The language of Mormon culture, like that of most other cultures, is fraught with contradictions. All faiths have their intemperate zealots, and even the wisest and best men and women can say uninspired, ridiculous, and even reprehensible things. The religious scholar Krister Stendahl has suggested that in evaluating religions, it is only fair to characterize a faith group in terms of its best, not its worst, manifestations.1
Many readers of Joseph Smith’s First Vision account feel the sting of a wide-net rebuke, with its reference to the Christian creeds as “an abomination” in God’s sight. Harsh to modern ears, however, Smith’s language fits right into his cultural milieu. Religious discourse of prior ages was a vigorous and, by modern standards, shockingly abrasive and nasty hurly-burly of insults and slurs. Writers of the past probably felt the Jesus of the New Testament was a safe model to emulate: According to the scriptural record, Christ called His detractors evil, adulterers, whited sepulchers, hypocrites, snakes, and Satan spawn (children of “the devil”).2
And so it is no surprise that we should find Martin Luther calling Jews “venomous serpents” and full of the “devil’s feces . . . which they wallow in like swine.”3 John Knox, father of the Scottish Reformation, called the Catholic Church a “blasphemous beast,”4 and Calvin wrote that the Anabaptists were rightly condemned for their “ravings and slanders.”. . .
A Myth That Mormons Have a Monopoly on Truth
The colorful language of condemnation in Smith’s account has contributed to a particularly pernicious myth that has had tragic influence on Mormon thinking. This is the notion that Mormonism has a monopoly on the truth, that other churches and traditions have nothing of value to contribute, and that the centuries between the death of the apostles and the events of 1820 were utterly blighted and devoid of truth. Some of those disaffected with the Church have even cited those perceptions as factors in their disaffection. One such person, in his farewell explanation, claimed that “Mormons believe that the church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant visions alike—completely died,” and quoted another dissident as saying, “The idea that God was sort of snoozing until 1820 now seems to me absurd.”13 Two points are crucial to make by way of comment here. First, some members may indeed harbor such unfortunate ideas. To that extent, the words of Stendahl are again relevant: no church should be judged by the regrettable opinions of the least enlightened. Second, both the Lord and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have emphatically indicated a contrary perspective. In other words, the idea of Mormonism’s monopoly and God’s inaction during the pre-Restoration centuries would strike Joseph Smith and the likes of John Taylor as absurd as well.
If Joseph initially thought only Mormons had access to truth or goodness, he was abruptly corrected of his misperception a year into the Church’s founding. In an 1831 revelation, the Lord told him that most of the world was under sin, “except those which I have reserved unto myself, holy men that ye know not of.”14 The words were a poignant indication that while Joseph might be a true prophet, the Lord’s disciples were not limited to those who found themselves in the restored Church. In fact, the Lord directed one revelation to those who feared the restoration represented a condemnation of all Christian forms already present on the earth. The new church’s organization did not, He said, threaten to annul “that which they have received.” In fact, He declared that He acknowledged many people as already belonging to His church in 1829, even before the restored gospel took its present form under Joseph Smith’s direction: “And for this cause have I said: If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them. Now I do not say this to destroy my church, but I say this to build up my church; Therefore, whosoever belongeth to my church need not fear, for such shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.”15
Another development reinforced Joseph’s growing appreciation for a generous dispersal of God’s influence beyond the reaches of a single institution. As he was working on the translation of the Book of Mormon in March 1829, he first learned of his role in a much larger mission to come; he was apparently to be involved in the expressed intention to “establish my church.”16 The mode or process was yet to be revealed. As Joseph revised that 1829 revelation for republication in 1835, he changed the wording considerably to reflect an apparently new understanding of what had happened to the original church. Even though priesthood authority and ordinances had been lost, truth had not departed the earth entirely, and God had not abandoned His people to spiritual famine. The twelfth chapter of Revelation, which Joseph and most Protestants read as an allegory of the apostasy, notes emphatically that pressed by the forces of evil, the Lord’s church is not taken from the earth; she retreats “into the wilderness,” where “she hath a place prepared of God.” There, “she is nourished,” like Elisha in the cave, cared for by that God who is ever faithful.17 Apparently moved by this insight, Joseph recast section 4 of the Book of Commandments to describe the Restoration as the Church’s “coming forth . . . out of the wilderness.”18 Doctrines that had been peripheral would be made central. Teachings that had been preserved by the few would be made available to all. Smith apparently imbibed the lesson Jesus taught, that he who is truly “instructed in the kingdom of heaven” knows he must “[bring] forth out of his treasure things new and old.”19
How did God nourish His people and keep the fires of truth burning when the gospel ordinances were no longer available in their fullness? It appears that when God lacked prophets, He spoke through poets and musicians, sages and simple men and women of faith and goodness. He spoke through Michelangelo’s Pietà and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. He spoke through wise men such as the second-century Origen, who taught of our premortal existence in God’s presence, of a God who felt our pain as His own, and of a Father’s love so infinite that it would embrace the whole human family. . . .
If Mormons exude a sense of having a monopoly on an understanding of eternal things, or condemn the Dark Ages as being devoid of light and truth, they do so in ignorance of, not in conformity with, the work of Joseph and his associates. True, it was for Joseph to restore the knowledge of the saving and sealing ordinances, and to receive the priesthood keys to perform them. But Joseph also knew that, like the ruins of an ancient temple, “in broken fragments scattered, rent, and disjointed,” beautiful remnants of the original church lay all about them, as “scattered fragments of Mormonism.”25
A problem related to perceptions of Mormonism’s monopoly on truth is the impression that Mormons claim a monopoly on salvation. It grows increasingly difficult to imagine that a body of a few million, in a world of seven billion, can really be God’s only chosen people and heirs of salvation. That’s because they aren’t. One of the most unfortunate misperceptions about Mormonism is in this tragic irony: Joseph Smith’s view is one of the most generous, liberal, and universalist conceptions of salvation in all Christendom. In section 49, when the Lord refers to “holy men” about whom Joseph knew nothing, and whom the Lord had reserved unto Himself, He is clearly indicating that Mormons do not have a monopoly on righteousness, truth, or God’s approbation. That temple covenants may be made and kept here or hereafter, and the ordinances of salvation performed in person or vicariously, means our conception of His church should be as large and as generous as God’s heart. Joseph’s teachings suggest that the Church is best understood as a portal for the saved, not the reservoir of the righteous.
Heavenly Father Has the Desire to Save Us All
As a mighty God, our Heavenly Father has the capacity to save us all. As a fond father, He has the desire to do so. That is why, as Joseph taught, “God hath made a provision that every spirit can be ferretted out in that world” that has not deliberately and definitively chosen to resist a grace that is stronger than the cords of death.26 The idea is certainly a generous one, and it flows naturally from the weeping God of Enoch, the God who has set His heart upon us. If some inconceivable few will persist in rejecting the course of eternal progress, they are “the only ones” who will be damned, taught Joseph Smith. “All the rest” of us will be rescued from the hell of our private torments and subsequent alienation from God.27
Both Brigham Young and Lorenzo Snow imbibed Smith’s generous bent. Young preached, “Every faithful Methodist that has lived up to and faithfully fulfilled the requirements of his religion, . . . will have as great a heaven as he ever anticipated in the flesh, and far greater. Every Presbyterian, and every Quaker, and every Baptist, and every Roman Catholic member . . . that lives according to the best light they have, . . . will have and enjoy all they live for. . . . This is the situation of Christendom after death. You may go among the Pagans, or among all the nations there are . . . and if they have lived according to what they did possess, so they will receive hereafter. And will it be glory? you may inquire. Yes. Glory, glory, glory.”28
Wilford Woodruff, in encouraging an all-encompassing project of genealogical research and family sealing back to Adam, justified it in terms of his vision of a wide-ranging salvation. “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. . . . So it will be with your fathers. There will be very few, if any, who will not accept the Gospel.”29 Lorenzo Snow concurred: “Very, very few of those who die without the Gospel will reject it on the other side of the veil.”30 Snow too believed God would persist in His salvific efforts until He succeeded. “The antediluvians rejected the word of God; but they were the sons and daughters of God, and . . . after twenty-five hundred years had passed away the Lord revealed Himself to them again and gave them another opportunity. Then they no doubt accepted. . . . The people of this generation may not receive our testimony here, but they will receive it at some future time, from us or from some other servants of God.”31
J. Reuben Clark Jr. was of the same mind: “It is my belief that God will save all of His children that he can; and while, if we live unrighteously here, we shall not go to the other side in the same status, so to speak, as those who lived righteously; nevertheless, the unrighteous will have their chance, and in the eons of the eternities that are to follow, they, too, may climb to the destinies to which they who are righteous and serve God, have climbed.”32
Perhaps the most important principle to keep in mind in considering our postmortal state is summed up best in this statement from George Q. Cannon, as quoted by President Henry B. Eyring to similar effect: “There is not one of us that He has not desired to save, and that He has not devised means to save.”33
Sadly, not all Mormons have been inclined to celebrate such cosmic generosity. Brigham Young recorded that “when God revealed to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon that there was a place prepared for all, according to the light they had received and their rejection of evil and practice of good, it was a great trial to many, and some apostatized because God was not going to send to everlasting punishment heathens and infants, but had a place of salvation, in due time, for all.”34 Like Jonah, some few want to see the burning of the tares. Like the resentful servant in the parable, a minority will always grumble that “these last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us.”35
Others, however, find incomparable solace in the hope that wayward spouses, rebellious children, or merely disinterested friends are not consigned to endless perdition. Elder Boyd K. Packer has said: “Save for the exception of the very few who defect to perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ. . . . This knowledge should be as comforting to the innocent as it is to the guilty [such as] parents who suffer unbearably for the mistakes of their wayward children and are losing hope.”36
The generosity of such a vision necessarily spills over from the world’s inhabitants to the legions of the dead. Even “the dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,” holds Mormon scripture.37 One may doubt the efficacy of temple work, of rituals that purport to baptize the living on behalf of multitudes long dead. One Lutheran observer, however, expresses “holy envy” for the love manifest in putting into action a program that seeks to save all, living as well as dead.38 “There is such a thing,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “as a small and cramped eternity. You may see it in many modern religions.”39 The heaven of Mormonism is no such place.
Faith is the first principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So what happens when a person has doubts?
Questioning is not the problem, according to authors Terryl and Fiona Givens. “After all,” they write, “the Restoration unfolded because a young man asked questions.” The difficulty arises when questions are based on flawed assumptions or incorrect perceptions, which can “point us in the wrong direction, misdirect our attention, or constrain the answers we are capable of hearing.”
The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith offers a careful, intelligent look at doubt—at some of its common sources, the challenges it presents, and the opportunities it may open up in a person’s quest for faith. Whether you struggle with your own doubts or mostly want to understand loved ones who question, you will appreciate this candid discussion. You’ll come away feeling more certain than ever of the Lord’s love for all of His children.
^1. Stendahl’s “Three Rules of Religious Understanding” were (1) ask adherents, not enemies, for information; (2) don’t compare your best to their worst; and (3) leave room for “holy envy.” They are unsourced but widely disseminated and attributed to remarks he made at a 1985 press conference in Stockholm where he was serving as a Lutheran bishop.
^3. These examples and worse are cited in Robert Michael, Holy Hatred (New York: Palgrave, 2006).
^4. John Knox, “The Order and Doctrine of the General Fast,” in David Laing, ed., The Works of John Knox (Edinburgh: J. Thin, 1895), 6:404.
^5. John Calvin, Steward of God’s Covenant: Selected Writings, ed. John F. Thornton (New York: Random House, 2006), 266.
^6. Joseph Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists (London: Ivimey, 1811), 1:169.
^7. Robert Mansel, Free Thoughts upon Methodists, Actors, and the Influence of the Stage (Hull: Mansel and Craggs, 1814), 5–6.
^8. The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Considered by Bishop Lavington, ed. R. Polwhele (London: A. J. Valpy, 1820), 225–28.
^9. Izaak Walton, The works of that learned and judicious divine, Mr. Richard Hooker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1836), 2:476.
^10. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), 487.
^11. Cited in Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 54.
^12. Edward Beecher, Concord of Ages: or The Individual and Organic Harmony of God and Man(New York: Derby and Jackson, 1860), 92.
^13. Richard Sherlock, “A Mormon Scholar’s Journey to Catholic Faith,” “On the Square,” First Things, 30 August 2012, http://www.firstthings.com /onthesquare/2012/08/a-mormon-scholarrsquos-journey-to-catholic-faith. He quoted the kindred complaint of Edwin Firmage.
^14. D&C 49:8; emphasis added.
^15. D&C 10:53–55.
^16. Book of Commandments 4:5. Received March 1829.
^17. Revelation 12:6, 14; emphasis added.
^18. D&C 5:14.
^19. Matthew 13:52.
^20. Julian of Norwich, Showings, ed. Denise N. Baker (New York: Norton, 2005), XIV.51, p. 71.
^21. Thomas Traherne, “Innocence,” in Selected Writings of Thomas Traherne, ed. Dick Davis (Manchester: Fyfield, 1980), 24–26.
^22. Millennial Star 3.11 (March 1843): 177.
^23. John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool, England: Franklin D. Richards and Samuel W. Richards, 1851–86; repr. Salt Lake City, 1974), 16:197–98.
^24. Brigham Young, Complete Discourses, ed. Richard S. Van Wagoner (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2009), 3:1480.
^25. “The Religion of the Ancients,” Times and Seasons 4.9 (15 March 1843): 136; Not the Prophet, S.T.P., “To the Editor,” Times and Seasons 5.8 (15 April 1844): 503.
^26. Ehat and Cook, eds., Words, 360.
^27. D&C 76:38–39.
^28. Young, Complete Discourses, 1:569.
^29. Wilford Woodruff, Collected Discourses, ed. Brian H. Stuy (n.p.: B. H. S. Publishing, 1999), 4:74.
^30. Abraham H. Cannon journal, 5 April 1894. Cited in Stuy, ed., Collected Discourses, 4:68.
^31. Lorenzo Snow, in Conference Report, April 1901, 3.
^32. Church News, 23 April 1960, 3.
^33. Henry B. Eyring, “To My Grandchildren,” Ensign, November 2013, 71; quoting George Q. Cannon, Contributor, October 1890, 476.
^34. Young, Complete Discourses, 5:2960. Warren Foote recorded that one “Landon and others had been cut off for rejecting the vision concerning the three glories.” Autobiography (Mesa: Dale Foote, 1997), 5.
^35. Matthew 20:12.
^36. Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, November 1995.
^37. D&C 138:58.
^38. Remarks attributed to Krister Stendahl by Daniel Peterson, http://www.fairld.org/authors/johnson-cooper/breaking-the-rules-of-the-lds-faith. Stendahl in fact wrote the article “Baptism for the Dead” for Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:97.
^39. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dover, 2004), 12.