Church History Lesson 31 (D&C 2; 124; 127; 128)
BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD
Historical Development of Work for the Dead
The revelation recorded in D&C 124 taught the Saints about the doctrine of baptizing for the dead, but many previous revelations had suggested this might be possible and needed. The Lord restored these keys and this knowledge “line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 128:19–21; Article of Faith 9).
● 1823, Sept. 21 The Lord began very early to teach the Prophet about work for the dead. The Angel Moroni appeared to the Prophet in Palmyra, New York, and quoted or summarized at least five Old Testament passages (JS-History 36–41):
Malachi 3:1–3 Preparation for the Second Coming of the Lord.
Malachi 4:1 The wicked will be destroyed.
Malachi 4:6 Elijah to turn “the heart of the children to their fathers.”
Isaiah 11 The keys for the gathering of Israel will be restored.
Joel 2:28–32 The righteous will be blessed amid tribulations.
— The angel Moroni indicated that these prophecies would soon be fulfilled. In 1842, Joseph Smith explained Moroni’s message to John Wentworth, a newspaper editor. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “This messenger proclaimed himself to be an angel of God sent to bring the joyful tidings, that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the Second Coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence; that the time was at hand for the gospel, in all its fulness to be preached in power, unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the millennial reign.”1
— Moroni specifically clarified Malachi’s prophecy concerning Elijah. He said that Elijah would restore the priesthood and that the “children” would be made aware of “promises” made to “the fathers” (JS-Hist. 1:36–39; D&C 2:heading; D&C 2:1-3). This prophecy is quoted in all four of our standard works (D&C 2; Malachi 4:5-6; 3 Nephi 25:5-6; JS-Hist. 1:39). It is interesting and helpful to compare these four versions of the prophecy.
President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “It is tremendously significant to me that . . . this repetition of the wondrous words of Malachi concerning the work for the dead, was given to the boy Joseph four years before he was allowed to take the plates from the hill. It was given before he received either the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood, before he was baptized, and well before the Church was organized. It says much concerning the priority of this work in the plan of the Lord.”2
● 1823, November Alvin Smith died, three years after accepting Joseph’s testimony of the First Vision but more than five years before the priesthood was restored. The Prophet Joseph Smith said of his brother Alvin, “He was . . . the noblest of my father’s family. He was one of the noblest of the sons of men . . . In him there was no guile . . . He was one of the soberest of men, and when he died the angel of the Lord visited him in his last moments.”3
● 1832, February 16 Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon received a vision of the Kingdoms of Glory. They observed that those who are candidates for the Celestial kingdom must have been baptized by proper authority (D&C 76:51).
● 1836, January 21 Joseph received a vision in the Kirtland Temple, in which he saw his brother Alvin in the Celestial kingdom (D&C 137).
— The Prophet Joseph Smith was meeting with other members of the First Presidency, “in the temple,” to attend to the ordinance of washing. They then went “at early candle-light” to “the west school room” in the attic story of the yet unfinished temple “to attend to the ordinance of anointing our heads with holy oil.” After consecrating the oil, Joseph anointed his father “and sealed many blessings upon him” as then did the other members of the Presidency.
— Father Smith (the Patriarch) then anointed and blessed each of them. He sealed upon his son “the blessings of Moses, to lead Israel in the latter days.” The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “All of the Presidency laid their hands upon me, and pronounced upon my head many prophecies and blessings.”4
— At that point he received the vision now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants, section 137. 5 A glorious vision of the celestial kingdom burst upon them. Oliver Cowdery said, “The heavens were opened to many, and great and marvelous things were shown.”6 Joseph saw the celestial kingdom, its gate, its streets, and the Father and the Son sitting on the throne. He identified certain individuals who apparently either had inherited or would inherit the celestial kingdom, such as Adam, Abraham, father and mother Smith, and his brother Alvin, who had died in 1823. Of those, only Joseph’s parents were still alive, and his father was in the room with Joseph at the time of the vision. According to President Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, the prophet was seeing “a vision of the future.”7
— Seeing his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom, Joseph wondered how this was possible since Alvin had never been baptized. The Lord later explained how this was possible. The Lord later explained that some people who receive the gospel in the spirit world will inherit the celestial kingdom (D&C 137:5–10). Those who lived and died without the opportunity to accept the gospel will have the opportunity to inherit the fulness of God’s glory in the eternal worlds.
● 1840, August 15 The Prophet Joseph Smith preached at the funeral of a Church member named Seymour Brunson. As part of his sermon, he read extensively from 1 Corinthians 15, which includes a reference to baptism for the dead. Paul used baptism for the dead to show there will be a resurrection (1 Cor. 15:29). He said. in effect, “If there is no resurrection, why do we baptize for the dead?”
The Prophet Joseph then announced that the Saints could be baptized in behalf of their friends and relatives who had died without receiving the gospel. He declared that the plan of salvation was intended to save everyone who is willing to obey the law of God. After this sermon, Church members begin performing baptisms for the dead in the nearby Mississippi River.
Letters Containing Doctrine
Because of persecution, the Prophet left Nauvoo for a season, for his my own safety and the safety of the Saints. While in hiding, the Prophet sent instructions by letter, as did ancient prophets, to the Saints as revelation was received, clarifying the doctrine of baptism for the dead in the house of the Lord.
D&C 127 was given while he was hiding in the home of Brother Taylor, father of President John Taylor (D&C 127:1). During this time of persecution, baptism for the dead was the subject that occupied the Prophet’s mind and pressed on his feelings the strongest (D&C 128:1).
— He taught the standards by which ordinances may be binding on earth and in heaven (D&C 128:8–12).
— He also said that baptism for the dead is a symbolic ordinance (D&C 128:12–13). Elder Joseph Fielding Smith taught, “The Lord has placed the baptismal font in our temples below the foundation, or the surface of the earth. This is symbolical, since the dead are in their graves, and we are working for the dead when we are baptized for them. Moreover, baptism is also symbolical of death and the resurrection, in fact, is virtually a resurrection from the life of sin, or from spiritual death, to the life of spiritual life. (D&C 29:41–45) Therefore when the dead have had this ordinance performed in their behalf they are considered to have been brought back into the presence of God, just as this doctrine is applied to the living.”8
— He emphasized that the living cannot be saved or made perfect without their dead (D&C 128:15–18; Hebrews 11:4). The dead depend on us for their salvation because we must do their ordinances. And our own salvation depends on our doing this important work.
— Baptism for the dead is the “most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel” (v. 17). President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “That which goes on in the House of the Lord . . . comes nearer to the spirit of sacrifice of the Lord than any other activity of which I know. Why? Because it is done by those who give freely of time and substance, without any expectation of thanks or reward, to do for others that which they cannot do for themselves.”9
Elder John A. Widtsoe said, “In our preexistent state, in the day of the great council, we made a certain agreement with the Almighty. The Lord proposed a plan, conceived by him. We accepted it. Since the plan is intended for all men, we become parties to the salvation of every person under that plan. We agreed, right then and there, to be not only saviors for ourselves, but . . . saviors for the whole human family. We went into a partnership with the Lord. The working out of the plan became then not merely the Father’s work, and the Savior’s work, but also our work. The least of us, the humblest, is in partnership with the Almighty in achieving the purpose of the eternal plan of salvation.”10
— Our attitude about the gospel and about performing baptisms for the dead should be one of gladness, both for the living and the dead (D&C 128:19, 22–24).
Intended to Be a Temple Ordinance
● 1841, January 19 The Lord declared, “This ordinance belongeth to my house.” He therefore commanded them to build a temple (D&C 124:25-27).
● Temples serve several important purposes, which are summarized in our “Come, Follow Me” manual:
— Important additional priesthood ordinances (the sealing ordinances) will be revealed after they build the temple (D&C 124:28, 40–41).
— Baptisms for the dead must be performed in the temple (D&C 124:29-30, 33). They may temporarily continue to baptize elsewhere until the temple is finished, but only for a short time (D&C 124:27–32).
— Through building a temple, the Saints could prove their faithfulness in keeping His commandments and receive honor, immortality, and eternal life.
● 1841, October 3 The Prophet Joseph Smith announced at conference, “There shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord’s House; and the Church shall not hold another General conference, until they can meet in said house. For thus saith the Lord!”11 This was to encourage the Saints to work harder to complete the building, and it worked. A little over a month later, a temporary but carefully crafted wooden baptismal font had been completed in the basement of the unfinished temple.
● 1841, November 8 The Prophet Joseph Smith recorded, “Monday, 8 [November 1841].—At 5 o’clock M., I attended the dedication of the baptismal font in the Lord’s House. President Brigham Young was spokesman. . . . This font was built for the baptisms for the dead until the Temple shall be finished, when a more durable one will supply its place.” 12
● 1841, November 21 The first baptisms for the dead were performed in the font.
The Importance of Accurate Record Keeping
The dead will be judged from two sources: the “Book of Life” and other books (D&C 128:3–5).
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said:
“[The books were opened] What books? The Standard Works of the Church, the holy scriptures wherein the law of the Lord is recorded and the instruction given as to how men should walk in this mortal probation; also, the records of the Church wherein are recorded the faith and good works of the Saints—the records of their baptism, celestial marriage, tithe paying, missionary service, and their acts of devotion and worship.
“The book of life] What is it? Figuratively, it is our own life, and being, the record of our acts transcribed in our souls, an account of our obedience or disobedience written in our bodies. Literally, it is the record kept in heaven of the names and righteous deeds of the faithful.”13
These records made on earth are also recorded in heaven, and the dead will be judged from them (D&C 128:6–8, 24). At the time of the Second Coming, we will present the records to the Lord as an offering to Him.
Whatever is bound on earth by proper authority will also be bound in heaven (v. 7). Elder Joseph Fielding Smith said, “What is bound or sealed in the temples of the Lord is also sealed in heaven. This is the great authority which Elijah restored. It also covers ordinances performed for the living as well as for the dead. The Prophet said that all of the ordinances for the living are required in behalf of all the dead who are entitled to the fulness of the exaltation.”14
The Lord provided another indication that additional sealing ordinances will yet be revealed to them (v. 8).
1. History of the Church, 4:537.
2. “A Century of Family History Service,” Ensign, Mar. 1995, 61.
3. History of the Church, 5:126–127.
4. History of the Church, 2:379–380.
5. History of the Church, 2:380–81.
6. 1836 Diary, BYU Studies 12.4 [Summer 1972]: 418.
7. Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [1946–1949], 3:71.
8. Church History and Modern Revelation, 2:332.
9. Ensign, Mar. 1995, 62–63.
10. “The Worth of Souls,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Oct. 1934, 189.
11. History of the Church, 4:426.
12. History of the Church, 4:446.
13. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary,3:578.
14. Church History and Modern Revelation, 2:329.