“A New Commandment: Save Thyself and Thy Kindred!” Ensign, Aug. 1976, 7
To the great joy of those who love the Lord and his holy word and who desire to be guided from on high, two heaven-sent revelations—both long known in the Church to be scripture!—were added to the standard works at the April 1976 general conference.
In solemn session in the holy temple on March 25, 1976, while the Spirit of the Lord attended, the First Presidency and the Twelve voted unanimously to add to the Pearl of Great Price the following:
A vision of the celestial kingdom, given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple on January 21, 1836, which deals with the salvation of those who die without a knowledge of the gospel and also with the salvation of little children; and
A vision given to President Joseph F. Smith in Salt Lake City, Utah, on October 3, 1918, showing the visit of the Lord Jesus Christ in the spirit world and setting forth the doctrine of the redemption of the dead.
Based on deliberation and forethought, knowing full well the import and effect of the proposition then before them, fifteen hands were raised to the square as those whom the Church sustains as prophets, seers, and revelators each certified his personal concurrence to the momentous motion then before them.
In the true Church, where there are apostles and prophets to give the mind and will and voice of the Lord to the Church and the world—among the Saints of the Most High, where all of the elders of Israel are the Lord’s ministers to feed the flock of God and preach the gospel to all mankind—nothing is better known or more greatly appreciated than the fact that the canon of scripture is not now and never will be full.
God speaks and his people hear. His words and his works are without end; they never close. (Moses 1:4, 38.) “I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure,” he who is the same yesterday, today, and forever says, “for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever.” (2 Ne. 29:9.)
Because he is no respecter of persons and chooses to honor and bless all those who love and serve him, the Lord pours out revelations and gives glorious visions to all those who obey the laws upon which the receipt of these spiritual gifts is predicated. Their receipt is not limited to prophets and apostles. All are alike unto God where the outpouring of his gifts is concerned. Indeed, one of the revealed reasons why the Lord ushered in the great age of restoration in which we live is so “that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.” (D&C 1:20.) And whatever any elder says when moved upon by the Holy Ghost is scripture. It is the will and mind and word and voice of the Lord. (D&C 68:1–4.)
From the days of the first dispensation it has been the practice of the Lord’s people to make selections from the scriptural utterances of those who are appointed to lead the Church and to publish these selections as formal and official scripture. All inspired sayings and writings are true and are and should be accepted and believed by all who call themselves Saints. But the revelations, visions, prophecies, and narrations selected and published for official use are thereby made binding upon the people in a particular and special sense. They become part of the standard works of the Church. They become the standards, the measuring rods, by which doctrine and procedure are determined.
By being added to the standard works, the Prophet’s vision of the celestial kingdom and President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead take on a new and added significance. They have both been scripture from the moment they came into being, but now the truths they contain are placed before the people with an emphasis and a witness far beyond the general run of inspired utterances. They both contain gospel truths which are not otherwise found in the standard works, and they will now be cited and known more, and will be cross-referenced into the balance of the standard works as their subject matter requires.
That there are other revelations which might appropriately be given this additional dignity and formal stamp of approval is obvious. All of the changes made by Joseph Smith in the King James Version of the Bible, for instance, are the voice of truth and revelation to the Latter-day Saints and carry the same verity as any of his revelations or inspired narrations.
But it is significant that the two revelations which the Brethren chose at this time to add to the canon of scripture both deal with that great and wondrous concept known and understood only by the Latter-day Saints: the doctrine of salvation for the dead. With the recent dedication of new temples in Ogden, Provo, and Washington, D.C.; with the complete remodeling of the Mesa, St. George, and Hawaii Temples; and with the building of new temples in Japan, Brazil, Mexico, and Seattle, this basic Christian doctrine, which shows forth the love of a gracious Father for all his children, is receiving an emphasis never before known.
Although the truths in both of these visions have been known and taught since they were first given, it might nonetheless be said that they now constitute a new commandment to the Church. This same approach to another basic doctrine, the doctrine that true disciples always love each other, was taken by Jesus when he desired to emphasize anew the eternal importance of the law of love.
Whenever the Lord has given the fulness of his gospel to any people, from the day of Adam to the present hour, it has always included the command that his saints love one another. Even under the law of Moses, the divine command was “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18), and Jesus himself had gone so far as to say, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). And yet when he later brought forward the law of love, giving it an entirely new emphasis and force, his words were, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another.” (John 13:34.)
There was nothing new about this law of love except that it was being restated anew; it was coming again—newly, as it were—to disciples of whom it had been expected all along. And so it is with these two revelations on salvation for the dead. Their contents have been known; their provisions have been in force; their principles have been widely taught. But now, at this hour, with their addition to the formal scriptures of the saints, they become a new commandment—they become a new divine pronouncement both to say and to do all that is required in the soul-expanding doctrine of salvation for the dead.
To catch the vision of what is really involved in these two new chapters of holy writ, we must, of necessity, put them in their place in the great unfolding drama which, line upon line, has given us the wondrous concept of how salvation reaches out to take in those who died without a knowledge of its terms and conditions. In terse and brief form, presenting scarcely more than an outline, here is the chronological summary of how the revelation of this soul-satisfying doctrine came to pass.
1. Salvation for the dead is Bible doctrine. This is perfectly clear to all of us now that we have received latter-day revelation. We now know what Jesus meant when he said, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live” (John 5:25), and the true meaning of his statement to the thief on the cross: “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We can now understand Peter’s statements about our Lord’s ministry in the spirit world, where he preached the gospel while his body lay in the Arimathean’s tomb. (1 Pet. 3:18–20,1 Pet. 4:6.) Paul’s statement about baptism for the dead now makes sense (1 Cor. 15:29), as do Isaiah’s and Zechariah’s statements about freeing the prisoners in the pit (Isa. 42:7, Isa. 49:9, Isa. 61:1, Zech. 9:11) and Obadiah’s prophecy about saviors who “shall come up on mount Zion” (Obad. 1:21). Even Malachi’s enigmatic promise that Elijah would come before the great and dreadful day of the Lord to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers,” lest the Lord come “and smite the earth with a curse” (Mal. 4:5–6)—even this takes on sense and meaning because the doctrine of salvation for the dead has been set out for us in plainness in latter-day revelation.
But in the beginning days of our era, we need not suppose that Joseph Smith understood these passages any more than the sectarian world does today. For that matter we have every reason to believe that he did not so much as know of their existence until the Lord began the schooling process that was to make him, before his death, one of the greatest prophets and most exalted seers ever to grace the face of this lowly planet. In spite of the biblical passages, only some of which we have noted, it is clear that neither young Joseph nor any of the professors of religion who held sway in his day had even the slightest glimmering of knowledge about this merciful and equitable doctrine until He whose doctrine it is began the modern-day revelatory processes.
2. Moroni begins the latter-day revelation of the doctrine of salvation for the dead. When Mormon’s son came to the first Latter-day Saint of modern times on that memorable night in September 1823, he revised and perfected the promise about the latter-day coming of Elijah.
Malachi’s promise that the Lord would send Elijah before the second coming was restated to say, “Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” The scriptural assurance that Elijah would turn the hearts of the fathers and the children to each other, lest the earth be smitten with a curse, was revised to read, “And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.” (JS—H 1:38–39.)
These altered renditions of holy writ were destined to mean a great deal to Joseph Smith in due course. But in his then relatively untutored spiritual state we cannot suppose that their full significance would burst upon him. It is doubtful that, at this early date, this chosen youth would have even associated them with such things as Isaiah’s promises that the prisoners should go free. And, for that matter, although there were biblical allusions to them, the full account of the very promises themselves which were made to the fathers was yet to be revealed.
3. The Book of Mormon presents some very express and pointed views about salvation for the dead. Translated by the gift and power of God, this volume of holy scripture contains the fulness of the everlasting gospel, meaning that it is a record of God’s dealings with a people who had the fulness of the gospel, and it records the things which men must do to gain the fulness of salvation in the eternal worlds.
From it Joseph Smith learned—as we all do!—that there is no such thing as salvation for the dead for those to whom the truth is offered in plainness and purity while they dwell in mortality. For instance:
Amulek tells the Zoramites (who, as Nephites, had forsaken the truth) that “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God”; that “the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors”; that “if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed”; and that those who procrastinate the day of their repentance until death shall lose their souls and cannot be saved. (Alma 34:32–33, 35–36.)
Similarly, the resurrected Lord told his American brethren as part of the Nephite sermon equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount “that except ye shall keep my commandments, which I have commanded you at this time, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (3 Ne. 12:20.) And there is much more which bears out this same concept in the holy writ of ancient America.
4. The Book of Moses alludes to the freeing of the prisoners in the pit. In the process of perfecting the text of the King James Version of the Bible, Joseph Smith learned by revelation in about December of 1830 that those who perished in the flood were shut up in prison, and were destined so to remain until Christ suffered for the sins of all men, until he pled for his brethren who were in the spirit prison, and until he returned to his Father. “Until that day they shall be in torment,” the account records. (Moses 7:38–39.)
5. Freeing of prisoners from Noah’s day does not include a celestial reward. In what is probably the greatest of all recorded visions, given February 16, 1832, the Prophet saw that those to whom Noah offered the gospel and who were then destroyed in the flood, assuming they repent and accept the gospel in their spirit prison, shall not obtain celestial rest. Theirs is an everlasting terrestrial inheritance because they rejected the truth when it was offered to them in mortality.
“We saw the terrestrial world,” the revelation recites, which includes “they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it.” (D&C 76:71, 73–74.)
6. The book of Abraham and the Doctrine and Covenants revealed the promises made to the fathers. Although they are alluded to in the Bible, the first plain and clear recitation of the promises made to the fathers is found in the Doctrine and Covenants and in the writings of Abraham, the translation of which latter work Joseph Smith began in July 1835.
The fathers involved are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Each of them in turn, for themselves and for their seed, received the promise that through celestial marriage they and their seed after them would have posterity as numerous as the sands upon the seashore and as the stars of the heavens. They were also promised that in them and in their seed all generations would be blessed. (Gen. 12:2–3; Gen. 13:16; Gen. 15:5–6; Gen. 17:1–8; Gen. 22:17–18; Gen. 26:3–5, 24; Gen. 28:3–4, 13–14; Gen. 35:11.)
As found in the book of Abraham, Jehovah’s promise to his friend Abraham included this assurance: “I give unto thee a promise that this right”—the right to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood—“shall continue” forever. That great patriarch was also promised, “In thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal.” (Abr. 2:11.)
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and their seed—have the natural right (such is the promise given them of God) to the priesthood, the gospel, and a fulness of salvation, which is eternal life! And this includes all of “the literal seed, or the seed of the body,” whether they lived when the gospel was on the earth or not! And that the eternal life spoken of grows out of celestial marriage is axiomatic among us.
The wondrous revelation on the new and everlasting covenant of marriage was revealed in 1831 (but not recorded until July 12, 1843), and in it the Lord said, “Abraham … hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne. Abraham received promises concerning his seed [the promises made to the fathers!], and of the fruit of his loins … which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, out of the world they should continue; both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them.” Such were the promises made to the fathers. Such are the promises which Moroni said would be planted in our hearts when Elijah returned.
It is no surprise then to find the revelation continuing, “This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself. Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham: enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved.” (D&C 132:29–32.)
7. Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom: the first specific revelation on salvation for the dead. The day is January 21, 1836. The place is one of the upper rooms in the Kirtland Temple. Among those present are the Prophet Joseph Smith, his father Joseph Smith, Sr., Oliver Cowdery (the second elder, who held the keys of the kingdom jointly with the Prophet), and Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, the counselors in the First Presidency. They are administering a partial endowment, the full ordinance being reserved for a future performance when a temple designed for ordinance work itself should be built.
The day has arrived and the hour is at hand. Salvation for the dead—that wondrous doctrine which ennobles God and saves his children—is about to be revealed in specific terms. General principles are already found in the holy writ in the hands of these humble souls who were then seeking to do the will of him whose they were. But until the general provisions of the doctrine received specific application from that Lord whose principles they were, their significance and import would not enlighten the minds of mortal men.
In this setting, the doctrinal foundation having been laid, and with the Spirit of the Lord resting mightily upon them, the veil was rent. “I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof,” the Prophet said. He described its beauty, including “the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.” He saw Adam and Abraham and his father and mother in that holy realm, showing that the vision was one of things to come, because his father and mother were yet in mortality and his father was then present in the same room.
“I saw … my brother, Alvin, that has long since slept; And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.” From this it is clear that whatever the scriptures said about the promises made to the fathers, about all the seed of Abraham having the right to special blessings, and about the preaching of the gospel in the spirit world, the Prophet had not yet envisioned the soul-expanding concept of salvation for the dead.
In this setting the answer was given and the gospel spread forth its light to embrace the living and the dead. “Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying—All who have died without a knowledge of this Gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom, for I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2:380.)
Every member of the Church should ponder upon and memorize these words. They contain the Lord’s promise that all those who would have received the gospel in this life “with all their hearts,” had the opportunity been afforded, will receive it in the spirit world and be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.
Following this the Prophet received the comforting assurance “that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability, are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” He and numerous others there assembled also saw other great and glorious visions during this pentecostal occasion. (History of the Church, 2:381; see 2:382–89.)
8. Elias and Elijah came to put in operation the doctrine of salvation for the dead. Less than two and a half months after the Prophet’s vision of the celestial kingdom, the Lord sent first Elias and then Elijah so that the laws relative to salvation for the dead could be put into full operation. The time was April 3, 1836. The place was the Kirtland Temple. The recipients of the powers and blessings were Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
Elias came to make available the same things enjoyed by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as recorded in Genesis and in the book of Abraham, to which we have heretofore referred. Concerning his visit the record says, “Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed.” (D&C 110:12.)
Thus Elias brought back the great commission given to Abraham—called in the revelation “the gospel of Abraham”—which gospel or commission was that in Abraham and in his seed all generations would be blessed; which commission was that all the seed of Abraham had the right to the continuation of the family unit in eternity and to eternal increase, which is part of eternal life. Such, as we have seen, was the promise made to the fathers.
After Elias comes Elijah. With the promise revealed, it now must be planted in the hearts of the seed of Abraham. And so the record says, “After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.” (D&C 110:13–16.)
Thus it was that Elijah conferred upon men the sealing power, the power by which the promises made to the fathers could be made operative in the lives of men. As set forth by Joseph Smith in his great discourse on “Elias, Elijah, Messiah,” Elijah came to enable us to perform all the ordinances of the gospel for the living, first, and for the dead, second. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 335–41.)
We are married in the temple—and so receive the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as promised by Elias—because of the sealing power restored by Elijah. Once we have received these blessings for ourselves and our posterity, we seek to make them available to our ancestors who died without a knowledge of the gospel and who would have received them with all their hearts had they lived when such blessings were available to them. The divine decree is: Save thyself and thy kindred.
9. Joseph Smith and his successors have guided the Saints where salvation for the dead is concerned. From the prophet’s day to now, line upon line and precept upon precept, solving each newly arising problem by the spirit of inspiration, the various presidents of the Church have guided the Lord’s people in this great work of salvation for the dead. We have many sermons from Joseph Smith, and we have his two epistles, sections 127 and 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants. [D&C 127; D&C 128] We have the decisions of President Wilford Woodruff and others as to how and to whom children should be sealed. We have the great genealogical system of the Church to help in the necessary research. We have family organizations on every hand, and the work is going forward.
10. President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead expands our understanding of salvation for the dead. Among other things this modern-day vision reveals the following:
First: It is a complete and comprehensive confirmation of the established doctrine of the Church where salvation for the dead is concerned.
Second: President Smith “saw the hosts of the dead”—all those who had died during 4,000 years of earth’s turmoils. Among them was “an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality.” And it was to these that the Spirit Lord ministered, proclaiming again and anew to their listening ears the great plan of redemption.
Third: Among the wicked and ungodly our Lord did not go in person, and among them his voice was not raised. “But behold, from among the righteous he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men. And thus was the gospel preached to the dead.”
Fourth: It is clearly set forth that the whole spirit world, and not only that portion designated as hell, is considered to be a spirit prison. When Jesus came to them he declared “liberty to the captives who had been faithful,” for they “had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.”
Fifth: “The faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.”
Thus, faithful members of the kingdom of God on earth, while they are yet mortal, search out their dead ancestors and perform the ordinances of salvation and exaltation for them in the holy sanctuaries set apart for these purposes. Then, upon departing this life, those same faithful souls seek out and teach to their ancestors the saving truths of the everlasting gospel. And thus does the gospel continue to be preached among the dead. (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, Deseret Book Co., 1939, pp. 472–76.)
11. There is more revelation to come relative to salvation for the dead and all other things. The last word has not been spoken on any subject. Streams of living water shall yet flow from the Eternal Spring who is the source of all truth. There are more things we do not know about the doctrines of salvation than there are things we do know.
When we as a people believe and conform to all of the truths we have received, we shall receive more of the mind and will and voice of the Lord. What we receive and when it comes are in large measure up to us. The Lord has many things he wants to tell us, but so far we have not attained that unity and spiritual stature which will enable us to pull down knowledge from heaven upon us.
We praise God because he has seen fit to give to us what we have received, including these two revelations on salvation for the dead, and pray that we may believe and obey with that faith and devotion which will cause the Lord to give us more of his eternal word. The more we know, the more scripture we receive, the more we have in our standard works, the greater is our chance of gaining eternal life in our Father’s kingdom. We can never live a law until it is revealed to us. Can any of us know too much? Can we receive too much revelation? Can we add too much to our holy writ?
What a wondrous thing it is to worship a God who still speaks, whose voice is still heard, whose words are without end!