Years ago, I attended a testimony meeting that began with a counselor in the bishopric talking about how grateful he was to be a part of a religion where believed that God was full of grace and would save almost every individual in one degree of glory or another. He quoted from the Vision in Section 76, and discussed how all but a very few would be saved in the Telestial, Terrestrial, or Celestial Kingdom and how grateful he was that God loved His children enough to make a plan that allows pretty much everyone into heaven in some form. What was interesting was what followed—the bulk of the remainder of the testimony meeting was dominated by adults in the ward getting up and rebutting his testimony by “clarifying” that being in a place outside of the top tier of the Celestial Kingdom is still damnation, so we need to work hard to gain eternal life instead of believing that we will have it good in the end, no matter what. In a way, that meeting captured the complicated relationship Latter-day Saints have with universalism.
Joseph Smith lived in a context where Universalism was a major part of the religious discussion. 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 His creation to its original, pre-Fall glory. Many early Latter-Day Saints held universalists beliefs prior to conversion—Joseph Knight and Martin Harris being prominent among them. Among my own ancestors who converted to the Church in the early 1830s, Zerah Pulsipher noted that traditional belief he had problems stomaching above all others was the “Doctrene of Eternal punishm[ent],” stating that: “I could not be reconceled to souls left in Hellfire to all Eternity as I had been taught by the secatrians.”  This is an indication of a universalist strain in Zerah’s beliefs.
Joseph Smith’s own family was heavily influenced by universalist beliefs. For example, Joseph Smith’s paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, was a universalist who believed that Christ “came to Save Sinners mearly because they [were] such” and that “if you believe that Christ [came] to save Sinners … that Sinners must be saved by the rightiousness of Christ alone, without mixing any of their own rightiousness with his; then you will See that he can as well Save all, as aney.” Asael was drawn to the teachings of a preacher in the vicinity of his home named John Murray, from whom he drew many his ideas of universalism. Murray taught that while hell and punishment existed, they were waystations to redemption. He 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.” Joseph Smith’s father inherited many of Asael’s beliefs and they would have likely been discussed in Joseph Smith’s household during his youth.
It is interesting to note that there are parallels between Murray’s sermons and the 1829 revelation that is now Section 19. The text of the revelation indicates that the Lord used the words everlasting and eternal in the context of punishment in ways that trick people in believing that they need to reform their lives to avoid unending punishment, but it really means that he will punish them with they type of punishment that a being who holds the titles of Endless and Everlasting will wield:
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).
The wordplay of endless and eternal here as a condition of the punishment in relation to its nature rather than its duration seems similar to John Murray’s approach to dismissing everlasting as a condition of the flame rather than the duration of the pain.
Yet, there is tension between the text of this revelation and the Book of Mormon, which was being translated around the same time that the revelation was received. In the Book of Mormon, Nehor and his followers are presented as one of the primary groups of villains, and they seem to almost be a negative caricature of Universalists. Nehor, after all, goes around preaching that: “All mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.” He also demonstrates a logical concern that many Christians have about embracing universalism (i.e., if God saves everyone, why bother with keeping commandments?) by becoming a murder.
The prophet Alma and his teaching companion, Amulek, spend a considerable amount of their ministries working in opposition to Nehor’s followers. One example is when Alma preaches in a stronghold of Nehor’s religion that after judgement, those who do not bring “forth fruit meet for repentance” will be in a condition “as though there had been no redemption made; for they cannot be redeemed according to God’s justice.” He also worked to explain to his wayward son about “the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.” Amulek, if anything, is even more blunt and straightforward about rejecting the beliefs of Nehor that seem similar to universalism, teaching that: “If we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. … For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil … and this is the final state of the wicked.” In many ways, much of the book that Section 19 affirms “contains the truth and the word of God,” was written in opposition to ideas that seem similar to universalism.
I’ve discussed before that Joseph Smith’s revelations seem to demonstrate an evolution of thought that tried to reconcile the universalist tendencies displayed in Section 19 on one side and the consignation to a state of misery displayed in the Book of Mormon on the other. In many ways, the idea of performing ordinances for the dead, the option of repentance in the Spirit World, and varying degrees of glory available after judgement are a middle path between the two. Those revelations, with various interpretations of how they fit together, however, still leave room for tension and debate within Mormonism about the chances for redemption after death and a certain amount of discomfort with universalists beliefs that can be found in some of them.
Take, for example, the reaction to “the Vision” of the three degrees of glory after it was revealed in 1832. Brigham Young recalled that: “It was a great trial to many. Some apostatized because God … had a plan of salvation, in due time, for all.” He added on another occasion that: “My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was directly contrary and opposed to my former education.” Members in Geneseo, New York, said at first that “the vision was of the Devil,” until John Murdock, Orson Pratt and even Joseph Smith reached out to them to discuss the issue. On the other hand, Wilford Woodruff recalled that: “When I read the vision … it gave me great joy. It appeared to me that the God who revealed that principle unto man was wise, just, and true—possessed both the best attributes, and good sense, and knowledge. I felt He was consistent with both love, mercy, justice, and judgment; and I felt to love the Lord more than ever before in my life.” In other words, the initial reactions to the revelation by early Latter-day Saints weren’t that different from the reactions displayed in discussing the same revelation approximately 175 years later in my ward.
Part of the tension seems to be ideas about justice, God, and motivation. As Wilford Woodruff points out, the idea of some form of redemption for nearly everyone is “consistent with both love, mercy, justice, and judgment.” An aspect of justice and judgement is that punishment is befitting the crime. No matter how much evil one person can perpetrate during the course of a human life, that evil is limited by the human lifespan. Logically, a never-ending punishment heavily outweighs the evil that was perpetrated in a period of (generally) less than 100 years and, thus, is not a punitive measure that is equal to the transgression. As the fictional philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye put it in the TV series The Good Place, if you are “brutally tortured forever with no recourse” for actions carried out in this life, then “the cruelty of the punishment does not match the cruelty of the life that one has lived.” Hence, it makes sense that if God is just and merciful, He will allow progress, repentance, and redemption in the next life. That is why many people find it satisfying to believe that God will continue to extend mercy and repentance after this life.
On the other hand, people in the Church tend to get concerned that if we’re going to have endless chances to be saved, then folks are going to get lazy and put off repenting until later. That seemed to be the major concern of the adults in my ward in rebutting the opening testimony in the meeting—they were worried that youth in the ward were going to use the idea that they would end up in some form of heaven no matter what as an excuse to sin. This concern was also raised by Elder Bruce R. McConkie when he discussed a man who was married to a member of the Church and believed the Church was true, but expressed that: “I have no intention of changing my habits in order to join [the Church]. I prefer to live the way I do. But that doesn’t worry me in the slightest. I know that as soon as I die, you will have someone go to the temple and do the work for me and everything will come out all right in the end anyway.” Elder McConkie then said that: “He died, and she did. And it was a complete and utter waste of time. There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation.” The concern he displayed in sharing this story and his judgement was that a belief in future chances for repentance would lead to people putting off their current chances for repentance.
Both ends of this spectrum of opinions about Universalism seem to be addressed in Section 19. The text indicates that there is going to be punishment for the unrepentant, since Jesus Christ tells Martin Harris that: “If they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit,” and that: “I revoke not the judgements which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.”  The text also addresses the concern that if people are taught universalist ideas, they may not feel the need to repent by telling Martin Harris to not share those universalist ideas publicly, but to focus on repentance instead: “I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish.” Addressing the other end of the spectrum, however, we do have the indication that punishment is not of an endless duration: “It is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.” The text also potentially hints at the universalist idea that God will not allow Himself to be defeated by Satan and will, in the end, restore all His creation to its original glory by stating that the Lord retains “all power, even to the destroying of Satan and his works at the end of the world.” There are reasons to repent in this life (to avoid suffering), but even still, God is just and merciful and that suffering will not go on for an endless duration.
With that suffering, there is beauty in how Section 19 approaches the issue. While the Lord makes it clear in the text that punishments will come to the unrepentant, He also makes it clear that He isn’t keen on the idea of people suffering. He suffered exquisite pain “for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent,” and focuses on a message of repentance throughout the text—both for Martin Harris and for those to whom he would have the opportunity to preach. This, along with the indications that there will be an ultimate end to suffering, shows us that the Lord is not a Lord who delights in punishing the wicked, but one who wishes for us to avoid suffering.
- Chad L. Nielsen, “Saving Alvin,” Times and Seasons 29 May 2020
- Kent Larsen, “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 18-19”
- Book of Mormon Central: D&C 18-19
 ZP Autobiographical Sketch #1 and ZP Autobiographical Sketch #2.
 Asael Smith, “A few words of advice which I Leave to you my Dear wife and children whom I Expect ear Long to Leave,” in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage: Influences of Grandfathers Solomon Mack and Asael Smith, 2nd ed., rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2003), 160-165.
 John Murray, Letters and Sketches of Sermons, (Boston: Joshua Belcher, 1812), 2:253.
 Alma 1:4.
 Alma 12:15, 18.
 Alma 42:1.
 Alma 34:34.
 D&C 19:26.
 Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-Day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 16:42 and 6:281.
 See Matthew McBride, “The Vision,” in Revelations in Context, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/revelations-in-context/the-vision?lang=eng.
 Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 5:84.
 Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie/seven-deadly-heresies/. The quote is from the audio version rather than the print version to emphasize his point.
 D&C 19:5, 17-18.
 D&C 19:21-22.
 D&C 19:6.
 D&C 19:3.
 D&C 19:16.