The LDS View of Original Sin

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.


  1. Lynnette, I like the post. I’m convinced that Catholics and Mormons believe almost entirely the same things about the effects of the original sin; the difference is that we see in it also the privation of sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is God’s life in a human being, which life is basically the beginning of heaven. Those who don’t have God’s life in them are those who can’t accept heaven.

    We believe God has promised to give this sanctifying grace through baptism (cf. John 3), but we also believe He can give it through any means He wants. Baptism is of the utmost importance, but God offers His life to everyone. There’s no reason to believe unbaptized infants will refuse it, but the Church still does everything she can to baptize infants and pray for their souls should they perish.

    I’m curious about your comment on Augustine. Where did you learn about this teaching of his? I’m no Augustinian scholar – though I’m working on it – so I can’t definitively say what he did or didn’t teach, but I don’t ever see references to his actual writings when someone says he taught such-and-such about original sin and unbaptized infants. I always get the feeling that he was much more nuanced (I mean, what didn’t the guy write volumes about?), and the circumstances played more of a role (for example, Pelagians denying original sin altogether) than people typically suggest.

    P.S. Sorry about the length of the Trackback. It turned out icky.

  2. Thanks, Stephen. I’m still kind of playing with this idea, so it’s nice to hear that my reasoning made sense to someone else!

    Brad, thanks for the comments. I’d agree that, at least from what I know, contemporary Catholic and LDS views on this subject don’t actually seem very far apart.

    As far as Augustine–I’ve actually been studying the Augustine-Pelagius controversy in preparation for comprehensive exams, and I would agree that his view of things is often more complex than the way it gets popularly portrayed. It also seems that the dispute with Pelagius sometimes pushed him into taking more extreme positions than he’d held earlier. But I do think think it’s farly clear that he saw original sin as a kind of inherited guilt, and that he ended up with the view that unbaptized babies were in trouble; his treatise On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and Infant Baptism would be one place to find his teachings on the subject.

    I should perhaps add that while I certainly don’t agree with him in every particular, I’m actually quite fond of Augustine, and I think he had much of value to say. I see him as holding a rather more complex view of the experience of being human, as well as of freedom, than does Pelagius, and quite frankly I think there are ways in which we Mormons could stand to be a bit more Augustinian.

  3. The main thing that troubles me about the second ? Article of Faith is the contradiction we make when we, I mean Mormons, refer to Cain or Laman and Lemuel. We believe men will be punished for their own sin and not for Adam’s transgression, except in the case of Cain or Laman, whose descendants are cursed.

    That just doesn’t make sense to me.

  4. Lynnette – If I understand your reasoning correctly, you’re saying that Adam and Eve’s actions did have a lasting effect on their children because their actions brought us into a fallen world where the “natural man” (whatever that may mean) is an enemy to God. Is that correct?

    If so, would you say that all children suffer for the sins of their parents when their parents make decisions that affect them adversely? (And that children are blessed for the righteous actions of their parents?) Or do you consider Adam and Eve to be a special case?

  5. Annegb, I’ve wondered about that as well. We have scriptures like the Second Article of Faith, or those which tell us that God is no respecter of persons, but we also have scriptures which talk about the Lord punishing people to the third and fourth generation. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of that. I have to admit I have a real dislike for any doctrine which suggests that certain groups of people or lineages are particularly favored by God.

    Interesting questions, Katya (and yes, that’s a fair summary of my argument.) I suppose I am seeing Adam and Eve as a unique case here, since the fall seems to have changed the very conditions of life on earth, and that kind of influence would be out of the reach of other parents. I would say that all children suffer for the sins of their parents in the sense that anyone’s negative choices impact those around them, and this impact can be quite profound in the case of a parent-child relationship. But I wouldn’t put that in the same category as the fall (though I’m realizing that I need to think out more clearly how “original sin” might be related to “personal sin,” particularly when it comes to the ways in which we’re all affected by the sins of each other.)

  6. I like to say that the only problem with the doctrine of Original Sin, is that it is held to be original (transmitted from parent to child), and that it is held to be sin (something one is culpable for). Augustine recognized the latter problem:

    “There can be no sin that is not voluntary, the learned and the ignorant admit this evident truth”, writes St. Augustine (De vera relig., xiv, 27).

    and apparently chose to ignore it (cf. “Original Sin”, VI. How Voluntary, Catholic Encyclopedia (1912)).

    There is no prominent LDS support for either of those aspects, though there is certainly support for a change in the conditions of the world as a whole, if one interprets the Fall as an actual event, as most of the prophets appear to have done, and not as an allegory of our natural self-willed and prideful condition, even prior to the creation of this world (cf. contention and war in heaven, fall of Lucifer and company, etc.)

  7. Maybe one way to sort out the ideas of original sin vs. natural man would be to separate the ideas of accountability and consequence. Accountability seems to have more to do with judgment and eternal salvation whereas consequences have to do with the impacts or effects of sin in mortality. For personal sins for which one is accountable, there needs to be repentance to forestall a negative judgment and eternal punishment. The doctrine of Original Sin seems to be addressing the concept of accountability/culpability and, as I understand it, teaches that a child is born needing to repent. But as pointed out by Augustine, “There can be no sin that is not voluntary…” (I love that quote — thanks Mark) and Mormon doctrine seems to support that concept. No child is born accountable for their parent’s sins and they have no need of repentance (e.g., Moroni 8:11, AofF #2).

    Consequences are an entirely different matter, however. Speaking in a literal sense of the Garden of Eden scenario, when Adam and Eve fell, they had sinned and were accountable for their actions, i.e., they had a need to repent. But there was also a consequence despite any repentance. They became mortal. And whatever physical changes they experienced that caused their mortality apparently occurred at the genetic level because it became a heritable trait. All of their offspring are mortal. Thus, while their accountability for sin was not passed to their children, the consequences of their sin was passed on.

    I think this may not be just a one-time event, but rather, it is a pattern for sin. What we do affects our children — mentally, emotionally, and even physically. The mental and emotional ramifications of an abusive home vs. a stable, loving home are fairly clear. So also are the physical ramifications of pregnant women smoking, drinking or doing drugs. Crack babies are probably one of the most dramatic examples of the sins of the fathers being visited on the heads of the children (er…except in that example it was a mother). It wouldn’t make sense that a crack baby would have to repent of drug abuse, since the child never voluntarily took the drug, but it will unfortunately suffer the consequences of their parent’s actions. It’s a bit sobering to consider that sins can actually affect genetic material and body chemistry.

    I think the ideas of accountability vs. consequence are addressed quite nicely in Moses 6:54,55. It’s explained to Adam and Eve that their children won’t have to answer for their sins, but that sin will be inherent in their children’s bodies/flesh (conceived in sin) so that as they grow, their natures will be sinful, i.e., they’ll have to deal with the natural man.

    Nice post Lynette — thanks.

  8. Anne,
    I look at the curse of Cain or Laman, or Lemuel more as a lament that because of the choices these men made, their progeny are now cut off from the light of the gospel. I am not so sure it was God that cursed them, but moreso their actions and their removing themselves from the covenant people of God. None of our actions happen in a vacuum. I could be wrong but to my reading this seems to be what a “curse” on progeny means.

  9. I agree with Lynnette.

    This is one of the areas in which it is quite helpful to realize that the Garden of Eden story is a myth (which doesn’t mean it’s not true in a sense). The inherent evil in all human beings is simply evolutionary baggage–heuristics inherited from our less human ancesteors that aid in survival and reproduction. That this is necessary for our mortal experience is what the story is getting at.

    One might say that Mormons don’t believe in “Original Sin” as defined by the Catholics, but we definitely believe that mortal beings possess appetites and desires that require discipline. Humanity as a whole is thus “guilty” by its very design–we are not accountable for our sinfulness, but only for our sins. We all take for granted that we have all sinned because sin is inevitable for creatures such as we.

  10. Mark Butler, I agree that the word “sin” in the context of “original sin” is a bit problematic, because we usually link sin to culpability. (The Catholic Catechism, interestingly, explicitly notes that the term sin is only “analogical.”) Maybe we could instead call it something like “original alienation from God?” Though that doesn’t really roll off your tongue . . .

    Tam, that’s a very helpful distinction between accountability and consequences, and I like how you use that framework to think about the effects of parental sin.

    Doc, that makes sense to me as well to understand curses as being descriptive of the kinds of consequences Tam mentioned, rather than God exacting payback from people’s descendents. (And I like that idea that you could read a curse as a lament!) Maybe where this gets to be a problem is when we look at the situations into which people are born and think we can deduce God’s attitude toward them on that basis.

    Mark Pickering, that’s an intriguing suggestion that our sinful tendencies could be evolutionary baggage. I’m thinking of the term “concupiscence,” which has (unfortunately) gotten overly tied to lust in its connotations, but which is often used theologically to simply indicate human desires and appetites–which aren’t evil in themselves, but become a problem in that they regularly get put ahead of God. I’m thinking that might fit neatly into an evolutionary framework.

    (By the way, I’d agree that Mormons don’t believe in “original sin” as defined by Augustine, but I probably wouldn’t conflate the Catholic view with Augustine’s. As Brad and I mentioned earlier, the LDS and Catholic approaches might actually not be all that far apart.)

    Thanks for all the interesting comments, everyone!


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