New Approaches to the Book of Mormon
Brent Lee Metcalfe, editor

Chapter 2.
Anti-Universalist Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon
Dan Vogel

That the Book of Mormon claims to be a divinely inspired translation of an ancient American record presents an unusual situation for modern researchers in evaluating and interpreting its contents. But I believe there is a common ground on which Mormon and non-Mormon scholars can discuss the Book of Mormon in its nineteenth-century context without necessarily making conclusions about its historicity.

The question of the Book of Mormon’s historicity becomes secondary when the rhetorical critic seeks to understand the book’s message to its first readers. Rhetorical criticism focuses on the dynamic between the speaker or writer and his/her audience: what are the strategies adopted by the speaker or writer; what are the possible perceptions of the intended audience? As Burton L. Mack explains, “Rhetorical criticism takes the historical moment of a human exchange seriously in order to assess the quality of an encounter and the merits of an argumentation. It takes the social circumstances seriously in order to view the exchange from the perspective of each participant” (1990, 101).1

When analyzing rhetorical works of the past, the critic must also employ the historical-critical method. The critic does this, Mack [p.22] continues, “by linking the persuasive power of a speech not only to its logic of argumentation, but to the manner in which it addresses the social and cultural history of its audience and speaker” (1990, 15). Thus historical criticism attempts to reconstruct the intellectual and cultural climate of a period in order to better understand its literature. Its premise is the idea that no work is fully intelligible in isolation. Certainly all literature has an independent existence, but it also has just as surely a historical and cultural existence. As aesthetician Theodore M. Greene put it, “The special task of historical criticism is that of determining the nature and expressive intent of works of art in their historical context” (1947, 370).

Because rhetorical discourse is tactically designed to persuade a specific audience at a specific time, discovery of its historical context is requisite to its interpretation. Carl L. Becker, one of the great historians of ideas, explains that the works of previous generations sometime “seem irrelevant [to us] because the world pattern into which they are so dexterously woven is no longer capable of eliciting from us either an emotional or an aesthetic response” (1932, 12; see also Becker 1942, 135-223). Marjorie Nicolson explains the interpretive rewards of historical criticism: “Only when we become aware of the long history of the idea, its ramifications, its developments, and its final extinction, did certain familiar passages in the authors we knew best take on new meaning—new to us, but so thoroughly accepted by the authors themselves that they would have been amazed at the frequent misinterpretations of some of their well known lines” (1940, 73).

The historical-critical method is well known to biblical studies. As early as 1728, for example, Jean Alphonse Turretinus of Geneva urged: “One must put oneself into the times and into the surroundings in which [biblical authors] wrote, and one must see what [concepts] could arise in the souls of those who lived at that time” (in Kümmel 1972, 59; see also Krentz 1975). More recently Howard Kee, a historian of early Christianity, has observed that “the essential requirement for interpretation of a text is to read it in context: not merely in literary context, but in the wider, deeper social and cultural context in which both author and audience lived, and in which the language they employed took on the connotations to which the interpreter must seek to be sensitive” (Kee 1983, 3, in Quinn 1987, 150).

The historical approach to rhetorical criticism is sometimes called “movement study” since it usually attempts to focus on the rhetoric of social movements (Black 1978, 18-22). Leland M. Griffin gives the following advice to critics who study movements: “The student will note the crystallization of fundamental issues, the successive emergence of argument, appeal, counter-argument and counter-appeal, and the sanctions invoked by rhetoricians of both sides; he will note, by a [p.23] process of imaginative reliving in the age, by an analysis of consequences, the persuasive techniques which were effective and those which were ineffective; and he will note a time, very likely, when invention runs dry, when both aggressor and defendant rhetoricians tend to repeat their stock of argument and appeal” (1952, 186).

The essential task then is to establish the development of a particular idea before it reaches a certain text. But that is not to say that a direct cause-and-effect relationship can be demonstrated. The most that can be done is to establish a series of indirect relationships between a particular text and the tradition which lies behind it. In so doing one can at least narrow the areas in which hypothesis and deduction can be employed. A correct understanding of the social and cultural setting of a work of literature can often mean the difference between an interpretation which is consistent with that setting and one that is anachronistic.

Those who accept the antiquity of the Book of Mormon should not object to this approach, since a translation is usually expressed in the language and cultural symbols of its intended audience.2 As Kenneth Burke explains, “You persuade man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your way with his” (1950, 55). This principle also applies to written rhetoric. It should therefore also be important for traditionalists to retrieve the cultural context in which Smith and his intended audience communicated.

Who is the Book of Mormon’s intended audience? It is not an ancient readership. The Book of Mormon clearly states that it was written specifically for the benefit of Americans living in the 1820s, to put down false doctrine in the latter days (2 Ne. 3:12). It repeatedly addresses early nineteenth-century American readers—describing their political and religious situation, debating issues which they would find particularly distressing. As Nephi, a prophet who appears in the early chapters of the book, says about his prophecies and discussion about the future, “I know that they shall be of great worth unto them in the last days; for in that day shall they understand them” (25:8). “My soul delighteth in plainness,” declares Nephi. “For after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men; … for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (31:3). Nephi promises that his words would sound to some of his readers “as one that hath a familiar spirit” (26:16). This principle [p.24] has important implications to the study of the Book of Mormon’s anti-Universalist rhetoric.

That the Book of Mormon referred to Universalism was recognized by Mormons and non-Mormons alike. Alexander Campbell, well-known founder of the Disciples of Christ, mentioned in his 1831 critique of the Book of Mormon that it “decides all the great controversies,” including “eternal punishment” (Millennial Harbinger, Feb. 1831, 93). When interpreting the first chapter of Alma, E. D. Howe, editor of the Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph, said, “The name of our ancient Universalist is called Nehor” (Howe 1834, 70). Howe’s identification was not simply an outsider’s view, for in References to the Book of Mormon, a four-page Mormon work probably published in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835, references were also made to “Nehor the Universalian” and “Amlici the Universalist” (see Underwood 1985, 77). When debating a Universalist in 1832, Orson Hyde quoted a passage from Alma’s letter to what he called Alma’s Universalist son Corianton (Hyde, Journal, 4 Feb. 1832; cf. Alma 41:3-4).

Not surprisingly those who believed in the doctrine of universal salvation were sensitive to the Book of Mormon’s message on that subject. Sylvester Smith noted in 1833 that “the Universalist says it [the Book of Mormon] reproaches his creed” (Evening and Morning Star 2 [July 1833]: 108). Prior to his conversion, Eli Gilbert of Connecticut read the Book of Mormon “just after its publication” and remembered how “it bore hard upon my favorite notions of universal salvation” (Messenger and Advocate 1 [Oct. 1834]: 9). According to Smith family tradition, Joseph Smith’s grandfather Asael Smith, shortly before his death on 1 November 1830, denounced his belief in Universalism after having read the Book of Mormon.3

Unfortunately what first readers took for granted, they did not explain in detail so the historian must place modern readers as far as possible in the vantage point of the original audience. With rhetorical criticism, explains Mack, “the rhetorical situation has to be reconstructed, the issue that mattered has to be identified, and the designs of the authors upon their listeners/readers have to be disclosed” (1990, 20). Accordingly the major purposes of this essay are: (1) to examine [p.25] the Book of Mormon’s anti-Universalist rhetoric; (2) to outline the early American debate about the doctrine of universal salvation and to explore possible ways in which the Book of Mormon participated in that discussion; and (3) to explore how that message may have been perceived by its first readers.

Latter-day Universalists Foreseen

Both Moroni and Nephi refer to those in the last days who teach universal salvation. Moroni writes that the Book of Mormon would come forth in a day “when there shall be many who will say, Do this, or do that, and it mattereth not, for the Lord will uphold such at the last day. But wo unto such, for they are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity” (Morm. 8:31). Nephi refers to those who would say, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us” (2 Ne. 28:7). That Nephi is describing an organized group rather than a prevailing attitude is indicated by his explicit reference to latter-day “churches” which “contend one with another” (vv. 3, 4). Nevertheless Nephi condemns these teachings as “false and vain and foolish doctrines” (v. 9). “Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted,” declares Nephi (v. 12).

Nephi may have also referred to this same group when he prophesied that Satan in the last days would deceive many because he “telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none” (2 Ne. 28:22). Thus the Book of Mormon itself invites modern readers to search Joseph Smith’s environment for a group fitting the descriptions by Moroni and Nephi.

The early nineteenth-century movement best fitting the Book of Mormon’s description was Universalism, which first convened as a body in Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1785 and advocated that regardless of earthly performance, all humanity would be saved in the end.4 Universalism flourished among the uneducated in rural northern New England and by the early nineteenth century had spread to New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, where it became a growing concern for the more “orthodox” churches.5 By 1823 Universalism had established nearly ninety congregations in the lower Black River Valley, along the Finger Lakes, and in the Genesee River counties (Cross 1950, 17-18; Miller 1979, 161). In addition to denominational Universalism, the [p.26] orthodox were concerned about the spread of “heretical” Universalist doctrine among the unchurched.

Orthodox concern for Universalism was such that Buffalo’s Gospel Advocate complained in 1823 that “the doctrine of Universal Salvation is at the present moment making unparalleled inroads upon superstition in this village and vicinity, and such unchristian conduct will only aid its promulgation” (20 June 1823, 184). David Millard reportedly said in 1818 that in Mendon, New York, less than fifteen miles southwest of Joseph Smith, Sr.’s, farm in Manchester, “Universalism was a predominent opinion in the place, and a neglect of christian duties, with a corruption of morals, the fruit it bore” ([Portsmouth, NH] Christian Herald, July 1818, 40). In 1835 the orthodox Boston Recorder declared that “Universalism is the reigning heresy of the day. It is spreading itself far and wide. It is poisoning more minds, and ruining more souls, than any, if not all other heresies among us” (in Trumpet, 17 May 1834, 186; see also 24 Apr. 1830, 170).

Joseph Smith, Jr., was intimately acquainted with the debate between Universalism and orthodoxy through his parents and his grandfathers Solomon Mack and Asael Smith. There is evidence that Joseph Sr.’s liberal approach to religion included the notion of universal salvation and that these views conflicted with his wife Lucy’s conservatism.6 Joseph Jr.’s grandfather Asael Smith held the doctrine of universal salvation until shortly before his death in 1830, while Joseph Jr.’s maternal grandfather Solomon Mack denounced his belief in Universalism just prior to 1811.7 A number of Joseph Smith’s friends and acquaintances were influenced by Universalistic notions. Martin Harris of Palmyra, New York, who became acquainted with Smith in 1827 and acted as his scribe during the early efforts to translate the gold plates, was a Universalist (Howe 1834, 260-61; Clark 1842, 223). Joseph Knight, Sr., of Colesville, New York, who befriended Smith in the mid-1820s, was also a Universalist (Knight 1883, 47; J. Smith 1964, 1:81).

Universalism began in eighteenth-century New England with the teachings of John Murray (1741-1815), an Englishman who landed in [p.27] New Jersey in 1770. To be sure there were others before Murray who taught various versions of Universalism,8 but Murray is usually credited with laying the foundation for Universalism as a denomination (see Miller 1979, 40-44; see also Dodge 1911; Murray 1812-13; 1816). Although Murray was a Calvinist in many respects, he discarded the notion that Jesus Christ had suffered only for the elect. Christ atoned for the sins of all humankind, Murray argued. While humans were no longer to be punished for their sins, Murray nevertheless believed that some would be punished for their unbelief. However, Murray held that every human would ultimately be redeemed and reconciled to God, thus making a “restitution of all things.”

Another Englishman who asserted some influence on Universalism in America was Elhanan Winchester (1751-97) (see Miller 1979, 44-49; also Stone 1836; Sweeny 1969; Winchester 1972; McGehee 1959). Winchester held a version of Universalism similar to Murray’s. Although Winchester also believed in an interim period of suffering, he differed with Murray in that he believed that humanity would be punished (perhaps for 50,000 years) in the afterlife for sins committed during mortality and that salvation would come only after complete purgation.

If Murray was troubled by Winchester’s version of Universalism, he was even more concerned by the assertion of others that there was no punishment at all after death, that the dead are restored to holiness and happiness and return immediately to God’s presence. As early as 1790 Murray lamented that “some dangerous errors [were] creeping in among the people, and I am afraid they will prevail. They teach that the day of the Lord is past, that there is no future sorrow to be apprehended” (in Eddy 1984-86, 1:337).

In an attempt to unify their teaching, the General Convention of Universalists adopted in 1803 the following as one of its articles of faith: “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” (in Miller 1979, 45-46).

Despite this attempt, beginning in 1811 and continuing through the 1820s American Universalism was torn by the debate over whether men and women would be punished for their sins after death. Universalists who followed Winchester’s belief that humankind would undergo a period of punishment in the afterlife before being saved were [p.28] called Restorationists. Those who denied punishment after death were called Universalists or sometimes Ultra-Universalists (see Miller 1979, 111-26; Eddy 1984-86, 2:132-37, 260-342; Johnson 1978). The term restoration, however, was a catch word for both groups who used it to refer to the “final restoration of all men to happiness” (Gospel Advocate, 19 Jan. 1827, 3 Feb. 1826).

Nephi aptly described a latter-day group of Restorationists. In the last days, Nephi states, there shall be those who shall say: “Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Ne. 28:8).9

Other refinements important to Universalism took place under Hosea Ballou (1772-1852) (see Miller 1979, 98-110; also Cassara 1958; 1961; Whittemore 1854-55). In his influential 1805 book A Treatise on Atonement, Ballou rejected the trinity and set Universalism on the theological road that eventually led to union with Unitarians. In addition to his Unitarian position on the Godhead, Ballou made other contributions to Universalist thought.

Ballou rejected the common theory of the Atonement that since humans sin against God, who is infinite in nature, sin itself is infinite and therefore requires an infinite atonement in order to fulfill the demands of justice (Ballou 1805, 15-115). Ballou, for example, announced in the preface to his Treatise that he intended to disprove “the ideas, that sin is infinite, and that it deserves an infinite punishment; that the law transgressed is infinite, and inflicts an infinite penalty; and that the great Jehovah took on himself a natural body of flesh and blood, and actually suffered death on a cross, to satisfy his infinite justice, and thereby save his creatures from endless misery” (Ibid., iv). Thus Ballou rejected the doctrine of vicarious atonement. Instead Ballou argued that Jesus suffered for humans to lead humankind to divine love, not to atone for sin. In other words Jesus’s mission was to effect a moral or spiritual deliverance (Ibid., 15-115; see also Universalist Magazine, 24 July 1819, 13; 13 May 1820, 181-82; 20 May 1820, 185-86).

Although the major purpose of his Treatise was “to prove the doctrine of universal holiness and happiness,” Ballou was at this time [p.29] ambivalent about the nature and duration of future punishment. He emphatically denounced the assertion that the scriptures proved “the endless misery of a mortal being” (Ballou 1805, iii, 189), but he was only concerned to establish the concept of universal restoration. Whether there was an interim period was only a minor detail. Later, beginning in 1817, Ballou would come out more decidedly against future retribution.10

Of course, orthodox Christians took exception to the doctrine of universal salvation. To the orthodox it appeared that Universalists denied the justice of God, ignored clear reference in the Bible to an endless torment in hell, promoted immorality, and neglected repentance. Universalism, however, was evolving into an intricate and sophisticated system of belief and much of the anti-Universalism was distorted and misrepresentative. Even evangelist Charles G. Finney took to task some of the uninformed preaching against Universalists (1835, 166-67).

Nephi’s characterization of a latter-day group with the motto, “eat, drink, and be merry” (cf. 1 Kgs. 4:20; Eccl. 8:15; Isa. 22:13; Luke 12:19; 1 Cor. 15:32), is typical anti-Universalist rhetoric. For example, John Cleaveland (1722-99), pastor of the second church in Ipswich, attacked Murray’s teachings as only a step away from atheism, stating in 1776: “Follow this scheme but a little farther and you will deny a future state of reward as well as punishment, and then join issue with the atheistical and swinish Epicures, saying, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1776, 29). Addressing Murray directly, Cleaveland continued: “You must know, Sir, that drunkards, profane swearers, whoremongers, and the most abandoned sinners, feel no opposition to, no quarrelling in their sinful inclinations, affections, and lusts, with such doctrine and preaching.… They do not say, it is a hard saying who can bear it? [John 6:60] No, for it encourages them to bless themselves in their hearts, saying, we shall have peace, though we walk in the imaginations of our hearts to add drunkenness to thirst! And the little boys in your streets are already caught in the snare and say, ‘We may swear and curse and lie and quarrel and do what we will that is bad without any danger of going to the devil in everlasting burnings; for Mr. M[urray] preaches that all men will be saved and be happy forever'” (Ibid., 26).

In an “Address of the Late Reverend Mr. [Samuel] Chandler,” which Cleaveland included in his book, this same sentiment is expressed: “[Universalists] are extremely dangerous to the souls of men: They encourage the wicked in their wickedness; for upon these principles a man may live and die in sin, and yet go to heaven at last; he [p.30] may get drunk, and commit fornication and adultery, he may cheat, and steal, and lye, and indulge all manner of carnal gratifications, and be saved notwithstanding” (1776, 46; Croswell 1775, 19).

Andrew Croswell (1709-85), pastor of a church in Boston, in a 1775 attack on the teachings of Murray said that Universalism was a doctrine “evidently tending to fill the world with sin and wickedness of all kinds” and that “it is easy to see that knaves, cheats, thieves, and robbers, must be multiplied and encouraged, by the same comfortable gospel” (1775, 4, 9).

Nephi’s description of a latter-day movement which believed in a period of punishment but rationalized that God would beat the guilty with only a “few stripes” has an interesting parallel to a parable in chapter 12 of the Gospel of Luke. In the parable the unwise servant says in his heart, “My lord delayeth his coming,” and begins “to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken” (Luke 12:45). But when the lord comes, he shall punish those servants who knew better, and they “shall be beaten with many stripes,” while those who acted in ignorance “shall be beaten with few stripes” (vv. 47-48). Elhanan Winchester referred to this parable in 1794 in order to prove that the wicked were punished in the afterlife and that this punishment was limited (Winchester 1794, 1:21).

Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), pastor of the first Congregationalist church in Newport, Rhode Island, rejected the Restorationist claim that “a long future punishment, including very great and terrible sufferings, even till the sinner is brought to repentance, is sufficient effectually to restrain men from their wicked courses.” He responded by asserting that “the fear of a finite punishment must have unspeakably less influence on the sinner, than of an endless one, if it will have any [effect] at all” (1783, 180).

Orthodox Christians were especially troubled by the Ultra-Universalist claim that there was neither devil nor hell. For example, on 25 August 1826, the Gospel Advocate, a Universalist newspaper published in Buffalo, New York, declared that “the devil is a nonentity, and an endless hell of brimstone a bug-bear.” On 3 March 1826 the same paper had printed a letter from an orthodox Christian who asserted that Universalists “blas[p]hemiously assert that there is neither hell nor devil.”

Emergence of Nephite Universalism

The first chapter of the Book of Alma contains the story of the origin of a Universalist sect among the Nephites which dramatically teaches a lesson the orthodox of Smith’s day would have understood. About 91 B.C.E. Nehor began to preach a blend of “priestcraft.” [p.31] Specifically he taught that “every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people. And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life” (Alma 1:3-4).

Soon Nehor won converts, who gave him money, and founded a church, which contended against the established “church of God” headed by Alma. One day on his way to preach, Nehor ran into the orthodox Gideon who began to debate with him. When Gideon got the better of him, Nehor drew his sword and slew him. However, Nehor was immediately taken by members of Gideon’s church to stand before Alma, the chief judge. Alma condemned him for priestcraft and murder, “therefore thou art condemned to die, according to the law … [and] this people must abide by the law” (Alma 1:14). Nehor was taken to the top of a hill and hanged, and he “did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death” (v. 15).

Nehor’s slaying of Gideon could be seen as historicizing the attitude of some orthodox Americans that Universalism was a threat to public safety. Andrew Croswell, for example, called Universalism the “murdering gospel.” In a 1775 attack on Murray’s teachings, Croswell declared: “To mention no more (I speak now only of the body) it is a murdering gospel. How easily can satan persuade a man to gratify his revenge, or avarice, by shedding his brother’s blood, who believes that the words spoken to Daniel, O man greatly beloved of God, are applicable to every murderer; and that all murderers shall have eternal life? The shocking accounts we have heard or read of murders, are nothing for number to what they would have been, if this bloody gospel had been commonly received: And if God should suffer the leaven to spread in the christian world, one may foretell, without a spirit of prophesy [sic], that thousands and ten thousands will be marder’d by it” (1775, 9-10).

The same accusation was made in the Methodist Magazine in 1820: “The doctrine of Universalism is also calculated to subvert all civil governments, by weakening or destroying the principles upon which all such governments are founded, the sanctions of divine law. Let these restraints be removed, let it be inculcated on all classes in society, that a man may do as he will, or commit what wickedness he pleases in this life, and that he will not be punished in the next; or what amounts to the same thing, that his punishment will be only for a limited duration, and then who can pronounce himself safe from the [p.32] hand of the assassin? What security has any man, that he will not be murdered in his bed, by the villain, who believes and declares, there is no future punishment? who laughs at the notion of a devil and a hell, as mere nursery tales, trumped up for the purpose of scaring little children, and keeping them in awe?” (Oct. 1820, 378).

Public executions of Universalists were often exploited by the orthodox as proof of the lack of moral character of believers in universal restoration. The Gospel Advocate took occasion in 1825 to respond. Citing examples of orthodox executions, the Advocate complained that “nothing was said” concerning their belief and that their “faith was not urged as the cause of sin.” However, in the event of Universalist executions, “it is thought to be a fit opportunity to create or strengthen prejudice against Universalism, by assuring the crowd that the unhappy objects before their eyes entertained that faith, and that under its influence, they were impelled to dip their hands in the blood of murder.” The Advocate accused orthodox ministers of deliberately filling their execution sermons with distortion, exclaiming that it would be a hypocritical faith which “encourages people to deceive and lie, while they stand on the gallows and see their brethren sent into eternity by an ignominious death!” (9 Sept. 1825, 275).11

Although Universalists themselves declared “holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works,” they urged it not to avoid punishment or hell but because it is “good and profitable unto man” (in Miller 1979, 46). Orthodox Christians argued that if God’s law was only a moral code with no punishment, there would be no motivation for obedience. Murray in 1779 gave the basic precepts to be followed by Universalists regarding church-state relations. “As dwellers in the world, though not of it, we held ourselves bound to yield obedience to every ordinance of men, for God’s sake, and we will be peaceable and obedient subjects to the powers that are ordained of God in all civil cases” (in ibid., 170).

Nevertheless, misunderstanding persisted. For example, in May 1821 the presiding Methodist elder of New York’s Black River Conference, Mr. Evarts, debated the Universalist Mr. Morse in Ellisburg. Evarts, in typical Methodist fashion, argued to support “the doctrine of endless misery.” He also attacked Universalism “as equally [p.33] destructive of individual peace and public safety” (in Cassara 1971, 128).

The lesson for Universalists in the Book of Mormon story of Nehor was clear. Just as Nehor was to suffer death for breaking the law, so also would he suffer eternal death for disobeying God’s commandments. And just as he acknowledged his error “between the heavens and the earth,” so would he suffer “between death and the resurrection” (Alma 40:11-14). Despite their Universalist beliefs, followers of Nehor had learned to respect human laws, for they did not lie or steal or murder for “fear of the law” (1:17-18; cf. 42:19-20). Thus when the Book of Mormon argued that fear of punishment is a motive for obedience to both civil and divine law, it makes the same point that one Methodist made in 1820: “Every civilized society has wisely provided against such evils … commanding respect to the majesty of its laws, by inflicting the sanctions of punishments: and that if a villain were to [murder] … he would be hung. So then,” this writer continues, it is unreasonable to conclude “the law of God [is] devoid of power to enforce obedience! … This surely cannot be consistent with the dictates of either reason or justice, that a man shall pay the forfeit of his life to the violated law, that embraces his existence, as a member of civil society; and yet be a transgressor of that law which is immutable and eternal in its obligations, and escape condemnation. No, the law of God runs parallel with the immortality of the soul of man, and is always present in its moral obligations, or in the infliction of punishment” (Methodist Magazine, Oct. 1820, 378-79).

Even Restorationists criticized Ultra-Universalists for their disbelief in God’s punishment. The Christian Herald of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, stated in 1818 that Universalism “leads to licentiousness, and encourages the wicked to live in open rebellion against God. And he who believes it will conclude that faith and repentance, &c. is nothing, and that he need not trouble himself concerning his present or future situation, and may live according to the course of this world, and be happy at last” (May 1818, 4). “Did you ever know any reformation among any people where they were taught to believe that there was no future punishment?” the Herald asked (Ibid., 7).

The death of Nehor did not stop priestcraft from spreading in the Book of Mormon (Alma 1:16). Nehor’s church was a chief competitor of the “church of God” and was responsible for persecuting members of the true church (vv. 19-22). In fact this faction became so influential that they attempted to establish Amlici, a man who was of the order of Nehor, as king (2:1-2). Fearing that Amlici would “deprive them of their rights and privileges” and that “it was his intent to destroy the church of God,” “the voice of the people” defeated him (vv. 4-7). Nevertheless Amlici and his followers united with the Lamanites and promoted rebellion and civil war. When the Nephites with divine aid [p.34] slaughtered the Amlicites, Mormon editorialized that “in one year were thousands and tens of thousands of souls sent to the eternal world, that they might reap their rewards according to their works, whether they were good or whether they were bad, to reap eternal happiness or eternal misery, according to the spirit which they listed to obey, whether it be a good spirit or a bad one” (3:26).

Ammonihan Universalists

Nehor’s Universalist teachings had continuing influence in the Book of Mormon narrative. About the year 83 B.C.E., Alma gives up his judgment seat in order to travel throughout the Nephite lands preaching religious and social reform (Alma 4:15-20). Teaming up with Amulek, he preached to the Universalists in the city of Ammonihah. It is said that “the people that were in the land of Ammonihah … were of the profession of Nehor” and that “many lawyers, and judges, and priests, and teachers … were of the profession of Nehor” (14:16, 18; 15:15).

During Amulek’s examination by Zeezrom, one of the most successful of the unscrupulous lawyers of Ammonihah and foremost defenders of Universalism, Amulek employs a classic anti-Universalist argument. To Zeezrom’s question—”Shall [the Son of God] save his people in their sins?”—Amulek answered: “The Lord surely shall come to redeem his people; but … he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins” (Alma 11:36-37; cf. 21:7; Hel. 5:10).

Elbanan Winchester argued in his Course of Lectures on the Prophecies that the “foundation” for understanding the “doctrine of salvation” was found in Matthew 1:21: “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” He interpreted the passage as a proclamation of universal salvation, stating that since “all men are certainly the people of Jesus, … consequently he shall save all mankind from their sins” (1800, 2:256-57).12 The orthodox, however, combatted this interpretation. Charles Marford (1769-1849), a lay preacher from Victor, New York (about ten miles from the Smith home in Manchester), argued in about 1819: “Are all to be redeemed, and to be ransomed of the Lord? None but those that sincerely and truly repent of their Sins, and forsake them in this life, and return unto the Lord, will obtain the pardon of their sins. Christ is a Savior to Save his people from their Sins, and not in them and those that think otherwise will be overthrown with that dreadful [p.35] overthrow with which God overthrew Sodom and Gomorah.”13

Charles Finney did not think this argument was strong. “I have heard men preach against the idea that men are saved in their sins, and they supposed they were preaching down Universalist doctrine. Universalists believe no such thing” (1835, 166). Hosea Ballou complained in 1805 that “the opposers of universalism have generally written and contended the doctrine, under an entire mistaken notion of it. They have endeavored to show the absurdity of believing that men could be received into the kingdom of glory and righteousness, in their sins; which no Universalist ever believed.” He reminded readers that “the salvation which God wills is a salvation from sin” (1805, vii, 209).

Alma declares to Universalists in the city of Ammonihah that after the resurrection and judgment “is a time that whosoever dieth in his sins, as to a temporal death, shall also die a spiritual death” (12:16). This same argument was used by other Book of Mormon prophets. Abinadi, for example, declares that “the Lord redeemeth none such that rebel against him and die in their sins” (Mosiah 15:26), and King Benjamin explains to his people that the person who “remaineth and dieth in his sins, the same drinketh damnation to his own soul; for he receiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment, having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge” (2:33; also v. 38). Both Jacob and Moroni give similar warnings to those who “die in their sins” (1 Ne. 15:33; 2 Ne. 9:38; Moro. 10:26).

The idea that those who die in their sins cannot be saved was likewise used by anti-Universalists. They based their argument on John 8:21 where Jesus tells the Pharisees, “I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come.” This passage was used in 1824 by the Reverend Stephen I. Bradstreet of Cleveland, Ohio, to argue that “those Jews to which Christ spake, are never to reach Heaven.” However, Universalists were quick to counter this argument by quoting John 13:33, “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.” After citing this passage, a Universalist who reviewed Bradstreet’s work in 1824 argued: “Here Christ tells his chosen disciples that they shall no more be able to follow him than would those Jews to whom he had before made the same declaration. Now, does Mr. B[radstreet] mean to say that he supposes Paul and all the other chosen disciples of Jesus to be now roasting in his [p.36] imaginary hell, with those Jews to whom Christ spake?” (Gospel Advocate, 6 Aug. 1824, 236; see also Bradstreet 1824; Hopkins 1783, 32)

Alma also declares to the Ammonihah Universalists regarding those who die in their sins and suffer the second death that “their torments shall be as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever” (Alma 12:17). This statement is repeatedly used in the Book of Mormon. Jacob declares that the wicked “shall go away into everlasting fire; prepared for them; and their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end” (2 Ne. 9:16; cf. vv. 19, 26; Jacob 3:11; 6:10). Both Nephi and King Benjamin connect this lake of fire and brimstone with the eternal torment of the wicked (2 Ne. 28:23; Mosiah 3:27; cf. Alma 14:14).

Based on passages in Revelation (14:10-11; 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8), anti-Universalists attempted to establish the doctrine of eternal torment. Upon those who take part in spiritual Babylon, Revelation states that they “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone … and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast” (14:10-11). This passage was mentioned in 1824 by the Reverend Mr. Bradstreet as an argument against universal restoration (Bradstreet 1824; see also Hopkins 1783, 20, 46-47). However, the Universalist who reviewed Bradstreet’s work referred to Revelation 20:13, 14 and argued that “it must be remembered that Mr. B[radstreet]’s hell in which … all the wicked will be tormented eternally, was also cast into this same lake of fire. … It must also be borne in mind that before this hell of Mr. B[radstreet]’s was cast into the lake of fire it delivered up all the dead that were in it—of course they were not cast into the lake with hell” (Gospel Advocate, 6 Aug. 1824, 236-37). The reviewer responded to the statement in Revelation 14:11 that the wicked “have no rest, day nor night,” by arguing: “Now, did Mr. B[radstreet] ever find any account of day and night in a future state of existence? … Mr. B[radstreet] quotes those words and yet does not see that they confine the meaning of the passages to this state of existence, where day and night are found” (Ibid., 237; see also Ballou 1805, 135-36; Universalist Magazine, 13 May 1820, 183).

Corianton’s Universalist Heresy

Other anti-Universalist arguments used by Amulek and Alma would be expanded and clarified in later chapters of the Book of Alma (see, for instance, Alma 11:38-45; 12:1-18). We are told that the Amulonites, part Nephite and part Lamanite, were also “after the manner of the Nehors” (21:1-4), and when Aaron preached repentance to them, they replied: “How knowest thou that we have cause to repent? … We [p.37] do believe that God will save all men” (v. 6). But those Book of Mormon passages which must have resonated most clearly for early nineteenth-century Christians are those which described the emotional debate between Alma and his son Corianton (39-42). Corianton had forsaken his ministry to the Zoramites and taken up with “wicked harlots,” especially the “harlot Isabel” (39:3, 11).14 This conduct was largely due to Corianton’s belief that God is merciful and will “restore” all men, both good and evil, to his presence (40:15-41:15).15

Alma’s letter to Corianton is typical of the anti-Universalist rhetoric common in America prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon. In his letter Alma gives four major arguments against his son’s beliefs.

First Alma condemns his son’s sins as “most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost” (Alma 39:5) and exhorts him to “repent and forsake your sins” (v. 9). Alma argues that “if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable; yea, and whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness” (v. 6). This argument—which brings into play Jesus’s words in the synoptic gospels (Matt. 12:31-32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10) and Hebrews 6:4-6 (cf. Heb. 10:26; 2 Pet. 2:20-22)—was a typical late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century argument against the idea of the ultimate salvation of all humankind. It was an argument employed by Oliver Cowdery in 1834 and by Joseph Smith in 1844 to disprove the claims of Ultra-Universalists (Messenger and Advocate 1 [July 1835]: 151; Universalist Union, 4 May 1844, 392).

The Gospel Advocate recognized in 1823 that reference to the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost was a major orthodox argument against universal restoration, stating that “BLASPHEMY AGAINST THE HOLY GHOST is frequently urged as an unanswerable objection to the salvation of those by whom it is committed. How often we hear it conceded by the most zealous abettors [p.38] [arbiters?] for the doctrine of endless sufferings, that if they could discover any way by which the final salvation of those who have sinned against the Holy Spirit, could be possible, they should entertain some hopes of the ultimate bliss of the whole human family” (26 Sept. 1823, 293; see also 16 Jan. 1824, 7-8). An article in the Presbyterian Magazine in 1821 gave the following argument against Universalism: “There is an unpardonable sin, for which prayer would be altogether useless; and that for this plain reason, it is declared to be irremissible. Our Lord has declared it so. It is the sin against the Holy Ghost. Now, it is clear, if this sin be unpardonable, the person guilty of it must for ever lie under the ban of vindicatory justice, and consequently his punishment must be eternal. … We conclude, then, that all men cannot be exempted from eternal punishment upon the ground of a vicarious atonement, because all were not embraced in its design” (Mar. 1821, 123-24; see also Cleaveland 1776, 9; Hopkins 1783, 26, 38-39, 72-73, 76; Methodist Magazine, June 1820, 213; New York Missionary Magazine, and Repository of Religious Intelligence, 1802, 415; Utica Christian Magazine, Aug. 1813, 61).

In order to counter this criticism, Universalists offered alternative interpretations of Jesus’s words about sinning against the Holy Ghost. For example, it was common for Universalists to argue that “this sin should not be forgiven, under the Jewish or Christian dispensation, as the word here translated world is used sometimes for an age: And this world may signify the Mosaic dispensation, and the world to come the Christian, and not the future state” (Hopkins 1783, 76; see also Ballou 1805, 167-68; Gospel Advocate, 26 Sept. 1823, 293; cf. Clarke 1811, 5:138-39; A. Thomas 1852, 404-405). This interpretation was welcomed by Christians who sometimes believed that their subsequent sinning after conversion amounted to blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.16

Alma’s second major argument against Universalism concerns “the state of the soul between death and the resurrection” (40:11). Alma tells Corianton that contrary to his Universalist assumptions, upon death there are two abodes for the spirits of God’s children: “The spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise,” Alma says. But “the spirits of the wicked … shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, [p.39] and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their iniquity” (vv. 12-13; cf. Mosiah 16:2). After the resurrection “an awful death cometh upon the wicked … for they are unclean, and no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 26). “Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection” (v. 14). While Alma speaks of the permanence of the separation of the wicked and righteous, Nephi explains that there is “an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God” (1 Ne. 15:28).

Concerning the state of the soul between death and resurrection, those who combatted Universalism liked to refer to Jesus’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:1-31). At death Lazarus “was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom,” but the rich man found himself in hell “and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (vv. 22, 23). When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him to relieve his thirst, Abraham explains that his request cannot be granted since “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence” (v. 26).

Arguing against Murray’s teachings, John Cleaveland declared in 1776, “What comfort will it be to find ourselves in hell … and a great gulf fixed?” (1776, iv; see also Hopkins 1783, 31, 73, 83). However, Universalist Elhanan Winchester argued in 1800 that “the gulf fixed between the abodes of the happy and miserable, was absolutely impassible to all, till Jesus came. … What did Jesus Christ the anointed Saviour preach, or proclaim to them? I answer, He proclaimed the Gospel” (1800, 2:349). Further from 1 Peter 3:18-20, Winchester argued that Christ would not have preached to the “spirits in prison” if there was no hope of salvation after death (ibid., 340-54).

Alma’s words that there will be “weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth” among the wicked in “outer darkness” refers to a favorite prooftext of anti-Universalists (Cleaveland 1776, 38; Hopkins 1783, 26, 27, 29; Methodist Magazine, June 1820, 212-13; New York Missionary Magazine, and Repository of Religious Intelligence, 1802, 410). The Gospel of Luke proclaims that the time would come when Christ would say, “Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:27-28). The wicked “shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; also 13:42; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).

In his third major attack on Universalism, Alma explains that his wayward son has misunderstood scriptural references to [p.40] “restoration.” Like nineteenth-century Universalists, Corianton interpreted restoration to mean that all humanity would be “restored from sin to happiness” (Alma 41:9-10). However, Alma explains that the “restoration of which has been spoken by the mouth of the prophets” refers to a time when “the soul shall be restored to the body” (40:22-26), that is, in the resurrection.

A favorite passage of both Universalists and Restorationists was Acts 3:21, which declares that the heavens must retain Christ “until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Ballou 1805, 178-82; Winchester 1800, 2:222). The orthodox would have interpreted the passage as a reference to the restoration of Israel. They rejected the Universalist’s suggestion that it referred to universal resurrection. “Some have thought,” wrote Hopkins in 1783, “[that] these words signify, that all creatures shall be restored to holiness and happiness by Christ.” However, Hopkins continued, “the restoration of all things seems to mean nothing else here, but the accomplishment of all things which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets” (1783, 95-96).

Alma attempts to turn his son’s definition of the term “restoration” against itself. Rather than justifying the sinner, Alma argues, the term “restoration” actually condemns him or her, for “the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful … therefore, the word restoration more fully condemneth the sinner, and justifieth him not at all” (41:13, 15). Alma therefore warns his son: “Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness” (v. 10).

Universalists and Restorationists would have undoubtedly considered Alma’s tactics unfair and misrepresentative. That Universalists did not define the term restoration as literally as Alma insists is indicated by an example from the autobiography of Abel C. Thomas: “The object or end of Christ’s mission and ministry came up for consideration. It could not be strictly a restoration—that is, not in the literal meaning of the term—for this would imply a mere undoing of mischief, a taking back to a former condition—as the Restoration of the Stuarts after the protectorate of Cromwell—or the Restoration of the Bourbons after the fall of Napoleon. To be restored to the original state of man, as in the case of Adam before he sinned, would be merely a return to a condition of innocence; but the text [Rom. 5:19] specifies a forward march of man to an estate of righteousness. So the text declares—and such is the uniform testimony, directly or indirectly, regarding Christ’s work” (1852, 82-83).

[p.41] The Reverend Thomas’s argument was essentially the same that Ballou expressed in his Treatise: “Can there be any dispute, in the reader’s mind, respecting the nature of this restitution? Will any one pretend, that this restitution is only reinstating man in a state of probation? If that was the object of Christ’s coming into our world, if that was intended by his death and resurrection, was not the work already done, when Peter spake these words? Why then does he speak of the times of restitution yet to come? … I cannot conceive, that a restitution of man to any state which he has occupied, in flesh and blood, is worthy of the gospel plan; for it is said, of man, in his earthly nature, his best estate is vanity. But if we view the plan of the restitution of all things, which is to be accomplished in the fulness of times, a restitution or restoration from mortality and sin, to a state of immortality and righteousness, it is consistent with scripture, and worthy of God” (Ballou 1805, 179).

The resurrection, according to Alma, is a change from mortality to immortality, corruption to incorruption, when “all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame” (40:2, 23). Alma’s argument is weakened by not applying the same strict definition of restoration to his concept of resurrection. For Alma’s logic to have been consistent, he would have reasoned that mortality would be restored to mortality and corruption to corruption. Of course Alma probably believed that the resurrection was a restoration to a pre-Fall condition; if so it would only be fair to allow Corianton the same latitude with his concept of moral restoration. Thus Alma’s argument would have carried little weight with many Universalists.17

Alma also mentions that after the resurrection and final judgment, the wicked “die as to things pertaining to things of righteousness” (Alma 40:26). Elsewhere Alma explained that after resurrection and judgment “cometh a death, even a second death, which is a spiritual death; then is a time that whosoever dieth in his sins, as to a temporal death, shall also die a spiritual death; yea, he shall die as to things pertaining unto righteousness” (12:16).

Reference to the “second death” was a favorite orthodox argument against Universalism (Hopkins 1783, 23, 46). But Universalists believed that the orthodox argument was inconsistent. Ballou, for example, argued that the orthodox interpreted “spiritual death” at the final judgment as never-ending while interpreting the “spiritual death” of Adam as temporary. Ballou said, “in respect to spiritual death, I believe it was all that was meant by the word, ‘in the day thou eatest thereof [p.42] thou shalt surely die.’ But, if eternal death was intended, there was no recovery for man” (1805, 56; see also Universalist Magazine, 31 July 1819, 28). Alma states that “the fall had brought upon all mankind a spiritual death as well as a temporal,” but he complicates matters when he says “man became lost forever” (Alma 42:6, 9).

Another Universalist tactic against the “second death” argument was to allegorize it, contending that “the first death is the apostasy of the Jewish church,” while the “second [death] … is the apostasy of the Christian church” (Gospel Visitant, Mar. 1812, 211, 218; see also Winchester 1800, 129-60; Universalist Magazine, 25 Dec. 1819, 102-03; 13 May 1820, 183).

In his fourth major argument against Universalism, Alma explains to Corianton that the punishment of the wicked is a result of God’s justice. According to Alma, Corianton was troubled “concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner” and considered it an “injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery” (42:1).

Universalists and Restorationists constantly argued that endless punishment of the wicked would be incompatible with God’s infinite goodness. The Universalist Magazine queried in 1818, “How is it possible that a being of infinite goodness should design a rational creature of his own production for a state of endless misery?” (3 July 1818, 2). “Can a wise and good God punish for no purpose,” Elhanan Winchester asked in 1800, “but merely to satisfy what they call vindictive justice, which they say can never be satisfied to all eternity?” (1800, 2:295)

Alma argues that God is both merciful and just. “What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice?” Alma exclaims. “I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God” (42:25; also vv. 13, 22-23). Alma’s argument that God would cease to be God if he was not just was typical rhetoric employed by those in Smith’s day against Universalists. One Presbyterian, for example, argued in 1821: “I shall assume as a fact, that justice is a natural and necessary attribute of Jehovah; that this attribute is inexorable; that it must pursue its enemy, and punish its victim; that any compromise with mercy, would leave it no longer immaculate; in a word, that Jehovah can as soon cease to be, as he can cease to be just” (Presbyterian Magazine, Jan. 1821, 17).

A similar argument was made in the Utica Christian Magazine in 1813: “[Some] deny the necessity of an atonement … because they say God is merciful. But he is also just. And he is as much bound to regard and maintain the dignity of his justice, as to express his mercy. … But God can no more disregard his justice in his conduct towards his creatures, than he can deny his own name, or destroy his moral perfection. If God had saved sinners from threatened and deserved punishment [p.43] without an atonement, he would have sacrificed his justice, and have ruined his character and government” (Oct. 1813, 227-28).

In fact, according to the Book of Mormon, justice demands because of the fall of Adam that all people be condemned. Only through the atonement of Jesus Christ can mercy come into play and save humankind: “And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).

The Book of Mormon’s concept of the Atonement included the idea that it was infinite. “Nothing which is short of an infinite atonement … will suffice for the sins of the world,” Amulek declares to the Zoramites (Alma 34:12). Jacob explains that “because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord. Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption” (2 Ne. 9:6-7).

One objection the orthodox leveled against Universalism was the infinite nature of human sin and the need for an infinite atonement. For example, one Presbyterian argued in 1821: “Sin is an infinite evil, inasmuch, as it is a violation of an infinite law, rebellion against an infinite God. … But as all are sinners, all are naturally under an infinite load of guilt, which the justice of God necessarily requires to be expiated.”18

In 1820 the Methodist Magazine quoted well-known Bible commentator Adam Clarke on the atonement of Christ: “Nothing less than a sacrifice of infinite merit, can atone for the offences of the whole world” (May 1820, 164). And in 1825 the Methodist Magazine declared that the denial of “the necessity of an infinite atonement made by the death and suffering of Jesus Christ … goes to overturn the whole system of the gospel” (Mar. 1825, 82-85).

Ballou and fellow Unitarian-Universalists rejected the orthodox concept of an infinite atonement. In his Treatise, Ballou put it in the strongest terms that a God who would impute “an infinite debt which … I owed thousands of years before I was born” would be a monster, not characteristic of a God who is “infinitely merciful” (1805, 76). Further, Ballou argued that humans as finite beings were incapable of committing infinite sins. “If sin is infinite in its nature, there can be no [p.44] one sin greater than another. The smallest offence against the good of society is equal to blasphemy against the Holy Ghost” (ibid., 19; also 60-62). Because sin was not infinite, Ballou argued, it did not require an infinite atonement (ibid., 15-115; see also Universalist Magazine, 24 July 1819, 16; 15 Jan. 1820, 114-15; 15 July 1820, 10-11).

Alma further explains that sins must be repented of in this life, that this life is the “time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God” (Alma 42:4). “The plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state” (v. 13). Those who do not repent during mortality must suffer the wrath of a just God (vv. 24-26).

The orthodox sometimes tried to teach Universalists that God intended this life to be a “probationary state” where acts done in the flesh carry eternal consequences (see, for example, Cleaveland 1776, 10; New York Missionary Magazine, and Repository of Religious Intelligence, 1802, 417). Universalists rejected this concept. The Universalist Magazine, for example, argued against the orthodox notion that “the whole life of man is allowed for his probationary state” and considered strange the idea that “if he becomes converted any time before he dies, if it be but one hour, or one minute, he is just as secure as if he had been converted earlier in life” (Universalist Magazine, 3 July 1818, 4; see also Gospel Advocate, 27 Aug. 1824, 262-64).

Given the on-going debate in the early nineteenth century, Alma’s warning to his son was applicable to Universalists generally: “Do not risk one more offense against your God upon those points of doctrine, which ye have hitherto risked to commit sin” (Alma 41:9). Alma’s discourse on salvation and the meaning of restoration must have persuaded Corianton, for he returned to the ministry (63:1-2, 10).

Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon speaks of punishment as never-ending. God’s punishment is “as eternal as the life of the soul” (42:16). Lehi warned his sons that non-repentance would bring the “eternal destruction of both soul and body” (v. 22; cf. Matt. 10:28).19 The Book of Mormon also speaks of “everlasting damnation” (12:26).

The orthodox believed that the Bible’s use of such terms clearly excluded the notion of universal salvation. Universalists, on the other hand, did not interpret such scriptural terms as literally as their orthodox opponents. Winchester quoted Isaiah 34:10, which he believed was a prophecy about the destruction of Zion’s enemies at [p.45] Christ’s coming: “The land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever; from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none pass through it for ever and ever.” He then argued: “The words for ever and for ever and ever, are used in this prophecy, as also in many other passages for times and seasons of a limited nature: for if it were not so, it would be impossible that all the prophecies should ever be fulfilled; for if this land should burn always, and the smoke of it perpetually go up without end—then it would be impossible for birds of any kind to lay and hatch, or even to exist there [v. 11]; neither could wild beasts meet there [v. 14]; nor thorns, nettles, and brambles grow there [v. 13]: all which things are declared, but can never take place if for ever intends without end” (1794, 1:282).

John Cleaveland attacked the apparent inconsistency with which Universalists interpreted scripture. “Where is it said in the word of God, that the words eternal, everlasting, forever, signify endless, neverceasing duration, when joined with life and blessedness in heaven; but never so when joined with destruction, punishment, or misery in hell?” (1776, 12-13; see also New York Missionary Magazine, and Repository of Religious Intelligence, 1802, 413-15). Edward Wigglesworth (1693-1765), a professor of divinity at Harvard, drew from Matthew 25:46—”these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal”—to argue: “We may very well suppose it is, That Everlasting Punishment is set in immediate Opposition to Life Eternal; that we may be convinced, that it must be understood in the same Extent; & not fla[t]ter our selves with false Hopes to our own Destruction, because the Words forever & everlasting are sometimes used in a limited Sense” (1729, 16).

The Book of Mormon describes hell as “unquenchable fire” and “a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment” (Jacob 6:10; 2 Ne. 28:23; 9:16; Mosiah 2:38; 3:27; 26:27; Alma 5:52; Moro. 9:5). Opponents of Universalism often quoted Mark 9:43-48, where several references are made to the fire which is not quenched in hell (Hopkins 1783, 29; Cleaveland 1776, 9, 21; New York Missionary Magazine, 1802, 409, 415-16; Utica Christian Magazine, Aug. 1813, 61). Hosea Ballou said that it was a “passage, made much use of, against universal holiness and happiness” but argued that the never-ending fire was “a state of great trouble of mind, in consequence of conscientious guilt … which all the floods of corruption can never quench” (Ballou 1805, 149-50). The passage therefore did not refer to God’s punishment of the wicked in eternity, Ballou argued.

Lehi’s discourse to his son Jacob has a message early Universalists would have understood, though they would have rejected its logic. Lehi’s argument stems from the typical orthodox notion that Universalists believe only in the mercy of God. Lehi’s argument runs: [p.46] “Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement—For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. … If ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God” (2 Ne. 2:10-11, 13).20

Universalists would have also found Lehi’s discourse on agency troubling. Lehi declares that because humanity has been redeemed from the Fall “they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon. … They are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great mediation of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. And now my sons, I would that ye should … choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy spirit; and not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh” (2 Ne. 2:26-29).

Ballou argued against this concept in his Treatise: “It is certainly reasonable to suppose, that all the agency possessed by man, was given him by his Maker; and that, when God gave him this agency, it was for a certain purpose, which purpose must, finally, be every way answered, providing God is infinitely wise. And I cannot think it incorrect, to suppose, that God ever gave any creature agency to perform what he never intended should be done. Then, if any soul is made endlessly miserable, by its agency, it follows, that God gave that soul this agency, for that unhappy purpose; and if any are saved, by their agency, God gave them their agency, for that blessed end. If any wish to make a different use of agency, let them state fairly, that God gave man an agency, intending man’s eternal salvation thereby; but man makes a different use of his agency, from what God intended, whereby the gracious designs of Deity are forever lost!” (1805, 139)

Universalists would have also objected to the Book of Mormon’s position on the carnal nature of humanity after the Fall. For example, King Benjamin declares to his people that “natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam” (Mosiah 3:19). Humankind by the Fall “had become carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature” (Alma 42:10). In 1819 the Universalist Magazine rejected the orthodox opinion that the Fall “had so entirely and so radically metamorphosed [p.47] the nature of man, as a moral being, that all men are naturally opposed to all good, and greedily in love with all evil.” “If mankind are altogether naturally inclined to evil,” the Universalist asked, “… how it happens that there is so much goodness practiced in the world, and so little evil when compared with the good?” (Universalist Magazine, 23 Oct. 1819, 65-66)


From contemporary testimony and scriptural analysis, it is clear that anti-Universalistic rhetoric was part of the Book of Mormon’s message. The Book of Mormon not only presented a generally orthodox theological position but also explicitly attacked the notion of universal salvation. Universalists or those who held Universalist beliefs—such as Asael Smith, Joseph Smith, Sr., Martin Harris, Joseph Knight, Sr., and Eli Gilbert—responded to the Book of Mormon’s message by renouncing their former beliefs and (except for Asael Smith, who died in 1830) joined the church Joseph Smith founded.

It was perhaps the strong anti-Universalist stance of the Book of Mormon which accounts for some of the adverse reactions Smith received in response to his February 1832 vision of the three degrees of glory. While working on the revision of the New Testament, Smith and Sidney Rigdon received a vision which explained that all but a few would be assigned to one of three heavens depending on their performance in mortality (D&C 76). The revelation reads in part: “And this is the gospel the glad tidings, … that he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him; who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him” (vv. 40-43). This revelation was easily recognized as a modified Restorationist position and to some appeared to be a major reversal in doctrine. Not surprisingly therefore, Smith received some immediate resistance to the new doctrine from within the Mormon community.21

As stated at the outset, the primary goal of this essay is not determining the Book of Mormon’s origin, but the question arises of whether ancient American cultures could have debated Universalism in a manner that would have been meaningful to those in early nineteenth-century America. If one allows the possibility of Alma and [p.48] Amulek discussing Universalism in America nearly a century before Christ, the conscientious reader will be struck by their use of arguments based on the same New Testament passages on which the nineteenth-century debate centered.22 In addition, the Book of Mormon not only perpetuates misrepresentations of anti-Universalist rhetoric but historicizes them by having ancient Universalists defend these very misperceptions (e.g., Alma 11:34-35).

That rhetorical and historical criticism may not always support traditional views has been recognized by New Testament scholars. “It is not clear,” writes Burton L. Mack, that rhetorical criticism “will or should support traditional Christian views about the message of the New Testament and its relevance for instruction, faith, and piety” (Mack 1990, 101-102). Likewise rhetorical criticism may also challenge traditional assumptions about the Book of Mormon, but it does help researchers understand the book’s message in its nineteenth-century context. It is doubtful that a study of ancient American cultures would produce a similar context for understanding this central theological focus of the Book of Mormon. The degree to which Smith adapted his narrative to the concerns of his modern audience is a question each reader must answer for him- or herself.


1. Although there are various approaches to rhetorical criticism, and notwithstanding the debates among advocates of these various approaches, I find the historical approach of most value to the subject at hand. For general works dealing with rhetorical criticism, see Black 1978; Brock and Scott 1972; Corbett 1969; Booth 1961; and Mouat 1958. For use of rhetorical criticism in biblical studies, see Jackson and Kessler 1974; Kennedy 1984; and Mack 1990. Mark Thomas (1987; 1989) has recently attempted to analyze sections of the Book of Mormon using rhetorical criticism.

2. The theory that Joseph Smith conceptually translated the Book of Mormon is discussed in Roberts 1907-12, 1:255-74; Van Wagoner and Walker 1982; Ashment 1980; Lancaster 1990; and Ostler 1987.

3. According to one of Asael’s daughters-in-law, he declared on his deathbed “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” (M. Wilford Poulson, ed., “Copy of an Old Notebook,” typescript at Brigham Young University, 40-41, in Anderson 1971, 215n217). George A. Smith wrote that his grandfather had accepted the Mormon gospel, though he “had been for many years a universalist and exceedingly set in his way” (G. A. Smith, “Memoirs,” handwritten ms., 2, in Anderson 1971, 112).

4. The best work on the history of Universalism is Miller 1979. See also Eddy 1884-86; Robinson 1985; and Canfield 1941.

5. On the modest growth of Universalism in antebellum America, see Miller 1979, 159-67.

6. William Smith reported that his father’s “faith in the universal restoration doctrin[e] however often brought him in contact with the advocates of the doctrin[e] of endless misrey” and that “the belief in the ultimate and final redemption of mankind to heaven and happiness, brought down upon my father the aprobiem or slur of Old Jo Smith” (W. Smith 1875, 18; see also Turner 1851, 213). For a discussion of Joseph Smith Sr.’s early universalism, see Anderson 1971, 106. See also L. Smith 1853, 54-56, for Lucy Smith’s account of the religious differences of her and her husband.

7. For Asael Smith’s Universalism, see Anderson 1971, 105-106, 112, 207n183, 207n185, 215n217. For Solomon Mack’s Universalism and subsequent denouncement, see ibid., 52-53, 208n187.

8. The idea of universal salvation was debated as early as the second century. Both Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 C.E.-ca. 215 C.E.) and Origen (ca. 185 C.E.-ca. 254 C.E.) held the possibility of even Satan being restored (see Patrides 1967). For antecedents of Universalism in Europe and America, see Miller 34-39.

9. Kevin Christensen doubts that “many Universalist sermons followed the complete text of 2 Nephi 28:8” (1990, 223). Christensen, however, overlooks the fact that the Book of Mormon is written from an anti-Universalist position and is an outsider’s characterization. Furthermore, as will be demonstrated, it is typical of anti-Universalist rhetoric.

10. Ballou began presenting his argument against future retribution in 1817 in the columns of the Gospel Visitant (Charlestown, MA). See Miller 1979, 111, 112-14; Cassara 1971, 148; see also Ballou 1834.

11. The reference to “ignominious death” is not intended as a direct parallel to Alma 1:15, for it was a common description in the early nineteenth century for public executions (see Wayne Sentinel, 31 Aug. 1827); even Jesus’s crucifixion was described as an “ignominious death.” Samson Occom, for example, states that Jesus “was lifted up between the heaven and the earth, and was crucified on the accursed tree; his blessed hands and feet were fastened there;—there he died a shameful and ignominious death” (Occom 1773, 23).

12. This aspect of the orthodox-Universalist debate as well as its relevance to the Book of Mormon has been discussed in M. Thomas 1983, 21-22.

13. From original sermons of Charles Marford, in possession of J. Sheldon Fisher of Fishers, New York; also microfilm copy at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Those writings which do have dates range from 1818 to 1820. Wesley P. Walters brought this collection to my attention.

14. Notice the interesting parallel with Revelation 2:20, in which the Lord chastises the church in Thyatira “because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication.” While Daniel Peterson (1990, 216n22) compares Alma’s “harlot Isabel” to the Jezebel of 1 Kings, I find comparison to Revelation 2:20 more striking.

15. Kevin Christensen has expressed doubt about my identification of Corianton as a Universalist, since Corianton seems to have expressed skepticism concerning the coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead (Christensen 1990, 223; Vogel 1986, 6). Beyond a belief in universal salvation, Universalists were heterodox in their theology. Moreover, many Universalists in Joseph Smith’s day were also Unitarians. Despite Christensen’s objections, Corianton is clearly a believer in universal salvation (Alma 41:9-10).

16. See Clarke 1811, 5:138, where he mentions that “many sincere people have been grievously troubled with apprehensions that they had committed the unpardonable sin.” For at least one Methodist even a false concept of the nature of the Holy Ghost could constitute the unpardonable sin. “Do you say that Jesus Christ was a created being, and the Holy Spirit a mere emanation from the Father? Take care lest you commit the unpardonable sin” (Methodist Magazine 8 [Mar. 1825]: 83; see also A. Thomas 1852, 404-405).

17. In his journal for 4 February 1832, Orson Hyde used Alma’s definition against a Universalist, quoting Alma 41:3-4, but the Universalist treated it lightly.

18. S. B. W[ylie], “Remarks on the Duration of Future Punishment,” Presbyterian Magazine 1 (Jan. 1821): 18-21. The infinite atonement theory as well as its relevance to the Book of Mormon has been discussed in M. Thomas 1983, 22-23. For other anti-Universalists who argued for the necessity of an infinite atonement, see Hopkins 1783, 120-55; Wigglesworth 1729, 8-9.

19. The orthodox liked to refer to Matthew 10:28 where Jesus advised his followers to “fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” See, for example, Hopkins 1783, 26.

20. M. Thomas (1984) has also seen anti-Universalism in this passage.

21. The adverse reaction of many early Mormons, including a majority of the Geneseo branch in New York, is discussed in Rathbone 1987.


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