There are certain questions about Mormons that persevere over time, regardless of how goofy they are. One of the best examples of this relates to the assertion that Brigham Young taught that God the Father came to Earth in the form of Adam, and therefore Adam “is our Father and our God.”
The short answer on this is “No, we don’t teach anything like that,” but that probably isn’t going to satisfy critics of the Church (as if anything will). But the question actually raises several issues relating to how LDS doctrine is defined, which statements by our leaders we consider authoritative or binding, and how anyone is supposed to sort out what we really believe.
First, it is important to understand what Mormons accept as authoritative. In the LDS Church, we accept four books as scripture: The Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. We make no claim that any of those books is perfect, nor do we believe that the canon of scripture is closed. We believe in continuing revelation, so if God declares something new through His appointed spokesman, we will add it to what we have. That’s unique among Christian churches, but that’s how we roll.
There are, however, all kinds of materials out there written or said by members of the Church but which are not canonical. We have no shortage of books, articles, lesson manuals, recordings of addresses, journals, and other resources. Any of that material may be helpful to us, but it is neither scriptural nor binding, and to the extent that anything is inconsistent with revealed scripture, it should be ignored. We aren’t crazy enough to argue that our leaders are infallible. Only one perfect man ever lived, and He didn’t wear a tie. We give ourselves, and our leaders, room to grow.
That takes us to one resource which is blamed for most of the alleged “wacky doctrines” of Mormonism: The Journal of Discourses. This is a collection of talks by early leaders of the Church (Brigham Young being chief among them) that were collected beginning around 1850. Stenographers were asked to take down many of the early leaders’ discourses, and they brought those talks together in several volumes. While the Journal of Discourses was highly thought of at the time, the Church recognizes that they are fraught with problems. The foremost is that the methods of recording the talks were primitive, and so the accuracy of the JD is questionable. In addition, most of the addresses included in the work were never intended to be binding doctrinal declarations at the time they were given, and many include speculation in areas where there has been no clarifying revelation.
So if you dig through the Journal of Discourses, you will find some things that are entirely foreign to members of the Church. One of those is the supposed “Adam God” theory. But just because it appears in the Journal of Discourses doesn’t mean that it is the doctrine of the Church (or even that Brigham Young ever said it).
What, then, are we supposed to do with this notion of Adam being God? In my view, the first step is to compare what Brigham Young might have said to what we know he and other leaders of the Church have said. The most compelling argument against the Adam-God theory, to me at least, is that Brigham Young was the person who organized the temple endowment. The endowment was revealed to Joseph Smith, but it was left to Brigham Young to pull it together in an organized fashion after Smith was killed. Although Mormons consider that ordinance sacred, and therefore we do not discuss it in detail outside of the temple, a large part of the endowment is teaching the creation story. In the temple account of the Creation, it is vividly clear that Adam and God the Father are separate individuals. That being the case, what good would it do for Brigham Young to teach so clearly in the temple that they are separate, but have some other belief bouncing around in his head?
Moreover, in every other account of the Creation used by Mormons (curiously enough, in addition to the Old Testament account, the Creation is described twice in the Pearl of Great Price and is discussed in both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants), the distinction between Adam and God is evident. If there is some reference to some other interpretation elsewhere, we can trust that it is not doctrinal.
That brings up the related issue of whether there are two different sets of Mormon doctrines. All of my life in the Church I have been lectured by non-Mormons about how I don’t know what the Church “really” teaches (or, more absurdly, that I don’t know what I believe). Apparently critics of the Church believe that there is a public set of doctrines that are more or less harmless, but also a set of secret and more nefarious teachings hidden elsewhere. Perhaps this is the result of our temple ordinances not being open to the public, and people assuming that something is taught there that is different and devious.
I hate to disappoint, but there is no “grassy knoll” Mormon doctrine in the temple or anywhere else. You can sort out what Mormons believe by tracing what has been taught openly, consistently, and over long periods of time (except, obviously, in the case of new revelation). During the nearly 200-year history of the Church, doctrines have become better understood and more clearly taught. And they are taught openly. As I have mentioned before, every teaching manual used in the Church is publicly available on lds.org, as are every Church magazine article or General Conference address. If we are trying to hide what we believe, we have failed miserably in the effort.
Mormons are not ashamed of what we teach. Just ask, and we’ll wear you out telling you about it. But if someone wants to be offended by our teachings, they should at least have the common sense to be offended by what we really teach, rather than obscure and unreliable statements that express ideas that the vast majority of Mormons never have heard of, much less believe.