Note: This is the first in a six-part sub-series examining some reactions from selected apostles to a false historical/doctrinal theory.
Although the so-called “Adam-God theory” might be losing some of its presence and staying power in modern times, it is still continually dug up, dusted off, and falsely pronounced to be Mormon doctrine by anti-Mormons, cultists, and other critics of the Church. Each group has its own agenda: some who believe it seek its acceptance by the Church, others seek to embarrass the Church with it, and a third group seeks to jeopardize Brigham Young’s standing as a prophet of God with it. Each of them has failed in their efforts. Most Latter-day Saints have never heard of it and are (thankfully) ignorant of the much-ado-about-nothing fuss being made.
Introducing the theory
Because of the internet and the ever-growing number of websites run by antagonistic and critical activist groups, it is increasingly possible for average and often uninformed Latter-day Saints to encounter what must seem to them to be one weird and incomprehensible bit of theorizing; also to encounter explanations and bias that hinders instead of helping. Just when a person needs the best light and understanding they can get for proper contextual inoculation, the self-serving activist/critic/cultist/ignorant evangelical throws them a curve ball hoping to shake their testimony and faith in whatever way they can.
For this reason, before getting to then-Elder Harold B. Lee’s explanations, we can profit from author Stephen E. Robinson’s excellent overview as a means of introducing the infamous Adam-God theory:
A classic example of an anomaly in the LDS tradition is the so-called "Adam-God theory." During the latter half of the nineteenth century Brigham Young made some remarks about the relationship between Adam and God that the Latter-day Saints have never been able to understand. The reported statements conflict with LDS teachings before and after Brigham Young, as well as with statements of President Young himself during the same period of time. So how do Latter-day Saints deal with the phenomenon? We don't; we simply set it aside. It is an anomaly. On occasion my colleagues and I at
have tried to
figure out what Brigham Young might have actually said and what it might have
meant, but the attempts have always failed. The reported statements simply do
not compute—we cannot make sense out of them. This is not a matter of believing
it or disbelieving it; we simply don't know what "it" is. If
Brigham Young were here we could ask him what he actually said and what he
meant by it, but he is not here, and even expert students of his thought are
left to wonder whether he was misquoted, whether he meant to say one thing and
actually said another, whether he was somehow joking with or testing the
Saints, or whether some vital element that would make sense out of the reports
has been omitted. Brigham Young
For the Latter-day Saints, however, the point is moot, since whatever Brigham Young said, true or false, was never presented to the Church for a sustaining vote. It was not then and is not now a doctrine of the Church, and—like the chemist who can neither explain nor reproduce her results—the Church has merely set the phenomenon aside as an anomaly.
Nevertheless anti-Mormon critics have not only interpreted Brigham Young's remarks; they have also elevated their own interpretation, the "Adam-God theory," to the status of official LDS doctrine. Once again our theology is being dictated to us by our critics. According to them Brigham Young taught that Adam, the husband of Eve and father of Cain, is identical to that Elohim who is God, the Father of spirits and the Father of Jesus Christ. But for Latter-day Saints this interpretation has always been simply impossible. It contradicts the LDS scriptures; it contradicts the teachings of Joseph Smith; it contradicts other statements by Brigham Young made during the same period of time; it contradicts the teachings of all the prophets since Brigham Young; and it contradicts the sacred ordinances of the LDS temples, with which Brigham Young was intimately familiar.
The point is that while anti-Mormons can believe whatever they want, the Latter-day Saints have never believed that Brigham Young taught the "Adam-God theory" as explained in anti-Mormon literature, and that whether Brigham Young believed it or not, the "Adam-God theory" as proposed and interpreted by non-Mormons simply cannot be found in the theology of the Latter-day Saints. I do not believe it; my parents do not believe it; and neither did their parents before them. Yet there are few anti-Mormon publications that do not present this "Adam-God theory," the doctrinal creation of our opponents, as one of the most characteristic doctrines of the Latter-day Saints. This is certainly misrepresentation; I believe it is also dishonest; and when used to justify a charge that Latter-day Saints aren't Christians, it is another example of condemning the Latter-day Saints for things they do not believe or teach. (As quoted in Are Mormons Christians? [
Salt Lake City:
Bookcraft, 1991], 19-20.)
With such a strange and untenable notion floating around and having supposedly originated with a prophet, it is no wonder that letters of inquiry would reach various of the Brethren, as well as becoming a subject of curiosity and research for others in the Church.
We might therefore conclude that the subject is one that has been grappled with in one way or another by many. One might also imagine that for busy general authorities running a vast multi-million-member church, such antiquated distractions represent an annoyance that they spend precious little time worrying about. (It will be interesting to see if one day the church makes this theory the subject of one of its Gospel Topics essays.)
Some of the General Authorities and others who have privately commented on the Adam-God theory have noted that they have concerns about the accuracy of the supposed Adam-God quotations found in LDS literature, such as the Journal of Discourses and the Deseret News. See the previous blog #19 for a discussion confirming the validity of these concerns.
A letter from a former First Presidency
As will be seen, in his own personal and unofficial response to an inquiry, Elder Lee referred to a commonly reproduced and circulated unofficial letter prepared by a past First Presidency on the subject. The text of the referenced letter is here reproduced:
Your question concerning Adam has not been answered before because of pressure of important business. We now respond briefly, but, we hope, plainly. You speak of "the assertion made by Brigham Young that Jesus was begotten of the Father in the flesh by our father Adam, and that Adam is the father of Jesus Christ and not the Holy Ghost," and you say that Elders are challenged by certain critics to prove this.
If you will carefully examine the sermon to which you refer, in the Journal of Discourses, Vol. 1, you will discover that, while President Young denied that Jesus was "begotten of the Holy Ghost," he did not affirm, in so many words, that "Adam is the father of Jesus Christ in the flesh." He said, "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. Who is our "Father in Heaven"? Here is what President Young said about him; "Our Father in heaven begat all the spirits that ever were or ever will be upon this earth and they were born spirits in the eternal world. Then the Lord by his power and wisdom organized the mortal tabernacle of man." Was He in the Garden of Eden? Surely He gave commandments to Adam and Eve; He was their Father in Heaven; they worshiped Him and taught their children after the fall to worship and obey Him in the name of the Son who was to come.
But President Young went on to show that our father Adam—that is, our earthly father—the progenitor of the race of man, stands at our head, being "Michael the Archangel, the Ancient of Days," and that he was not fashioned from earth like an adobe, but "begotten by his Father in Heaven." Adam is called in the Bible "the son of God" (Luke 3:38). It was our Father in Heaven who begat the spirit of him who was "the Firstborn" of all the spirits that come to this earth, and who was also his Father by the Virgin Mary, making him "the only begotten in the flesh." Read Luke 1:26-35. Where is Jesus called "the only begotten of the Holy Ghost?" He is always singled out as "the only begotten of the Father." (John 1:14; 3:16, 18, &c) The Holy Ghost came upon Mary, and her conception was under that influence, even of the spirit of life; our Father in Heaven was the Father of the Son of Mary, to whom the Savior prayed, as did our earthly father Adam.
When President Young asked, "who is the Father?" he was speaking of Adam as the father of our earthly bodies, who is at our head, as revealed in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 107, verses 53-56. In that sense he is one of the gods referred to in numerous scriptures, and particularly by Christ (John 10:34-36). He is the great Patriarch, the Ancient of Days, who will stand in his place as "a prince over us forever," and with whom we shall "have to do," as each family will have to do with its head, according to the holy patriarchal order. Our father, Adam, perfected and glorified as a God, will be the being who will carry out the behests of the great Elohim in relation to his posterity. (See Daniel 7:9-14.)
While, as Paul puts it, "there be gods many and Lords many (whether in heaven or in earth), unto us there is but one God the Father, of whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ by whom are all things." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worships Him, and Him alone, who is the Father of Jesus Christ, whom He worshiped, whom Adam worshiped, and who is God the Eternal Father of us all.
Joseph F. Smith
Anthon H. Lund
Charles W. Penrose
At the time the First Presidency wrote this letter, it was not yet known that President Young had given more sermons identifying Adam as God than the one or two references in volume one of the Journal of Discourses (a twenty-six volume collection of early sermons) that critics and cultists first pounced on. Since then, and especially in the last few decades, perhaps an entire volume worth of Adam-God-related teachings by Brigham Young and others have surfaced (although all of them are now subject to question of accuracy). Therefore, the explanations given by Church leaders that responded to inquiries are necessarily narrowly focused on the quotations in the one 1852 sermon (probably poorly rendered) then known about (see JD 1:50). The letter’s main value is that it teaches true doctrine about the position of Adam in the over-all plan of salvation. Obviously if what was known today was known in Joseph F. Smith’s time, such explanations would have recognized and dealt with the existence other since-discovered possible Adam-God teachings.
(As a side note, even though Charles W. Penrose was a skilled writer and former newspaper editor, at the time this letter was sent [February 1912], Elder Orson F. Whitney was ghost writing a great deal of the First Presidency’s correspondence and articles. It is therefore entirely possible, though perhaps not provable, that Elder Whitney wrote the above letter. Having stated that, those whose signatures are found on it remain responsible for its contents.)
This brings us to Elder Harold B. Lee’s astute explanations:
The so-called “Adam-God theory” has risen out of a discourse delivered by President Brigham Young recorded in the Journal of Discourses, volume 1, page 50. There have been many and various attempts to make it appear from these teachings that Brigham Young taught that Adam was our Father in Heaven and the only God with whom we have to do.
We have an organization who call themselves the Fundamentalists whom we choose to call the “Cultists,” which I think better describes their organization. Three people who are near converts of that organization had come in—a man and his wife and his sister-in-law whose husband was killed in the last war. She is almost persuaded that she should become his plural wife. These three, with their bishop, came in and talked with me about some of these matters. In addition to the discussion and teaching of plural marriage, they have adopted as one of their pet teachings what they choose to call the Adam-God theory. At the close of our discussion one of them asked, “Why has the Church abandoned its teachings that Adam was our God?” I said, “The Church never did teach that doctrine.”
Then there grew out of that blank denial a very interesting discussion that prolonged our visit another hour. In that hour, they brought forth some writings from one of our Church leaders of a very early day in which he was quoted as having said bluntly that Adam came and superintended the organization of the world and the bringing of the seeds to plant, that one of his wives was then brought to him from another planet, and that from this other planet there were to come spirits which he and his wife before had created and organized.
My answer was, “I am not sure whether he was correctly quoted by the one who wrote it down, because in many cases they took their sermons down in longhand. We have found, for example, that in reading the King Follett discourse there is a footnote which suggests a mistake in the word ‘co-equal,’ which undoubtedly was ‘co-eval,’ conveying a wholly different thought and suggesting that the faulty way of reporting sermons might have accounted for that seeming error. Now, that same thing may well have been true in recording this sermon. I don’t know whether this is exactly what he said.” And then I pointed out that in that same sermon the speaker had contradicted himself, which evidenced the fact that he apparently had not read over the report of his sermon before it was published in the Deseret News.
Then I said, “I am not sure whether the Deseret News has printed accurately what was said, but the final thing I want to say is that if such a doctrine was taught, it is incorrect because it does not square with the scriptures. It would suggest that Adam and Eve were resurrected beings and as resurrected beings had begotten spirits. They had afterwards come here upon this earth and died the second time, which is contrary to what the Lord taught to the prophet Alma as written in Alma and also in the Doctrine and Covenants.” (“Relationship of God to Man,” Lecture Given to Seminary and Institute Teachers, Brigham Young University, June 18, 1954, 36-38)
Further explanation is found in a letter written by Elder Lee, which references a BYU master’s thesis prepared by Professor Rodney Turner (formerly of BYU religious education, now deceased) that examined the position of Adam in Mormon theology:
Your letter expressed your concern over the statement of the First Presidency in a letter to Elder Samuel O. Bennion; and again, a statement by Elder John A. Widstoe in his book “Evidences and Reconciliations” to the effect that Brigham Young never did teach that God, the Eternal Father is Adam. If you will read carefully these letters you will find that what they do say is that in the sermon contained in Vol. 1, page 50 of the Journal of Discourses Brigham Young did not intend to teach the doctrine that Adam was our God. Whether or not at other times he did or did not, was not the subject of these particular writings to which you have made reference.
Inasmuch as you have referred to Rodney Turner’s Thesis on the position of Adam in Latter-day Saint scriptures and theology, I quote two paragraphs on page 54:
“There are many instances where Brigham Young speaks of Adam on the one hand, and God on the other; as, for instance, when he said ‘We believe that He made Adam after His own image and likeness, as Moses testifies… Our God possesses a body and parts and was heard by Adam and Eve walking in the garden in the cool of the day.’” Journal of Discourses, Vol. 10, page 231.
And again, “the world may in vain ask the question, ‘Who are we?’ But the Gospel tells us that we are the sons and daughters of that God whom we serve. Some say, ‘We are the children of Adam and Eve.’ So we are, and they are the children of our Heavenly Father. We are all the children of Adam and Eve and they, and we are the offspring of Him who dwells in the heavens, the highest intelligence that dwells anywhere that we have knowledge of.” (Vol. 13, page 311.) Then Rodney Turner makes this statement: “This certainly suggests that if Brigham Young ever did entertain the Adam-God theory he has contradicted himself in these statements.”
I trust these comments may be helpful to you in clarifying your thinking on this point of controversy. (Harold B. Lee Correspondence, 1963.)
In closely examining the master’s thesis written by Professor Turner, I have been unable to locate the exact quotation used by Elder Lee at the conclusion of this letter, though the first two are found on the referenced page number. Perhaps the thesis underwent revision or changes for some purpose. The copy of the thesis I examined does, however, contain wording similar in substance to that used by Elder Lee, which follows:
These quotations bring us to grips with the apparent contradiction in his statements; for how can he claim that Adam is “our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do” at one time, and yet assert that Adam and Eve heard “our God” walking in the garden, and that they are the “children of our Heavenly Father” at other times? We must either assume that he has contradicted himself, or that he has not. If he has, then one of the other, if not both, of his statements must be discarded as being false. (“The Position of Adam in Latter-day Saint Scripture and Theology,” unpublished master’s thesis,
1953, 55.) Brigham Young University
Because of the subject of his thesis, Rodney Turner continued to receive inquiries about the theory as the years passed. This happened enough that he prepared a statement that he could send to anyone asking his opinion. As part of that statement he wrote: “Did Brigham Young identify Adam with the Father of our spirits? The discourses, journals and other materials available to me in 1953 convinced me that President Young did teach that Adam and God the Father were one and the same individual. I also felt that any subsequent information would only further substantiate that conclusion. This has proven to be the case. While new data from now-available discourses, journals and minutes of the Twelve have provided further confirmation, I don’t know of a single contemporary item that has been found to refute it. Regardless of any personal inclinations, integrity in research obliged me to state the foregoing. So widespread is this information that a growing number of Mormon historians no longer question it. . . .” (Neither Turner nor other historians knew the extent to which the printed/published Adam-God quotations could not be relied upon as verbatim accounts.)
Turner also wrote: “Did Brigham Young explain his views? For the most part, he did not. He made little effort to reconcile them with the scriptures or with the then-held beliefs of the members as to Adam’s place in the scheme of things. His statements are characteristically categorical, being left to the hearer to accept or not as he or she saw fit. His failure to make such a reconciliation has tended to create confusion in the minds of those who wish to uphold him as a prophet while at the same time preserving the integrity of the Standard Works. Just what did he mean? How did it all relate to the roles and interrelationships of the Father, Son and Michael/Adam? He did not say.”
Turner goes on to explain that the general authorities did little with the theory for decades, but recognized that it was out of harmony with the scriptures. He also noted that it was never accepted as a doctrine of the Church. On the contrary, it was officially labelled as false doctrine by President Spencer W. Kimball. Turner’s conclusion: “No honest person will suggest that it is an official doctrine (a dogma) of the Church. It should be viewed, like other concepts advanced from time to time, as personal opinion or speculation” (“Adam-God Controversy,” Dr. Rodney Turner, unpublished circular/memo, 1-2).
Elder Lee’s brief reference is one of the first we have from a reputable authority recognizing that Brigham Young contradicted himself with these teachings, if the report is correct.
One arresting statement made by President Young (that Professor Turner did not have but that has since come to light) was given after he made some confusing comments about Adam as God. President Young said: “I care little about those theories” (VanWaggoner, Complete Discourses, 2485). Seems like good counsel for all.
 I personally see and hear less about the Adam-God theory now than I did twenty to thirty years ago, if that means anything. It may be that it is being overshadowed or crowded to the side of the anti-Mormon stage by the much more popular issues of gay marriage and feminist extremism being promoted and used to bash the Church today. It is likely that these issues are seen by the devil as more palatable and useful to lead people astray than sniping about the meaning of old sermons. However, neither the devil nor his spokespeople miss a trick when it comes to trying to weaken confidence in modern prophets and revelation.