When Joseph Smith Jr. began his religious teaching, there was nothing unusual about his view of the nature of God. In fact, the Book of Mormon can be described as more Trinitarian than the Bible. The Baptist evangelist John L. Smith of Marlow, Oklahoma uses the Book Of Mormon to show Mormons that their book does not teach their present-day doctrine of God. He shows them such passages as the title page, the "Testimony of the Three Witnesses" (last sentence), 2 Nephi 11:7; 26:12; 31:21b, Mosiah 15:2-5; 16:15, Alma 11:22-28, 38-39, 3 Nephi 11:27b, 36, Mormon 9:9-11, 19b, and Moroni 8:18 (the reader would do well to write these verses in the front of his Book of Mormon and underline them).
When Joseph Smith gave his Lectures on Faith in 1835, he taught that God created Adam out of the dust of the ground (§2, 18,17), that God "changes not, neither is there variableness with him; but that he is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday to-day and forever; and that his course is one eternal round, without variation" (§3, 115), and that the Father is "a personage of spirit" while the Son is "a personage of tabernacle" (§5, 12). Before he died, however, he came to teach that the "Gods" had formed man from the dust of the ground (Pearl Of Great Price: Abraham 5:7), that God used to be a man like one of us, that He dwelt on an earth and came to be God, that people have to learn to be gods themselves (Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, pp. 613-614; Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, pp. 3-4), and that the Father has a body (or as it is sometimes put, is a personage of tabernacle) just as all men do (Doctrine and Covenants, 130, 22).
When Brigham Young became president of the LDS Church, he continued the change in doctrine about the Godhead begun by Joseph Smith in two significant areas. First, he introduced the idea that God continues to progress. In one sermon he stated, "the God that I serve is progressing eternally" (Journal Of Discourses, Vol. 11, page 286). Second, he introduced the idea that Adam was actually God come down to earth, bringing one of his wives named Eve with him (Journal of Discourses, Vol. l, pp. 50-51). Beginning in 1852, Brigham Young taught this doctrine until his death in 1877.
As outlined by Jerald and Sandra Tanner in their book Mormonism — Shadow or Reality? (p. 175) the so-called Adam God teaching contained four points:
Despite the fact that he maintained that this was a matter of revelation, he was opposed from various quarters of the LDS church. Even the Mormon apostle Orson Pratt opposed him. Because of Pratt's opposition to Young, he was brought to task before the Council of the Twelve Apostles. A couple of excerpts from the minutes of the meeting held on April 5, 1860 are interesting. In that meeting, Orson Hyde spoke of the necessity of believing the Mormon prophet Brigham Young: "To acknowledge that this is the Kingdom of God, and that there is a presiding power, and to admit that he can advance incorrect doctrine, is to lay the ax at the root of the tree [.] Will He suffer His mouthpiece to go into error? No. He would remove him, and place another there, bro. Brigham may err in the price of a horse, or a House and lot, but in the revelations from God, where is the man that has given thus saith the Lord when it was not so?" In his reply, Orson Pratt said: "I have never intended to advance new ideas, but to keep within revelation. It is said the revelations given to Joseph Smith, answered then, and if Joseph would translate now, it would be very different, if that were so, I should never know when I was right, in fourteen years hence, all the revelations of Brigham may be done away, but I do not admit it. The Lord deals with us on consistent principles, there may be apparent contradictions, but to suppose that the meaning would be different, I do not believe." In the end Pratt agreed to modify his public remarks enough to retain his apostleship. Even so, "on 10 April 1875, some two years before Brigham Young's death, the church President rearranged the order of seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve, placing three others before Pratt, though the latter chronologically preceded them based on date of original ordination to the quorum. Pratt did not succeed to the presidency as would have otherwise occurred if the order [had] not been realigned" (from an article by Gary James Bergera in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1980, p. 40).
Others succeeded to the LDS presidency who did hold to the Adam God teaching, even down to the fifth and sixth presidents of the LDS Church, Lorenzo Snow and Joseph F. Smith. But by the turn of the century, the official position of the LDS Church was to avoid bringing the subject up. Ultimately it ceased to be taught and modern day leaders, such as Mark E. Peterson, Bruce R. McConkie, and Spencer W. Kimball, have even denied that it ever was taught. Some Mormons still believe this teaching, but when they admit it, they are excommunicated from the LDS Church and branded as "cultists." While Mormons still hold that God has a body and was once a man, they have generally abandoned the idea that God is still progressing.
This, however, brings us to the amazing letter sent by the LDS apostle and scriptorian Bruce R. McConkie to BYU associate professor of English, Eugene England. For the past few years Eugene England has championed the view that God is still progressing. His teaching these views in public was the occasion of a 10 page letter of rebuke written him by the apostle McConkie. The letter, dated February 19, 1981, significantly begins, "This may well be the most important letter - you have or will receive." Its importance to Eugene England I do not know, but its importance to us is that Bruce McConkie therein admits that Brigham Young did in fact teach "the Adam God theory."
In the letter McConkie appeals to Joseph Smith's Lectures on Faith to prove "that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent" (p. 3). On page 4 he refers to the views of the "cultists" to the contrary. He says that in letters to him "they have expounded upon the views of Brigham Young and others of the early Brethren relative to Adam. They have plain and clear quotations saying all of the things about Adam which I say are false. The quotations are in our literature and form the basis of a worship system followed by many of the cultists who have been excommunicated from the Church." Then, on page 6, after extolling the virtues of Brigham Young, he has two paragraphs which need to be quoted in full:
"Nonetheless, as Joseph Smith so pointedly taught, a prophet is not always a prophet, only when he is acting as such. Prophets are men and they make mistakes. Sometimes they err in doctrine. This is one of the reasons the Lord has given us the Standard Works. They become the standards and rules that govern where doctrine and philosophy are concerned. If this were not so, we would believe one thing when one man was president of the Church and another thing in the days of his successors. Truth is eternal and does not vary. Sometimes even wise and good men fall short in the accurate presentation of what is truth. Sometimes a prophet gives personal views which are not endorsed and approved by the Lord.
"Yes, President Young did teach that Adam was the father of our spirits, and all the related things that the cultists ascribe to him. This, however, is not true. He expressed views that are out of harmony with the gospel. But, be it known, Brigham Young also taught accurately and correctly, the status and position of Adam in the eternal scheme of things. What I am saying is, that Brigham Young, contradicted Brigham Young, and the issue becomes one of which Brigham Young we will believe. The answer is we will believe the expressions that accord with the teachings in the Standard Works."
A paragraph later he says, "I think you can give me credit for having a knowledge of the quotations from Brigham Young relative to Adam, and of knowing what he taught under the subject that has become known as the Adam God Theory." This admission that Brigham Young did teach the Adam God Theory is a remarkable turn-around for the leadership of the LDS Church.
McConkie goes on to admit that Brigham Young also taught that God is progressing, but surprisingly says, "that is something he will have to account for" (p. 6). He goes on to talk about the problem of why there should be false doctrine taught by leaders in a denomination that is supposedly led by modern day revelations from the Lord. In doing so, he says that it is not England's task to determine what the doctrine of the LDS Church is; rather, that job belongs to the apostles. Relative to his own responsibility he has some interesting things to say: "If I lead the Church astray, that is my responsibility, but the fact still remains that I am the one appointed with all the rest involved so to do" (p. 8). "And those at the head of the Church have the obligation to teach that which is in harmony with the Standard Works. If they err then be silent on the point and leave the event in the hands of the Lord" (pp. 8-9). "If I err, that is my problem; but in your case if you single out some of these things and make them the center of your philosophy, and end up being wrong, you will lose your soul" (p. 9). He concludes by advising England to remain silent on those points "where differences exist between you and the Brethren" (p. 9).
Now this letter was not meant to be a public statement, although it was not strictly a private one either. Copies were sent to others that England had tried to influence. A copy of the letter has found its way to Gerald and Sandra Tanner and they have reproduced it in its entirety in a booklet called LDS Apostle Confesses Brigham Young Taught Adam-God Doctrine. It will be interesting to see whether Bruce McConkie or other apostles make similar admissions in public statements.
The letter itself is important, because it brings to a focus several of the dilemmas which the LDS Church today faces. The main dilemma is how to maintain that Brigham Young was in fact a prophet of God if for 25 years he taught a view that McConkie says "borders on blasphemy" (p. 5). And how could Brigham Young teach error and not be lost, while if Eugene England or a "cultist" teach it, they will lose their souls? The fact is, as Bruce McConkie has well stated, "Truth is eternal and does not vary." Conflicting doctrines have been taught by LDS prophets. They cannot all be true. A man who gives a false revelation is a false prophet. McConkie may try to maintain that prophets are men and men make mistakes, but as Orson Hyde has ably said, "in the revelations from God, where is the man that has given thus saith the Lord when it was not so?" If it is not so, it is not from God. McConkie has admitted that Young taught false doctrine, and again in the words of Hyde, "to admit that he can advance incorrect doctrine, is to lay the ax at the root of the tree."
This admission poses a personal dilemma for many Mormons. The way that a Mormon can be sure in his own heart that the doctrine of his church is true is for the LDS prophet to have a revelation and for other Mormons to receive a "testimony" in their hearts that it is the word of God. The Adam God teaching was a "revelation" to a LDS prophet and had a "testimony" from leading Mormons. And yet we are now told that it was false doctrine. The dilemma is well stated in the words of Orson Pratt, "if that were so, I should never know when I was right." The Mormons have believed "one thing when one man was president of the Church and another thing in the days of his successors." If the "latter day" prophets now dead were wrong in their prophecies when alive, the "latter day" prophet now alive may be found wrong in his prophecies after his death. If he can teach false doctrine in a prophecy, how can one really know whether a given prophecy is true or false?
Bruce McConkie proposes a solution - to this problem by suggesting that the Standard Works of the LDS Church can be a guide to tell us when a man is prophesying falsely. There are, however, two problems with this. The first is that, except for the Bible, the LDS Standard Works were written by men whom McConkie admits can make mistakes. Thus one finds contradictions in them. The Pearl of Great Price teaches both that God created man (Moses 2:27) and that "the Gods" organized man (Abraham 4:27). In addition, the content of the Standard Works are changed from time to time. The Lectures on Faith used to be included as a part of Doctrine and Covenants. Although added to that book by church vote in 1835 they were removed without vote in 1921. In his letter McConkie quotes from them as authority (p. 3), and yet they teach that God is a personage of spirit, a view that McConkie in the same letter says "borders on blasphemy" (p. 5), along with other views he labels as false. This seems to be a kind of "pick and choose" view of authority — a view which cannot instill confidence for the average person.
The other problem with using the Standard Works as a guide is that not all the LDS apostles agree with this solution. Ezra Taft Benson, President of the Council of the Twelve and next in line to become LDS Prophet, said in a speech given at BYU on February 26, 1980, "The Living Prophet is More Vital to Us Than The Standard Works" and he supported that statement by a quote from the October 1897 Conference Report which reported the following statement by Brigham Young: "those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet ..." In actuality, McConkie himself has subscribed to the same view; when a "revelation" to Spencer W. Kimball said that Negroes could now hold the Mormon priesthood even though McConkie had previously taught (based on the statements of former prophets) that they never would in this life, McConkie reversed himself, called on Mormons to believe "in a living, modern prophet" and to "forget everything that I have said" ("All Are Alike Unto God," pp. 1-2). It would seem that his statement to judge the teaching of the former prophets by the Standard Works is just a smokescreen designed to hold back doubts.
Perhaps the true significance of his letter is that thinking Mormons are going to see through that smokescreen and come to realize that you cannot trust the "revelations" of "latter day" prophets. It presents a dilemma that does have an answer, but that answer will not allow them to remain in the LDS Church. That answer is that the statements of the "latter day" prophets must be judged against the true scriptures of God that do not contradict themselves, and those scriptures are contained only in the Bible.
This article orginally was published as:
Terry, Bruce. 1984. A Mormon Apostle's Admission.
Utah Evangel (January).
Terry, Bruce. 1984. A Mormon Apostle's Admission. Utah Evangel (January).