Joseph Smith Sr: The Link between Universalism and Mormonism
by James J. Buckley
A Universalist fathered the founder of the Mormon church. Joseph Smith Sr. of upstate New York, was the father of the controversial founder of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith Jr. The senior Smith’s unique place in this country’s annals does not rest solely on his paternal association with the originator of the only worldwide religion to have been created on our soil.
Today, there are many outside forces that are shaping our youth. But during the eighteen century and the beginning of the nineteenth, when relatively few children acquired a formal education, the main forces shaping their lives were their families and their families’ religion.
Joseph Smith Sr. taught his sons such survival skills as how to hunt, fish, plow, build and farm. But unlike many other farmers of that day, he also taught them how to read and write well. This was due to the fact that at one point in his adult life he had been a teacher. As a result, he and his wife Lucy Mack Smith taught their eleven children how to read and write in order that they could read religious tracts. And in the aftermath of his failure as a farmer, and then the death of his oldest son, Alvin, in 1824, he taught his children, by example, how to cope and triumph over adversity.
At one point in his farming days in Palmyra, NY, his wife observed that her husband was losing interest in all religious activities. This troubled her and she began to pray that her husband’s religious fervor would be reinvigorated. She later wrote that her prayers were answered and that her husband revived his religious fervor soon thereafter. And indeed, at a later date Joseph Smith Sr. stated that he had experienced seven divine episodes or epiphanies which led him back to his Universalist beliefs. Towards the end of her life, Lucy Mack Smith provided details of her husband’s description of five of the epiphanies.
According to his 6th son William Smith, as a result of such divine encounters, “My father’s religious habits were strictly pious and moral. (However) His belief in the ultimate and final redemption of all mankind to heaven and happiness brought opprobrium down on my father.”
This spiritual journey should be viewed through the prism of his upbringing. Joseph Smith Sr.’s own father had been a Universalist minister who had himself encountered spiritual happenings and had created a household where spiritual matters were an integral part of every day life.
At the time when John Murray was preaching the precepts of Universalism in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and nurturing that infant religion, there was another Universalist minister in the nearby town of Topsfield named Asael Smith who was equally assiduous in spreading the belief in Universal Salvation.
Born in Topsfield on March 7,1744, Asael also believed throughout his life that in order for a democracy to survive, everyone must be actively involved in its growth and maintenance. Such a concept is generally accepted today in theory if not in practice. But in the middle of the 18th century the idea that Democracy can only survive if everyone participates in its functioning was radical. If they had known them the Founding Fathers would certainly have been dismayed by Asael’s beliefs as they were tantamount to advocating, among other things, universal suffrage.
When he moved his family to Tunbridge, Vermont, Asael practiced both the civic and religious concepts he preached. He assumed a wide variety of civic positions including Selectman, Town Moderator, highway surveyor, and grand juror. But such a commitment to democracy never diminished his commitment to his beloved ministry.
In a letter written to his family that began with the salutation, “My Dear Selfs,” he wrote, ” God is just to all and his tender mercies are over all his works . . . there is no respect of persons with God, who will have all mankind to be saved . . . .”
Clearly, Asael firmly believed in Universal Salvation and communicated that belief daily to his family members.
When Asael’s third child, Joseph, married and relocated to New York, he continued to share his Universalist beliefs with his eleven children. As a result, Joseph Jr., the founder of Mormonism, was thoroughly imbued with the precepts of Universalism from his birth in December 1805 to his teenage years. He was also well acquainted with the firm belief of his parents that they had experienced divine intervention at a crucial period in their married life. When Joseph the younger announced in 1827 that an angel had appeared to him, announcing that sometime before, Jesus had appeared to the indigenous peoples of America, his claims could have been considered the ravings of a demented soul. Instead they were given credence, certainly among members of his family and subsequently among many who knew his family. Given the fact that both his parents had reported spiritual encounters with the Divine, he was simply reporting the latest divine interaction of that family. Certainly his parents were in no position to discount his claims. And their neighbors and friends who had believed the parental reports had little trouble believing their son’s accounts.
When Joseph Smith Jr. began to organize his church in 1827, he officially rejected all other religions, saying that he had been instructed by God to do so. However, the evolution of his Mormon church included logical extensions of Universalist tenets.
Given the fact that Universalists believed then as now in Universal Salvation, it is not surprising that while Joseph Smith Jr. rejected all other religions, he nevertheless subscribed to that belief within his sect. According to President Gordon B. Hinckley, the recently deceased President of the LDS Church, “Joseph Smith’s vision of man’s immortal nature reached from an existence before birth to the eternities beyond the grave. He taught that salvation is universal.”
And then he adopted the concept of Universal Sainthood. Indeed he was so convinced of this concept that he incorporated that belief into the title of his church. After all, if every true believer is going to be saved, then it is logical to assume that they are entitled to sainthood.
The next precept of the founder of Mormonism that flowed from Universalism (either consciously or sub-consciously) was the belief in Universal Priesthood. Again, if all true believers are to be saved, and all are saints, then all are entitled to be considered priests.
Those who may question the validity of the linkage between the two faiths, should note that Mormons currently recognize their Universalist lineage. As recently as October 2008, while giving an address at the prestigious Sidney B. Sperry Symposium at Brigham Young University, Casey Paul Griffiths claimed that Joseph Smith Jr.’s family had “heavy” Universalist tendencies and traditions due to the intercession of his father and that such a background was an important stepping stone in the development of Mormonism. For example, Griffiths emphasized the fact that Universalists had always been outside the mainstream of established religions. Therefore, as far as this Mormon scholar was concerned, Smith’s break away from all other religions was eased by the fact that his father’s (and grandfather’s) beliefs were often condemned and were held in opprobrium by many Christians in his day.
In addition, Griffiths said that the Universalist concept of a Loving God probably helped Joseph Smith Jr. to feel he could advocate Universal Sainthood. And Universalists’ rejection of a priestly hierarchy made it easier for Smith to advocate universal priesthood. Undoubtedly there are many, including some Universalists, who currently do not look kindly on Mormonism.
But regardless of their opinions, it is helpful to know the existence of this linkage between the two faiths and to be aware that Mormons have acknowledged Joseph Smith Sr.’s role in creating that linkage.
James Buckley holds an Ed.D. from Harvard and has written over 1300 published articles in the field of History.