Plural-marriage, blood-atonement and Adam-God are teachings that arose in the early LDS (Salt Lake City, Utah) church, but not promulgated by the LDS (church) today. Indeed many of those in LDS-proper have not even heard of the doctrines. However, among the more-than-fifty Protestant-Mormon denominations (break-off churches), there is an acceptance and allegiance to one or more of these teachings. These topics are also a very common subject of conversation on the numerous email-lists that discuss Mormon history and doctrine.
But, what are these teachings really about? Agreeably, discussion of what they mean tends to be a divisive activity. That is one reason that this essay will not come with any claims of authority or claim to give the correct interpretation. Neither is there any desire on the part of this author that anyone believe or accept what is being proposed. It is only offered as "food-for-thought" in the spirit of free-thinking and open discussion.
Carnal and Spiritual Understandings. Before getting to the topic at hand, it may be helpful to revisit some of the ideas presented in other essays. Although this comes at a risk of being redundant to the point of annoyance, it is necessary to do so to assist in successful communication of what comes next.
Carnal man, who comprehends his life in the terms of a literal-material world, rarely understands what he is given by God. When he does hear what God tells him, he is prone to think that he knows what is meant. This is the story that is portrayed in the Old Testament. For example, when God tells the people to make sacrifice (of the beast), they take the meaning as killing of innocent animals rather than to overcome the "beast" that exists within (the acceptable sacrifice). When carnal man is told to purify himself by circumcision, he takes it literally as a cutting of the penal foreskin rather than as a metaphor for purifying his own carnal mind and heart. When carnal man hears that he must "build a holy temple unto God", he is prone to take this to mean to construct a building rather than realize that he, himself, is the temple spoken of. As a result of misunderstanding what he should do, carnal man struggles to be obedient, but never is. But, before he can be obedient, he must begin to understand what is meant.
Until carnal man understands where he is going wrong, he is doomed to continual failure. However, this has a great purpose. Eventually, carnal man breaks himself on his failure to find the promised "life more abundant" that he is expecting, but never gets. This is the oft-spoken about, but rarely comprehended, "preparatory gospel" (a state of misunderstanding) that is the eternal existence of fallen man. The preparatory gospel has a divine purpose to remove from carnal man the very things that keep him in his fallen state of existence. And it ultimately does this by bringing carnal man a massive dose of disappointment. Although the preparatory gospel is carnal man’s own creation (as a result of his misunderstanding) it eventually works to "fulfill" its purpose by bringing man to proper understandings through his own (self imposed) dissatisfaction and disenchantment.
All Holy Teachings are about One Thing. Perhaps all of the myriad teachings (with their cognate outward ordinances) on baptism, circumcision, sacrifice, sacrament, prayer, consecration, marriage, and so on are merely different ways of teaching man about God, man himself, and man’s relationship to God. Carnal man does not know who he is, nor who God is, although he vainly thinks he does. Carnal (natural) man thereby becomes an unwitting enemy to God by living distracted in the outer world. By putting the outer world first in his being, he lives his life as an image-worshipper. He thusly lives in (outer) darkness. This is eating of the poison fruit that brings him (spiritual) death… a state of being/living that keeps him separate from God.
This is opposed to spiritual man who sees that all creation is meant to teach him about himself (as an individual creation) in the present time and the present place. Rather than seeing others outside of himself as an enemy, he overcomes the world by recognizing that his greatest enemy has always been within himself. It is his own animal (beastly) nature that must be overcome and this is the very thing that stands in front of him preventing the offering of the acceptable sacrifice (a heart open to God).
There is really nothing new in the teachings on plural-marriage, blood-atonement, and Adam-God because they are all about the same thing: Who is God; who is man; and the relationship between God and man. Hopefully this will become more clear as we look at each of these teachings and their possible interpretations.
The Cycle of History. Carnal man lives in a cycle of which he, himself, is unaware, but which is the story of his life. It is his-story. That is perhaps the reason that holy writings (scriptures) are records of the past. However, history is much more than past. It is also present and future. Since the cycle of history is a repetition of past circumstances, then what happens in the present (or future) circumstance is only the past being manifested in the present (or future). One only needs to stop and take a moment to carefully observe the world around him to see this repetition. Although the actors are different, man's (his-)story amounts to a cycle that seems to never end.
With this in mind, one might ponder the events of Mormon history compared to those of the Old Testament. Perhaps it is only the time-component that varies. Mormons themselves will often compare the trek west in the 1840's and 1850's to the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness and the entering of the Salt Lake Valley to the entering of the "promised land". However, it is rarely taken further, even into the present time as well as what lies in the future.
It is not the purpose of this essay to discuss similarities between the Old Testament Israelites and their modern Mormon contemporaries. This will be left for individual consideration. Rather, the purpose here is to bring up a couple of ideas that will be helpful when considering the topic(s) at hand. One idea is that God often speaks to man in symbolic language (which is often misunderstood by carnal man). A second idea is that this (misunderstanding by carnal man) is the story of carnal man’s past. Inasmuch, as it is a record of his past, it is also a record of the recent past as well as the present time.
What the Literal/Material Divides, the Spiritual Unites. When considering what is meant by God when he speaks to man, one also needs to notice the fruit (results/outcome) of the different interpretations/understandings. Again, there are literal and symbolic/metaphorical meanings. The most obvious meaning is the literal one. The (often) unseen meaning is the symbolic one.
One should notice that the literal meanings have the effect of degrading and separating men while the symbolic meanings do the opposite. Again, the Old Testament is replete with these misunderstandings and their outcomes. It is the fundamental story of being “lost” and separating into “tribes” rather than uniting under one father. "Tribalism" breeds wars of the (so-called) "chosen" people on others who are living nearby. As a result of the people thinking that the enemy exists externally, they live their lives out in being the proverbial bad neighbor. Carnal man never finds the lasting peace he expects because he is in a perpetual state of war. He is simply going about things the wrong way.
This is opposed to the interpretation that the enemy is within and that the greatest battles are to be fought in one's own soul. Such a person has no need to make war on the neighbors because he has overcome the real enemy (within) and thereby realizes what it means to love unconditionally. He realizes that the reference to unclean neighbors are just symbols for his own internal enemies. He also realizes that perfect love (rather than force) conquers all. These spiritual understandings free man by making him dependent on none other but the God that is within himself. They also make all men (and women) equal and co-independent.
With the above ideas in mind, now let’s turn to a brief discussion of plural-marriage, blood atonement, and Adam-God. After reaching the end of this essay, it may be helpful to go back and revisit some of the topics in the above paragraphs.
Plural Marriage is Not about a Man being Married to Several Women. Most will agree that polygamy is probably the teaching most often associated with the LDS church and Mormonism by most of the world although, at the present time, the LDS church teaches publicly against the practice. History records that Brigham Young, probably the most famous polygamist in American history, married more than a score of other women and lived with them in familial relationships. It is generally accepted among LDS historians that Joseph Smith also took extra wives prior to his death. History has it that these extra wives were often the former or present wives of other men.
But, is this idea of one man being married to more than one woman what it is really about? Is it possible that this is the literal interpretation that is the proverbial “red herring” which does not elevate and unite man (and woman), but serves to degrade and separate? Could it be that there is a profoundly symbolic meaning behind plural marriage that is about man’s personal relationship to God rather than marrying many women?
Jesus spoke about being “one with the Father” (in him) and prayed that all might be “one with God” as he (Jesus is)(cf. 3Nephi 19:23). One might notice the scriptural metaphors of the Old Testament about the “unfaithful wife” (fallen Israel) and the nuance of a marriage being the allegory of man’s relationship to God. Jesus’s prayer that every individual (man and woman) be “one with the Father” too, is the key to understanding what the profound teaching of plural marriage is about. Rather than separate man into a male-female caste system, as does a literal interpretation, this spiritual teaching places every man and woman on equal footing with God. One needs to take time to carefully consider how this understanding of plural marriage unites and elevates man (and woman) while the former interpretation separates and degrades (her).
Blood Atonement does not mean to Kill. Many LDS today are unfamiliar with what was taught in the 1850’s LDS church about the meaning of blood-atonement. Some might want to review some of the public addresses recorded in the Journal of Discourses as well as personal journals of individuals who lived at the time. Again, blood-atonement has a profoundly meaningful message, although it is not what has been portrayed by carnal man.
In the Journal of Discourses, there is an interesting address on the meaning of blood-atonement. For the sake of brevity, only a brief extract will be given here. However, when one takes time to read this particular discourse in its entirety, there is no mistake that the interpretation of blood-atonement is taken by the early Mormons to mean the killing of other men (and women):
“Will you love your brothers or sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the sheding [sic] of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? . . .
“This is loving our neighbour as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. Any of you who understand the principles of eternity, if you have sinned a sin requiring the shedding of blood, except the sin unto death, would not be satisfied nor rest until your blood should be spilled, that you might gain that salvation you desire. That is the way to love mankind.” (Brigham Young, Feb 08, 1857; recorded in the Journal of Discourses, Vol 4, about page 215)
Briefly, the premise outlined in this discourse is that there are certain sins (among them is disloyalty to the church) that cannot be forgiven by the (blood atoning) sacrifice of Jesus. Atonement for these individuals can only be made by the shedding of their own blood. Therefore, one does a favor to such a person if he kills him, because he sends such an individual to a better place (because his own death has atoned for his crimes). The phrase “love your enemies” is interpreted to mean that you will do them a great favor by shedding their blood (killing them). Of course, this interpretation is one that teaches separation and tribalism rather than long-suffering, unconditional love and uniting all into one.
However, one might notice that this idea is not much different from the contemporary Christian view of blood atonement, except that most do not go to the same length as the early LDS to say that loving one’s enemies means to kill them. One might notice that much of the Christian world, Mormons and non-Mormons alike, assent unto the death of Jesus of Nazareth by being thankful for his crucifixion. Indeed, it seems that almost all of Christendom openly expresses thankfulness for the shedding of the (atoning) blood of Jesus. Strangely enough, most will deride the Jews for killing Jesus at the same time as proclaiming thankfulness for what happened. Thus, the belief by Old Testament Israelites that the shedding of blood (of animals) cleanses man from sins is not much different from what is believed today. But, in one way it is much worse. Most of those in the modern world don’t think (like the Israelites) that it refers to animal blood (sacrifice), but rather that it means the shedding of human blood (of Jesus) as sacrifice.
So, what does blood-atonement really mean if the literal meaning is untrue? One might notice the allegorical symbol of blood as being that which nourishes us. Our heart pumps it around the body to bring life-giving nutrients and oxygen. But, that is not all. It also carries away harmful substances such as carbon dioxide.
In the same way, the Spirit is to both nourish us and cleanse us. Drinking the “blood of Christ” in the sacramental ordinance is a symbol of taking on this nourishment. The willing sacrifice of Jesus (by his yielding unto the world) is representative of giving up (shedding) the material (world).
It is not the blood of Jesus that nourishes and cleanses, but rather it is the blood of Christ. It is the Spirit that nourishes and brings about the cleansing at-one-ment (of God).
If Adam is God, then Who are You?. Adam-God is another teaching from the 1850’s church of which modern LDS are unfamiliar. It is not taught today as a doctrine in the mother (LDS) church. In fact, modern LDS leaders have made an effort to refute Adam-God. One who is unfamiliar with the “doctrine” of Adam-God might want to turn to the numerous articles that have been written on the subject. Many of these can be found on the internet or in publications of fundamentalist LDS churches that teach it.
Briefly, Adam-God refers to a teaching that emerged publicly in the 1850’s LDS church that “Adam is the very Eternal Father of Heaven.” Of course, this is taken literally by these early LDS (as well as fundamentalist LDS churches today), meaning that Adam is the personage that fathered Jesus and is the one whom Jesus referred to as his “Father”. Again, it is a literal view.
But, is there another (a non-literal) meaning that is more profound? In the LDS endowment, patrons are told to “consider themselves as Adam and Eve”, but few seem to do so. If Adam is the Father in Heaven, then who are you? Perhaps there is a profound allegorical meaning here that is not anything new at all because it is taught many places in the Biblical scriptures? In fact, there is a profound encounter of Jesus with his disciples who asked him to “shew us the Father”, but the reply was the cryptic “If you have seen me, ye have seen the Father” (cf John 14:9). Moreover, many Christian denominations will even refer (rightly) to Jesus as “the Father” as well as “the Son.”
As one begins to contemplate these things, one realizes it brings us full circle back to the same thing as other scriptural metaphors. Essentially, it is that man is the outward man(ifestion) of God (thereby a Son). He (physical man) is the temple in which God resides, although a usurper often sits on the throne (that belongs to the Father). Despite the carnal misunderstandings, every man (and woman) is both the Father and the Son (Christ Michael – Adam).
One who searches for God should realize that he has not far to travel because the Kingdom of Heaven is as close to him as his own hands. If God is omnipresent (as well as omniscient, omnipotent), then he is everywhere present. If he is everywhere present, then he is right here, right now. That narrows ones search down quite a bit.
Summary Statement: In the same way that the Old Testament Israelites erroneously took the message of sacrifice and circumcision literally, the early Mormons erroneously took the teachings on plural-marriage, blood-atonement, and Adam-God literally. It is no different today (that some take them literally), because the past is a record of the present (and the future). Rather than unite and elevate man, as the teachings of God are meant to do, these literal interpretations separate and degrade man (as an individual and as a whole).
However, all of these teachings also have a very profound and meaningful aspect to them when understood at a spiritual level. And it is nothing that hasn’t been taught previously in deep and profound symbolism. It is about who you are, who God is, and how you are related to God. And it is simply profound (or profoundly simple) when you start to think about it. The irony is that one may not be able to comprehend it fully until one has experienced what it is about.