Salvation and Exaltation

I was looking over Elder Nelson’s talk from April Conference and I ran across this quote:

In God’s eternal plan, salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.

We often hear people repeat the cliche, “Heaven wouldn’t be heaven without my family.” Here, Elder Nelson apparently raises it to the level of doctrine.

When I first read the talk, I saw it as a typical laundry list of the things one must do to be saved. However, something more interesting is going on. The meat of the talk begins with Elder Nelson’s decision to define salvation and exaltation separately:

To be saved—or to gain salvation—means to be saved from physical and spiritual death. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, all people will be resurrected and saved from physical death. People may also be saved from individual spiritual death through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, by their faith in Him, by living in obedience to the laws and ordinances of His gospel, and by serving Him.

To be exalted—or to gain exaltation—refers to the highest state of happiness and glory in the celestial realm. These blessings can come to us after we leave this frail and mortal existence. The time to prepare for our eventual salvation and exaltation is now.

The difference appears to be that salvation is the means to overcome our individual mortal inadequacies; exaltation, on the other hand, appears to be the work to be done after we are saved. Probably you all have long seen this distinction, but for me it altered my notion of what my life’s goals should be.

Note that, in the talk, he gives two paragraphs to individual responsibility and twenty four to family responsibilities. These twenty-four are divided in half, with the first half going to things that I would tend to consider issues of individual salvation (commandment keeping, participating in ordinances, and so forth). However, Elder Nelson places them in a context that situates temple marriage as the end goal of mortality.

The emphasis in the second half appears to be primarily on parental responsibility to teach children and on children’s responsibility to support parents (dead or alive). This intergenerational linkage, created through the sealing power present in temple marriage, seems to become the difference between salvation and exaltation. Exaltation, in this sense, is very much a communal activity.

This talk has given me a lot to mull over. We see several trends in Mormonism made manifest and expanded. The family religion aspects of Mormonism, which have always been present but have been particularly emphasized since the publication of the Family Proclamation, have become thoroughly intermingled with our notions of personal responsibility in salvation (and they may have overcome them to some degree). The forging of the world into a great eternal family, which always seemed to be Joseph Smith’s goal, appears to have become the key doctrine on which we are looking to move forward. However, there is also less emphasis in this talk on convert baptism, as it were. It is briefly mentioned, but it appears that the emphasis on personal and familial conversion is being emphasized over our need/desire to spread the word to those who are unfamiliar with it. Does anyone else see this trend or is it just because I grew up outside of Utah County and now live in it?

In any case, this shift in doctrine, if it is such, seems to bring with it a notion of selflessness. Our own salvation is barely scratching the surface of what God seems to want from us; he wants our family, our friends…he wants us all back. In what way are we working, not only for our own salvation, but for the good and the beneficial to those around us? In what way are we helping them to feel God’s love, know God’s influence, enter God’s presence? If neither we nor they can be exalted without each other, shouldn’t that turn our hearts to Christ, his example, and toward genuinely becoming like Him?

Anyhoo, those are my thoughts on that talk. What think ye?

Comments

  1. This sounds like a direct quote from Jan Shipps. She made the precise argument 20 years ago, one Doug Davies has amplified in his Mormon Culture of Salvation. Can one of you knowledgeable types comment on whether gentile Mormon studies is making its way back into official pronouncements?

  2. And incidentally, this distinction between personal salvation and communal exaltation dates from earliest Mormonism. That I can vouch for from my own research in the pre-Utah period.

  3. I was thinking the same thing, smb (#2).

    I think your “Heaven wouldn’t be heaven without my family.” is simply retarded. Of course it will be. Saying that heaven isn’t heaven when God Himself says it is seems a bit futile.

    smb (#1), as you say, these concepts have been around in Mormonism for a long time.

  4. I am not saying that these notions are new (I thought I said I knew they were old). My point was that the notion of communal salvation being more important that personal salvation struck me as a new twist.

    J.,
    Ouch! I’m just glad that I didn’t invent the cliche. :)

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Interesting. There have also been other strains of thought in Mormonism. For instance, LeGrande Richards viewed salvation as simply being saved from death and hell (in that sense we’re near-universalists), and exaltation as achieving the CK. But others have tended to view salvation and exaltation simply as synonyms (usually, again, with reference to the CK). So making salvation personal and exaltation familial is adding to some significant semantic confusion in the meaning of those terms within our tradition. At least, at this point it’s not at all clear what those terms are supposed to mean.

  6. Single Sister says:

    But what if I don’t get married (and at almost 50, it is most likely I will stay single). I know, I know – I’m told that I’ll have a mate in the eternities (wife number 412 to someone who died in the fifteenth century?). However, my extended family are all non-members (and almost all anti–or-at-least-mocking-Mormon to some degree), so I won’t have them either. So no marriage here, wife #412 to someone I don’t know and no extended family. Hang that – I think I’ll go to the Terrestrial Kingdom. At least I’ll have my sisters and their families to hang out with.

  7. Single Sister raises a significant point, as does KB. It is worth noting that, my rhetoric aside, the communal salvation that Elder Nelson extols is, first and foremost, familial.

  8. Last Lemming says:

    I’ve been hoping for this talk to be given for years. McConkie led the charge in treating salvation and exaltation as synonyms. Nelson has done the Church a great service if he can just get us back to using the correct word for whatever concept we are talking about. Incidentally, we need a word for the Richards version of salvation (i.e. the near-universalist sense). I wish “redemption” were available, but the scriptures use it interchangably with “salvation.”

    I may be back with more on the general topic when I have more time.

  9. The thing is that the near universal Salvation/heaven is attested in Section 76 and in the KFD (the bookends of Joseph’s cosmology). I find the George Laub account of the KFD interesting, even if it is historiographically suspect. In it Joseph describes Jesus’ vision of the plan: “he stated he could save all those who did not sin against the holy ghost” Immediately after, Satan declares “I can save all even those who sined against the holy ghost”

    Willard Richards account is similar: “Salvation for all men who have not committed a certain sin[.] can save any man who has not committed the unpardonable sin”

    Wilford Woodruff’s account has an interesting aside regarding damnation: “God has made provision for evry spirit in the eternal world, and the spirits of our friends should be searched out & saved, Any man that has a friend in eternity can save him if he has not committed the unpardonable sin, He cannot be damned through all eternity, their is a possibility for his escape in a little time, If a man has knowledge he can be saved, if he has been guilty of great sins he is punished for it, when he consents to obey the gospel whether Alive or dead, he is saved, his own mind damns him”

  10. I enjoyed your post, John, and agree with the near-universal perspective on salvation, to the point that I would advocate assuming that everyone will eventually be saved to glory — our moral duty is to assume nothing less. I would also argue that exaltation should be understood as degrees of salvation generally, and not just within celestial glory — or in the glories beyond the celestial, as suggested by D&C 130.

  11. I’m a bit more down-to-earth here. As a mother of a son who has left the Church, I find this to be yet another invitation to feel really, really bad because we failed to “keep” him.

    Lately, I’ve begun to realize just what our son was dealing with as he matured. We knew there were problems from early on, and had him seeing a psychologist during elementary school years. As I’ve come to understand his particular challenges, I am simply in awe of how he has learned to cope. Using such new age things as aromatherapy, calming music, and yoga, he has found ways to tame the anger which held him for so long.

    I believe that I have received revelation in the temple regarding this particular child, and it had nothing to do with the difference between salvation or exaltation, or how bad I should feel that our family will not meet in the Celestial Room in the foreseeable future. The revelation was one of comfort, and also a strong thought that there are many paths to the Savior, and that this life is not the ultimate test, to be rewarded with a kingdom rather than a grade, but is a part of an eternal and REDEMPTIVE process.

    Most of us are still in the wading pool. If we allow ourselves to drown in guilt rather than celebrate possibilities and hope (not necessarily for the things we’re trained to hope for, such as church activity or temple marriage), we deny ourselves and others the joy we could all be sharing.

  12. BeckySueby says:

    What if you are like me and heaven will not be heaven if your family is there?

  13. A funny question, BeckySueby, which I’m going to answer seriously:
    So much of what we do in this life is to learn to love and forgive each other. Part of that process is death. We learn the depths of love when we experience the depths of loss. And I think there will be for all of us a moment when our resentments are peeled away and we see the wonders of those who’ve surrounded us.

    I hope this is so. I’ve made many mistakes as a parent. I am counting on my children forgiving me and seeing beyond my many flaws.

  14. Single Sister (6),

    Your words sound very similar to those I hear from my single sister, who is in her mid-40s. Her attitude is, “Why should I find comfort that I’ll EVENTUALLY have my own husband and family? I’ll EVENTUALLY see loved ones in this life who have died, yet I mourn at their funerals. Why shouldn’t I mourn the earthly family I’ll never have?”

    I don’t rebut that, and I can really empathize with that sentiment. I do rebut the notion that what faithful single sisters will get in the next life will be a lesser consolation prize like wife 412. That’s not the law of mercy or the law of justice in action.

    Just because you’re not getting something good that you deserve right now doesn’t mean you won’t be getting it in spades later. I think the Alma 41 lays that out pretty well.

    That goes for the current extended family situation, too. They may see the Plan of Salvation as a fraud’s pipe dream for now, but that could all evaporate in an instant at some point. Margaret (11) got it right — there’s an awful lot we don’t know about what our family members have actually chosen so far, and there are probably good reasons to have peace about what they may choose later on.

    On both family fronts, the law of restoration seems to indicate that your deepest hopes and wishes are a good indicator of what the Lord will restore to you in the eternities.

  15. This idea of communal salvation really seems to piss off individualistic-minded Americans. I think it’s one of the key sources of most of our problems with the broader American society.

  16. Margaret, this quote from Orson Whitney seems apt:

    “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught a more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.” (Orson F. Whitney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, p. 110.)

    Oh historians, do we know the original context of this quote?

  17. I would note that there is a parallel and competing tradition in Mormonism, as old as this one, that equates salvation and exaltation. I don’t think a definitive case can be made from our scriptures in favor of either tradition, and both are authentically part of our faith.

  18. Single Sister (6) – How do you know that Random Guy from the 15th century isn’t smoking hot? And you may only be wife #214 (or polyandry – he is husband #214).

  19. Thomas Parkin says:

    I just took it to mean that while we are saved as indivduals, in an exalted state with will have the association of families. So that in the process of insuring our individual salvation, we should also be mindful of the responsibilites we have towards our families – and, iirc, the talk pretty much proceeded like that. I didn’t take it to mean that every memeber of our family must be present in order to enjoy Eternal Life. Similarly, I don’t take the saying that we cannot be made perfect without our ancestors, and reverse, to mean that all our ancestors must be present in Celestial glory for us to enjoy Eternal Life. Rather, I think it simply means that the process of reaching towards salvation is impossible without our binding our hearts to them, and them to us.

    *begin sermon*

    As far as there being “many paths” to the Saviour, as Margaret has said.-

    There is an image I’ve had in my noggin that has helped me a lot in the last several months – among the most difficult of my life. I’m wandering in dark space, head down. I lift my head up and look for the Saviour and listen for His voice. And then, when I see and hear Him, I make a beeline straight off in that direction. That is the straight and narrow path, and the path of Grace. Right direct from where I am to where He is, literally and metaphorically. And the straight and narrow path is the same for everyone. It begins the moment we listen for Him and immediately begin moving to the sound of His voice – ie, we begin to exercise faith in Him. The reason the path looks different for each of us is that we all start in a different place. In our personalities, characters, experiences, etc. we may be polar opposites – and still be heading for Him. So that we shouldn’t wonder if someone seems to be heading towards Christ but we can’t recognize everything they are going through by observing our own lives, or, maybe, a common Mormon or Christian life. But that path is the same in that it must include faith, repentence, baptism, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. As we get closer to the Saviour, we grow in light and capacity, and we can eventually get to where we can see more clearly where other people are.

    I’m also learning that my own path to the Saviour may not look exactly how I imagined it would look. I rather imagined triumph following upon triumph. *cough* I’m learning that He has plans to deal with my problems that I’d just as soon skip over.

    */end sermon*

    ~

  20. BeckySueby says:

    Margaret, I guess it does sound funny, but it wasn’t meant in that way. At this point in my life, I have a hard time desiring to be with the vast majority of my family even for just a few hours much less for eternity. So, I often struggle when eternal families are discussed as something wonderful – not because I don’t believe or understand the doctrine, but because I have a hard time believing that the family that has been dysfunctional for all the generations I have known can become the healthy, loving family that I have always desired.
    I’m not a parent and most likely won’t be anytime during my life, but I imagine that having that perspective would change my feelings somewhat.

  21. Nora Ray says:

    I have been married to my one and only husband for 42 years. He is 72 years old and just became active in the church about 15 months ago, receiving the MP in October 07. Our marriage has had its ups and downs. I will stay with him and support him throughout mortality, but I do not expect to be sealed to him in this life and do not expect that either one of us will accept the sealing if it is done by our children after we die.

    Am I upset about this? Not really. I believe Heavenly Father loves us both. If I end up as a ministering angel instead of an eternal mother, so be it. I love to serve in this life and expect I will in the next as well. I will accept whatever my Father decrees. Salvation is important to me, exaltation not so much. Probably not the best Mormon attitude but it’s my own!

  22. BeckySueby–you may or may not know that my husband and I serve in the MTC. Last night, we welcomed six new elders to our branch. Our BP talked about the virtue of PATIENCE, and that the elders would have a new path to learn it: via their companions.

    I don’t know what kind of dysfunction your family presents. (I once gave my daughter a T-shirt which said, “I put the FUN in dysFUNctional.”) I know that a cousin of mine who was sexually abused by her father needed a month of walking on the beach to simply face and deal with the trauma she had kept so quiet.

    I believe in long walks.

  23. One of the fun things about PARTIAL family histories is the fact that divorces are not always mentioned. When the temple work was done for Jane Manning James, she was sealed to her ex-husband, Isaac. I’ve always wanted to write a story about a ghostly couple fighting and trying to get the message across “NO!! Don’t SEAL US!!!” as humble proxies are joined across the altar.

    Fortunately, I am quite certain that none of us will get stuck with a person we choose not to be with.

  24. Single Sister says:

    My mother was a difficult mother to have. Extreme poverty, an abusive father and then later an abusive husband, too many children (for her) and a significant depression problem made it difficult to grow up with her. In my young years I would literally cry out to the Lord – why? As I grew up and began to do genealogy, I began to understand why she was as she was as I heard her story from herself, her mother and my older sisters. I was her primary caregiver during her last years. It was still difficult to have her for a mother, and very stressful to try to deal with all of the emotional issues as I watched her die. However, I can truly say today, with no malice, that my mother did the best she could given her own emotional, financial and spiritual health. Could I say that I would be able to do any better if I’d had to live the horrific life that she led? No – knowing myself as I do, I would probably do much worse! She loved me, in her own way, and I loved her, in my own way. She did the best she could. And I take comfort in that.

  25. MY (#22), I couldn’t agree more. Although they are infused with real sealing power, I get the feeling that in many ways our temple efforts here in mortality are at best a pale reflection of the afterlife. Can you imagine being happy without your family? Can an abused spouse be happy sealed eternally to the abuser? The answer to both of those questions is of course “no,” no matter what a sealing power superficially implies. It follows that there is a reality and a justice and a mercy that transcends our efforts and our understanding.

  26. Single Sister,

    Further to your comment #6, I think there are plenty of single men who have died in the past several thousand years of wars, etc. to go around, so I wouldn’t relegate myself to a polyandrous celestial relationship just yet.;)

  27. I’m interested in what Elder Nelson’s doing with atonement theory here.

  28. Spektator says:

    It is not salvation we should seek in our personal quest but sanctification. To dwell with God we must be cleansed from all sin. We are sanctified by the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost. Through this process, we receive a remission of sins and can then truly lay claim to the ‘pure in heart.’

  29. crap.

    I was working on a post on this same talk and you’ve beaten me to many of my best points.

  30. Sam MB says:

    Margaret, note that I invoked “communal exaltation.” JSJ’s vision of the afterlife was not a victorian hearth. That was the heaven of his Protestant peers as the century progressed. Smith’s heaven was about both biological kinship and created associations. That said, it is sad to lose shared religious vision with one’s loved ones regardless of the theological framework.

    Where is Justin in terms of whether Elder Nelson is quoting Jan Shipps or Doug Davies?

  31. Pretty much everything I thought as I read the post has been said beautifully by Margaret. Thanks, as always, Sister Young.

    The one thing that struck me is something that was brought up in the gender/sex post: It is important to view this as the opposite of what is being taught elsewhere in “the world” of this day and age. We are surrounded by theologies that define the ultimate reward of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as individual salvation, received personally and uninfluenced by what happens to anyone else. Context counts, imho.

  32. BeckySueby says:

    Long walks and patience are definitely two good things. :)

    Like Single Sister my mother was rather difficult – that is probably too mild a term since I lived in fear (and quiet defiance) of her until I was nearly 30. But, I’m thankful that I didn’t have to grow up with her parents – they were much much worse. Helping to care for her now, as she has aged and no longer has the ability (nor desire I think) to strike fear into her children, has helped heal some of the bruises I incurred at her hand growing up. She suffers the indignities of her condition with patience and offers gratitude any time she is helped without finding any fault.
    While I can’t imagine it now, and at this time have only two siblings out of my six without whom heaven would not be heaven, I do have hope, as the atonement is applied to my family and all the hurts are healed, injustices corrected, and wrongs made right for as many generations as are necessary, that we will all be thankful that we are sealed to each other and enjoy being together for eternity.
    I know I have to work harder to have that vision now and probably should try to live as if it were already so. Maybe it would help make it happen a little sooner than eventually.

  33. Last Lemming says:

    I just took it to mean that while we are saved as indivduals, in an exalted state with will have the association of families. So that in the process of insuring our individual salvation, we should also be mindful of the responsibilites we have towards our families – and, iirc, the talk pretty much proceeded like that. I didn’t take it to mean that every memeber of our family must be present in order to enjoy Eternal Life.

    It certainly does not mean that every member of your family must be present in order to enjoy eternal life. But achieving eternal life involves more than just “minding our responsibilities” toward our families. For anybody to have eternal life, Zion must be established here on earth. One person simply cannot do that alone. Neither can two…or three. I don’t know how many it takes, but it is not a small number.

    Furthermore, no one person cannot take responsibility for assembling the requisite number. So we each take immediate responsibility for our own families, then expand that circle to our ward families, and so on. We will not succeed with every person, but every success brings us one step closer to Zion. We’re not just picking up brownie points by doing so, nor are we just trying to make the celestial kingdom a more pleasant place by populating it with familiar faces. This whole endeavor of establishing Zion could actually fail. We could end up in the Protestant heaven with nothing to do but sing God’s praises day and night. The scriptures are explicit that we without our dead cannot be made perfect. Do we think that it is only our dead that we need?

  34. Antonio Parr says:

    Amen to Spektator’s comments.

    We should live our lives in loving obedience to God and His commandments, relying in faith upon the Saviour to give us the grace of strength to live righteously, and the grace of forgiveness as we repent of our unrighteous failings.

    The idea of seeking exaltation is one that I find unappealing. I want to be close to the Lord, both in this life and the life to come, and trust him enough to leave all of the details to His perfect judgment.

  35. Antonio Parr says:

    (Late edit — replace “unappealing” with “uninspiring”.)

  36. “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught a more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.” (Orson F. Whitney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, p. 110.)

    Oh historians, do we know the original context of this quote?

    I don’t think I qualify as a historian, but Elder Whitney was my grandmother’s grandfather. According to family story, the context lies in Elder Whitney’s grieving anxiety for his own son who left the church. If I remember the story right, Orson’s son (I think his name was Albert Whitney) left the church and his wife when the kids (my grandma and her brother) were quite young. Because the wife (whose name escapes me now) had a hard time working and taking care of two kids in the depression, my grandma and her brother were basically raised by Orson (known in the family as “Grandpa Whitney.”

    My great uncle also left the church eventually. He served in the Navy in WWII. When he got back from the war he sat down in a diner in Ogden to eat lunch and began chatting to an older man next to him. After a nice chat, the old man asked him, he told him, and the old man responded in tears that he was his father (Elder Whitney’s Son) whom he hadn’t seen in decades.

    My grandma has recently made contact with some of her half-siblings who grew up outside of the church. One of her half-brothers gave us a family heirloom that his dad had lying around the house. It turned out to be a belt buckle from an old Nauvoo Legion uniform. Pretty cool.

    So, the context for the quote is that he was speaking from personal experience (probably a lot of tears and prayer), not just expounding doctrine.

  37. Last sentence of the third paragraph: “the old man asked him [his name]“

  38. I think i have some sources squireled away on the prospective salvation of offspring. the best treatment overall of the effect of covenant theology in Mormonism is Promises Made to the Fathers from u of u press.

  39. I love the promise to so many parents that wayward children will come back. However, what about us spouses who yearn for a spouse to return to the Gospel? No encouragement is given to us!! I have actually hoped to be with my wife forever but that seems threatened since my 16 year wedding/ sealing anniversary gift this year was finding all of her garments in the garbage, the final blow in her 10 month hiatus from the Church.

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