Universalism and the Revelations of Joseph Smith

Casey Paul Griffiths

Casey Paul Griffiths, “Universalism and the Revelations of Joseph Smith,” in The Doctrine and Covenants, Revelations in Context, ed. Andrew H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2008), 168–87.

Casey Paul Griffiths was a seminary teacher in Sandy, Utah, when this was published.

The revelations of Joseph Smith cast a startling ray of light into the theological world. Foreordained in the eternities, raised in a spiritual environment, and schooled by divine messengers, the Prophet set the religious world on fire. Yet no fire begins in a vacuum. The intellectual climate of the time, influence of his immediate family, and spiritual background of his ancestors all nurtured the divine spark of the Restoration. This study intends to answer three questions. First, what was the religious background of the Prophet’s family? Next, how did it prepare him for his labors? Finally, how did this background frame the work of his prophetic career?

While the truths of the Restoration can only be explained in the context of eternity, it is useful for us to understand the background of those who received the revelations. The Lord comments in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants that He taught His disciples “after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). The language the Lord mentions refers not only to the vernacular of the day but also to the language of ideas in which the Prophet and his contemporaries were fluent. From this perspective, the Lord prepared the mind of the Prophet not only through the teaching of heavenly messengers but also in the religious philosophies of the day. In all things, Joseph was prepared not only to receive revelation but to accept it. This in turn helped him to assist others in making the transition from their own theological backgrounds to the restored doctrines of the true Church. A simple case study might best illustrate the value of the Prophet’s religious background in his labors.

Early Reactions to Doctrine and Covenants 76

Doctrine and Covenants section 76, commonly called “The Vision,” was a milestone in the revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Today there is rarely a course taught in the Church without at least one discussion showing the familiar circles representing the three degrees of glory. This profound outline, presented with such grace in the descriptions given by the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon, provides eternal perspective and a convenient roadmap for Latter-day Saints. However, while the vision is accepted today as one of the crowning jewels of our theology, it initially received a mixed reception by the early Saints. The reaction to this stunning revelation says more about the diverse religious backgrounds of the early adherents of the Church than about the revelation itself. How one reacted to the vision was a kind of litmus test, acting as a measure of the hearer’s ability to comprehend and incorporate new ideas into their perception of God and salvation. Many wrestled to reconcile these concepts with their theological backgrounds. Others, however, sprang from backgrounds that allowed them to see the power of this new revelation and gave them the will to nurse these profound truths until they became fully integrated into Latter-day Saint thought.

Foremost among those who embraced the revelation was the Prophet himself. Joseph was jubilant upon the reception of the vision. Looking back on the experience, he wrote:

Nothing could be more pleasing to the Saints upon the order of the kingdom of the Lord, than the light which burst upon the world through the foregoing vision. Every law, every commandment, every promise, every truth, and every point touching the destiny of man, from Genesis to Revelation, where the purity of the scriptures remains unsullied by the folly of men, go to show the perfection of the theory [of different degrees of glory in the future life] and witnesses the fact that that document is a transcript from the records of the eternal world. The sublimity of the ideas; the purity of the language; the scope for action; the continued duration for completion, in order that the heirs of salvation may confess the Lord and bow the knee; the rewards for faithfulness, and the punishment for sins, are so much beyond the narrow-mindedness of men, that every honest man is constrained to exclaim: “It came from God.[1]

While Joseph marveled at the “sublimity of the ideas,” others in the Church struggled to accept the new revelation. Brigham Young gave a summary of the general feeling in the Church toward the vision:

When God revealed to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon that there was a place prepared for all, according to the light they had received and their rejection of evil and practice of good, it was a great trial to many, and some apostatized because God was not going to send to everlasting punishment heathens and infants, but had a place of salvation, in due time, for all, and would bless the honest and virtuous and truthful, whether they ever belonged to any church or not. It was a new doctrine to this generation, and many stumbled at it.[2]

Records of the time verify the truth of Brigham Young’s observations. Orson Pratt and John Murdock both recorded several incidents where members of local branches rebelled against the teachings contained in the vision. In one branch a certain brother rose up and declared that the revelation was from Satan, and he “believed it no more than he believed the devil was crucified” and “would not have the vision taught in the church for $1000.”[3] Elders Pratt and Murdock worked patiently to help the man accept the doctrine but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Realizing new converts may not be ready for the profound message of the vision, the Prophet counseled missionaries traveling to England not to mention it before the proper foundation could be built. He wrote: “My instructions to the brethren were, when they arrived in England, to adhere closely to the first principles of the Gospel, and remain silent concerning the gathering, the vision, and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, until such time as the work was fully established, and it should be clearly made manifest by the Spirit to do otherwise.”[4]

Why did so many stumble to accept what today is taken for granted as one of the most appealing parts of Latter-day Saint theology? It must be remembered that when the vision was received there was no one in the Church who had been a member for more than three years. The most devoted followers struggled with the dramatic new ideas of the vision. Even a stalwart such as Brigham Young could not conceal his difficulties in understanding the revelation. He recalled, “My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was so directly contrary and opposed to my former education, I said, wait a little; I did not reject it, but I could not understand it.”[5] Though he would later be one of its greatest proponents, at the time he first heard of the vision, Brigham was a new and tender convert wrestling to grasp concepts diametrically opposed to everything he had known. Like Brigham, most of the converts of early Mormonism came from a background of what might be called “heaven and hell” Protestantism. Taught so long of the firm dividing line between the saved and the damned, they struggled to comprehend the largesse of God’s plan of salvation, where even a murderer could inherit a kingdom glorious enough to surpass all understanding (see D&C 76:89). Brigham Young’s brother Joseph perhaps best captures the spirit of the mood: “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.”[6]

If so many members recoiled at the liberal nature of salvation as revealed in the vision, why did Joseph Smith seem to immediately embrace the revelation? No single answer may suffice, but the reason may be traced in part to his religious upbringing and the religious heritage of his ancestors.[7] Many streams of religious thought seemed to flow into the Smith household, but in the writings of family members and those who knew them, the theology of Universalism appears more prominently than the others. Starting with Asael Smith, the Prophet’s grandfather, and continuing down to Joseph and his family, the spiritual tenets of Universalism provided fertile soil in which the Prophet’s religious feelings began to grow and bloom.

What Is Universalism?

Before the connection between Universalism and the Smith family can be explored, it may first be helpful to explain, in a general sense, what Universalism is. By the time Joseph entered the Sacred Grove and began his prophetic career, the Universalist movement was already widespread in New England. Its popularity may have stemmed from its optimistic appraisal of the human nature and the loving kindness of God. In layman’s terms, Universalism was the belief that all men will eventually be saved. A Universalist declaration of faith adopted in 1803 read, “We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.”[8]

Universalism in America was a diverse movement, but its principal founder in the United States was John Murray. In England, Murray was initially one of its harshest critics. Encountering a Universalist preacher and seeking to rebuke him, Murray was in turn confounded by the logic and power of the preacher’s scriptural arguments. He then launched into an intense regimen of study designed to disprove the Universalists but found his antagonism waning into tolerance and blossomed into full acceptance. He soon became an influential leader in the new faith in England. After a series of financial and personal setbacks, Murray departed from England in 1770 to start fresh in America. He did not come to the New World intending to spread the teachings of Universalism, but a series of fortunate events led him to begin preaching, and soon he developed a sizable number of disciples.[9]

Murray embraced America as a new homeland, becoming a passionate advocate for American independence, even serving as a chaplain in the Continental army. He counted among his closest connections prominent figures such as George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, John Hancock, and Benjamin Rush, who was also a Universalist. For Murray, Rush, and other followers of the faith, Universalism captured the millennial promise of the revolution. They felt it would transform the religious world, while the spread of democracy would transfigure the secular. After the American Revolution, Murray and his followers continued to prosper. Their ideals seemed to fit particularly well with the ideals of the Founding Fathers. As the new republic championed the equality of men in this life, Universalists trumpeted the equality of men in the salvation of God’s plan.

The Smith Family and Universalism

Murray preached for many years in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Only fifteen miles away was Topsfield, where Joseph’s grandfather Asael lived. Latter-day Saint historians Richard L. Bushman and Richard Lloyd Anderson have pointed out the philosophical similarities and geographical proximity of Asael Smith and John Murray.[10] Like Murray, Asael had served during the revolution, sacrificing to ensure the birth of the new nation, and both were deeply enmeshed in the ideals of the revolutionary generation. Whether because of direct contact or filtering through the local community, Asael came to accept a conception of universal salvation very similar to Murray’s.

Asael eventually came to settle in Vermont, one of the Universalist strongholds in New England. In 1797, Asael and his two oldest sons, Jesse and Joseph Sr., the father of the future prophet, organized a Universalist society in Tunbridge, Vermont.[11] The society itself was short-lived, but for the rest of his life, Asael adhered to the principles of Universalism. His grandson George A. Smith recalled that “not long before his death he wrote many quires of paper on the doctrine of universal salvation.”[12] In an address written to his family, Asael devoted the larger part of his letter toward his views on religion. He wrote, “And if you can believe that Christ [came] to save sinners, and not the righteous, Pharisees, or self righteous; that sinners must be saved by the righteousness of Christ alone, without mixing any of their own righteousness with his; then you will see that he can as well save all, as any, and there is no respect of persons with God, who will have all mankind to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”[13]

How successful was Asael in passing his beliefs on to his children? The two sons who joined Asael in founding the Universalist society followed divergent spiritual paths.[14] Jesse Smith rejected it outright and instead became a devoted Calvinist, while Joseph Sr. seems to have maintained a philosophical, though not an institutional, tie to the faith. George A. Smith recalled his grandfather as “too liberal in his views to please his children, who were covenanters, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, with I think the single exception of his son Joseph [Sr.].”[15] William Smith, brother of the Prophet, also believed Father Smith’s convictions leaned toward Universalism. He wrote, “My father’s religious habits were strictly pious and moral, his faith [was] in the Universal restoration doctrine [which] often brought him in contact with the advocates of the doctrine of endless misery.”[16] Father Smith was not a formal member of any particular religious sect until the Restoration, and Universalism may have been a good fit for those put off by the religious contentions of the time. Lucy Mack Smith recalled that “he would not subscribe to any particular system of faith, but contended for the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and his Apostles.”[17]

Another significant factor in the Prophet’s religious background was the impact of his mother. Lucy’s father, Solomon Mack, showed no inclination toward any particular religion for much of his life. He underwent a remarkable conversion of faith later in his life, well after Lucy had married and begun her own family. He experienced and knew of Universalist doctrine early on, but he later denounced it as “building on sand.”[18] Lucy’s leanings when it came to religion seem to have been inherited from her mother, who taught her piety but established no formal church connections.[19] Though she affiliated with several churches before her son’s ministry, for the most part she remained aloof from close affiliation with any single group. Lucy and several of her children did begin attending a Presbyterian church in 1820, but Joseph was not among the children joining her.[20] In religious matters, he seems to have been more inclined to follow his father.[21]

Though the Smiths were not part of any Universalist organizations during the Prophet’s formative years, the doctrine may have formed a rough outline for Joseph’s religious thinking. There were many aspects of Universalist beliefs which may have helped prepare the Prophet and his family for the times they faced ahead. First, Universalism emphasized the loving nature of God’s personality more than most of the religions of the day. The doctrine of universal salvation brought its followers to see God as a loving father figure, not an arbitrary sovereign or an angry God bent on the punishment of mankind. One of Murray’s followers, Hosea Ballou, summarized the Universalist concept of God in homely language: “Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”[22]

At best, Universalists may have erred on the side of mercy; at worst, such an argument could be used to deprive men of their agency. But such a simple analogy helps capture the appeal of this faith—their concept of God was that of an approachable, loving father. Raised in an environment where these teachings were present, it is not surprising that a passage like James 1:5 would have stood out to the young Joseph. The Prophet had this kind of being in mind when he concluded that God answers prayers “liberally, and upbraideth not” (James 1:5). Walking into the Sacred Grove, the Prophet expected an answer from a concerned parent, not a rebuke from a distant ruler.

Second, the Prophet grew up in a home outside the realm of religious orthodoxy. Universalism was a radical departure from the creeds and sects of the day, and partly because of Father Smith’s affiliations with it, his family found itself outside of mainstream Christianity. Universalists were outspoken critics of the priestcraft and pretense found in many religions. They saw their system of belief as tied into the rights of the individual, and many felt the growing power in sectarianism in America was leading to the submission of individual rights. Many Universalists were concerned with the shameless emotional and psychological manipulation that took place in the revivals of the day,[23] a concern shared by the young Joseph as he attended revivals and noted that “the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real” (Joseph Smith—History 1:6). The generous nature of salvation in Universalist thought was well suited to many, like Father Smith, who continued to search for the true faith amidst the sectarian strife surrounding them. The broadness of the ideas of the movement allowed a great degree of theological flexibility and openness to new views. While Jesse Smith became so entrenched in his belief in Calvinism that he rejected the gospel and ordered his brother “not to talk ‘about the Bible at all in his home unless it was upon Limited Election,’”[24] Joseph Sr. remained open to new ideas and revelations. Lucy Mack Smith recognized the blessings of this attitude. She once described a dream in which she saw two trees, one gracefully and gently moving with the wind, and another standing stiff and unmoving. When she sought an interpretation of the dream, it was revealed to her “that the stubborn and unyielding tree was like Jesse; that the other, more pliant and flexible, was like Joseph, my husband; that the breath of heaven, which passed over them, was the pure and undefiled Gospel of the Son of God, which Gospel Jesse would always resist, but which Joseph, when he was more advanced in life, would hear and receive with his whole heart.”[25] The Lord also recognized the malleable nature of the father of the Prophet. After the first visitation of Moroni, the first person the young prophet was directed to confide in was his father (see Joseph Smith—History 1:49–50).

The influence of Universalism was not confined solely to the Prophet’s family either. The pliancy of Universalist doctrine and its emphasis on God’s love made it an ideal philosophical home for many who were religiously minded but concerned with the failings of the churches of the day. Many of the small circle of believers which formed around the Prophet in the infant days of the Church were adherents of Universalism, most notably Martin Harris, the Joseph Knight family, and the Hezekiah Peck family.[26]

Last, Universalism had prepared the Smiths to live in the face of religious persecution. As would be imagined, the doctrine of universal salvation was such a departure from conventional Christian thinking that it often raised the ire of the sectarians of the day. Universalism was spurned as a destroyer of morals, an insult to common piety, and the first cousin of atheism.[27] One minister wrote, “What has a Universalist, who really and sincerely believes that doctrine, to fear? . . . Just nothing at all; for this flesh- pleasing, conscience soothing doctrine will not only justify him in his neglect of God and man, but gives fallen nature an unlimited license to serve the devil with greediness in any and every possible way.”[28] When most of their contemporaries referred to Father Smith, Martin Harris, the Knights or any other member of the early Church as Universalist, it was intended as an slander on their character.[29] Asael Smith, who apparently possessed a deformation of the neck, was derided by one member of the community who said “some regarded his sentiments as more distorted than his neck.” A more sympathetic recollection of him called him “a man of very liberal views . . . which he would not yield to bigotry nor opposition.”[30]

As the only son of his father to remain close to the tenets of Universalism, Joseph Smith Sr. seems to have inherited the persecution Asael had dealt with. William Smith recalled that Father Smith often faced persecution because of his Universalist beliefs: “The belief in the ultimate and final redemption of all mankind to heaven and happiness, brought down upon my father the approbrium or slur of Old Jo Smith.”[31] The Prophet’s courage in the face of persecution, even at a young age, is not surprising since both his grandfather and father before him had chosen a less popular road. When he wrote that experiencing persecution was second nature to him and that “deep water is what I am wont to swim in” (D&C 127:2), he was upholding family tradition. The Prophet’s progenitors had been treading water in a sea of persecution for years before his first revelations came.

Was Universalism the Smith family religion? In the strictest sense, it was, as one historian has called it, an important overlay of the family’s spiritual values. Early in the Prophet’s life, his family’s beliefs provided Joseph with a conception of God as an approachable, loving, and concerned father. The open nature of Father Smith’s beliefs, combined with his suspicion of feigned religion, gave the young Joseph the freedom to explore religious beliefs and a critical eye toward hypocrisy. Not only was Universalism important in the Prophet’s early life, it also played an important role during his work as the head of the Church. The debates raging over the implications of Universalist doctrine and its rapid spread through the new republic also influenced Joseph’s later prophetic career.

Universalism and the Restoration

The peak period of Joseph Smith’s revelations coincided with the apex of Universalist activity in America. By 1833 the movement had grown to include three hundred official preachers, six hundred societies, and membership numbered at three hundred thousand. Adherents to the faith could be found in locations as distant as Georgia and Michigan, though it remained the strongest in the northeast United States, the area in which the Latter-day Saints were geographically centered at the time.[32] The discussion on Universalism was also growing. The period from 1820 to 1850 saw an explosion in the number of books and articles produced on the movement. These publications peaked in the 1830s, the same period in which the majority of Joseph’s revelations were received.[33] Whether followers or detractors of the movement, most Americans in the Restoration period found themselves caught up in the discussion about the movement, and the Saints were no exception. The theological questions raised by the Universalists provide the context for many of the most crucial revelations of the Restoration. A comparison of the spiritual system constructed from the revelations retained the true elements of Universalism while highlighting and eliminating many of the movement’s shortcomings.

While the teachings of Universalism may have provided questions leading to many of the revelations given to the Prophet, the power and authority with which the revelations were received highlighted many of the problems of the Universalist movement. The revelation found in section 19 of the Doctrine and Covenants is a good example of this. Given to Martin Harris, a former Universalist, the revelation quickly settled an argument that had rent the unity of the Universalist movement in America nearly from the beginning. Even while John Murray was alive, a vigorous debate erupted among the Universalists concerning the punishment for sinners. Some, including Murray, taught that souls would be saved through a mystical union with Christ, while others taught that souls would be saved after a long period of suffering for sin, and some taught that suffering for sin would be confined solely to earthly life. The division caused by this one doctrine was such that most churches could not ratify any type of unified profession of belief without filling it with numerous concessions to make all parties happy. One such creedal statement reads, “We regard all as Universalists who believe in the final salvation of all men through divine grace, however they may differ in opinion as to punishment or discipline extending into the future state and as to progressive improvement and different degrees of happiness in the future world.”[34] Such wide-ranging and vague statements led to the unraveling of any sense of doctrinal unity, and social cohesion of the Universalist movement suffered because of it.

In section 19 the conflict rending the Universalist movement was settled for good. The Lord simply declares, “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” (D&C 19:6, 10–12). This episode serves to indicate how Universalism, which was originally intended to simplify the gospel, found itself caught in the endless theological wrangling of the day. This incongruence was partly because its doctrine, however well intended, was produced by scriptural reasoning and debate, not revelation.

The main source of contention concerning Universalism stemmed from the fact that it offered a broad form of salvation without giving accountability for sin. Universalists frequently cited such scriptures as Romans 5:18–19, which speaks of the Savior’s sacrifice as bringing salvation unconditionally, but they had a difficult time squaring this notion with such scriptures as Mark 16:16, where the Savior declared that “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” While universal salvation fit the picture of loving God, it did not fit well with the concept of a just God. While some decried its Universalist overtones, the revelation declaring the three degrees of glory did not align well with universal salvation when it was carefully analyzed. Salvation was still graded, devotion was still required, and ordinances of the gospel still provided the gateway to the kingdom of God. Later revelations, such as the vision that became section 137, offered a liberal view of salvation but not without acknowledging commitment on the part of the followers. Later revelations offered salvation to all men while still acknowledging the necessity of the ordinances and covenants of the gospel.

The debate over Universalism was also used by the critics of the Church as a framework for attacking the authenticity of the Prophet’s work. For example, the Book of Mormon has frequently been denounced as an attack on Universalism in the Prophet’s day and into our time as well.[35] Even recently these arguments have been revived and cited as evidence for a modern origin for the book. Critics cite such passages as 2 Nephi 28:7, which criticize those who say “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us” as an implicit indictment of the Universalist doctrine. Other frequently cited examples include the story of Nehor in the first chapter of Alma with his teaching that “all mankind should be saved at the last day” (Alma 1:4). Such criticisms reveal ignorance of the book’s themes. It would be just as easy to pick out certain other passages such as 2 Nephi 2:4, which reads that “salvation is free” and argue that the Book of Mormon is a pro-Universalist tract! Moreover, it is curious that the critics of the Book of Mormon have always criticized it for doing exactly what it claims to do. Alexander Campbell, one of the earliest critics of the book, lambasted the book and Joseph Smith for deciding “all the great controversies” of his time when the book claims it was meant to do exactly that.[36] Nearly all the major writers of the Book of Mormon stated that they were writing for generations yet to come (see 2 Nephi 25:21; Jacob 1:3; Enos 1:15–16; Jarom 1:2; Mormon 7:1; 8:34–35). If Mormon and Moroni saw our day, as they claimed, wouldn’t we have expected them to write on topics related not only to us but to those of Joseph Smith’s day? As one of the burning issues of the day, if the book did not deal with Universalism, it wouldn’t be fulfilling its promises.

Not only were Joseph’s revelations designed to deal with the religious culture of the time, but they provided a firm organizational structure for the Church also. This allowed the movement to form an institutional home, something the Universalists struggled to accomplish. While Universalism may have provided fertile philosophical ground for the Prophet to grow up in, its open theology tended to lead its followers away from unified organizations and toward private devotion. Most converts to the movement were interested in the propagation and defense of a rational faith, not in the organization and administration of an ecclesiastical body.[37] To become a viable and lasting organization, an ideal needs to provide institutions, and the free nature of Universalism did not easily lend itself to organization. Asael Smith and the father of the Prophet are prime examples of this difficulty. Both moved to form a Universalist society in 1797, but within two years it had been disbanded. Asael remained devoted to the doctrines of the movement long beyond this period, though his feelings seemed to remain private, without any further attempts at public unity with fellow believers. Joseph Sr. may have been less devoted to the movement, but it still provided the theological framework for his search for the true faith. In spite of his devotion, Asael’s writings indicate that he felt a desire for something more. One of his grandsons recalled a prophecy by Asael that “God was going to raise up some branch of his family to be a great benefit to mankind.”[38] Shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, Joseph Sr. took a copy to Asael. Asael received it gladly and read it through, declaring that the prophet he had predicted would come had at last arrived. Unfortunately, Asael passed on before he could receive the ordinance of baptism.[39]

While Universalism may have played an important role in the development of the Prophet and his family, it did not provide the answers that could only be found in revelation from God. What it did do was give the Smiths a spiritual foundation, encourage them in their study of the scriptures, and cultivate in them a belief in a merciful God who would be willing to answer their questions.

Are Mormons Universalists?

While the teachings of his fathers concerning universal salvation may have prepared Joseph Smith for the radical concepts of the vision of the degrees of glory, it took time for the rest of the Church to accept this new concept of the afterlife. The revelation was published five months after it was received in the Evening and Morning Star. Most of the controversy surrounding it seems to have come during the first two years after it was made known to the Church. Throughout the rest of the 1830s and into the early 1840s, it was rarely mentioned in the publications of the Church or the private writings of Church members during the time.[40] The first substantive discussion on the vision is found in Joseph Smith’s 1843 poetic version. Written to W.W. Phelps, the entire revelation was rewritten as an epic poem, a work that may have caused him to ponder the doctrinal significance of the revelation. During the last eighteen months of his life, the Prophet issued a number of revelatory statements concerning the doctrine of the afterlife. The King Follett discourse delivered in 1844 contains a number of points relating to a different concept of the afterlife. During this landmark speech, the Prophet announced, “I have no fear of hell fire, that doesn’t exist, but the torment and disappointment of the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone.”[41] Several other important sermons from this time mention the degrees of glory, providing doctrine which would later form part of Doctrine and Covenants 131.[42]

The revelations of the Nauvoo period represent the pinnacle of Joseph Smith’s labors. During this time, the Lord completed the bridge between the expansive view of salvation that Joseph’s grandfather held and the concept of a just God taught in the scriptures. He wrote, “But while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes, ‘His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’”[43] Views like this line up surprisingly well with Asael Smith’s, who warned his children not to conclude that God loved them more than “the worst heathen in the darkest corner of the deserts of Arabia” but that “there is no respect of persons with God, who will have all mankind to be saved.”[44] Further visions and revelations confirmed the Prophet’s teachings of a kind and generous God. The January 1836 vision contained in Doctrine and Covenants 137 gave the Prophet the knowledge that God would “judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” (D&C 137:9).

The final great phase of the Prophet’s work consisted of bringing about a successful marriage of the munificent view of salvation given in the vision with the system of covenants and ordinances found in the ancient scriptures and revealed anew to the Prophet in our dispensation. When he learned that proxy work for the dead could be performed, a view of salvation was opened up that would allow all men who so desired to be saved, even if they had never heard the gospel or received the ordinances in this life. In essence, the revelations of the Restoration allowed for a merciful God, while not taking away from the need for order and justice. Joseph came to know God as a kind, fair being. His views may be best summed up in his own words: “Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and, at the same time, is more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.”[45]

In time the vision was recognized as one of the greatest revelations received by the Prophet. Brigham Young, who had initially struggled to accept it, became one of the most fervent teachers and admirers of its doctrine. Speaking in 1860 he said,

I can truly say that, in my estimation, no other revelation so glorious was ever given. You may read the character of the Deity as portrayed in all that has ever been revealed, until you come to this vision [D&C 76], in relation to his justice, his judgment, his power, his life, his glory, his excellence, his goodness, his mercy, and the fulness of every gift, of every trait, of every principle inherent in the character of the Supreme Being, and it is not equal in magnitude, in my reflections, to that which God revealed to Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon.[46]

Any hesitation which may have come from the doctrines of the vision being associated with Universalism seems to have abated as well. Rather than seeking to distance themselves from Universalists, Latter-day Saints began to recognize the similarities in belief. Speaking on the doctrine of universal resurrection, Parley P. Pratt said, “This salvation being universal, I am a universalist in this respect,—this salvation being a universal restoration from the fall.” While pointing out similarities, Elder Pratt also recognized that universal doctrine did not paint a complete picture of salvation.[47] What remained from the Universalist background of the Restoration was an emphasis on the goodness of God. On another occasion President Young read the revelation in its entirety then summarized its lessons by saying, “He is compassionate to all the works of His hands, the plan of His redemption, and salvation, and mercy, is stretched out over all; and His plans are to gather up, and bring together, and save all the inhabitants of the earth, with the exception of those who have received the Holy Ghost, and sinned against it. With this exception, all the world besides shall be saved.—Is not this Universalism? It borders very close upon it.[48] Within one generation the Saints had not only come to accept the vision but also to rejoice in its meaning and beauty.

Religious Yearnings Fulfilled

In truth, disillusionment with the churches of the day kept most of Joseph Smith and his progenitors from fully embracing any system until the true Church could be restored again to the earth. But it is clear that the ideals and doctrines of Universalism played an important role in the development of the Prophet’s spirituality. If Brigham Young’s upbringing made it difficult to understand the great generosity of God’s plan, something in the Prophet’s background made him embrace and rejoice in it. We are fortunate that Joseph was taught upon his father’s knee of a generous and kind God, one that would give liberally if asked. Recognizing this, it must also be acknowledged that Universalism only provided a temporary shelter for the Smiths, while they sought the true Church of Christ. For all the comfort Universalism’s doctrines may have given members of the family, only the true gospel could bring everlasting joy. No event better exemplifies this than the baptism of the Prophet’s own father, on April 6, 1830, the day of the organization of the Church. Lucy Mack Smith records this touching event: “Joseph stood on the shore when his father came out of the water he cried out Oh! my God I have lived to see my father baptized into the true church of Jesus Christ and he covered his face in his father’s bosom and wept aloud for joy as did Joseph of old when he beheld his father coming into the land of Egypt.”[49] This moment was the culmination of the religious yearnings long felt by both father and son. The work of John Murray, the beliefs of Asael Smith, and the heritage of Joseph Smith Sr. were all important events leading to this moment. Just as the Prophet was led by the hand of the Lord, it is clear that his ancestors were also led into the right paths. As Brigham Young taught, “The Lord had his eye upon him, and upon his father, and upon his father’s father, and upon their progenitors clear back to Abraham, and from Abraham to the flood, and from the flood to Enoch, and from Enoch to Adam.”[50]


[1] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 1:252–53; brackets and emphasis in original.

[2] Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1874–86), 16:42.

[3] John Murdock Diary (1830–59), 27–29, Orson Pratt Journal (1833–34), cited in Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants” (PhD diss., Brigham Young University, 1974), 2:930–31.

[4] Smith, History of the Church, 2:492.

[5] Deseret News, September 14, 1852, 24, cited in Woodford, “Historical Development,” 2:929.

[6] Deseret News, March 18, 1857, 11.

[7] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 199–200.

[8] Profession of Faith of the General Convention of Universalists, 1803, Winchester, New Hampshire, Article II, citing Rev. A. B. Grosh, “Universalists” and I. Daniel Rupp, An Original History of the Religious Denominations (Philadelphia, 1844), 727, cited in Milton V. Backman Jr., American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965), 219.

[9] Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770–1870 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979), 8–12.

[10] Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 136; see also Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 27–28.

[11] Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 1:633–34.

[12] Anderson, New England Heritage, 133.

[13] Anderson, New England Heritage, 161–62; punctuation modernized.

[14] A Tunbridge, Vermont, declaration of membership in the Tunbridge Universalist Society contains the signatures of Asael Smith, Joseph Smith Sr., Jesse Smith, and thirteen others (Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:633). Jesse’s later devotion to Calvinism and the doctrine of election suggests that he may have only joined the Universalist Society for tax purposes.

[15] Anderson, New England Heritage, 68; emphasis added.

[16] Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:487; punctuation modernized.

[17] Anderson, New England Heritage, 279n203.

[18] Anderson, New England Heritage, 62.

[19] Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 5.

[20] Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 140.

[21] An excellent summary of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith’s background may be found in Richard L. Bushman and H. Rodney Sharp, “Joseph Smith’s Family Background,” in Prophet Joseph: Essays on the Life and Mission of Joseph Smith, ed. Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 1–16.

[22] Ernest Cassara, Hosea Ballou: The Challenge to Orthodoxy (Boston: Universalist Historical Society, 1961), 150.

[23] Ann Lee Bressler, The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 62.

[24] Jesse Smith, as quoted in Anderson, New England Heritage, 141. “Limited Election” refers to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, or the notion that God had already selected the saved, and thus salvation was unconditional and the Atonement of Christ applied only to that group.

[25] Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 293–94.

[26] Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:29–30, 4:21, 110.

[27] Bressler, The Universalist Movement, 40.

[28] Miller, The Larger Hope, xv. For a good summary of the arguments against Universalists during the early years of the Restoration, see Bressler, The Universalist Movement, 37–40.

[29] See Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:29, 4:110.

[30] Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 17; see also Anderson, New England Heritage, 267–68.

[31] Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:487; spelling and grammar modernized.

[32] Bressler, The Universalist Movement, 32.

[33] The number of American publications relating to Universalism rose dramatically from 54 during the 1800–9 decade, to 134 in 1810–19, 304 in 1820–29, peaked at 378 in 1830–39, fell slightly to 351 during 1840–49, and then dropped off generally for the rest of the nineteenth century (Bressler, The Universalist Movement, 55).

[34] Miller, The Larger Hope, 49.

[35] Critics advocating this view can be found as early as 1835. Most recently Dan Vogel has taken up this view and written about it extensively in an essay entitled “Anti-Universalist Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon,” in Brent L. Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 47. A good summary and response to these arguments may be found in Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 164–66.

[36] For Campbell’s arguments, see Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 54–55.

[37] Bressler, The Universalist Movement, 58.

[38] Anderson, New England Heritage, 148.

[39] Anderson, New England Heritage, 149. Further details surrounding Asael’s feelings about his grandson’s works may be found in Anderson, New England Heritage, 288. One account reads, “Father Asael Smith . . . on his deathbed declared his full and firm belief in the everlasting gospel and also regretted that he was not baptized when Joseph his son was there and acknowledged that the doctrine of universalism, which he had so long advocated, was not true. For although he had lived by this religion 50 years, yet he now renounced it as insufficient to comfort him in death.”

[40] A more detailed history of the movement of Doctrine and Covenants 76 toward acceptance in Latter-day Saint thought may be found in Grant Underwood, “‘Saved or Damned’: Tracing a Persistent Protestantism in Early Mormon Thought,” BYU Studies 3 (Summer 1985): 95–100.

[41] Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18 (Winter 1978): 205.

[42] See Smith, History of the Church, 5:392–93, 6:363–67, 6:473–79.

[43] Smith, History of the Church, 4:595.

[44] Anderson, New England Heritage, 161–62; spelling and capitalization modernized.

[45] Smith, History of the Church, 5:136.

[46] Young, in Journal of Discourses, 8:153.

[47] Parley P. Pratt, The Essential Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 57.

[48] Young, in Journal of Discourses, 3:92; emphasis added.

[49] Anderson, Lucy’s Book, 477; capitalization modernized.

[50] Young, in Journal of Discourses, 7:289.