Understanding the Fall in Mormonism – Part V: From Sin to Transgression
This post is part V in the Understanding the Fall in Mormonism series. See all parts here.
We have been exploring the development of the Mormon concept of a positive fall. While some observers point to Lehi in the Book of Mormon as the originator of the fortunate fall, the Book of Mormon, taken as a whole, views the Fall as a result of man’s disobedience and caused by the temptations of the devil. The Book of Mormon labels the fruit of the tree as “forbidden,” and the Book of Moses spoke of Adam’s actions as “sin.” The Plan of Salvation as expounded in the Book of Mormon is the response to the Fall.
What I’ve attempted to show is the driving forces or undercurrents developing in Mormonism, propelling it towards a positive view of the Fall. Such forces include the expanding role of Adam as prophet and patriarch with connections to priesthood, his post-mortal identity as Michael the archangel. Michael’s role would expand from the traditional archangel role to a joint-creator of the earth in premortal councils. Once the doctrine of pre-mortal existence developed, the fall of man was seen opening the floodgates; the act that allowed all the billions of spirits waiting in premortal existence the opportunity to experience mortality. How could that act—so crucial to the salvation drama—be wrong?
In addition, the plurality of worlds would further drive Mormonism to view the Fall as something planned and intentional, rather than view Adam and Eve’s actions as God’s creations gone awry. Indeed, the Fall begins to become an integrated component of the plan of salvation, rather than something to which the plan of salvation tries to resolve. All these undercurrents make it difficult for Latter-day Saints to view Adam and Eve’s actions as evil.
A Sin, But a Necessary Sin
“I have no complaints to make about our father Adam eating the forbidden fruit, as some have,” explained the apostle John Taylor in 1853, “for I do not know but any of us would have done the same.”
This statement shows the power of these other forces at work in Mormon theology, so much that Taylor could find no blame in the act of eating “forbidden” fruit.
The question early Mormons wrestled with was how exactly to understand Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden. If it wasn’t wrong, what was it?
Some may regret that our first parents sinned. This is nonsense. If we had been there, and they had not sinned, we should have sinned. I will not blame Adam or Eve, why? Because it was necessary that sin should enter into the world; no man could ever understand the principle of exaltation without its opposite; no one could ever receive an exaltation without being acquainted with its opposite. How did Adam and Eve sin? Did they come out in direct opposition to God and to His government? No. But they transgressed a command of the Lord, and through that transgression sin came into the world. The Lord knew they would do this, and He had designed that they should.
Early Mormons, as typified by John Taylor and Brigham Young, sensed that there was something qualitatively different about Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden. Although Young retains the traditional language of speaking of sin, this sin was different from the open rebellion that characterizes the evil and the wicked. As Young explained in 1869, “We should never blame Mother Eve, not the least.”
Of course, Young had good reasons not blaming Adam and Eve in the garden. While Young’s Adam-God theory has been looming in the background of our survey, directly influencing the plurality of worlds idea, one cannot understand Young’s positive view of the fall without understanding his beliefs regarding Adam and Eve.
As early as 1852, Young taught: “When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world.” As we saw in the discussion of Young’s plurality of worlds idea, this was the pattern that all worlds would follow. “Yes, an Adam will have to go there,” said Young, “and he cannot do without Eve; he must have Eve to commence the work of generation, and they will go into the garden, and continue to eat and drink of the fruits of the corporal world, until this grosser matter is diffused sufficiently through their celestial bodies to enable them, according to the established laws, to produce mortal tabernacles for their spirit children.” Under Brigham Young’s cosmology, it would be impossible to regard Adam and Eve’s actions as evil.
One of the more intriguing observations is that the positive view of the fall was not dependent on the Adam-God doctrine. No one rejected Brigham Young’s Adam-God ideas more than the gauge of philosophy, Orson Pratt.
Like Young, Orson Pratt retained the traditional language of Adam’s “sin” and even “original sin” but sought to narrow its application to death only, avoiding drawing implications of a depraved human nature as traditional Christian theology had focused on since Augustine:
This death, or dissolution of the earth is a penalty of the original sin. Infants and righteous men die, not as a penalty of their own sins, but because Adam sinned.
Paul says that sin entered into the world by transgression, and death by sin. Notice that expression. Death entered into the world by sin. If there had been no sin, there would have been no death. If Adam and Eve never had sinned, they would have been alive on the earth at this time, just as fresh and pure as in the morning of creation: they would have remained to all eternity without a wrinkle of old age overtaking them.
So it is with all the posterity of Adam. The consequences of the transgression of Adam and Eve have flowed down upon us; hence we find that all the sons and daughters of Adam have become mortal. The seeds of dissolution are within our tabernacles, because our first parents sinned, and yet we are not guilty of their sins.
Furthermore, Adam and Eve became subject in the spirit to the being that tempted him. The children that were begotten by him, inheriting unholy, fallen tabernacles, also became subject to the same being, on the supposition that there had been no atonement provided. Hence you perceive the baneful consequences of the fall, considered separate and apart from any atonement which was to be made.
Pratt’s formulation is decidedly more grounded in scripture than Young’s. At any rate, this is the kind of understanding that was palatable to early Latter-day Saints. They could conceive of Adam and Eve’s acts as introducing death, but still not necessarily blameworthy or as indicative of a rebellious nature.
Mormon sermons and writings continued to employ traditional language but always accompanied by an explanation that what Adam and Eve did was necessary. Even the luminary B. H. Roberts (1911) retained the language of sin, writing that “Adam sinned that man might be.”
Orson F. Whitney (1914) is to be credited with interjecting legal principles into understanding the Edenic narrative.
Adam’s transgression, though a sin, because of the broken law, should not be stressed as an act of moral turpitude. In human law, which is based upon divine law, there are two kinds of offenses in general, described in Latin terms as malum per se and malum prohibitum. Malum per se means “an evil in itself,” an act essentially wrong; while malum prohibitum signifies “that which is wrong because forbidden by law.” Adam’s transgression was malum prohibitum; and the consequent descent from an immortal to a mortal condition, was the Fall. 
Whitney still conceded Adam’s transgression was a sin, but like Brigham Young, argued it was a sin without moral turpitude. Mormon thinkers continued to accumulate reasons for viewing Adam’s or Eve’s or both parent’s actions as sin without the typical characteristics of sin.
John A. Widtsoe’s 1915 work A Rational Theology, provides another glimpse into this shift in language. Widtsoe places Adam’s “sin” and the “fall” in scare quotes, informing readers that while he continues to employ the traditional terminology, he does not fully accept them. The message is subtle and can be easily missed unless one understands the history of this development.
It was Necessary, But Not a Sin
This dissonance between language and theology continued until, in the early 1950s, Mormon leaders broke from traditional moorings and began to boldly declare that Adam and Eve did not sin.
In General Conference 1953, Elder Marion G. Romney explained, “I do not look upon Adam’s action as a sin. I think it was a deliberate act of free agency. He chose to do that which had to be done to further the purposes of God. The consequences of his act made necessary the atonement of the Redeemer.”
The following year, Bruce R. McConkie, a Seventy at the time, published Doctrines of Salvation, a collection of sermons of Joseph Fielding Smith, his father-in-law and then-president of the Quorum of the Twelve. In that book, McConkie published a personal correspondence from his father-in-law: “I never speak of the part Eve took in this fall as a sin, nor do I accuse Adam of a sin.” Smith explains: “This was a transgression of the law, but not a sin in the strict sense, for it was something that Adam and Eve had to do!”
Thus began the “transgression but not a sin” movement in Mormon interpretations of Eden in which it was conceded that Adam and Eve transgressed the commandment not to eat of the forbidden fruit, but maintained that Adam and Even did not sin in their transgression.
Joseph Fielding Smith offered several arguments why it was not a sin despite breaking a commandment, noting that “In no other commandment the Lord ever gave to man, did he say: ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself.’” Incidentally, Smith also taught that the forbidden fruit was not actually forbidden: “Mortality was created through the eating of forbidden fruit, if you want to call it forbidden, but I think the Lord has made it clear that it was not forbidden. He merely said to Adam, if you want to stay here [in the garden] this is the situation. If so, don’t eat it.”
Smith saw signs in the scriptures that this was somehow a different kind of commandment, the breaking of which did not constitute sin.
Perhaps the most innovative rationale was given by Smith’s son-in-law. Bruce R. McConkie argued that Adam and Eve could not have sinned in the Garden because the commission of sin requires knowledge of good and evil. Because Adam and Eve could not have knowledge of good and evil before eating the fruit, the act of partaking of the forbidden fruit could never be characterized as sinful. McConkie, a lawyer by profession, sought to introduce a kind of mens rea requirement to the act of sin in the Garden. His interpretation has a strong logical appeal but tends to overlook the dire and serious consequences that came as a result of Adam and Eve’s “non-sin.”
In a related vein, Dallin H. Oaks, the apostle-jurist, although he did not cite Orson F. Whitney, drew upon the distinction between malum in se and malum prohibitum: “Some acts, like murder, are crimes because they are inherently wrong. Other acts, like operating without a license, are crimes only because they are legally prohibited. Under these distinctions, the act that produced the Fall was not a sin—inherently wrong—but a transgression—wrong because it was formally prohibited. These words are not always used to denote something different, but this distinction seems meaningful in the circumstances of the Fall.”
Complicating the Whitney-Oakian interpretation is the fact that the legal concept of malum in se historically appealed to Natural Law or divine law. What could be more “divine” than God commanding Adam not to eat of the forbidden fruit? How can a direct order by God be given the same status as a municipal ordinance? This is an odd ripple in a nascent Mormon jurisprudence.
As Mormon thinkers pushed their unique understanding of the fall, this served as yet another means by which Mormons could distinguish themselves from other Christians. Oaks points out that “Some Christians condemn Eve for her act, concluding that she and her daughters are somehow flawed by it. Not the Latter-day Saints!” “Moreover, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Mother Eve for partaking of the ‘forbidden fruit,’” taught Joseph Fielding Smith, “It was not a sin, as many Bible commentators would have you believe.” In this way, this unique distinction somewhat served to galvanize Mormon identity vis-à-vis the traditional Christian interpretation of Eden.
In 1980, Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook published “Words of Joseph Smith” which contained a statement by the early Mormon prophet that had never been published previously:
Joseph said in answer to Mr stout that Adam Did Not Comit sin in [e]ating the fruits for God had Decred that he should Eat & fall-But incomplyance with the Decree he should Die-only he should Die was the saying of the Lord therefore the Lord apointed us to fall & also Redeemed us-for where sin a bounded Grace did Much more a bound -for Paul says Rom-5. 10 for if-when were enemys we were Reconciled to God by the Death of his Son, much more, being Reconciled, we shall be saved by his Life-
This statement was recorded in William P. McIntire’s “Minute Book” on February 9, 1841. The month previously (January 5, 1841) the Nauvoo Lyceum was organized for theology and Joseph often answered questions of a doctrinal nature. However, it should be stressed that this teaching did not influence Mormon thought until Ehat and Cook’s work was published.
Brigham Young, along with the entire Quorum of the Twelve (Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff) were in Liverpool England at this time on a mission. Brigham Young wouldn’t return back to Nauvoo until June 1, 1841. None of the leading explicators of Mormon doctrine heard or apparently had access to Joseph’s statement. Therefore, the statement is completely absent from the writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, who would have latched on this statement had it been available to him, and no doubt would have felt vindicated in its finding.
It isn’t clear whether the trajectory of Mormon thought would have changed had Joseph Smith’s statement been picked up by the Twelve. Perhaps the view that Adam and Eve’s actions were not a sin was just an inevitable outcome given the configuration of Mormon theology. Although, as one can see, Joseph Smith’s argument for why it was not a sin, was that God had “decreed” it. Joseph Smith couched his understanding in the concept of “foreordination.” While Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Orson F. Whitney, Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce R. McConkie, and Dallin H. Oaks would likely agree with the foreordination argument, each contributed their own unique rationale for interpreting Adam and Eve’s actions as blameless. One might view these additional arguments as the result of Latter-day Saints thinking through the problem of how to understand Adam and Eve’s actions given the Garden of Even narrative as found in scripture and given the theological environment in which these were placed.
In this post, I’ve attempted to outline shifting terminology and trace the development from sin to transgression. Again, I stress that this is merely one aspect of the story of the positive fall within Mormon thought. This shift in language was accompanied by yet another innovation in interpretation. In the next post, we will continue to examine this fascinating development in our exploration of the Fall.
 2 Ne 2:19; Moses 6:54.
 John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 1:223. April 8, 1853.
Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 10:312. June 10-13, 1864.
 Brigham Young, July 18, 1869. JD 13:145. For an introduction to Brigham Young’s view of Adam-God see Buerger, David John. “The Adam-God Doctrine,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15.1 (Spring 1982).
 Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 1:331 (undated) (emphasis added). Charles W. Penrose (April 25, 1880) also used the phrase original sin: The sin which our first parents committed in the Garden of Eden is called original sin; and the sins committed individually by the inhabitants of the earth, are called actual sin, for “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Journal of Discourses 21:80.
 Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 6:357. July 24, 1859. (emphasis added).
 Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 7:255. September 11, 1859. (emphasis added).
 B.H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, Vol.3 (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1911), pp. 202-204
 Orson F. Whitney, Saturday Night Thoughts, Part 3 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1921), p. 82; Whitney published this idea first in Orson F. Whitney, Elias-An Epic of the Ages (Salt Lake City : O.F. Whitney, 1914), p. 128. “The fall of Adam and Eve, while technically a sin because of a broken law, should be stressed as the means whereby God’s children obtained their bodies, rather than as an act of moral turpitude.” See also in Orson F. Whitney, The Strength of the ‘Mormon’ Position (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1917), p. 3. “Adam’s transgression was malum prohibitum, or wrong because forbidden; not malum in se, or wrong in itself. It had a beneficent purpose, but it put the world in pawn, and Death was the pawnbroker, with a twofold claim upon all creation.”
 Marion G. Romney, Conference Report, April 1953, p.124.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-56) 1:114-15.
 Robert J. Matthews, Selected Writings of Robert J. Matthews: Gospel Scholars Series. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999) p.152. Matthews cites a transcript of Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Sacrament and the Atonement,” address given at the LDS institute of religion, Salt Lake City, 14 Jan. 1961, 5.
 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine 2nd ed. (Bookcraft, 1966) pp. 735, 804. (Citing 2 Nephi 2:23).
 Dallin H. Oaks, “’The Great Plan of Happiness’,” Ensign, Nov 1993. It is not at all clear this distinction is satisfactory. A reasonable consequence of operating without a license is a fine or revocation of a license, not a death sentence. Like McConkie, Oaks tends to downplay the capital punishment that was attached to this mere transgression.
 Nancy Travis Wolfe, “Mala in Se: A Disappearing Doctrine,” 19. Criminology 131, 136-138 (1981).
 Dallin H. Oaks, “’The Great Plan of Happiness’,” Ensign, Nov 1993. This comparison was also added to Church manuals: “The decision of Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit was not a sin, as it is sometimes considered by other Christian churches. It was a transgression-an act that was formally prohibited but not inherently wrong (see Dallin H. Oaks, in Conference Report, Oct. 1993, 98; or Ensign, Nov. 1993, 73). Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual (1998), p. 13
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. 5 (Deseret Book, 1966):, p.65. Of course as we have seen, it was not just bible commentators, but the entire league of Mormon leaders before him who accepted Adam and Eve’s acts as sin, albeit with some kind of qualification.
 Ehat, Andrew F. and Lyndon W. Cook. (eds). The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1980) p. 63. February 9, 1841 (Tuesday) Mcintire Minute Book. This statement seems consistent with another statement that Joseph is reported to have made. M.L. Davis reported Joseph to have said: I believe in the fall of man, as recorded in the Bible; I believe that God foreknew everything, but did not foreordain everything; I deny that foreordain and foreknow is the same thing. … “I believe,” said he, “that a man is a moral, responsible, free agent; that although it was foreordained he should fall, and be redeemed, yet after the redemption it was not foreordained that he should again sin.” Ehat and Cook, p. 63.