In 1811, Joseph Smith Sr. had a vision of an open, barren field. He was perplexed by the dreariness of the field and was told that “this field is the world, which now lieth inanimate and dumb, in regard to the true religion, or plan of salvation” (Smith, 1902, p.164). The prophet Joseph Smith, in the first vision, was told by the Savior that “the creeds [of the churches] were an abomination in his sight” (JS–H 1:19).
To a modern Latter-day Saint, these statements may seem to constitute an unduly harsh judgment of the doctrines of other churches. But to understand the literal force of the judgments, it may be worthwhile to consider some of the doctrines of salvation that were commonly accepted at the time of the restoration.
John Calvin’s doctrine was still influential in Joseph’s time. Calvin had taught that “the vast majority of mankind will be lost” (p. 58). The American Board of Missions lamented that “the heathen . . . are expressly doomed to perdition. Six hundred millions of deathless souls on the brink of hell! What a spectacle!” (p. 147).
From another commentator: “For often out of a thousand men, nay even out of ten thousand, scarcely one is saved” (p. 150). Damnation was commonly thought to apply not only to heathens but to unbaptized infants as well, though the damnation of infants “is graciously asserted to be ‘of a very slight character’” (Farrar, 1904b, p. 141; unless otherwise indicated other quotes in this article refer also to this volume).
If the vast majority of souls were to be lost to God’s redemptive purposes, what was to be their fate? Jonathan Edwards was prominent among the commentators who painted vivid and frightening pictures of their prospects. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. . . . he will trample them beneath his feet with inexpressible fierceness; he will crush their blood out, and will make it fly, so that it will sprinkle his garment and stain all his raiment” (p. 102). According to Whitaker, the fires “burn the more fiercely, and yet never consume” (p. 103). The wildest imaginings were employed to describe the misery of the sufferers and the joy of the righteous as they viewed the horrible retribution of God. The fate of the vast majority of God’s creation was to be endless and terrible misery.
Somehow God had become the great accuser and punisher rather than the great redeemer and advocate. That doesn’t seem like good news.
A new era
In 1805 (the same year that Joseph Smith was born), Frederick Denison Maurice was born in England. In 1830, Maurice graduated from Exeter College. He was employed at King’s College in London to teach English literature and history. Later, Maurice was to become the chair of theology at King’s College (See Maurice, 1884). He was also to become the protomartyr of the Wider Hope.
In 1846, Maurice taught a series of lectures on the Wider Hope. Frederic W. Farrar, a young man in attendance at the lectures, described that he was thrilled with the love and mercifulness of God that was portrayed in Maurice’s lectures (Lundwall, p.126). Farrar was later to become the premier biographer of Christ, heavily quoted by James E. Talmage in Jesus the Christ. Farrar would also become an earnest advocate of the Wider Hope.
In 1853, Maurice published his “Theological Essays,” in which he enlarged on and formalized the thinking that God’s love might somehow reach beyond the grave with the joyous message of the gospel to bless those who had died in ignorance of Jesus Christ. Dr. Jelf , the leader of King’s Collge, attacked Maurice’s essays as unsettling and dangerous. The dreadful fear of God’s punishment was commonly seen as the best deterrent to sin. Maurice’s Wider Hope threatened that fear. Maurice was expelled in 1859 from his post at King’s College for his teaching of the Wider Hope. But Maurice’s message was to spread.
In 1861, H. B. Wilson published an essay in which he speculated that there may be opportunities for those who died spiritually immature to be nurtured to maturity in the next life. Such an idea violated the traditional Protestant teaching of final judgment at death. It opened the door to continuing repentance. The essay resulted in formal ecclesiastical hearings to censure the teaching. The council finally concluded that no definite conclusion could be drawn. Many scholars and religious leaders were indignant.
The theological debate moved to the center of English consciousness with the sermons of Frederick W. Farrar—delivered in Westminster Abbey in November of 1877. Farrar had earlier published his beautifully devotional Life of Christ, which remains popular today. Rumors about the content of his 1877 sermons were so distressing that Farrar had the sermons published in 1878 under the title “Eternal Hope” to settle the rumors. Dr. Pusey, professor of Hebrew, was stirred to an orthodox rebuttal of Farrar’s book. He published What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment?. Farrar, rather than seeing Pusey’s book as a rebuttal, saw it as supporting his contention of a wider hope. Farrar wrote his culminating work, Mercy and Judgment, which was published in 1881. Farrar marshals the grim condemnations of orthodox Christians and contrasts them with scripture and the statements of early church fathers.
What was the disturbing message that Farrar and his confederates, Maurice and Plumptre, presented to the world? The advocates of the Wider Hope had suggested that much popular theology (and even some of the work of the reformers) had replaced the inspired word of God with narrow and mean plans of salvation that made God into a cruel disciplinarian. Farrar suggested that such doctrines “have created the perfect fear which casts out all love” (p.109). The narrow and condemning doctrines were not consistent with the Christian view of the sweet goodness of God, according to Farrar. And they were not consistent with the scriptures. In particular, Farrar argued with four doctrines.
Farrar taught that the Biblical words that were translated as hell were not intended by the Biblical authors to suggest a neverending state of suffering and punishment. Rather, “the Latin derivative was originally formed not to express mere torture, but cleansing, correcting, delivering from the stain of sin” (p. 408). For most of those who were consigned to hell, it was intended to be temporary and corrective. The suggestion in the Bible that Christ would teach the spirits in prison (1 Peter 4:6), together with an appreciation of the lovingkindness of God, encouraged Farrar to believe that hell is not what theologians in his day had made it to be. Farrar wrote:
The death of the soul shall last as long as its willing sinfulness lasts, and its “hell” burn as long as its enmity to God continues. . . . hell and death are endless conditions so long as there is persistent impenitence. (p. 482)
Number to be saved
“I see reason to hope that through God’s mercy, and through the merits of Christ’s sacrifice, the great majority of mankind may be delivered from this awful doom” (p. 485) of living without God. Farrar did not claim to understand the details of the redemptive work that goes on beyond the veil, but the few verses that mention Jesus teaching the gospel to the dead (1 Peter 3:18–19; 4:6), together with a feeling for the goodness of God, encouraged him to think that something important could happen to bless the dead with the “good news.” Farrar also drew on the teachings of the early church fathers to support his hope.
The meaning of eternity
In studying the meaning of the words that have been translated as eternal, Farrar drew on the best language sources available and on the writings of the early church fathers. He came to the conclusion that the correct meaning for eternal should be “belonging to an era” or “something spiritual,” or “something above and beyond time.” (EH pp. 78–79).
Farrar quotes several scholars to give a truer meaning of eternal. The quotes should be of keen interest to Latter-day Saints who have been taught the meaning of the word eternal by latter-day revelation.
“I believe, as you do, that eternity has nothing to do with duration. . . . So eternal life is God’s own life; it is essential life; and eternal punishment is the misery belonging to the nature of sin, and not coming from outward causes” (p. 395). “Eternity consists, not in endlessness, but in knowing, seeing, and loving God” (p. 397). “Eternity is the timeless state; to make it a synonom (sic) of time endlessly prolonged is a conception as mean in philosophy as it is false theologically” (p. 398). “God is himself eternity . . . . Eternity without time” (p. 398).
Farrar wrote these observations in 1881. Joseph gave God’s definition of eternal (D&C 19:10–12) for Latter-day Saints in 1830: “Eternal punishment is God’s punishment” (D&C 19:10–11).
New meaning for heaven
“I believe that there will be degrees of blessedness . . .. I see reason to hope that through God’s mercy, and through the merits of Christ’s sacrifice, the great majority of mankind may be delivered from this awful [hell’s] doom” (Farrar, 1904b, p. 484).
Farrar’s assertions were unsettling to those who held to traditional doctrines. But because of the high regard in which he was held throughout England—and because no one could authoritatively challenge his assertions—Farrar was not sanctioned for his bold doctrine. Farrar’s “Mercy and Judgment” is a culmination of decades of scholarly study and public debate about the Wider Hope.
Farrar conceded that there may be those who will stubbornly refuse God’s redemption. But in ways “unknown to us—God’s mercy may reach many who, to all earthly appearance, might seem to us to die in a lost and unregenerate state” (p. 483). He taught of an “intermediate state,” which Latter-day Saints call the spirit world.
Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison, and I see reasons to hope that since the Gospel was thus once preached “to them that were dead,” the offers of God’s mercy may in some form be extended to the soul, even after death. I believe that there is an Intermediate State of the soul. . . . (pp. 483–484).
A brave and hopeful conclusion from a man who did not have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, but who had felt the power of God’s love.
The postscript to the debate may be the writing of E. H. Plumptre, Maurice’s compatriot, published in 1884 and titled “Spirits in Prison.” Plumptre summarizes conclusions about eternity, purgatory, and Christ’s descent into hell. He rejoiced in the epoch-making efforts of Farrar. The debates of the Wider Hope had spanned almost twenty years in England. Intense interest about heaven and hell had spanned roughly fifty years. In the United States alone, more than fifty books on heaven were published between 1830 and 1875. (McDannell & Lang, p. 228)
The debate itself [about hell] was largely concentrated between the years 1830 and 1880. (Rowell, p.17)
The year 1830 should catch the eye of Latter-day Saints. That is the year that the Restoration culminated in official organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is also the year in which Joseph Smith received a revelation from heaven defining the meaning of the word eternal. (See D&C 19) Some may argue that Joseph developed his radical ideas about the plan of salvation by drawing on the growing interest in eschatology. It is far more plausible that, at the same time that God was tutoring the prophet of the Restoration, He was also flooding the world with the Spirit of Hope to comfort His children in the last days and to prepare them to receive the Good News. Where the theologians presented speculations and wispy hopes, Joseph offered a comprehensive, coherent, and authoritative plan. And he presented it decades before the world’s best scholars. In 1830, Maurice, the protomartyr of the Wider Hope, was just graduating from Oxford. Maurice would not publish his groundbreaking “Theological Essays” for another 23 years.
The restored gospel confirms the hopes of those who taught the Wider Hope, but it goes much farther. It also teaches us transcendent details about God’s plan of redemption.
The Book of Mormon plan of salvation
The Book of Mormon plan of salvation focuses on one idea: Jesus is our redeemer. The Book of Mormon tells us only the basics about the spirit world and the resurrection. It does not teach us about the degrees of glory. But the Book of Mormon teaches the central doctrine that “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne. 2:6). The Book of Mormon gives a clear and unmistakable testimony of God’s redeeming mercy. Note a few Book of Mormon descriptions of God’s plan:
. . . the merciful plan of the great creator . . . 2 Ne 9:6
O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! 2 Ne.9:8
O how great the plan of our God! 2 Ne. 9:13
My soul delighteth . . . in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death. 2 Ne.11:5
. . . the great plan of the Eternal God . . . Alma 34:9
. . . great plan of happiness. Alma 42:8
. . . plan of mercy . . . Alma 42:15
The Book of Mormon resonates with the message that the Savior has come to redeem us. It testifies to a confused world that God’s plan has purpose, that its purpose is joy, and that God is able to do His work of redemption! In a world plagued by doubt, the Book of Mormon message is vital.
Modern revelation and the plan of salvation
God has given a glorious gift to the Latter-day Saints. Through His prophets, He has revealed the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, including an enlarged knowledge of His redemptive plan of salvation. The 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants has the honor of being called “The Vision.” Unlike any other scripture available to us, it gives us a breathtaking view of God’s redeeming love. Joseph wrote of the Vision:
The sublimity of the ideas, the purity of the language . . . the rewards for faithfulness, and the punishments for sins, are so much beyond the narrowmindedness of men, that every honest man is constrained to exclaim: “It came from God.” (history of the Church, 1:252–253)
A new understanding of hell
Modern revelation teaches us that hell entails terrible suffering (D&C 19:15). But we also learn that the only hell that endures without end is the suffering of the sons of perdition (D&C 76:37–38). “he saves all except them” (D&C 76:44). Those who commit all manner of sin but do not deny the Holy Ghost are cast into hell to pay for their own sins. But their hell has an end. They are cleansed and are released to the telestial kingdom (D&C 76:85,106; Matthew 12:31), a degree of glory so joyous that it “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89). The fact that liars, sorcerers, adulterers, and whoremongers will be allowed to pay for their sins and receive a degree of joyous glory is astonishing. It may seem to be too kind to be true. Yet, that is what we should expect from a God who is perfect in knowledge and perfect in love. His plan is always kinder than we had dared to expect.
Part of the sectarian world’s theological difficulty is that they only have an all-or-nothing plan of salvation. A person goes to bliss or to unending pain—heaven or hell. Churches define differently the critical requirements for heaven. But logic revolts at the suggestion that any requirement should divide all of God’s children into two groups with vastly different rewards.
Modern revelation tells us not only about the three degrees of glory but suggests that within each kingdom there are differences that allow for the unique expression of every human being (D&C 131:1, John 14:2). Even in the telestial kingdom, “one star differs from another star in glory” (D&C 76:98).
Number to be saved
By the world’s definition of heaven, even the telestial kingdom is heaven. So, rather than the vast majority of God’s children being lost in unending burnings, only the sons of perdition will be lastingly lost (D&C 76:43–44). Du Moulin speculated that “not one in a hundred thousand (nay, probably not one in a million), from Adam down to our time, shall be saved” (p. 151). The proportion may be correct. But the devil has reversed the direction. The restored gospel testifies that only the stubbornly rebellious, the sons of perdition, will go down to a lasting hell (D&C 76:37).
Even Joseph marveled at the reach of God’s goodness as he was blessed with a vision of his deceased brother, Alvin, in the celestial kingdom (D&C 137). But God would teach all of us that, through the atonement of Jesus Christ and ordinances for the dead (D&C 124), all who will accept His gift will be blessed eternally.
In March of 1830, Joseph revealed the meaning of the word eternal, together with the rationale for the definition: “Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God’s punishment” (D&C 19:10–11). This insightful definition was given by a poor farm boy 51 years before Farrar, with all of his training and resources, published his conclusions about the meaning of the word eternal in Mercy and Judgment.
The great plan of the eternal God
Joseph was ahead of his time because he was taught by God. Yet, at the same time that the restored gospel was spreading throughout the world, truths about the plan of salvation were starting to appear in other lands. Perhaps God was preparing the world to understand and appreciate the restored plan of happiness. The Spirit of God was moving upon the people.
It is hard to get perspective on all that the Lord gave us through Joseph. While the world was debating the nature of hell, Latter-day Saints have had the visions of eternities available to them. But in the decades since the Wider Hope first became more broadly published, the devil has changed fields. The “modern” trend in theology is to “spiritualize” all religious statements. Nothing is literal or real, especially not heaven.
“The motifs of the modern heaven—eternal progress, love, and fluidity between earth and the other world—while acknowledged by pastors in their funeral sermons, are not fundamental to contemporary Christianity. Priests and pastors might tell families that they will meet their loved ones in heaven as a means of consolation, but contemporary thought does not support that belief as it did in the nineteenth century. There is no longer a strong theological commitment to the modern heaven. Scientific, philosophical, and theological skepticism has nullified the modern heaven and replaced it with teachings that are minimalist, meager, and dry” (McDannell & Lang, 1988, pp. 313, 352).
At all costs, the devil must prevent the world from discovering the truth of God’s love and the joy of the world to come. The devil’s plan is to destroy hope. The quote above comes from a scholarly history of the belief in heaven. The authors also observe that “the major exception to this caveat is the teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This type of heaven [an other-worldly society] continues in Latter-day Saint theology, contemporary popular culture, and in the glimpses of the afterlife in near-death experiences” (pp. 313, 356).
We Saints do not have to be tossed to and fro in our belief. We have been taught about our divine heritage. God is literally our Father! We were not created out of nothing, but we have an eternal identity. We have the revelations, the prophets and the whisperings of the Holy Ghost to teach us of our heavenly home. We have the instruction and ordinances of the temple to help us gain our bearings on eternity. We have been blessed with the prophets’ visions in the Pearl of Great Price. We have been given details of the redemptive work that was begun by the Savior’s visit to the spirit world. We have visions of thrones, kingdoms, principalities, powers, and dominions (D&C 132:19) to be enjoyed with our beloved families. God has revealed himself to us as a caring, tender parent who is preparing us to receive all that He has.
In addition to an understanding of God’s glorious mercy, modern revelation warns us about smugness, carnal security, and pride. It balances the message of mercy with an understanding of accountability and the eternal nature of law. The Lord intends not to redeem us in our sins but to redeem us from our sins.
Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. . . . Behold, thy God reigneth! As the dews of Carmel, so shall the knowledge of God descend upon them! (D&C 128:19)
We should thank our Creator for the heavenly vision with which He has entrusted us. It seems that He is trying to tell us something. He wants us to know that He loves us and is eager to redeem us. And that is Good News.
Farrar, F. W. (1904a). Eternal hope. London: Macmillan.
Farrar, F. W. (1904b). Mercy and judgment. London: Macmillan.
Farrar, R. (1904). The life of Frederick William Farrar, sometime Dean of Canterbury, by his son Reginald Farrar. London: James Nisbet & Co. Ltd..
Lundwall, N. B. (1948). The vision: Or the degrees of glory. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft.
Maurice, F. (1884). The life of Frederick Denison Maurice: Chiefly told in his own letters edited by his son, Frederick Maurice. London: Macmillan & Co.
Maurice, F. D. (1853). Theological essays. London: Macmillan.
McDannell, C., & Lang, B. (1988), heaven: A history. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Pusey, E. B. (1880). What is of faith as to everlasting punishment? Oxford: James Parker & Co.
Plumptre, E. H. (1885). The spirits in prison. London: Isbister.
Rowell, G. (1974). Hell and the Victorians. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Smith, L. (1902). History of the Prophet Joseph: By his mother, Lucy Smith. Improvement Era, 5(3), 160–171.