I simply cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked about the unique Mormon belief that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri–usually by members of the Church, wanting to know whether they really have to believe that and, if so, how one is to defend such an idea. I’ve seen the question at least four times this calendar year, most recently just yesterday. My preference when such a question keeps coming up is to refer people to an already existing resource, but I’m not aware of such a resource on this particular issue. So I’m going to try to create one to which I can direct future questioners, and I am soliciting your help in fleshing out my quick thoughts on the subject below.
First, we must distinguish the Garden of Eden from Adam-ondi-Ahman, located at Spring Hill in Daviess Coiunty, Missouri. It is common for the Saints to confuse this location with the Garden of Eden, but it is not the same thing. This was the location where, according to Mormon thought, Adam convened his posterity to address them prior to his death, and where he shall return prior to the Second Coming. Mormon pilgrims used to pick up stones as souvenirs from the very altar where they supposed Adam offered sacrifices at this location. A poem by the name Adam-ondi-Ahman was printed in the 1835 Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate, which was turned into a hymn, one that resides in our hymnals to this very day. (Linguistic speculation on the meaning of Adam-ondi-Ahman is on topic for this post.)
Since the more prominenat and “official” discussion of Adam in Missouri has related to Adam-ondi-Ahman, some Saints have tried to argue that Joseph made no such claim about the location of the Garden. But this strikes me as a non-starter. For instance, Wilford Woodruff in his journal for 30 March 1873 recorded:
Again Presdet Young said Joseph the Prophet told me that the garden of Eden was in Jackson Co Missouri, & when Adam was driven out of the garden of Eden He went about 40 miles to the Place which we Named Adam Ondi Ahman, & there built an Altar of Stone & offered Sacrifize. That Altar remains to this day. I saw it as Adam left it as did many others, & through all the revolutions of the world that Altar had not been disturbed.
There are other such informal reminiscences. It seems abundantly clear that Joseph taught that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, presumably somewhere in Jackson County. [I've often wondered whether the Missouri tourism agency couldn't somehow make some hay with this claim.] This identification of the location has been recognized by such later Church authorities as Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.
An obvious difficulty arises with this identification: how are we to get Adam’s posterity from Missouri to the cradle of civilization in the Middle East? The possibilities seem to be as follows (please add to this list if you can):
1. Many Mormons have conceived of the world as at one time being a single land mass, a Pangea, that was only divided in the days of Peleg (Gen. 10:25). I remember assuming this myself when I was a missionary. But this division most likely is not referring to plate techtonics or continental drift, but rather is anticipaing the division of languages described in the next chapter. The name Peleg derives from the verb palag, to separate or divide, which is used in Psalm 55:9 in respect of a division of languages.
2. Another option is to have Noah simply float from Missouri to Ararat by virtue of a universal flood. This was a common perspective among early Church leaders. For instance, Orson Pratt opined:
It was on this land where both Noah built his ark, which was blown by the winds of Heaven away to the east, and landed on Ararat.
(JD 12:338). Of course, many modern Mormons (like myself) reject the idea of a universal flood, so this explanation is problematic for them.
3. There is also a limited flood-type variant of the above explanation. According to this view, Noah built his ark and went down the Mississippi River valley (Widtsoe), or he built his ark on the east coast of the United States. This is sort of the inverse of the migrations described in the BoM.
4. Another possibility is that this migration didn’t involve a boat at all, but that Adam’s posterity simply walked to the Middle East. If the Americas could be populated by foot traffic over the land bridge from Asia, then in principle the flow of migratory traffic could have gone the other way.
5. Finally, one could view this situation more from a mythological or symbolic perspective. Putting the Garden of Eden smack in the center of the (northern) New World was a way to sacralize the land. Sure, the Old World was awash in religious history, but the New World too had a sacred history of which it could be proud (some would see the BoM as another example of sacralizing the New World, making it also God’s land and people).
Many of our inerrantist critics are rather smug when they make fun of this uniquely Mormon idea. But if the Garden wasn’t in Missouri, where was it? The key verses for this question are Gen. 2:10-14, which describe the rivers of Paradise (the following is from the NET):
2:10 Now a river flows from Eden to water the orchard, and from there it divides into four headstreams. 2:11 The name of the first is Pishon; it runs through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. 2:12 (The gold of that land is pure; pearls and lapis lazuli are also there). 2:13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it runs through the entire land of Cush. 2:14 The name of the third river is Tigris; it runs along the east side of Assyria. The fourth river is the Euphrates.
It is true that we are familiar with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, so it seems a reasonable assumption that the Garden (called an Orchard in the NET) must have been somewhere in Mesopotamia. But this description does not accord with the physical geography of the rivers; it describes four rivers flowing from a common source.
So some argue that the Garden must have been in what today is eastern Turkey, for it is in those mountaiins that the Tigris and Euphrates have their source (even if it is not actually a common source as the text describes). Others think the text got it backwards somehow, and meant to describe a common confluence, referring to where the Tigris and Euphrates flow together at the head waters of the Persian Gulf. Others have argued for Iran. Some have argued that the location of the Garden is now underwater by virtue of the flood and cannot be assigned to any known location on dry earth. Others note that the names Tigris and Euphrates could be secondarily assigned to the rivers we are familiar with (just because there is a town in Illinois named “Paris,” it doesn’t follow that the Eiffel Tower is located there), which means the Garden could be almost anywhere. Some have argued the Garden must have been in Africa, the true cradle of human emergence. Arguments have been made for Australia, and even the North Pole. Some theologians believe the Garden was not terrestrial at all, but a part of heaven.
There is a Jewish tradition that the Garden was actually in Jerusalem. There is a spring of water there known as the Gihon, one of the unidentified rivers of Paradise. Ezekiel 28:13 says “You were in Eden, the garden of God,” and then parallels that in the next verse with “you were on the holy mountain of God,” generally understood as the temple mount. (In our own tradition, there is a profound connection between Eden and the temple, so we certainly have sympathy with this insight.)
It seems to me that, if it is permissible for Jewish tradition to assign the location of the Garden to Jerusalem, it ought to be permissible for Mormon tradition to assign the location of the Garden to Missouri.