Is Mormon Theology Pessimistic?

Is Mormon Theology pessimistic? Short answer: Yes.
Generally speaking, Mormons are pretty thoroughly Arminian in their outlook and as a missionary, I was occasionally questioned with some astonishment about my lack of complete salvation-assurance by certain Protestants. But some were on our side of things:

[The man or woman} that would stand still in the paths of piety must not be surprised if he or she finds that they go backward. You not only waste your time, but lose ground too: and will find, if ever you awake from your sleep, that you not only have less time to run the race in, but more course to traverse than you expect. If you do not constantly and daily strive against the storm of pornography and wickedness in general, wherewith the world is now flooded, you will be carried down with it. There is no resting mid way between heaven and hell. We must pursue our way to the former, or we will make quick advances toward the latter.

though a state of perfection is not to be expected in this world, yet we are commanded to aim at it with all our might: and whosoever voluntarily stops short of it, for all he knows to the contrary, stops short of the mercy of God.

I think Mormonism probably shares some of this feeling (which is preaching from a generation before Joseph Smith -ok I changed a few words in the sin department in the first quote[1]) that we are not saved with full assurance without faithful endurance until death (and maybe not even then in some circles–there is at least one theological thread of Mormonism that posits that falling from grace is possible in any state of grace). The reconciliation in revival Christianity of a mixture of Calvinism and Arminianism (a kind of permanent justification but growing -or sometimes sort of instant ala Benjamin- sanctification) more or less passed Mormonism by, perhaps because of the Utah isolation that facilitated a different theological evolution.[2]

In this state of existence we are saved potentially, but not fully and actually. That is, we perform those works of righteousness by which we obtain the assurance of the Holy Spirit that our souls will be saved in the kingdom of God.[3]

I’ve argued elsewhere that at least a part of Mormon cross-aversion stems from its Protestant roots prior to the 1850s. In a way, Mormonism has gradually changed one classical meaning of justification and combined it with the classical meaning of sanctification, at the same time keeping the terminology in place for some wonderful theological mashed potatoes.

Of course, salvation assurance has had some interesting manifestations in Mormonism, ranging from the High Priest sealings of the early 1830s to the mature manifestation of that in the “fulness of the priesthood” developments of 1843. Post 1843, that assurance was offered as an earthly reward to a reasonably large fraction of the faithful in the 19th century, if you had gathered to Utah anyway, and was done by proxy as well. It’s disappearance from common Mormon liturgy for the rank and file in the 1920s placed us in some sense back in a pocket of the pre-1850 Arminian camp and our preaching moved with it.

Joseph Smith’s placement of Mormonism betwixt the Presbyterians and Methodists in reference to assurance is still rather fascinating to me all the more since I don’t think we commonly acknowledge this, except in some semi-folklore recipes for the meaning of making one’s “calling and election sure” – a phrase that comes attached to steamer trunks of fact and fictional history. The fictional fill-in-the-blanks-speculation stems in part from the fundamental change in the view of assurance and its effectiveness, meaning and interpretation over the last 100 years or so. The epistemology itself is commonly seen as wobbly.[4]

In any case, enduring to the end is a doctrine that places us in a reasonably large historical group of Christians. No wonder ice cream is so popular in Utah. Everybody needs a little break now and then! <smiley>

[1] The reference to pornography was an update for John C..

[2] I use the term evolution in the sense that our theological developments (including Joseph Smith’s revelations) have mostly been connected to and responded to environmental factors.

[3] Surely a widely believed model of salvation among Latter-day Saints, this statement comes from the (old) Liahona (1907) 5/1:12.

[4] Once I cornered Selvoy J. Boyer of the SL temple presidency in his office (this was in the 70s) in the temple and asked him about 2nd anointings. His response was in two parts: (1) he said Pres. (Harold B. ) Lee had instructed them during his time that when young men came in(!) asking about the subject they were to tell them to butt out; (2) when I asked if any had been performed recently he said not since JFSII took office and then he made a very curious remark which I think originated from Heber J. Grant’s frustration over the meaning of this sacrament – “people get their blessings and then go and blab about it and lose them all.” So either telling someone you received a 2nd anointing is equal to murder or worse, or the character of the thing, or at least its perception, had changed. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the latter is true.

9 Responses to Is Mormon Theology Pessimistic?

  1. Dustin says:

    Buerger’s 1983 article in Dialogue certainly speculated that the wording/purpose of the ordinance you refer to had changed to a much more conditional one than it had been historically. Since no recent accounts exist (that I’m aware of), its hard to say for sure (Do we even practice it anymore? Probably?)

    But certain more modern writers, like Bruce McConkie, have certainly emphasized the idea of “calling and election sure” as an assurance of salvation, although they do not make it at all clear how one reaches an assurance in one’s own mind.

    • WVS says:

      Well, I think Buerger was correct, based on recent explorations (my own) and yes, they are sporadically done still.

      • Dustin says:

        I agree Buerger seems to be correct – just saying he did admit it was speculation on his part, basing his assumption on a conversation with a temple president.

        I asked a temple president a couple of years ago if they were still done, and while he was nice about it, he just answered that he wasn’t at liberty to say. Which leads the mind down all kinds of paths. So I never could decide if they are still done beyond “Probably”. But I’ll take your word for it (You’re the first person in the faith I’ve ever heard state it so definitively). 🙂

  2. Mark D. says:

    Joseph Smith was quite clear that one knows his calling and election has been made sure by personal revelation. This is completely consistent with 2 Peter 1:10,19 and D&C 131:5.

    • Dustin says:

      I hear you, but beyond “personal revelation” they don’t get much more specific. Can you trust a “feeling” that you have? Does it require a vision (I’m guessing they would say no). I guess if you know, you know. It isn’t as clearly demarcated as other things like we’re used to (i.e. I have been ordained and thus HAVE the priesthood, I have now RECEIVED the temple endowment, etc.) I definitely understand what you’re saying, and I can see it that way too… they did (and do) teach that you know by “revelation”, and if you honestly know by revelation, I guess you wouldn’t be doubting it.

      • Mark D. says:

        A vision hardly seems necessary, but in order to be sure an unmistakable impression would be required. One of those voice but not quite a voice kind of things perhaps.

  3. Mark D. says:

    As far as pessimism is concerned, I don’t think given passages like D&C 138:58-59 one can reasonably claim that Mormonism is pessimistic compared to most branches of Protestantism. That passage strongly suggests a nearly everyone will eventually be saved model, but only on condition of repentance. Compare 1 Tim 2:6.

    • WVS says:

      That is true, there is a kind of universalism going on in Mormonism, but most Saints would characterize the afterlife as having two divisions: “exalted” or not despite finer analysis offered elsewhere. In that sense it is quite pessimistic and JS may have used passages like 2Pet but he clearly connects them to the temple.

      • Mark D. says:

        Certainly in the mid to late twentieth century some church leaders downplayed the whole idea of salvation without exaltation. ‘salvation without exaltation is damnation’ for example. I tend to think that is more than a little opportunistic, but it certainly would account for why many have come to the scripturally unjustified conclusion that salvation is hell with a few feature upgrades.

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