The Gospel can provide succor in the face of tragic bereavement, both in the doctrinal truths it presents to us and in the communities that it creates and sustains—the living to “mourn with those who mourn,” and the dead to be bound to us in a perfect chain of priesthood. There are times, though, when these supports tend to fail. Not just the normal imperfections that prevent any belief system or community from entirely eliminating the sting of death and loss, but substantial failures that threaten our ability to cope with the death of a loved one at all.
Specifically, and particularly at times when we sound most like conservative Protestants, our beliefs and our communities have difficulty soothing loved ones when a struggling soul has passed away. Recently a good friend in the Pacific Northwest lost a sibling—one night animatedly drawing from a cigarette on the back porch, the next morning a cold body in the identical spot—who had struggled to fit into the Latter-day Saint mold. The details of the sibling’s life walk are not relevant; how the sibling and the family understood that life walk is.
This friend’s loss reminds me of others. I lost my father at the end of a perhaps even more troubled life than my friend’s sibling. In a less personal arena, I often encounter in my professional practice people and families who have struggled to fit in and get along as they move on to the next world. Particularly as they seek relief in soul-binding chemicals whose dosages can be difficult to control, these often young people leave unexpectedly, unintentionally, and in an exit mode marked by great shame and embarrassment. Their families are often shattered by their departure.
These passings are not the quiet expiration of the aged grandparent that we conjure as the fitting death (I am reminded of the beauty of Brad’s recent farewell to his grandfather). These are passages that make us doubt how well we have served the departed, times that we regret every situation where we fell short, moments when we struggle to believe that the deceased will be a part of our heavenly family. Sometimes we yell—at each other, at ourselves, at the cosmos. Sometimes we turn inward. Sometimes we turn to chemical substances to palliate our grief. When the dead did not fit our understanding of righteousness in life, the traditional religious supports for bereavement malfunction, sometimes catastrophically.
This problem has not been made easier by language addressed to the living, by the exhortations church leaders sometimes make to those who are currently struggling with inadequacy and sin. For some decades, there was a tendency, now slowly dissipating I hope, to emphasize just how pointless it was to hope for a blessed afterlife for those who rejected their opportunity for full church participation in mortality. When we hear the echoes of Elder McConkie’s angry dismissal of the hopes of a grieving widow whose husband refused church membership during life, there is at times a spiritual sourness in the back of our throats that chokes our souls.
When my deeply troubled father first died, I mourned him as one who was lost. It was easier for me to bear, I think, because we had never been close in life. As tragic as his life and death were, I felt confident that no amount of wishful thinking could change his fate. The die was cast when he expired. Over the ensuing years, I have discovered that many of my siblings and even my mother, his estranged wife, have made peace with my father. They have come to understand that he saw through a glass darkly, and that in death he has been liberated to reach his true potential. Until recently, I suppose, I have been agnostic on this point, glad to see the emotional healing that was taking place but skeptical that his problems could be resolved by our memorial goodwill. No amount of wanting it to be so could change his failed life to the preface to a celestial afterlife.
In my research in early Mormon history, though, I have slowly come to another view. In my investigations I have sought more than anything to understand what conversations Joseph was entering, what questions his revelations were meant to answer. For him, one of the most important questions was salvation. Though the situation is more complex than this, the two ends of the spectrum in early America were orthodox Calvinism and Universalism. Calvin, exemplified in the writings of Samuel Hopkins, a student of Jonathan Edwards (American’s most famous Calvinist), taught that people had no control over salvation, that God decreed a fate of blessed worship of Christ or endless torment in hell. Hopkins taught that truly good people would be grateful to go to hell because it showed the perfect balance of God’s eternal system and they could thereby fulfill God’s eternal Will (Hopkins backtracked some from Calvin and Edwards: he ultimately believed that heaven was a thousand times more populous than hell). The Prophet Joseph saw in Calvinism an overpopulated hell and an anemic heaven, Christians forever in doubt of their place in heaven, and he hated what he saw. On the other far end of the spectrum stood Universalism, an often angry rejection of Calvinism that said that all would be saved without exception, that Calvin’s image of an angry God was absurd and degrading. A God of love would love, and all would be saved. Joseph Smith and his family and friends were often accused of Universalism, and though it is not strictly true, he was more sympathetic to Universalism than he was to Calvinism. Joseph believed that a form of family, sealed by priesthood, was the solution, that in the sacred ordinances of the temple, all but the most vile and traitorous would be saved. He had revealed that something like Universalism was a plan proposed by Satan in the premortal life, but he believed that there was nevertheless a way to come very close to universal salvation, by organizing all of humanity into an interdependent family. For many of his followers, and perhaps for the Prophet himself, the answer to these two extremes before the Restoration was in the Methodist church. Far different from what it has since become, early Methodism was an energetic, intense, popular faith that emphasized the need for constant self-inspection, repentance, and sanctification. Labeled Arminian because of John Wesley’s affection for the teaching of a Dutch theologian on election, Methodists believed that one could choose whether to accept God’s grace, but that greater human power came at a price—the believer could fall from grace, could “backslide” into hell. The Arminian solution, while it lessened the fearful uncertainty of Calvinism, introduced in its place the specter of salvation lost—right up to their very last breath, many Arminians shouted out their desperate, fragile victory over backsliding. As Joseph received the fullness of the Restoration, he came to reject Arminianism. In a later sermon, Joseph told the Saints, “I do not believe the methodist doctrine of sending honest men, and noble minded men to hell, along with the murderer.” The Restoration provided the answer, a correction to all of these religious systems.
In sermons relating to the Prophet Elijah, Joseph announced that through priesthood sealings the individual inadequacies of offspring could be overcome, and even the fallen could be saved. Though we often now discuss the three degrees of glory with the threat of terrestrial mediocrity glowering at us, in the early Church, people were generally satisfied that through the Gospel and the Temple they and their families would live together in the celestial kingdom. The lower kingdoms were of relatively little interest; few were threatened with them; they seemed to apply only vaguely to people no one really knew. Moroni told Joseph about Elijah, about the mighty promise of generations reunited, as early as their first encounters. Elijah came personally to the Kirtland Temple, and Elijah possessed the cement, a sealing or patriarchal priesthood that could bring about the salvation of everyone whose relatives could cajole them into this new, everlasting, and almost overwhelmingly powerful covenant. (Covenants for American Calvinists referred to agreements by which believers proved their conversion and repentance—they called it regeneration—and constituted a group that would be able to persist beyond death; for Joseph and the early Church members, there was a new and stronger covenant in the process of restoration.) In 1843, Joseph announced by revelation that “When a seal is put upon the father and mother it secures their posterity so that they cannot be lost but will be saved by virtue of the covenant of their father.” In several other settings, he and other early church leaders emphasized a power wielded by parents to reclaim their wayward children in the afterlife.
It took some time for Joseph to reveal the full details of the heaven family Elijah made possible. Perhaps the most startling stage was the introduction in 1840 of baptism for the dead. This baptism, known as the Christian sacrament of “adoption” into the family of God, was to be made available to all. In fact, they required it and could not be entirely saved without it. It was not just an “ordinance,” the way we sometimes discuss it today, it was also an act of creating new and permanent relationships, relationships strong enough to resist the dual threats of Calvinism and Arminianism. Joseph was not just fixing the absurdity of condemning most of humanity to hell simply because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time (some evangelical Protestants continue to believe something like this)—baptism was not just a loophole to allow the unbaptized dead to get to heaven. Baptism for the dead was the creation of a family, the application of sealing, adopting power to untold millions of people separated from the family of heaven. This act of creating eternal family connections to people was central to the entire work of the temple as Joseph revealed it. The endowments, the family sealings, were all extensions of this same basic ordinance that created the family of heaven. After the exodus, many of the Saints emphasized how small heaven would be, how easy it was to lose our access to heaven, sounding a lot like the Methodists that Joseph had rejected. Struggling to get their heads and hearts around the question of who gets to heaven and how, the Latter-day Saints experimented with what they called the Law of Adoption. The details are a little complicated; essentially this was one attempt to turn the act of adoption into the heavenly family into a priesthood hierarchy. After a substantial amount of confusion about the meaning of Adoption, in 1894 Wilford Woodruff had a revelation ending the complicated practice and integrating it into the familiar temple ordinances. In his announcement of the revelation, President Woodruff revealed that “there will be very few, if any, who will not accept the Gospel” in the afterlife, responding to concerns that the heaven family would be disrupted by ancestors who were lukewarm in the faith they had received. The only exception President Woodruff made at the time was for known murderers: the rest he assumed would be fully capable of joining the heaven family.
The power of the new and everlasting covenant, the heaven family, was such that it could overwhelm traditional ideas about salvation. The Prophet Joseph revealed that the power of the patriarchal priesthood brought by Elijah was sufficient to include almost everyone in the heaven family. To those whose children or even spouses had strayed, Joseph revealed that the power God had brought back to earth could bring them home again.
We must be careful here. One extreme view would say “eat drink and be merry, for we are saved by the bonds of temple ordinances and the sealing priesthood,” and that could be a dangerous doctrinal meal for young people who are attempting to decide what direction to follow in their lives. At different stages in our lives we will require different motivations, different words to touch our hearts. We like to think that Paul’s reference to eating milk before meat refers to the complexity of doctrine, but it need not be so limited in its meaning. For those troubled in life, the milk may be the simple call to repentance, the threat of lost eternities and severed relationships. Once they have passed from this life to the next, it may be time for meat, for the revelation of the power of the patriarchal priesthood, the ability of the relationships we honor through the sacred ordinances of the temple to persist through death, a temporary hell, and the deep sadness, guilt, and grief, that attends the passage of someone who has struggled and strayed. In life, bad choices bring misery and should be guarded against. Wickedness is not happiness and never will be. Once mortality is complete, though, I believe it is time to emphasize the meat of God’s might and love, his capacity to save souls as warped as Alma the Younger and the Apostle Paul. What may motivate us to live better in our eternal youth must coexist with the recognition of God’s grace and its grand scale in our eternal adulthood.
These are somewhat theoretical ideas, though, and grief surges far beyond the confines of theory, a tsunami of almost limitless capacity to destroy abstract constructs. Joseph would not have been pleased to see the truths he revealed locked away in the realm of theory. Given the Restoration’s answer to Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism, how do we bring about the salvation of those we have loved and lost? I believe we can do so through our affirmation of the mysterious, intimate, and overpowering covenant of everlasting belonging. As we love those who remain, we strengthen the heaven family into which the lost are gathered. As we remember the stories of the lost, as we discover them in their absence, as we honor them in our lives, as we create newer and stronger connections with those who surround us, we inch closer to the creation of that heaven family that God revealed to Joseph all those years ago. I include my father in our heaven family when I remember his occasional kindnesses, when I pause in home teaching to acknowledge a child, when I tell my wife that I love her, when I remember the shroud I wear against my skin, when I read my daughter a story about an island princess, when I admire her misshapen picture of a spider with nearly fifty legs and marvel that she can spell my name in block letters, when I worship in the mysterious temple dedicated to the Lord’s Holiness. The Gospel, this glorious Gospel that God has announced to us through his Christ, his Scriptures, and the holy Restoration, has the power to convert these quiet acts of belonging into a force that is indeed mighty to save.
This is a draft of some thoughts I wrote for my the use of my friend; certain details have been modified to protect privacy. Some of the “doctrinal” material draws from my research. I do not mean this as a definitive or authoritative statement but as an exploration of ways that our faith tradition can inform our responses to bereavement. All of the required footnoting will be available in my published research, including a new treatment of the Law of Adoption I’m coauthoring with J. Stapley. I am open to comments and recommendations for improvement: I personally believe in seeking devotional applications of my more formal work in cultural history.