Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Korihor and Terryl Givens vs. the Mormon Doctrine of Original Sin

February 17th, 2012 by G.

Why is it Korihor who preached against original sin?

I first noticed this oddity a few years back and puzzled over it a long while. In my carom through Mormonism I’d absorbed that we were dead set against the original sin doctrine because little children were innocent. I was of two minds myself, since I knew a number of children and hadn’t noticed they were any great shakes in the holiness department. But those were only my private doubts. Yet not only was what I thought was the Mormon argument being mouthed by an arch-villain opponent to the Nephite equivalent of Mormonism, Korihor even talked as if the Nephite church taught the doctrine of original sin. He must have been lying. Though—more puzzlement—Alma did not rebuke him for the lie.

Article of Faith 2 states that “men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s trangression.”

As Terryl Givens put it in a recent list of the “fundamentals” of Mormon belief.

Adam and Eve were noble progenitors of the human family, and their fall made possible human life in this realm. Men and women are born pure and innocent, with no taint of original sin. (We find plenty on our own).

Over the last few years, I’ve paid closer attention to scriptures on the subject. I’ve found that Article of Faith 2 doesn’t rule out original sin. I’ve found, with all due respect to Professor Givens, that Korihor was right about what the Nephite Mormons taught. There is a Mormon doctrine of original sin.

Start with the simplest and most obvious Book of Mormon passage on original sin, the only scripture that occurred to me when Korihor’s attack on original sin first caught my eye.

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

This scripture doesn’t teach original sin explicitly, but it’s in the same ballpark. For sure it doesn’t teach that we’re born naturally good. You can make an argument consistent with this scripture that children are born innocent only in a technical sense, but not that they’re born pure.

The surrounding verses go farther. Here’s Mosiah 3:16:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

According to this passage little children are fallen creatures (corrupt creatures, sinful creatures), and Christ compensates for their sinful nature. Original sin exists, in other words, but Christ atones for it to the extent needful.

Other passages in the Book of Mormon address the salvation of children and child baptism. Probably the longest and most noted is in Moroni 8:

5 For, if I have learned the truth, there have been disputations among you concerning the baptism of your little children.
6 And now, my son, I desire that ye should labor diligently, that this gross error should be removed from among you; for, for this intent I have written this epistle.
7 For immediately after I had learned these things of you I inquired of the Lord concerning the matter. And the word of the Lord came to me by the power of the Holy Ghost, saying:
8 Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God.
Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me.
9 And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children.
10 Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children.
11 And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins.
12 But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!
13 Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell.
14 Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell.
15 For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism.
16 Wo be unto them that shall pervert the ways of the Lord after this manner, for they shall perish except they repent. Behold, I speak with boldness, having authority from God; and I fear not what man can do; for perfect love casteth out all fear.
17 And I am filled with charity, which is everlasting love; wherefore, all children are alike unto me; wherefore, I love little children with a perfect love; and they are all alike and partakers of salvation.
18 For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.
19 Little children cannot repent; wherefore, it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his mercy.
20 And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption.
21 Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them and give heed, or they stand against you at the cjudgment-seat of Christ.
22 For behold that all little children are aalive in Christ, and also all they that are without the blaw. For the power of credemption cometh on all them that have dno law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing.

Most of this passage sounds anti-original sin. The doctrine that children need baptism is condemned as hellish, which doctrine was traditionally associated with the doctrine of original sin. Children are stated to be “whole,” unaccountable and incapable of committing sin.

But, in an apparent paradox, the passage also says that children need to be saved or redeemed by Christ, that there is a “curse of Adam” that is on them that Christ has to take away, and that their state appears to be identical to that of the benighted heathen who have no law. If little children can’t commit sin, what does Christ redeem them from? The logical answer is original sin, or the “curse of Adam.” Like those without law, children aren’t innocent because they are above sin. They are innocent because in a real sense they are beneath it. They haven’t risen to the level of sin yet. (An alternate interpretation that would fit with the multiple scriptural injunctions to be like little children is that little children haven’t grown enough independence to be capable of resisting grace.)

The Book of Mormon goes even further. Read this passage attentively:

26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

This is a strong doctrine of original sin indeed. Here, the burden we inherit in the fall is so great that we couldn’t even choose to do good until Christ had redeemed us sufficiently that we were capable of it. We are so naturally sinful that Christ must act before we can even sin wilfully. I tell you now frankly that this goes further than even I, a misanthropic curmudgeon, am comfortable with.

Are these Book of Mormon passages the final, definitive and entire statement of the Mormon attitude towards original sin? No. Professor Givens is no anti-Christ, there are other scriptures and other pronoucements by the prophets that pull in different directions, and understanding is always a work in progress. But there are more things in heaven and earth, or even in the Book of Mormon, than we Saints have dreamt of in our philosophy…

Comments (23)
Filed under: Deseret Review | Tags: , , , , , ,
February 17th, 2012 12:59:43

February 17, 2012

… little children haven’t grown enough independence to be capable of resisting grace.

I admire how you got to the very heart of the matter. Bravo.

We are poised between titanic forces. Satan pushes us will all his considerable might to choose evil. God pushes back with His infinite power, but just enough to bring our situation into exquisite balance, and thereby give us a choice.

February 17, 2012

Rem acu tetigisti, your Lordship.

February 17, 2012

I admire a man who can express a double meaning in Latin.

J. Max Wilson
February 18, 2012

Adam, my understanding is simular. There is original sin, but it is swallowed up in the atonement.

Also, Moses 6:51-56 is another scripture to examine for this topic.

J. Max Wilson
February 18, 2012

Typing on a phone: simular = similar

February 18, 2012

So it’s like the Trinity, “Yes, we believe in it, but we nuance the definition.”

I think the best shortcut is to say just “Original Sin = The Fall of Man.”

February 20, 2012

Jacob explained that without the atonement, we would be angels to the devil. And Lehi expresses the same idea to Jacob, saying that agency comes with the atonement, because without it, we could not choose between life and death.

However, we also see in the Book of Moses the saying that original sin would be swallowed up by the atonement.

Whereas much of the Christian world uses original sin to establish that man is pure evil, and unworthy in any way for receiving salvation; LDS would say that there was a fall and we needed the atonement to redeem us from it. Yet we also believe that man may become holy.
I think some of this goes to ex nihilo creation, as traditional Christians believe we are made from nothing and are of impure stuff, other than the stuff God is made of. Meanwhile, LDS believe we are formed of God-stuff, and can become exactly like him.

Definitely takes it in a different direction than the actual “original sin” view of Calvin and others.

Mark D.
February 20, 2012

A fair interpretation is that Mormons believe in original sin minus the sin part. In other words we believe in the consequences of the Fall, but not the imputation of Adam’s guilt.

August 28, 2013

May I ask, in a nutshell, what you would say the specific disagreement is between Mormons and other Christians regarding original sin? From what I read here I don’t see any substantial difference at all.

August 28, 2013

I’d say the differences are:

1. Mormon belief in a premortal world in which the spirits of men were innocent and with God. The Fall is seen as a direct, foreseen, and necessary consequence of our subsequent incarnation. I’m not sure this is a distinction that makes all that much difference, except:

2. The effects of the Fall are freely and unconditionally atoned by Christ until the man matures mentally to the point of being able to distinguish good from evil. At which point, the man inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, rebels and becomes subject to damnation.

With some of the recent evolutions of Catholic doctrine on Limbo, I’d say you may well be right — the differences may not be all that substantial.

August 28, 2013

Thanks, Vader. A very good explanation.

Adam G.
August 28, 2013

Mormonism has grown up in a Protestant and Calvinist environment where “original sin” often meant something like Total Depravity, or was used as a justification for infant baptism.
The core Mormon position is a denial that unbaptized children are damned and an assertion that no one is justly punished simply because Adam fell.

Bruce Charlton
October 8, 2013

@G – Could it be along the lines that we are made weak, such that yielding to temptation is a real possibility (otherwise it is not real temptation) – and it is the lived-through experience of weakness and temptation that is an essential part of mortal incarnation?

My gut feeling is that ‘most’ children are innocent but not (of course) pure.
Only most are innocent because even among the very young there are some who have already yielded to temptation (perhaps even in the womb), and not pure because obviously not!- and the pure would not be tempted.

In general, Mormonism is radically *quantitative* about many things that are qualitative in mainstream Christianity – so Original sin is transformed from being a ‘yes/ no’ question to a ‘how much?’ question.

Aside (I intend to blog on this soon) – a striking distinction between the Heaven of Mormon theology, and that of (say) Eastern Orthodoxy is that in the Orthodox Heaven the soul is perfectly and entirely happy (blissful) and so does nothing – whereas in the Mormon Heaven the soul is extremely happy, but not completely so – and is therefore motivated to continue striving.

(This is an aspect of Classical metaphysics/ theology being static, and Mormon metaphysics/ theology being dynamic.)

October 9, 2013

I wonder if it isn’t a question of semantics. If our God is a God who weeps, as Givens has suggested, we can conclude that he is very happy, but not completely so — or that weeping is actually a part of complete happiness.

Adam G.
October 9, 2013

In general, Mormonism is radically *quantitative* about many things that are qualitative in mainstream Christianity – so Original sin is transformed from being a ‘yes/ no’ question to a ‘how much?’ question.

That’s good insight.

I wonder if it isn’t a question of semantics. If our God is a God who weeps, as Givens has suggested, we can conclude that he is very happy, but not completely so — or that weeping is actually a part of complete happiness


Definitely true, but that doesn’t get to the static/dynamic distinction that Charlton is making. IMHO, as I’ve gone on about at length elsewhere, even under a static view we should reject the possibility of complete happiness, which is why Lewis’ treatment of the Tragedian in the Great Divorce is flawed.


Where the static/dynamic distinction comes in is the Mormon idea of eternal progression. Even on the conservative view of it, where God (and his deified saints) have all possible capability and knowledge and virtue and do not progress in that respect, He (and we) still progress in time by continually adding new creations and new sons and daughters, which means we are never completely happy. Because the happiness we have in them has yet to be, which is why we are driven to bring them into existence.

Now, Nature meant me by temperament to be a classical Christian. Why the Deity has seen fit to have me born, raised, and convicted a Mormon I don’t know. But because of that temperament, I am attracted to a hybrid Mormon/Catholic-Orthodox view where we are amphibious creatures, partly in time and partly out of it. In time, we are progressing by creation. But in eternity, we possess all the happiness we create and will create throughout endless time.

But if you adopt that kind of hybrid view, then even maximal happiness at any one time likely becomes impossible. Because our incorporation of all times into the eternal all incorporates our suffering and experience of sin. Even if we suppose that Christ sponged it all away, He couldn’t very well sponge it away for himself, and we couldn’t very well be completely happy without communing with him.

Honestly, even on the Orthodox view, I can’t see how complete happiness is possible. Because complete happiness without communion with Christ is impossible and Christ’s suffering and atonement are inherently part of Him.

Inner-Self-Connected Vader
October 9, 2013

“Now, I am by temperament naturally a classical Christian. Why the Deity has seen fit to have me born, raised, and convicted a Mormon I don’t know. ”

That’s an interesting insight, in the literal meaning of the word.

I would say that I am by temperament naturally a Hitchens atheist. Why the Deity has seen fit to have me born, raised, and convicted a Mormon I don’t know.

But I am eternally grateful.

Bruce Charlton
October 9, 2013

@AG – Very much liked your essay on The Great Divorce.

In passing, I notice that you live near UNM – which is where Geoffrey Miller (a penfriend of mine, and someone I think is a truly brilliant scientist in my field) works. He was this summer’s international media firestorm, PC hate-fest, sacrificial-victim-over-nothing-at-all; and has suffered greatly in consequence.

October 10, 2013

“Honestly, even on the Orthodox view, I can’t see how complete happiness is possible. Because complete happiness without communion with Christ is impossible and Christ’s suffering and atonement are inherently part of Him.”

By that reasoning God himself can’t be perfectly happy on the orthodox view. But his perfect happiness is as much a part of the orthodox view as his eternity.

You must mean that assuming the orthodox view of eternity, no eternal being could be perfectly happy. But it seems to me that on the orthodox view, God’s eternity is inseparable from his perfect happiness. He is perfectly happy because he is perfectly self-sufficient, in that he possesses all that he could ever want or need, right now. He has neither anxiety for the future nor current suffering nor regret over the past.

Or as St. Thomas puts it, “to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied”. (ST I.II., Q. 5, A. 8, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2005.htm#article6) Even if God beholds Christ’s suffering eternally, he is not beholding something contrary to his will but rather the perfect fulfillment of his plan.

Adam G.
October 10, 2013

Sure, I don’t see how God could be perfectly happy in the Orthodox view either.

If God’s happiness were found in self-sufficiency, creation would be pointless. We wouldn’t be in his image, since his happiness would forever be wholly alien to ours, which is found in the opposite of self-sufficiency. And He would not be Love.

The scriptures do not portray Him, in the person of the Father, or in the person of the Son, to be quite unmoved by the sufferings on the cross.

October 10, 2013

“If God’s happiness were found in self-sufficiency, creation would be pointless.”

Your premise seems to be that God created in order to bring himself happiness. But we believe creation was entirely gratuitous and benefits God not at all. He did it purely out of love without the slightest self-interest. (This, of course, is an explanation of what I believe and is not intended to be an argument against the beliefs of others.)

By the way to be clear, I didn’t mean that “self-sufficiency” per se is the reason for God’s happiness. I meant that everything needed for happiness, God already possesses. He lacks nothing of what makes for perfect happiness.

“We wouldn’t be in his image, since his happiness would forever be wholly alien to ours, which is found in the opposite of self-sufficiency.”

His happiness is not alien to ours (in our system) because he himself is what makes us, as well as himself, happy.

“The scriptures do not portray Him, in the person of the Father, or in the person of the Son, to be quite unmoved by the sufferings on the cross.”

I don’t claim to know precisely what the Father, or the Son in his divine nature, feels and doesn’t feel. But it is to be remembered that in our system Jesus has two natures, a human and a divine. In his human nature certainly he was moved, i.e. he suffered and grieved. The Father on the other hand had long since foreseen the situation, as well as its eventual fruits — indeed made the deliberate decision that it should happen. Further the Father, seeing things from the perspective of eternity doesn’t experience, and react to, each moment individually, but sees it within the context of the whole.

Adam G.
October 10, 2013

If He created out of love, then creation is part of his happiness. Love and true happiness are deeply connected. I would almost say they are the same thing.

October 11, 2013

From my point of view, it seems you’re assuming that his love and happiness would increase by his creating out of love; that he had a certain amount of love and happiness, and then he created which gave him more love and happiness.

I agree that that’s what happens with us, because of how God made us: His love in us increases as we extend our love to others, which also increases our happiness. For this reason you might say there is always some degree of self-interest in our acts of love. But there’s no exterior source from which to increase God’s love and happiness, since he is the source of both.

In other words, it makes us happier to give love, because doing so brings us closer to God than we were before. But God’s giving love doesn’t bring him closer to the source of love because that source is himself.

As St. Thomas writes, “[I]t does not belong to the First Agent, Who is agent only, to act for the acquisition of some end; He intends only to communicate His perfection, which is His goodness; while every creature intends to acquire its own perfection, which is the likeness of the divine perfection and goodness. Therefore the divine goodness is the end of all things.

“… To act from need belongs only to an imperfect agent, which by its nature is both agent and patient. But this does not belong to God, and therefore He alone is the most perfectly liberal giver, because He does not act for His own profit, but only for His own goodness.”

ST I., Q. 44, A. 4 [http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1044.htm]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.