Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Temple adoptions were part of LDS evolution toward genealogy work

Editor's note: Although this Cal Grondahl cartoon is not related to this week's essay, it's a favorite of mine, done by Cal in the recent era of the popularity of The Book of Mormon Musical.

The majority of faithful Latter-day Saints who engage in temple work for the dead probably have never heard of the Law of Adoption. Yet, for roughly a half century, until 116 years ago, it was the forerunner of today’s large-scale church temple ordinances for the deceased, which are considered sacred and necessary in the LDS Church for afterlife progression.

Gordon Irving, then associate historian for the LDS Church, wrote a fascinating piece for the spring 1974 issue of BYU Studies. Titled, “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830-1900,” Irving explains that in 1830, the genesis of the church, “early members appear to have accepted the traditional Christian view of a heaven for the righteous and a hell for the wicked.”

That would change soon. By 1832, Irving writes, the prophet Joseph Smith had published revelation that there were three separate kingdoms of glory within heaven, or salvation; furthermore, the kingdom assigned a person depended on his or her good works. At this time, the Mormon concept of hell evolved into a place called “sons of perdition,” which was restricted to very few.

The concept of eternal salvation would continue to evolve for more than half a century. Irving explains that an aspect of LDS belief that attracted many converts was its claim of authority to act in God’s name. While Smith assured Saints via revelation that “All who have died without a knowledge of this Gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom,” many wondered how a deceased loved one could attain the celestial kingdom without baptism. The solution, according to Smith, was baptism for the dead.

However, Smith’s 1843 revelation dividing the celestial kingdom into three degrees asserted that family ties, extending back to Adam, were essential to achieving exaltation, or the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. The “way to do this,” explained Smith later, was through celestial marriage in a temple. Through celestial marriage, the doctrine goes, earth’s families could be linked to a chain of family that began to Adam and subsequently, become “heirs of exaltation.”

But the exaltation doctrine created concerns that persons would attain the celestial kingdom but not its highest level because they could not link their family chains to a proper priesthood authority extending to Adam.

A solution to that dilemma was that prominent church members could be grafted — through ordination by the prophet — to the patriarchal order — thereby allowing them to “adopt as children” members of the church. This is a key reason early church members, such as John D. Lee, are often referred to as “adopted sons” of Brigham Young, or Heber C. Kimball, or other apostles.

Although Irvine says it’s unclear if adoptions occurred before Smith died, they were common when Brigham Young became prophet. In fact, there were plans to even start settlements with “adopted” families of Young, Kimball, John Taylor, Willard Richards, and other prominent LDS apostles.

According to Irvine’s article, some of the early apostles even pitched themselves and advertised for “children to adopt.” Irvine writes, “Apostle George A. Lee Smith admitted in February, 1847, that he had lextioneered” with all his might to get people to join him.” These “adopted” families would meet for conferences with counsel from Young, Kimball, and social events such as dances.

Within several years, though, adoptions had fallen out of favor. Human nature was a key reason. Like real families, adopted siblings tended to quarrel. Irvine recounts feuds between Lee and other of Young’s adopted children. Other examples include adopted children — grown men — worried they would be subordinate to their “adopted fathers” in the celestial Kingdom. Other adopted “children” believed they could be supported by their “fathers.” Prophet Young, writes Irvine, wryly noted in 1847 “that he hoped the day would come when his adopted children would ‘have to provide temporal blessings for me instead of my boarding from 40 to 50 persons as I do now …’”

In the 1870s, the construction of a temple in St. George, Utah, renewed interest in adoption. New rules were established for the ordinance. One allowed deceased non-member husbands of women members to be adopted. Another allowed members more choice in who they could choose as an adopted father. As a result of the temples being away from Salt Lake City, many members chose deceased apostles to adopt them, because a proxy could be used.

Eventually, the second phase of adoptions failed to satisfy members as well. Many were distressed at the strict rules allowing only one generation beyond baptism to be adopted. Church members who had traced their ancestry much further, writes Irvine, were upset those ancestors would not have the fullness of the Gospel. Others groused that the adoption doctrine was still too complex and difficult to understand.

Adoption ended via — once again — a revelation. In 1894, Church Prophet Wilford Woodruff announced that all children would be “adopted to his (or her) father.” He further said, “We want the Latter-day Saints from this time to trace their genealogies as far as they can, and to be sealed to their fathers and mothers. Have children sealed to their parents, and run the chain as far as you can get it.”
President Woodruff detailed the revelation as additions from the Lord to what Joseph Smith hard originally received. This, Irvine explains, fits with the Mormon concept of continuous revelation, “line upon line, precept upon precept,”

Woodruff’s revelation was very popular, and remains so today. It’s no coincidence that the Mormons’ now iconic interest in genealogy work increased at that time.

There were still kinks to be worked out. Church leaders took pains to assure anxious members that adoption/sealing to a parent was as valid as one to an apostle. Also, the 13,000-plus Saints who had been adopted by Young, Kimball, and the others were a dilemma. As Irvine writes, Church leaders let God sort it out, directing these members to be sealed to their parents while keeping their former “adoptions” in church records.

-- Doug Gibson

This post was originally published at StandardBlogs.

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