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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Incomplete Knowledge in Past Dispensations

Guest post by Nathan Richardson

Disclaimer: This article expresses some ideas and perspectives that are not necessarily the opinions of Chris Heimerdinger. Heck, they're not even necessarily my hard-and-fast opinions; they're just an interesting possibility to consider. And I welcome any thoughts, responses, or further ideas that readers might have on the subject.


I first read book 1 of the Tennis Shoes series when I was about 12 years old. One of the many interesting ideas that I vividly remember gleaning from that first reading came during a conversation between our heroes, Jim and Garth, and the prophet Helaman:
Garth grew enthusiastic, and Helaman hung on every word. He asked many questions. ... They got into a doctrinal conversation and Garth mentioned the three degrees of glory in heaven and baptism for the dead. Helaman interrupted Garth.

"You haven't taught these doctrines to my people, have you?" Helaman's voice was very stern.

"No," Garth said, hoping he hadn't said something that would get him into trouble.

"These things have been revealed to many prophets," Helaman admitted, "but we do not write them. The people are not ready to receive them. Many would rebel at such knowledge and the work in our day would be crippled. I'm glad to see that a time will come when all men may know and ponder such truths. But for now, I would urge you to keep these mysteries in your heart."

Mysteries? I'd known about the three degrees of glory all my life. Baptism for the dead was taught almost as much as baptism for the living. It was a curious change of policy indeed.

This idea fascinated me, and it was the first time I'd ever considered it—that perhaps the peoples of past dispensations were unaware of certain doctrines that we take for granted today as common knowledge. For example, while prophets were likely privileged to have a greater knowledge of revealed truth, perhaps your average Nephite did not know that after the Judgment there are three degrees of glory or conditions that people can end up in (as opposed to just heaven or hell), or that necessary ordinances can be provided after death for those who never heard the gospel (as opposed to limiting salvation to only those who believe and are baptized while they're alive).

It was an intriguing idea to think about. Even though God has had prophets and a covenant people in all ages of earth's history, maybe he hasn't always revealed the same amount of information to each group. While it's nice to imagine the Nephites as carbon copies of 21st century Latter-day Saints, only with sandals and headbands instead of tennis shoes and baseball caps, there might have been more doctrinal differences than we sometimes suppose. Not doctrinal conflicts or inconsistencies—just a lesser degree of revealed knowledge on certain subjects beyond the basic doctrines needed to choose salvation.

Joseph Smith on the Latter-day Fullness

I later realized that this idea shouldn't surprise us. Joseph Smith as much as says so in several statements available in Church publications. Consider the following prophetic quotes:
It is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. (D&C 128:18)

Truly this is a day long to be remembered by the Saints of the last days,—... a day in which God has begun to make manifest and set in order in His Church those things which have been, and those things which the ancient prophets and wise men desired to see but died without beholding them; a day in which those things begin to be made manifest, which have been hid from before the foundation of the world, and which Jehovah has promised should be made known in His own due time unto His servants.

The dispensation of the fullness of times will bring to light the things that have been revealed in all former dispensations; also other things that have not been before revealed. He shall send Elijah, the Prophet, etc., and restore all things in Christ.2

Upon hearing these quotes for the first time, I was intrigued that, not only is it a possibility that past groups of God's covenant people were unaware of some doctrines that today we consider basic, but Joseph Smith specifically says they didn't know all the doctrines that have been revealed in modern times.

The Example of Hell

Mack C. Sterling, an LDS surgeon from Michigan, wrote two articles published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU that touch on this idea. In particular, he shows how understanding this idea can help us understand the Book of Mormon better. He points out that sometimes Latter-day Saints "prefer to see the Nephite prophets (in fact all prophets) as having precisely the same (complete) understanding of the plan of salvation as Joseph Smith." In light of Joseph Smith's words above, it's easy to see why Brother Sterling has no problem "concluding simply that the Book of Mormon prophets received less revelation about hell, indeed about the plan of salvation in general, than Joseph Smith did."3

Brother Sterling further explores the Nephites' understanding of hell in another article, "The Way of Life and the Way of Death in the Book of Mormon." He points out what modern books of scripture teach about the relationship between repentance and death.

Book of Mormon prophets consistently talk of death being the point at which a person can do no further repenting, and their eternal fate is sealed (e.g., Alma 34:32–34; 3 Nephi 27:33; Mosiah 16:12; Jacob 6:5–7). They compare repenting to daily labors that must be done while the sun shines, and death to a "night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed" (Alma 34:33).

In contrast, in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord revealed to modern prophets the doctrine of work for the dead. He tells us that His messengers have been assigned to "carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, ... [and] thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets ... that they might ... live according to God in the spirit" (D&C 138:30, 32, 34). Thus, we know today that it is possible for some of the labor of repentance to be performed after death (though of course, prophets have warned us not to be complacent, since doing so can affect how glorious and joyful a kingdom we inherit).

Brother Sterling acknowledges, "Some readers may be disturbed by allusions in this paper to apparent contradictions between the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants,"4 and goes on to show that they are not really contradictions. One way of resolving them is to say that the various Book of Mormon prophets who said there is no repenting after death were talking to members of the covenant. For people who've had in this life a fair chance to receive, understand, and accept the gospel, death really is the "night of darkness" when no amount of repentance will make up for the changes we should have made in this life.

Brother Sterling, however, suggests another way of resolving them—by just allowing for the possibility that the Nephites had a simpler understanding of the plan of salvation. His proposes, for example, that they knew about the doctrine of Christ: faith, repentance, baptism, the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. But they did not know some of the details of God's merciful Plan B and Plan C for some of His children. The Nephites had plenty enough gospel knowledge to be accountable and to choose salvation, but they had a few unanswered questions about what happens to people who've never heard the gospel.

Brother Sterling emphasizes, "It is imperative to realize that the Book of Mormon model is not "wrong." The Book of Mormon paradigm is simply less detailed or less complete on some issues compared with information in the Doctrine and Covenants.

The Fulness v. The Amazing Further Details

Understanding Joseph Smith's teaching about progressive revelation can also be useful in answering some conundrums (which some people try to use as criticisms) regarding restoration scripture. Occasionally someone will ask why the introduction to the Book of Mormon says that it "contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel" if the Book of Mormon doesn't mention important doctrines like work for the dead or eternal marriage. After all, is not eternal marriage part of the "fulness of the gospel"?

Technically, at least from a linguistic point of view, the answer is no. Many LDS writers have pointed out that "the Book of Mormon contains the fullness of the gospel, not the fullness of gospel doctrine."5 That is, even though nowadays we often use the word "gospel" as a synonym for "all the teachings the Lord has ever revealed through his prophets about the plan of salvation," that's not how the scriptures use the word. Passages like 3 Ne. 27:13–19 clarify that "the gospel—while used in this context—does not refer to every teaching of the LDS Church."6 Rather, "the primary message of the gospel, the 'good news' of Jesus Christ, is that he has atoned for our sins and prepared a way for us to come back into the presence of the Father. This is the message of the Book of Mormon."7

Monte S. Nyman explains that once we understand what "gospel" does and doesn't mean, it resolves this question of how we can say the Nephites had the fulness of the gospel. "The gospel as defined in the scriptures outlines the plan for mankind to return to the celestial kingdom. It does not specify how mankind receives exaltation within the celestial kingdom [such as the fact that] the ordinances and blessings of the temple are necessary."8

The Example of Eternal Marriage

Interestingly, in Brother Nyman's article he suggests, "Although the Book of Mormon does not teach this important doctrine, ... the knowledge and practice of eternal marriage was had among the Nephites. ... Mormon, under the inspiration of the Lord, chose to leave this teaching to be revealed in the latter-days."8 This is what I had always assumed as a youth when certain doctrines seemed to be absent from the Bible or Book of Mormon—that the authors knew about them, but they either were commanded to not record it, or their writings were altered or lost through later apostasy.

This explanation is definitely true in many cases. For example, many modern scholars (even Christian ones) suppose that in earlier times, prophets like Enoch or Abraham did not know about or practice baptism, because the Bible does not clearly record them knowing about or practicing baptism. (By the way, this conclusion can be used to support the increasingly-held idea that baptism is not necessary for salvation). But we know from modern revelation that Adam was baptized (Moses 6:64–65) and taught it to his children (Moses 7:1). The most likely explanation for why that information is not found in Genesis chapters 1–11 is that it was lost through apostasy and alteration of the scriptures as they were transmitted over time.

When it comes to eternal marriage, this explanation (that Nephites knew about it but didn't record it) is certainly an interesting possibility. However, I wonder if an equally probable explanation is that the Nephites simply did not know about eternal marriage. I think that either explanation answers the question, and neither one should really give us heartburn. We should be perfectly comfortable with the possibility that Captain Moroni didn't know he could be married to his wife forever (I bet he was overjoyed when he found out!). After all, one of the cornerstones of the restored gospel is that God "will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" (AofF 9).


Joseph Smith's teaching on this subject has led me to ponder what specific details might not have been known in past dispensations. What doctrines might a faithful Jaredite farmer never have supposed? What truths might a believing Jewish caravaneer have been unaware of? Here are some possibilities I've considered:
  • God has a body
  • The premortal life
  • Eternal marriage
  • Work for the dead
  • Three degrees of glory
  • Divine potential
  • Heavenly Mother
By no means do I have a definite answer to this question, but isn't it interesting to think about?

I find fascinating the idea that faithful members of God's covenant people in past dispensations knew the fulness of the gospel but nevertheless may have been unaware of many doctrines that we take for granted today—doctrines considered so basic that they are published in children's Primary manuals and taught to non-members just beginning to learn about the Church.

I personally find this idea very encouraging. For one thing, it means we don't have to be incredibly knowledgeable to be saved. It's nice to know that even though I lack vast amounts of knowledge regarding the details of God's plan which only He knows, and even though I will die with hundreds of yet-unanswered questions about how it all works, none of that prevents me from accepting the Savior's atonement and being able to repent and live with him again.

I'm not saying we don't have to act on the knowledge we have in the latter days, such as the need for temple sealings. Everyone is accountable for what they know. I'm also very grateful to know some of the powerful and amazing doctrines that have been restored in the last days, and knowing them often provides extra motivation to keep the commandments or extra insight into the path my life takes. But the basic plan of faith, repentance, and salvation is and always has been available to any person who chooses to enter God's covenant, regardless of whether they lived in a dispensation and time when prophets preached more detailed doctrines.

About the Author

Nathan confesses he has been a fan of the Tennis Shoes series since the first book was published. He even had a dream once about Gidgiddonihah and Marcos escaping from some wicked gladiators. Oh yeah, and he co-authors an LDS blog called LDSPhilosopher.com.


1. Chris Heimerdinger, Tennis Shoes among the Nephites (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 1989), pp. 134–35.

2. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (SLC: LDS Church, 2007), ch. 44, pp. 507–16.

3. Mack C. Sterling, "Doctrines of the Book of Mormon: The 1991 Sperry Symposium," FARMS Review, v5 n1, pp. 290–304; a review of Bruce A. Van Orden and Brent L. Top, Doctrines of the Book of Mormon: The 1991 Sperry Symposium (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 1993).

4. Mack C. Sterling, "The Way of Life and the Way of Death in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 1997), v6 n2, pp. 152–204.

5. W. John Walsh, "Does the Book of Mormon Teach the 'Fulness of the Gospel'?" LightPlanet.com.

6. "Book of Mormon/Contains the fulness of the gospel, FAIR Wiki, fairmormon.org, accessed 30 Jun. 2010.

7. Michael B. Parker, "The Book of Mormon and the Fulness of the Gospel," Foundation for Apologetic Information Research, fairlds.org.

8. “Questions and Answers,” Tambuli, Jul. 1984, pp. 6–10.


  1. I wonder how often the homogeneous societies led people to forget which was doctrine and which merely a cultural norm. With it being so labor intensive to write things down in past millennia, perhaps they skipped over normal/obvious things like baby blessings, baptism, even degrees of glory, to address the key basics: faith, prayer, repentance, etc. Even today when things in our lives are off-kilter the bishop doesn't usually counsel us about the particulars of how a spirit communicates acceptance of proxy baptisms, instead he encourages faith, prayer, scripture study...things may not be too different.

    I am not trying to be trite. Who knows what system they employed in choosing what topics to cover thoroughly? Afterall, Peter makes a most off-handed remark about baptisms for the dead as if the doctrine were so blase that it was hardly worth detailing; yet now many see it as an obscure mystery...for crying out loud, Peter even tells the folks that they are only prepared to receive milk (I Cor 3:2) then goes on in the same address to talk of baptisms for the dead, three degrees of glory, etc.

    According to Peter, that is milk. Perhaps too mundane to include. Perhaps so obvious to anyone who has entered the fold that he chose to focus on ideas that would bring people into the fold first.

    So many camping theories to put together on this one. Thanks for the topic

  2. Good point, Jason. I guess I should have clarified that "basic" doctrines doesn't mean "not profound." You know what I mean? Sometimes I hear people say, "Don't study deep doctrines; stick to the basic doctrines," and I wonder if the best kept secret in the Church is that the "basic" doctrines are the deep doctrines.

    Like faith: Joseph Smith said (in Lectures on Faith) that through faith God created the world. So how does an all-knowing being simultaneously have faith? And repentance: Why does the Lord forgive us when he's under no obligation to and doesn't necessarily get anything out of it? Sometimes I think principles like love, or receiving knowledge through the Holy Ghost, are probably some of the most profound doctrines there are, and could occupy our personal scripture study for years without needing to research Kolob in order to draw our attention. :-)

  3. This was an interesting read, thanks for sharing. I think it's important to remember that for the vast majority of the Book of Mormon, the Nephites were living the Law of Moses. The knowledge they had was less than the Law of Christ, the Bible makes that very clear.

    It wasn't until after the Savior had been resurrected that baptism for the dead and the three degrees of glory were taught to the early saints. Those doctrines were both documented by early Christian historians, and they're both mentioned in passing in the Bible, but neither expound on the practices, and they were completely lost by the end of the Fourth Century except for fleeting references that are misunderstood today.

    The Book of Mormon doesn't go into great detail about the few hundred years of peace and properity they had after the Savior visited them. They don't talk about the doctrine they learned during that time period. If it was introduced after the Savior's resurrection in the Middle East, it was probably introduced here in the Americas as well. In both places, though, by the time a just few hundred years had passed, the Gospel was completely corrupted.

    The practices are important, but knowledge of them is not necessary for salvation. The Lord often keeps things from us until it's important to know them. Part of our calling in the latter days is to do work for the dead, so it's important to have that information again. But there's a lot we don't know yet, either. Mormon mentions that he only included what, 1/100th of the records? And 2/3 of that is still sealed to us? I have no doubt that we know things today that nobody else has known, but I also have no doubt that there's still quite a lot left to learn.

  4. Nathan, these are some really interesting points that you make. I have gone to an LDS bookstore to ask the question that you pose about marriage being known about but not necessarily talked about, "Although the Book of Mormon does not teach this important doctrine, ... the knowledge and practice of eternal marriage was had among the Nephites. ... Mormon, under the inspiration of the Lord, chose to leave this teaching to be revealed in the latter-days." It has made me really think and want to read more about the subject.

  5. Thanks, Rachel. I agree that it's a fascinating question to bring with me to my scripture reading. It seems pretty clear, for example, in the gospels that the apostles were simply unaware (or at least unsure) of a few doctrines that we consider very basic today, such as resurrection, or the fact that God can have a body. (And that's not in any way a criticism of them; we have no reason to feel smug or superior, because the only reason we know is because we were born in a time after God had revealed it, not because we were so clever or spiritual that we figured it out.)