Divine Authority and the Conditions of Salvation

For six weeks in the summer of 2013, student scholars from all over the United States and from Europe met daily in the Maxwell Institute library to discuss and research the topic “Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood: Gifts and Ordinances in LDS Thought and Practice.” This seminar was hosted by the Maxwell Institute and directed by Terryl Givens. The Summer Seminar Working Papers 2013 are the result of the research done by the students and were presented at a BYU symposium on July 11, 2013.


For Joseph Smith, the kingdom of God was a place governed by law. The only way to gain entry to the kingdom of God, accordingly, is to keep the laws of that kingdom. Joseph taught:

We are one only capable of comprehending that certain things exist. which we may acquire by certain fixed principles—If men would acquired [sic] salvation they have got to be subject to certain rules & principles which were fixed by an unalterable decree before the world was, before they leave this world.1

Joseph’s application of the metaphor of legality to salvation is extensive. He denied that anyone could “administer” salvation except by being “authorized by God.”2 He warned that without the correct legal authority, “all the ordinances Systems, & administrations on the earth” would be of no use to anyone.3 He insisted that there was “no salvation between the two lids of the bible without a legal administrator.”4

The legalistic depiction of heaven feels at odds with conventional understandings of heaven and law both. Depending on your theory, we need laws either to stay the violent tendencies of human nature, or else to settle the indeterminacies of human morality.5 The kingdom of heaven is usually imagined as a final refuge from these problems. And yet, Joseph Smith and other developers of early Mormon teaching routinely deployed legal language to characterize God’s kingdom.

A heaven burdened by the mundane details of legal exactness might be taken to betray a certain pessimism about the prospects for salvation. If the kingdom is governed by laws, it would be natural to think that entry was limited to the lawful. And if, as early Mormons supposed, many were deceived about who did and did not have God’s legal imprimatur, then presumably many would be denied salvation. Surprisingly, then, Joseph was also very optimistic about the prospects for all persons to be saved in God’s kingdom. At times, he and other early Mormons at least came close to endorsing universalism about salvation, if not avowing it outright.6 These commitments do not seem to sit well together. If everyone will be saved, why worry about laws and authority to gain salvation? If laws and authority determine salvation, then won’t salvation be limited to those who live God’s laws or accept God’s authority?

The aim of this essay is to navigate the tension between the seeming restrictiveness of Joseph’s legalism and the equally apparent expansiveness of his universalism. Here is one way of putting the question: If we believe that no one will be denied salvation, then why should we still accept only a church with authority from God to perform ordinances? The problem is that deference to legal authority in the absence of some subsequent benefit seems arbitrary. And in the case of ordinary laws, I think this skeptical view is exactly right. Arbitrary laws do not command our allegiance just because they are laws.7 However, I will sketch an argument that the kingdom of God is different. My response will be that be that relationships with other persons who have authority to perform ordinances is partly constitutive of salvation. That is, there is a value to being in relationships with persons who have authority from God. Ordinances symbolize and help to instantiate this relationship.

This thesis will hopefully be more perspicuous after setting out the problem in more detail. I will proceed in four sections. The first (§1) sketches the tension between legalism and universalism. Second (§2), I argue that the church’s authority over its members must derived from God’s authority. Next (§3), I claim that salvation requires living principles that both authoritatively issued and arbitrary. Finally (§4), I describe two ways in which authoritatively sanctioned ordinances outlined in Mormon teaching could help to constitute salvation.

At the outset, I should note that while my aim is to vindicate a set of commitments plausibly held by Joseph Smith and other early Mormon leaders, this essay is not centrally historical. It attempts a rational reconstruction of commitments similar to those of early Mormon teachings, not a historical explanation of them. So while I would count it as an advantage if the defense offered here did vindicate the actual historical teachings of early Mormonism, that project is beyond the scope of this paper.


In this section I will state three commitments, which I will hesitantly attribute to early Mormonism. These include:

(1) Universalism: It is not the case that anyone is denied salvation who wants to receive salvation.

(2) Legalism: Ordinances are of no use if they are not administered by legitimate authority.

(3) Instrumentalism: Ordinances are a necessary means to salvation.

First, Joseph often sounds universalist in his rhetoric of salvation. He envisioned a God whose work and glory was to save his human family, and who had the power to do it.8 This achievement was not in doubt: God would ultimately “complete the salvation of man” and would “redeem all things,” thereby sanctifying the earth.9 Although Joseph sometimes expressed uncertainty about who would be in the celestial kingdom, he seemed to regard universal salvation as at least possible. He admonished the saints to “pray for the salvation of all,” including of their enemies.10 Further, individual members of the church could “act for their friends who had departed this life,” becoming “secondary saviors” in Zion, themselves for all who were just “willing to obey the requirements of the law of God.”11

The case for Joseph’s universalism is not unambiguous, and his view was probably evolving over time. Rick Grunder, for example, claims to discover anti-universalist language in the Book of Mormon, which launches several polemics against skeptics about the reality of a hell awaiting the wicked after this life.12 Because Joseph receives a revelation in March, 1830—the same month the Book of Mormon was published—that denied “eternal punishment” was “punishment of an endless duration,” Grunder concludes that Joseph must then be cribbing a universalist slogan. Without another explanation, Grunder accuses Joseph of doing an “about face” on the issue.13

Is there no way of fitting Joseph’s writings together? Given the diverse cast of characters whose views are represented in the Book of Mormon, it is probably unreasonable to hope for anything more than a loosely allied co-authorial voice uniting book’s teachings.14 Still, the Book of Mormon does contain the universalist idea that if one desires to be saved, then that person will receive salvation.15 This is compatible with a persistent hell, but is also compatible with a species of universalism. Distinguish between a universalist view that holds all persons will receive salvation, and one that holds that no one will be denied salvation. The first view is about providing a benefit to everyone; the second is about denying a punishment to anyone. The Book of Mormon denies the former, positive sort of universalism as a kind of unjust infringement on the freedom of moral agents.16 The Book of Mormon affirms the latter, negative sort of universalism. The negative unversalist proposal coheres well with Joseph’s later revelation that those who receive less after this life will be the people who were not willing to enjoy the greater things that they might have received.17 Accordingly, I have formulated the universalist principle above negatively.

Second, Joseph and other early Mormons repeatedly emphasize the thesis that I am here calling legalism: Ordinances’ efficacy depends on legitimate authority. There is a close connection between law and salvation. Joseph explained that “any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a Celestial law & the whole law to[o].”18 The motif of legalism extends to nearly all prominent early expounders of Mormonism. Ordinances must be carried out by an “ambassador” of Christ, or else—like a broken legal contract—they are “null and void.”19 These ambassadors of Christ must baptize in accordance with the laws of Christ if the baptisms are to have any efficacious effect. The need for legality is sometimes framed in terms of a kind of correspondence of mirroring of the pattern in heaven.20

A third, related commitment is important to securing the tension asserted above. I have called this instrumentalism—which holds that ordinances are a necessary means to salvation. Joseph wrote, “If a man gets the fulness of God he has to get [it] in the same way that Jesus Christ obtain it & that was by keeping all the ordinances of the house of the Lord.”21 The prophet here uses the language of instrumentality to describe the connection between ordinances and the “fullness of God.” Ordinances are “the way” of obtaining the desired end. Discussing baptism for the dead, the prophet is more explicit, explaining that by “engaging in rites of salvation substitutionally,” those who have already received the ordinance “became instrumental in bringing multitudes of their kin into the kingdom of God.22

There is at least some evidence that Joseph Smith and other early Mormon leaders were inclined to accept the universality of salvation, the importance of legal administration, and the instrumental connection between legal administration and salvation. Any two of universalism, legalism, and instrumentalism are compatible. One could affirm universalism and legalism together by holding that ordinances will be performed for everyone, so the necessity of legal ordinances for salvation is not a constraint on the universal access to salvation. Universalism and legalism can be affirmed together by holding that legal ordinances provide a unique benefit which cannot be received in any other way, but that benefit happens not to be salvation. Thus, legalism would impose a meaningful constraint on access to some good, but that good would not compromise universal salvation either (because it would be something else). Likewise, one could affirm legalism and instrumentalism. In which case: legal ordinances would meaningfully constrain the provision of some benefit; that benefit would be salvation; but salvation need not be universal, so a constraint on who achieves it poses no logical problem.

So there is no trouble with believing any two of the three commitments outlined here. The problem is in affirming all three. Universalism allows salvation to be accessed by all; legalism requires that ordinances must be legally administered to be beneficial; and instrumentalism connects the constraint imposed by legalism to the benefit promised by universalism. And so, a trilemma: We can accept that salvation is available to all, that ordinances must be legally administered, and that legal ordinances an essential means to salvation—but we cannot accept all of these together. Or at least, this is almost true. This caveat is important, because the three claims are not strictly sufficient to generate a contradiction. One could believe that salvation is available to all, and that it is made available to all by way of ensuring that for every person, the legally authorized ordinances are performed. So, one might then wonder: If the contradiction is so easily avoided, why think there is still a tension between these three commitments at all?

The answer to this question is that believing all three appears to render the motivation for legalism mysterious. Given the assurance that not only will ordinances will be done for all, but that they will also be done by the right authority, there would seem to be no reason to expend much effort figuring out who had the appropriate legal authority. And yet, as I will argue in the next section, early Mormons thought it was crucially important to locate those representatives from God who had been authorized by him. So the tension in accepting legalism, universalism, and instrumentalism is that doing so apparently obviates the need for attending to and following the right authorities, but this need is not something that Mormons would have been willing to give up. Universalism, legalism, and instrumentalism must not only be true, they must be true in a way that maintains the deliberative relevance of the Gospel. Call this the deliberation condition. Failing to satisfy the deliberation condition merely returns us to the condition with which we began: Why should we accept only a church with authority from God to perform ordinances?


The aim of this section is to sketch an argument in support of the conclusion that a church must have authority from God. In making this argument, I will trace the dialectical strategy employed by early Mormon missionaries in debates with representatives of other faith traditions (as well as by Joseph Smith in his public sermons).

A few preliminaries. I will take it for granted that God has authority in the lives of his children. I will say that for two agents A and B, A has authority with B when A’s request that B perform some action (Φ) gives B a reason to Φ, and B’s reason obtains at least partly in virtue of A’s request.23 I will also assume that God has a certain kind of authority with his children. We do not believe that God has authority in our lives only because he knows more than we do—his authority is not merely epistemic. Nor do we accept that God’s authority follows from his superior power—what might be called Hobbesian authority. I defend these claims elsewhere, but I regard them as intuitive. It is not enough for God to have authority that he have either great knowledge or power, since we do not regard other real or imagined beings of great power or knowledge as thereby worthy of worship.24 Jesus describes his authority with his disciples as akin to friendship (John 14), and it is an authority of this sort that I will have in mind. Call this practical authority: A standing in a person’s life to provide them with reasons to act merely in virtue of your request. I take this type of authority as characteristic of friendship: we have reason to do as our friends ask, even if they are not threatening us with penalties, or even if we do not think they have superior knowledge, or even if we regard the action they request as silly or pointless. We have reason just because of the relationship.

There is a genuine substantive question about how God has authority in our lives. I will set this aside for now, and just assume that God has such authority. Instead I will be interested in the authority of the church. Early Mormons believed the restored church to have authority—at least in the practical sense described above and perhaps in other ways as well. That is, they regarded the church as a source of reasons for other people to act. Indeed, as described above, their very salvation depended on identifying and responding to such reasons.25 And early Mormon leaders were emphatic that the church had to have authority from God. If the church’s authority was not derived from God’s authority, it could play the salvific role for which it was intended. Mormon leaders sometimes developed this position by way of a political analogy. Authority from God was like authority from a political state: If a representative were not authorized by the state in question, none of his or her actions carried out in the name of the state have efficacy. They would not actually be the actions they purported to be. So it is also, Mormon missionaries maintained, with the Kingdom of God.

In a debate with ministers from several other churches, John Taylor argued that the concept of “minister” itself told in favor of the Mormon view. What it is to be a minister in government, business, or religion is to perform actions on behalf of some principle who has authorized such performances. He writes, “[A]minister plenipotentiary, or any other officer of England or France goes in the name, or by virtue of the authority which he has received for his nation. Whatever business he transacts is recognized by the nation, for he is the representative and authorized agent of that nation.”26 On the other hand, Taylor argues, “suppose I were to present myself to the French or English court, in the name of the United States, or of any other nations and had no credentials to show that I was legally sent, and begin to officiate in the name of that nation, they would either consider me insane, or take me up for an imposter.”27 Taylor’s polemical conclusion is that the ministers he faces in the debate are like his imagined case of a self-appointed ambassador: they must be imposters or else insane. As he puts it:

Yet I have before me three ministers, who profess to be sent of God, and to administer in the name of Jesus, who positively assert that God has not spoken or given any revelation for 1800 years. To use the words of one of them, “the awful voice of prophecy has spoken for the last time and the cause of inspiration is closed.” And they, too, come in the name of Jesus, and would have us believe that they are called and empowered by him to preach the Gospel. But how do they know that they are called to preach, they have no revelation, God has not spoken, inspiration has ceased…Perhaps, gentlemen, you will be able to tell me how you obtained your information…There are only three ways I know of to convey power or authority to make a covenant, or hold communication with another: 1st, by speaking: 2ndly, by writing, and 3rdly, by sending a messenger.”28

The structure of Taylor’s argument is straight forward. A minister is one who acts as an agent on behalf of some principle. So just from the concept of a minister, we can know that the only way to have authority as an agent it to be given it by the principle in question. In order for such a transfer of authority to take place, there must be some communication between the principle and the agent. But if the ministers Taylor debated deny the possibility of communication from God (either by speaking or writing or messenger), then they must not be ministers at all. They must be deluded or else imposters.

Taylor is not the only early Mormon to invoke the analogy with political authority in this way. Erastus Snow and Benjamin Winchester compared priesthood commission to state authority issued by commission to “Gen. Washington and others.”29 An early Mormon editorial connected the gift of “governments” with the priesthood and the kingdom of God.30 Joseph himself used a similar structure of argument to conclude that revelation must always attend legitimate church authority.31 William Gibson, the presiding elder of the Manchester Conference of the Mormon Church, uses the analogy of the self-determined ambassador in a debate with Woodville Woodman, a minister for the New Jerusalem Church. His point was the same as a Taylor’s: No one can appoint oneself ambassador, neither for England nor for God.32 For his part, Woodman regarded this maneuver as a defect rather than an advantage of the Mormon view. In the debate, Woodman dismisses Gibson’s demand for “accredited agents” from God, holding that the political analogy casts God as “not omnipresent,” but rather as suffering from all the deficiencies of ordinary political governance. Woodman accuses, “viewing God in the same light as he does Queen Victoria, he could not tell us what was the difference. He has no idea of God.”33 If God depends on agents in the same way the Queen does, then God is liable to being held hostage to the agents’ corruption and petty self-interest, much as the Queen is to her bureaucracy. Woodman concludes, “These are awful principles.”34 Curiously, Gibson does not respond by denying that the principles he espouses are awful; he just insists—like John Taylor—that they are entailed by the minister’s other commitments (“if they are awful principles, he has acknowledged them to be true”). Other early Mormons mount a more rigorous defense, agreeing that the political analogy shows God to be limited, but counting this as a theological virtue. Orson Spencer claims that if we imagine God who can “teach and govern worlds all worlds without the aid of other agencies,” then God would be somehow diminished—a mere “centreless, boundless spirit of ubiquity.”35

The basic point made by these early advocates of Mormonism is that there is a church with authority, then there must be some principle of transfer of authority from God to agents of that church.36 Note that this does not imply that the only way to have authority (of the sort described earlier in this section) is by being transferred or given that authority from God—or for that matter by any other agent. Persons can have practical authority in our lives without being given that authority by someone else. When I befriend a stranger or tell someone else to vote on my behalf in a department meeting, I am granting authority in my life to others in an unmediated way. Likewise, institutions can have authority without receiving it from God (or anyone else). Members of civic or fraternal organizations, or even fans of baseball teams, grant practical authority to an institution.37 Requests received by the institution will provide them with reasons to act in some ways rather than others—for instance by wearing team colors or attending a community fund-raiser. Yet, nowhere is there any suggestion that God must have transferred authority to the baseball team or the Lions’ club.

So the real issue was never that there could not be authority without receiving it from God. There issue was that there could not be the right kind of authority. A self-appointed ambassador might still have authority, if she or he happens to be extremely knowledgeable or powerful or—as the Reverend Woodville suggests—simply has good political connections. But the self-appointed ambassador would not have the authority of Queen Victoria. And again, a church which had not been transferred authority from God might still have authority, but it would not be the authority of God. Lacking God’s authority just happens to be a problem for an institution that purports to have God’s particular authority. If Taylor, Gibson, and other early Mormons are right, their debate opponents face this dilemma because they claim to be called as ministers by God.

Lastly, consider a minister who tried to resolve this problem by denying that their church had authority from God (saying instead that it had authority in some other way). This move would be fine for a sports team or a community organization, but does not look promising for a Christian church. The church’s distinctive purpose is to provide a relationship with God. If God’s authority does not figure in the church’s authority, it is not clear how the church would enable such a relationship. Adhering to the church’s institutional requests will only count as doing what God asks if the church’s requests are relevantly transferred from God.38 Acting on God’s authority, early Mormons believed, represents a significant way of sharing a relationship with God, including sharing in God’s capacities and virtues. These could be received by way of transfer—via channels of legitimate spiritual authority—as “gifts.”39 Having a church with authority from some source other than God would involve forgoing the church’s most central role.


The last section tried to show how a church’s authority must be from God. This section will hold that the laws of heaven must depend on authoritatively issued principles. Hopefully it will become clear in a moment that this claim is nontrivial. Here I am using the “laws of heaven” as a technical term for the normative principles accepted and lived by those who enjoy he life which is characteristic of heaven (in Mormon theology, these are the laws of the Celestial Kingdom).40 As long as one believes that those who enjoy salvation will live according to some normative standards, and one is not skeptical about the possibility of salvation, it will not be necessary to further specify the content of these laws. To argue for this section’s conclusion, I will also introduce one other technical term: the moral law. By the moral law, I will just have in mind those set of principles that constitute moral requirements and prohibitions. I will assume that there are moral requirements and prohibitions, and that these are normatively binding for persons.41

Having assumed that there are laws of heaven and moral laws, we may now inquire about their relationship. One possibility is that the moral law is sufficient for salvation in heaven. (This may be meant either instrumentally, or constitutively. That is, it could mean that living the moral law is sufficient for gaining entry to heaven, or that those who enjoy a heavenly life will just be those who live the moral law.) The point is that the moral law and the laws of heaven are, on this option, extensionally the same. Now, if the moral law is sufficient for salvation, then that might be because the moral law determines the laws of heaven. In other words, the laws of heaven might be decided by whatever morality says. Take whatever theory of morality you regard as most plausible, and then use that same theory for setting the laws of heaven. If you think morality forbids lying, stealing, and cheating, then you can infer that the laws of heaven also forbid these activities, etc. Alternatively, you could reverse the direction of fit, and hold that the laws of heaven determine the moral requirements.42 One way of holding this view would be to adopt a divine command theory about the moral law. One may be begin by taking for granted one’s preferred theory of the laws for salvation, and then thinking that these laws (and only these laws) are also morally required.

The problem is that neither of these options looks appealing. Suppose that we hold that moral laws determine the laws of heaven. Taking this position makes the laws of heaven look redundant with the moral law, and therefore irrelevant. Religion has nothing distinctive to add to human practical reasoning if it merely affirms that those who keep moral requirements are also living the laws of heaven. One could just ignore the laws of heaven and focus on morality. Call this the problem of irrelevance. On the other hand, if the laws of heaven determine the moral law, then anyone who does not follow the laws of heaven would also be failing to do what was morally required. But if this were the case, then merely believing in laws of heaven at all would commit one to thinking that persons who do not share one’s conception of heaven are thereby morally deviant. Call this the problem of exclusivism. Together, the problems of irrelevance and exclusivism form a dilemma for the claim that the moral law is sufficient for salvation.

Joseph Smith and other early Mormons denied that their religion was either irrelevant or exclusivist. They believed that there were morally good persons who were not Mormon, and who held different views about the content of the laws of heaven.43 But they also believed that Mormonism contributed something unique and significant that called for practical attention. It was not irrelevant. To consistently avoid the dilemma, then, these early Mormons should deny that the moral law is sufficient for salvation. And in fact, this is exactly the consequence of Joseph’s vision specifying what salvation is like. In that vision, Joseph sees three degrees of glory. The divide between the middle and lowest degrees of glory is marked out by the distinction between those who are “honorable men of the earth” and those who are not.44 The honorable persons in the middle and highest degrees of glory are those who are “just.”45 Remarkably, Joseph seems to use “just” in a philosophically ordinary way. The “just” comply with moral requirements—they do not steal, murder, lie, etc. Those who are unjust flout moral requirements.

The highest degree of glory—which Joseph called the Celestial Kingdom—is enjoyed by those who are just, who also act according to the laws of the Celestial Kingdom (which is Mormonism’s specification of what I am here calling the laws of heaven). To recap, this means that morality is not sufficient for salvation, so the moral law is not the same as the laws of heaven. This is not because morality is irrelevant to salvation, however. That would have been a surprising result, given that religious principles in general—including Mormon religious principles—are commonly regarded as morally significant in some way. Instead, the gap between the moral law and the laws of heaven is explained by the moral law’s being necessary but insufficient for salvation. The laws of heaven must therefore include, inter alia, requirements that are not supported by any moral requirement or prohibition.

This further claim also arrives without much surprise. It is ordinary for religious principles to be regarded as normative for the members of the religion but nevertheless morally irrelevant. For example, religious dietary restrictions—such as those observed by Mormons—are not usually thought by their members to be morally required. Mormons do not today (or, as far as I know, in the past) tend to resent or blame non-Mormons who do not live the Word of Wisdom, or pay tithing. In short, they do not regard noncompliance with these rules as morally wrong.46 The moral irrelevance of some religious rules makes sense, because if the argument of this section is correct, the laws of heaven must extend beyond those principles supported by reasons offered from moral laws. That is, they must be arbitrary with respect to the moral law.

One further premise is needed. The laws of heaven must also rules we have reason to follow. It is a feature of accepting a religious principle that one also regards oneself as having reason to follow it. If I believed I had no reason to follow my own religious principles, one might doubt that I really accepted them as my religious principles at all. Like other religionists, early Mormons treated their religious principles as authoritative for them, or as providing them with reasons to act. However, if the laws of heaven are, as I have argued, morally arbitrary, then they lack any independent reason to follow them. They are not instrumental in the narrow sense: there is no end achieved by dietary restrictions, for example (not all such restrictions have an apparent connection to health, or any other welfarist value). If a system of religious principles is morally arbitrary but nevertheless normative for the religion’s followers, then there must be some other source of reasons to comply with the principles. Because the source cannot be located in an independent set of reasons favoring the principle, it is most plausible to suggest that the source is some practical authority. Moreover, there is no puzzle about how there could be reasons to do something arbitrary, provided that some authority asked one to do it. We routinely heed the requests of our friends and family, even when we regard the contents of their requests to be pointless. When persons occupy a position of authority in our lives, we have reason to support their ends, and this reason is quite independent of what those ends are.47

In sum: the laws of heaven are not the same as the moral law. To play the role we want them to play, the laws of heaven must be arbitrary from a moral point of view. Either we have no reason to comply with the laws of heaven, or else we have reason in virtue of the source of those laws. Because we take ourselves to have reason to comply with laws of heaven, it must be the case that those laws are issued by an authoritative source. And so, the religious principles that govern salvation must be authoritatively issued.


The last two sections have argued, respectively, that the church must have its authority from God, and that salvation must involve principles that are issued by an authoritative source. These two claims suggest an intuitive fit: if salvation must depend on an authority, and a church must have authority, then perhaps a church is the right sort of institution to facilitate salvation. So far, though, this fit only adumbrates an answer to our original question: Why accept only a church with authority from God to perform ordinances? The answer that I take it to hint at is this: Perhaps a church with such authority could provide the principles that would enable salvation in some way, and this fact is what would justify our allegiance to such a church. This answer is merely a formal one. How could actual religious principles or practices so powerfully impinge upon our prospects for salvation? In this section I will suggest two ways in which authoritatively prescribed religious ordinances could partly constitute our salvation. First, they could provide religious practitioners with a home in time. Second, they could ensure moral equality among a community of believers.

In his writing and sermons, Joseph Smith often connects salvation with the idea of home. Immediately before beginning the account of “the vision” of kingdoms of glory, Joseph describes heaven as “the saints’ eternal home.”48 The Book of Mormon teaches that at death, everyone is taken home to the God who gave them life.49 Early hymns anticipated Zion as a sought for home where the saints would find refuge and rejoice.50 Similar to a broader Christian tradition, heaven is understood on a familial analogy, with God as a parent and the saints as God’s children.51 The Mormon conception of God’s kingdom—whether in this world or the next—borrowed the model of home for explaining and anticipating the kinds of relationships that would be enjoyed there.

Home is normatively significant because it offers both familiarity and security.52 We are at home when we are around people who understand us, and in whose company we better understand ourselves.53 We share commitments with others at home, including commitments to common projects and to other persons.54 Discovering someone else from one’s hometown or home state can be an immediate source of new feelings of fraternity with another person. Because of its permanence, we see home as a locus of stability and comfort in an otherwise inconstant world. Home has its own distinctive phenomenology—there is something that it feels like to go home. The smells, sounds, or tastes we associate with home can take on a special status of their own.

Dislocation from a physical home can be a source of discomfort and longing, and so too can dislocation within time. We have reason to want not only a home in space, but also a home in time. The philosopher Samuel Scheffler explains:

A home is a tiny piece of the world to which we lay claim, and which we experience as our own. It is, in a sense, our world. This is one reason why homelessness is such a terrible condition, even if one does not lack for shelter from the elements. Those who have no home have no place in the world. But we are all homeless in time. That is, we cannot carve out a piece of time that becomes our own and to which we can return at will. The constraints on our temporal mobility make this impossible. Yet the vastness and impersonality of time are every bit as chilling and awe-inspiring as the vastness and impersonality of space, and the need for a refuge —for something that serves the function of a place in time—is, for many people, almost as strong as the need for a place in space.55

As Scheffler points out, we cannot return to any point in time in the way that we can return to our physical home. Much as we might want to, the occasions of beloved memories are not places that we can actually revisit. However, Scheffler notes that this need not render us completely homeless in time. By enacting special occasions in a way that mirrors their performance in the past, we can recapture a central aspect of those prior experiences. Scheffler proposes that traditions inherit their normative significance from the reasons we have for wanting a home in time. By ensuring the resemblance of future events to past experiences, traditions help us return to previous times. We can thereby mark out a piece of time as our own, and—in a sense—save it from slipping away entirely. In this way, traditions provide at least a working facsimile of a home in time, and this home is enough for us to associate the same sense of security and stability with cherished traditions that we identify with home itself.

My proposal here is that the significance of a home in time may help illuminate Joseph’s insistence of legalism. Requiring that ordinances be performed in exactly the same way, with exactly the same words, and with the same authority as they had been performed on prior occasions offers a way of making vivid the connection between present and past. Religious rituals of this sort share with traditions the ability to use repetition to demarcate a home in time. So it is not surprising that Joseph Smith would emphasize how ordinances can secure inter-temporal linkages. Baptism for the dead, he taught, was how generations of parents and children would be “welded together,” eventually encompassing all of God’s human family.56 The metaphor of “welding link” between “fathers and children” itself suggest the concern for security;57 there needed to be a connection that would afford the sense of protection and place that families enjoy when they are physically together.58 If the earthly and heavenly kingdoms are God truly afford sanctuary to God’s peoples from all generations, there must be a way of united their different times together. They must be provided with a home not only in physical space, but a home in time as well.

Another benefit of authoritatively required ordinances can help secure equality among participants within the religion. This is the second way in which I will suggest that ordinances could be connected to salvation. Through participating in ordinances, persons make covenants or promises with God and with each other.59 Understanding the normative significance of promising may shed light on the normative significance of ordinances. Although there are a wide variety of theories of promising, I will pay particular attention to Seanna Shiffrin’s.60 Shiffrin begins by considering the problems associated with an inability to make promises. To see the idea, suppose my friend and I plan to go on a trip together, but we cannot promise each other that we will go. Although we share an intention to go, that intention is not attended by any obligation.61 If it happens that our planned excursion is more important to me than it is to my friend, I will be in a position of vulnerability with respect to possible changes in my friend’s plans. I may fear my friend getting a better offer, or just deciding not to go. If my friend cannot promise her attendance, I will be unable to rule out these possibilities. Consequently, I will not be able to feel confident in my own plans. So the inability to make promises has at least two normative consequences. First, it curtails the opportunity for persons to have relationships of equality. Second, because it presents an obstacle to making plans, it compromises an individual’s autonomy.62

To make a promise, then, is in part to issue a guarantee that “certain opportunities to exploit the imbalance of vulnerability, to leave someone vulnerable, or to allow the hazards of vulnerability to unfold will be forsworn.”63 Promises enable persons to act together, as moral equals. Derivatively, they also enable persons to be more free: to make plans extending into the future that rely for their success on the actions of others. When believers participate in ordinances, they make promises to God, and receive promises from God. This can help to secure relationships of equality with other members of the church, as well as a kind of equal relationship with God. Through promises to each other, the citizens of God’s Kingdom can forge relationships of commitment necessary to sustain the shared work necessary to build Zion—even when it is not in one’s own self-interest. But equality among God’s people does not seem to have only instrumental value. Instead, relations of equality are fundamental constituents of any Zion people.64 Not only are there no poor in Zion communities, but there is no differentiation in status or prestige.65 The state is correspondingly organized with a strict prohibition against any laws that would bring citizens “onto unequal grounds.”66 Being able to think of oneself as one among other equals is part of what it is to build a community organized in the image of heaven. This security in acting with others is part of what it is to be free.67

The aspiration toward equality was important to the formation of the early Mormon community, as well.68 For the Saints tasked with building a modern Zion city, Joseph reasoned that if heaven involved equal relations, then the kingdom on earth required them as well. He wrote, “if ye are not equal in earthly things, ye cannot be equal in heavenly things.”69 On the account offered here, promises create the conditions of equality by allowing persons to obligate themselves to each other. Obligations undertaken by promises remove inequalities that would otherwise exist. Thus, obligation and equality are fellow travelers. This account is one way of giving expression to Joseph’s idea that the saints must be “equal in the bonds of heavenly things.”70

Perhaps even more important, ordinances help create a relationship of equality between God and his children. The God of the New Testament, and in particular the God of Joseph Smith’s scriptural writing, shows great care to allay the fear that he will abandon his people.71 There is not so much as a shadow of changing in God.72 Through ordinances, God’s people can ritually remember the constancy of God’s commitment to them. Just as promises in general allow for greater independent action, God’s promises to his people allow them to act on their own initiative. And that is how God would have it. Rather than having to “command in all things,” God wants his children to “do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”73 In secure covenantal relationships, God’s children can be confident that their actions will be sustained by God. By creating (and ritually re-creating) relationships of security, God and his children can act together as friends, rather than as master and servants.74 Consider Joseph’s phrase for a culminating ordinance: receiving the “Holy Spirit of promise.”75 Holy Spirit of promise provides, in the assurance of God’s continuing unity with a person, a kind of final security in one’s salvation. If promises ordinarily forswear vulnerabilities, it is fitting that the promise of God’s own companionship should permanently defeat the most ominous vulnerability of all—hell itself.

The dual benefits of ordinances described in this section—a home in time and an assurance of equality—need not be understood as independent of each other. In a Nauvoo sermon not far from the end of his life, Joseph tells the saints assembled that after his death, he would like to be buried there, and he would like his friends and family to be buried with him. If they die in “foreign lands,” he would like them to be brought “up hither, that we may all lie together.”76 He then relates a vision of his family’s resurrection. In the vision, they would “lie down together locked in the arms of love,” and when they arose, they would “embrace & renew their conversation.” “What would be the first joy of my heart?” he asks. “[W]here is my father—my mother—my sister. they are by my side I embrace them & they me.”77 In his poignant reflection, Joseph imagines his family and friends surrounding him side by side in an intimate setting, at home, and free from the temporal divisions that threatened to separate them in morality.

The purpose of this paper has been to argue that this kind of association is not just a means to salvation, it is the way of life that is constitutive of salvation, itself. Joseph Smith’s legalistic insistence on ordinances performed by the right authority makes sense when separated from the thought that that such ordinances are narrowly instrumental—that they are just means to some further end. Instead, ordinances instantiate the very conditions that comprise salvation: equality needed for free, autonomous action and an environment of security within which to exercise that freedom. The problem that set up the puzzle motivating this paper was based on the idea that legalistic rules and ordinances must be a kind of necessary condition or constraint on salvation. Instead, they help constitute salvation. They are part of what salvation is. Although this essay has somewhat hidden this claim till now (for the sake of the story), Joseph Smith did not. In response to his own question, “What constitutes the kingdom of God?” He answers, “Whare there is a Prophet a priest or a righteous man unto whom God gives his oracles there is the Kingdom of God, & whare the oracles of God are not there the Kingdom of God is not.”78 The “legal administrator” Joseph insisted upon is just one part of the God’s Kingdom. The laws of the Kingdom of God are not, on this model, designed as barriers to those without. The laws of the kingdom are tools for empowering those within.


Even if we take for granted that no one will be denied salvation, there is reason to accept a church with legal authority from God. That reason is given by the values of being a member of a church with that authority. In this essay, I have characterized those values as components of salvation. It might be puzzling how this could be, since religious requirements and rituals seem arbitrary. Their arbitrariness from our point of view tempts us to reason that if they matter at all, they must matter to someone else. And if they matter to someone else, it is hard to see how their performance could be part of our salvation, rather than just an instrument to that salvation.

However, I have argued that the laws of heaven must be arbitrary. Otherwise, they would not be importantly distinct from general moral requirements—as we intuitively believe them to be. If they are arbitrary but we still have reason to comply with them, then it follows that they must be issued by an authoritative source. The request or command that we follow them must be what gives us a reason. This helps to account for the connection, affirmed by many early Mormons, between authority and salvation. But even if following authoritatively issued principles could be salvific, it doesn’t follow that just any principles will actually have the desired effect. The paper’s final section argued that the use of ritual ordinances can contribute to salvation.

Joseph Smith famously declared that God would “have a tried people,” warning that “it will be a trial of our faith equal to that of Abraham.”79 The warning stirs the fear that God might at least appear to ask something horrible of us, however poorly this fits with God’s assurance of love. There is another sense in which Joseph’s warning rings true. God’s people, like Abraham, will be asked to abide principles that they have no independent reason to keep. Although arbitrary, they are not pointless. Living arbitrary laws may be the only way to sustain the devotion and commitment necessary for creating God’s heavenly community of saints.80

1. Joseph Smith Diary, by Willard Richards, 3 October 1843, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1991). Also in Times and Seasons 4 (15 September 1843): 331-32.

2. Joseph Smith, “Letter to Isaac Galland, 22 March 1839,” p. 54. Available at JosephSmithPapers.org, at josephsmithpapers.org/paper/Summary/letter-to-isaac-galland-22-march-1839?p=4 .

3. Wilford Woodruff Diary, 22 January 1843, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith.

4. Joseph Smith Diary, by Willard Richards, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith.

5. These ideas date respectively to Hobbes and Kant. Leviathan, in E. Curley (ed.), Leviathan, with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994/1650); and, “The Metaphysics of Morals,” in Mary Gregor (ed.) Kant’s Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

6. For a discussion of this tension—to which I am also indebted for the puzzle motivating this paper—see Terryl Givens, “Joseph Smith, Romanticism, and Tragic Creation,” The Journal of Mormon History 38:3 (2012): 148-162.

7. Cf. A. John Simmons, Justification and Legitimacy: Essay on Rights and Obligations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

8. Moses 1:39.

9. Joseph Smith, “History, 1838-1865, Vol. A-1,” p. 195. Available at JosephSmithPapers.org, at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1?p=201. Although this quotation is followed by the ambiguous rider: “except that which he hath not put in to his power when he shall have sealed all things unto the end of all things.”

10. Joseph Smith, “History, 1838-1856, vol. A-1,” p. 224. JosephSmithPapers.org, at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1?p=230

11. 15 August 1840, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith. The idea of “secondary saviors” is discussed at length in Samuel M. Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology and the Mechanics of Salvation,” Journal of Mormon History 37:3 (2011): 3-52. For a more general discussion of universalism in early Mormon teaching, see Arnold H. Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse,” Journal of Mormon History 25:1 (1999).

12. For example, Grunder finds it suspicious that the wicked inhabitants of the city Antionum (cf. Alma 31) hold a universalist-leaning antinomian view of salvation.

13. Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source (Lafayette, New York: Rick Grunder—Books, 2008), vol. 2, p. 421.

14. Cf. for example, Joseph Spencer, An Other Testament: On Typology (Salem, OR: Salt Press, 2012).

15. Alma 41:5.

16. Cf. Givens, ibid. See also 2 Nephi 2; Alma 41:7; Helaman 14:29-31.

17. Doctrine and Covenants 88:32. This verse is put to dramatic effect in Terryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012).

18. Wilford Woodruff Diary, 21 January 1844, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith.

19. Parley P. Pratt and Judge Higbee, “An Address,” Times and Seasons 1:5 (March, 1840): 67. Thanks to Carl Cranny for this reference.

20. For additional discussion here, see Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate 1:1 (October 1834); Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 9 14.271-2 (April 1871); Orson Spencer’s Letter “On Water Baptism,” (Liverpool, 14 June 1847). Thanks to James Egan, Mie Inouye, and Carl Cranny for these references.

21. Joseph Smith Diary, by Willard Richards, 11 June 1841, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith.

22. 3 October 1841, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith. See also Times and Seasons 2 (15 October 1841): 577-78.

23. Here, and in my further discussion, I will follow Stephen Darwall, The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

24. I argue for these claims in “The Authority of God and the Meaning of the Atonement,” (ms).

25. Joseph occasionally suggests that if “professors of religion” do not accept the continuing need for oracles of God, then “they cannot escape the damnation of hell.” Wilford Woodruff Diary, 22 January 1883, Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith.

26. John Taylor, “Three nights’ discussion between the Revds. C.W. Cleeve, James Robertson, and Philip Carte, and Elder John Taylor, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France (Liverpool: Published by John Taylor, and for sale by F.D. Richards at 15 Wilton Street, and by agents throughout Great Britain and in Boulogne, 1850), p. 29.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. E. Snow and Benjamin Winchester, “An Address to the Citizens of Salem (Mass.) and Vicinity,” Times and Seasons 15 November 1841, 3:580. Thanks to Alan Clark.

30. Messenger & Advocate, 1:2 (November 1834), p. 27.

31. Joseph Smith, “letter to Issac Galland, from Liberty Jail, Clay Co., 22 March 1839,” JosephSmithPapers.org, at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letter-to-isaac-galland-22-march-1839?p=1

32. William Gibson, “Report of three nights’ public discussion between William Gibson, H.P., Presiding Elder of the Manchester Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Rev. Woodville Woodman, minister of the New Jerusalem Church,” (Liverpool: published by Franklin D. Richards, 1851).

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Orson Spencer, “Letter on the Priesthood,” p. 113.

36. I think there is a further question about what such a principle of transfer might be. Granting that God has authority with us, how can God simply transfer that authority to persons, such that those agents then have exactly the same authority in our lives as God does? I will not take this question up here, although I find it a curious and beautiful aspect of the Mormon view that such a transfer principle must involve “laying on of hands” on another person. The very act of transferring the authority needed to seal us to our dead family members offers a reminder of the special intimacy we have lost in our current relationship with them: that of physical touch.

37. Cf. Samuel Scheffler, Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

38. Again I pass over another issue, which is whether there could be accidental convergence between church authority and God’s authority. This premise would take more space to work out exactly.

39. See, for example, Orson Pratt, The Kingdom of God (Liverpool, 1848), part IV; “The Renewal of the Gospel Dispensation,” Gospel Reflector, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1841); Orson Hyde, “A Prophetic Warning to All the Churches: of every sect and denomination, and to every individual whose hands may it fall” (Toronto, 1836).

40. I believe that at least since Doctrine & Covenants 76 (citations are to the current version of Mormon standard words, unless otherwise specified), Mormons have accepted that there are such laws.

41. That is, I will assume some form of moral realism is true, but the details will again not matter for present purposes.

42. The question here is about which type of law grounds the other. On grounding more generally, see Gideon Rosen, “Metaphysical Dependence: Grounding and Reduction,” in Bob Hale and Aviv Hoffman (eds.) Modality: Metaphysics, Logic, and Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

43. Cf. Brigham Young, 3 December 1854, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool and London: LDS Booksellers Depot, 1855-1856), 2:139. For discussion, see Blair D. Hodges, “All Find What They Truly Seek”: C.S. Lewis, Latter-Day Saints, and the Virtuous Unbeliever,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43 (2010).

44. Doctrine and Covenants 76:75.

45. Doctrine and Covenants 76:17.

46. Resentment and blaming are the characteristic ways of responding to actions we regards as morally wrong. See R. Jay Wallace, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994); Stephen Darwall, The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

47. Cf. Kyla Ebels-Duggan, “Against Beneficence: A Normative Account of Love,” Ethics 119:1 (2008): 142-170; Christine Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

48. Joseph Smith, “History, 1838-1865, Vol. A-1,” p. 183. Available at JosephSmithPapers.org, at josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1?p=189 .

49. The Book of Mormon, Alma 40:11.

50. Emma Smith, comp., A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Kirtland, OH: F.G. Williams & Co., 1835, available at josephsmithpapers.org.

51. Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). For discussion within the early Mormon context, see Samuel Morris Brown, ibid; and Brian C. Hales, “A Continuation of the Seeds”: Joseph Smith and the Spirit Birth,” Journal of Mormon History 38:4 (2012).

52. My thanks to James Egan for this thought, which helped frame the construction of this essay.

53. For an elegant treatment of this subject, see J. David Velleman, “Family History,” Philosophical Papers 34:3 (2005).

54. Samuel Scheffler, “Projects, Relationships, and Reasons,” in R.J. Wallace, P. Pettit, S. Scheffler, and M. Smith (eds.), Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 247-69.

55. Samuel Scheffler, “The Normativity of Tradition,” in Equality and Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 297.

56. Joseph Smith, “Journal, Dec. 1891-Dec. 1842,” p. 199. Available at josephsmithpapers.org.

57. Ibid.

58. Doctrine & Covenants 130:2.

59. Joseph Smith uses “covenant” and “promise” in closely related ways. See Joseph Smith, “History, 1838-1856, vo. C-1, p. 1137. Available at josephsmithpapers.org.

60. Seanna Shiffrin, “Promising, Intimate Relationships, and Conventionalism,” The Philosophical Review 117:4 (2008): 481-524.

61. Cf. Michael Bratman, “Shared Intentions,” Ethics 104:1 (1993): 97-113.

62. Cf. Shiffrin, ibid.

63. Ibid, p. 519.

64. This is true throughout all of the scriptural narratives produced by Joseph Smith. See, for example, the definition of Zion at Moses 7:18.

65. Contrast Alma 1:26 and Alma 31:16.

66. Alma 30:7, 11.

67. 2 Nephi 2:27.

68. See, for example, Martha Sonntag Bradley, “Creating the Sacred Space of Zion,” Journal of Mormon History 31:1 (2005): 1-30.

69. Joseph Smith, “History, 1838-1856, vol. A-1,” p. 202. Available at josephsmithpapers.org.

70. Emphasis mine. Joseph Smith, “A Book of Commandments & Revelations of the Lord given to Joseph the Seer & others by the Inspiration of God & gift and power of the Holy Ghost which Beareth Record of the Father & Son & Holy Ghost which is one God Infinite & eternal World without end Amen,” Revelation Book 1, p. 145. Available at josephsmithpapers.org. See also Doctrine and Covenants 78.

71. Cf. N.T. Wright, Justification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). See also Mosiah 2:22; Alma 7:20;

72. Mormon 9:10; 3 Nephi 19:8.

73. D&C 58:27.

74. D&C 84:77; 93:45.

75. D&C 76:53; 124:124.

76. April 1843, Words of Joseph Smith.

77. Ibid.

78. Joseph Smith, 22 January 1843. Wilford Woodruff Diary. Words of Joseph Smith.

79. Joseph Smith, “History, 1838-1856, vol. C-1,” p. 904. Available at josephsmithpapers.org, at josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-1838-1856-volume-c-1?p=85 .

80. I am grateful to Terryl Givens and the participants in the 2013 Maxwell Institute Summer Seminar for an incredible six weeks of discussion, including very helpful discussion about this paper. Special thanks to James Egan and Mie Inouye (whose ideas on related topics inform my thinking here), and to Christopher Smith for frequent and useful advice and encouragement.