When “Forever Families” Weren’t

I’ve heard about the Law of Adoption as an LDS theological point of the past, but never really understood it very well.  I enjoyed reading Brian Hales discussion of the concept in his book, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy:  Volume 3.  (This is a follow up post on the book; I previously discussed Hales position that there is no spirit birth.)  Hales discusses the idea in Chapter 11 of his book (page 170)

An immediate concern among Latter-day Saints as they contemplated their sealings to their “parents” was whether they should be sealed to their biological ancestors or to some unrelated person, such as a Church leader (either living or deceased).  Fears that their own deceased progenitors might not accept the gospel in the afterlife fueled worry that their chain might lead back a few generations and then stop due to disbelief of a dead forebear.  Fears existed that righteous individuals could possibly be eternally stranded outside the chain leading back to Adam and Eve.

For some, a second option seem more secure.  Confident that the genealogical links of Church leaders like Joseph Smith would surely be completed back to Adam before the final judgment, some Latter-day Saints considered sealings to priesthood leaders more reliable in providing them a position in the eternal chain.

Contrary to my post in which I said no vicarious ordinances occurred until the St. George Temple was completed in 1877, Hales says that a few did occur in the Nauvoo Temple (page 173.)

Both forms of vertical sealings–adoption to nonbiological offspring and child-to-parent ordinances–occurred first in the Nauvoo Temple beginning in January 1846….During five weeks, at the beginning of 1846, 211 males and females were adopted to seventeen couples to whom they were not closely related.  These couple comprised of sixteen men and seventeen women.  These included Brigham Young, who had individuals sealed to him and two of his wives, one deceased and one living.

Several of the adoption sealings involved vicarious ordinances.  However the only deceased couple to be sealed to either their own children or non-offspring were Hyrum and Jershua Barden Smith.  Through proxy representation, they were sealed to twelve non-relatives and five biological children, all living.  Importantly, one of the adoption sealings linked Robert B. Thompson, who was also deceased, to them as a son.  Thus, the only completely vicarious vertical sealing performed in the Nauvoo Temple was officiated by Brigham Young on January 26, 1846, and consisted of an adoption sealing of Thompson (with John Taylor as proxy) to the couple Hyrum Smith and Jerusha Barden Smith (with Heber C. Kimball and Mary Fielding Smith as proxies.)27

No deceased children were sealed to their parents in the Nauvoo Temple.

Hales the notes (page 178)

For reasons that are unclear, adoption became a hot topic among some Church leaders and members in the months immediately after the closure of the Nauvoo Temple.  Ensuing discussions at that time prompted solicitations from a few leaders for Latter-day Saints to join their expanding families.38  For example, Hosea Stout recorded: “This evening Elder O. Hyde who had moved over the river to the main camp there, came here to his camp and called a meeting and spoke at length to them on the law of adoption.  The first sermon I ever heard publickly.  He desired all who felt willing to do so to give him a pledge to come into his kingdom when the ordinance could be attended to but wished all to select the man whom they chose &c.”39

Hales notes other church leaders tried to convince families to be adopted to them, but Brigham Young (page 178) “began by criticizing men for electioneering to find individuals to be sealed to them” and (page 180)

Young still harbored questions regarding adoption theology.  According to a later report, the next day he received a vision or dream, in which he was visited by Joseph Smith… [and said] “The brethren have a great anxiety to understand the law of adoption or sealing principles; and if you have a word of counsel for me I should be glad to receive it.”

(page 181) Young highly valued this experience.  Even though the Prophet did not directly answer his question, the theophany seems to have alleviated any anxiety he had concerning the practice.

While the practice of sealing oneself to church leaders did continue to occur, Hales notes (page 182) the practice was one of the

least performed temple rites effectuated during the two month period.  The relatively small number of nonfamily members who position themselves for those vertical sealings supports that it was minimally discussed, if at all.

Despite a general retreat in public discourse regarding the law of adoption, many Church members saw the expanding family organizations of several Church authorities and sought to be joined to them for practical reasons, even if the spiritual advantages of doing so were undefined.  As already noted, however, in circumstances lacking a temple, no adoption sealing ordinances could be performed. Personal promises and pledges concerning future adoption sealings, sometimes accompanied by a covenant, were all that could be contracted.

…(page 183)

Understandably, due to a lack of details surrounding the law of adoption, some Church members were confused.

I’m glad it’s not just me!  When the St. George Temple opened in 1877, (page 185)

Church policy [in 1877] directed that children of faithful members of the Church not “born in the covenant” be sealed to their natural parents, whether any or all of those involved were living or not.  If natural parents had not been baptized Mormons during life or had apostatized from the Church, their children were to be adopted to someone else.  The sealing of a person to a dead non-Mormon was seen as being risky since the departed parent might not accept the gospel in the spirit world.  Such uncertainty about one’s position in the next life was unacceptable, especially to converts whose parents had been strongly opposed to Mormonism during life.65

Wilford Woodruff was the first temple president of the St. George Temple, and of course went on to become prophet.  Page 186

From 1877 until the close of 1893, about 19,000 living persons and 16,000 deceased individuals were sealed to their biological parents.68  In contrast, approximately, 1,200 living persons and 13,000 deceased individuals were adopted to nonbiological parents.69  LDS leaders were the most popular adoptive parents, with temple officials being second.  Dead Mormon authorities were particularly sought because, unlike living leaders, they could be represented by proxy in the ceremony, which greatly facilitated scheduling issues.

In preparation for his general conference discourse on April 8, 1894, Church President Wilford Woodruff discussed the law of adoption with members of the Quorum of the Twelve.  In a special meeting on the April 5, he observed:  “In the days of Nauvoo, baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi River, and without any record of the same being kept; this was because of the people being anxious to do the work after the revelation was given, but it all had to be done again.  I was thus baptized for many.  Men were also baptized for women, and women for men, which was improper, but it was because the Lord had not revealed all that was necessary concerning the doctrine.”70  In order to prepare the apostles for additional instructions regarding the law of adoption, President Woodruff used this example to show that doctrines are not always revealed at once.71  On Sunday morning, April 8, he addressed the crowded tabernacle congregation.  He began by acknowledging that the adoption ordinances performed up to that point had been according to the knowledge then available:

…(page 188)

When I went before the Lord to know who I should be adopted to (we were then being adopted to prophets and apostles), the Spirit of God said to me, “Have you not a father, who begot you?”  “Yes, I have.”  “Then why not honor him?”  Why not be adopted to him?”  “Yes,” says I, “that is right.”  I was adopted to my father, and should have had my father sealed to his father, and so on back; and the duty that I want every man who presides over a temple to see performed this day henceforth and forever, unless the Lord Almighty commands otherwise, is, let every man be adopted to his father…”

Thus we no longer practice the Law of Adoption any more, and it is more of a footnote in history.  Church president Lorenzo Snow stated (page 189), “very, very few of those who die without the Gospel will reject it on the other side of the veil.”78  Just 7 months later, Woodruff established the Genealogical Society of Utah to assist people research their ancestors.

I guess we still believe in the Law of Adoption in one way.  My sister recently adopted a foster child, and has had this daughter sealed to her rather than the biological parents.  What do you make of this now defunct doctrine?  Are there other doctrines you see falling away as a footnote of history?

3 comments on “When “Forever Families” Weren’t

  1. Several. Among them: polygamy (at least during mortality), Adam-God, blood atonement.

  2. In some ways, many of our traditional doctrines are being diluted as we Protestantize our theology to be more acceptable to other Christians. President Hinckley tried this with the notion that God was once as we are. But this doctrine still shows up in manuals. We just don’t talk about it anymore in general conference.

  3. I think you’re both right!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: