Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor—Mormon scripture’s three most famous anti-Christs—constitute one of the most obvious recurring type-scenes in the Book of Mormon. Of the three, the middle child, Nehor, is clearly the most disruptive. Long after he receives the just desserts traditional for his ilk (Alma 1: 15), Nehorism pops up as the principle religion of most of the other bad guys in the Book of Alma (see Alma 14:4-8, Alma 21:4, Alma 24:28). Only Gadianton can claim a similarly evil influence on the Nephite people.
But there is a huge difference between the signature heresies of Nehor and those of Gadianton. The latter taught that it was possible to murder and get gain—hardly an original insight in the world, but an extremely disruptive one nonetheless.
Nehor, on the other hand, taught that
All mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life. (Alma 1:9)
Nineteenth century readers would have had no trouble identifying Nehor’s religion: he was a Universalist, or a believer in universal salvation. Before Mormonism came along, Universalism was the most controversial religion in the New World. Emerging from several Pietist sects in the 18th century, American Universalism consolidated into a coherent religious organization in a General Convention held in Winchester, New Hampshire, in 1805. The convention adopted three Articles of Faith:
- We believe that the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God and of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind.
- We believe that there is one God whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord, Jesus Christ by one Holy Spirit of grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
- We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practise good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
By 1830, the Universalist Church was among the largest denominations in the country. Throughout the 19th century, its famous membership would include Judith Sargent Murray, Clara Barton, P.T. Barnum, Olympia Browne, and Joseph Smith, Senior, the father of the Mormon prophet, whose own father was the co-founder of a Universalist society in Vermont.
But Universalism was almost as controversial on the American frontier as Mormonism. The doctrine of universal salvation was roundly criticized by Catholics, who believe that baptism is required for salvation, and by most Protestants, who believed that those who did not believe in of follow Christ would be damned to the biblical hell. But the strongest rejection came from the moral pragmatists, who argued that that the idea of hell is necessary to keep people from doing bad stuff. Pretty much everybody hated the Universalists.
Including, it seems, the Nephite Church. Through Nehor, the Book of Mormon condemns Universalism in terms that most nineteenth-century Christians would immediately recognize. Nehor preaches the standard 19th century Universalist shtick and, as if to prove that Universalism is a slippery slope to murder (because, hey, why should anyone refrain from killing people if there is no hell to burn in for all of eternity) kills a popular Nephite hero named Gideon who tries to stop him.
To the person reading the Book of Mormon as a 19th century document, none of this should be surprising. The Book of Mormon presents Protestant party line on a lot of things, things like heaven, hell, and salvation. The surprise comes later on, during the Nauvoo period, when Joseph Smith develops a theology that any nineteenth-century Catholic or Protestant would describe as Universalist.
Two specific innovations from the Nauvoo period move Latter-day Saint theology into the Universalist camp:
- The doctrine of vicarious baptism universalizes baptism by ensuring that it is performed on behalf of every human being who has ever lived. Thus, Latter-day Saints can insist, as Catholics do, that baptism is required for salvation while still making the ordinance available to those who die without it. Lack of the ordinance ceases to filter souls into heaven and hell.
- The doctrine of the Three Kingdoms of Glory eliminates the concept of hell altogether, neutralizing the eternal threat that “salvation” is supposed to save people from. Latter-day Saints do not believe in hell, only in three different flavors of heaven (as others understand it) which we can roughly describe as good, better, and best.
Though these doctrines do not constitute a theology of universal salvation from within the Mormon world view (since not everybody achieves the pinnacle of exaltation), they very clearly do constitute Universalism from any other Catholic or Protestant perspective: nobody goes to hell, everybody is resurrected physically, and God gives everybody the exact degree of spiritual glory that they can bear. We all get to be as happy as God can make us for all of eternity.
And this is our Universalism problem. It is not that we are Universalists–I couldn’t be happier about that one. Rather it is that, as is also the case with polygamy, the theology of the Book of Mormon conflicts with the current theology of the LDS Church. This is not really a problem. The whole point of having “living prophets” is that they can periodically announce new things that we have always believed. But it does mean that contemporary Latter-day Saints should be careful about how they use the Book of Mormon in conjunction with terms like “heaven,” “hell,” and “salvation”–since these are unstable ideas in Mormon scripture and practice.
 The author of the linked to anti-Universalist tract, The Serpent Uncoiled, is John Russell, an early defender of the Nauvoo Mormons and the author of The Mormoness; Or, the Trial of Mary Maverick, the first American novel to feature Mormons. (And yes, I did co-edit this critical edition, thanks for noticing).
 Yes, I know that Mormons believe in “outer darkness” for a particular brand of sinner—the Denier of the Holy Ghost—but I am treating this as an outlier, since it does not appear to be even a possibility for most people. I am also aware that Nehor claims that all men shall have “eternal life,” which contemporary Mormons define as exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom, but there is nothing in the text to suggest that either Nehor or the Nephites were aware of this concept when Nehor was speaking.