Ascending the Scale of the Universe:
The Fall and Redemption of the Earth in Mormon Theology
|For six weeks in the summer of 2010, researchers convened at the Maxwell Institute to investigate the theme “The Foundations of Mormon Theology.” The seminar was sponsored by the Mormon Scholars Foundation, hosted by the Maxwell Institute, and directed by Terryl Givens.The 2010 Summer Seminar Working Papers were presented at a BYU symposium on July 8, 2010. Working papers are unpublished, unedited, unpolished drafts. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Maxwell Institute or BYU.|
Latter-Day Saints have over the years had a unique relationship with the natural world around them. The environmental concerns of the pioneers has been well documented and well studied.1 Additionally, Many early church leaders, such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, preached on conservation and stewardship.2 Yet, it is clear today that with issues relating to the environment a continued concern,3 a deeper understanding of the early Mormon Theology of nature and earth is both timely and instructive. While there have been examinations of the role of Mormon Theology on our environmental ethics,4 the actual theology has been far understudied. Looking deeper into origin and destiny of the planet in Early Mormon thought helps us to appreciate the interconnected relationship between man and earth. For the Early Mormons, humankind and earth are dependant on one another and neither can reach celestial glory without the other:
Conceptions of the Earth
While some of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries held to the notion that the earth contained a living spirit,5 the development of radical spiritual materialism in the early church allowed for a dramatic conceptualization of the earth that turned the earth into a fully living being that followed a very similar cycle of birth, death and celestial rebirth as does mankind. Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the Book of Genesis (Moses 3) reveals
“For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.”
Thus, nothing that exists is simply material. Everything including the plants, herbs and the earth itself was created spiritually before it was placed materially and is made up of a living spirit.6 Many early Mormon writers such as Heber C. Kimball placed great emphasis on the fact that the earth itself was a living being that “conceives and brings forth” the things that are upon it, and that the earth emerged “From its parent earths.”7
This view lays down a foundation for the radical notion expressed in Section 93. “The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.” One possible reading of this scripture, supported by contemporary texts, is that, not only are all material things made out of spirit and element, but they are capable of achieving joy. They are in the parlance of 2 Nephi Chapter 2 things to act rather than merely things to be acted upon.
Given this view of the earth, it becomes perfectly reasonable to speak of the earth as possessing agency and making choices. The act of creation is thus described as God speaking and the elements choosing to perfectly obey. Which is precisely what occurs in Abr 4:10-11. (and the Gods saw that they were obeyed……..and it was so, even as they ordered) Parley Pratt also emphasizes this facet of creation as he describes one of the days of creation as ,““The waters, obedient to his word, retired within their respective limits, and filled with the quickening, or life-giving principle, which we call spirit, they produced living creatures in abundance.”8
It is through its obedience to the laws and commands of God that the earth can advance from its initial state to a higher celestial state of being.9 Brigham Young for instance described the Earth’s obedience of Celestial Law as a role model that could teach us how to be obedient: “”The earth is very good in and of itself, and has abided a celestial law, consequently we should not despise it, nor desire to leave it, but rather desire and strive to obey the same law that the earth abides.”
Significantly, just as human beings require experience and must progress towards eternity step by step,10 so to must the earth gradually progress and be refined through experiences. According to Parley Pratt, the earth initially was found in a “state of chaos, entirely unadapted to the uses they now serve.”11 Just as mankind is brought “The earth and other systems are to undergo a variety of changes, in their progress towards perfection. Water, fire, and other elements are the agents of these changes.”12 The earth is therefore given a parallel plan of salvation and must undergo similar ordinances as it progresses towards its celestial glory.
The Fall of the Earth
Just as humankind began its spirit life, in the presence of its father in heaven Brigham Young also described the earth as beginning its life “near the throne of our father in heaven.” The fall of the earth from the presence of God was held to be a literal and physical fall paralleling the ejection of humankind from the Garden of Eden, “but when man fell, the earth fell into space and took up its abode in this planetary system.”13 As a result of the disobedience of humankind, the earth therefore fell from its state of peace and death began to reign.
The early church leaders looking on a fallen world filled with sickness and disorder could only understand this transformation as a tragedy. “Thou hast transformed a world of life, joy and happiness into the abodes of wretchedness and misery, where sighing, groaning, tears and weeping are mingled in almost every cup.”14 Yet, just as the fall of humankind can be understood as fortunate, there are hints in the very same writings that the fall was likewise a necessary step in the perfection of the planet. Parley Pratt Wrote:
“All these revolutions and convulsions of nature will only serve to refine , purify, and finally restore and renew the elements upon which they act. And like the sunshine after a storm, or like gold seven times tried in the fire, they will shine forth with additional luster as they roll in their eternal spheres, in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.”15
In one sense, the fall of the earth is a necessary part of its and humanities own eternal progression. According to Orson Pratt there is an eternal symmetry between the state of humankind and the status of the world. “So far as the original sin is concerned, humankind and the earth keep pace with each other. When one falls, the other falls also. When one is redeemed, the other is redeemed also.16 Humankind’s fall therefore resulted in the fall of nature, but likewise their eventual redemptions are linked together.
Early church leaders as well as latter day scriptures often described the earth as deeply concerned with or agonized over the fallen status of humankind or its transgressions. In Moses 7:48 Enoch hears an agonized voice from the bowls of the earth:
“And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face?”
The statement here is essentially a theodicy of the earth. The planet asks the creator to explain why it must suffer for the sins of others and how much longer it must endure its pain. The placement of this verse within the chapter of Moses is intriguing because it comes right after a description of the atonement and the “shedding of the blood of the righteous.” In context, this seems to suggest that the earth is undergoing suffering for its inhabitants despite having done nothing to deserve it in a very similar fashion to how Jesus perfectly obeyed the commandments and assumed the sins of the world. This concept of the earth suffering for the actions of others also seems to be at variance with the emphasis on the earth’s agency. The theological tension is an area is beyond the scope of this paper but deserves further study.
The verse in Moses 7 also shows an earth that is pained and concerned with the status of its children. This theme of an earth in mourning over the fallen status of the world and humankind was a popular one among early Mormons. Parley Pratt in particular spoke often about this theme in his poetry.
“But Man,—vile man, alone seems lost, With hatred, pride and envy tossed, His hardened soul does seldom move, In freedom, union, peace or love. For him, let all creation mourn; O’er him did Enoch’s bosom yearn, Till he was promised from above, A day of freedom, peace and love.”17
Likewise, the Book of Mormon describes the earthquakes and destruction all over the face of the earth as a result of the death of Christ. This was another popular subject matter for Latter Day poetry. Parley Pratt in a poem entitled Visit to the White Mountains describes how:
“Huge fragments of rock were thrown together in inconceivable confusion, as if by some terrible convulsion of nature; recalling to mind a time long since passed, when Earth with a tremendous groan. Did for a dying Jesus mourn.”18
It is somewhat unclear to what degree this description is merely poetic as opposed to literal, but the perversity of these themes implies a special sense in which the earth was viewed as sentient and feeling as well as pained over the plight of humankind. The earth was thus seen as a righteous being which recognizes and agonizes for the loss of its creator. It is a being that yearns for righteousness and hopes for the repentance of humankind.
Ordinances—Baptism of water and fire
The earth is also seen as a being that will be transformed by ordinances, such as Baptism by Water and Fire, just as humans are. Orson Pratt described how, “the great Redeemer…institute(d) ordinances for the cleansing, purification, and eternal redemption of the earth.19 Baptism of water or the Flood was “the first ordinance instituted for the cleansing of the earth.”20 The earth could emerge “clothed with all the innocence of its first creation.” The application of this ordinance had to come from proper authority and “that administrator was the Redeemer himself.21
In the second article of faith we read, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” Likewise, according to Orson Pratt, after the flood, the earth is no longer held accountable for the sins of Adam. Indeed “Had there been no other sin but that of Adam’s, the redeemed earth would have become the eternal abode of all the posterity of Adam, without one exception. But both man and the earth have been still further corrupted by other sins.”22 Through the atonement of the savior, the earth “Like the posterity of Adam…will be redeemed unconditionally and restored again into the presence of God.” Instead, the earth currently suffers under the weight of the transgressions of its present inhabitants. Pratt emphasizes that the effects of the fall on the earth are to continue, “Until all the inhabitants of the spirit world, designed for this creation, should learn by bitter experience, the unhappy consequences of sin.” The suffering of the planet need not continue if humankind is able to learn from the mistake’s its past.
Thus, the early saints believed in the literal connection between sin and desolation of the earth. They echoed the Old Testament and Book of Mormon views of land being one of God’s tools to reward the faithful and punish the disobedient.23 An article entitled the Millennium published on February 1, 1842 speaks about the land of Palestine that once flowed with milk and honey being under a particular curse, and that “the only cause we could give, is the wickedness of the human family.”24 This view of nature is reflected in the compulsive reporting in the Evening and Morning Star and other church publications on the Cholera Epidemic.25 Another article on an outbreak of the plague quotes the Baltimore Gazette as it states “the prevalence of the plague has always been marked by licentiousness and depravity.”26 Humankind’s actions results in a suffering and sickness upon the earth.
In contrast, building Zion is described as a great reclaiming process for the earth itself. This theme is well reflected in the first hymnal. Two Hymns that have endured from that hymnal, Now Let Us Rejoice and Let Zion In Her Beauty Rise both emphasize the need for the saints to prepare and sanctify themselves in order to prepare the earth for the second coming. Now Let Us Rejoice Declares:
“We’ll love one another and never dissemble, But cease to do evil and ever be one…And earth will appear as the garden of Eden, And Jesus will say to all Israel: Come home!
Orson Pratt echoes this theme of human involvement when he speaks about the second ordinance of the earth or the sanctification of fire.27 While speaking about the first ordinance he emphasizes that the sole administrator of the process was the redeemer himself. In contrast, when speaking about the baptism of fire he says that it will be administered through “the agencies ordained of God.” Thus, humankind has a role to play in the sanctification process. Joseph Smith made this connection even more explicit in a well-known statement.28
“Men must become harmless, before the brute creation; and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and the lamb can dwell together, and the sucking child can play with the serpent in safety.”29 The redemption of animals and the world around from the fall is explicitly dependant on humankind’s behavior.30 As the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley, these attitude towards the land became an integral part of kingdom building.31 Brigham Young in particular linked the reclaiming of the land specifically with the onset of the millennium.
“Let the people be holy, and the earth under their feet will be holy. Let the people be holy, and filled with the Spirit of God, and every animal and creeping thing will be filled with peace; the soil of the earth will bring forth in its strength…Let the inhabitants of this city be possessed of that spirit, let the people of the territory be possessed of that spirit, and here is the millennium. Let the whole people of the United States be possessed of that spirit, and here is the Millennium, and so will it spread over all the world.”32
Likewise, in an epistle written to the Saints, Young explicitly links the sanctification of the earth to the missionary work of the church and “causing a light to shine” to the nations of the earth.33 In Young’s mind thus, working the earth was as vital as preaching the gospel to the world.34 A Zion society would be the agent of sanctification of the earth a vital and necessary prerequisite to the coming of the millennium. Indeed, Young would go so far as to attribute this redemption of the earth as “the very object of our existence here.”35
Early Latter Day Saint depictions of the millennium also embrace the theme of humankind’s role in the continuing process of the earth’s redemption. Parley Pratt, describes the role of humankind as gardeners in the millennium “Men will then plant gardens and eat the fruit of them, they will plant vineyards and drink the wine of them…and the Lord’s elect will long enjoy the work of their hands.” Orson Pratt emphasizes that we will not inherit the earth in its fullest state of perfection during the millennium “Then we shall inhabit the earth, not at first in its glorified state — that state which eventually awaits it, but in the beginning of its redemption in its temporal condition during the thousand years, of which the work before the Fall was typical.”36 The earth itself will undergo a transformative process to prepare it for the celestial resurrection to come. According to Brigham Young this would be a lengthy and gradual process. “Not many generations will pass away before the days of man will again return. But it will take generations to entirely eradicate the influences of deleterious substances. This must be done before we can attain our paradisaical [sic] state.”37
Yet, significantly, this process will not result in the destruction of the earth but merely its temporary death before an eventual and glorious resurrection. As the tenth article of faith expresses “the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” Parley Pratt speaks extensively about the nature of this refinement and death in the Key to the Science of Theology. He emphasizes that it is “an eternal unchangeable fact, a fixed law of nature…that neither fire nor any other element can annihilate a particle of matter, to say nothing of a whole globe.” Likewise, Parley descries this process as one in which the earth will be “changed, purified, refined, exalted and glorified, in the similitude of the resurrection, by which means all physical evil or imperfection will be done away.”” This will ultimately result in “A new heaven and a new earth” as promised in the scriptures. The earth shall become a celestial abode fit for “those who have passed through the same process of purification, and none else.”38 Brigham Young strongly emphasized that the Saints would not be “Going to the Moon, nor any other planet pertaining to this solar system,” and that the earth is the home that “he has prepared for us.”39
The Pratt brothers in particular see this process in an incredibly literal fashion. Jerusalem and the “New Jerusalem of the Western Continent” will literally descend upon the redeemed celestial earth. The tribes of Israel and other promised people will literally receive their portion of the earth. Orson calculates that there will be between forty and one hundred and fifty acres of land for every redeemed soul.40 Eternal man will “eat, drink, think, converse, associate, assemble, disperse, go, come, possess, improve, love and enjoy,” all of the bounty of the earth.41
Thus, in the imagination of early Latter Day Saints, the destinies of humankind and the earth are literally entwined. All of the beauties of creation are not “a necessary evil or blog on the spiritual life.” They serve a far greater purpose. Moreover, just as the perfection of humankind is one of “a ceaseless progression of eternal lives,”42 like wise “the great work of regeneration of worlds, or the renovation and adaptation of the elements to the resurrection and eternal state of man, would also have to be endless, or eternally progressive.”43 As the earth “ascends in the scale of the universe,” it will become classed “among the dazzling orbs of the blue vault of heaven.”44 Moreover, this process of perfection for the earth cannot and need not be a solitary endeavor. Just as humankind will form eternal familial bond, so to is “Heaven then, is composed of an innumerable association of glorified worlds, and happy immortal beings, beaming with an effulgence of light, intelligence and love, of which our earth, small and insignificant as it is, must form some humble part.”45
In early Mormon thought, the earth thus has a glorious purpose far more grand than its humble beginnings in chaos. It is a living being that cares profoundly about the well being of its inhabitants. Humankind plays a vital role in its perfection just as the earth plays a vital role in humankind’s transformation into celestial beings. Building a literal Zion on the earth is a vital component of the transformation for both humankind and planet.
1. Kay, Jeanne, Mormon beliefs about land and natural resources, 1847-1877, Journal of Historical Geography, 11:3 (1985:July) p.253
2. Hugh W. Nibley; Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol 13); Chapters 2, 3 and 4 focus on the environment.
3. Misguided environmental policies are hurting Utah’s economy; Lane Beattie; Deseret News; April 4, 2010 http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700021536/Misguided-environmental-policies-are-hurting-Utahs-economy.html?pg=1
4. Consecration, Stewardship, and Accountability: Remedy for a Dying Planet; Larry L. St. Clair and Clayton C. Newberry; Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought; V 28 N 2. Paul A. Cox; Paley’s Stone, Creationism, and Conservation; Published in Stewardship and the creation: LDS perspectives on the environment edited by George B. Handley, Terry B. Ball, and Steven L. Peck; March 2006 Religious Studies Center, BYU, Provo, Utah
5. Alexander Campbell in particular spoke of the spiritual nature of the planet as he paralleled water immersion of the Earth and our baptism. The Christian Baptist Vol 7 P.126; 1829 Retrieved from Google Books on July 3rd, 2010
6. This notion in and of itself is not radical as the depiction of one of the accounts of Genesis as a spiritual creation was not a novelty.
7. JD 6:36
8. Parley P. Pratt, “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,” in The Millennium, and Other Poems: To Which is Annexed, A Treatise on the Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter (New York: Printed by W. Molineux, 1840), . (1839) p. 112
9. JD 8:297.
10. “When you climb up a ladder,” the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—” King Follett Sermon, April 7, 1844
11. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology: Designed as an Introduction to the First Principles of Spiritual Philosophy; Religion; Law and Government; As Delivered by the Ancients, and as Restored in This Age, For the Final Development of Universal Peace, Truth and Knowledge (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855), p. 47
12. Ibid p. 56
13. JD 17:143.
14. This seems at variance with the conceptualization of the fall as fortunate found in the Book of Mormon and elsewhere. As Terryl Givens has suggested, it does not seem that the earliest generation of Mormon thinkers ever fully grappled with the concept of the fortunate fall
15. Ibid p.112
16. Orson Pratt; The Earth: Its Fall—Redemption—Final Destiny N. B, Lundwall, Masterpieces of Latter day Saint leaders (Salt Lake: Deseret 1953).
17. Parley P. Pratt; Harmony of Nature contained in “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,”
18. Parley P. Pratt; Visit to the White Mountaints contained in “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,” Parley also echoed this theme in several other works of poetry including Ministry to the Nephites and Fall of Niagra ( which is quoted in a slightly different context further in to the paper.) Hymns in the first hymnal such as “Through All the World Below” also echo these themes.
19. Orson Pratt; The Earth: Its Fall—Redemption—Final Destiny N. B, Lundwall, Masterpieces of Latter day Saint leaders (Salt Lake: Deseret 1953).
21. Interestingly, Orson Pratt makes a temple parallel between this baptism and the assumption of sacred clothing: “A new world issuing from the ruins of the old, clothed with all the innocence of its first creation.” Parley Pratt also speaks of the earth being ‘clothed with celestial glory’ on p.146 of the Eternal Duration of Matter Temple imagery and language associated with the earth occurs in several other locations including D&C 1010. The connection between the rituals of the temple and the redemption of nature is one that deserves to more fully be explored.
22.Orson Pratt; The Earth: Its Fall—Redemption—Final Destiny N. B, Lundwall, Masterpieces of Latter day Saint leaders (Salt Lake: Deseret 1953).
23. The land as a grant from the Lord is one of the dominant themes of the Old Testament prophets and in particular the book of Jeremiah. A good resource for descriptions of various Old Testament land ideologies is This Land is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies; Normon C. Habel; Fortress Press; 1993
24. The Millenium; Times and SeasonsVol. 3 No. 7 February 1, 1842.
25. One article describes the epidemic as a pestilence and relates it to the promise of destruction at noon day; Times and Seasons Volume 1. Retrieved at http://gospelink.com/library/document/51307?highlight=1
26. Times and Seasons Vol. 1 Accessed on http://gospelink.com/library/document/51294?highlight=1
27. Orson Pratt; The Earth: Its Fall—Redemption—Final Destiny N. B, Lundwall, Masterpieces of Latter day Saint leaders (Salt Lake: Deseret 1953).
28. Andrew H. Hedges; Compassion Upon the Earth: Man, Prophets, and Nature; Published in Stewardship and the creation: LDS perspectives on the environment edited by George B. Handley, Terry B. Ball, and Steven L. Peck; March 2006 Religious Studies Center, BYU, Provo, Utah
29. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2:71-72
30. Aaron R. Kelson; The Hope For Extraordinary Ecological Improvement; Published in Stewardship and the creation: LDS perspectives on the environment edited by George B. Handley, Terry B. Ball, and Steven L. Peck; March 2006 Religious Studies Center, BYU, Provo, Utah
31. Kay, Jeanne, Mormon beliefs about land and natural resources, 1847-1877 , Journal of Historical Geography, 11:3 (1985:July) p.253
32. JD 1:203, Brigham Young, April 6. 1852
33. Sixth General Epistle, September 22, 1851; James R. Clark; Messages Of The First Presidency Vol 2. 1965 Deseret Book
34. Brigham Young’s Ideal Society: The Kingdom Of God; J. Keith Melville; BYU Studies 5:1
35. JD, 9:168: Brigham uses the less ecologically sensitive terminology of subdue and yet he also speaks of multiplying the plants and animals on the earth. Clearly, he is speaking of subdue in a similar sense to Joseph Smith’s concept of violent animals become harmless to humankind rather than in a sense of elimination.
36. DISCOURSE BY ELDER ORSON PRATT, Delivered In The 13m Ward Assembly Rooms, Salt Lake City, Sunday Afternoon, Dec. 29, 1872. (Reported by David W. Evans.)
37. JD 8:64.
38. Orson Pratt; The Earth: Its Fall—Redemption—Final Destiny N. B, Lundwall, Masterpieces of Latter day Saint leaders (Salt Lake: Deseret 1953).
39. JD 8:293—94.
41. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology: Designed as an Introduction to the First Principles of Spiritual Philosophy; Religion; Law and Government; As Delivered by the Ancients, and as Restored in This Age, For the Final Development of Universal Peace, Truth and Knowledge (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855),
42. JD 16:165
43. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology: Designed as an Introduction to the First Principles of Spiritual Philosophy; Religion; Law and Government; As Delivered by the Ancients, and as Restored in This Age, For the Final Development of Universal Peace, Truth and Knowledge (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855),
44. Orson Pratt; The Earth: Its Fall—Redemption—Final Destiny N. B, Lundwall, Masterpieces of Latter day Saint leaders (Salt Lake: Deseret 1953).
45. Pratt, “Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,” An appeal to the inhabitants of the state of New York, letter to Queen Victoria, (reprinted from the tenth European edition,) the fountain of knowledge; immortality of the body, and intelligence and affection, Nauvoo, Illinois, (1844), P. 35