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…