Ritual adoption

As some of you know, the BCC research group is working on a new history of ritual adoption in Mormonism, what is often called the Law of Adoption. I’ll save the details for actual publication, but we’re interested in ensuring that the paper both actually engages the ideaworlds and lives of the original participants and is of some use to modern readers. To that end, I’m interested in understanding what people would like to learn about the Law of Adoption.

So, what do you want to know about the Law of Adoption? Are there areas that are particularly interesting or vexing for you?


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I’d be curious about the extent to which adoption practices might have been a part of the original web of ideas that gave rise to polyandry–attempts to seal people together in larger and larger family units.

  2. Thanks, Kevin, we have a section on those intersections, with “patriarchal” priesthood as the infrastructure.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Sam, I want to learn about the timing of events — I know about WW’s letter instructing us to only seal ourselves to our blood kin, but I’d like to have some detail about when and how the practice began and how and why it changed during the administrations of BY and JT. I would also like to know about the context of these changes. What prompted them, what else was going on at the time, how was our understanding changed, etc.

  4. StillConfused says:

    As someone who was only exposed to these concepts on this particular forum, I would appreciate some basic background as part of the discussion.

  5. Well, you might want to talk about it as a practice rather than a Law. Don’t reify the thing.

  6. Going from old memories here, so forgive mistakes in the details. My recollection is that there was a conference in which W Woodruff and GQ Cannon told people to stop sealing everyone to Joseph Smith and other church leaders and instead seal people to their own parents. But, in those statements, they said to trace the lines back as far as they can get them and then when you can’t go back any further to seal the last person to Joseph Smith. I’d be interested in knowing if that practice was ever followed or when it was discontinued. Obviously we don’t follow that practice today.

  7. My wife’s ancestors were all sealed to GQ Cannon back in the day. Then the Law of Adoption quietly went away. I would like to know what the Church thinks of these sealings in our day. My guess is that the official answer is “We’ll let the Lord sort it all out.”

  8. I’m curious about to what extent the whole issue of polygamy came from the concept of adoption and vice versa, similar to Kevin and Jacob above. (But not the same) I am also curious as to what impact a proper understanding of adoption plays into the modern concept of celestial marriage. When did these changes take place, are they doctrinal changes or cultural?

  9. I’m interested in knowing why you (some of you?) consider adoption a distinct law, separate from familiar familial sealings as practiced today. To me it is nothing more than an early, imperfect understanding of sealings where members who didn’t trust that their own ancestors would accept the gospel sealed themselves to church leaders to guarantee themselves a place in the eternal chain. You’ll have to do some fancy dancing to persuade me that it was anything more than that.

  10. I am curious to how much resistance there was against adoption. For example, this is from Wilford Woodruff’s journal in 1857:

    “I spent the day in the office. It was quite a thaw. H. C. Kimball Came in & read a letter to his Brother Solomon. Then he set down & taught us good doctrin. He said that He did not Believe in this custom of Adoption that had been practiced in this Church. No man should give his Birthright to another but should keep his birthright in the linage of his Fathers & go to & unite the link through the whole linage of their fathers untill they come up to a man in the Linage who held the priesthood.”

    Was Kimball’s reservations about the practice common among the leaders?

  11. I just want to see some fancy dancing. Please?

  12. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    I am curious as to how much of a social effect adoption had generally in Utah society. I’ve heard a bit that John D. Lee was sealed as a son to Brigham Young and that Lee felt that the action was meaningful in this life, ie, that he should be viewed as one of Brigham Young’s sons now (I could be wrong on this). Sometimes with some things in the Church, like sealing, we expect that the ordinance will produce large changes in how an individual is viewed by their society (we consider someone who is sealed as married and are not bothered when they act that way because for sealing we view marriage and sealings as equivalent, at least during this life). Other times an ordinance, while important, doesn’t really change society’s expectations much (all that we really expect of a newly ordained Elder is a few Church-related responsibilities but we do not expect him to live life differently in terms of social structures, we still want him to work and interact with his society in the same fashion as before his ordination). How much were those who were adopted accepted as actually adopted in this life?

    Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense and there’s probably a much more efficient way of asking it.

  13. Mark Brown says:


    To answer, I would say that adoptions were very important to the social organization of the Saints as they moved west and finally settled in Deseret.

    Brigham Young had a farm north of Winter Quarters and he appointed several of his adopted to sons to work there and be responsible to grow crops for others he had adopted. It was the infighting and disagreements about the fair division of provisions which caused BY to have second thoughts about adoption.

    In Deseret, Heber C. Kimball spoke openly about the tribe of Brigham, the tribe of Heber, the tribe of Willard, etc. They would get together (at least the adopted men would), and have the sacrament and a meal, all put on by the family head. The early saints really did think that exaltation was determined by the number of of people who were sealed to you.

  14. Is moonwalking fancy dancing? Because I think we can moonwalk.

  15. #5 we will attend to terminology carefully
    #6 WW said that and it was done that way for a time
    #7 duly noted. i had not yet followed it very far into the 20th c. beyond a quick epilogue. we’ll think through some legwork on the 20th century.
    #8 we’ll include it
    #9 Ardis, we can get at least a moonwalk and a rhinestone glove. I think we can win the skeptic over with the paper, though you’ll be the final judge.
    #10 HCK spoke out against it. there were always critics
    #11 Stapley is working on the Utah period. we have a reasonable amount of info, but we’d be glad to hear of other interesting primary sources.

  16. I’ve always been curious as to its formal ties to the Patriarchal order. And whether it would be needed for the Melchezedek order. We do it to present the ties to Adam. Yet the Melchezedek Order which supercedes the Patriarchal seems to make that more moot. It always struck me as odd, and perhaps why the Patriarchal order became more and more downplayed in post-Nauvoo Mormonism. (i.e. we can’t figure it out either)

    The second thing I’ve always wondered was any connection to the Adoptive rites of masonry, which offer many interesting parallels to the temple ceremony as well as the Relief Society.

  17. 16: we’re debating how creative to be in reinterpreting patriarchal priesthood and how much to put into Smith’s teachings on Melchizedek. you’re right that there is a complicated relationship that later generations have elided.

    as for masonic adoption, I’m very skeptical about any direct connection. though early scottish masons occasionally used “adoptive” masonry in the vague sense of “speculative” (ie not actual practicing stone masons), the “Adoption” that Forsberg compares to early Mormonism is a French rite of incorporating women that was not, according to any evidence I’ve been able to find, available to AmericansMormons. In any case, LDS ritual adoption is quite distinct from French Masonic Adoption.

  18. My understanding is that Joseph Smith was believed to be the patriarchal head, or Adam, of this dispensation, that authority in the patriarchal priesthood was believed to ultimately preempt Melchizedek authority, and that those in this dispensation who claimed authority under it in the world to come needed to be sealed in a lineal chain back to him, by adoption if necessary.

  19. What if the understanding of the early Saints was, that JS, as the holder of the Priesthood Keys, was their connection to Adam, through the above-mentioned Melchizedek and other such patriarchs. And Ardis sounds dead on to me about this with her idea in #9. I have great doubts about my own parents, for example. Not bad people, but held strictly to the traditions of their fathers.

  20. I am not a Mormon; however I have seen your work and think BCC is doing a fine job in allowing Mormons and others to discuss Church issues freely.

    I surrendered a daughter for adoption in 1966 who was adopted by Mormons. Since we reunited in 1997, I have read a lot about the church and adoption.

    The LDS Church promotes adoption aggressively and, I think, causes much unnecessary pain. I have written about the Church and adoption on the FirstMother Forum blog, http://www.firstmotherforum.com/2008/09/adoption-and-mormon-church.html.

    The LDS Church is the main opponent of legislation to allow adult adoptees to obtain a copy of their original birth certificates, a position I and many adoptees and birthmothers think is just plain wrong. I’ve written about this as well on the FirstMother Forum blog. http://www.firstmotherforum.com/2008/09/mormon-opposition-to-open-records.html

  21. Thanks for putting this up, Sam. A lot of cogent thoughts.

    Mark, you have to be a bit careful about such claims, and what appellations you choose for various “authorities.” We’ll attempt to sort out the relevant details, but don’t be surprised if what you wrote doesn’t map onto the data very well.

  22. #20, you’ve reminded us of another point that I have heard from an adoptive parent. We don’t usually cover such “current issues” topics in historical papers, but maybe that’s because we lack courage. We will consider expanding an epilogue to cover some of these more contemporary legal, ethical, and social issues.

    I can’t promise anything, though. We’re likely to be at 60 pages with just the typical historical material. And our schedules are quite compressed. If you had specific materials related to explanations of the current legal adoption policies of LDS Social services, we would be interested to look at them. We will be unable to incorporate any meaningful oral histories from contemporaries, though.

  23. Rameumptom says:

    I’d like to see discussion on the concept of Brigham Young adopting members of the Council of 50, in order to restrain them from establishing an order supposedly of more importance and power than the Twelve.