Wilford Woodruff and Adoption Sealings

Wilford Woodruff was hugely important in the development of temple work as we understand it today. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Jennifer Mackley (the executive director and CEO of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation) discussed some of the influence that Presisent Woodruff had on temple work. The interview covers a lot of ground, so this co-post is going to zoom in on one specific aspect–Priesthood Adoption Sealings.

In the interview, Jennifer Mackley explained what the Law of Adoption was.

Those who accepted baptism into the restored Church of Jesus Christ understood that baptism by water was for the remission of sins so they could be reborn as children of God. Baptism by the Spirit was primarily for the receipt of the Holy Ghost and secondarily for admission into the Church and kingdom of God. Baptism corrected for the lack of birthright in the kingdom of God, “the defect of having no natural and legitimate claim of heirship.” . . .

That is why in his September 6, 1842 letter to the Church, Joseph Smith taught that the living would be connected or sealed to their ancestral fathers by baptizing them by proxy, thus adopting them into the family and kingdom of God. With reference to Elijah’s mission, Joseph reminded the Saints that the earth would be smitten unless there is a welding link of some kind between the fathers and the children.

Baptism served as an initial form of adoption into God’s family.

Zerah Pulsipher baptizing Wilford Woodruff

“I did not feel the cold” by Sam Day.
Used with permission from the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation.

At that time, proxy baptims was the answer to the question, “What is the welding link?” Two years later everything changed.

In 1844, after teaching the doctrine of sealing and administering the sealing ordinances to couples (both living and proxy sealings), Joseph Smith alluded to, but did not live long enough to explain or administer, was what became known as “priesthood adoption.” . . .

Being sealed, through marriage or by adoption, to a worthy man ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood was vital to the Saints’ eternal membership in the kingdom of God. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime the only sealings into priesthood lineage were of women. Men were not adopted into the priesthood lineage of other men until the Nauvoo Temple was completed in December 1845.

At that time, Brigham explained that . . . “the priesthood had been on the earth at different times. When the Priesthood had not been on earth, men will have to be sealed to each other until we go on to Father Adam. Men will have to be sealed to men so as to link the chain from beginning to end and all children [born before their parents received their endowments] will have to be sealed to their parents. . . . But this must be in a temple and nowhere else.”

Beyond baptism as an adoption, the early Saints came to believe that they needed to be linked together by priesthood sealings into a family structure that would connect them to an authorized holder of the priesthood.

Later, Wilford Wilford explained to the Saints that Joseph Smith came through the loins of ancient Joseph and, as his literal descendant, was heir to the priesthood keys by birthright. When Joseph Smith was adopted into the priesthood line, by virtue of his ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood by Peter, James and John, he bridged the gap created between the dispensations when apostasy occurred and the priesthood was taken from the earth.

Logically it followed then that, just as one must be adopted into the House of Israel through baptism in order to become an heir to Abraham’s blessings, one must be adopted to Joseph as head of this dispensation to inherit the blessings of the fulness of the priesthood.

The thinking at the time was that after being sealed to their fathers within the Church the Saints would then seal their forefather to Joseph Smith by adoption. Doing so would reconnect their families on earth to the eternal priesthood chain, through Joseph’s “priesthood fathers,” back to Adam.

Adoptions were based on a specific understanding of how priesthood, family, and exaltation were interconnected.

There were, of course, complications. After the Saints left Nauvoo, they did not perform adoption sealings, but sometimes performed informal adoptions that helped organize the Saints, but led to their own complications. As Mackley wrote:

This informal application of adoption, in conflict with the formal adoptions, sometimes led to jealousy, competition, and division. Some of those adopted as “sons” expected special treatment from their “fathers,” such as advancement within Church leadership or financial assistance.

In addition, the adoption sealings made family relationships in the hereafter more complicated:

Adoption raised significant questions about the organization of eternal families. Instead of a direct line from one generation to the next, it created convoluted links within biological families and connections to individuals outside one’s family. These connections were complicated further when those chosen for their worthiness subsequently left the Church or did not live up to their responsibilities. New adoptions, to reconnect through the priesthood lines of others, led to more confusion.

Adoptions sometimes caused difficulties (which was actually the subject of Brigham Young’s famous 1847 dream of Joseph Smith where he was told “Tell the people to be humble and faithful, and be sure to keep the spirit of the Lord and it will lead them right.”)

The current system of temple work, with its heavy focus on genealogy, really emerged from President Wilford Woodruff’s administration.

The revelation on the law of adoption led to a complete restructuring of the sealing ordinances. Rather than adoption into the priesthood lineage of Church leaders, in the April 1894 General Conference Wilford told the Saints to seal children to parents, and parents to grandparents. “Then,” he explained, “you will do exactly what God said when He declared He would send Elijah the prophet in the last days.” . . .

The revelation he had received outlined the changes that must be made “in order to satisfy our Heavenly Father, satisfy our dead and ourselves.” He then announced that it was the will of the Lord for the Saints “from this time to trace their genealogies as far as they can, and to be sealed to their fathers and mothers.”

He also said that the Saints should have children sealed to their parents, and “run this chain through as far as you can get it.” This meant they would be connecting the generations by strengthening natural ties instead of creating convoluted links.

Part of what enabled this was a change in understanding of how work for the dead worked:

The idea that temple work could be done for every person, regardless of their attitude toward the Church during their lifetimes or their “worthiness” was also a new perspective. Wilford Woodruff included special instructions to the women of the Church whose husbands had died without hearing the gospel. . . .

He wanted the Saints to understand it was not the responsibility of the living to judge, but to do their part in offering the choice by performing the saving ordinances by proxy for every member of the human family regardless of their perceived worthiness.

To those who asked, “What if these people do not receive the Gospel?” he answered:

“That will be their fault, not mine. This is a duty that rests upon all Israel, that they shall attend to this work, as far as they have the opportunity here on the earth.”

The idea of offering the proxy work to everyone possible rather than only those deemed likely to accept it helped to make the transition from adoption sealings to genealogical sealings possible.

Now, the interview with Jennifer Mackley is full of interesting information and insights into Wilford Woodruff and temple work. I’ve barely scratched the surface. So feel free to read the rest at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.