Mormonism’s Adoption Theology

The recently released summer issue of Journal of Mormon History leads off with two articles on “Mormonism’s Adoption Theology.” The first, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology and the Mechanics of Salvation,” was authored by Sam Brown. As it ties in with his In Heaven as It Is on Earth (forthcoming, Oxford University Press) you will have to read the hard copy. I wrote the second article, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” which is available here. Prefacing these articles is a short introduction, which follows:

Mormonism’s Adoption Theology: An Introductory Statement
Samuel M. Brown and Jonathan A. Stapley

Although early Mormonism has been the subject of scholarly scrutiny for almost two centuries, important elements of the early Mormon worldview remain relatively unknown. A set of teachings, rituals, and lived experiences grouped under the rubric of adoption represent one such facet of early Mormonism. The practice and theology of ritual adoption began with Joseph Smith—in basic contours—as a reinterpretation of an old and prevalent Christian concept with strong ties to the rite of baptism for the dead and a priesthood system Smith called patriarchal. Brigham Young and the other apostles amplified, redirected, and codified ritual adoption in the period immediately after Smith’s death, integrating it into temple liturgy and employing it in part as a response to the contrary claims of Smith’s biological family. The various stages of early adoption contain the themes, paradoxes, and tensions surrounding Joseph Smith’s afterlife vision of a vast, sacerdotal family.

Though Gordon Irving correctly situated adoption ritual within the Mormon salvation family and generated several hypotheses in the early 1970s, subsequent work on the topic has been largely limited to recitations of his treatment. [1] In the intervening decades, however, our understanding of the social and religious context for sacred adoption, the broader valences of practice and belief, and the nature of its cessation have progressed considerably, necessitating a new treatment.

In the accompanying pair of essays, we treat what is often termed the Mormon law of adoption. The first essay treats antecedents and early development, concluding with Smith’s death in 1844. The second essay opens with the ways that Brigham Young employed adoption in his assumption of control over the imperiled movement in the wake of Smith’s death. This second paper then brings the law of adoption through its heyday into its dismantling by Wilford Woodruff as part of significant transitions in Mormon thought and practice at the end of the nineteenth century.

Adoption theology is a reminder that the idea world of early Mormons was in some ways strikingly different from that of the early twenty-first century. Understanding this aspect of early Mormonism on its own terms may be useful to our era’s engagement of questions of human relationships and identity. The adoption theology of early Mormonism may inform discussions about topics as diverse as spirit birth, agency, kinship, salvation, and the nature and shape of family relationships. As one example among many, on the matter of spirit birth we feel that this expanded view of adoption theology provides a possible lens for understanding premortal divine parenthood as a process of adoption rather than the more familiar model associated with the Pratt brothers.

We do not suggest that the views held by the earliest Latter-day Saints should be normative for twenty-first-century Mormons in any specific tradition. We do believe that understanding the earliest meanings of this theology helps to illuminate its development and many of its modern instances. We believe that these insights can be brought into productive dialogue with later and current approaches.

More than anything, adoption is a testament to the extent to which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was meant to be the society of heaven and full membership in it the sign of and pathway to salvation and exaltation.


  1. Gordon Irving, “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830–1900,” BYU Studies 14 (Spring 1974): 291–314. Rex Eugene Cooper, Promises Made to the Fathers: Mormon Covenant Organization (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), integrates adoption into a model deriving from Puritan covenant theology; his study is an important exception to this general observation.


  1. So excited for this to finally be in print, J; it is truly a masterful work of scholarship.

    Everyone: go read. Now. It will blow your mind. It even has a guest appearance by Joan of Arc.

  2. Thanks for the props, Ben! Greatly appreciated.

  3. Yes. This is seriously fantastic stuff, and I strongly recommend you all go and read it now.

  4. I will have to make time for this.

    But I feel like letting my adoption cat out of the bag so to speak. With regard to spirit birth, I have a hard time understanding the appeal of adoption as a definition of the relationship between us and God the Father. If I grow up with the understanding that I am the son of the king, and not just any king, but the perfect king – and that I can be heir to all that he has – then why should I prefer the idea that perhaps I am adopted instead? Especially if most prophets subsequent to Joseph advocated something along the lines of a spirit birth?

    I understand the appeal of adoption theology as we relate to each other, and sealing needs for exaltation. I also understand the appeal with regards to our relationship with Christ. But there seems to much at stake with our relationship to God the Father for me to buy that aspect.

  5. Eric: I don’t think these article are arguing that adoption has more of a spiritual “appeal” to us, though the authors may do that in their private life and other writings. These are historical treatments, reconstructing what adoption meant to Saints in the 19th century, not to us today. If you start with your feelings of a personal “appeal” to adoption when reading this type of scholarship, then, well, that’s not history.

  6. That is right, Ben. This introductory statement mentions spirit birth as an example of the type of conversations to which our papers may have some relevance. But (hopefully) they describe and analyze what was happening at the various times treated.

  7. Since I’ve learned through a DNA test that I have some Neanderthal ancestors, I’ve wondered if adoption theology can inform that “discussion” as well. Maybe Adam was the father of the human family in the same sense that Abraham was the father of the faithful, partly by descent and partly by adoption. (Recent studies suggest most people have some ties to the recently-decoded Neanderthal genome. It’s just that a family DNA test makes my connection more personal, requiring me to think about it.)

  8. Eric, it’s a great question to ask, and I’m trying to be thoughtful about such sensibilities in a devotional essay on this topic that I’m slowly wrapping up. As Ben rightly notes, J and I are primarily concerned in these papers with reconstructing the idea world of the early Mormons. The Pratt interpretation to which you seem to be alluding is one way of interpreting earliest Mormonism, but I was impressed as I worked through the early sources at how skewed the Prattian view was. I think you’ll find on reflection that both models have great metaphorical and devotional power. How wonderful to think that Almighty God thought enough of us and our future to choose us as his children not by some accident of cosmic biology but by exercise of his all-loving will.
    I confess that spirit birth is one of our distinctive, “weird” doctrines, and I am not personally eager to make us into mainstream Christians. I’m not on a campaign against it, rather mostly interested to work through what I see in the documentary record of earliest Mormonism.

  9. Ben and J:

    Of course you give the correct response. Thanks.


    The either/or of covenant or spirit birth confuses me. Aquinas uses it also. I do not see the either or of this.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Very cool.

    The reference to Joan of Arc in n. 3 got me to thinking as to which historical women I’d like to be sealed. I’m thinking maybe Marie Curie…

    From p. 63 to 64 was the clearest statement of the logic of adoption that I’ve seen.

    Joseph’s absence as adoptive parent (p. 67) was interesting to me, and the role that Emma’s lack of participation in the ritual played in that made sense.

    The quote on p. 78 looks like classic multilevel marketing. No wonder we love our Nuskins et al.

    I’ll have to wait until I get my hard copy to read Sam’s piece, but a question: Does polyandry fit into this adoption framework in any way?

  11. Awesome, J. I’ve bumped this to the top of my evening reading list, and will hopefully get to it tonight.

  12. Thanks, Kevin. Sam gets into that (his preferred terminology is dual-wives) in his book and his article, as I remember. Correct me if I got that wrong, Sam.

  13. I call them dual wives and do explicitly bring dual wives and polygamy generally into conversation with adoption theology.

  14. Scott Armstrong says:

    I first learned about the law of adoption when an offshoot group of gay Mormons referenced it as a possible precedent for gay temple marriage. Whether you reject that notion or not, the topic definitely deserves a lot more study and explanation. This is good work, guys.

  15. And PS forgot to say right away that JS did great work with adoption after Smith. Proud to collaborate.

  16. Absolutely, Sam. Both and honor and a pleasure.

  17. Good stuff, guys. Really important I think in situating and linking Mormon expressions and practices in the 10 or so years post-martyrdom. And ii seems to unify a lot of what has previously been seen as separate threads in Mormonism.

  18. A. Bowen says:

    Congratulations, Jonathan for your remarkable work.

  19. Coffinberry says:

    Wow. What a great read. I am struck by the facelessness of the proxy mother in the early adoption rituals where men were sealed to Joseph Smith. It makes me wonder if some of the lingering angst about Heavenly Mother can be traced to the absent (excluded?) Emma.

  20. Excellent article!

    I’ve always found fascinating the statement by WW, that we should seal the last one in our family tree to Joseph Smith. I hoped to find out details about how this came to end. I was kind of disappointed to read that there just isn’t much to find out. I wonder if they would let me to seal my ultimate ancestors to JS?

  21. Far Away says:

    Thanks Jonathan, for the beautiful and informative article.

    It made me think of the story of Jesus, where someone tells Him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” and Jesus responds, “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? …pointing to his disciples… Whoever does the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

    Early LDS adoption theology reflects Jesus’ idea that biological ties are less important than spiritual ones. Indeed, biological heritage has no eternal significance, unless someone chooses to couple it with a priesthood sealing ordinance.

    Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, literally, like Christ, could say of their own disciples, “these are my brothers, sisters, mothers, sons, daughters, wives.”

    That’s the early Mormon family! I just wish there were a shred of this knowledge left in our modern LDS emphasis on family.

  22. Looking forward to reading these.
    BTW, I learned about adoption from an old Ensign on my mission,

  23. Coffinberry, I agree that the use of a female line inatead of an actual mother iwhen then temple returned was surprising.

    Ben, a couple of paragraphs into that Ensign piece, I thought, “this smacks of Jim Allen.” Et Voila! Yeah, though the article has some problematic assertions, it is clear that we sure don’t make ’em like we used to.

  24. Scott Armstrong says:

    I just finished the article, J. Well done.

    I’m sometimes curious how things would have developed if Joseph lived longer, but I see a lot of wisdom in Woodruff’s changes. As the article alludes to, with greater access to temples I could see modern members getting way out of control building up their clans through adoption.

    Probably a good thing we scaled that back.

  25. Craig M. says:

    This is a great read so far, J. it occurred to me that there is a high degree of overlap (but not total) between adoptive parents in Nauvoo and those whose paintings hung in the celestial room. Perhaps this would have added an extra layer of symbolism to the experience.

  26. Thanks, again.

    Craig, I presume you mean in the Salt Lake Temple celestial room circa 1910s? Most people that remembered Nauvoo were dead by that time. But you are right that BY loomed large over the temple and its liturgy.

  27. Craig M. says:

    No, I’m referring to the Nauvoo temple. See

  28. Thanks Craig. I hadn’t read that article and I had completely forgotten about those references. Cool. Certainly BY-HCK were the prime movers there in Nauvoo.

  29. Stapley:

    I finally made it through your article. It was amazing. I have a question though. When did Ordination of Melchizedek Priesthood for deceased men become part of the temple ritual? I didn’t see this detail in your article (forgive me if it was in the footnotes) and it seems it would be pertinent to the question of whether one needed to be sealed back to Joseph.

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