I have noticed in the recent media buzz about Mormonism that early Mormon beliefs about the Garden of Eden figure prominently in criticisms of the faith and active members of the faith. “The Garden of Eden was in Missouri” is the soundbite version of this complaint. In the interests of helping people understand the actual issues, I would like to share some insights from my work in the cultural history of early Mormonism.
Above all, context is critical to understanding what early Latter-day Saints, including Joseph Smith, meant when they talked about the Garden of Eden and Adam being located on what was then the Western frontier of the United States and the location of the forced resettlement of many American Indian tribal groups. (In discussing this topic, we should be clear: early Latter-day Saints did believe that Adam had lived and probably died in what is now Missouri.)
From the time of its founding through at least the nineteenth-century, White Americans saw their country at least metaphorically and sometimes metaphysically as Eden. Part of this feeling was the recognition that they had moved from the crowded and relatively fixed old world, heavy with aristocracy, both secular and religious, and with the weight of visible centuries of civilization on their collective shoulders. In the New World, however badly they misperceived Indian culture, White Americans saw open forests, room to breathe, and the visible absence of European civilization. For a people whose primarily language came from the Bible, Eden, with its promise of recovered innocence, freedom from the trappings and corruptions of Old World society, was compelling.
By the nineteenth century, the American Revolution with the founding of the “first” democratic nation convinced many that the Eden experiment had succeeded. As several scholars have carefully argued, American primitivism focused both on the meaning of pure Christianity and the significance of primal humanity. Eden merged dramatically into Jerusalem, though generally in a metaphorical sense. For a variety of early Americans, the possibility that Eden had once been located in America was quite real (others had believed that Eden was located under the North Pole, in a comet, somewhere else in space, or a variety of other rather curious locations).
Joseph Smith, when you watch him closely, seems to have been obsessed with the need to unite all humanity into a family system. He hoped to include not just his biological and marital families, but the generations that had gone before, including Biblical patriarchs, in a chain that extended back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Scholars would call this primordial primitivism, but they consistently miss the familial aspect of this belief. Smith was attempting to found an intimate utopia in which the sisterhood and brotherhood of all humanity was powerfully and consistently recognized and, more importantly, reified by connections to humanity’s first parents. What better way than to ground the entire utopian experiment in the time when all humanity had the same parent? Where racist Whites had actively preached that Indians were created separately from whites, deriving from some progenitor unrelated to Adam, Joseph Smith envisioned a family that included the entire world, living and dead, from White Europeans to American Indians, to Africans, Slavs, and Asians.
This, then, is how I understand early Latter-day Saint beliefs about an American situation for the Garden of Eden. It is a statement about the interconnections of all humanity, the meaning of recovered innocence, the hunger for a life purified of angry conflicts and sectarian strife. It is a vision of a world where all of us, regardless of our race, social status, and history can be united by our common ancestors and embrace something other than the evil we have so often done to each other.
There will of course be objections that, while few would actively object to the moral vision I have proposed, many find it ludicrous to believe literally in Adam, Eve, and the Garden, let alone that they were ever located in North America. This is a valid but I think ultimately irrelevant concern. Joseph Smith did love to literalize metaphorical beliefs. Eden traditions are not the only place that he made strong arguments for literal readings not just of the Bible but of cultural commonplaces and religious or metaphysical traditions. He would not fit in well in contemporary society, which seems unable to take firm stands beyond the supremacy of technology and free markets. Smith may have understood some aspects of sacred history more literally than I would. But, at some level, and when the moral message is one of great beauty, I am reluctant to punish him for believing a little too much. Just as I am reluctant to demean those who believe that through an ineffable miracle their Eucharistic host connects them physically to their God.
Too little time today to list relevant readings here. If demand is high I can put them up here later.