Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Adoption

Church members believe that Joseph Smith was called to be a modern-day prophet through, among other events, a visitation from God the Father and Christ.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) practiced a form of ritual adoption from about 1842 to 1894. It is apparently first referred to in an article in The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star for June 1843, but adoptions may have taken place the previous year.

The practice was a form of "sealing," which is still an important practice in the church, strengthening the bonds between husband and wife and between them and their children, and extending these bonds into the afterlife and even beyond the eventual expected bodily resurrection, "for time and all eternity."

The sealing referred to here is different in that it created a new bond, rather than strengthened an existing one. The sealing, often referred to in LDS literature by high church officials as "adoption," was usually practiced between adult men, but if the new son were married it included his wife (or wives, since the church at this time permitted polygamy) and their children.

At this early stage in the church's history the membership was dominated by adult converts, whose new religious beliefs and westward migration with the Saints often estranged them from their birth families. Intra-church adoption in some measure compensated for this. The great majority of these adoptions involved high church officials as adoptive fathers, and some had large numbers of men sealed to them: Brigham Young (president of the church after the assassination of Joseph Smith) had at least 38 sealed sons; John D. Lee (a member of the Council of Fifty and one of Young's sealed sons) had 18 or 19; Wilford Woodruff (an early church historian and fourth president of the church) had 45 sealed to him, although this figure may include sealed sons' dependents. The prospective father and son could be the same age or the son could even be older than the father - the more important consideration seems to have been the relative material and religious status of the individuals.

In the early years either party could propose an adoption, but later it was stipulated that the overture had to be made by the prospective son. In earthly terms the adoptive father gained control of the son's labor and it created some very large extended families and economic units, useful in the settling of new lands in the western states. Adopted sons gained status through their association with important figures in the church (for a short time the sons would take the surname of their father, but this died out early on). They also gained economic patronage, paternal guidance, and the material security of membership of a large co-operative economic unit. But there were more important, spiritual reasons for adoption. The Biblical basis of the practice was the adoptive imagery used in the New Testament to describe the relationship between God and Christians. LDS revelation also stresses the centrality of family relationships and their continuity after death, and a need was felt to ritually create a father-son relationship for converts, who otherwise could be fatherless in the afterlife.

The theology of the afterlife in the LDS church teaches that attaining the highest level of existence after death depends on being part of an exalted family group living in harmony. This lineage had been interrupted by the apostasy of the churches in the first century CE, and re-established by the prophet Joseph Smith, and adoption was one way to graft ordinary members of the resurrected church back onto the long-dormant chain of priests and their associated families. Because of its ritual nature, it was also possible to be adopted by a dead man, and there were many such adoptions, particularly adoptions by recently-deceased high church officials. And it was also possible for the dead to be adopted, and there were cases where a convert would have dead parents and siblings adopted by the same man who adopted him himself, in order to maintain as many as possible of his earthly family relationships and to integrate his non-Mormon family members into the network.

The practice fell into disrepute partly because in a few cases it led to jealousy and conflict between sons for their adoptive father's attentions, and because it had in some other cases caused a scramble for status between potential sons seeking adoption by higher-ranking elders, and between elders by accumulating large numbers of adoptive sons. It also gradually became less crucial: theologically, as fewer members of the church arrived separated from their birth families (because they were born into the church), and materially, as the economic position of the church as a whole improved, including the establishment of its extensive and efficient welfare system and the successful foundation of the religious settlements in the West.

Adoption by "third parties" was finally abolished by President Woodruff in 1894, who declared after a revelation from God that in future ritual adoption could only be practiced where it replicated a real earthly relationship. Adoption by third parties was no longer necessary, and it was now entirely superseded by baptism for the dead and the other sealing rites, which had in any case been practiced in parallel with adoption for many years. Some prominent adopted/sealed sons included:

Brigham Young, 1801-77 (second president of the church)

John Doyle Lee, 1812-77 (see separate entry)

Thomas Bullock, 1816-85 (LDS church historian and clerk of the Utah House of Representatives)


"The Law of Adoption," The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star, 4(2) (June 1843), pp. 17-19 Irving, Gordon. "The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation," BYU Studies, 14(3) (Spring 1974), pp. 291-314 Tanner, Jerald, and Tanner, Sandra. "Mormonism's Early Days," The Salt Lake City Messenger, Issue 92, (April 1997). Also formerly available as part of: "Balaam's Ass." "Utah Lighthouse Ministry" at: The West Film Project. "John Doyle Lee (1812-1877." [Includes portrait]. Available at: Haymond, Jay M. "John D. Lee." Available at:

See Also

John Doyle Lee 1812-77