Responding to Christopher Smith on adoption

By April 24, 2012

[The following is Jonathan Stapley’s response to Christopher Smith’s post.]

First, I want to thank Christopher Smith for his critical reading of both my ritual adoption article and my article on last rites. His call for increased clarity and finer argumentation in my work is welcome and surely needed. As an example, the bulk of Smith’s comments relate to what I observed to be a declension in Brigham Young’s rhetoric surrounding adoption ritual performance in Utah, and the possible relationship between this declension and the transformative vision of Joseph Smith that Brigham Young received relating to adoption early in 1847. I’m grateful to respond to these comments as well as some particular questions which Smith raised.

After quoting a section of the adoptive sealing paper relating to the decline in adoption discourse after the 1847 vision, Christopher Smith states, “It is not entirely clear from Stapley?s discussion, however, precisely how or why he thinks Young?s adoption theology was ‘delimited’ by this vision.” My hope in the discussion which Smith quotes was to show that it was not Young’s theology that was delimited, but that it was Young’s discourse. It is important to remember that from the close of the Nauvoo Temple to ritual performance in 1846 to the opening of the St. George Temple in 1877, there were no child-to-parent sealings or adoptions performed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These sealings are the only temple rituals which were not performed outside of the temples by either Joseph Smith or the church led by Brigham Young. Consequently, it is not adoption or sealing practice during this period that I think we should trying to discuss, but how Latter-day Saints, and Young in particular, talked about it, in anticipation of the practice becoming available.

While I appreciate Christopher Smith’s observation that the 1847 vision may have urged Young to “stop trying so hard to construct the chain, and just wait for the Spirit?s leading,” I don’t think that I agree with his subsequent argument in light of the fact that no rituals were being performed. In particular, Smith argues that this vision was an obvious impetus for Young’s claims in one sermon that sealings would be limited to “immediate biological kin within the church.” Smith indicates that this description was directly corresponding to the perfect chain Young saw in vision, and is in contrast to the “willy-nilly” adoption rituals performed in Nauvoo. Smith then highlights an apparent incongruity between Young’s statements as documented in my article and his characterization of my analysis as “think[ing] the policy restricting sealing to ‘immediate biological kin’ was a temporary exigency.”

Though I appreciate his usage, I don’t think that the Nauvoo adoptions were in any way willy-nilly. Moreover, my current reading is not that there was a restriction that was a temporary exigency, because there were no rituals performed at all. I think that Young stated that the preponderance of sealing were to be within the church and only to those immediate relatives (e.g., parents) outside of the church, because that is all that his cosmology allowed for. This was consistent from Nauvoo to St. George. For Young the links in the chain had to be assured, and the ways in which they could be assured was to only seal members of the church to each other or wait for angelic direction on how to construct the chain. For the children of the first generations of church members, the course was clear: be sealed to one’s parents. What that first generation was to do, however, was not at all clear. It is in response to and context of that confusion that I believe Young speaks. And the bulk of church members would be sealed to their parents, who were also church members.

Beyond Young’s statements on the matter, the reasons I think that Young still maintained a belief in a robust practice of non-biological adoptive sealing ritual is two-fold. First, Young directed people to record those church members to whom they wished to be adopted when the temples became available (83n79). He kept a record of those people who had committed to be adopted to himself, with 175 names recorded by the mid-1850s (84n80). Moreover, in 1877 when the first temple was dedicated since the abandonment of Nauvoo, Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff, who was intimately instructed by Brigham Young on the matter, both had many non-biologically related people adopted to themselves. When the temples were operative, Young participated in adoptive sealing rituals and restricted child-to-parent sealings to those within the church. When the temples were not operative and these rituals were not available, Young discussed the practices in ways consistent with his cosmology related to the future ritual practice. This practice coupled with Young’s expansive vision of the adoptive cosmology that influenced both the organization of the westward migration and his organizational thoughts about the “Order of Enoch” (also an interesting outgrowth of Young’s vision) suggest to me that Young was still very much interested and a believer in the non-biological adoptive sealing ritual and its eternal function. I also agree that Young’s practice is in tension with his statements regarding the creation of a chain back to Adam. Smith rightly points to my lack of explanation; I don’t know that I have one at this point to offer. His criticism is apt. However, I’m not certain that Young fully resolved it himself. I tend to think that it is for that reason that he looked forward to the angels directing the work in the Millennial temples.

Article filed under Responses Ritual


  1. Good stuff, J. I appreciate the back and forth between you and Chris, and you agreeing to participate in another round of the responses series. Maybe we should rename it the Stapley series. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — April 25, 2012 @ 9:10 am

  2. Thanks Christopher. I’m a little self conscious, but I really appreciate being able to participate and respond here. I’d also like to thank Christopher Smith again. It was good to think through these issues again (I’m still noodling on the material), and I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to change my thinking some more.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 25, 2012 @ 10:05 am

  3. Loved this exchange. Kudos to Chris and J for providing a model dialogue.

    Comment by Ben P — April 25, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  4. Thanks, Jonathan. The last paragraph is particularly helpful. I agree that, based on the evidence you’ve presented, there seems to be a tension in Young’s thought that he never fully worked out. I may have a couple comments or questions after I let this sink in a bit more, but in any case I think you’ve done a fine job shedding some more light on this issue.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — April 25, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  5. This is great stuff. Thanks to both Chris and J for participating in this round of “Responses to Stapley’s Cutting-edge Work” (grin).

    Comment by David G. — April 25, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

  6. What can’t all exchanges be like this? Thanks Chris and Jonathan.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 25, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

  7. The civility in these first two series of exchanges has been refreshing. There is a clear sense of objectivity and passion for finding truth. And thus far, it’s been fascinating to read additional commentary on JMH articles.

    Thank you for such an enlightening and civil series.

    Comment by Kurt — April 25, 2012 @ 11:42 pm

  8. In my view, Wilford Woodruff’s vision on adoption also suggests that his predecessors had not entirely resolved the question of to whom one was to be sealed. Had Brigham Young arrived at the same place there would have been no need for the revelation.

    Comment by Unknown — April 26, 2012 @ 7:00 pm


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