Church History
Vision of the Redemption of the Dead (D&C 138)
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“Vision of the Redemption of the Dead (D&C 138),” Church History Topics

“Vision of the Redemption of the Dead (D&C 138)”

Vision of the Redemption of the Dead (D&C 138)

On October 3, 1918, Church President Joseph F. Smith experienced a vision of Jesus Christ’s postmortal visit to the spirit world. President Smith’s account of the vision was published in newspapers, magazines, books, and manuals before being added to the Pearl of Great Price and sustained as scripture in general conference in 1976.1 As part of a new standardized edition of the scriptures, the account was moved in 1979 to the Doctrine and Covenants, becoming the first of only two documents of the 20th century to be canonized.2

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Joseph F. Smith

President Joseph F. Smith approximately four years before his vision of the redemption of the dead.

Christian tradition dating to the first century maintained that Jesus Christ had visited the spirits of the dead between the Crucifixion and Resurrection. When Joseph Smith began teaching the doctrine of baptism for the dead in the 1840s, a large number of Christians already accepted the “harrowing of hell” doctrine, which taught that Jesus had descended into hell prior to resurrection to save those who had not heard His message.3 In sermons about baptism for the dead, Joseph Smith observed that “Jesus Christ became a min[i]stering spirit, while his body [lay] in the sepulchre, to the spirits in prison; to fulfil an important part of his mission,” preaching among spirits “to deliver, or bring them out of the prison house.” 4 Throughout Joseph F. Smith’s life, other Presidents of the Church, including Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow, each described Jesus and other departed Saints as undertaking missions to preach the gospel to “spirits in prison” in “the abode of the doomed.”5

As President of the Church between 1901 and 1918, Joseph F. Smith emphasized missionary work in the spirit world, teaching that “brethren [of the Priesthood who] depart hence … will carry on this work” under postmortal priesthood organization. Living Latter-day Saints could assist by “labor[ing] for the salvation of our ancestors by attending to ordinances for them which they could not now perform, being in the spirit world.” He cited passages in the New Testament in support of these teachings but still wondered about the scale of organization—how could Jesus have reached the millions of souls in spirit prison in the short period between His death and resurrection?6

His questions about conditions in the spirit world may have been prompted or accelerated by frequent confrontations with death. Joseph F. Smith had suffered as a child after the death of his father, Hyrum Smith. Over a span of 50 years, he experienced the deaths of 12 of his children, and his adult son, Hyrum Mack Smith, died suddenly from a ruptured appendix in January 1918. Later that year, a global influenza pandemic and severe losses from World War I made unprecedented death rates a regular headline.7 In October, Joseph F. Smith’s own health declined, bringing him, he said, into a nearly constant “communication with the Spirit of the Lord.”8 As he contemplated the love of God and studied 1 Peter 3:18–20 and 4:6, the “eyes of [his] understanding were opened,” and he “saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.”9

During the vision, Joseph F. Smith wondered how Jesus Christ could have ministered to so many in such a short period and saw how the Savior “spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh” to preach the gospel to those who had lacked the gospel message in mortality.10 While the vision confirmed his earlier impressions about Jesus’s visit to the spirit world, it also revealed that Jesus had not visited the wicked or rebellious but rather mobilized messengers to preach the gospel.11

A month after the vision, President Smith dictated his account to his son Joseph Fielding Smith. Two weeks later Joseph Fielding Smith presented the text to the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Presiding Patriarch, who endorsed it and made plans to publish the account in the Improvement Era. 12 Joseph F. Smith died on November 19, eleven days before the account was first published. Subsequent publications, including a collection of Joseph F. Smith’s teachings and priesthood quorum manuals, reprinted the vision, making the text broadly available even before its canonization in 1976.13

Almost immediately after the account became public, readers recognized the vision’s significance for family history research and temple work. Susa Young Gates, who read a transcript of the vision account at Joseph F. Smith’s bedside, promoted the vision to associates in the Genealogical Society of Utah and in the Relief Society.14 “Think of the impetus this revelation will give to temple work throughout the Church!” she wrote to a fellow Genealogical Society administrator.15 Energized by President Smith’s revelatory view of the spirit world, Latter-day Saints continued to build temples and established one of the largest repositories of genealogical records anywhere in the world.

Related Topics: Joseph F. Smith, Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Notes

  1. N. Eldon Tanner, “The Sustaining of Church Officers,” Ensign, May 1976, 18.

  2. The other was Official Declaration 2, an announcement of a revelation received in June 1978 by Church President Spencer W. Kimball and sustained as the will of the Lord in the following general conference. The new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants containing the account in section 138 was not printed until 1981.

  3. Jeffrey A. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 91–102.

  4. Joseph Smith, Discourse, 3 Oct. 1841, in Times and Seasons, Oct. 15, 1841, 577, josephsmithpapers.org; Joseph Smith, “Baptism for the Dead,” Times and Seasons, Apr. 15, 1842, 760.

  5. Joseph Stuart, “Development of the Understanding of the Postmortal Spirit World,” in Joseph F. Smith: Reflections on the Man and His Times, edited by Craig K. Manscill, Brian D. Reeves, Guy L. Dorius, and J. B. Haws (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2013), 224–27.

  6. Stuart, “Development of the Understanding of the Postmortal Spirit World,” 227–29.

  7. See Topics: Influenza Pandemic of 1918, World War I.

  8. Joseph F. Smith, Remarks, Oct. 4, 1918, in Eighty-Ninth Semi-Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1918), 2.

  9. Doctrine and Covenants 138:11.

  10. Doctrine and Covenants 138:36; see also Doctrine and Covenants 138:11, 27, 30.

  11. Stuart, “Development of the Understanding of the Postmortal Spirit World,” 230.

  12. James E. Talmage, Journal, 31 Oct. 1918, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT; see Topics: Church Publications, Patriarchal Blessings.

  13. Robert L. Millet, “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead (D&C 138),” in Craig K. Manscill, ed., Sperry Symposium Classics: The Doctrine and Covenants (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2004), 314–31.

  14. See Topic: Family History and Genealogy.

  15. Susa Young Gates letter to Elizabeth C. McCune, Nov. 14, 1918; Lisa Olsen Tait, “Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” Revelations in Context series, history.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.