Responses: Christopher Smith and Jonathan Stapley on Brigham Young’s Vision of Adoption

By April 24, 2012

[This continues our new series “Responses,” which offers a venue to respond to and discuss recent Mormon scholarship, especially journal articles. We are pleased to have Christopher Smith here respond to two articles authored by Jonathan Stapley last year (found here and here), along with Stapley’s own response (posted tomorrow). Christopher Smith is a PhD candidate in Religions in North America at Claremont Graduate University. He is currently living in Provo while he works on his dissertation on Mormon and American Indian relations during the life of Joseph Smith. At least, that’s what he’s supposed to be working on…]

A Response to Jonathan Stapley Concerning Brigham Young?s 1847 Vision

In ?Last Rites and the Dynamics of Mormon Liturgy,? Jonathan Stapley writes, ?Beyond the public worship ceremonies of Mormonism, there exists an extensive network of interrelated rituals with salvific, healing, and other valences. These ritual systems are essentially liturgical in nature, and their history is a path crossing two partially overlapping regions: the folk and the formal? (97). This, I thought, nicely encapsulated the project of Stapley?s several recent articles on Mormon liturgy. Much scholarly attention has been paid to Mormon temple liturgy, but Mormon historians have tended to forget these rituals in the borderlands between the folk and the formal. No longer, thanks to Stapley. I have found his copiously documented studies of the development of Mormon ritual both fascinating and informative.

I have occasionally wished, however, that Stapley would put a finer point on some of his developmental arguments. I was particularly struck by the unclarity in his article on ?Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Early Mormonism? concerning the impact of Brigham Young?s 1847 vision. Stapley writes that ?This visionary experience appears to have had a cooling effect on Young?s public engagement of adoption theology. Easily the apex of his own experience, it was also a delimiter. Besides one sermon the month after they arrived in Utah and another in 1848, where Young mentioned adoption, the documentary record is generally silent for years on the topic? (80). 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.

The vision in question came to Young at Winter Quarters, as he struggled to work out the theological ramifications of the flurry of adoptive sealings that had been performed in 1845 and 1846 at Nauvoo. In the vision, Joseph Smith appeared to Young and told him repeatedly that if the Church would ?keep the Spirit of the Lord,? then the people would find themselves organized just as the Father had organized them in pre-mortality. ?Our Father in heven organized the human family, but they are all disorganized and in grate confusion.? Smith showed Young this pre-mortal pattern of organization in some visual way that Young could not describe, except as a ?perfict chane from Father Adam to his latest posterity.? The vision ended by reiterating the promise that if the people would keep the Spirit, ?it woud lead them jest right? (79-80).

Stapley?s explanation for the ?cooling effect? of this vision is vague, but generally seems to be that Young saw too little of the Spirit in the attitude of the pioneer Saints toward adoption. Stapley presents some compelling evidence that Young felt there was too much conflict within adoptive families, people were too uncritical about who they invited into their families, and people had too little appreciation of the responsibilities that came with the practice (80, 84-86,88-89).  The idea here is that Young sought to stem the abuses of adoption by curbing the enthusiasm for it.

There is probably some truth to this explanation, but I think a slightly more expansive interpretation of the vision can explain not only the hiatus in Young?s speaking about adoption, but also the changes in his view of it when he picked up the theme again in the 1850s. To this end, I?d like to call attention to two particular features of this vision. First, there?s an important contrast in the vision between the ?disorganized ? confusion? of the current human family and the ?perfection? of the envisioned chain from Adam. And second, the explicit message of the vision seems to be that the Saints need only wait and remain faithful, and eventually they will ?find them selves? properly organized if they follow the Spirit?s guidance. In other words, stop trying so hard to construct the chain, and just wait for the Spirit?s leading.

It should be obvious how the message to wait for the Spirit explains the hiatus in Young?s preaching on the subject. As for the changes in his view of it, Stapley says that when Young reintroduced the subject in the 1850s, he restricted adoption to ?immediate biological kin within the Church,? and ?explained that most sealings and adoptions would be performed in the Millennium and be directed by resurrected beings? (83). It seems to me that these changes correspond directly to the major themes of Young?s vision. The willy-nilly adoption practiced at Nauvoo was inconsistent with the perfect lineal chain Young had seen in his vision, so he now restricted adoption to the sealing of children to biological parents. The deferral of most adoption until the millennium, meanwhile, seems like a simple extension of the idea that the Saints will ?find them selves? properly organized if they wait and stay faithful.

One rather puzzling aspect of Stapley?s treatment of Young?s later views is that he seems to think the policy restricting sealing to ?immediate biological kin? was a temporary exigency, and not representative of Young?s real view. Stapley says that Heber C. Kimball made an ?unusual break? with Young when Kimball declared that one should be sealed exclusively to one?s own ancestors (89-90). Yet Stapley?s own sources seem to show Young, too, speaking of adoption during this period almost exclusively in terms of lineal sealing (e.g. 88). The few exceptions appear to prove the rule. For instance, Young allowed that ?Joseph will have to be sealed to Somebody? in order to complete the chain, but felt that even in the Millennium this would require special revelation (88 fn93). Young also allowed that the children of apostates could be adoptively sealed to non-biological parents, but this was presumably only because the biological parents had committed the unforgivable sin. With views like these, it?s hard to imagine that Young could have endorsed the frenzied adoption to Church leaders that occurred from 1877 to 1893.

So to summarize, it seems to me that Young?s view of adoptive sealing after 1847 was rather more restrictive than Stapley recognizes, and that the vision of 1847 was paradigmatic for that view. But I?d like to add the caveat, in closing, that I am by no means an expert on Brigham Young, so I am working almost exclusively from the evidence proffered by Stapley. It is fully possible that I have misconstrued Stapley?s meaning or missed some important pieces of evidence that shaped his views. With that in mind, I?d like to close this letter with a question mark rather than an exclamation point. So: ?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Responses Ritual


  1. […] [The following is Jonathan Stapley's response to Christopher Smith's post.] […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Responding to Christopher Smith on adoption — April 25, 2012 @ 3:23 am

  2. This Responses series is really fantastic invention!

    Comment by Niklas — April 25, 2012 @ 7:29 am

  3. Thanks for contributing to this series, Chris, and for the thoughtful response to Stapley’s research.

    Comment by Christopher — April 25, 2012 @ 9:07 am

  4. A fascinating topic in light of Romans 9:6 and the many scriptures on this topic. Brigham Young’s vision of Joseph Smith in 1847 seems to suggest that following the spirit leads to lineal connections.

    Comment by Believe All Things — April 27, 2012 @ 8:16 pm


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