Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor

Chapter 14
Salvation in the Theology of Joseph Smith
David John Buerger

[p.159]Prior to mid-1831, Mormon teachings on salvation do not seem to have been Calvinistic despite Book of Mormon teachings regarding the “natural man” and God’s chosen people. References to God’s elect, a limited atonement, salvation for the “predestined,” and the doctrine of “calling and election” are conspicuously absent and even argued against (see Al. 31:16-17). The Doctrine and Covenants’s sole use of the phrase “calling and election” appeared in a June 1831 revelation (D&C 53:1, 7) which was similarly free from eschatological implications.

At some point between June and November 1831, however, LDS teachings regarding the concept of salvation changed. A precipitating event seems to have been the 3 June 1831 conferral of the “High Priesthood” on church elders.1 According to testimony in 1887 by Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer, the introduction of high priests, an event he considered to be an unfortunate aberration from scriptural sources, “originated in the mind of Sidney Rigdon,” Joseph Smith’s close associate: “Rigdon finally persuaded Brother Joseph to believe that the high priests which had such great power in ancient times, should be in the Church of Christ to-day. He had Brother Joseph inquire of the Lord about it, and they received an answer according to their erring desires.”2 Official church histories contain no record of the kind of disagreement or controversy Whitmer here alludes to, and the significance of the event may have been perceived differently as time passed.

[p.160]The new office of high priest quickly came to be regarded as different from and greater than those of priest and elder, both of which already existed in the new church, because a high priest could “seal,” that is, perform earthly ordinances which were unconditionally ratified in heaven. Joseph Smith spelled out this crucial function on 25 October 1831, when he reportedly said at a conference in Far West, Missouri: “The order of the High-priesthood is that they have power given them to seal up the Saints unto eternal life. And said it was the privilege of every Elder present to be ordained to the High priesthood.”3

The far-reaching implications of this teaching went beyond biblical precedents which seemed to use the same terminology in a related sense. In the New Testament, for example, the terms “to seal” and “to place a seal on” metaphorically reflected the ancient practice of placing a wax or clay seal on a document to close and protect it from misappropriation. The confirming effect of a “sealing” is seen in several Pauline passages where God “seals” Christians by giving them the Holy Spirit or the Holy Spirit of Promise as a ratification of future blessings and promises to come (see Rom. 4:11; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13, 4:30). The Revelation of John graphically depicts the servants of God receiving the seal or imprint of God in their foreheads (Rev. 13:16-18). In all pertinent New Testament references, however, it is God alone who applies the seal; there is no clear reference to a human intermediary as part of the “sealing” function.

The sixteenth-century Reformation used many of these “sealing” passages to support a belief in predestination. Liberal reaction to this Calvinist doctrine arose early in the seventeenth century when Arminians rejected this view, asserting instead that God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will were compatible and that such “sealing” depended upon choices of individual believers. Arminian doctrines of free will and individual works continued to be propagated on the American frontier through such nineteenth-century groups as Alexander Campbell’s Disciples of Christ and other primitivistic seekers. In 1829, when Joseph Smith was working on the Book of Mormon manuscript, these same issues were being discussed throughout the “Burned-over District” of western New York state.

Aside from the obvious nonmetaphorical uses of the term [p.161]”sealing”—for example, “sealing up” a book or plates, or hiding an object–the Book of Mormon generally employed the term much like the New Testament. Mosiah 5:15, for example, closely follows New Testament usage but extends the meaning by clearly emphasizing works: “I would that you should be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his, that you may be brought to Heaven.” Alma 34:35 counters predestinarian ideas by warning: “If ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance, even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the Devil, and he doth seal you his; … and this is the final state of the wicked.”

The most significant development in Book of Mormon sealing theology was God’s power granted to Nephi, the son of Helaman: “Whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven” (He. 10:7).4 This passage parallels Jesus’ injunction to Peter in Matthew 16:17-19: “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona … Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The shift from the biblical bind to the Book of Mormon seal—probably to remove “papist” associations in the text–was accompanied by soteriological and eschatological changes. Nephi performs miraculous physical events, through this sealing power, such as commanding a drought which will cause a famine (He. 11:4) to bring people to repentance. Thus, the Book of Mormon modifies the concept of sealing to allow a human agent (Nephi) to seal literally, as well as a demonic agent (the Devil) to seal metaphorically, whereas the New Testament has only God sealing and then strictly in a symbolic sense of the term. Associating a human with this power allowed Joseph Smith to introduce a whole set of theological innovations.

In this context, the 1831 ordination of high priests was significant. In November 1831 these two concepts merged in a priesthood ritual that allowed ordained high priests to “seal [persons] up unto eternal life” (D&C 68:2, 12; 1:8-9) or to eternal or unconditional salvation. Thus, Mormon priesthood bearers themselves could perform a ritual paralleling what strict Calvinists, for example, reserved solely to God. Zebedee Coltrin’s 1831 missionary diary provides evidence that Mormon elders wasted no time in implementing this ordinance: “Tuesday came to Shalersville held a meeting in the [p.162]Evening with the Br[ethren] and after laboring with them some length of time Br David seeled them up unto Eternal life.”5 An empowered priesthood bearer could thus seal not only an individual but a whole group of people to guaranteed salvation. This seems to have been spoken ritual; no physical contact between the officiator and the recipients is mentioned.6

A second development in Mormon salvation theology came in an 1832 revelation (D&C 88) commanding that a “School of the Prophets” be established to instruct church leaders. After describing a format for greeting members of the school, the revelation added that no one was to be admitted unless he was “clean from the blood of this generation”: “And he shall be received by the ordinance of the washing of feet, for unto this end was the ordinance of washing of feet instituted.” The School of the Prophets was established in late January 1833, and this ordinance was administered as directed.7 The revelation did not explicitly state any relationship between the ordinance of washing feet and the ritual of “sealing” which had been practiced for over a year, but Smith indicated that in addition to being “clean from the blood of this generation,” participants in the washing of feet were “sealed up unto eternal life.”8

The concepts of “sealing up unto eternal life” and cleansing one’s self “from the blood of this generation” reached momentary fruition in the Kirtland, Ohio, temple rituals. Doctrine and Covenants 88:119 had commanded the Saints to establish a “house of God,” and six months later, on 1 June, God rebuked Joseph Smith for failing to begin construction of a house where God would “endow those whom I have chosen with power from on high” (D&C 95:8). While work on the Kirtland temple thereafter proceeded apace, even before the dedication on 27 March 1836 Smith introduced the promised new ordinances which prefaced what later was termed the Kirtland endowment. On 21 January, according to Joseph Smith’s account in the History of the Church, the First Presidency washed their bodies in pure water and “perfumed our bodies and our heads, in the name of the Lord.” They also blessed and consecrated “holy oil,” which they used to seal “many blessings” on the head of Joseph Smith, Sr.9 After several days of anointings administered to other priesthood bearers, Joseph Smith, on 6 February, “called the anointed together to receive the seal of all their blessings.” 10

A few weeks later at the dedication of the Kirtland temple, [p.163]Smith instructed various quorums regarding the ordinance of washing of feet.11 Two days later, on 29 March, the First Presidency “proceeded to cleanse our faces and our feet, and then proceeded to wash one another’s feet.” After this, those in attendance “partook of the bread and wine.”12 The next day, a group of about three hundred male church members met in the temple and, after the administration of the sacrament, received the ordinance of washing of feet as well. Smith then announced that he “had now completed the organization of the Church, and we had passed through all the necessary ceremonies.”13 Just four days later, however, again in the Kirtland temple, Smith received a vision recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 110 of the prophet Elijah who gave him the full sealing power of the Melchizedek priesthood–an authority which he did not fully reveal and use until seven years later in Nauvoo, Illinois.

In early Nauvoo, Smith further expanded Mormon salvation concepts. He defined the principle of sealing people’s salvation in heaven and on earth as a fulfillment of the Pauline “making your calling and election sure.” In a June 1839 sermon Smith spoke of church members, following a lifetime of service and devotion, being “sealed up unto the day of redemption” while still alive, a concept based on 2 Peter 1:10-11: “Wherefore … brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (see also 2 Pet. 1:19; Eph. 1:13-14). This June 1839 sermon14 has additional importance, because in it Smith not only linked making one’s calling and election sure to sealing theology but also added the notion of receiving a “comforter” (John 14:26), which he defined as a personal manifestation of Jesus Christ. These ideas were in turn associated with the concept of personal revelation. Smith urged the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and all Mormons to follow in his own footsteps and “become perfect in Jesus Christ.” There was no reference in this sermon to a special ordinance, now associated with temple ritual; indeed there was no functioning temple at this time.

In January 1841, Smith announced another revelation. In it God asked, “How shall your washings be acceptable unto me, except ye perform them in a house which you have built to my name?” Nauvoo did not yet have a suitable structure for such activities. In addition, this new temple was needed “that I may reveal mine [p.164][higher] ordinances therein unto my people; For I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world, things that pertain to the dispensation of the fulness of times” (D&C 124:37, 40-41). Anointed Saints were thus advised that their Kirtland ordinances were initiatory to other salvific ordinances to be revealed after a new temple was completed in Nauvoo. As before, however, these ordinances were revealed in advance by Smith to a select group of church leaders and their wives–the “Quorum of the Anointed” or “Holy Order.”15 This action proved providential, as Smith was killed nearly two years before the temple’s formal dedication.

On 4 May 1842 Smith, after two days of preparation in the upper story of his store in Nauvoo, gathered together nine men: James Adams, Heber C. Kimball, William Law, William Marks, George Miller, Willard Richards, Hyrum Smith, Newel K. Whitney, and Brigham Young. There, according to the History of the Church, he “instruct[ed] them in the principles and order of the Priesthood, attending to washings, anointings, endowments and the communication of keys pertaining to the Aaronic Priesthood, and so on to the highest order of the Melchisedek Priesthood, setting forth the order pertaining to the Ancient of Days, and all those plans and principles by which any one is enabled to secure the fullness of those blessings which have been prepared for the Church of the First Born, and come up and abide in the presence of the Eloheim in the eternal worlds.”16
There are some problems with this account. It is historically interesting that the History omits William Law and William Marks, who were present but who would later become disaffected. More significant is the statement that the “highest order of the Melchisedek Priesthood” was conferred upon these men. About four months later, in late August 1842, Smith declared to members of Nauvoo’s Female Relief Society that “the Lord Almighty … will continue to preserve me … until I have fully accomplished my mission in life, and so firmly established the dispensation of the fullness of the priesthood in the last days, that all the power of earth and hell can never prevail against it” (emphasis added).17The establishment of “the fulness of the priesthood”–the crowning ordinance of developing Mormon salvation/exaltation theology–was an event Smith [p.165]seems to have viewed as his future life mission, not as an accomplished fact.

Almost a year later on 6 August 1843, Apostle Wilford Woodruff reported that Brigham Young thought the fullness of the priesthood was yet to be given: “If any in the Church had the fullness of the Melchisedec Priesthood, he [Brigham Young] did not know it.” Clearly, though, Smith had at least discussed this concept with Young, who added, “For any person to have the fullness of that priesthood, he must be a king and a priest… . A person may be anointed king and priest long before he receives his kingdom.”18

Other relevant facets of Mormon thinking had also matured by the time Brigham Young made this statement, notably a refinement in the LDS view of “eternal life.” Prior to receiving the “three degrees of glory” vision in February 1832 (now D&C 76), Mormons, including Joseph Smith, understood “eternal life” in the same sense as other Protestants: an undifferentiated heaven as the only alternative to an undifferentiated hell. Even after 1832 and possibly as late as 1843, Smith apparently still conceived “eternal life” as dwelling in the presence of Elohim forever. It was not until May 1843 that Smith taught that the celestial kingdom contained gradations, with the highest gradation reserved solely for men and women who had entered into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage (see D&C 131:1-4). In July 1843, Smith dictated another revelation (now D&C 132) which defined those achieving “exaltation” in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom as “gods.”

The importance of this teaching is seen in another Smith sermon given shortly thereafter on 27 August 1843. Significantly, these comments occurred in a discussion of three orders of priesthood: the Levitical, the patriarchal (or Abrahamic), and the fullness of the priesthood of Melchizedek which included “kingly powers” of “anointing & sealing—called elected and made sure.”19 Said Smith: “No man can attain to the Joint heirship with Jesus Christ with out being administered to by one having the same power & Authority of Melchisedec.” This authority and power came not from “a Prophet nor apostle nor Patriarch only but of [a] King & Priest [of Jesus Christ].”20

In this same 27 August 1843 sermon Smith said that “Abraham[‘]s Patriarchal power” was the “greatest yet experienced [p.166]in this church,” implying that the fullness of the Melchizedek priesthood had not yet been introduced. His choice of words is particularly revealing considering the fact that by this date ten men had received the initiatory washings and anointings, as well as the Aaronic and Melchizedek portions of the endowments of the “Patriarchal Priesthood” on 2 May 1842. Many of these had also received the ordinance of celestial marriage for time and eternity with their wives. When Smith said late in August that the Patriarchal priesthood was the “greatest yet experienced in this church,” he was well aware that the fullness of the Melchizedek priesthood was yet to be conferred through a higher ordinance.

In a sense the institution of this “higher ordinance” was the logical next step. The previous twelve years of pronouncements, sealings, and anointings “unto eternal life” guaranteed a status that, according to Smith’s 1843 teachings, was subservient to that of the gods. From the perspective of these teachings, even the Nauvoo endowment administered to members of the “Holy Order” simply provided that the men who received it would live in the celestial kingdom as angels and servants. Until 1843, women had been excluded from these ordinances, possibly because of Joseph Smith’s personal reluctance, Emma Smith’s rejection of polygamy, John C. Bennett’s lurid expose of polygamy, and/or the disaffection and subsequent reconciliation of Orson and Sarah Pratt over polygamy. However, Doctrine and Covenants 131 and 132 indicated that this exclusion deprived the men (who had received the previous ordinances) of the highest kingdom of glory—godhood. The higher ordinance was necessary to confirm the revealed promises of “kingly powers” (i.e., godhood) received in the endowment’s initiatory ordinances. Godhood was therefore the meaning of this higher ordinance, or second anointing. The previously revealed promises in Doctrine and Covenants 132:19-26 implicitly referred not to those who had been sealed and ordained “kings and priests,” “queens and priestesses” to God, not to those who had been sealed in celestial marriage. Such individuals, having received the “second anointing,” would “be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject to them.”

This special priesthood ordinance was first administered on 28 September 1843 to Joseph and Emma Smith. According to [p.167]Smith’s personal journal: “Beurach Ale [Joseph Smith] was by common consent and unanimous voice chosen President of the quorum [of the anointed] and [was] anointed and ord[ained] to the highest and holiest order of the priesthood [as a king and a priest] (and companion [as a queen and a priestess]).”21 His “companion” was his wife, Emma, to whom he had been sealed for time and eternity four months earlier on 28 May. Wilford Woodruff’s record of this event, found in his 1858 Historian’s Private Office Journal, is equally explicit: “Then by common consent Joseph Smith the Prophet Received his second Anointing of the Highest & Holiest order.”22

During the next five months this higher priesthood ordinance of the second anointing was conferred upon at least twenty men and the wives of sixteen of these men. Fullness of priesthood blessings during Joseph Smith’s lifetime were reserved primarily for church leaders. An apparent reason for Smith’s concern to complete the Nauvoo temple and administer the fullness of the priesthood to the twelve apostles was that these leaders were required to “round up their shoulders and bear it [the Mormon kingdom] off,” for “the Kingdom will be established, and I do not care what shall become of me.” As George Q. Cannon noted in 1869, “It was by the virtue of this authority [i.e., “endowment” and “holy anointing”], on the death of Joseph Smith, that President [Brigham] Young, as President of the quorum of the Twelve, presided over the Church.”23
In an important discourse on priesthood on 10 March 1844, Joseph Smith was recorded as saying: “the spirit power & calling of Elijah is that ye have power to hold the keys of the revelations ordi[n]ances, oricles powers & endowments of the fulness of the Melchizedek Priesthood & of the Kingdom of God on the Earth & to receive, obtain & perform all the ordinances belonging to the Kingdom of God even unto the sealing of the hearts of the hearts [sic] fathers unto the children & the hearts of the children unto the fathers even those who are in heaven.”24

The fullness of this sealing power of Elijah, derived from the New Testament sealing authority of Jesus, completed the basic form of the priesthood endowment as the promise of ultimate exaltation while still in mortality. The constant reshuffling and recombining of theological and scriptural images during these early years could easily be termed “the fullness that was never full.” At each step of the [p.168]way, Smith proclaimed he had completed the organization of the church and had “passed through all the necessary ceremonies” or restored the “highest order of the Melchisedek Priesthood” only to introduce more revelations and theological innovations creating yet new layers of ritual, deposited on or integrated with the old.

Centrally embedded in the evolution of the anointing ritual in Mormon history was the theme of leadership. As the ritual evolved, lay members of the church advanced into the “inner circle,” receiving ordinances and symbols formerly held only by Joseph Smith and his immediate circle, while Smith and his associates moved on to higher kingdoms, more sure promises, and more secret rituals. Although theological perceptions dealing with certain aspects of the Mormon concept of salvation as found in the endowment ritual—and, more particularly, the second anointing—underwent further modification, change in the fundamental framework of ritual and theology was frozen by Smith’s death in June 1844.


1. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973), 1:175-76; hereafter HC.

2. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO: n.p., 1887), 64, 35; see also 32, 49, 62, 63, 65.

3. “Far West Record,” archives, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, hereafter church archives; see also Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds, Far West Record, Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 20-21.

4. This story seems to have been patterned after the account of Elijah the Tishbite “sealing” the heavens by drought in 1 Kings 17; also compare the Nephi-Elijah connection in He. 5:30 and 1 Kings 19:11-12.

5. Zebedee Coltrin Diary, 15 Nov. 1831, church archives.

6. In some ways, this ordinance parallels that revealed in D&C 60:15 and 84:92 wherein priesthood bearers are authorized to “seal up” wicked persons to a damning judgment with a washing-of-the-feet and shaking-off-the-dust-ceremony. This “ordinance of damnation” could also be performed with reference to a group of people at once.

7. HC 1:322-23.

8. Ibid., 323.

9. Ibid., 2:379-82.

10. Ibid., 391-92.

[p.169]11. Ibid., 410-28.

12. Ibid., 429-30.

13. Ibid., 430-33.

14. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, comps. and eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 4; see also HC 3:379-81.

15. For discussions of this group and the Nauvoo temple endowment, see D. Michael Quinn, “Latter-day Saints Prayer Circles,” Brigham Young University Studies 19 (Fall 1978): 84-96; Andrew F. Ehat, “Joseph Smith’s Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1982, 24-188; and my “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Winter 1987): 36-49.

16. HC 5:1-2.

17. Ibid., 139-40.

18. Ibid., 527.

19. Ehat and Cook, 244. Smith apparently believed that the patriarchal priesthood—which related to the “lower” ordinances of the temple endowment—”comprehended” the Levitical priesthood but was different from the fullness of the Melchizedek priesthood.

20. Ibid., 245.

21. Joseph Smith Journal, 28 Sept. 1843, church archives, in Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books and Smith Research Associates, 1987), 416; cf. HC 6:39.

22. Wilford Woodruff, Historian’s Private Office Journal, 1858, church archives.

23. Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: LDS Book Depot, 1855-86), 13:49.

24. Ehat and Cook, 329.