Saving Alvin: Joseph Smith’s Evolving Views on Salvation for the Dead

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

Alvin Smith

Alvin Smith.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The scriptures of the Restoration—the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price were much more streamlined in production than the Bible. Virtually all of them came to us through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Although these came to us through one individual, one understanding of Joseph Smith’s ministry is that his theology was dynamic, changing over the course of his life. As he encountered passages in the Bible, revelation and inspiration from God, and the thoughts of other religious men like Sidney Rigdon and Parley P. Pratt, Joseph Smith’s theology shifted and changed. If we approach the documents he produced with this idea in mind, we can look at them as representing snapshots of an unfolding theology. His evolving views on who could gain salvation and exaltation after death provides an example of his dynamic theology.

The founding document of Mormonism is the Book of Mormon, which provides a view into early Mormon beliefs. Within the Book of Mormon, Amulek represents an end of the spectrum opposed to Universalism—the idea that God will, sooner or later, redeem and restore all of His creation. Amulek believed that God “shall not save his people in their sins” and cannot because “no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven” (Alma 11:36-37). Salvation would be administered through the Atonement of Christ only to “those who believe on his name” (Alma 11:40), and “him that has faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:16). Amulek felt that repentance must be done during mortality, for “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. . . . If we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed” (Alma 34:32-33). He added: “Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.” (Alma 34:34). When taken at face value, there is no room for repentance after death in Amulek’s thought.

Desert Alma

The Book of Alma in Deseret Script

Amulek’s missionary companion, Alma, also presented views that opposed Universalism. Alma believed that only those who are “baptized unto repentance,” having “faith on the Lamb of God” and keeping “the commandments of God from thenceforth . . . shall have eternal life” (Alma 7:14, 16).  He taught that after a time: “The dead shall come forth, and be reunited, both soul and body, and be brought to stand before God, and be judged according to their works” (Alma 40:21). After this resurrection and judgement, whoever:

dieth in his sins, as to a temporal death, shall also die a spiritual death. . . . Then is the time when their torments shall be as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever. . . . They shall be as though there had been no redemption made; for they cannot be redeemed according to God’s justice; and they cannot die, seeing there is no more corruption” (Alma 12:16-18).

In contrast to this, we read that: “Then shall the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of God” (Alma 40:25). In Alma’s teachings, we see a belief in a type of heaven and hell, the righteous received into happiness and bliss, and the wicked consigned to torment and misery, based entirely on their words, works, and thoughts in this life. Alvin, in this scenario, would likely not have escaped hellfire. He had died without fulfilling the laws of the gospel—particularly being baptized unto repentance. Other voices in the Book of Mormon hint that little children and those who lived without the law being given to them will somehow be exempt from this, but no mechanism is given for their salvation asides from the general idea of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.[3]

The first significant shift in who could obtain salvation came in 1829. A revelation given to Martin Harris discussed the nature of repentance and redemption, and made room for eventual forgiveness to those who do not repent in this life. Written in the voice of the Lord, it stated that “And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless” (D&C 19:4). Yet, the text indicated that the suffering would not go on forever:

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

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

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Revelation circa summer 1829
Image courtesy josephsmithpapers.org

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

A vision experienced by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in 1832 laid out some mechanisms and limitations to this idea of eventual, universal redemption. Often referred to simply as “the Vision” (now as Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76), the revelation expanded the eternal destination of souls from the bifurcate system of heaven and hell to a graded system of four destinations: The Celestial Kingdom, Terrestrial Kingdom, Telestial Kingdom and Outer Darkness. In a way, the system provided a compromise between Universalist ideals of the 1829 revelation and the thought of Amulek and Alma. The highest and best kingdom—the Celestial Kingdom—was open to those who “received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized . . . and who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise” (D&C 76:51, 53). It seems that those who gain this kingdom have to do so by their actions during this lifetime, as revealed by those who are able to obtain a place in the second realm of glory, the Terrestrial Kingdom: “Behold, these are they who died without law; and also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it” (D&C 76:72-74). In this Vision, we finally begin to see a mechanism for salvation to those without law and eventual redemption—preaching and acceptance of Jesus in the afterlife—but they could only be redeemed to a degree. According to the theology of 1832, Alvin would be able to obtain the Terrestrial Kingdom, but not the Celestial Kingdom.

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Vision, 16 February 1832
Image courtesy josephsmithpapers.org

Four years later, Joseph Smith had another vision that challenged the limitations indicated by the textual record of the Vision of the Three Degrees of Glory. In a vision that is preserved as Section 137, he records that: “The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell. . . . I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept” (D&C 137:1, 5). Surprised, Joseph Smith recorded that he “marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins” (D&C 137:6). This statement of astonishment makes sense, particularly after realizing that a close reading of Section 76 indicated that Alvin would be destined for the Terrestrial Kingdom, not the Celestial Kingdom.

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Vision, 21 January 1836
Image courtesy josephsmithpapers.org

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

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

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

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

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

Nauvoo

Nauvoo 
Image courtesy history.lds.org

In contrast to the earliest snapshot of Mormon theology, the door had been opened for salvation of virtually all humankind. In the statements above, Joseph Smith makes it clear that he believed that everyone could be saved except the few who committed the ill-defined unpardonable sin. This seems to be very different take on salvation than the one found in Alma’s teachings. Rather than death being a “darkness wherein there can be no labor performed” (Alma 34:33), repentance and progress was possible after death. Baptisms for the dead also seems to have extended salvation even further than the 1836 vision had. Rather than only those who had received the gospel during their lives and those who would have done so if they had the chance, anyone who had not committed the unpardonable sin could be redeemed. Other church leaders who knew Joseph Smith expressed that this was the case. Lorenzo Snow believed that: “The great bulk of those who are in the spirit world for whom the work has been done will receive the truth. The conditions for the spirits of the dead receiving the testimony of Jesus in the spirit world are a thousand times more favorable than they are here in this life.”[8] Wilford Woodruff also affirmed that: “There will be very few, if any, who will not accept the gospel” in the spirit world.[9] Alvin, of course, would be offered salvation through baptisms for the dead. In late 1840, not long after the doctrine was introduced, Hyrum Smith was baptized as a proxy for Alvin.[10]

Such a radical expansion of opportunity for salvation may have resulted in a reformulation of the kingdoms of glory for Joseph Smith. In his most famous sermon, he taught that: “It will be a great while after the grave before you learn to understand the last [principle of the Gospel], for it is a great thing to learn salvation beyond the grave and it is not all to be comprehended in this world.”[11] By saying this, he indicated that even the noblest and best human would have a lot of progress ahead of them after death before they were fully saved. On another occasion, one woman recorded that the Prophet taught that: “After death the spirit enters the lowest [heaven], and constantly progresses in spiritual knowledge until safely landed in the Celestial.”[12] The temple endowment ceremony that Joseph Smith instituted in Nauvoo represented this process of progressing from the Telestial Kingdom up to the Celestial Kingdom as something that everyone had to do on their path to salvation. If this is accurate, it represents a change from the limitations expressed in the 1832 vision, where those in telestial kingdom cannot come to higher kingdoms, “worlds without end” (D&C 76:112). Instead, almost every human being could eventually progress to the Celestial Kingdom.

Progression from Kingdom to Kingdom

Joseph Smith may have believed in progression through the kingdoms of glory outlined in the 1832 Vision

When the revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith are read as fossilized snapshots of a dynamic theology, it results in an expanded view of salvation. The result in this case is a theology that points towards salvation being open to almost everyone, even after death.[13] Different approaches to reading the scriptures and teachings of prophets, however, result in different conclusions. An example of a different approach is the one Elder Bruce R. McConkie took. Elder McConkie believed that: “Truth is always in harmony with itself. The word of the Lord is truth, and no scripture ever contradicts another, nor is any inspired statement of any person out of harmony with an inspired statement of another person. . . . When we find seeming conflicts, it means we have not as yet caught the full vision of whatever points are involved.”[14] Reading with this approach to exegesis, the Book of Mormon, various visions and revelations, and other teachings of Joseph Smith are not snapshots of an unfolding theology, but expressions of truth that all need to be reconciled to each other.

McConkie

Bruce R. McConkie 
Image courtesy LDS.org

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

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

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

There is no other promise of salvation than the one recited in [D&C 137]. Those who reject the gospel in this life and then receive it in the spirit world go not to the celestial, but to the terrestrial kingdom.[15]

He was just as emphatic that there would be no progression from one kingdom of glory to another, based largely on his reading of 1 Corinthians 15, Section 76, and Section 132. He held that the type of body an individual received at the resurrection determined their glory. Afterwards, “they neither progress from one kingdom to another, nor does a lower kingdom ever get where a higher kingdom once was. Whatever eternal progression there is, it is within a sphere.”[16] Thus, in comparison to Joseph Smith’s declarations in the 1840s, Bruce R. McConkie believed that not everyone who had a friend could be ferreted out and saved in the fullest sense of the word.

The differences between Bruce R. McConkie’s beliefs and Joseph Smith’s later teachings on salvation for the dead lays bare an important tension in Mormon thought. Do we believe that continuing revelation results in continuous revision that supersedes previous revelations, or should revelation be weighed on how it conforms to existing canonical writings? In this discussion, two approaches to understanding the doctrine of salvation for the dead have been presented. The Prophet Joseph Smith offered evolving views on the redemption of unbaptized dead, including his brother Alvin. Towards the end of his life, he seems to have favored near-universal salvation being available, with the three degrees of glory representing conditions on a spectrum of salvation that everyone must pass through. In the approach where subsequent revelations superseded past ones, everyone who has not committed the unpardonable sin can eventually reach the Celestial Kingdom. In the approach where established canon and doctrine are weighed as equal to later revelations, universal salvation is tempered by earlier revelations that limit salvation to those who did not reject the gospel at some point in their lifetime and locks everyone into a kingdom of glory after judgement. How the question of continuous revision versus reconciling all canonical writing is resolved by the individual bears a tremendous impact on shaping their theology.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This paper was presented at Utah State University in Logan, Utah on 17 March 2018 during a conference of the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Lorenzo Snow, Millennial Star, October 6, 1893, 718.

[9] Wiford Woodruff and G. Homer Durham (ed.), The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff: Fourth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1946, 1969), 158.

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

[11] Larson, King Follet, 9.

[12] Franklin D. Richards, “Words of the Prophets,” Church History Library, Charlotte Haven, 26 March 1843, “A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo,” The Overland Monthly 16.96 (December 1890): 626. http://www.olivercowdery.com/smithhome/1880s-1890s/havn1890.htm

[13] For a similar approach and results, see Fiona Givens and Terryl Given, The Christ Who Heals (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 118-126.

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

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

[16] McConkie, “Seven Deadly Heresies.”

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