At the dawn of the restoration, there were three primary views of the Atonement that swirled around Joseph Smith’s family and other early Mormon believers.
Particular (or Limited) Atonement
The particular atonement is a foundation for the Reformed tradition, being one of the “five points of Calvinism.” This is the idea that while Christ was sufficiently powerful to save the entire world, his atonement was limited to the people that God elected to Salvation. It is deeply tied to strong conceptions of the foreknowledge of God, which is perhaps why a Particular Atonement has apparently been championed by a few in BYU RelEd in the past.
Anyway, Calvinism was orthodoxy among the Puritans, and even as things started falling apart with the state church, a Particular Atonement still remained strong among various separate Baptist groups. Presbyterians, among whom Lucy Mack Smith and some of JS’s siblings consorted were definitely in this strong conservative vein.
So instead of Jesus’ expiation being intended for the elect, the General Atonement is the idea that Christ’s death and resurrection was to provide a way for all people to be saved. The details of how this salvations is mediated depends on who you talk to, but this view has been held by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestants. Of the latter in JS’s day, were groups like the Methodists and some General (as in atonement) Baptists. The archetypal theologian was Jacobus Arminius, and so you will hear about Arminian Protestants. The short story is that people can chose to come and accept Jesus’s atoning sacrifice. God didn’t chose some and not others in the beginning.
JS was of course partial to the Methodists, and the LDS church still bears in the imprint of that early partiality. Skads of other early Mormons had formerly been Methodists (e.g., BY). The biggest group of early converts, however, had been Campbellites (or former Campbellites), a group that was Arminianish.
Universalism has come in many flavors, and you see things ranging from Calvinist-like readings of the mechanics of the atonement, to some interesting (in retrospect) Mormon-like readings. Regardless of the actual mechanics, Universalism is the view that God loves people so much that he has figured out how to save them all. Protestants generally hated that idea. Mormons today often get bent out of shape about this, but you had some prominent early Mormons who went that direction. See, e.g., JS Sr., Martin Harris, and the Knight Family.
Christ’s Atonement in the D&C and JS’s Lifetime
I don’t think that you could begin to approach a comprehensive view of the atonement in a single Gospel Doctrine Class. So instead, let’s look at a few important ideas that we see in the Revelations.
The voice of the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants consistently employs the adoption in a way that we don’t today. For example Turn to D&C 34, which was delivered six months after the church was formed.
 My son Orson [Pratt], hearken and hear and behold what I, the Lord God, shall say unto you, even Jesus Christ your Redeemer;  The light and the life of the world, a light which shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not;  Who so loved the world that he gave his own life, that as many as would believe might become the sons of God. Wherefore you are my son;  And blessed are you because you have believed;
First, I think that the earliest version of this revelation is important: “he gave his own life that as many as would believe might become the Sons & daughter[s] of God Wherefore ye are my Son[.]” I want to think that Emma kicked the editors shins for that one.
Read that a couple of times. What do these verses tell us?
We have Jesus telling an elder who is about to go evangelize that:
- Evangelizing is apparently a good idea, because hey, here is a revelation. Some extreme Calvinists believed that because of election, you shouldn’t have missionaries.
- General Atonement. Those who come unto him are saved. Many people don’t (they don’t comprehend him?)
- Those who believe become the sons and daughters of God
We like to skip that last one, because aren’t we all children of God? Not really, or not yet. This is the importance of adoption theology. And you see it over and over in the D&C. So what does it mean to become the sons and daughters of God (see Paul)? Check out also:
- D&C 11:28-30 (May 1829)
- D&C 25:1 (July 1830 – they at least didn’t edit this one out!)
- D&C 35 1-2 (December 1830 – this one is really interesting when read with the example above. Do we talk about Jesus in this way? If not, why not?)
- D&C 45:7-8 (March 1831)
- D&C 76:24 (February 1832 – I think this is consistently misread)
The Eternal Soul
So, I’m not one to read Nauvoo ideas back into the Kirtland-era revelations. But since Gospel Doctrine is on the D&C and church history, we are still a go. What’s more, the manual points teachers to this fun essay by Matt McBride in the Revelations in Context, which discusses section 93 in relation to JS’s teachings that “God never did have the power to create the spirit of man at all.” That specific quote didn’t make it in the essay, but I’ll give Correlation a pass. Baby steps.
So what does this have to do with Christ and his atonement? Well just about everything if you are talking to a non-Mormon theologian. The Mormon rejection of creation ex nihilo is perhaps the single greatest reason why some reject us as Christians. It changes the fundamental relationship between people and God. We are no longer creatures. We are something else. What is that though? And how is the atonement different because of it? Does that have any relation to the previous topic we talked about?
People like to use Section 19 as a proof text for penal-substitution. Boo. Forget that. Try writing a paraphrase of vss. 1-20. What do you end up with? Honestly this isn’t that far from what some Universalists were saying. Remember that this was for Martin Harris (we mentioned him above, remember).
We will do D&C 76, “The Vision,” later, but it was so controversial that they told missionaries not to talk about it and BY had to put it on the shelf. All of this because it was too Universalist. What should we think now that the Temple liturgy has deprecated a lot of what is described, and Wilford Woodruff declared a revelation in General Conference that there will be “few if any” who do not ultimately accept the gospel?