Finding the Garden

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.


  1. (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.)

    Sam, I love symbolism and metaphor myself, I find your interpretation fascinating. To be clear, LDS scripture asserts the Garden of Eden placement, not just tradition:

    D&C 107: 53
    53 Three years previous to the death of Adam, he called Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, and Methuselah, who were all high priests, with the residue of his posterity who were righteous, into the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and there bestowed upon them his last blessing.
    D&C 116: 1
    1 Spring Hill is named by the Lord Adam-ondi-Ahman, because, said he, it is the place where Adam shall come to visit his people, or the Ancient of Days shall sit, as spoken of by Daniel the prophet.

  2. Nick Literski says:

    Sam, I think you know I appreciate your work on various Mormon culture/history topics. This particular essay, however, causes frustration for me. It seems emblematic of a trend I see much of in the bloggernacle.

    In a recent poll on this blog, the majority of respondents seemed to place little importance on the veracity of LDS truth claims. These individuals made it clear that they enjoyed the lifestyle the LDS church encouraged them to pursue, and even so-called “unequivocal proof” against Mormonism’s truth claims would have no impact on their involvement in the LDS church. A few conveyed that they already dismiss significant LDS truth claims, such as the historicity of The Book of Mormon, while holding fast to their LDS identity and involvement (and, oddly enough, LDS political rhetoric).

    Strange as it may seem to come from a former member of the LDS church, I am saddened to see Mormonism allegorized away. For me, the continuing trend within the LDS church to downplay, or even dismiss, the unique aspects of Mormonism was the first major crack in my belief. I suppose that treating Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding the location of the Garden of Eden as merely symbolic may be useful to some in maintaining their faith under scientific and historical challenge. At some point, however, this “reinterpretation” seems to lose the power–and even the point–of Joseph Smith’s restoration.

    In the end, what are you left with? Gentle chuckling at Joseph’s naivete’ seems contradictory to the spirit of Mormonism, especially in those cases where those who do the chuckling vigorously hold up every word of Gordon Hinckley.

  3. I love this. If you get the chance, please put up a list of relevant readings.

  4. It’s as valid a claim as any other. Or does the vatican have Adam’s bones, unearthed in Ethiopia, locked in a vault with the shroud?

    It’s totally ridiculous to point to the Garden of Eden in America because it’s a scientific, verifiable provable fact that it’s elsewhere…please…

    The only reason why some members shy away from this is because it is easy to use to make them look bad.

    I imagine the Romans used a lot of rhetoric like this to make the Christians look bad right before beheading them or throwing them in with the lions…

  5. It’s totally ridiculous to point to the Garden of Eden in America because it’s a scientific, verifiable provable fact that it’s elsewhere…please…

    ??? What proof is there that the Garden is anywhere? Even assuming (as I do) that you believe in the theory of evolution, that does not preclude the Garden being located in what is now the American continent. I would appreciate your thoughts.

  6. Nick, do you read Sam as engaging in “gentle chuckling at Joseph’s naivete”?
    It appears he doesn’t share the literal geographic (and perhaps other)assumptions Joseph may have had of Eden. But, I interpret his essay as conveying genuine respect for both of Joseph’s myth-making and his understanding of myths.

    While I don’t consider Eden to have been a place that existed in North America (and would view as metaphorical some events or teachings others might see as literal), is that necessarily “allegorizing away” Joseph Smith’s Mormonism? Instead, isn’t Sam’s essay an example of finding beauty/value in Joseph’s religious thought as a direct result of abstraction?

  7. Again,

    Attacks on this minor doctrine are nothing but soundbites.

    Garden of Eden has got to be somewhere after all.

    You could go for years in a typical ward and never hear about this JS teaching.

    Its not really a central teaching.

  8. RE: #1

    MattG, where do either of those scriptures refer to the Garden of Eden?

  9. Anon,

    Well, since Adam-ondi-Ahman is identified as a physical location in Missouri in the D&C, I’m just assuming that Adam did not travel several thousand miles from the Garden of Eden to get there. Joseph Smith also identified other anecdotal evidences of Adam’s living in Missouri, including the famous altar where he and Eve gave sacrifice, (which, BTW, James Talmage used as evidence for pre-Garden life and death, as there are fossils contained therein). I guess I leave it to others to decide if they believe Joseph was guessing about these things or knew what he was talking about.

  10. Nick Literski says:

    bbell, I don’t know where you’ve lived, but I would find it exteremely atypical to find a ward where Joseph Smith’s teaching on the location of Eden was never mentioned over the course of “years.”

    As for “central” teachings, you could play that game with almost everything the LDS church teaches, other than the identity of Jesus as the messiah. You could argue that the first vision is not a “central” teaching, or that the literal resurrection is not a “central” teaching. This goes right back to my comment about downplaying and disregarding the unique teachings of Mormonism, until there’s simply no point in being a Mormon at all.

  11. MattG, that Talmage quote is a favorite of mine, but I see it as both an assertion about scientific evidences for evolution, but also a tongue-in-cheek comment about a form of relic-hunting on the part of 19th century saints, eager for physical proofs of the Book of Mormon and other Mormon doctrines.

  12. Nick Literski says:

    Nick, do you read Sam as engaging in “gentle chuckling at Joseph’s naivete”?

    That particular comment was more general, rather than specific to Sam.

    It appears he doesn’t share the literal geographic (and perhaps other)assumptions Joseph may have had of Eden.

    Herein lies an important point. Joseph didn’t claim to be making “assumptions.” He stated that he received revelations. When members of the LDS church downgrade revelations to “assumptions,” they begin to downgrade Mormonism to a collection of easily-dismissed random notions.

    But, I interpret his essay as conveying genuine respect for both of Joseph’s myth-making and his understanding of myths.

    I have profound respect for Joseph’s myth-making and his understanding of myths, and I am firmly outside the circle of believers. Many scholars have such respect for Joseph, but “respect for myth-making” doesn’t have much power to change lives or bring joy, does it?

  13. kevinf,

    I agree. The famous battle of wills between Talmage and Joseph F. is still one of my favorite bits of church history. I think Nick has a valid point here, that is worth exploring. Is there ample reason not to believe the Garden was in Missouri? How far do we go in our rationalizations and downplaying of certain doctrines and teachings that make us unique? Where do we draw the line between saying Joseph was “probably guessing” on some things and that other things were revealed to him? Especially on matters that he says in his own words were revealed to him (e.g. finding his seer stone, Zelph, to name a few)? Maybe this is a topic for another thread, but I think Nick’s on to something here.

  14. Nick,

    I personally believe the teaching. I simply have not heard it mentioned for years in my home ward. Unlike the KFD, polygamy etc.

  15. …“respect for myth-making” doesn’t have much power to change lives or bring joy, does it?

    Nick, I do pretty well with that.

    Let’s look at the story of the good Samaritan. It is used to teach the concept that we should help others, even when it is inconvenient, and even when they don’t fit within your socio-economic-ethnic-religious community.

    One person can regard the story as recounting actual events, another can view the story as a non-literal allegory: both can view the story as teaching an important truth and be moved by the story to help others.

  16. bbell and Nick,

    Just to clarify as well, I also personally believe in the “Eden in Missouri” doctrine also.

  17. I’m probably guilty of some of the things that Nick is (strangely) concerned about. While I believe in the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and other touchstones of the faith, the lack of evidence for these particular beliefs or doctrines does not bother me.

    In the same vein, we have also been taught in the temple that the story of the creation of Adam and Eve is “symbolic”. Does that mean a type? Is their story an allegory for our own journeys through mortality, or is it symbolic in the sense that we don’t know the means, just that it was through a divine process?

    I have watched as some doctrines seem to wax and wane in the church over the years (but then I’ve lived in it longer than some of you – but not that much – grin!). I expect that this will continue, but maybe not always in the direction of the mainstream.

    I find much to be suspicious of the Zelph account, for example, but don’t discount it completely. That’s why I have a shelf for the things that are incomplete or unexplained. Kind of a spiritual X-files?

    It’s one of the paradoxes of our faith, that things are not all settled, even though we perceive God correctly as “unchanging and eternal”. Our relationship to him is certainly dynamic, and will continue to be IMO.

  18. MattG, I don’t think your “assum[ption] that Adam did not travel several thousand miles from the Garden of Eden to get” to Adam-ondi-Ahman is warranted. After all we’re talking about events that occurred hundreds of years after Adam and Eve left the Garden. But as a Missourian, I’m fond of suggested that the Garden was “eastward” from Adam-ondi-Ahman.

  19. Just so everyone’s clear, the Garden of Eden was in La Jolla, California (or maybe where Aquavit, in New York City, stands today).

  20. (Because that Swedish food was simply sublime.)

  21. kevinf,

    “And that Zelph up on that shelf, I have talked to (him) myself!” Sorry, couldn’t resist that classic line from Seuss’ “Wocket in my pocket”. I always think of Zelph when I read that to my daughter, and now you actually do have a Zelph on your shelf!

    I’m in the same boat as you are, there are oddments (like Zelph) that don’t seem to ring quite true, so I keep them on the periphery. I have a spiritual witness of the BOM and other doctrines, so I hold them as being more “solid”. I suppose in partial answer to Nick, the Spirit is really the only true test to these doctrines.

    Regarding the Garden story, I also understand many of the events as allegorical (the fruit, the rib, e.g), but I guess I still always thought that the Garden was an actual place, we just don’t really understand what transpired there. The fact that is is given a geographical reference “eastward, in Eden” indicates this to me, but again that’s my own interpretation.

  22. Nick, I try in my writings to ask and answer questions that are relevant for both believers and non-believers. I try not to make public statements of belief central to my proclamations. While I am not inclined to personally believe in a North American Eden (some 19th-century LDS did invoke something like what Josiah Priest did in terms of plate tectonics and geographic migrations to get the Near East to the New World), I do not rule it out, exclude it, or wish that Joseph Smith had not taught it. In fact, I rather support the teaching over my rational reservations.

  23. MattG and Sam, My comment about the symbolic nature of the Adam and Eve story had to do with how much of the account do we make an allegory, and how much do we take as truth? Since the statement is out there, I have to assume that it is intended to be cautionary, as in “Don’t take this too literally”. I just am not sure where the line is. A literal Adam and Eve are not problematic for me at all. From there, however, is “Eden” a place like “Zion”, where it could no longer exist because of the fallen nature of man? It is also easy to read it as a literal geographical place, from the scriptural accounts. Another “Zelph on the Shelf”.

    Thanks for the Seuss reference MattG, I don’t think I had read that one. My kids were more into Richard Scarry and of course, my all time favorite, Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”. I can still just about recite that from memory, and now have started reading it to my 2 year old granddaughter.

  24. I really like this. It seems to me that because the Book of Mormon was so emphasized as a source of doctrine in the 1980s, the more historical doctrines of the restoration have been de-emphasized. I personally don’t care about the Missouri thing in the slightest. I’m not saying it’s false, but I wouldn’t argue about it either.

    In addition, in my limited experience, the Missouri thing is not widely discussed outside the US. But of course it’s in the AoF, innit?

  25. Norbert, AoF=”Articles of Faith” or “Area of Finland”? :)

  26. Actually the AoF only states that “Zion will be built on the American continent”. It doesn’t actually reference the Garden of Eden.

  27. This post does smack of de-spiritualizing a doctrine/idea and replacing it with a rational explanation. It is tempting to do that with many doctrines but I think that (like Nick has said) it can eventually cause problems. Why does everything have to have a logical and rational explanation? Why can’t we just chalk some things up to the mysteries of Godliness?

  28. Brewhaha,

    I think the reason (for me) is that we have a culture in the church of “having the answers”, since we have the restored truth. For centuries previous to the Restoration, that was Christianity’s cop-out pat answer for all the inconsistencies that people didn’t understand (transubstantiation, trinity, etc.). “It’s the beauty of God’s mystery”. So I like to have some semblance of logic, or at the very least a vague path for me to wend my way as I explore more facets of my faith.

  29. Sorry, the alliteration at the end there was not intentional.

  30. Matt,

    Agreed. The fact that the Mormon theology does answer so many questions and is so infinitely expandable is truly one of the things that I love about it. However, I think that one of the wisest things that a Mormon scholor can realize is that at some point you are going to come upon a question where the only correct answer (at least at that point in time) is “I don’t know.” I think that it is wise that we allow ourselves this “bail out” so that we don’t break when we come to insurmountable idea.

    But I do so love that there is lots and lots of room for scholarly, rational understanding of the world around us and the doctrines of the church.

  31. #23 – Where the Wild Things Are – memories – I guess it’s the age, kevinf.

  32. Ray,

    “Where the wild things are” is still a big hit with my 4-year old daughter too. It’s a classic!

  33. I believe the account of Eden is mostly figurative and might refer more to the War in Heaven than to events on this earth; I believe in evolution as the mode of creation for our physical bodies; I believe that there were two individuals (Adam and Eve) that were literally the first “humans” – made a separate species by divine intervention; I absolutely love the Garden account; I love even more Joseph’s repositioning of the Garden narrative to his own life – in the Missouri revelation (which I can accept as just as likely as any other location) and even more so in the endowment; I love that the Garden of Eden now is less than two hours from my house (in **two** locations: Columbus, OH and Louisville, KY) – and that I can visit Eden on a regular basis. It’s one of my favorite teachings of Mormonism.

  34. By: Sam B – December 12, 2007

    Just so everyone’s clear, the Garden of Eden was in La Jolla, California (or maybe where Aquavit, in New York City, stands today).

    Having been a resident of La Jolla in the early 90’s I can say that it’s not a garden and Eden was not situated on a cliff overlooking salt water. Adam and Eve after the fall would have been banished to (take your pick) Arizona, Las Vegas, or Oregon. lol

  35. #34,

    Or to a land-locked dead sea of saltwater in the middle of the high desert….

  36. Nice, Jared, a comment that can be interpreted in about 1,000 different ways.

  37. Left Field says:

    It seems strange to me that someone who believes in a literal Garden of Eden would be mocked for nothing more than disagreeing about the latitude and longitude.

    That’s sort of like ridiculing a candidate for thinking the Loch Ness Monster is a mammal.

    If somebody wants to ridicule Romney for believing that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, why is it Missouri that is the weird part? The Show-Me State at least can be located on a map, and unlike the Garden of Eden, there’s quite a few people who claim to have been there.

  38. I agree with Nick on this. Some things like Zelph are just there… I have not figured it out but I also do not really care enough about it.

    If Adam-ondi-Ahman is a non literal place then does that not blow a whole in the LDS story of the 2nd Coming?

    As far as where the garden is I suspect like Bushman Joseph thought it was Jackson County but I could not say that for sure. I consider anything after the expulsion in the temple as the alegorical part.

    I do however understand the difficulties to the whole Adam and Eve ideal in the Garden, if they ate did that not kill something? If the Animals ate did that not kill something (of all things you can freely eat etc). So there is some definate head scratchers in there.

    Personally I do not know the answers but I feel that unless proven otherwise Adam-ondi-Ahman is in Missouri and I see no reason why it could not be.

    Unless you subscribe to the book of Genesis as all alegorical then you are treading on very thin ground. How does anything in the bible make any more than a Nice Story if Genesis is. And of course this goes for the Book of Mormon as well.

  39. I think Nick is right on here. Posts like this remind me of an episode of Star Trek, the Next Generation where a bunch of punky teenage Klingons were questioning and making fun of the Klingon myths. Worf steps in and restores reverence for the myths and shows that “these are our stories, they tell us who we are.” The kids want to know whether such outlandish tales can possibly be literally true. Worf dodges the question by saying “I find more truth in them every day.”

    I don’t think we can go down that road. It leads straight down a steep slippery hill and into a swamp where all beliefs are “true for someone” because they are “the faith traditions of their fathers” and “tell them about themselves and where they came from.”

    Mormonism is not like that. It lays claim to actual truth, verifiable by direct revelation from God. Anyone who wants to know the truthfulness of the statements concerning the location of Eden can ask God, and should, if they are concerned about it. Meanwhile, the point is well taken that believing that Eden was located in Missouri (whatever that might mean) is no more outlandish than believing it was located anywhere else on the modern globe.

    And yes, in case you were wondering, all truths can also be discovered in Star Trek episodes.

  40. MCQ,
    Given the attested patterns of human history, I think it is safe to say that the Missouri-Eden claim is a little more outlandish than others. Of course, that doesn’t mean it ain’t true. What surprises me is that uber-patriotic Americans find the Missouri belief offensive. I mean, where would you prefer Eden to be, Iraq?!

  41. I think Left Field’s # 37 carries the day in this discussion.

    By the way, smb, I really liked this post and find it very valuable in informing our belief in the meaning of Eden in the grander purposes of establishing Zion. I don’t see it as watering down Mormon belief at all but rather accepting it and building upon it to find meaning. This post should be as meaningful for Latter-day Saints who believe the Garden of Eden was a geographical location that can be identified on a map as for Latter-day Saints who understand Eden allegorically and see themselves as Adam and Eve respectively.

  42. MCQ: …Mormonism is not like that. It lays claim to actual truth, verifiable by direct revelation from God…

    MCQ, some of the issues that come to mind on reading your comment are:
    What is “actual truth?” You seem to use it as shorthand for “an accurate description of actual historical events that occured in a literal manner.” I agree that is a view one can take of the scriptures; I don’t share it. I see the “actual truths” of Mormonism as the concepts it reveals or emphasizes, such as the importance of agency, or the possibility of (and urgent need for) change and progression among individuals and communities.

    If by “actual truth” you mean actual historical events, it is my view that we experienced some actual historical events with religous significance, but there’s the issue that it appears we have been wrong on a lot of claims regarding “actual historical truths.” Examples range from the grandiose to the insignificant, and include claims that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, that the 2d coming would occur soon after the church was established, that there was treasure in Salem (D&C 111), assumptions by some that a flood covered the earth and destroyed all humans not on Noah’s boat, many speculations about the provenance of Native Americans, of blacks (descent from Canaan, Ham, Cain), and of white European Saints (that some or many were of “pure” Ephraimite lineage), etc.

    I hear you and Nick suggesting that claims wihin early (and present) Mormonism to revealed knowledge that are associated with events should be intepreted as presenting historically accurate statements as to whether and how such events unfolded, else Mormonism has little value/no saving value.

    To me, that seems to create an unnecessarily brittle belief structure.

  43. john, LF,

    I think most people want to place the garden in Mesopotamia owing to the description in Genesis. But you’re right that fundamentalists are not seeing this Iraqi garden as myth but as fact.

    I also like Sam’s post. I think it leaves a lot of room for differing beliefs. Nick et al., please don’t exclude those who doubt the absolute historicity of such a story from the camp of the bona fide Mormons.

  44. Ronan, I said that LF’s comment carried the day not because of any substantive content it might have contained about the geographical location of the Garden of Eden (I don’t think it did) but because it made that point that it is odd that people ridicule Romney (or Mormons generally) for believing the Garden of Eden was in Missouri (assuming Romney even believes that) rather than merely for believing in the Garden of Eden at all. I tend to agree with LF that believing in the Garden of Eden in the first place is the weird thing and its geographical location is just gloss on the weirdness scale.

  45. #22:

    (some 19th-century LDS did invoke something like what Josiah Priest did in terms of plate tectonics and geographic migrations to get the Near East to the New World)

    Some 21st century LDS too. We were taught this last week in priesthood in response to a high councilman’s remark that he had discussed the location of Adam-ondi-Ahman with a friend and they had not arrived at a consensus on its actual location.

  46. MCQ, I do worry some about such accusations, though I have little interest in Star Trek of any generation (I have a vague memory of an overweight cop and tinnitus popularizer and a man with a Scottish accent pleading that he is overworked while Nimoy pretends to be philosophical by speaking in a monotone. they are all wearing Halloween costumes.)

    The problem is, how do you interact with outsiders? If you maintain a fundamentalist view (I mean this in a general sense, not re: para-LDS polygamy, but the notion that all prior religious claims must be maintained as strictly true without rational argument or overlay), then you will always be speaking “klingon” to outsiders (trust me, among non-internet users, speaking klingon mainly communicates absurdity), who will never gain a sense for the broader meaning of your religious tradition.

    “Eden was in Missouri.” Is this just a random fact that distinguishes Mormons from others, or is there something more significant to the fact that LDS Zions were founded among the relics of past civilizations, including Adam’s? But if it means something, why not talk about it and try to communicate some of the moral, intellectual, and spiritual richness associated with the belief. I admit that this mode also allows those who doubt the historicity of the claim to come and dine at the table of faith, but I’m not persuaded that’s a bad thing, even if my main goal is to make an aspect of our faith intelligible to outsiders.

  47. And ps, following the line of LF and RHJ, shall we start a campaign?

    Don’t vote for Huckabee–he believes the Garden of Eden was in Iraq. Superstitious anti-Patriot.

  48. Nick Literski says:

    One difficulty here is modern mythologizing of the Mormon past in general. Depictions of Joseph Smith, for example, have increasingly taken on “movie star” quality, until LDS are left with the stomach-churning kitsch of Liz Lemmon Swindle and a movie Joseph who spouts long speeches about the importance of men performing housework.

    So with this maleable prophet, we suggest that Joseph didn’t really mean that deity told him the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri. Joseph was just engaging in prodigious “myth-making,” in order to convey big ideas. We start to pretend (like Ken Godfrey re Zelph) that the contemporaneous sources are in error, or didn’t really understand what Joseph was getting at. We decide that Joseph and other early Mormon leaders who said they were direct descendants of Jesus were only “speculating” (read: “didn’t know what they were talking about”).

    Stirling suggests that taking these early Mormon revelations seriously creates an unnecessarily “brittle belief structure,” and perhaps he’s correct. On the other hand, once we start to morph Joseph’s claimed revelations into allegories and speculations, how much basis is there to take the first vision as fact, or the restoration of the priesthood as an actual conferral of divine authority? To me, this path leads to nothing more than a cultural folklore–something not worthy of the enormous time, talents and means that LDS members devote.

  49. Well, since Adam-ondi-Ahman is identified as a physical location in Missouri in the D&C, I’m just assuming that Adam did not travel several thousand miles from the Garden of Eden to get there.

    I think this is the key assumption. Folks assume that because Adam was driven out of Eden that Eden was a place physically very close. I personally find this hard to accept since Eden was a Terrestrial world and after being driven out they were in the Telestial world.

    Now I fully admit that the popular view of all this is the “No Death Before the Fall” view. (I’ll avoid the obligatory evolution debate since it’s been done to death – I’ll just say there is considerable evidence death’s been going on continuously in this world for more than 2 billion years)

    The alternative view though is that Eden was “someplace else.” So when Adam was driven from the garden he left that world to come to this telestial world. I’d add that this idea has support in Jewish tradition. (Of course there are also three Adams, the heavenly Adam, the Adam of paradise, and then the fallen Adam in Jewish lore)

    Sorry, I don’t have the references handy (and I’m not sure they’d convince too many since a sizeable portion are Kabbalism which is primarily a 12th century view)

  50. Nick, I don’t want to get into the Zelph issue, but I’d say that there’s a big wide swath one can traverse between the “it’s all error or speculation” and the “everything ever recorded by someone is completely accurate and literal.” That is one can take the views of Joseph seriously without thinking everything was inspired. Surely he has to try and understand what is revealed to him. Surely that will be done in terms of the context and assumptions he brings with him. After all that’s true of us, why wouldn’t it be true of him?

  51. My continual problem with this non literal reading is not that you might or might not be right it is just this.

    If Adam-ondi-Ahman is just a way to bring relavance for 19th century LDS members. A sense of the divine into their own space then that by definition creates problems for the Book of Mormon being a LITERAL spiritual history. It call into question the canon of scripture because the Doctrine and Covenants does not talk of an allegorical Adam-ondi-Ahman.

    While I understand some other things were claimed by early saints they were not canonized in my impression. As well I do consider the end of times discussion amongst the early church as being fairly natural outgrowth of being LDS. It was common in the early days of EDS which is why the Lord answered that there must be “a falling away first”. I assume EDS did not see the apostacy as something that would last 1700+ years.

    Actually when the Lord is asked directly he gives a very “sly” answer “IF you live…” leaving even Joseph wondering what he meant.

    In all this Adam-ondi-Ahman is not a all or nothing proposition for my faith but I do have concerns because it seems to me Joseph meant what he said.

  52. It calls into question the canon of scripture because the Doctrine and Covenants does not talk of an allegorical Adam-ondi-Ahman.

    It sounds like you assume that scripture must be inerrant. It’s easy for Mormons to acknowledge the bible has errors. Understandably it’s more difficult when it comes to our more recent creations. But, as works of humans, why shouldn’t the BoM and D&C have errors, also? (as examples considers the BoM claims that dark skin is a result of sin, and the D&C 111 prophecy of Salem producing treasure)
    For me, that doesn’t and shouldn’t reduce scripture to irrelevance.

  53. Stirling, I don’t think it is an issue of inerrancy. I do think the role of Adam-Ondi-Ahman is such that it needs to be a real place. That is I think Adam, Noah and company had to live in America unless we’re willing to allegorize most of our religion. (Which kind of emasculates it at the same time)

    As I said though, I don’t think this issue is ultimately a problem. The problem tends to be how Genesis 2-3 is read by some (largely in light of Evangelical literalistic readings).

  54. I have a copy of a letter from Grant Palmer who claims the following:

    On October 16, 1987 (Friday) Ed Wheeler, an anthropolist [sic] – archeology [sic] teacher at Butte Community College in Northern California (Oroville Ca) and myself visited and had lunch with Ray Matheny at the Kimball Tower (his office) and at the Skyroom in the Wilkenson Center – he talked about how the Church commissioned aerial infra-red photography of Church sites in the east and the subsequent digs at Adam-ondi-Ahman before the Church planned to Blacktop over a portion of this site – Matheny said under his supervision (also Lamar Barretts) they dug at Adams Altar, identified by Joseph Smith as where adam had come after Being driven from the Garden of Eden and had built an altar to God of stones etc. – they dug down and found 17 Indians which were carbon dated at 500 A.D. He said it was a typical Burial mound found in that area. To avoid criticism that he didn’t dig down far enough he dug down to Bedrock and found nothing else. The report was submitted to the First Presidency – The First Presidency told Matheny & Berrett to never publish it. [signed] Grant Palmer
    Nov 25, 1987

  55. Clark: That is I think Adam, Noah and company had to live in America unless we’re willing to allegorize most of our religion. (Which kind of emasculates it at the same time)

    What’s wrong with emasculating religion?
    Why do you place Noah in America?
    Why is it a big deal for Joseph Smith to be factually incorrect in placing Adam in America?

  56. Connell, great anecdote, thanks for sharing.

  57. Sam, love #47. The campaign begins now. Alert the media. We can make a cartoon about it that will be youtube ready by next week.

    As for #46, I don’t speak klingon and I never expect to, and I don’t have any problem with the third paragraph of that comment. If that’s your goal, then please continue, with my blessing.

  58. Connell, this claim is interesting for my research. Do you know of any additional data on it? I’ve been interested in the notion of Adam’s grave as the “altar” identified, the merger of funerary markers with religious relics. There’s reasonable data to confirm an identification of an altar. Fascinating if it were an actual Indian grave monument. I just like to have something a little more reliable than BYU gossip via Grant Palmer to cite. Do people know Ray Matheny or others possible involved in the dig?

    Again, thanks for pointing to a fascinating possible coda to one part of the Edenic frontier theme.

  59. The Garden of Eden originally was in Austin, approximately where Threadgill’s is located today. Adam and Eve were then banished to Houston.

  60. Houston certainly is the lone and dreary world. Personally, I figured it was rural SE OH and Columbus.

  61. No, Ray. Dayton. Medina. Elyria. That is the lone and dreary world.

  62. Yeah, you got me there, queuno. I would add Akron and Canton and Youngstown – but would that be hitting too close to home?

  63. Akron. Ooh, good one.

    Let’s face it. If it weren’t for the historic sites, would any human ever want to spend any time in Kirtland?

  64. Because they had the choice of Kirtland or Akron or Dayton?

  65. Being thrown out of the Garden is clearly a story of punishment. Therefore: it’s Missouri..because that’s a bigger punishment than being thrown out into Iraq.

  66. The rocks that made up the “alter” contained fossils according to B.H. Roberts. This would indicate that it had to have been built after “the Fall”. No death before the fall. My take is that Joseph was prone to tall tales and this was the tall tale that day. Nothing wrong with that. We that love the Prophet love his warts too. After all he was able to convince many people that he had the right to take on multiple wives and we know how that ended (The Nauvoo Expositor).

  67. Uh, John, no one ever suggested that the alter was built before the fall, to my knowledge. (How would that happen exactly? Can anyone imagine building an alter while naked?)

    And the “no death before the fall” thing is actually debateable, whatever NDBF Gary might say.

    And the Nauvoo Expositor was not the end of polygamy.

    I guess what I’m saying is I disagree with every single thing you say.

  68. Jon in Austin says:


    Its common knowledge that Eden was clearly not at Threadgills, but at The County Line on 2222. My stomach is still savoring the magnanimous BBQ from earlier tonight………

  69. #69 – His first experience was very different than the ones you quote, in that the appearance of the Father and the Son FREED him from the terrible fear he was experiencing. That foundation changes the equation in a very fundamental way. You might not be fine with that, but I am. It makes complete sense in context.

  70. RW, Come on, we already met your friend George. You guys need to check with each other so you don’t double-dip. No one wants to hear the same lame pitch from two different salesmen.

  71. MCQ

    Fossils take a long time to form. No death before the fall? We are talking millennia here.

    As for the Expositor, I was not implying that it ended polygamy. My point was, it was the end of Joseph. Once he ordered the office destroyed he had contributed to his demise. So few of us in the Church realize that polygamy was the reason for the Martyrdom.

    John W.

  72. I would be curious to see how many of you have in faith and true repentance taken the challenge of praying about the truth of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ on the Earth today. It is easy to find fault and to talk of man with those of man. It is the greater cause of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ to step out of the world and to put your hearts to heaven and ask of the one who has created us. Please know that any that will, with a broken heart and contrite spirit, pray to our father will know of the truth of the Gospel.

  73. Steve Evans says:

    hunh?? thanks SMars.

  74. John W, your comments are, taken together, nonsensical.

  75. #72 – and there we have the stereotype of the bloggernacle among those who have not read Elder Ballard’s talk at BYU-Hawaii. I asked in another thread if this blog reaches Mars. Thanks for providing the answer.

  76. Sticking this on this thread for reference. Peck had seceded angrily from the church.

    Peck writes concerning Adam-ondi-Ahman “informing their followers that it was the place to which Adam fled when driven from the garden of Eden in Jackson County and that Far West was the spot where Cain Killed Abel.”
    Reed Peck Manuscript, 5.

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