Saving Alvin

How we approach the scriptures affects what we see in them. In other words, our assumptions, our traditions, our cultural baggage that we carry with us as we enter the world of scriptural texts are lenses that give meaning and shape to what we find inside those scriptures.  Two approaches that I would like to examine today are looking at the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets as a unified, static monolith of doctrine vs looking at them as a dynamic collection of texts written by individuals who each had their own limited view.  I intend to look at those views using the doctrine of salvation for the dead as the focal point.

In 1823, Alvin Smith (Joseph Smith’s oldest brother) suddenly became ill. He died a short time later in great pain. Alvin seems to have been considered the brightest and best of the Smith brothers, even within his own family.[1] Yet, according to William Smith, at Alvin’s funeral, a local Presbyterian minister “intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy and my father did not like it.”[2] Apparently, this did not sit well with Joseph Smith, Jr. either. Throughout his life, he grappled with the question of what became of people like Alvin—uncatechized and unbaptized individuals who were good people. Grappling with the question resulted in an evolution of theology concerning redemption of the dead over his lifetime that has been interpreted in different ways.

Among the earliest (and certainly one of the most significant) documents Joseph Smith, Jr. gave to the world was the Book of Mormon. Within the Book of Mormon, Universalism—the idea that God will, sooner or later, redeem and restore all of His creation—is generally opposed. For example, one of the major villains that looms over the narrative in the Book of Alma is Nehor, who taught that “all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble … for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life” (Alma 1:4). Nehor’s teachings became popular and served as a major religious movement even after the man’s public execution for murder.

Afterwards, Alma went on a preaching tour and visited the Nehor stronghold of Ammonihah, where he and his companion Amulek contended with the ideas that Nehor had taught. Amulek, for example, said that he believed that God “shall not save his people in their sins” and cannot because “no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven” (Alma 11:36-37). Salvation would be administered through the Atonement of Christ only to “those who believe on his name” (Alma 11:40) and “him that has faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:16). Amulek felt that repentance must be done during mortality, for “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. … If we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed” (Alma 34:32-33). When taken at face value, there is no room for repentance after death in Amulek’s thought.  Alvin, in this scenario, would likely not have escaped hellfire. He had died without fulfilling the laws of the gospel. Other voices in the Book of Mormon hint that little children and those who lived without the law being given to them will somehow be exempt from this, but no mechanism is given for their salvation asides from the general idea of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.[3]

Yet, even while Joseph Smith worked on preparing the Book of Mormon, a 1829 revelation made room for eventual forgiveness to those who do not repent in this life. Written in the voice of the Lord, it stated that “And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless” (D&C 19:4). The text, however, indicated that the suffering would not go on forever:

Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment . . . For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great it is! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Endless punishment is God’s punishment (D&C 19:6, 10-12).

Thus, the words of the scriptures were declared to be tricky phrasing indicating that the suffering of the unrepentant would be Eternal and Endless in the sense of being God’s punishment and not in the sense of going on without end.

This revelation was a very Universalist in its outlook, and resembles what some preachers who believed in Universalist ideals were teaching. Universalists argued that God is a benevolent and generous being whose attributes of love and justice were incompatible with widespread condemnation and permanent torment. They also held that God would not allow Himself to be defeated by Satan and would overcome the effects of Satan’s work by restoring all His creation to its original, pre-Fall glory. For example, eighteenth-century preacher named John Murray indicated that while hell and punishment existed, they were waystations to redemption. Using an idea like the 1829 revelation, Murray reasoned that “it is one thing to be punished with everlasting destruction, and another to be everlastingly punished with destruction.” The comparison he used was that: “If your candle were to burn to endless ages, and you put your finger into that candle, but for a moment, you would suffer, for that moment, the pain of everlasting fire.”[4] Joseph Smith’s ancestors were Universalists, and many early converts to Mormonism had similar roots or beliefs.  Unlike the teachings of Amulek, according to this Universalist strain of thought, Alvin would have some sort of opportunity for salvation after enduring death and hell.

A vision experienced by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in 1832 laid out some mechanisms and limitations to this idea of eventual, universal redemption. Often referred to simply as “the Vision” (now as Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76), the revelation expanded the eternal destination of souls from the bifurcate system of heaven and hell to a graded system of four destinations: The Celestial Kingdom, Terrestrial Kingdom, Telestial Kingdom, and a place of condemnation for the sons of perdition. In a way, the system provided a compromise between Universalist ideals of the 1829 revelation and the thought of Amulek. It seems that those who gain the highest (Celestial) kingdom have to do so by their actions during this lifetime, as revealed by those who are able to obtain a place in the second realm of glory, the Terrestrial Kingdom: “Behold, these are they who died without law; and also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it” (D&C 76:72-74). In this Vision, we finally begin to see a mechanism for salvation to those without law and eventual redemption—preaching and acceptance of Jesus in the afterlife—but they could only be redeemed to a degree. According to the theology of 1832, Alvin would be able to obtain the Terrestrial Kingdom, but not the Celestial Kingdom.

Four years later, Joseph Smith had another vision that challenged the limitations indicated by the textual record of the Vision of the Three Degrees of Glory. Joseph Smith recorded that: “The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof. … I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept” (D&C 137:1, 5). Surprised, Joseph Smith recorded that he “marveled how it was that [Alvin] had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he … had not been baptized for the remission of sins” (D&C 137:6). This statement of astonishment makes sense, particularly since Section 76 indicated that Alvin would be destined for the Terrestrial Kingdom, not the Celestial Kingdom.

In the reasoning of this 1836 vision, however, the Lord made room for the redemption of all who were worthy. He declared that:

All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom; for I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts (D&C 137:7-9).

In Mormon theology of the late 1830s, Alvin could be saved because he would have received the gospel in its fulness and would have been baptized by proper authority if he had been given the chance to do so.

Still, one can sense some underlying tensions in Joseph Smith’s beliefs about salvation for the dead during the late 1830s. One of the main reasons he was surprised to see Alvin in the Celestial Kingdom was that he “had not been baptized for the remission of sins” (D&C 137:6). From the start, Mormons declared that baptism was essential for salvation. The initial constitution of the Church declared that salvation was contingent on being among those who “would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end” (D&C 20:25). A year-and-a-half after the 1836 vision with Alvin, a revelation reiterated that: “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and he that believeth not, and is not baptized, shall be damned” (D&C 112:29). Latter-day Saints declared that baptism was an absolute requirement for salvation, yet Alvin was to be saved, apparently without baptism.

This paradox of salvation without baptism during mortality was resolved in 1840 with the implementation of proxy baptisms for the dead. At the funeral of Seymour Brunson on 15 August 1840, Joseph Smith read from 1 Corinthians 15, then declared that: “It is the privilege of [members of] this Church to be baptized for all their kinsfolk that have died before this gospel came forth. . . . By so doing, we act as agents for them, and give them the privilege of coming forth in the First Resurrection.”[5] On a later occasion Joseph Smith added that: “It is no more incredible that God should save the dead, than that he should raise the dead. There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin.”[6] He further elaborated that: “God has made a provision that the spirits of our friends and every spirit in that eternal world can be ferreted out and saved, unless he has committed that unpardonable sin which can’t be remitted to him, whether in this world or in the world of spirits. God has wrought out salvation for all men, unless they have committed a certain sin.”[7] Through baptism for the dead, salvation was opened to almost all the unbaptized deceased.

In contrast to the earliest snapshot of Mormon theology, the door had been opened for exaltation for virtually all humankind. In the statements above, Joseph Smith makes it clear that he believed that everyone could be saved except the few who committed the ill-defined unpardonable sin. This seems to be very different take on salvation than the one found in Amulek’s teachings, or even the 1836 vision. Rather than only those who had received the gospel during their lives and those who would have done so if they had the chance, anyone who had not committed the unpardonable sin could be redeemed. Alvin, of course, would be offered salvation through baptisms for the dead. In late 1840, not long after the doctrine was introduced, Hyrum Smith was baptized as a proxy for Alvin.[8] By favoring near-universal salvation being available through baptisms for the dead, Joseph Smith had found a way to reconciling aspects of Nehor’s universalist teachings with those of Amulek (though there is a significant amount of nuance that I don’t have the space to work through in this already too-long post).

When the revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith are read as fossilized snapshots of a dynamic theology, it can result in an expanded view of salvation. The result in this case is a theology that points towards salvation being open to almost everyone, even after death.[9] Different approaches to reading the scriptures and teachings of prophets, however, result in different conclusions. An example of a different approach is the one Elder Bruce R. McConkie took. Elder McConkie believed that: “Truth is always in harmony with itself. The word of the Lord is truth, and no scripture ever contradicts another, nor is any inspired statement of any person out of harmony with an inspired statement of another person. … When we find seeming conflicts, it means we have not as yet caught the full vision of whatever points are involved.”[10] Reading with this approach to exegesis, the Book of Mormon, various visions and revelations, and other teachings of Joseph Smith are not snapshots of an evolving theology, but expressions of truth that all need to be reconciled to each other.

The results of this reading in Elder McConkie’s theology is a more limited salvation. He did accept proxy work for the dead as an opportunity for salvation, but placed limitations on those who would benefit from this work based on the earlier revelations of the 1820s and 1830s:

There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation. This life is the time and the day of our probation. After this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.

For those who do not have an opportunity to believe and obey the holy word in this life, the first chance to gain salvation will come in the spirit world. If those who hear the word for the first time in the realms ahead are the kind of people who would have accepted the gospel here, had the opportunity been afforded them, they will accept it there. Salvation for the dead is for those whose first chance to gain salvation is in the spirit world. …

There is no other promise of salvation than the one recited in [D&C 137]. Those who reject the gospel in this life and then receive it in the spirit world go not to the celestial, but to the terrestrial kingdom.[11]

Thus, Elder Bruce R. McConkie believed that there is indeed a time when the spirit is too old to approach God and not everyone can be saved in the fullest sense of the word in the afterlife.

The differences between Bruce R. McConkie’s beliefs and Joseph Smith’s later teachings about salvation for the dead lays bare an important tension in Latter-day Saint thought. Do we believe that continuing revelation results in continuous revision that supersedes previous revelations, or should revelation be weighed on how it conforms to existing canonical writings? In this discussion, two approaches to understanding the doctrine of salvation for the dead have been presented. In the approach where subsequent revelations superseded past ones, everyone who has not committed the unpardonable sin can eventually reach the Celestial Kingdom.[12] In the approach where established canon and doctrine are weighed as equal to later revelations, universal salvation is tempered by earlier revelations that limit salvation to those who did not reject the gospel at some point in their lifetime and locks everyone into a kingdom of glory after judgement. How the question of continuous revision versus reconciling all canonical writing is resolved by the individual bears a tremendous impact on shaping their theology.

 

Updated 5/30/2020 for greater accuracy in discussing D&C 76 and texts discussed from the book of Alma.

Footnotes:

[1] For a discussion of Alvin’s role in the Smith family, see Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, first Vintage Books edition (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 42, 45-46, 54-55

[2] William Smith, interview by E. C. Briggs and J. W. Peterson, Oct. or Nov. 1893, originally published in Zion’s Ensign; reprinted in Deseret Evening News, Jan. 20, 1893, p. 2. Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 401-402.

[3] See 2 Nephi 9:25; Mosiah 3:16, 21; Mosiah 15:25; and Moroni 8:22.

[4] John Murray, Letters and Sketches of Sermons, (Boston: Joshua Belcher, 1812), 2:253.

[5] Vilate M. Kimball to Heber C. Kimball, Oct. 11, 1840, Vilate M. Kimball letters, Church History Library; spelling and capitalization standardized.

[6] “The Doctrine of Baptism for the Dead,” A Sermon Delivered on 3 October 1841 (from Times and Seasons [Nauvoo, Illinois] 2 [15 October 1841], 24:577.

[7] Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (1978), 13.

[8] See Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 403.

[9] See, for example, Fiona Givens and Terryl Given, The Christ Who Heals (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 118-126.

[10] Bruce R. McConkie, “Finding Answers to Gospel Questions,” cited in Teaching Seminary: Preservice Readings (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 43.

[11] Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” BYU speech 1 June 1980, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie_seven-deadly-heresies/

[12] I realize in this version of this essay, I don’t discuss progression to the Celestial Kingdom, but that will probably come up in another post.

31 comments for “Saving Alvin

  1. SDS
    May 29, 2020 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for this fascinating and informative post. Here are a few wayward thoughts prompted by the post:

    Both the context and the language of the 1836 vision suggest that righteous individuals who died without the opportunity for baptism can be saved without actual physical baptism, personal or proxy. Joseph apparently sees that Alvin is already in the celestial kingdom, though of course no proxy work had been done for him yet. And the words seem pretty straightforward: the Lord knows the heart, and if a person would have received baptism, the Lord will deem that person to have been baptized.

    This teaching may seem appealing to those not of a legalistic bent (even though, or perhaps because, they may be lawyers). It does seem a bit formalistic, after all, for God to say: You just can’t be exalted without baptism, period, but it counts if someone else does it for you. Nor is the 1836 teaching necessarily in tension, it seems to me, with the later verse saying that “he that believeth not, and is not baptized, shall be damned.” First, that verse suggests that to be damned you need to do two things: believe not, and not be baptized. But people like Alvin were not guilty of believing not. And, second, the 1836 teaching suggests that good people like Alvin were in effect baptized, or at least that the Lord deems it so.

    Where does this leave the later institution of proxy baptizing? One possibility, suggested in the post, is that proxy baptism provides a possibility of salvation for people who wouldn’t qualify under the 1836 “deeming” provision. In other words, they wouldn’t have accepted baptism during mortality, but they may have had a change of heart after death. Another less legalistic and more heterodox possibility (though one that appeals to me) is that the proxy baptisms may not be strictly necessary for the salvation of departed souls, but the practice is nonetheless an inspired way of connecting the human family, per Malachi’s prophecy. (Much in the way that the doctrine of purgatory and the institutions of All Souls’ Day and masses for the dead connected medieval Christians to the dead, as explained by historians like Eamon Duffy and John Bossy: one can appreciate this valuable function even without believing in purgatory and the efficacy of masses for the dead.)

    Just a few thoughts. Thanks again for the post.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    May 29, 2020 at 9:53 am

    Thanks SDS. Those are some good thoughts. I will point out that Joseph Smith also saw his mother and father in the Celestial Kingdom with Alvin and they were both still alive in 1836, so the context of the vision seems to be in the future (potentially post-proxy baptism for Alvin), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your overall assessment is wrong.

  3. SDS
    May 29, 2020 at 10:04 am

    Good point.

  4. May 29, 2020 at 10:37 am

    I (believe I) can see God’s problem; everyone will get saved to a degree of Glory, but if you tell everyone that the torment/punishment is minimal/limited in comparison, certain personality types will not even try. So you need motivate them with phrases which put things closer to their point of view. Have you ever been sitting in a Sacrament meeting, finding it to be endless? Could you even comprehend that Sacrament meeting going on for 7,000 years? Wouldn’t that feel endless? Would God be unjustified by using the word endless -even if not technically true – if that resulted in many people repenting and fulfilling their purpose on earth?
    One scripture that really rubs me the wrong way, is the one in the D&C where the Lord is explaining the Joseph Smith that Endless torment isn’t actually without an end, it’s called that because it’s His torment and He is Endless. I really don’t like that, it comes across as a really bad retcon. But I can reconcile Bible scriptures that talk about endless torment with the idea that they might actually have an end. Perhaps when a prophet received the revelation where he saw the torment of the spirit world, he may not have seen the degrees of glory, and with that understanding wrote down endless. Or he saw that it would take 7,000 (or however long) years, and had no better way to describe that than endless.
    For you and I who have had algebra and calculus where we talk about millions, billions, and infinity (and beyond), we are familiar with those numbers. But until about 200 years ago, that wasn’t the case. The vast majority of humans never needed to think beyond hundreds, and even then rarely needed to think of anything up to a hundred. So when some sheep herder is trying to comprehend a punishment that goes on longer than his life time, more than a hundred times over, I can’t fault him for using the word endless. Or using that word to motivate the other sheep herders into repentance.
    I must admit that I don’t like the idea of an evolving theology, and do prefer the idea that different scriptures just need to be reconciled. But I don’t think that we can do reconcile them without understanding how most of the people writing scriptures had limitations with their knowledge and their ability to express that in writing. So having scriptural conflict makes sense, and is okay. Not a single prophet knew everything by the time they starting writing scriptures.
    This post points out how Joseph wrestled with trying to reconcile the scriptures and revelations that he had in front of him. For decades. It was even this wrestling that brought about many of said revelations. We sit here with all that we have and think that we have everything, we just need to sit through four years of Sunday School to get it all. And that’s kind of true, we have a lot of pieces to fit together. But for the rest of history they didn’t have all of the pieces that we have, and still were able to live righteously. So shouldn’t we also be able to live righteously?
    I am okay with a scripture saying endless torment, if that motivates people to repentance, and then with some line upon line, precept upon precept learning, find out that it does have an end, but it’s best if we don’t think of it like that.

  5. Wondering
    May 29, 2020 at 11:17 am

    The attempt to turn the adjective “endless” into a proper name in order to claim it doesn’t mean what it means fails entirely to deal with the words of King Benjamin in Mosiah 2:39 [“never-ending torment”] and in Mosiah 3:23-27 [“endless torment, FROM WHENCE THEY CAN NO MORE RETURN … FOREVER AND EVER” (emphasis added)] which Benjamin seems to have claimed were the “words which the Lord God hath commanded” him. Mosiah 3:23, 27. I’d rather think Benjamin and Joseph somewhat in error in their view of the words of the Lord than think God a sophist or a liar. (Of course, the Book of Mormon is repeatedly inconsistent with both D&C 76 and 137, which are themselves inconsistent — despite BRM’s effort to claim they’re not. Without that inconsistency, there’s no sufficient reason for JS to have been surprised at his vision of Alvin in the celestial kingdom.) Maybe we need to face up to the fact that the BoM has a black-and-white, binary view of people and of the hereafter, quite at odds with what the Church now teaches. If the canonized scriptures can only be reconciled by using Humpty Dumpty’s approach (“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”) maybe the effort to see the scriptures as a “a unified, static monolith of doctrine” is simply not worthwhile. It smacks a bit of the Emperor’s New Clothes. For me it works much better to remember the processes of canonization (and decanonization), the influence of individual and cultural viewpoints on attempts to articulate one’s intimations of the divine, the problems of translation and linguistic drift, and to look to the scriptures not for a consistent, coherent, systematic theology, but instead because they testify of Christ as the source of eternal life, and not because one will find eternal life in the scriptures. John 5:39

    BTW, BRM’s repeated efforts (contrary to John 5:39) to make salvation a matter of what you know [Chad’s fn 11] rather than what you are or what you do or whom you know (John 17:3) seems greatly at odds with the gospel of Christ. I wonder if his final general conference speech should be read to mean he had finally figured that out.

  6. Taiwan Missionary
    May 29, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you, Chad Nielsen, for a great post. Great comments, too. A few opinions:

    I think it is impossible to create a framework in which all scriptures agree with each other, BRM notwithstanding. I think that he and other scriptural literalists created a fairly bizarre Rube Goldberg structure to try to force square pegs into round holes. Life is messier than we would like to admit, which means that our ability to understand God is also limited. This is also true for God’s prophets. And, as has already been pointed out, the canonization of scripture over the centuries has been messy.

    It is my opinion that scriptures will change, as human knowledge increases and we become more able to understand our world. God will give us greater knowledge and understanding, as that happens. Joseph Smith grew into his prophetic role, and became ever more capable of understanding God’s word. This is how I explain the progression of Church doctrine from the BOM’s fairly stark heaven-hell divide based on what we do in this life only, to Joseph’s later revelations in the D and C.

    I hope that progression in understanding God and His will and His ways will continue, even though the Church now seems to me to be largely in caretaker mode, for what has been already revealed.

    FWIW, I think the Church has been quietly distancing itself from BRM, for some time. The strongest indication was the withdrawal of Mormon Doctrine from publication several years ago. The reason cited was lack of demand, but LDS used book sellers have indicated that demand remains strong, and I have seen ratty copies of the paperback sell for $40. I think the Church wanted to move beyond BRM and created a face-saving excuse.

  7. ji
    May 29, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    God works in mysterious ways… Here a little, there a little, line upon line, precept upon precept. I think we need to try to understand God through living the Gospel with faith, hope, and charity, rather than through theology, sociology, or other academic or philosophical approaches. So rather than talking about an evolving theology, I like to think on terms of God sharing differing perspectives at different times with people who have differing understandings. But this makes for fascinating discussion.

  8. Taiwan Missionary
    May 29, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    Ji:

    Good point. Faith, hope, and charity are clearly the high point of God’s expectations of us. To me, though, they do not stand in either-or opposition to theology, sociology, and academic or philosophical approaches. The development of theology hopefully enables us to better see HOW to act with faith, hope, charity. A good example for me is Joseph Smith’s teachings (theology) on temple work for the dead—this is a great example of God’s extension of his love to all men and women, and we are given the chance to participate.

    I take your (implied) point, though—all too often, believers rely too much on theology and philosophies, to the point that they neglect God’s commandment to love Him and our fellow man.

  9. EP
    May 29, 2020 at 2:24 pm

    The simple resolution to this conundrum is simple. BRM was wrong about this. And, about a great many other things.

  10. Taiwan Missionary
    May 29, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    EP:

    I agree. BRM had a very commanding personality that exuded certainty. That kind of personality in my opinion winds up getting things wrong more often than people who are aware that they might be wrong.

    Prince’s book on the Presidency of David O. McKay covers extensively the flap that ensued when the first edition of Mormon Doctrine was published. If I remember correctly, McKay asked Marion Romney of the Q12 to draw up a list of questionable assertions in MD. Romney found several hundreds. BRM was asked to make changes. He did so grudgingly, making a few changes, the most obvious one bring his claim that the Catholic Church was the GAACOTD. Church leaders let the matter drop, because they did not want to undermine BRM’s position on the First Council of the 70. So Church membership wound up accepting MD as authoritative—and the fallout lasted several decades, and still lingers on in declining fashion, despite withdrawing MD from publication.

    So the road to development of doctrine and theology is not smooth.

  11. ji
    May 29, 2020 at 3:55 pm

    Taiwan,

    I’m not anti-academic, and academic approaches can be helpful in learning and understanding and defending and motivating. But academic approaches alone will always be insufficient to understand or explain the ways of God — in contrast, the humblest man or woman, with no academic training whatsoever but wizened with many years of faith, hope, and charity, can be a master at seeing the hand of God in life, discerning the ways of God, and understanding the intention of the scriptures. That is why I said in another posting somewhere that I hope we never have a systematic theology that purports to answer the questions with official, academically-approved answers. Not only will those answers likely be wrong, but arriving at them and then defending them over time will cause much unneeded disputation. I love what I read on D&C 1:20 regarding this last and greatest dispensation: every man can speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.

  12. Chad Nielsen
    May 29, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    Lots of great comments here and I wish I had time to discuss each in depth with you all.

    EP, that is probably the most straightforward answer. I think that if you were to read a lot of my posts one thing that ultimately comes out is that I was raised in a church environment where BRM was treated as the final word on doctrine (with Joseph Fielding Smith being the other major authority on the matter). Over the course of about the last decade, I’ve been working through the doctrinal ideas Elder McConkie taught that were engrained in me and trying to sort through them to find which ones I agree with and which ones I do not. There’s a lot I do not agree with at this point, but I am still thinking things through.

    Along those lines, I agree with what Taiwan missionary has pointed out about the Church beginning to distance itself from McConkie when it comes to settling his books and quoting him in manuals, etc. I suspect that we’re in a period of rethinking things as a church in general, perhaps along the lines of what I’ve been going through personally in relationship to his teachings.

    Wondering and Taiwan Missionary, your comments are very well stated, and match much of how I feel personally these days. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Taiwan Missionary
    May 29, 2020 at 5:15 pm

    Ji:

    I did NOT construe your comment as anti-academic, and sorry if I created that impression. I actually agreed with what you wrote, and found it helpful.

    Chad:

    Thanks for thumbs up. I did not, like you, grow up in a Church environment, thinking that BRM and JFS were the final word on doctrine. But I joined the Church at 22 and immediately ran into well-meaning Church members who told me that I simply had to read them. I tried to and immediately disliked their stentorian tone, and gave up. I used to boast that I had not read anything by JFS.
    I also described myself as a Talmadge and Widtsoe Mormon, NOT a McConkie and JFS Mormon. People always got my point. Talmadge and Widtsoe were scientists who examined the data and then drew conclusions. BRM and JFS simply went to their conclusions, a priori, and cherry picked their data.

  14. ji
    May 29, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    Taiwan,

    I know! No problem…

  15. GEOFF -AUS
    May 29, 2020 at 11:50 pm

    The person who follows BRMs lead today, speaking with certainty and power is pres Oaks. Could be equally disavowed in a few years? These men could have done so much good with their power.

    I agree with Tiwan and ji that all truth is part of the gospel, whether it is arrived at by revelation, by reason, or by science.

    As far as the next life; one of the biggies will be answered (if there is one) from there I believe there will be eternal progression, to the extent of our growth.

    If mother teresa arrives at the pearly gates without her temple work done, and an endowed member who has abused his family, I think mother teresa will be given star treatment, and the abuser not recognised as a follower of Christ. Whether it is possible for the abuser to repent and progress, is above my pay grade.

    Agree that we are here to learn to love our fellow earthlings, as God does, perfectly.

  16. Travis
    May 29, 2020 at 11:52 pm

    Elder McConkie is one of our greatest teachers because we learn what not-to-do in terms of institutional exposition. Since “Mormon Doctrine,” we have become more wise. I feel for Elder McConkie because we tend to contrast him in a way that seems to “make an example” out of him.

    Alvin is the catalyst that brought Joseph to his knees in search for a solution to “separation.” Before Joseph, the religious psyche could see only heaven and hell; after Joseph, we learn of the everlasting covenant, of which only baptism was known at the time. Only the death of Alvin could have brought forth such sincere grief—the child’s love for an elder brother.

    Joseph’s love was so great that the heavens were moved to respond. Joseph’s love was sufficient to restore the fullness of the everlasting covenant.

    “Degrees of glory” is never a fruitful topic. It is contaminated with so many beliefs. It would be better if we replaced “glory” with “covenants.” Three tiers of covenants: Baptismal, Sealing, Coronation. This is the order of spiritual economy.

  17. Taiwan Missionary
    May 30, 2020 at 12:03 am

    Like the comparison of Mother Teresa and the sealed family. God knows our hearts. He wants the ordinances performed, but it is what is in our hearts that matters most. Christ scorned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.

    Also, three tiers of covenants: baptism, sealing, crowning. Very well put. Also, the point that grief over Alvin’s death resulted in the Heavens opening wider. God gives us truth as we are able to handle it.

  18. May 30, 2020 at 2:10 am

    Chad,

    You wrote “The revelation [Sec. 76] expanded the eternal destination of souls from the bifurcate system of heaven and hell to a graded system of four destinations: The Celestial Kingdom, Terrestrial Kingdom, Telestial Kingdom, and Outer Darkness….”

    That simply isn’t true – if you read Section 76 you’ll notice that it never uses the phrase “outer darkness,” and all of the scriptures that do use it (whether in the New Testament, Book of Mormon, or D&C) are referring to the place where ordinary sinners go after they die, not the abode of fallen angels and sons of perdition. I don’t blame you personally, but the fact that nearly every Mormon uses the phrase “outer darkness” in this way is, to my mind, evidence of the shear slovenliness with which Mormons at all levels of the hierarchy approach their scriptures.

    As for how the theology worked at different points in the Prophet’s career, I have to say that I don’t think it was nearly as definite as you give it credit for; all these scriptures are open enough to divergent views that Joseph had good reasons to add what he did. For one thing, I think that you cherry-picked Book of Mormon quotes in order to make Alma’s soteriology look harsher than it is and conclude that “Alvin, in this scenario, would likely not have escaped hellfire. He had died without fulfilling the laws of the gospel.”

    But then you have to overlook verses like Alma 41:5: “The one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil; for as he has desired to do evil all the day long even so shall he have his reward of evil when the night cometh.”

    So now Alma is saying that people are damned when they have “desired to do evil all the day long.” Which is a far cry from an otherwise upright youth of 25 who died without having committed himself to one of the competing Christian sects in his corner of New York.

    When I look at all the different passages in the Book of Mormon (of which some tell you pretty clearly that you need to believe in Jesus to be saved) the only conclusion that seems to make sense is that Book of Mormon soteriology is incomplete and that there are varying levels of accountability and varying levels of punishment, most of which don’t go on forever. Even the word “damnation,” at least in the Bible, translates Greek words that just mean to pass judgment on someone – the idea that being permanently cast out is the only possible sentence is, I believe, a piece of medieval baggage which I am glad Joseph Smith dispensed with.

  19. Wondering
    May 30, 2020 at 7:27 am

    Believing Joseph, While Section 76 does not use the term “outer darkness” it does identify a 4-tier graded system. (Curiously, the telestial is described as both a kingdom of glory and as hell.) I wonder if the use by GAs of the term “outer darkness” for the place of the sons of perdition, etc. can be traced any earlier than Joseph Fielding Smith. It does indeed seem to have become common Mormon parlance for that 4th tier despite scriptures that use it seeming to refer either to a part of the spirit world prior to assignment to one of the 4 tiers or to what Section 76 calls the telestial. Is there any good reason (in which I would not include Mormon habit) to think that the Book of Mormon includes a single, consistent theology rather than the views or incomplete expressions of its various writers at various times? Is there any good reason (other than Mormon habit) to suppose that Book of Mormon prophets and church leaders were any more consistent or careful with rhetoric than church leaders of the Restoration?

  20. Chad Nielsen
    May 30, 2020 at 7:35 am

    Believing Joseph,

    Thank you for your push back and fact-checking. They help me to learn and think things through more than I otherwise would. I’ll admit that I was surprised to see that outer darkness really isn’t used in The Vision and somewhat ashamed of my own sloppiness in not noticing that before. I will update the post to better reflect the wording of the revelation. As far as being “simply not true,” though, it does still seem that there still a graded system of four major destinations in that revelation, whatever the specific terminology used.

    As far as Alma goes, I’ll agree that his theology and soteriology are complex, and that the Book of Mormon contains a lot of open-ended complexities, some of which I tried to acknowledge in mentioning the salvation of children and those without law. However, if you read the post closely, I didn’t discuss Alma’s soteriology. I actually focused on looking at Amulek’s soteriology because it more clearly draws out a stance against the idea of universalism presented by Nehor. I admit that a) that still is probably going to be considered cherry picking (it is difficult to adequately discuss all the complexities of soteriology in a large document like the Book of Mormon or even just the Book of Alma in a blog post, especially one not solely devoted to the subject) and b) I left his name lumped with Alma’s later in the post because of a previous version of this post where I spent more time with Alma’s teachings (also sloppiness on my part that I’ll update for accuracy). In any case, the main point I was trying to make is that you have to consider the voices of individuals like Amulek in the scriptures, harsh the though they may be, in coming to terms of whether or not they are all unified in what they are saying.

  21. May 30, 2020 at 12:41 pm

    Chad,

    Understood. I never meant you were wrong to talk about a four-tiered system in the Vision; I suppose I was just get annoyed too much when people use “outer darkness” to refer to the bottom level when the scriptures themselves never call it that. Personally I prefer “Tartarus” as that’s what Peter called the abode of the fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4) though unfortunately the King James translators just used “hell” to translate “Hades,” “Gehenna,” and “Tartarus,” so that the distinctions just go right past most English-speaking Christians.

    Personally I think that the only way to reconcile D&C 76 with the clear statements in both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s later revelations in favor of full salvation for those who died without hearing the gospel is to believe that people who go to the Terrestrial Kingdom often don’t stay there forever. Or at least, I think that if you try to reconcile these various afterlife scriptures at all – something whose achievability appears to be in a lot of doubt here – then you could do a lot better than to follow the McConkie model.

  22. Taiwan Missionary
    May 30, 2020 at 4:00 pm

    Believing Joseph:

    Re: your belief that the Terrestial Kingdom is not necessarily permanent. I don’t think that I would get up in Testimony Meeting and proclaim it as doctrine, but there might be something, here—because DC 76 is silent on this, as you note I myself have thought from time to time that the Ter. Kingdom has points of similarity with Purgatory.

    Perhaps DC 76 is not the final word. Joseph Smith certainly seems to have moved toward a more universal view of salvation, in his later revelations.

  23. Wondering
    May 30, 2020 at 4:26 pm

    Indirectly related:
    “It is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent.” —Bruce R. McConkie, letter to Eugene England, 1981, responding to a draft of England’s attempt to reconcile church leaders’ apparently conflicting statements on “The Perfection and Progression of God”.
    Of course, that was not the only time BRM usurped the role of the president of the church. On at least one occasion, but maybe more, he was called on it, e.g., his being required to re-write portions of his Seven Deadly Heresies speech for publication. Unfortunately, the re-writing didn’t come close to undoing the damage done by that speech to a generation of BYU students and generations after them. It has been said numerous times that BRM was “often wrong, but never in doubt.” I have come to prefer wonder — doubt, if you will — on almost every church teaching beyond “[t]he fundamental principles of our religion [which] are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; [as] all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it [anyway]” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 121).

  24. Chad Nielsen
    May 30, 2020 at 4:39 pm

    The idea that the terrestrial kingdom isn’t permanent is very possible. There are hints that Joseph Smith came to see the kingdoms as steps we all had to progress through (though the evidence is a bit tenuous times), and later leaders like Brigham Young and James Talmage openly expressed belief in progression between kingdoms.

  25. cj
    May 31, 2020 at 10:27 am

    1952: Joseph L Anderson, Secretary of the First Presidency

    The brethren direct me to say that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point. Some of the brethren have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others of the brethren have taken the opposite view. But as stated, the Church has never announced a definite doctrine on this point.

    Sincerely your brother, Joseph L Anderson, Secretary of the First Presidency” Joseph L. Anderson, Secretary to the First Presidency in a 1952 letter; and again in 1965.

  26. Chad Nielsen
    May 31, 2020 at 11:42 am

    cj, I removed the multiple copies of the comment. Out of curiosity (we’re trying to figure out some problems we’ve been having with commenting), did an error message come up for you that caused the comment to be placed multiple times?
    Same question to Geoff-Aus, I know you’ve been mentioning some weird issues you’ve been having when you’ve commented lately.

  27. Cj
    May 31, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    Yes, there was a message stating the site could not process the post.

  28. Wondering
    May 31, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    In the past, when I’ve had the same message cj reports, I found that the site had in fact processed the post without my posting it again. But that was observable only after getting out of the site and back in.

  29. Ryan Mullen
    June 2, 2020 at 5:08 pm

    Chad, this was fantastic. I often use the comparison between section 76 and section 137 as an example of “correcting revelation”. All (most?) LDSs seem comfortable with revelation that expands our revealed knowledge base, but revelation that contradicts, or corrects, previous revelation makes some LDSs uncomfortable. I’ve never connected these two snapshots back to section 19 or to Amulek’s teachings, however. That paints a much fuller picture of how Joseph’s understanding evolved over time.

    I would be enriched if our EQ and SS lessons allowed for discussing these types of multiple interpretations, with an attempt to grapple with the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. Far too often, I find myself sitting in authoritative-style lessons with cherry-picked quotes that are meant to assure me that the Gospel (TM) is Eternal and Unchanging, but rather than reassuring those types of lessons just leave me drained.

  30. Chad Nielsen
    June 2, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    Thanks Ryan. I’m glad you appreciated the post!

  31. Bryan in VA
    June 3, 2020 at 7:54 am

    Robert J. Matthews has an essay in the book “The Capstone of Our Religion” where he comments on the impact of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. He notes on page 68:

    Some have thought that the Prophet simply went through the Bible, making it conform to Mormon doctrine – Mormonizing the Bible, they often call it. But the historical sequence shows this is not so. Translating the Bible was the process by which these doctrines was given to Joseph Smith. How much Mormon doctrine was there in 1830 to copy from? Most of it was revealed later. If Elder McConkie has written Mormon Doctrine in 1830, it would have been very thin.

Charitable Comments Welcome. Please follow our comment policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.