Whenever the Mormon faith pops up in the media, it is usually introduced with a handful of doctrines that seem rigged for laugh lines: Joseph Smith spoke to an angel; Jesus visited America; and the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Mo. Now, these and other too-strange-to-be-true beliefs have been put to song in "The Book of Mormon" musical by the creators of South Park.
I'm not a Mormon, and I have no qualifications whatsoever to discuss angels or Jesus. But I have spent the past four years writing a book about people who search for the Garden of Eden on earth. There are more of these Eden-seekers than you'd think, including the first president of Boston University, who in 1885 wrote a book contending that the Garden of Eden was at the North Pole; a World War I-era Hong Kong revolutionary who insisted it was in outer Mongolia; and a German Baptist preacher who believed that a snake-shaped Native American earth mound in Ohio marked the spot of man's first temptation. So I can tell you that the Garden of Eden Joseph Smith found in Jackson County, Mo., is by no means the weirdest. In fact, in Mormon history, it makes perfect sense.
Every vision of the Garden of Eden is different, and the Mormon Garden of Eden is not about abundant natural beauty. Even Joseph Smith himself knew Missouri wasn't perfect when he made his first trip to Independence, the largest town in Jackson County, in July 1832, looking for a safe place for his followers to settle: "Although [Missouri], according to the prophets, is to become like Eden or the garden of the Lord, yet, at present it is as it were but a wilderness and desert."
The Mormon Garden of Eden is not about creation. Mormons do believe that God gave Adam and Eve physical form in the Garden of Eden but that they existed before Eden as purely spiritual beings. The earth too could have existed for much longer than the Garden of Eden. (I spoke to an evolution professor at Brigham Young University who said that he "only rarely" had students bring up the Missouri story as an explanation of human origins.)
It isn't even about sin. Adam and Eve did eat the forbidden fruit, but they didn't have to pay for it for eternity. God actually pardons them. God did kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden -- just as Missouri's older settlers kicked the Mormons out of Independence. But they picked up and moved on. According to "The Book of Mormon," you need the bitter to have the sweet. If Adam and Eve had stayed in the Garden, "they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin."
After Independence, the Mormons moved northwest of Jackson County, settling in a river valley Joseph Smith named Adam-ondi-Ahman. There, he said, was where Adam and Eve settled and lived out their days, building stone shrines and raising their children in peace. Unfortunately, Adam-ondi-Ahman too became a battlefield, in the Mormon War of 1838; Smith's followers were unceremoniously booted out of the state under threat of death, sending them on their long journey to Utah. The Mormon Garden of Eden is about exile, and return.
What set Joseph Smith apart from other Eden-seekers I followed was the sheer impact of his vision. He had followers, and it's them who have made Jackson County a sacred place in the generations since 1838. Though Missouri represents a painful moment in their history, Mormon families today travel the state's historical sites from all over the country.
I took the official tour of the LDS Visitors' Center in Independence, and asked my tour guide, a bubbly Californian serving her mission in Jackson County, if it really was the Garden of Eden. "Yes!" she said. "Isn't that amazing?" It wasn't in her official script, she told me, but the "old timers" who'd come to Independence had passed on the story. Young families walk in the quiet fields of Adam-ondi-Ahman, looking for the remnants of stone shrines.
Jackson County is supposed to be the place the faithful will come back to when Christ returns to Earth to usher all faithful saints up to heaven, where they will live forever with their families in a state of perfection known as "Zion." As the lyrics of a Mormon hymn put it, "Zion will be where Eden was." Exactly how literal a place is "Zion" or "Eden" really? That's a matter of personal belief. But if it's going to be anywhere, it might as well be Jackson County.