This past Saturday, May 19th, the 174th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s arrival at the very same site, my family and I visited what our atlas refers to as a “Mormon shrine.”
This was our third visit in five years, and this time in particular we found the space unusually inhospitable. As we attempted to orchestrate a family picnic, our efforts were thwarted by the unrelenting 50mph gusts blowing up off of the windspun valley. We were also stung by bees and bitten by chiggers. We ended up eating in the car, walking around for 15 minutes or so, and then driving back to our Kansas City hotel.
I never saw this place as a child or adolescent, though it had a kind of mythical significance in my young Mormon mind. The place where Adam lived. The place to which he would return. The apocalyptic gathering, with Christ present, the final scene of play’s great final act. This is where we would gather. This is where we return to the presence of God. This is Eden. This is a place of unspeakable, otherworldly beauty and primal holiness. I even remember trying to look at it seven or eight years ago, when I first discovered Google Earth. That pixellated and poorly resolved satellite image only added to the sacred mystery of the place. My first actual visit was as an adult, married, with four small children. Perhaps growing up in Salt Lake City and my regular visits to the pristinely landscaped grounds of temple square shaped my expectations, but, at least initially, I was profoundly disappointed by this place which, outside of temples, might be considered by Latter-day Saints the holiest site on earth.
But my expectations were also shaped by past visitors, who had described the natural beauty of a place saturated with ancient mystery and latent eschatological promise. They spoke of stone Nephite altars and shimmering green flora, of a sense that this quiet landscape had always attracted those with a true knowledge of God. What I saw, by contrast, was overgrown tree thickets, many with dead and broken branches, others bent by the relentless winds blowing off the valley below. I saw scorched-brown ash-laden fallow fields. Sure, the giant, plateau-like stones seemed conspicuous, but that hardly qualifies them as relics, as altars built by the ancients.
When the LDS Church wants a sacred or historic site to be beautiful, it spares no expense. It requires little imaginative effort to envision a site like this complete with neatly arranged, hummingbird-strafed, abundant flower gardens punctuating tree-lined, immaculately groomed paths, perhaps a fountain here or there, leading to a beautifully crafted, air-conditioned visitor center complete with postcards, framed photographs, short films, and scripted guided tours that include an audio-narration-enhanced replica of an ancient stone altar. Instead, the place is utterly un-groomed, almost shockingly natural, untamed and even dreary. This is not to discount the work that the handful of missionaries assigned to the site do, but my understanding is that they mostly keep the bathrooms clean, the points-of-interest litter free, and devote the bulk of their effort to actual farming. Beyond aesthetics—the inescapable conclusion that the Church has no interest in artificially beautifying this place or otherwise treating it like a high-traffic Mormon pilgrimage site—I was also quite surprised to see how significantly the few markers of Church presence in the area seem to downplay the mythic claims (folklore?) so commonly associated with Adam-ondi-Ahman.
Is this Eden? Did Adam live here? Does “Adam-ondi-Ahman” mean “the place where Adam dwelt” in a forgotten language of the Gods? Or was the site merely named “in tribute to Adam”? Will the Second Coming happen here? Will all faithful LDS be called to gather here one day to meet the Returning Christ and the Ancient of Days? I don’t mean any of this to be flippant. I actually applaud the more measured description. Adam and Eve, Eden and the Fall, are particularly freighted topics in Mormonism. On the one hand, our theology and authoritative teachings seem to necessitate a literal First Parents. Adam and Eve are, in Mormon discourse, inescapably real, historical individuals. Whatever their genealogical relationship to human beings before or after, they are our Great Progenitors, Patriarch and Matriarch of humanity. Situating Eden in Missouri, as Mormons have done now since 1838, only complicates the matter.
Conversely, Mormons are also aware, on some level, of what scholars of the Hebrew Bible have known for some time: Adam is everyman. We are all Adam and Eve, as we are expressly told to consider ourselves. They might have indeed been real individuals, but they are also great archetypal stand-ins for all of humanity, past, present, and future. Their story metaphorically recapitulates the monumental shift in the human story, from a paradisaical nostalgic hunter-gatherer past—a time-unbound period when we subsisted on that which the earth spontaneously brought forth in abundance and where we had a more genial relationship with the animals (also framed as the blissfully ignorant innocence of childhood)—to a sweat-of-the-brow, hard-fought, alienating and dreary life cultivating grain and eating bread (a transition into adulthood, with all that entails in terms of reproduction and parenthood, work and responsibility, and an ever-present awareness of death).
The tension between Adam the historical being and Adam-as-everyman might be more unresolvable in Mormonism than in any other tradition, in part because both sides pull so persistently. Eden, too, might be a place, but it is more than anything else a loss. The Fall from innocence is something we all know, and something we know collectively, buried in the deep structure of our primeval shared memory.
It hit me like an epiphany.
This is no shrine to Eden. This is not Eden at all, and it never was. This is the place where Adam found himself after leaving Eden behind. I’m skeptical that the Church has consciously or strategically planned to manage the site so minimally that visitors would be stricken by its desolate and alienating bleakness. But as I walked around I found myself very able to imagine an ancient progenitor, standing next to a heap of carefully placed stones and calling upon the God of a lost but unforgotten world in lone defiance of the Gods that seem to rule over this rough and threatening, weed-ridden and inhospitable, dreary existence.
The Fall was many things. A change in consciousness, in lifestyle, in diet, in proximity to God, and in our relations with each other. Perhaps the most profound consequence of it all was the overwhelming violence over which our looming death cast an especially terrifying shadow as we divided and cultivated the land, built settlements and cities, and founded civilization. As Joseph stood on this spot, the violent expulsion of his people from their Eden—their Zion—was a fresh memory even as the signs of coming violence were omnipresent. He knew that if the Saints were to settle here, they would labor and sweat, would till the ground and build homes, and ceaselessly call upon their God for relief. This windswept, untamed land was their place—a hard, foreboding place where they might find refuge, but would surely toil as they sought signs from God that he still heard their voice. In such a moment, in such a place, it is both stirring and unsurprising that the Prophet chose to call it Adam-ondi-Ahman.