|For six weeks in the summer of 2013, student scholars from all over the United States and from Europe met daily in the Maxwell Institute library to discuss and research the topic “Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood: Gifts and Ordinances in LDS Thought and Practice.” This seminar was hosted by the Maxwell Institute and directed by Terryl Givens. The Summer Seminar Working Papers 2013 are the result of the research done by the students and were presented at a BYU symposium on July 11, 2013.|
An Exploration into Early Mormon Soteriology
Joseph Smith once famously stated, "No man knows my history. I cannot tell it; I shall never undertake it."1 This quote, probably more than any other uttered by Joseph, has been twisted and taken out of context as an attempt to hide his secretive past. Scholar Fawn Brodie's cleverly titled and famous book, No Man Knows My History, is the prime example as she attempted to produce an exposé that would provide an unprecedented glimpse into Joseph Smith's dark and nefarious inner thoughts. Yet, these lines do not come from an undisclosed secret manuscript in which the perpetrator prophet unveils his deception; but rather a very well-known and public funeral sermon for his friend King Follet. Joseph Smith goes on to say, "I don't blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself." This speech delivered only shortly before his own death, was by far his most masterful discourse on the subject of salvation, expounding how through his communication with the divine he had gained a knowledge of the eternities. What Joseph had attempted to convey was not that his history held secrets, but that his history had revealed secrets. Through his visionary experiences, his own notions about the afterlife and redemption had undergone a drastic reorientation. With each subsequent revelation, Joseph Smith's own understanding of salvation evolved and expanded. At the same time, these manifestations forced him to engage thorny theological puzzles; opening the door for more questions. It was Joseph's visions, not his enigmatic past, that provided the framework around which he constructed his revolutionary soteriology.
One of the very first things revealed in Joseph Smith's own report of his adolescence is that the rhetoric of the religious revivals in his vicinity had a deep and profound influence on his precocious mind. He notes that at a tender age of twelve their words had ignited within him a quest for truth. Yet, the answers he sought were not so easy to find. The different denominations each presented an alternative theory for salvation and the means by which one could gain a remission of sins. The confused and troubled Joseph Smith was rent by these theological contentions, but at least their preaching had the desired effect upon him. In his words he writes, "I became convicted of my sins," and "I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world."2
At this young age, Joseph Smith was faced with the question of what he must do to be saved. From his comment the sins of the world, he had also come to the realization that there was no relative morality and if he could get an answer to the matter of salvation, it would be an answer for the entire world. Retiring to the woods to ascertain from God the correct course of action, Joseph then records a most sublime manifestation that ensued. The climax of the effulgent revelation was the assurance that Joseph's sins had been forgiven and the divine injunction not to join any of the denominations he was familiar with.
The effect of Joseph's first theophany cannot be overlooked. The vision placated any concerns he had about his own salvation, and for that matter, any interest he had in unlocking the solution to the salvation of mankind. In this earliest account he continues, "my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy."3 At this point, Joseph appears completely content with the Lord's pardon. Engulfed by the miraculous answer to his own pursuit for redemption, he ignored his previous concern for others. However, his temporary satisfaction to the question of salvation would only last for a season.
Joseph's next encounter with the heavens did little to change his feelings on the matter.
He writes that in consequence of foolish errors,
I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections... I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me... for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.4
As seen in the incident above, Joseph consistently thought at this early stage that the only way he could know concerning the status of his salvation was through a direct communication with the divine.
This attitude continued until May 1829, when in the process of translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph and his amanuensis Oliver Cowdery read the words of Jesus Christ during a personal visit to the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. In it Jesus emphatically states that only the baptized would inherit the kingdom of God. The two were perplexed by this passage and its elevation of baptism as a necessary condition of salvation. Joseph's first encounter with the divine left an indelible impression on him and he no doubt remembered the explicit instruction from the lips of the Lord that all extant churches were corrupt, not having the power to administer in religious rites or ceremonies. With this in mind, the pair decided it best to retire to the woods to inquire concerning what they found mentioned on the plates. While thus engaged, a heavenly messenger descended and conferred upon them the necessary power to officiate in God's name.
Mormons understand ordination and the ordinances that follow as much more than a mere sign or token of God's pardon, but rather as prerequisites that open the way of deliverance. To administer these religious rites on earth requires ecclesiastical authority that can only be mediated to man through the priesthood. This is radically different than the theory of personal salvation previously endorsed by Joseph Smith. Now he would publically preach that the heavenly gates could only be unlocked by a minister invested with God's authority. The eminence given to ordinances also led Mormons to make far-reaching and exclusivistic theological claims. In the words of one early Mormon apostle, "water baptism is essential to salvation, and the best man that ever lived cannot be saved without it."5
Only three short months after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith was given a new commandment to begin a translation of the Bible. He no doubt found support for his rhetoric that emphasized authoritative baptism in the words of Jesus recorded in the New Testament, yet he struggled to make sense of God's relationship to those around him who were not baptized into his church. He was able to realize from, "sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled."6 Once again, it was while translating a troublesome passage of scripture that kindled his desire to ask God for further clarification. Specifically, Joseph wondered about the two resurrections mentioned in John 5:29.
What followed became known simply as "The Vision". In it, Joseph Smith and his companion Sidney Rigdon beheld a grand eschatological apocalypse. Not only was their narrow question about the resurrection answered, but a flood of knowledge concerning the fate of the human family was revealed. Most notably, the revelation that the eternities to come are graded in kingdoms of glory.
Those assigned to the various kingdoms collect their reward based on their acceptance of Jesus Christ. The most valiant in their testimony of Jesus inherit the most glorious kingdom with the promise that they become joint heirs with Christ, kings and priests, gods, even the sons of god.7 Those who are less noble receive a less glorious kingdom. Perhaps most revolutionary - those who knew not of Christ, who were not baptized - are not incontrovertibly damned. Joseph Smith found this liberating and boldly rejected the doctrine that had been so widely accepted by Christianity. He writes, "I do not believe the Methodist doctrine of sending honest men, and noble minded men to hell, along with the murderer and adulterer."8
Despite the positive reaction that Joseph Smith had to the impressive oracle, some members struggled to "catch the vision". Perhaps Brigham Young's brother Joseph best captured this spirit when he commented, "When I came to read the visions of the different glories of the eternal world, and of the sufferings of the wicked, I could not believe it at the first. Why the Lord was going to save every body."9
This generous view of salvation was a challenge to some early members. Especially since the majority of them had converted to the church indoctrinated at the insistence of the Mormon elders on authoritative baptism. Now Joseph went about proclaiming a most liberal outlook. Even those assigned to the lowest kingdom were to be considered "heirs of salvation" with glory in their kingdom that "surpasses all understanding."10 However, by saying all men could become heirs of salvation, did he imply that all would eventually gain the same salvation as the most righteous? Could the worst sinners one day become exalted gods like the most righteous? In other words, is it possible that there is progression through the various kingdoms, or were the degrees of salvation elucidated in "The Vision" meant to be firm boundaries?
Early Mormons gradually came around to the idea that the lower kingdoms were intermediate stages of salvation where the majority of humanity could "eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy & advancing to a celestial kingdom, but it would be a slow process."11 It becomes evident that this is the way that the vast majority of humanity will gain entrance into the celestial kingdom. Having not qualified initially for this glory, eventually all would progress through the various steps to receive the greatest blessings.
Joseph Smith's next revelation on salvation would come in early 1836. The day was mostly dedicated to washing and anointings in the Kirtland temple, perhaps this is what sparked his prophecy later that evening in which Joseph records his most explicit future vision of the heavenly kingdom. After detailing some features of the celestial community, he goes on to describe its inhabitants. At first he recognizes Adam, Abraham, then his father and mother, but unexpectedly, he catches a glimpse of his deceased brother Alvin. Joseph was unprepared for this, and states that he himself marveled at his presence there.
Alvin's early death had been a bitter pill for Joseph and his family to swallow. At his funeral, his mother's minister Benjamin Stockton, "intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member."12 While Joseph had from his previous experiences learned Alvin would not be condemned to eternal punishment in hell, the exact means of his redemption remained unclear. He was confused how Alvin gained entrance into that kingdom and learned from the Lord that, "All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it... shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God."13 The vision continues, "And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven." What unimaginable comfort this vision must have given Joseph and his wife Emma; who had at the time of the revelation, had already lost three of their own children, as well as one adopted son to a premature death.
There is no doubt that this doctrine is much more morally appetizing than damning innocent infants; however, the promise that all children will receive an inheritance in the celestial kingdom raises theological concerns. For example, how can all infants be saved even though they have never accepted Christ? Also, why are children spared of any suffering in mortality while the rest of humanity must struggle through heart-wrenching trials? And most problematic, how are a select few guaranteed salvation while others with very limited knowledge are expected to confront difficult choices that can have eternal consequences? This revelation would inspire Joseph to probe deeper into the conditions necessary for salvation in the highest kingdoms and to think through the mechanism of how this was to be accomplished.
A synthesis emerged from Joseph Smith's teachings on salvation. On one hand, God demands strict and formal adherence to specific rituals. On the other, God promises to save many that never had the chance to partake in these rites. The solution, according to the Joseph, was that through the power and authority of the priesthood God provided, "an ordinance for the salvation of the dead, being baptized by proxy."14 Not only could baptism be performed for the departed, but all of the essential ordinances of salvation.
The Latter-day Saints, eager to defend their vicarious work, found support in Paul's passing reference to baptism for the dead in the New Testament. But, beyond appealing to scripture, there was very little discussion of how the actual process worked. Joseph Smith would only say this intercession was effectuated, "through the medium of the everlasting Priesthood, which not only administers on earth, but also in heaven."15 Much here is left unanswered. Can an ordinance really benefit someone who has no part in it? Or more precisely, how does a person on earth, being baptized for someone long dead, have any effect on that distant soul in some unknown region?
One might speculate this could take place through some metaphysical means, where a medium or conduit is connected and the proxy on earth is informed of the choice of the departed. The stand-in is baptized, while the spirit of the departed enters into the physical body of the participant. This seems to be at least possible within Mormon belief, as they affirm that there are literal diabolical possessions of bodies already occupied with a spirit. If so, what is to preclude positive possessions of spirits wishing to have work done for them?16
Via the priesthood, perhaps spirits could possess the bodies of those officiating for them on earth, completing the circuit between their spirits and the physical, somatic rituals. Shortly after vicarious work had begun, it was clarified that these ordinances were only to be performed in the temple. The temple, it is believed, is where the heavens and earth come into contact and the physical and spiritual creation meet. Latter-day Saints affirm that only in the temple can "a whole and complete and perfect union" be created.17
Despite the coherence of this metaphysical channel linking the departed spirits to the physical, early Mormons refused to interpret vicarious work this way. That is not to say they were unaware of the problem connecting the dead to these actions. Orson Pratt commented, "but, says one, this being baptized for another looks rather inconsistent to me. Why does it?... why not another person administer in his behalf? How could you have atoned for yourselves?"18 Here he specifically relates proxy baptisms to the sacrifice of Christ in which he brought salvation to those not physically present. Not through some supernatural connection, but rather through a satisfactory atonement. Both Christ's atonement and Mormon's rites are in Joseph Smith's words means of delivering "salvation substitutionally," being "instrumental in bring[ing] multitudes...into the kingdom of God."19 This act was to be performed on earth in the body "by their friends who act proxy for them, [and] the Lord has administrators there to set them free."20
Temple work in Mormon theology can only be performed while in the flesh. Addressing this subject, Brigham Young imagined heavenly beings relaying messages from the other side to mortals by saying,
Here are the names of such and such ones, of our fathers, and mothers-our ancestors; we will bring them up. Go forth, you who have not passed the ordeals of death and the resurrection-you who live in the flesh, and attend to the ordinances for those who have died without the law. Those who are resurrected will thus dictate in the temple. When the Saints pass through death, they cannot officiate... but they will dictate those who are here.21
Notice who will be doing this work — only those who live in mortality. Those who have already been resurrected cannot participate in the ordinances of vicarious salvation.
This is quite an extraordinary claim. This means that Jesus, as well as all other resurrected beings, are ineligible substitutes and cannot perform these ordinances to save souls. The spirits that ignored the crucial rites in the flesh have fallen outside the reach of God's mercy. Jesus Christ alone cannot save them, but collectively, an army of saints on earth with Christ as their head perform the act of redemption until the last soul is "ferreted out and saved."22 Thus, in the grand scheme of salvation, those baptized for the dead become in a very real way as Joseph put it "Saviours on mount Zion."23
The importance of these transfigured resurrected bodies in the world to come cannot be overlooked. Without a body human spirits, "cannot receive a fullness of joy."24 Joseph taught that, "The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment."25 Satan and his followers ultimate problem is not that God cannot forgive them, or does not have enough love to save them, in the end their predicament is that they do not have a body and physical salvation is impossible. The Devil as a preexistent being elected to remain a spirit and deprived himself of any chance at eternal salvation.
The other group denied salvation in Mormon theology are the Sons of Perdition that have defied God and rejected the Holy Ghost. Their punishment is to join the Devil in outer darkness and be banished eternally. However, if they are resurrected like the rest of humanity, it creates a serious problem. Joseph Smith taught that, "All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not," in essence creating a race of super-devils by endowing their evil spirits with physical bodies.26 If Satan's punishment is to eternally yearn after a body, the Sons of Perdition's sentence is to have been cloaked in corporeality only to have it stripped away. Joseph Smith's vision of the kingdoms to come revealed that they are "the only ones who shall not be redeemed in the due time of the Lord... For all the rest shall be brought forth by the resurrection of the dead."27
The fairness of the Devil and the Sons of Perdition's punishment is also worth exploring. Is it just that God will allow all others to gradually progress to salvation while condemning some for a single mistake, no matter how large? Perhaps God's demand for retribution has little to do with their eternal damnation. It is often assumed that the resurrection is a gift, an automatic occurrence, but early Mormons did not think this way. Scholar Sam Brown notes that,
Many early Latter-day Saints believed that at Christ's Second Coming they would lay hands on each other and raise each other from the dead... Rather than occurring spontaneously in the presence of the returning Christ, resurrection required the laying on of hands by priesthood-wielding Mormon elders.28
Resurrection, like any other priesthood ordinance, requires certain keys.29 But, the power alone is insufficient; also necessary is the confidence in Christ to be raised up. Joseph Smith taught that, "you will not have power... to heal those that have not faith, nor to benefit them, for you might as well expect to benefit a devil in hell."30 Unwilling to accept the ordinance, the Sons of Perdition are eternally trapped through their own agency.
If it is their own choice to refuse the resurrection, it follows that it might be possible that the Sons of Perdition, and for that matter Satan, can one day be saved. This seems paradoxical since God promises they will endure endless punishment. Yet, God does not definitively rule out their salvation. The Lord to Joseph Smith revealed, "It is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment... I am endless, and the punishment which is given at my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God's punishment. Endless punishment is God's punishment."31 The scriptures suggest a vague hope that one day they might be redeemed. In the vision of their suffering Joseph noted, "and the end thereof... no man knows."32 Brigham Young was even more certain of their eventual salvation. He says, "Jesus will redeem the last and least of the sons of Adam, except the sons of perdition, who will be held in reserve for another time."33 Elucidating when this might be he deduces, "You read about a first resurrection. If there is a first, there is a second. And if a second, may there not be a third, and a fourth, and so on?34
By the end of his life, Joseph Smith's original conception of God's individual clemency encompassing salvation had expanded to include the entire human family and beyond. From his visions eventually emerged an innovative and novel systematic theology. Each subsequent revelation, like a blast of air into a flaccid balloon, swelled early Mormon understanding of the kingdom of God, filling heaven with more and more souls.
1. Andrew Ehat, and Lyndon Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Grandin Book, Orem: 1993): 355.
2. Joseph Smith's 1832 history quoted in Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith's First Vision (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City: 2012): 40.
3. Ibid, 41.
4. See Joseph Smith History 1:29.
5. N.B. Lundwall, Masterful Discourses and Writings of Orson Pratt (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City: 1962): 569.
6. See the section heading of Doctrine and Covenants 76.
7. Doctrine and Covenants 76:56-59.
8. Andrew Ehat, and Lyndon Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Grandin Book, Orem: 1993): 368.
9. Joseph Young, "Discourse," Deseret Weekly News (March 18, 1857): 11.
10. Doctrine and Covenants 76:88-89.
11. Brigham Young recorded in the Journal of Wilford Woodruff, August 5, 1855.
12. William Smith interview recorded in the Deseret Weekly News, on January 20, 1844. Quoted in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents Vol. 1 (Signature Books, Salt Lake City: 1996): 512-513.
13. Doctrine and Covenants 137:7-8.
14. Larry Dahl and Donald Cannon, The Teachings of Joseph Smith (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City: 1997): 602.
15. Ibid, 604.
16. For reference to Satan's constant attempts and ability to inhabit human bodies consult Andrew Ehat, and Lyndon Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Grandin Book, Orem: 1993): 207.
17. Doctrine and Covenants 128:18.
18. N.B. Lundwall, Masterful Discourses and Writings of Orson Pratt (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City: 1962): 276.
19. Larry Dahl and Donald Cannon, The Teachings of Joseph Smith ( Bookcraft, Salt Lake City: 1997): 610.
20. Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City: 1976): 367. Orson Pratt also envisioned messengers being essential to the liberation of captive spirits, "Our fathers who are in the spirit world must have a message sent to them. What benefit would it be for you and me to go forth and be baptized for our fathers, or for our grandfathers, or for any of our ancestors who are dead, if no message is to be sent to them in the spirit world? A message must be sent to them." see N.B. Lundwall, Masterful Discourses and Writings of Orson Pratt. (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City: 1962): 275.
21. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 8:225.
22. Andrew Ehat, and Lyndon Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Grandin Book, Orem: 1993): 353.
23. Ibid, 370.
24. Doctrine and Covenants 93:33.
25. Andrew Ehat, and Lyndon Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Grandin Book, Orem: 1993): 60.
27. Doctrine and Covenants 76:38-39. Brigham Young emphatically stated that "All others will have a resurrection, and receive a glory, except those who have sinned against the Holy Ghost.... all will be saved except the sons of perdition- what is saved here, they will not be resurrected." See Journal of Discourses 9:315.
28. Samuel Brown, In Heaven as it Is on Earth (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2012): 92. Brigham Young held a similar perspective on the mechanics of the resurrection. See Journal of Discourses 4:294-295.
29. See Journal of Discourses 15:138.
30. Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City: 1976): 92.
31. Doctrine and Covenants 19:6, 10-12.
32. Doctrine and Covenants 76:45.
33. Journal of Discourses 8:154.
34. Journal of Discourses 7:287.