#5- Samuel Brown on In Heaven as It Is on Earth and “Believing Adoption” [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: Hello. This is Blair Hodges. Before we start this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast I have an important announcement on some geeky technical stuff. We’re in the process of moving this podcast over to our new website. If you’re subscribed to the podcast in iTunes you should be able to get new episodes without making any changes, but here’s the important part. If you use other programs to download the podcast you’ll need to update the RSS feed. The new RSS feed is maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/feed/podcast.
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Now here’s the latest episode featuring author Sam Brown.
BLAIR HODGES: This is the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. In this episode I’m joined by Samuel M. Brown, physician and historian who joins me to talk about his book In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death, published in 2012 by Oxford University Press. As the book’s jacket describes, the world of early Mormonism was besieged by death. Infant mortality, violence, and disease were rampant. A prolonged battle with typhoid fever punctuated by painful surgeries, including a threatening leg amputation, and the sudden loss of his beloved brother Alvin cast a long shadow over Joseph Smith’s own life. Smith embraced and was deeply influenced by the culture of holy dying, with its emphasis on deathbed salvation, melodramatic bereavement, and belief in the providential nature of untimely death that’s sought to cope with the widespread mortality of the period.
Brown also discusses his recent BYU Studies article on adoption theology. Through his historical research Brown came to believe that in Joseph Smith’s theology humans become the children of God through pre-mortal adoption, as opposed to being created in some sort of spirit-birth process. Two seemingly unrelated topics, death and adoption, brought together in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Brown joined me via Skype and I apologize for some of the sound issues that happened throughout this episode.
I want to start by talking about this attention to death, Sam, that you give in your book. It’s kind of an unusual and perhaps unexpected theme. Let’s start by talking about why you brought that issue to bear on your study of early Mormonism in such a central way, this culture of death idea.
SAMUEL BROWN: Well it comes back to a conversation that I had with my wife about ten years ago. She’s a religious historian and we were thinking about the nature of angels and early Mormonism. It had arisen out of my first article on Mormon history, a quantitative study pattern on the work the Shepherd brothers did on General Conference addresses. Mine was looking at temple dedication prayers over time and I noticed that there were these named angels that were specified in early prayers and then in later prayers there was a more general nod toward angels as a generic class of beings. I initially had been taking an approach to these ancestors that was in line with my fascination with Mircea Eliade and this notion of sacred ancestors and how tribal consciousness arrives at a new time in comparison with the ancient time, or the “yon time” as Eliade talks about it.
As I was talking to my wife we were vacationing up in Camden, Maine and had stopped in the town just outside the town square, wandering about and were in their colonial cemetery and walking and looking at the stories on their grave markers and had a eureka moment, which was that in early Mormonism angels were actually dead people rather than being an entirely separate class of individuals. That theological historical insight combined with the fact that as an independent physician, I finished my residency just as this was happening, as an independent attending physician I was being with people when they died. I realized that Mormonism had something very distinctive to say about what human beings are and what angels are, to wit that angels are a kind of human, and that we in our contemporary world had a very distorted view of life’s final moments.
That got me reading pretty broadly in the death studies literature that for a while and the quirky way of academic jargon was called thanatology, I think it’s now just called death studies or death and dying studies. But I read broadly in that literature and then read in the early modern into Antebellum literature about the nature of angels, and then returned to the primary documents of early Mormonism, which were so easily available, both in terms of Dan Vogel’s wonderful work with the Early Mormon Document series, and the great work that Rick Turley’s been supervising with getting digital copies of the materials at the Church History Library available. The RLDS now Community of Christ publishing houses that have provided bound copies of the early Mormon periodicals, all of these rich opportunities to reacquaint myself with the primary literature and in many cases to acquaint myself for the first time with the intricacies of that primary literature I just started reading.
As I was reading the ubiquity of premature, undesired mortality was stunning and telling. As you walk through these newspapers and these journal accounts and these revelation manuscripts you realize there’s an awful lot going on about how people understand themselves in relationship to prior generations and how people understand themselves in relation to the people they love now who will not always be present with them. That then led me into a fair bit of reading in Antebellum Protestant theology, reading the classics, both the new Evangelical historians and the Mark Noll, George Marsden kind of camp, and reading more broadly and just the cultural intellectual history of Antebellum America, and from that came ultimately In Heaven as It Is on Earth.
HODGES: There’s something also in your background that you didn’t draw as much attention to and that’s that you’re also involved in medicine, right? You’re a doctor.
BROWN: I’m an Intensive Care Unit physician, and mostly a medical professor and medical researcher, but I do also take care of patients.
HODGES: So you’d be working with mortality quite often it seems in your everyday occupation, then. Was that brought to bear at all on the topic?
BROWN: Absolutely. Part of what struck me was the incredible courage of people as they were on their deathbed or as they were the loved ones of someone nearing death. It was striking and stirring to me and simultaneously I felt that there were huge cultural gaps in terms of the support structures that people had available to them as they were navigating that experience.
I’m a big fan of lived religion as it’s preached by the key figures and contemporary religious history and religious studies and for me I feel like I’m inhabiting lived religion two dot zero because I’m actually seeing what happens to people religiously and culturally when the rubber hits the road, when it really matters what religious claims are, when it really matters what people believe and how they (inaudible) relationships. How do they behave? What words do they use? What images and concepts do they draw on? What rituals are meaningful to them?
I brought that sensibility of the time spent treating patients and thankfully in 2013 the large majority of our patients actually do recover and get back to home and get back to good strength, but there is still a certain proportion of them who do not survive despite all our best efforts. Being with them, not abandoning them when it looked like our life-supporting technologies were not going to work was an important part of what got me asking questions of historical documents that were specific to the lived experience of people in Antebellum America, particularly in that western frontier.
HODGES: You talk about in the introduction to the book death presiding over all of human history, but one thing that your book sort of draws out I think is that our anxieties or our approaches to death culturally have changed over time. One element of Joseph Smith’s prophet hood that I hadn’t really considered quite as much is his often returning to the theme of death and his anxiety, his concern about death. This would usually happen in the context of funeral sermons that he would deliver and these types of situations where death would be on the mind. So was it pretty easy for you to find those types of sources from Joseph Smith? Did you find that to be a pretty common theme in his sermons?
BROWN: Absolutely. Bill Smith at BYU is working on an annotated anthology of Joseph Smith’s funeral sermons that I think will be a great pleasure to read when it comes time for it to be published and I think Bill has found and I have found and others have found that this was an incredibly important topic for people. The anthropologist of theologians, Doug Davies had written a book called The Mormon Culture of Salvation that was trying to think through what salvation meant for early Mormons. It’s a book I bumped into as I was just finishing up In Heaven as It Is on Earth.
I think he had a couple of insights from a formal theological anthropological perspective that were important. Even independent of theological or anthropological vistas on this material it’s just everywhere, and you realize that there was a sort of historiographical collective forgetting that extended for many decades. It began to change at the tail end of 1960s into the 1970s, but you really have to be ignoring a lot of your primary materials to not be allowing death to be a part of the story that you are telling as a historian of pre-Civil War America.
HODGES: Yeah, it’s interesting to see in some of his sermons he would refer to this tomb that he had been planning, this tomb, a family tomb or something?
BROWN: Yeah, it was the tomb of Joseph. And as reminder that part of how Joseph Smith positioned himself was as a person through whom God allowed the past to be relived. We talk about restorationism and primitivism and those are true. It’s important to understand the Campbellite and similar contexts in which Joseph Smith is heading up the restoration. But it’s also remarkable the extent to which Joseph Smith is through his very life as he lives it exemplifying what it means for the past to be relived.
So the tomb of Joseph is his reference to the tomb of Joseph of Egypt, just described very briefly in the Hebrew Bible and he nods, he in one says that the Book of Mormon itself proclaimed the importance of having that kind of a sacred tomb. He understood it as both him living as a modern-day Joseph of Egypt, sort of (inaudible) that patriarchal figure and made it part of his temple, which is a fascinating thing. Kevin Barney reminded me that corpses were considered so polluted in the Hebrew cultist that they would never had had a tomb on the temple grounds, but for Joseph Smith that notion of pollution was not present. There’s this strongly cultic element, and by cultic I don’t mean these nincompoops that are yelling at Mormons or other new religious movements, I mean specifically related to the ways rituals are performed and the way a church community hangs together around those rituals.
So there’s clearly an element with the tomb of Joseph of that religious and ritual significance, but then there’s also, and there was always present with Joseph Smith, a sense of warm familiarity and hand-holding-hand and people embracing each other. There was a sense in which the tomb of Joseph was also the place where the Smith family would awaken in the resurrection and discover each other and would be immediately able to resume their tender intimacies as a loving extended family the moment the first resurrection happened.
So the tomb of Joseph was this fascinating structure that was on the Nauvoo temple grounds, and he was even trying to get Alvin, his older brother Alvin, that he looked up to so much, he was trying to figure out a way to get Alvin’s remains disinterred and then reinterred in the tomb of Joseph. He of course was killed under such nasty circumstances that there was no way that they could have interred him in the tomb of Joseph. There’s talk, who knows whether it’s true or not, I assume it is because it has to do with buying and selling things, but there were rumors that philologists and others would pay a premium to have Joseph Smith’s remains so they could put it on a museum display. So they had to hide Joseph Smith’s body and he ultimately was not able to be buried in the tomb of Joseph.
HODGES: I think they buried him for a time in the basement of one of the buildings in Nauvoo, right?
BROWN: Yeah. I’m going to forget whether it was the mansion house or the Nauvoo house proper. It’s a little contested, but my guess is that Emma became worried that Joseph’s remains would be desired by the apostles or others who were with the apostles and she had Joseph and Hyrum removed from their original burying place and moved to a new location and then actually misremembered where they had been placed, and it wasn’t until the mid-1920s that a reorganized LDS engineer was able to track down the original tombs.
HODGES: That’s when they moved them to their current place.
BROWN: Yeah. They had to move them back. They were worried that the Mississippi was going to cut into the area where they had been interred. So now the actual bones are under the grave marker that you can see if you tour Nauvoo now.
HODGES: So let’s talk a little bit more about some of the more specific ways that Joseph Smith dealt with death and confronted death, you call it the conquest of death. That’s kind of a combination of theological ideas and rituals and beliefs that all kind of deal with what happens to people when they die, and what will happen in the resurrection and these sorts of ideas. How do you see Joseph Smith as differing from some of the other theological visions of his time and what are some similarities that he shared with them?
BROWN: That’s a great question. Doug Davies, who is the one that initially popularized the broad notion of death conquest, also referred to it as death transcendence. The restoration happens and Joseph Smith lives his life in a complicated but mostly Protestant environment in which the dominant traditions were Calvinism, which was on the wane. It was on the wane in the way these sorts of comprehensive worldviews often are on the wane, but when people decide that they need to come up with a new idea they did it by attacking some caricature of Calvinism.
The best known of the opponents to Calvinism in the period were particularly the one with (inaudible) frontier life was Arminianism. These are broad terms that can mean a lot of very different things and of all the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism is a story about the significance of human will and specifically is there a way that a human being could in any way affect her or his salvation, and strict Calvinism says no, this is not something that is up to a human, this is something that depends exclusively on God’s majesty, excellency, and choice.
The Arminians, even though Arminius himself was not Pelagian, it specifically said it’s not that you could earn your own salvation, it’s that you can lose it by backsliding. As it gets (inaudible) in other ways, Arminianism does become much more a story about the role that the human being has in defining its own status. Both of them were (inaudible), specifically because the intense focus on the need to either be elect under Calvinism, or to not ever backslide under Arminianism. I think the deathbeds of the two broad traditions are useful for understanding what Joseph Smith found to be problematic in his society.
HODGES: Is this like the holy death? Is this what you’re referring to?
BROWN: Yeah. The holy death culture broadly, and the practice of holy dying or beautiful dying or good dying, encompassed both Calvinism and Arminianism in various ways. This was a (inaudible) about meeting your death in a way that assured your salvation. Under Calvinism you had to keep on keeping on because if you didn’t then that was a (inaudible) you had never been elected. Under Arminianism or Methodism you had to continue on because if you continue on in great piety and introspection and faith because if you didn’t that meant you had backslid. The problem is that the individual believer was the locus of these battles to assure that you would be saved. You had to wage that battle until your very dying breath.
Joseph Smith saw that and said that a) salvation is not a story about an individual, salvation is a story about communities of individuals, and b) life is richer and more filled with spirit when we are not constantly worried about whether we have measured up, whether we have demonstrated our election under Calvinism or whether we have avoided backsliding under Arminianism.
So Joseph Smith’s response to the crisis of death was to define a communal rather than an individual approach to salvation, and to restore or reveal a ritual system that allowed people to know that it would be okay, that they did not need to worry endlessly about whether they would be saved, whether their children would be saved, but that through the revealed rituals of the restoration they could have the assurance that they would be together again in the afterlife and they could get about the business of living together.
HODGES: So that’s kind of situating it with some of the Protestant views, Calvinism, Arminianism, what’s interesting is you could kind of look at Mormonism as being a Protestant-like sect, or a Protestant-like religion and that it obviously wasn’t Catholicism, but at the same time Joseph Smith’s return to the importance of priesthood in ordinances was a departure from a lot of other Protestant groups. There’s this sense that his returning to this communal salvation, which is contingent on priesthood authority—
BROWN: There was clear pushback. He got pushback from Protestants, he got pushback from Emerson and the transcendentalists. Everybody saw him as an idiosyncratic crypto-Catholic, or somebody who was rejecting the fundamental corners of both the Lutheran and the Calvinist reformations. When it comes down to it, and I’m sure people will argue with me, when it comes down to it the story of the reformation seems to be a story about the primacy of scripture over church and church tradition and the primacy of the individual and the individual’s conscience over and against the early modern Catholic church.
So then Joseph Smith said well no, it’s not just about the biblical canon as you have decreed it. The canon is an evolving canon that evolves under the guidance of living prophets and it turns out it’s not just an individual hammering out the details of belief in his mind as he reflects upon the scripture. It’s this living, breathing, sacramental restoration.
So there are ways in which Joseph Smith appears very Protestant or that the restoration had come through him as phrased in Protestant sounding ways, but when you get down to the innards of the restoration they are profoundly non-Protestant. I think if we could step back from the fighting and the posturing about it we could acknowledge that when many Protestants say we’re not Christian what they really mean is we are un-Protestant and we really are un-Protestant. In our core beliefs we do not sound Protestant. It’s okay to embrace the fact that we are not Protestants at the same time that we extend love and understanding and kindness to our Protestant peers.
HODGES: One way I think we can do that is just by looking at history and looking at some of the similarities and differences, kind of what you’ve done in your project. You bring up the language of adoption, this idea of adoption in pre-Civil War, Protestant religion. You trace it all the way back from there to the New Testament in Paul. So let’s shift over to this idea of adoption and kind of give listeners the background here about the roots of this idea of adoption. How adoption fits into Christianity.
BROWN: Adoption starts in the writings of Saint Paul as an explanation of how people who are not Israelite by birth could be heirs of the covenant between Yahweh, we often call him Jehovah or the Lord, but as heirs of the covenant that Yahweh makes with Israel. So in Paul adoption is a story about the way Christ becomes the father to the Gentile faithful and through adoption by Christ people gain or obtain a birth right as Israelites. That’s deeply meaningful.
In the Letter to the Romans there’s such gorgeous language about the spirit testifying to our spirit, that we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ that I find just deeply moving because it’s the story about relationships and dignity that doesn’t depend on who your biological parents are. It doesn’t matter what side of the tracks you were born on, it doesn’t matter what nation you were born into, Christ’s atonement is fundamentally a story about the potential for all of us to be the children of God in a deeply meaningful sense. In general for most of creedal Christianity that’s the sense that people maintain around the notion of adoption, that there are different distinct variations on that fundamental notion. But in its essence it’s a story about how Gentiles could become Israelites and they become that through Jesus the Messiah.
HODGES: So you trace that up through the Puritans, right? So what are some of the ways that the Puritans incorporated this idea of adoption? I ask because it’s really interesting to see the way that it fades in Christian thought and then in some ways seems to reemerge in some ways with Mormonism.
BROWN: The Puritans had a very clearly defined sense of covenant theology. Covenant theology was a very communal theology. They were hard-nosed, mean, petty people but the reality is that they were theocrats. They believed that a civil system should be built on the basis of an ecclesial society, and the covenant theology of the Puritans was the notion that there could be a merger of civic society and religious society and family community and networks.
Part of what they realized as they worked through covenant theology was that there would be interruptions where they would be a black sheep in the family and the grandparents loved their grandchildren, as they commonly did, and were able to get their grandchildren to come into the church, but the parents of those grandchildren were unregenerate or were reprobate or had died in their sins.
So they (inaudible) to be sure that the grandchildren could still be a part of the sacred covenant and the line of election that came through the families. So people were (inaudible). What do you do when it feels like salvation ought to extend through familial and relational networks but manifestly you have people who defy and deviate from the expected course and disappoint their parents? With the waning of establishment of congregationalism and the remnants of what we think of as Puritanism, there is a pretty sharp distinction from that. But then Joseph Smith definitely has a sense that there were elements of Puritan theology and Puritan covenant theology that were important friends of the original gospel that needed restoration.
HODGES: When you tie this into Mormonism you talk about some of the early Mormon discussions on adoption and you point to the Book of Mormon as a place where adoption comes up and this is where people make a covenant to be called the children of Christ, his sons and his daughters, and they enter into this sort of family relationship of believers. They take upon them a new name, the name of Christ, and this sort of thing. It seems like you don’t see adoption theologies really taking off in Mormonism for a couple of years. Is that impression right?
BROWN: I think if you judge by the published documents that are most compatible with the vision of adoption that Joseph Smith had in Nauvoo that you’re right, you don’t see those documents early on and whether it was Joseph Smith being called to further clarify and explore the implications of adoption theology that had been present in prior (inaudible) or if they have an alternative explanation. I don’t think the documents tell you one way or the another. But there’s a sense in which Joseph Smith thinks it through and prays about it and worries over it and gets revelation about it, but he’s able to tell more of a story of adoption. It’s almost like those old Paul Harvey broadcast where he says, “And that’s the rest of the story.” Joseph Smith as he’s continuing to grow as a prophet isn’t able to explain the (inaudible) traditional Christian adoption.
HODGES: There was a part that really surprised me, I didn’t expect to see it in there, you had a pretty long discussion about patriarchs, the idea of Mormon patriarchal blessings and how this ties into the idea of adoption. I think people would be interested to hear about that because today we just sort of think of patriarchs as these people that give us our patriarchal blessings, some kind of like a personalized scripture that just gives us some instruction about our lives, assigns us to a tribe of Israel or identifies us as a tribe of Israel, but patriarchal blessings you see as playing a more formative role I think in early Mormon thought of adoption, right?
BROWN: Yeah. I think that the later twentieth century experience of the patriarchal blessing is as you described it. It’s a private revelation to you that is a kind of miniature bible that is relevant to your specific life, that’s something that you will turn to in times of need. That sense of a patriarchal blessing is certainly present in the earliest patriarchal blessings. If you look at the theology that Joseph Smith was describing and elaborating to describe what patriarchs were and what their role was, there was actually a lot more to it in the early years, particularly under Joseph Smith, but persisting after Joseph Smith died.
Specifically patriarchal blessings were one of the early ways that Joseph Smith was trying to communicate this sense that human beings could serve a role as extensions of the Christ or as secondary saviors. Joseph Smith saw these secondary saviors as he called, and this was a borrowing I think from Obadiah, saviors on Mount Zion. The early understanding of saviors on Mount Zion was these were the people that would bring others to the joyful reunion at Zion’s Mount when the Messiah returned.
There was almost a sense in which Christ had deputized us to be saviors to each other. You could get into trouble, particularly with Evangelical Protestants who say you’re trying to demean Jesus and you’re trying to say that human beings are just as good as Jesus, and that’s not really a caricature of what Joseph Smith was preaching, but what he was preaching I think was that the purpose of our lives is to be as like Jesus as we can. When you phrase it in those terms they say of course that’s what we believe. What was Jesus doing? Jesus was bringing the covenant, and by the covenant it’s not just an agreement, the covenant was also the operating rules of a community, Christ was bringing a community and forgiveness and love and the opportunity for repentance to all of us to allow us to assemble.
HODGES: The thing that fascinates me when you’re talking about this is the way that you tie baptism for the dead, patriarchal blessings, and these things, even missionary work, with a project that goes back in time and forward in time that’s executed in present time. So with baptism for the dead you’re performing ordinances for people who have already lived, but you’re also anticipating meeting them in the millennium or in the next world and you both will have received these saving ordinances together, you both can rejoice together. With patriarchal blessings it’s this idea that reaches back through the Hebrew Scriptures. You’re connected to a tribe of Israel, but it’s also something that projects forward as well to your posterity. Patriarchal blessings would mention the posterity of the person being blessed and that these blessings could be handed on. We talk about children being born in the covenant and these sorts of ideas. So these revelations that Joseph Smith had, they seem to project out past and future and I thought that was really interesting.
One of the most interesting things I hadn’t considered before was where the Article of Faith says, “We believe in Evangelists and so forth.” If you ask Mormons today they say we don’t really have anything that’s necessarily called an Evangelist, but Joseph Smith said that the patriarch was an Evangelist. You connect it to these ideas I’m just talking about. You provide a really interesting interpretation of what he might have meant by that, by an Evangelist being a patriarch. So take a second to mention that. I thought that was really interesting.
BROWN: So to understand this I think you’ll understand that Joseph Smith was saying that we as human beings can aspire to spread the light and covenant and community of Christ throughout the world. There are a variety of ways we can do it, as you so eloquently summarized. Baptisms for the dead, patriarchal blessings, parent’s blessings, healing blessings, washings and anointings, and also the (inaudible) tie between someone who brings the gospel to a convert and that convert.
In Joseph Smith’s hands that connection between a loving parent and a reciprocally loving child is the whole story. It’s the story of God and Christ, it’s the story of Christ and all of us, and it’s the story of the relationships we craft. When Smith talks about converting someone, bringing the gospel to a person who subsequently embraces it and is baptized, he says that it’s creating a relationship that has the kind of durability that it can persist into the afterlife. In the essay, and I think it’s probably true, there’s that merger where the Evangelist is the adoptive parent of the convert, and the patriarch as the adoptive parent of the person receiving the patriarchal blessing. That’s a parallelism that we have not really explored, in part because we’ve lost track, many of us, of that original theology of the amplifications of Christ through our interactions with each other that are modeled on the tender love of a parent for a child and vice versa.
HODGES: You’ve got a lot of really interesting insights in the book, but that one in particular I don’t know why but that one in particular just really struck me, and it’s a questions that I’d had for a long time. Why would Joseph Smith equate evangelists and patriarchs? That doesn’t make sense. But when you put it in this context of a missionary becoming a sort of spiritual father or mother to a convert or a patriarch becoming a sort of spiritual father to someone he’s giving a blessing to, then it makes sense within this frame. I can’t say for sure if that’s what he had in mind, but boy I think you make a really strong case for that. That’s one that I’ll take for my default position for now.
BROWN: I’m always open to be corrected. I think you follow the evidence that you see in the documents, you think carefully about it, you chat with other scholars, and then you propose what you think is a reasonable hypothesis, always recognizing that new information particularly a large amount of information and a new theoretical framework can further clarify what it is you’ve thought.
I really think in my own faith work, and I’m a beliving, practicing, Latter-day Saint, and in my own faith (inaudible) think about that love I feel for my children that is visceral and beyond words and can tie me in knots and can elevate me into a perfect happiness. I think about the fact that I would die for them and that I can’t disentangle my identity from them, you can clearly take this into psychologically dangerous paths, I’m not advocating that, but I think that’s supposed to be our model for how we strive to feel about each other, not just our biological children but about everybody, that we should feel a sort of power in our associations with each other. I think that’s a key element of what Joseph Smith is describing, and with adoption he raises the role of the will.
I’ve taught my own preaching in church about a love that is felt and a love that is chosen. I feel the love that is felt that’s so natural and spontaneous with regard to our children, but there’s also a love that we choose. I think that the story of our mortal sojourn is understanding how to allow a love that is felt and a love that is chosen to mutually enrich each other so that we will have them both, that incredibly powerful bond with each other and the ability to bring others into that kind of a bond. It’s very easy and it feels increasingly easy as time goes on to imagine that the horizons of our world of regard, our coterminous with maybe our own fence at our own nice little house, maybe our ward boundaries, but (inaudible) God and Jesus, the prophet Joseph, well beyond that. I think the framework of adoption theology makes explicit the rule that a chosen love will play in our observance of the gospel.
HODGES: That’s actually what led to this interview. You published an article in the previous issue of BYU Studies on adoption. The BYU Studies article was written on the premise that you see a distinction between your formal historical work and then your perspectives as a believer. You kind of make a distinction between those, not to say they can be entirely separated by each other, but there’s sort of a difference when you’re talking to fellow members of the church or when you’re writing an academic article or book.
So in this BYU Studies article you’re kind of able to reach members of the church who think about these types of issues and you talk about the idea of adoption, but you also talk about spirit birth, and you propose that a spiritual adoption model might be more fitting, at least to you personally, than spirit birth. This is the idea that Heavenly Parents somehow literally have some sort of procreative act that results in a brand new spirit child and that sort of thing.
So maybe, we only have a few minutes left, but can you talk for a second about how these different views came up? There’s a view of spirits as born to Heavenly Parents in an extremely literal way and one of the Heavenly Parents becoming adoptive parents of eternal intelligences. Where are kind of the roots of that?
BROWN: I can’t find any contemporary evidence in Joseph Smith’s period that suggests this (inaudible) would associate with the Pratt brothers and ultimately with Brigham Young and William Phelps and others. What I see Joseph Smith writing about is a sense in which God organizes intelligences into his family and imagery of divine adoption and of us as secondary saviors practicing adoption. Shortly after Joseph Smith’s death you see a fair bit of his lieutenants puzzling through what the meaning of God’s literal parenthood of us might be, and in that setting they tended to take a tack that suggested in an almost Sweden Borgen inflection that what we think of as human sexuality would persist into the afterlife and that pregnancy (inaudible) parturition either would be painless but that they would persist in the afterlife.
As Jonathan Stapley and I were going back and forth in the late thoughts about adoption and thinking it through we did a pair of essays where I did the Joseph Smith through Woodruff’s ending of adoption as we knew it. While talking about it it occurred to us that when you look at the Smithian documents they feel adopted and they feel like they’re a story about God seeing us and seeing us needing to develop further and knowing that the way we would develop further is in a parental relationship with him, and that he then adopts us into his family.
It makes sense to me. I think the reason that it makes sense to me is that it’s a story about a love that is chosen, that Christ calls us to love, not just spontaneously but to train ourselves to love and to always be aspiring to broaden the compass of our domestic love in the noble and godly sense. I understand that there are well meaning and inspired and inspiring Latter-day Saints who feel like the spirit birth model as we call it is the only possible account, and I’m not after any kind of argument. I don’t think that I am an expert on it exactly (inaudible) God conducts his private life or even on the details of the shape of heaven. I attempt to hear what seems like God wants us to hear and to try to construct a meaningful heaven and family life here on earth without needing to know all the specific details, but I think good Latter-day Saints can (inaudible) either in a spirit birth model or an adoptive model or a hybrid or another model. I don’t think anybody’s salvation will be in peril by that specific belief about theology. But if you do believe in a spirit birth model I think you have to be open to the possibility that the adoptive model or adoptive (inaudible) broadly can change the way we think about the intense love we should feel for each other, not just for our biological children.
HODGES: I think what’s most striking then about this is just the idea that your scholarship you recognize as explicitly in this article, your scholarship does have direct bearing on your life as a believer and of your religious views. I think it’s interesting and great that you had the opportunity to explore those issues because I don’t think many Mormon studies folks often get the chance to do that, usually those are the types of connected questions, especially in historical analyses that it wouldn’t really fit in in a lot of journals and things like this. I hope just—
BROWN: I wrote the history as a historian trying to understand what the document said. After I’d written it I thought about it, and I read it, and I thought that sounds like a reasonably accurate historical representation and then having written the history with the approach of a historian I then was able to come to what had been created and think about well does this mean anything to me as a believer?
I felt like that kind of it’s not a full (inaudible) but it’s a (inaudible) projects. Figure out what the documents say and what they mean according to the standards of history and then once you’ve done the hard work of figuring out what the documents seem to suggest, then bring a believer’s eye to that question. I’ve found personally that letting the history take me where the history would and then thinking what it might mean, that model worked for me, and meant that I didn’t have to pretend that there was not a believer in me, but that I also was able to write a history that was as true to the documents as I could figure out to be and that couldn’t (inaudible) sense to someone who was not a believer.
HODGES: Thanks for joining us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, Sam. We really appreciate it.
BROWN: Thanks, Blair.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)