The blurring lines between fact and folklore

So, lately I’ve been working on a blog with a friend of mine where we chase down and document Mormon folklore. Usually, when people get past the idea that we are saying “These stories are true” and merely “We heard this story,” they also enjoy it, both those in and outside of the Church.

Lately I have been contemplating what exactly constitutes folklore and what constitutes doctrine. For example, I wrote about how some people say that similarities in the shape of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers’ junction and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers’ junction show that the Garden of Eden may have been in Jackson County and then Noah relocated to the Middle East during the Flood. This got me interested in the whole concept of the American Garden of Eden and especially Adam-ondi-Ahman.

Adam-ondi-Ahman is one of those things where it’s established as pretty solid doctrine in our Church — sort of. We have a hymn about it, which is about as solid as you can get when it comes to “Is it official doctrine?” A lot of the information we can piece together from journals and sermons from Joseph Smith, but when it comes to the Church saying, “This is the official definition of Adam-ondi-Ahman,” we don’t really find many contemporary sources, if any. So what is it? Is it doctrine or is it folklore?

The more I look into Mormon folklore, the more I begin to believe there might not be much of a difference. Our Mormon doctrines and Mormon narrative intertwine with each other until they are inseparable. Joseph Smith’s vision of his older brother Alvin’s eventual fate in the next life has greatly influenced our understandings of agency and the Atonement. And our unique eschatological timeline (such as Adam-ondi-Ahman) relies heavily on a patchwork of sermons and statements pieced together like an incomplete puzzle.

Storytelling is an integral part of our Mormon theology. Stories such as the famous “milk and strippings” story concerning Thomas B. Marsh and his wife (and their eventual apostasy) or the transfiguration of Brigham Young may not actually be factual, but we tell and re-tell it as a warning against personal ego interfering with the greater good of the community or to show God’s approval of prophetic succession. The Book of Mormon, which we purport as the complete gospel of Jesus Christ, comes to us not in the form of a bullet-point presentation or a treatise on Christian theology; it comes in the form of stories. And as we interpret and re-interpret those stories, so goes our doctrine.

So what do you guys think? Adam-ondi-Ahman — is it folklore? Or is it doctrine? Is it even possible to separate Adam-ondi-Ahman folklore from Adam-ondi-Ahman doctrine?

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