation itself (D&C 78:16). Further, Adam was the first to be baptized by immersion, first to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Moses 6:64-65), and the first man capable of speaking “a language which was pure and undefiled” (Moses 6:6), from which modern Latter-day Saints get words like “Deseret.”
Smith even claimed to have located the place where Adam lived following his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which he calls Adam-Ondi-Ahman (D&C 78:16), a place in Daviess County, Missouri (D&C 116). There, in a future day, Adam will reign, for he was possessor of the pre-mortal First Presidency, owner of the keys of the universe, and bestower of Christ’s earthly commission.1
As staggering as these claims may be, they fall short of those made by Mormonism’s second prophet, Brigham Young.
Adam According to Brigham Young
During the spring General Conference of 1852, Brigham Young unveiled a revelation that shocked the LDS Church. He taught that Adam was “our Father and our God.” When Adam came into the Garden, he brought “Eve, one of his wives with him” to create a mortal race.2 Young continues, almost as an aside, that it was not the Holy Ghost who allowed the virgin Mary to conceive, but Adam “after the same manner as the tabernacles of Cain, Abel, and the rest of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.”3
Young’s revelation alarmed many of the Saints, including Apostle Orson Pratt, who in 1865 publicly aired his concerns in a paper called The Seer. But Brigham Young was not a man who could countenance insubordination. So, he marshaled the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to denounce Pratt in a lengthy article on August 23 in the Deseret News of that same year. Their censure came with a threat – any others who disagreed with Young’s revelations would risk forfeiting their own priesthoods.
Young was not done. For twenty years he reiterated the doctrine time and again while attempting to make it a permanent fixture of Temple worship. He even called those who questioned him “ignorant and stupid like the dumb ass”.4
The key in all these doctrinal declarations, however, is that Young never expressed them as his own opinion, but as revealed doctrine handed down from God Himself. Without question, Young unflinchingly tied his prophetic voice to the Adam-God teaching. In the aforementioned Deseret News editorial of 1865, Young ominously reminds his readers not only of his prophetic authority, but what public debate might mean:
There is but one man upon the earth, at one time, who holds the keys to receive commandments and revelations for the Church, and who has the authority to write doctrines by way of commandment unto the Church. And any man who so far forgets the order instituted by the Lord as to write and publish what may be termed new doctrines, without consulting with the First Presidency of the Church respecting them, places himself in a false position and exposes himself to the power of darkness by violating his priesthood.
Adam on the Periphery
Yet, ever since Young’s death, LDS leaders have taken great pains to distance themselves from the Adam-God doctrine by branding it a mere “theory.” President Spencer Kimball went so far as to denounce it as “false doctrine,” coming perilously close to denying outright that “General Authorities of past generations” even taught it.5 President Kimball simply couldn’t fathom a day in the digital age when his words could be so easily cross-checked against Young’s many original proclamations.
Today, rank and file Latter-day Saints know very little of Adam beyond the fig-leaf aprons dawned in Temple ceremonies. Yet, this well-documented controversy raises many questions of existential significance, a few of which are as follows:
Can an LDS Prophet, when speaking as Prophet, be wrong?
When two (or more) LDS prophets speaking as prophets disagree, how do Mormons determine which one is right?
If Brigham Young was wrong about Adam, what else was he wrong about? How would Mormons even know?
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should demand that their leading thinkers answer questions like these. Unfortunately, just like the Elaine Brockbank Evans’ statue of Adam and Eve that sits awkwardly in an unfrequented hallway, questions like these reside in a vacuum of uncomfortable silence.
If you’re a member of the LDS Church, we would encourage you to put on your archeologist cap and go digging. Read the original documents, the original press releases, and the well-preserved Prophetic talks easily accessed by your favorite search engine. And when you discover that the internet delivers no good LDS answers, do not despair, for hope is closer than you think. Open your Quad to page 1422 and read Romans 5 slowly, repeatedly, and thoughtfully. There you’ll discover answers worth finding.