Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism
by Dan Vogel
The Fulness of the Gospel
[p.159]The founding document of the Mormon church, its “Articles and Covenants,” declared that the Book of Mormon contained “the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also” (D&C 20:8-9). This fulness, according to the Book of Mormon, consisted of faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost (3 Ne. 11:28-41). Mormonism’s restoration of charismatic apostolic leadership predisposed the movement towards theological development. The Bible was not necessarily the last word on theological issues. Thus Mormons shared the expectation of an open canon of scripture with Seekers.
Primitivists advocated a closed canon of scripture. Apostasy for them had occurred because Christians had not followed the Bible. In contrast, Seekers not only had doubts about the condition of the Bible, but their emphasis on charisma caused them to limit the role of scripture. Apostasy, in their view, had occurred in the absence of charismatic authority. The sought-for restoration of the apostleship would insure the restoration of inspired, authoritative utterances that would be as binding as those given by ancient apostles. Hence, for Seekers, the canon of scripture was open.
Spiritualistic Seekers believed the Bible was a record of the workings of the Spirit and was not to be taken literally.1 Quakers continued in this tradition by placing spiritual experience above the Bible.2 Literalistic Seekers believed in the literal fulfillment of Bible prophecy, but they emphasized that the restoration would bring a greater knowledge of the things of God than ever before. Both types of Seekers were accused of being “anti-scriptural” by contemporaries.
Asa Wild concluded that “if we cannot in these days, as well as anciently, enjoy the unerring guidance and teaching of the divine [p.160]Spirit, then the very essence of religion is lost, or essentially changed; and christians are unavoidably left to wander in the dreary maze of unsatisfied anxiety, and precarious conjecture; not only as to the particular duties to be performed, and truths to be believed; but whether they be christians or not; and consequently, whether they are travelling to heaven or to hell.” The true followers of Jesus Christ, according to Wild, advocate “the glorious doctrine of infallible inspiration, or direct communication with God; by which we understand and know the will and truths of God.”3 Wild himself enjoyed “infallible inspiration” and received a revelation in 1823 about the end of the world, which, according to the title page of his book, was “written and published, by the express and immediate command of God.”
Seeker Erastus Hanchett also proclaimed a gospel of immediate revelation. “It is upwards of eight years,” he recalled in 1825, “since I have been called into the school of Christ, under the immediate instructions of his blessed Spirit, without any dependence or instructions from man.” Hanchett believed God “is only known, and that his revelation is only known by immediate revelation.”4 His epistle, published in the Wayne Sentinel on 23 February 1825, ended with the statement that it had been “given forth by the immediate revelation of the Spirit of God, through his Servant, ERASTUS HANCHETT. Salem [Massachusetts], the 11th of the 1st mo[nth] 1825; written between the hours of 2 and 5, this morning.”
Similarly, the Book of Mormon warned those in the last days who denied continuing revelation. Nephi writes:
Wo be unto him that hearkeneth unto the precepts of men, and denieth the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost! . . . Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough! For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost (2 Ne. 28:26, 29-31).
[p.161]The Book of Mormon explicitly addresses those who believe the canon of scripture is closed. Nephi writes, “Because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible” (2 Ne. 29:3). “Because that I have spoken one word,” God states, “ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever. Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written” (vv. 9-10).
That the restored Church of Christ would proceed on grounds of continuing revelation was established at the outset. When the church was organized on 6 April 1830, Smith dictated a revelation which commanded the church to “give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, . . . for his would ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:4-5). Another revelation declared that the Lord had “given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed” (28:7). The element of continuing revelation insured a gradual unfolding and canonization of various doctrines.
Although Seekers and Primitivists disagreed on the source of authority necessary to perform baptism, both believed in the total immersion of adult believers, as did Mormons. The Seekers of sixteenth-century Europe and England had begun to raise questions about traditional forms of baptism. Although they believed they lacked the authority to perform the ordinance, Seekers asserted that baptism should be performed “in the name of Christ” or “of the Lord Jesus.”5 Roger Williams, although he was rebaptized by the Anabaptists by “dipping,” confessed in 1649 that he had confidence “neither in the authority by which it is done, nor in the manner.”6 Williams was apparently evolving towards the doctrine of baptism by immersion.
Most Primitivists were immersionists. Alexander Campbell, for example, said in 1820 that “immersion in water is a beautiful and striking representation of our faith in the death and burial of Christ; and our emerging out of it, a suitable emblem of his resurrection from the grave, and of our obligations to a new life so that the sprinkling of a few drops of water has no analogy to the things signified in Baptism.”7 Those who left Campbell’s movement for Seekerism probably retained their immersionist ideas.
[p.162]The Book of Mormon also subscribes to this mode of baptism. When Alma baptized Helam, they both “stood forth in the water” and, having said the baptismal prayer, “both Alma and Helam were buried in the water” (Mos. 18:12, 14). So that “there shall be no disputations,” Jesus gave explicit instructions concerning the proper mode of baptism: “Ye shall go down and stand in the water, and in my name shall ye baptize them . . . And then shall ye immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water” (3 Ne. 11:23, 26).
Seekers and Primitivists differed somewhat in how they conceived the function of baptism. Both Walter Scott and Alexander Campbell began teaching that water baptism was for “the remission of sins.” “To call the receiving of any spirit or any influence, or energy, or any operation upon the heart of man, regeneration,” argued Campbell, “is an abuse of all speech, as well as a departure from the diction of the Holy Spirit, who calls nothing personal regeneration except the act of immersion.”8 This distinctive doctrine of baptismal regeneration was rejected by Seekers and most others. Seekers were charismatic and emphasized the baptism of the Holy Ghost.
Early Mormons also rejected Campbell’s notion of “baptismal regeneration.” In the Book of Mormon baptism is part of the process of repentance—thus the expression “baptism unto repentance” (Al. 5:62; Moro. 8:11, etc.). Baptism is never for the actual remission of sins, as Scott and Campbell taught. Rather, regeneration takes place through the reception of the Holy Ghost. Nephi teaches: “The gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost” (2 Ne. 31:17).
After Alvin Smith’s death in 1823, the Smith family was forced to worry about his eternal status when a minister implied that he had gone to hell because he was unchurched and probably unbaptized.9 Joseph Smith, Jr., must have brought the family great comfort when he dictated the words of King Benjamin that Jesus’s “blood atoneth for the sins of those . . . who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned” (Mos. 3:11; 15:24). Seven years later, on 21 January 1836, Smith received a revelation that “all who have died without a knowledge of this Gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of [p.163]God.”10 Later, in 1840, when Smith instituted the doctrine of baptism for the dead in Nauvoo, his brother Hyrum was baptized for Alvin.11
Both Seekers and Primitivists rejected infant baptism, which the Roman church had long maintained. Their rejection is best understood within the context of the general revolt against Calvinism. Under the Puritan system, children were included in the covenant of their parents, being “born in the covenant.” When Puritan infants were baptized, it was not for a remission of sin, though the rhetoric of Puritans who defended infant baptism by referring to the doctrine of “original sin” would have led opponents to think otherwise.12 Rather, infants were baptized as a “seal” of the covenant of grace into which they were born by virtue of the faith of their parents. “The faith of the parent,” John Cotton explained, “doth bring the Children and household of a Christian, even now in the days of the new Testament, under a Covenant of salvation, as well as the faith of Abraham brought his household of old under the same covenant.”13 In fact, it was argued that the baptism of infants was justified on the grounds that baptism had replaced the circumcision of infants under the old law.14
As children they were regarded as members of the church but were not permitted to partake of the communion or assume the duties and privileges of covenant members until they could demonstrate a “saving faith” in their lives. However, because the second generation’s spirituality seemed to lag behind that of their parents, the Half-Way Covenant was developed in 1662 to allow the unconverted children of church members to retain their incomplete membership after becoming adults. Thus the “unregenerated” children of covenant members could have their own child baptized if they would publicly declare to “own the covenant” into which they had been born and which had been sealed upon them by baptism.
Primitivists and Seekers responded to the Puritan system of infant baptism. Alexander Campbell said in 1828 that “the question of infant baptism is now generally discussed all over the land.”15 The Campbellites held infant baptism, no matter the reason, to be nothing but a popish “corruption.”16 Campbell, a former Presbyterian, declared on 5 May 1828: “If baptism be connected with the remission of sins, infants require it not; for they have no sins to be remitted—at least the Calvinists and Arminians teach [p.164]this doctrine; for they say that ‘original sin’ is all that is chargeable upon infants.”17
In 1824, Campbell also wrote: “Can the rite of sprinkling an infant with consecrated water, O! Calvinist! alter the decree of heaven? . . . Can the neglect of a parent to bring to you their infant offspring, seal the destruction of that infant? Who gave you the right of thus consigning to endless woe unsprinkled infants, and of opening heaven by a few drops of water to those impaled in your fold?”18 Campbell believed that “all infants dying shall be saved.”19 Seekers in Europe and England also questioned the necessity of baptizing children,20 as did George Fox and the Quakers, and, in America, Roger Williams.21
For Alexander Campbell the Book of Mormon’s discussion of “infant baptism” was suspiciously modern.22 Infant baptism becomes an issue among the Nephites after the coming of Jesus Christ when circumcision is done away. Mormon writes to his son Moroni:
There have been disputations among you concerning the baptism of your little children. And now, my son, I desire that ye should labor diligently, that this gross error should be removed from among you . . . The word of the Lord came to me by the power of the Holy Ghost, saying: Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance [cf. Matt. 9:13]; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me (Moro. 8:5-8).
Those opposing infant baptism in Joseph Smith’s day were familiar with Mormon’s argument.23
Seekers, Primitivists, and Mormons thus more or less agreed about issues related to baptism. However, the nature of the gift of the Holy Ghost was a matter of contention between Primitivists such as Alexander Campbell and those seeking a more radical restoration of primitive Christianity. Campbell taught that receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost did not imply receiving the spiritual gifts manifested in the ancient church. Rather, those who received the Holy Ghost would be blessed with the fruits of the Spirit, which included such things as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Gal. [p.165]5:22-23). Campbell declared that the miraculous work of the Holy Ghost was “confined to the apostolic age, and to only a portion of the saints who lived in that age.”24 Much as the Puritans and Anglicans had argued with English Seekers, Campbell asserted that miracles which accompanied the ministry of the apostles confirmed the new religion and proved its divine origin, but that the miraculous preaching of the gospel was for a “limited time” and that time had “expired.”25
Seekers waited for the gifts of the spirit. They believed in the literal fulfillment of Jesus’ words: “These signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mk. 16:17-18).26 If spiritual manifestations were absent, so was the Holy Ghost, according to Seekers. Without the Holy Ghost there was no salvation. The absence of spiritual gifts indicated that the first step of faith had not been completed. Without saving faith, baptism was a dead work. For Seekers, then, the outward spiritual manifestations were indications that the inward work of salvation had been completed.
Asa Wild argued that only apostate Christianity denied spiritual gifts and that “whosoever denies these gifts to be the common privileges of all christians, ‘taketh away from the Book of God, and God shall take away his part, out of the Book of life, and out of the Holy City’ [Rev. 22:19].” Wild further asserted that “christians may, in these days, possess the ‘discernment of spirits,’ immediate and infallible inspiration, power to ‘baptise with the Holy Ghost,’ &c. &c.”27 Without the workings of the spirit, one could not even be regenerated and cleansed from sin, Wild argued. But through the Spirit, the Christian is “perfectly restored to the image of his heavenly Father.”28
Among former Campbellites, Sidney Rigdon led the opposition to Campbell’s version of the restoration. Rigdon argued that “along with the primitive gospel, supernatural gifts and miracles ought to be restored.”29 Early Mormonism also stressed the importance of the gift of the Holy Ghost in achieving salvation. Christ declares to the Nephites:
No unclean thing can enter into his [God’s] kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, [p.166]and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end. Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day (3 Ne. 27:19-20).
In his closing words, Moroni asks: “Have miracles ceased because Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath sat down on the right hand of God, to claim of the Father his rights of mercy which he hath upon the children of men?” (Moro. 7:27). He then answers his own question. “It is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain. For no man can be saved, according to the words of Christ, save they shall have faith in his name; wherefore, if these things have ceased, then has faith ceased also” (Moro. 7:37-38).
The Book of Mormon also connects the outward manifestation of spiritual gifts with the inward reception of the Holy Ghost. Thus, Nephi promises, “Yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel” (2 Ne. 31:13). As if speaking to latter-day Primitivists, Nephi says, “Ye ponder somewhat in your hearts concerning that which ye should do after ye have entered in by the way [of baptism] . . . If ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark. For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do” (32:2-5).
When Joseph Smith passed through Cincinnati in June 1831, he spoke briefly with Walter Scott, one of the founders of the Campbellites. “Before the close of our interview,” Smith reported, “he [Scott] manifested one of the bitterest spirits against the doctrine of the New Testament (that ‘these signs shall follow them that believe,’ as recorded in Mark the 16th chapter,) that I ever witnessed among men.”30 At the funeral of King Follett on 7 April 1844, nearly thirteen years later, Smith declared: “[One] must be born of W[ater]. & Sp[irit] in order to get into the K[ingdom] of God. . . . John [the Baptist] says I bap[tize] you with Water but when J[esus] comes who has the power he shall adm[inister] the bap[tism] of F[ire] & the H[oly]. G[host]. . . . Alex Campbell—[p.167]how are you going to save them with water—for John s[ai]d. his bap[tis]m. was nothing with[out]. the bap[tism] of J[esus]. C[hrist].”31
Such emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the possibility of its continuing influence inclined both Seekers and Mormons towards a belief in perfectionism.32 With the decline of Calvinistic determinism, the idea of human and social perfectibility had become increasingly popular. The era from about 1815 to about 1860 marks a rise in religious and secular reform movements, all of which were in some way heirs of the Arminian theology of evangelical revivalism of the early decades of the nineteenth century. Arminianism’s rejection of Calvinistic predestination and moral depravity placed the burden of salvation on individual actions. God endowed humankind with the will to choose good over evil—to go from grace to grace—until perfect.33 Those groups affected by Arminian theology were also affected in some measure by perfectionism.
Quakers were also perfectionists. George Fox, for example, taught that “Christ within is sufficient for all things to teach them, and to make them perfect as he is, and as God is.”34 Alexander Campbell also taught a version of human perfectibility. “Perfection is . . . the glory and felicity of man,” he declared in 1852. “There is a true, a real perfectability of human character and of human nature, through the soul-redeeming mediation and holy spiritual influence of the great Philanthropist.”35
Transcendentalism was perhaps the extreme expression of perfectionism. A theory of infinite perfectibility flowed quite naturally from the concept of free-will. “I believe in Eternal Progression,” wrote Margaret Fuller to James Freeman Clark; “I believe in a God, a Beauty and Perfection to which I am to strive all my life for assimilation.”36 George Ripley insisted that “man has the power of conceiving a perfection higher than he has ever reached. Not only so. He can make this perfection a distinct object of pursuit.”37 Bronson Alcott said in 1840: “Every soul feels at times the possibility of becoming a God; she cannot rest in the human, she aspires after the God-like. This instinctive tendency is an authentic augury of its own fulfillment. Men shall become Gods.”38
It was during this period, while Transcendentalism was popular, that Joseph Smith announced the new Mormon doctrine of men and women becoming “gods” (D&C 132:20). On 7 April 1844 at the funeral of King Follett, Smith delivered a sermon in which [p.168]he declared to his audience, “You have got to learn how to make yourselves God . . . by going from a small to a great capacity.”39 Godhood as the ultimate potential of humanity was the end result of the early Mormon emphasis on perfectionism.
The seeds for this radical doctrine of human potential are found in the concept of human perfectibility described in the Book of Mormon. The book teaches that humanity because of the Fall became “carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature” (Al. 42:10), but that men and women can improve and overcome their nature. King Benjamin teaches his people that “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mos. 3:19).
The Book of Mormon also speaks about reaching perfect sanctification in this life. Moroni closes his book with the exhortation to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ. . . . If ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ” (Moro. 10:32-33). The Book of Mormon’s emphasis on works is therefore congruent with the notion of perfectionism. Nephi declares, “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). At the end all men will be “judged according to their works” (2 Ne. 28:23; 29:11; Al. 3:26; 40:21; 42:23; etc.).
Similarly, the “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ” expresses a belief in sanctification through achievement and explained the proper role of grace within this context: “And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true; and we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength” (D&C 20:30-31). An October 1832 article in The Evening and the Morning Star argues in a similar vein: “Because we were born in sin, the Gospel concludes, that we ought to apply all our attentive endeavours to eradicate the [p.169]seeds of corruption, . . . and so to answer the excellence of our extraction [as the children of God].”40
Although perfectionism was part of early Mormonism, the persecution of the Saints in Jackson County, Missouri, seems to have “intensified the emphasis on perfectionism,” according to Mormon historian Thomas G. Alexander, “which eventually led to the doctrine of eternal progression.” Alexander sees the promise of perfectibility assuaging the suffering of persecution.41
An article which appeared in the Kirtland reprint of The Evening and the Morning Star, originally printed in Missouri, declared in 1834 that “God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer man approaches perfection, the more conspicuous are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, until he has overcome the evils of this life and lost every desire of sin; and like the ancients, arrives to that point of faith that he is wrapped in the power and glory of his Maker and is caught up to dwell with him.”42 Joseph Smith’s “Lectures on Faith” argued that men and women can become God-like, purifying themselves to become “holy as he is holy, and perfect as he is perfect” and that “it is in the power of man to keep the law and remain also without sin.”43
A few of Smith’s early revelations contain an extreme expression of perfectionism—declaring in 1832 that heirs of the celestial kingdom were “gods, even the sons of God” (D&C 76:58) and that the “saints shall . . . be made equal with him [God]” (88:107). But Alexander has argued that “the implications of this doctrine were not generally evident in the Mormon community until 1838.”44 If parallel passages from the Bible (Ps. 82:6; Jn. 10:34-36; 1 Jn. 3:2) obscured these early expressions of extreme perfectionism, all doubt was removed by Smith’s explicit teachings in Nauvoo, Illinois, during the 1840s.
The development of other distinctive doctrines during Mormonism’s formative period had their roots in the doctrine of human perfectibility. If the doctrine of human perfection inevitably led to human deification, the idea that humans were gods in embryo opened the way for other theological developments. As one scholar has noted, “The idea that humans could become gods allowed for the possibility that they were ultimately like God—uncreated.”45 By the mid-1830s, Smith had rejected the standard Protestant/Catholic teaching that humankind, as created beings, [p.170]were contingent and finite and advocated instead the doctrine of a pre-mortal existence. “The Spirit of Man is not a created being,” he declared in 1839. “It existed from Eternity and will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be eternal.”46 Thus even the traces of Calvinism displayed in the Book of Mormon were becoming less and less discernible as Smith developed humans into something worthy of godhood.
Smith not only saw a plurality of gods in the eternal future but also in an eternal past. The idea that humans could become gods irresistibly led to the conclusion that God was once human. “Jesus said all things that he had saw the father Do he had done & that he done Nothing But what he saw the father do John the 5th [verse 19],” Smith taught in 1841.47 To Smith, this meant not only that God was once human but also that God was resurrected and continued as a corporal being.48 The pattern for making future gods was projected backwards, leading to the assertion that there is a plurality of gods (D&C 121:28). Despite resistance within the Mormon community to the plurality of gods doctrine, Smith continued to preach on the subject.49 When he began to publish his translation of the Egyptian papyri in 1842, his plurality of gods doctrine received some ancient support. According to Smith’s translation, the ancient patriarch Abraham held that the earth was created by a counsel of “Gods” (Abra. 4:1-5:21). However, Mormons began using the term “plurality of gods” to distinguish their doctrine from the polytheism of ancient religions. Thus Mormonism’s anthropomorphism attempted to bring God down from the unapproachable haze of high-minded theological speculation while at the same time its transcendentalism tried to raise humans from the dust of the Calvinistic concept of depravity.
This commitment in the Mormon movement to perfectionism can be seen influencing Smith’s developing doctrine of the afterlife, which eventually collapsed traditional notions about heaven and hell. In elaborating the specifics of life after death for perfectible humans, Smith effected a mediation of sorts between Universalism and perfectionism. In doing this he moved Mormon theology beyond the early framework which it shared with the Book of Mormon and with Seekers. A few Seekers such as William Erbery and Richard Coppin were Universalists. They argued that since God’s spirit was in all things, all things would be saved. George Fox took a middle position, stating that the spirit was in all things but only those who realized they possessed the spirit [p.171]were elected.50 However, most Seekers, such as Erastus Hanchett, were anti-universalists, believing that universalism tended to discourage the quest for moral perfection which Seekers found so important.
As elaborated in chapter four, the Book of Mormon joined with most Seekers in condemning both universalistic and restorationist notions. Still the very month that the Book of Mormon rolled off the press (March 1830), Smith dictated a revelation which can only be described as restorationist in content (D&C 19). Sensitive to the controversial nature of the doctrine, the revelation commands Smith and colleague Martin Harris to “show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me, for they cannot bear meat now” (19:21).
Smith was intimately acquainted with the debate between Universalism and orthodoxy, through his friends and acquaintances, his parents, and his grandfathers Solomon Mack and Asael Smith.51 As previously discussed, Joseph Smith Sr.’s liberal religion apparently included the notion of universal salvation, conflicting with Lucy Smith’s conservatism which probably included the Presbyterian concept of heaven and hell.52
In 1797, Asael was the moderator of a meeting establishing one of the early Universalist societies in Vermont. He and sixteen signers, including his sons Jesse and Joseph, declared exemption from “any tax towards the support of any teacher of any different denomination whatever,” meaning the usual town tax for support of the Congregational Church.53 Mormon historian Richard Anderson has pointed out that Asael subsequently appeared as a pew holder in the town meeting house and that Jesse Smith was an ardent Calvinist and a believer in the doctrine of election.54 However, Asael appears to have been fairly committed to the universalist principle, for grandson George A. Smith remembered that Asael shortly before his death in 1830 “wrote many quires of paper on the doctrine of universal restoration.”55
In contrast, Lucy’s side of the family was definitely opposed to universal salvation. Solomon Mack had come to denounce his Universalism, and Lucy leaned toward the Presbyterian’s “Westminster Confession of Faith.” Even before he “translated” the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, Jr., decided against Universalism, since he later explained that he was “partial to the Methodist sect.”56 Thus the subject must have been charged with emotion in the Smith family, especially after Alvin’s death in 1823. [p.172]Joseph Smith’s eventual restorationist position was a compromise which accounted for both the mercy and the justice of God.
The March 1830 revelation declared that “surely every man must repent or suffer” (D&C 19:4). However, the revelation went on to state that “it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment” (19:6), explaining that the scriptural terms “endless torment” and “eternal damnation” refer to God’s punishment. In the revelation, God explains, “I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Endless punishment is God’s punishment” (19:10-12).57 Further, the revelation teaches the hallmark tenet of restorationism, that the unrepentant must suffer for their own sins (19:15-20).58
Later, in February 1832, while revising the New Testament, Smith and Sidney Rigdon received a vision which explained that all but a few would be saved in one of three heavens (D&C 76).59
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 (D&C 76:40-43).
This vision was occasioned by Smith’s work on the inspired revision of the Bible. In February 1832 he came to John 5:29, which speaks of the resurrection of some unto “life” and others unto “damnation.” This passage was often used by those in Smith’s day who opposed the doctrine of universal salvation.60 However, Smith was inspired to change the passage to refer to the resurrection of the “just” and the “unjust” (D&C 76:17). The softening of the passage allowed Smith to introduce a modified restorationist position on the afterlife.
Smith’s vision thus solved the major weakness in restorationism—that of regarding the commandments too lightly. He could now explain the mercy of God without neglecting God’s justice. Smith’s early apprehensions about publicly presenting the doctrine were realized, however, for even this version of restorationism provoked resistance within the Mormon community.61 Smith instructed the missionaries not to speak about “The Vision,” which probably accounts for lack of anti-Mormon attention to the subject.62 However, Presbyterian minister Truman Coe, who lived among the Latter-day Saints in Kirtland, mentioned in his 1836 description of Mormonism that they “believe in the final restoration of all men except apostate Mormons.”63
Mormonism’s moral perfectionism also inclined the church towards social utopianism—an inclination which separated Mormons from Disciples of Christ but united them with more radical Primitivists. In general evangelical Arminianism had awaked interest in social improvement as a corollary to belief in human perfection. A host of humanitarian reform movements flourished in antebellum America. School improvements, prison reforms, mental hospitals, factory conditions, alcoholism, war, poverty, the status of women, and slavery all were issues which concerned social reformers. Some tried to demonstrate their social commitments by establishing small utopian communities.
Social experimentation had been part of the American experience from the beginning. The Puritans traveled to the New World to establish a society patterned after Calvin’s Geneva. However, religious dissent and economic realities intruded upon their dream. Still, America’s sense of mission and its ideas about “manifest destiny” have roots in Puritan New England.64 The importance of community righteousness for the survival of the nation, an idea expressed in Puritan writings, also concerned antebellum social reformers.
Some Utopian communities were religious, others secular. Secular experiments included Robert Dale Owen’s group in New Harmony, Indiana, the North American Phalanx in New Jersey, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts, and George Ripley’s transcendental Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education at West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Christian communities were generally more successful; notable examples include Mother Ann Lee’s Shaker community and John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida community. These groups, like the Mormons, originated in western New York.
Alexander Campbell had rejected the social experiments conducted by Sidney Rigdon and his followers.65 Since Rigdon’s group joined the new Mormon movement, some have asserted that Smith borrowed his communitarian ideas from Rigdon. But the Mormon movement seems to have been headed in such a direction even before contact with Rigdon. Rigdon had based his experiment on a radical interpretation of Acts 2:43-44 and 4:32. Smith had precedent for such experimentation in his own family. In 1804 [p.174]his uncle Jason Mack, a Seeker, had become the leader of a communal experiment in New Brunswick.66 The Book of Mormon described similar experiments which occurred among the Nephites after Jesus’s appearance: “They had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Ne. 1:3). When the Nephites apostatized two centuries later, the Book of Mormon explains that they began to be “lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world. And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them. And they began to be divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain, and began to deny the true church of Christ” (4 Ne. 1:24-26). Dan Vogel, Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism, Ch.7, p.174
Very early Smith tried to distinguish his version of communitarianism from Rigdon’s. Rigdon’s “disciples had all things common, and were going to destruction very fast as to temporal things,” John Whitmer wrote in his early history. “They considered from reading the scripture that what belonged to a brother, belonged to any of the brethren. Therefore they would take each others [sic] cloths and other property and use it without leave which brought on confusion and disappointment, for they did not understand the scripture.”67
On 9 February 1831, Smith dictated a revelation which ended Rigdon’s experiment. “Thou shalt not take thy brother’s garment,” God commanded. Instead, God said, “thou shalt pay for that which thou shalt receive of thy brother” (D&C 42:54). In the place of a strictly communistic society, the Saints were to follow “the Law of Consecration of Property.” In this system, individuals managed their own “stewardship” with all surplus of products going to the common “store-house” to be distributed according to need (D&C 42:30-39, 55). This compromise balanced Jacksonian individualism and the Puritan sense of community, as well as the religious obligation to care for the poor. It combined elements of communitarianism and capitalism.68
The Mormon version of communitarianism was attempted in Missouri but received little support and was ultimately abandoned when the Saints were driven from their lands. Their failure to observe the Law of Consecration was cited as one reason for their persecutions (D&C 103:1-4; 104:1-18, 47-53). Tithing was instituted in its place, whereby one-tenth of one’s income was donated to the church (D&C 119). Thus, in Nauvoo, Illinois, [p.175]in the 1840s, as in any American community, class distinction was recognizable, for Mormons had not succeeded in establishing social and economic equality.69
[p.175]1. William Dell, The Tryall of Spirits Both in Teachers and Hearers (London, 1653), 19; John Saltmarsh, Sparkles of Glory (London, 1647), 270; Thomas Collier, A General Epistle to the Universal Church of the First Born (London, 1648), 38.
3. [Asa Wild], A Short Sketch of the Religious Experience, and Spiritual Travels of Asa Wild, of Amsterdam, N.Y. Written by himself by Divine Command, and the most infallible Inspiration (Amsterdam, NY: printed for the author by D. Wells, 1824), 55, 56, 83, 81.
9. Lucy [Mack] Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S. W. Richards), 91; William Smith interview with E. C. Briggs and J. W. Peterson in Deseret News (Salt Lake City), 20 Jan. 1894.
10. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1964), 2:380-81, hereafter HC; cf. D&C 137:7.
11. “Nauvoo Baptisms for the Dead,” Book A, Church Genealogical Society Archives, in Larry C. Porter, “Alvin Smith: Reminder of the Fairness of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1978, 67n7. See also Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Alvin Smith Story,” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 72n76.
12. See, for example, Jonathan Dickinson, Remarks upon Mr. Gales Reflections on Mr. Walls History of Infant Baptism ([New York], 1721), 41, 56; and Joseph Morgan, The Portsmouth disputation examined, being a brief answer to arguments used by the anti-Paedo-Baptists (New York, 1713), 10.
17. Christian Baptist 5 (5 May 1828): 231-32. On Campbell’s rejection of infant baptism, see William D. Carpe, “Baptismal Theology in the Disciples of Christ,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 14 (Oct. 1979): 65-78.
20. See The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 10:235. See also John Wilkinson, “A reproof of some things written by John Morton [Murton], and others of his Company and followers, to prove That Infants are not in the state of Condemnation; And that therefore they are not to be Baptised,” published posthumously in William Arthurbury, The Sealed Fountain opened to the Faithfull, and their Seed: or, A short Treatise, shewing, that some Infants are in the state of Grace, and capable of the seals, and others not, Being the chief point, wherein the Separatists doe blame the Anabaptists (London, 1646).
23. See, for example, Dickinson, Remarks, 41, 43, 51-54, who defends infant baptism using arguments of original sin and circumcision, and Morgan, Portsmouth disputation, 10, 42, 47ff., who mentions that the antipedobaptists argued against original sin and baptism replacing circumcision.
25. Christian Baptist (reprint; Cincinnati, 1835), 89-91, 95, in Milton V. Backman, Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830-1838 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 16, 395n37.
26. There is no parallel passage in any of the other gospels, and it is generally held by New Testament scholars that the closing section of the gospel of Mark (16:9-20) was added in the second century.
29. Alexander Campbell, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell Embracing a View of the Origin, Progress, and Principles of the Religious Reformation Which He Advocated, ed. Robert Richardson, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1868), 2:346. See also John Murdock, Autobiography, 16, in Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Impact of the First Preaching in Ohio,” Brigham Young University Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 482-83; and Parley P. Pratt, Jr., ed., Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 26, 31-32.
31. 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 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980), 354.
32. William Dell, The Crucified and Quickened Christian (London, 1652), 5. See also William Erbery, The Testimony (London, 1658), 8; Nicholas Couling, The Saints Perfect in This Life; Or Never (London, 1647); George Hassal, Designe of God in the Saints (London, 1648), 32.
[p.177]33. On nineteenth-century reform movements, see Alice Felt Tyler, Freedom’s Ferment: Phases of American Social History to 1860 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1944); John Mayfield, The New Nation, 1800-1845 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982); Ronald Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); John L. Thomas, “Romantic Reform in America, 1815-1865,” American Quarterly 17 (Winter 1965): 656-81; Clifford S. Griffin, “Religious Benevolence as Social Control, 1815-1860,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44 (Dec. 1957): 423-44; and Lois W. Banner, “Religious Benevolence as Social Control: A Critique of an Interpretation,” Journal of American History 60 (June 1973): 23-41.
48. For example, Smith said “the Son Had a Tabernicle & so had the father But the Holly Ghost is a personage of spirit without tabernicle.” See ibid., 64; cf. D&C 130:22. See also Hale’s discussion in “Doctrinal Impact,” 218-20; James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 49-50. Paving the way for the development of Mormonism’s anthropomorphic view of God was its early rejection of trinitarianism. The Book of Mormon and several early revelations present a “modalistic” view, making no distinction between the “person” of the Father and the “person” of the Son (Mos. 3:5-8; 15:1-7; Al. 11:28-29, 38-39; Eth. 3:14, 16, 4:12; D&C 20:28; 11:2, 10, 28; 29:1, 42, 46). In the mid-1830s Mormonism adopted a binitarian position, teaching that “the Father [is] a personage of spirit, . . . the Son . . . a personage of tabernacle, . . . possessing the same mind with the Father, which mind is the Holy Spirit . . . these three are one” (D&C 1835 ed., 52-53). At the same time, Smith’s recitals of his first vision began to reflect a binitarian view of the Godhead. Where his [p.178]1832 version had described the appearance of only Jesus Christ, in the mid-1830s Smith began to include an appearance of the Father. See Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 155-81. It is possible that this shift was influenced by Sidney Rigdon’s Primitivist background. For the tendency of those in the primitive gospel movement toward binitarianism, see I. Daniel Rupp, comp., He Pasa Ekklesia. An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States (Philadelphia, 1844), 169; and Humbert, Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, 116n4. Finally, in the early 1840s Mormonism advocated a tritheistic position. See Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 63, 173, 268-69n5; Times and Seasons 3 (15 Sept. 1842): 926; and D&C 130:22. For discussions of the developing Mormon doctrine of deity, see Van Hale, “Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity,” Sunstone 10 (1985): 23-27; Alexander,”Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 24-33; Boyd Kirkland, “Jehovah as the Father: The Development of the Mormon Jehovah Doctrine,” Sunstone 9 (Autumn 1984): 36-44; and “Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and the Bible,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Spring 1986): 77-93.
49. While delivering a sermon on the plurality of gods on 16 June 1844, Smith mentioned the resistance to the doctrine. See Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 378, 408n4. The wording of D&C 121:28, originally a letter written to the church by Smith from Liberty Jail in March 1839, may also indicate some early resistance to the subject of a plurality of gods.
50. Erbery’s and Coppin’s universalism, as well as Fox’s intermediary position, has been pointed out in George Arthur Johnson, “From Seeker to Finder: A Study in Seventeenth-Century English Spiritualism Before the Quakers,” Church History 17 (1948): 312.
51. Martin Harris, who became acquainted with Smith in 1827, held universalistic notions. See E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [sic]; or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 260-61; and John A. Clark, Gleanings By the Way (Philadelphia, 1842), 223. Joseph Knight, Sr., of Colesville, New York, who befriended Smith in the mid-1820s, was also a Universalist. See “Newel Knight’s Journal,” in Scraps of Biography (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883), 47; and HC 1:81.
52. Orsamus Turner reported that “the elder Smith had been a Universalist, and subsequently a Methodist.” O[rsamus] Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, 1851), 213.
53. Tunbridge Town Record (6 Dec. 1797), 188, in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage: Influences of Grandfathers Solomon Mack and Asael Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 106.
55. George A. Smith to Humphrey Gould, 31 May 1870, in Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage, 105. George A. Smith also told Gould that he could never get hold of Asael’s writings on Universalism because, he suspected, “they must have been suppressed by Uncle Jesse, who was a [Congregational] covenanter, lived near him and visited him nearly every day during his last illness” (see ibid., 207n183). Smith family tradition has it [p.179]that although unbaptized, Asael was nevertheless converted to Mormonism shortly before his death on 1 November 1830. 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.” George A. Smith wrote that his grandfather had accepted the Mormon gospel, although he “had been for many years a Universalist and exceedingly set in his way.” M. Wilfred Poulson, ed., “Copy of an Old Notebook,” 40-41, in Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage, 215n217; George A. Smith, “Memoirs,” 2, in Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage, 112.
57. See Elhanan Winchester, A Course of Lectures, on the Prophecies that Remain to Be Fulfilled, 2 vols. (Norwich, 1794), 1:282, where he explains that the scriptural terms “for ever” and “for ever and ever” have only a “limited nature”; and Hosea Ballou, A Treatise on Atonement (Randolph, VT, 1805), 161-62.
59. Although the revelation left the destiny of “sons of perdition”—those who “deny the Son after the Father has revealed him”—unanswered (D&C 76:30-49), some members of the church began to teach that the devil, his angels, and the sons of perdition would be restored, which evoked a sharp denunciation from church authorities. See HC 1:366. See also C. A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (Oct.- Dec. 1967): 467-78.
61. The adverse reaction of many early Mormons, including a majority of the Genesee branch in New York, is discussed in Tim Rathbone, “The Impact of the `Vision’ on the Membership of the Early Church,” unpublished paper, 1987.
62. For Smith’s instruction for the missionaries to suppress “The Vision,” see HC 2:492; cf. 2:505. Grant Underwood’s suggestion that the lack of anti-Mormon reaction to the vision indicates that “it was not initially seen as subversive to contemporary Protestant thought” rests on the argument from silence. In addition, his reasoning that early Mormons failed to realize the eschatological implications of the vision, continuing to believe their pre-Mormon Protestant creeds about heaven and hell, relies on selective evidence. The vision caused significant apostasy among the Mormons and became a hinderance to missionary work, as Rathbone has pointed out. The implications of the vision were therefore well understood. Oliver Cowdery’s response to the Universalist minister who visited Kirtland in 1835—that “if no such principle exists as damnation, and that eternal, to be inflicted upon such as do blaspheme, he certainly has spoken nonsense and folly”—must be understood as a refutation of ultra-Universalism as well as a reference to the “sons of perdition” (Messenger and Advocate 1 (July 1835): 151; emphasis added). When the Hulet branch was rebuked in 1833 for teaching the restoration of the devil and his angels and the sons of perdition, Cowdery was credited with declaring it “the doctrine of devils” (see HC, 1:366). It is [p.180]in this context that Cowdery’s words about Universalism are to be understood. See Grant Underwood, “‘Saved or Damned’: Tracing a Persistent Protestantism in Early Mormon Thought,” Brigham Young University Studies 25 (Summer 1985): 85-103, and “The Earliest Reference Guides to the Book of Mormon: Windows into the Past,” Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985): 78.
64. Russel B. Nye, This Almost Chosen People: Essays in the History of American Ideas (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1966), chap. 4; Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
68. Leonard J. Arrington, “Early Mormon Communitarianism: The Law of Consecration and Stewardship,” Western Humanities Review 7 (Autumn 1953): 342-43, recognizes the mediatory nature of Smith’s version. See also Lyndon W. Cook, Joseph Smith and the Law of Consecration (Provo, UT: Grandin Book Co., 1985), 8. After listening to a lecture about Socialism on 14 September 1843, Smith responded by alluding to Rigdon’s community at Kirtland and declared that he “did not believe the doctrine” (HC 6:33).
69. One visitor to Nauvoo, Illinois, for example, mentioned “the lofty mansions of the more wealthy, towering like the oaks of the forest, above their more humble rivals.” See Times and Seasons 5 (1 June 1844): 548.