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.  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.
- 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.