Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Adam-God debate, or how an apostle bested a prophet

(Can't find the Cal Grondahl cartoon that went with this post, so until I do, enjoy this Cal "Culture of Mormonism" classic.

We Mormons shy away from the old relic called the Adam-God doctrine. In recent years, the late prophet Spencer W. Kimball denounced it from the pulpit, as did the late apostle Bruce R. McConkie in “Mormon Doctrine.” McConkie added that those who said that Brigham Young pushed it had taken Mormonism’s greatest leader out of context.

But the later denials are, to be frank, historical revisionism. Brigham Young did believe Adam was the god of our earth, and that doctrine was pushed with fervor by Young and many church leaders for decades. It was debated by LDS apostles as late as the 1890s. Apostles Heber C. Kimball and George Q. Cannon believed Adam was our God.

Why the Adam-God doctrine never gained enough traction in the LDS Church and was eventually ruefully de-emphasized by Young is mostly due to one man, the LDS apostle, Orson Pratt, who just as fiercely opposed the Adam-God doctrine and backed up his opposition with LDS scriptures. Supporters of the Adam-God doctrine were finally forced into vague defenses along the lines of “God has not revealed the details of this wondrous doctrine.”

The Adam-God debate that flourished for so long among the LDS faithful and hierarchy is detailed in the spring 1982 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. The article, by BYU graduate David John Buerger, is fascinating reading, and makes me wish the LDS Church would offer more information about this historically interesting period of its development. On April 9, 1852, Young said this during a general conference speech: “Now, hear it, O inhabitants of the earth, Jew and Gentile, Saint and Sinner! When our Father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. … He is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.”

Young added that Jesus Christ was a spiritual son of Adam: “Jesus, our Elder Brother, was begotten in the flesh by the same character that was in the Garden of Eden, and who is our Father in Heaven. …” Young added that this doctrine would matter in the salvation or damnation of listeners.
As Buerger recounts, leading Mormons, including future prophet Wilford Woodruff, clearly understood that Young had decreed Adam as our God.

In later dispatches, published in The Millennial Star, the church strengthened its Adam-God doctrine by listing a geneology for the creators. In a school of the prophets class, Buerger writes that it was taught that Elohim was Adam’s grandfather, followed by Jehova, Adam’s father, and our God, Adam. Christ, as mentioned, was classified a spirit son of God Adam.

Of course, LDS doctrine today teaches that Jesus Christ is Jehova and that Adam was created out of the dust, as was Eve. Adam-God ran into trouble immediately; members could not find it in the scriptures. Nevertheless, Apostle Willard Richards had a succinct reply to doubters. He wrote, “If, as Elder Caffall remarked, there are those who are waiting at the door of the church for this objection to be removed, tell such, the prophet and Apostle Brigham has declared it, and that is the world of the Lord.”

In an 1854 general conference speech, Young went further: “I tell you more, Adam is the father of our spirits. He live upon the earth; he did abide his creation and did honor to his calling and preisthood (sic) and obeyed his master or Lord, and probably many of his wives did (the same) and they lived, and died upon an earth, and (then) were resurrected again to immortality and eternal life …”

However, one apostle, Orson Pratt, did not buy this new doctrine. He pointed to scriptures, including to what is Section 29, verse 42 in the Doctrine and Covenants and also Moses 4:28 and Moses 5:4-9. In defense, Young claimed that Joseph Smith had taught the Adam-God doctrine. Buerger’s research points to anecdotal evidence from third parties that Smith believed Adam was far more than his peers on Earth (a belief shared today by the current LDS Church) but past sermons of Smith’s also clearly show the first LDS prophet regarded Adam as an inferior to Jesus Christ, which puts him at odds with Young’s beliefs.

Other scriptural problems with the Adam-God doctrine include references to Adam’s death (Moses: 6:12 and Doctrine and Covenants 107:53) Also, Buerger cites Alma 11:45 in the Book of Mormon, where Amulek teaches that a resurrected body can die no more. How, Pratt reasonably wondered, can Adam have a resurrected celestial body and later die?

There were other contradictions to the Adam-God doctrine in theological books penned by apostles Parley P. Pratt and future prophet, John Taylor. Eventually, Young began to slowly abandon efforts to push the controversial doctrine, although he defended it often, sometimes with caustic remarks that skeptics were “yet to grovel in darkness.”

There is one recorded deviation by Young from Adam-God; as Buerger recounts, in an 1861 address to a non-Mormon audience, Young refers to Adam and Christ being created by a Supreme Being. However, this may be an example of the prophet speaking more simply to people — gentiles — he felt too naive to understand the doctrine. According to Brueger’s research, Young continued to teach the Adam-God doctrine, but mainly in more exclusive settings, such as teachings to general authorities.

In 1870, Young, quoted in the Deseret News, again said that God had revealed Adam’s celestial status to him. However, the doctrine’s steam slowly ebbed away. Eventually, Charles W. Penrose, editor of The Deseret News, signaled the church’s rejection of claims that Adam is our God. At first, Penrose said that Young’s personal views were not church doctrine; however, within a few years a church article stated that the debate over Young’s views were of no real value. Eventually, that changed to a view — held today — that Young had been misinterpreted.

The misinterpretation claim, as evidenced, does not survive historical scrutiny. It’s a shame that more information is unavailable on the fierce debate between Young, Pratt and others over the Adam-God doctrine, which comprised one of the most interesting eras in LDS Church history. The decades long controversy is an example of the progressive, brainstorming, exciting nature of the 19th century LDS church, where ideas — polygamy, new scriptures, Christ visiting America, celestial godhood, temples, priesthood revival, prophets, etc. roiled the theological world. It’s evidence of a uniquely American religion that still appeals to inquisitive minds.

-- Doug Gibson

Originally published at StandardBlogs.


  1. Go the the FLDS, for they have many discussions and articles on the subject.