The Conflicting Commandments Theory: John Andreas Widtsoe
This post is part VIII in the Understanding the Fall in Mormonism series. See all parts here.
The Conflicting Commandments Theory 1946 ~ Present
It has long been recognized that there was more than one commandment given in the Garden of Eden. Orson Pratt recognized that Adam and Eve were given a commandment to multiply and replenish the earth and a commandment not to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Yet, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, Franklin D. Richards, George Q. Cannon, James E. Talmage, and B.H. Roberts, to name a few, never made it a point to argue that these commandments were inherently in conflict.
The dilemma for Adam only occurred after Eve had eaten of the fruit. Only at that point did Adam have “two laws pressing upon him” and only at that point, did he choose to transgress the one law in order to “multiply and replenish the earth” with Eve. But we must underscore the fact that early Latter-day Saint narratives did not revolve around conflicting commandments.
A few developments occurred. First, Mormon interpreters began to focus not on Adam’s decision whether to transgress the law to be with Eve, but rather on Adam and Eve’s choice (“their choice”) to fall in order be multiply and replenish the earth. Second, and as a corollary, Mormon interpreters began to view the commandments in the Garden as inherently in conflict or to begin to argue the commandments are seemingly contradictory or divinely paradoxical. Many Mormon thinkers couched this language in terms of higher laws and lesser laws—that Adam and Eve chose to transgress a lower or lesser law that they might obey a higher or greater law. Lehi’s passage in the Book of Mormon began uniformly to be interpreted such that Adam and Eve were unable to have any children (whether mortal or immortal) before the fall. Third, the question of whether the Fall was “necessary” or “inevitable” was back on the table after a century of no one questioning this point.
John Andreas Widtsoe (January 31, 1872 – November 29, 1952) the Norwegian convert and scientist-apostle (called in 1921) is perhaps the most influential thinker in shifting the Garden of Eden view in Mormon thought. Contemporary beliefs concerning Adam and Eve in Mormonism own their origin in Widtsoe’s formulations.
In 1915, during his tenure as president of Utah State University, Widtsoe published A Rational Theology. He briefly summarizes his view of Eden:
Biblical lore and ancient traditions among nearly all races of man, tell of the “fall” of the first parents from the grace of God. An event called the “fall” did occur, but it was a necessary part of the Great Plan. Adam and Eve were eternal beings, not under the ban of mortal death. Subject to death they must become, however, if their posterity should inherit corruptible bodies. The fall was a deliberate use of a law, by which Adam and Eve became mortal, and could beget mortal children. The exact nature of this event or the exact manner in which the law was used is not understood. The Bible account is, undoubtedly, only figurative. There was no essential sin in the “fall,” except that the violation of any law, whether deliberate or otherwise, is always followed by an effect. The “fall” of Adam and Eve was necessary, for without it there would have been no begetting on the earth of spirits with mortal bodies, and the Plan proposed and confirmed in the Great Council would have remained inoperative. “Adam fell that man might be.” Adam and Eve, in view of the great sacrifices they made to make the Great Plan a reality, are the great hero and heroine of human history.
In the Great Council then held, of which a dim and distant picture only has been left, the great question was with respect to man’s free agency. The essence of the proposed plan was that the spirits, forgetting temporarily their sojourn in their spirit home, should be given a body of grosser matter, and be subject to it, and even be brought under a temporal death. To bring an eternal, free spirit under the bondage of matter and forgetfulness, it was necessary for someone to begin the work by, figuratively speaking, breaking a law, so that the race might be brought under the subjection of death. This may be likened, roughly, to the deliberate breaking, for purposes of repair or extension, of a wire carrying power to light a city. Someone had to divert the current of eternal existence, and thus temporarily bring man’s earthly body under the subjection of gross matter. Adam, the first man, was chosen to do this work. By the deliberate breaking of a spiritual law, he placed himself under the ban of earthly death and transmitted to all his posterity that subjection to death. This was the so-called “sin of Adam.” To obtain or give greater joys, smaller pains may often have to be endured.
Widtsoe departs from the established model that Adam’s decision to fall arose as a response to Eve’s beguilement and fall. Whereas Orson Pratt launched his narrative after the fall of Eve, connecting it with New Testament language, Widtsoe launches his narrative from the pre-mortal realm, retooling his interpretation of Eden in terms of agency. Adam’s “sin” and the “fall” are placed under scare quotes, informing readers that Widtsoe used the traditional terms but did not fully accept them. Widtsoe compares the eating of the forbidden fruit to cutting an electrical wire during repairs and that this constitutes “no essential sin.” Widtsoe does not at this time explain the details of what took place in the Garden, but note that references to First Timothy are completely absent in all of his writings.
As readers should be able to see, Widtsoe essentially offers a modified version of Brigham Young’s beliefs. Like Young, Widtsoe understands the biblical account figuratively. Widtsoe writes: “The statement that man was made from the dust of the earth is merely figurative. It may mean that he was made of universal materials, as is the earth. Likewise, the statement that God breathed into man the breath of life is figurative and refers to the existence of the spirit within the body.”
Like Young, who taught that Adam and Eve become mortal “according to the established laws,” Widtsoe writes that Adam and Eve become mortal through “a deliberate use of a law.” And most importantly, Widtsoe revisits Young’s emphasis that the mission of Adam and Eve was to produce mortal tabernacles for throngs of waiting spirit children. As seen above, Widtsoe underscores the connection to the premortal existence as an essential feature of the Garden narrative.
Although the pre-mortal existence narrative had existed in Mormonism for some time, it had not formed the supporting architecture of Eden. Widtsoe brings in the notion of the Great Council in Heaven to argue that the fall was necessary and planned. Remember that under Young’s cosmology, Adam and Eve were not un-embodied spirits from the premortal spirit world. For Young, Adam and Eve had tangible and celestial bodies before arriving in Eden perfectly capable of progeny. Instead, Widtsoe characterizes Adam and Eve as spirits chosen to be the parents of the human race by the heavenly council.
Perhaps his greatest achievement is that he accomplishes all this without any reference whatsoever to Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings.
Essentially, Widtsoe gives the saints Brigham Young’s Garden of Eden narrative, completely erased of Adam-God. This formula would mark an important watershed in understanding the Garden of Eden.
Widtsoe was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1921. Beginning in 1938 his main publishing outlet would be a regular column titled “Evidences and Reconciliations” in the Improvement Era.
How did Widtsoe understand Adam-God teachings? In the inaugural year of the series, Widtsoe argues that the Adam-God doctrine is a “myth”:
Those who spread this untruth about the Latter-day Saints go back for authority to a sermon delivered by President Brigham Young “in the tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, April 9th, 1852.” (Journal of Discourses, 1:50) Certain statements there made are confusing if read superficially, but very clear if read with their context. Enemies of President Brigham Young and of the Church have taken advantage of the opportunity and have used these statements repeatedly and widely to do injury to the reputation of President Young and the Mormon people. An honest reading of this sermon and of other reported discourses of President Brigham Young proves that the great second President of the Church held no such views as have been put into his mouth in the form of the Adam-God myth.
It is not clear how Widtsoe could fail to perceive Young’s doctrinal position on this matter. Over ten years earlier in 1925, Widtsoe published Discourses Of Brigham Young. None of the selections contain a hint of Adam-God. Incidentally, Widtsoe’s mother-in-law was Susa Young Gates, a daughter of Brigham Young. Widtsoe assisted her and his wife Leah in writing The Life Story of Brigham Young (1930). One observer suggests that the tendency of Mormon leaders in the 20th century to “consider [only] one sermon–that of April 9, 1852 . . . could easily have led to a misunderstanding of Young’s beliefs.”
At any rate, Widtsoe would continue to elaborate and refine his Garden of Eden narrative. In 1935, in an Improvement Era article subtitled “The Supremacy of the Will,” Widtsoe provides the first real comprehensive account of Adam and Eve:
Someone had to come on earth, first. Among the assembled hosts, Adam and Eve were chosen. If Abraham were among “the noble and great ones” we may be sure that our First Parents stood with the greatest in that hopeful throng. They must have conquered their wills for mighty righteousness! It was a part of the plan of salvation (to be discussed in another article) that the eternal, deathless spirit of man should inhabit, on earth, a body subject to disease and death. Adam and Eve undertook to begin the earth-program for the waiting spirits, and to subject their own eternal spirits to earth conditions. As a shadow only do we understand the details of the sacrifice thus made by Adam and Eve. They performed their mission gladly, for their wills were under control, and ready to obey the good plans of the Father for His children.
The so-called transgression of Adam was that he subjected his deathless spirit to the conditions of a body that must of necessity suffer death. But, this subjection was indispensable, if the waiting spirits should secure the desired experiences on earth, in harmony with the plan of the Lord. The breaking of the bonds with the spirit world was the “Sin of Adam.” Sin in its larger meaning is the breaking of a law. In this instance, however, a lesser law was broken that a greater law might be fulfilled. This happens often in daily life. A beautiful crystal is broken and melted so that the iron, copper, or silver which forms part of its composition may be obtained. To save another, many a person has rushed into a burning house, sometimes to his death. Through the “transgression” of Adam, all mankind has been placed upon the road of eternal progression, and thereby have been blessed. Our first parents who dared to endure the pain of initiating the eternal plan must be rated as the great hero and heroine of all time. The human race has descended from worthy parents. The obloquy which has been cast upon Adam and Eve has been unjust and prompted by ignorance of the Gospel plan.
In 1946, in an Improvement Era article tellingly titled “Was the ‘Fall’ Inevitable?” he published a lengthier version of his Eden narrative:
According to the plan of salvation, accepted by the hosts of heaven in the great pre-existent council, Adam and Eve were placed on earth to become the parents of the human race. They could not, however, perform this mission, unless they themselves became subject to mortality. Why, then, did the Lord command them not to partake of the tree of good and evil, the gateway of mortal life? There has seemed to be a contradiction between God’s purpose as embodied in the plan of salvation, and this command to Adam and Eve.
President John Taylor recognized that the “Fall” resulted in good for Adam and Eve, and the whole human family: “They would have been incapable of increase; and without that increase the designs of God in relation to the formation of the earth and man could not have been accomplished; for one great object of the creation of the world was the propagation of the human species, that bodies might be prepared for those spirits who already existed, and who, when they saw the earth formed, shouted for joy.”
Though a command had been given, Adam was permitted to exercise his free agency. “Thou mayest choose for thyself.” The eternal power of choice was respected by the Lord himself. That throws a flood of light on the “Fall.” It really converts the command into a warning, as much as if to say, if you do this thing, you will bring upon yourself a certain punishment; but do it if you choose.
Such was the problem before our first parents: to remain forever at selfish ease in the Garden of Eden, or to face unselfishly tribulation and death, in bringing to pass the purposes of the Lord for a host of waiting spirit children. They chose the latter.
In life all must choose at times. Sometimes, two possibilities are good; neither is evil. Usually, however, one is of greater import than the other. When in doubt, each must choose that which concerns the good of others — the greater law — rather than that which chiefly benefits ourselves — the lesser law. The greater must be balanced against the lesser. The greater must be chosen whether it be law or thing. That was the choice made in Eden.
This view of the “Fall” is confirmed by the scriptures. For example, “. . . if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden . . . forever . . . And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.” (2 Ne. 2:22-23).
Widtsoe radically reframes the decision made in Eden. Instead of Adam’s decision to either transgress and remain with Eve, or obey and see Eve cast out from the Garden, Widtsoe argued that “the problem before our first parents [was] to remain forever at selfish ease in the Garden of Eden, or to face unselfishly tribulation and death, in bringing to pass the purposes of the Lord for a host of waiting spirit children. They chose the latter.” He therefore introduces a new choice for Adam and Eve collectively, either to stay in the Garden in selfish ease, or to fall and initiate the Plan of Salvation by providing mortal tabernacles for “a host of waiting spirit children.”
The contribution of Widtsoe’s interpretation to the Mormon understanding of the fall cannot be overstated. It is a good case study in how Mormon thought develops. Widtsoe drew upon pre-existing elements in the Mormon tradition, formulating a new interpretation of Eden. He resurrects an 1888 passage from John Taylor that had gone unnoticed by others. He does not acknowledge his dependency on Young’s cosmology and apparently misunderstands Young’s views on Adam-God. He offers a different exegesis of 2 Ne. 2:22-23 than that advanced by Orson Pratt, James E. Tamage, and B. H. Roberts. Yet, avoids drawing attention to what he is doing.
In order to accomplish his views, Widtsoe creates a premortal backdrop for the narrative, converts one of the commandments into a warning, and stresses the cherished principle of agency. He removes disobedience as an element in the Garden narrative. He jettisons references to First Timothy and Eve being deceived by the devil. Under Widtsoe’s pen, Adam and Eve become heroes: obedient role-models of human behavior, sacrificing a life of “selfish ease” to bring children into the world. Adam and Eve chose the higher path. This no doubt resonated with Mormon parents and the Church’s focus on family.
Yet, there is now a great deal of distance between the new narrative and the original scriptural moorings from whence it came. The scriptural account never contains any deliberation by Adam and Eve where they weighed their options and considered choosing the higher path. When God confronts Adam and Eve, they never defend themselves by explaining they chose the higher path. While Widtsoe argues that Adam and Eve received a mission in the premortal realm, it appears this cannot influence Adam and Eve’s choice in the garden, since the veil of forgetfulness must be there so that they can have agency.
One of the more serious implications of Widtsoe’s new narrative is that it presents a God who intentionally gives his children conflicting commandments. The narrative has come along way since Orson Pratt’s ethically coherent God who would never command his children to disobey in order to obey. Widtsoe changes the rules of the game and creates a lasting narrative that opens the possibility for even further developments. We will details these developments in the next post.
This post is part of an unpublished paper outlining the development of the fall in Mormon thought.
 This can clearly be seen in article titles “Was the Fall inevitable?” (John A. Widtsoe) and “Was the fall necessary?” (Joseph Fielding Smith).
 For biographical materials see Parrish, Alan K. John A. Widtsoe: A Biography. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003); Dale C. LeCheminant, “John A. Widtsoe: Rational Apologist” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah, 1977). For an excellent exploration of Widtsoe’s writings regarding the reconciliation of faith with science see Ford, Clyde D., “Materialism and Mormonism: The Early Twentieth-Century Philosophy of Dr. John A. Widtsoe,” Journal of Mormon History, 36 (Summer 2010), 1–26.
 John A. Widtsoe, A Rational Theology: As Taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1915): 52. The work is often referred to by its shorter title: Rational Theology. It would later be used as a Melchizedek priesthood manual. For a brief history of how the manuscript was received by Church leaders see Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986): 278-279.
 Rational Theology, 37. Widtsoe’s use of “grosser matter” sounds similar to Brigham Young’s use of “grosser matter.” Young had said: “Yes, an Adam will have to go there 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.” Brigham Young. August 28, 1852. Journal of Discourses 6:275.
 Rational Theology, 50-51.
 These Improvement Era articles would later be published as John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day. 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1943, 1947, 1951); Reprinted in one volume as John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day, arranged by G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960).
 John A. Widtsoe, Improvement Era, vol. 48 (November 1938), no. 11, pp. 652, 690
 Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1925).
 Buerger, David John. “The Adam-God Doctrine,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15.1 (Spring 1982): ft109.
 John A. Widtsoe, “The Articles of Faith: III. Supremacy of the Will.” Improvement Era Volume 38 (1935). This article was not included in G. Homer Durhman’s later compilation and to my knowledge was never reprinted.
 John A. Widtsoe, Improvement Era Volume 49 (1946), p.33; John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations 2 vol. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1947), p. 77; John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, arr. G. Homer Durham, 3 vols. in 1 (Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1960), p. 194.