James Adams, a Remarkable Mormon, and the Subject of a Remarkable Sermon. Part 1. Introduction.

This may be boring, but it has mass.

Joseph Smith was an intensely loyal family man and that attachment was mirrored in Church structure. Family members played important roles in the LDS hierarchy. His father was a member of the Church presidency for a period and also served as the first “patriarch.”[1] His brothers held prominent Church offices. He continued to mourn the loss of older brother Alvin, 20 years later. His wife led the women of the Church in the formal women’s organization, the Nauvoo Female Relief Society.[2]

With the death of Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., in September 1840, the Prophet found in James Adams a man he came to regard as a surrogate father.[3] Adams may have heard of, and become part of Mormonism in 1836, but his recorded interaction with the Church begins with his meeting with Joseph Smith in Springfield in the fall of 1839.[4] Events resulting from this first meeting made the passing of James Adams in the summer of 1843 an important event in Joseph Smith’s life.

Adams was included in Nauvoo ritual innovations and was one of the first inductees into the “endowment” and became a polygamist in the summer of 1843. Smith’s father was the first Church patriarch, and Adams was ordained a patriarch likewise. Other facts could be marshaled to show the high regard Joseph held for James Adams.

Adams had an active role in Illinois politics and ran into the usual buzzsaw of political newsprint as a result. [5] He ran for a number of offices including governor, but was unsuccessful in that particular attempt. Adams had been appointed to the office of Probate Judge in Sangamon County, Ill. and held this office until it became an elected position in 1837. In the ensuing election, Adams ran against Anson Henry, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, whose (Lincoln’s) machine proceeded to dig up dirt on Adams. Adams and Lincoln lambasted each other and their allies in the newspapers. In the end, Adams won, but the political war earned him enemies.

Joseph characteristically returned charitable acts and overtures of friendship with affection and trust. This in occasional contrast with a significant portion of general and local Church officers appointed by him. These “other” persons were often appointed by revelation, but that appointment didn’t always come with deep affection. Church officers could be fiercely loyal to Smith but many, like Brigham Young, Parley Pratt, Lyman Wight, etc., had their own ideas about interpretation or administration. And sometimes those ideas conflicted with Smith’s. Kept in check by their respect and loyalty to Joseph Smith while he lived, these important independent thinkers would expand, contract or ignore parts of Joseph’s theology and praxis after his death [6]

Since Joseph’s circle of trusted confidants did not coincide necessarily with those who held high office in the Church an interesting dynamic was created. This kind of dynamic is not unusual in organizational history and these kinds of relationships in the hierarchy of the Church would extend in less important ways to Joseph’s successors in Utah. [7]

Smith’s inner circle could be the subject of a little resentment and sometimes the rest of the hierarchy could find them less trustworthy or useful than Joseph did. That friendship was not an office in perpetuity (intimate friendship is not transitive!) might seem obvious, but in Joseph’s case at least, it was very important because he tended to bestow very personal and sometimes deep insights on these friends, which may not be communicated to the Church or other Church leaders generally.

This kind of networking was important in Joseph’s case simply because his statements held greater weight than anyone else’s in Church related matters, and in some respects that remains true, at least in modern Utah-based Mormonism. Consequently, claims of doctrine, authority or practice might be taken very seriously when coming from known, or claimed friends of Joseph after his death. [8]

Part 2 is here.
[1] The office of patriarch in the LDS Church has a complex history and meaning. Joseph Smith equated the New Testament office of “evangelist” with the LDS patriarch. Patriarchs were assigned to “bless” by the laying on of hands (usually) church members (usually) and in early practice to particularly serve as a kind of substitute father for the orphaned by this blessing ordinance. Among other things, the patriarch would assign the receiver of the blessing to an adoptive tribe of Israel. Church theology placed church members among the family of Abraham either by birth heritage or by adoption in liturgical realization of Pauline teaching. On this, and much more, see Samuel Brown’s and Jonathan Stapely’s papers forthcoming in the summer 2011 issue of the Journal of Mormon History.
On JS’s loyalty, stories of his familial “prejudice” circulated long after his death. Witness Brigham Young’s recital of a high council complaint against a brother, Lorenzo Snow’s similar tale in 1900.

[2] We hear little of Joseph’s sisters in official records, but that does not mean they weren’t influential in his life. But the study of that relationship takes us beyond the scope of things here.

[3] James Adams (1783-1843). James Adams spent most of his life in Springfield, Sangamon County, Ill. Born in Simsbury, Hartford County, Connecticut, January 24, 1783 to Parmenio Adams and Cleo Nering. Married Harriet Denton, 1809 (Hartford). Fought in the War of 1812. Arrived Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois in 1821 where he became an attorney. Elected justice of the peace 1823. Fought in Winnebago and Black Hawk wars. Military service gave him the life-long title of “general.” Ran for Illinois governor in 1834 but was defeated. Joined LDS church sometime between 1836 and 1841. Had a long-running newspaper battle with Abraham Lincoln over the transfer of a city lot. Lincoln said this was one of a few acts in his career he truly came to regret. Adams became a probate judge in Illinois (1841). Ordained patriarch (1843?). Became friends with JS in 1839 as JS passed through Springfield, Ill. on the way to Washington, D. C. One of original group to receive the Nauvoo endowment (May 1842). Deputy Grand Master of Masonic Grand Lodge of Illinois (1840-1843). Sealed to Harriet, May 28, 1843 by JS. Sealed two plural wives to JS. Became polygamist himself July 11, 1843 when he married Roxanna Rephsire. Died of cholera, August 11, 1843. [Edit: In writing this up, I neglected to mention a good source on Adams: Kent L. Walgren, “James Adams: Early Springfield Mormons and Freemasons,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 75 (Summer 1982): 121-136.]

[4] After Joseph’s escape from Missouri authorities in the spring of 1839, one of the first things on his to-do list was a trip to Washington, to plead the cause of reparation for Mormon losses in the “Missouri persecutions” before the United States congress, and the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren. While passing through Springfield, Joseph met Adams, who invited him to his home and offered food and shelter, treating him “like a son.”

[5] Since Washington’s second term, American newspapers were largely sponsored by political interests, which partially explains their preferential fee treatment by the US postal service of the period. Seventy percent of mail in JS’s time was newsprint.

[6] I don’t suggest a lack of inspiration here. But the general process of emphasis and deemphasis of ideas and doctrines through time is one that takes place in every faith. LDS leaders recently released a public statement which illustrates such ongoing processes in modern Mormonism. See Approaching Mormon Doctrine.

[7] There were some differences with later LDS Presidential administrations. Presidential inner circles have mostly trended toward hierarchical/family channels with a frequent merging of the two.

[8] For example, Nauvoo stake president William Marks, who claimed years after Smith’s death that Joseph had told him he had changed his mind about polygamy and wanted to stop it. Or, James Strang who claimed both authorization from Joseph and angelic appointment, etc. Joseph’s plural wives could enjoy some respect in their claims of knowledge from him. One reverenced wife was Eliza Roxy Snow. Snow’s poems and private instruction might convey insights delivered to her by Smith, or possible extrapolations of such insights such as that found in the current Mormon hymn, “O, My Father.” Other examples include W. W. Phelps, William Clayton, Benjamin Johnson, and so on. Emma Smith certainly had considerable influence, and could have had more if she had wanted it, in the beginnings of the Reorganization (Community of Christ). One can think of the situation in comparison to modern political cabinets. Cabinet members are frequently close friends of prime minister or president, and their office is generally contingent on the leader’s tenure in office. The difference in Joseph’s situation was that the cabinet didn’t exactly overlay the subordinate offices in the Church. Another problem in this regard came from the secrecy surrounding the practice of plural marriage in Nauvoo. The social networks formed by the practice were top-down in Nauvoo. Smith was in strict control of who would participate and even how (ignoring rogue offshoots like John C. Bennett’s). These marriages almost had an arranged feel to them, but the men and women involved may not know whether their friend or neighbor was part of the practice or not. Both posthumous claims of wifehood (to Smith) as well as claims (from same) of unusual doctrine were, and may still be, taken with some seriousness even without supporting evidence.


  1. Is it just me, or does the Approaching Mormon Doctrine link re-direct to the LDS newsroom frontpage?

  2. Great intro and I am looking forward to the rest of your thoughts. I do think that some have given too much leeway to some of Smith’s confidants. I think Benjamin F. Johnson, for example, tended to amplify his observations.

  3. Thanks WVS. I can’t wait for the rest.

    J., I had the same thought re: Johnson.

  4. Martin, I think the link is working correctly now.

  5. i hope you’re not suggesting the existence of an inner circle within mormonism and that there might be some genuine esoteric smith doctrines to be found outside the standard works and the established (patriarchal) channels of authority.

    jest aside, thanks for the concise and well written intro.

  6. Good intellectual fun. Tough for JSJ to be bereaved of both father figures in such a short span of time. Several of the older Mormon historians have told me they wanted to work on the idea of “friendship” in Smithian Mormonism–this is a good step in that direction. And PS Strang is indeed strange, but I’d recommend either adding a “the” in the middle or dropping the final “e.” I’ve been revising the Chain of Being paper and trying to attend carefully to theological transitions at Smith’s death. At least in the early years, the amplifiers and amenders did not shift very far at all from Smith. In later years I will grant you that. Although “spirit birth” in KFD and “spirit birth” in Pratt do feel rather different to me.

  7. Thanks for the spelling note. I inevitably do it for some reason. I agree Pratt and Smith are different ballgames.

  8. Why haven’t I heard of these people? Great post. I love getting these kinds of details and insights!

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