CES Reply: Brother Brigham

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Prophets Concerns & Questions:

1. Adam-God:  President Brigham Young taught what is now known as “Adam-God theory.” He taught that Adam is “our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.”  Young not only taught this doctrine over the pulpit at the 1852 and 1854 General Conferences but he also introduced this doctrine as the Lecture at the Veil in the endowment ceremony of the Temple.

Yeah, Adam-God is wacky. It makes no sense, even in context. I can’t find any evidence that it penetrated the culture of the Church, which leaves open the possibility that the early saints understood Brigham in a way that eludes modern interpretation. (That’s the case with Blood Atonement, which we’ll get to later.) There doesn’t seem to be any attempt by church members to apply Adam-God in practice, which, if this were binding doctrine, would likely have had a greater impact than a handful of confusing sermons. Fundamentalist splinter groups now teach this, but they didn’t start doing so until long after Brigham was dead.

Stephen Robinson – a BYU prof, so perhaps he and Nibley are at least semi-official apologists? – had the best take on this in his book Are Mormons Christians?, the relevant excerpt of which can be found online. His opinion is reflective of my own on this subject:

Yet another way in which anti-Mormon critics often misrepresent LDS doctrine is in the presentation of anomalies as though they were the doctrine of the Church. Anomalies occur in every field of human endeavor, even in science. An anomaly is something unexpected that cannot be explained by the existing laws or theories, but which does not constitute evidence for changing the laws and theories. An anomaly is a glitch.

For example, if a chemist combines two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen a hundred times in a row, and ninety-nine times she gets water but on the hundredth time she gets alcohol, this does not mean that one percent of the time the laws of chemistry are different. It simply means that something was wrong with the hundredth experiment, even though the experimenter may not know what it was. Beakers may have been mislabelled; grad students may have been playing a practical joke; instruments might have given incorrect readings; secretaries might have typed the wrong information. If the anomaly could be reproduced experimentally, then it would be significant and would demand a change in the theories. But if it can’t be reproduced, it is simply ignored–as an anomaly. It is assumed that some unknown factor was different in the case of the anomalous results, and the experiment yielding those results is therefore invalid. Moreover, to ignore such anomalies is not considered dishonesty, but represents sound scientific method…

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 Brigham Young University 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.

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.

Prophets and apostles after Young renounced Adam-God theory as false doctrine.

That’s probably because it is a false doctrine, at least as it’s understood by modern sensibilities.

President Spencer W. Kimball renounced Adam-God theory in the October 1976 Conference:

“We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.” – President Spencer W. Kimball, Our Own Liahona

And amen to President Kimball for that.

Along with President Spencer W. Kimball and similar statements from others, Bruce R. McConkie made the following statement:

“The devil keeps this heresy alive as a means of obtaining converts to cultism. It is contrary to the whole plan of salvation set forth in the scriptures, and anyone who has read the Book of Moses, and anyone who has received the temple endowment, has no excuse whatever for being led astray by it. Those who are so ensnared reject the living prophet and close their ears to the apostles of their day.” – Bruce R. McConkie, The Seven Deadly Heresies

Yeah, not a fan of The Seven Deadly Heresies, but that’s another discussion altogether. Your point, however, is that prophets and apostles after Brigham have vigorously disavowed Adam-God as false doctrine, and you are entirely correct, just as they were correct to disavow it.

Ironically, McConkie’s June 1980 condemnation asks you to trust him and Kimball as today’s living prophet.

I don’t see how that’s ironic at all. Wasn’t President Kimball the living prophet in 1980?

Further, McConkie is pointing to the endowment ceremony as a source of factual information.

Meaning what? The fact Elder McConkie is citing is that the endowment ceremony makes it very clear that Adam is the archangel Michael, not God the Father. Given that Brigham Young wrote the endowment ceremony when they got to Salt Lake based on his memory of Nauvoo, Brigham clearly knew that Adam was Michael, not Heavenly Father, which make these anomalous forays into Adam God-ism more confusing.

What about the Saints of Brigham’s day who were following their living prophet?

What about them? The records of the day suggest that they saw no need to incorporate Adam-God into Mormon theology, so they obviously understood Brigham’s point in a way that we don’t.

And what about the endowment ceremony of their day where Adam-God was being taught at the veil?

What about it? We don’t have anything but a second-hand recounting of notes from his secretary. Again, if this was received as the kind of earth-shattering departure from what the Church currently teaches, it would be something that we’d have to reckon with. As it is, everything Brigham had to say on the subject was greeted with a collective shrug from the Church at large, so there seems to be an element of this that we no longer understand.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine and yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.

I don’t think you’ve thought through the implications of your assumption here. For no prophet to ever say something that isn’t later shown to be wrong by revelation, then you have to believe that the entirety of information on every subject would have to be given to them from heaven. At what point did you assume that took place? Did Joseph get it all before he died? Even if he did – which he didn’t – up until the point where the download was complete, doesn’t that make him yesterday’s heretic for most of his life?

Consider that this can be true not just from prophet to prophet, but even within any given prophet’s tenure as a prophet. Latter-day Saints, including Joseph and Oliver, believed in a traditional Christian heaven and hell when the Church was organized in 1830. Then in 1832, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon had the vision of the Three Degrees of Glory, and it blew the traditional Christian theology to smithereens. So Joseph himself believed yesterday’s false doctrine and was yesterday’s heretic. Of course, no one is under condemnation for being mistaken in the absence of revelation, as we’re all judged on the level of light and knowledge we receive.

Latter-day Saint theology is diametrically opposed to that kind of thinking. We believe the Lord teaches his people the way he always has – “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” (2 Nephi 28:30) If that’s the process, then surely it means that the Church is going to move away from positions of error when it receives greater light.

If your assumption were correct, that would also negate the Ninth Article of Faith, which states that “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” [Emphasis added]

If he’s going to reveal many great and important things tomorrow, won’t that make all of us yesterday’s heretics? The fact is that this has always been the Lord’s method throughout all generations of time. It has always been the case that people who reject living prophets almost always do so by professing fealty to dead ones. Those who rejected Christ did so in the name of Abraham, just as those who most vigorously fight against Joseph Smith do so in the name of Christ.

Blood Atonement:  Along with Adam-God, Young taught a doctrine known as “Blood Atonement” where a person’s blood had to be shed to atone for their own sins as it was beyond the atonement of Jesus Christ.

“There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins, whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world.

I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them…

And furthermore, I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course. I will say further;

I have had men come to me and offer their lives to atone for their sins.

It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit… There are sins that can be atoned for by an offering upon an altar, as in ancient days; and there are sins that the blood of a lamb,  or  a  calf,  or  of  turtle  dove, cannot remit, but they must be atoned for by the blood of the man.”

Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4, p. 53-54

Ah, Brigham, you silver-tongued smooth talker, you. You say the sweetest things.

Basically, we’re looking at a big heaping mess of 19th Century rhetorical excess right here. This was part and parcel with the Mormon “reformation,” where Brigham felt it necessary to scare the hell out of everyone in order to get them to recommit to living the gospel. People were rebaptized, and Brigham was essentially playing the part of Billy Graham, laying it on as thick as he possibly could – and, clearly, going too far on this particular occasion.

How do we know this was heated rhetoric that wasn’t taken very seriously? Because while we have this intemperate sermon, we don’t actually have any documented practice of blood atonement. (The Church, in the footnotes to their essay on 19th Century violence, says that there was “at least one instance” where someone took action based on this, but I don’t know what that would be.)  Brigham knew his audience, and he knew they would understand how much of this was just bluster. The problem would be if people actually started killing themselves or other people, but that’s not what happened.

There is, however, scriptural precedent for this kind of spiritual “scared-straight” approach.

Check out D&C 19, where God states that endless punishment isn’t really endless, and eternal punishment isn’t really eternal. The Lord acknowledges that describing punishment this way is “more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.”

In other words, God is literally trying to scare the hell out of people. Brigham is taking that approach here, I think, and, in my estimation, not doing a very good job at it.

We keep circling back to the idea of prophetic infallibility – you believed in it, and you were crushed when it turned out not to be true. But it isn’t true, and that’s a good thing. An infallible prophet no longer has agency, and the one thing the Lord will never do is mess with agency, even for the guys in the First Presidency.

I think we do a huge disservice to our youth with the hero worship of church leaders. So many of the problems you raise stop being problems when you can simply acknowledge that these good men occasionally made mistakes.

The Church now confirms in its May 2014 essay that Blood Atonement was taught by the prophet Brigham Young.

No, not really. The essay alludes to to sermon you cite in the main body, but the only direct reference to Blood Atonement comes in Footnote #36, which reads as follows:

See, for example, Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 4:53–54; and Heber C. Kimball, in Journal of Discourses, 7:16–21. This concept, which came to be known as blood atonement, was a stock component of anti-Mormon rhetoric in the 19th century. While many of the exaggerated claims that appeared in the popular press and anti-Mormon literature are easily disproven, it is likely that in at least one instance, a few Latter-day Saints acted on this rhetoric. Nevertheless, most Latter-day Saints seem to have recognized that the blood atonement sermons were, in the words of historian Paul Peterson, “hyperbole or incendiary talk” that were “likely designed to frighten church members into conforming with Latter-day Saint principles. To Saints with good intentions, they were calculated to cause alarm, introspection, and ultimately repentance. For those who refused to comply with Mormon standards, it was hoped such ominous threats would hasten their departure from the Territory.” (See Isaac C. Haight letter to Brigham Young, June 11, 1857, Brigham Young Office Files; Peterson, “Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857,” 67, 84n66; see also Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. [1992], “Blood Atonement,” 1:131.) [Emphasis added.]

The Blood Atonement doctrine was later declared false by future prophets and apostles.

That’s because it was never doctrine to begin with.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine.  Yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.

Amen! As it always has been, as it always will be. Line upon line. Many great and important things will yet be revealed.

Polygamy:  Brigham Young taught the doctrine that polygamy is required for exaltation: “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” – Journal of Discourses 11:269

You really need to read the rest of the sermon, where he insists that to receive eternal life “you will be polygamists at least in your faith.” [Emphasis added] He comes back to this idea two other times in the speech. In other words, his message was that the Saints of the time needed to accept the divine origins of the doctrine, not necessarily engage in the practice.

Several other prophets after Young, including Taylor, Woodruff, Snow, and Joseph F. Smith gave similar teachings that the New and Everlasting Covenant of plural marriage was doctrinal and essential for exaltation.

Nope. The New and Everlasting Covenant as defined in D&C is celestial marriage, which includes monogamous sealings. Even Brigham Young admitted to George Q. Cannon. that “there would be men in the Celestial Kingdom that had but one wife.”

It’s even in the scriptures.  Doctrine & Covenants 132:4:

“For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.”

The new and everlasting covenant is celestial marriage, not plural marriage.

In a September 1998 Larry King Live interview (14:37), Hinckley was asked about polygamy:

Larry King:  You condemn it [polygamy]?

Hinckley:   I condemn it.   Yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal.

President Hinckley was correct. The doctrine is clear: monogamy is the standard; polygamy is the exception. Since that exception is not now authorized, it is not doctrinal to violate the monogamous standard.

We still have Doctrine & Covenants 132 canonized. 

And a good thing, too. So much of the modern church’s most precious theology is inextricably tied to the principles in D&C 132. When primary children sing “Families Can Be Together Forever,” they’re referencing D&C 132. The concept of sealing families together, as well as the doctrine of theosis, trace their theological roots to the revelation on plural marriage. Rather than simply reject the whole thing out of hand, it’s much better to try to understand its place in Joseph’s thinking and in church history.

We’re still practicing plural marriage in the Temples.  Apostles Elder Oaks and Elder Nelson are modern examples of LDS polygamists in that they’re sealed to multiple women.

So now you make the distinction between a marriage and a sealing? Because neither Elder Oaks nor Elder Nelson, while sealed to multiple women, have ever been married to more than one woman at a time.

Polygamy is doctrinal.  Polygamy is not doctrinal. 

Correct. It is doctrinal when it is authorized; when unauthorized, it is not.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine.   Yesterday’s prophets are today’s heretics.

Amen! As it always has been, as it always will be. Precept on precept. Living prophets always trump dead ones, which is why we need living ones.

Tomorrow: The Priesthood Ban




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