Mormons, I frequently hear, reject the doctrine of original sin. Yet I am not convinced that the concept has no place whatsoever in LDS theology. I suspect that the Mormon claim that we don’t believe in original sin is frequently no more than an assertion that 1) individuals are not held personally accountable for the choices of Adam and Eve, and 2) unbaptized infants should not be seen as guilty of sin, and will not be eternally doomed should they die in their unbaptized state. If original sin is understood not in terms of personal guilt, but as some kind of negative effect on human nature resulting from the fall, I think it might actually be compatible with LDS teachings.
Discussion of original sin has historically been tied to the practice of infant baptism, in Mormonism as well as in Christianity more generally. The standard LDS explanation for why infants should not be baptized comes from Mormon, who is quite vehement in his rejection of the practice. He explains that “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin.” (Moroni 8:8) This innocence of children is connected to the fact that they cannot be held accountable for their actions; verse 22 places them in the same category as those without the law. In such cases, Mormon explains, the atonement is automatically in effect. But he does not make any comment about human nature and whether it has been damaged by the fall; he only deals with those who are not in a position to be held accountable for their actions.
Also, it is worth nothing that Mormon’s primary objection to the practice seems to be that unbaptized children might be denied salvation: “if little children could not be saved without baptism these must have gone to an endless hell . . . 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.” (Moroni 8:15) But this argument could be made about humanity in general; what kind of a God would send any group of people to hell simply because they didn’t have the good fortune to be baptized? Latter-day Saints, of course, resolve this dilemma by energetically working to ensure that everyone who has ever lived receives the opportunity for baptism. In the context of the contemporary church, Mormon’s argument therefore seems a bit odd. For even if infant baptism were necessary, unbaptized babies would be in little danger of heading for a fiery eternity; they could simply be baptized after their deaths, like others who didn’t have the opportunity in this life.
It might therefore be helpful to separate the question of original sin from the practice of infant baptism, as the LDS practice of adult (or at least semi-adult) baptism fails to shed much light on the issue. All we can deduce from it is that regardless of the makeup of human nature, we are not held accountable for our actions when we are too young to know better.
The Second Article of Faith is another passage frequently cited in any discussion of original sin. But it likewise has nothing to say about human nature per se. It deals only with consequences, with who gets punished for what. It clearly rejects the idea that Adam’s sin can be personally attributed to each human being, and from it we know that we will be held responsible for our personal sins alone. But it does not say anything about the effects of the fall on human nature. I think that Moses 6:54, which speaks of children as “whole from the foundation of the world” and not liable for the sins of their parents, and D&C 93:38, which tells us that infants are “innocent before God” are making a similar point. Personal sin is not something which can be inherited.
If original sin is understood as Augustine saw it, as a kind of stain on the soul which makes each person guilty before God from birth and is transmitted through procreation, it does conflict with LDS teachings. However, one does not have to take a strictly Augustinian perspective in order to believe in some form of original sin; my impression is that most contemporary theologians reject the view that original sin can be equated with inherited personal sin, but continue nonetheless to affirm the doctrine. And if original sin is understood as some kind of negative effect on human nature which is a result of the fall, and which makes it more difficult for humans to be righteous, I would argue that something like this is actually taught throughout the Book of Mormon. For example, King Benjamin tells us that “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam” (Mosiah 3:19), Alma explains that after the fall, humans had become “carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature” (Alma 42:10), and the brother of Jared says flat out that “because of the fall our natures have become evil continually.” (Ether 3:2)
Reinhold Neibuhr famously observed that original sin is the only Christian doctrine which can be verified empirically. I have to admit that simply on the basis of my experience of being human, I find it difficult not to believe in some kind of original sin; I very much resonate with Paul’s lament, “for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I.” (Romans 7:15) I do think there are real dangers in overestimating the power of original sin–it can lead to an overly negative view of the human, and a weak (or nonexistent) sense of human freedom. However, I think Mormons would do well to also remember the dangers of underestimating it, which include perfectionism and a tendency to attempt to earn salvation. A healthy sense of original sin, I believe, can lead to a deeper appreciation for the power and necessity of grace.