A New Commandment: Save Thyself and Thy Kindred!

“A New Commandment: Save Thyself and Thy Kindred!” Tambuli, Aug. 1977, 5

A New Commandment:

Save Thyself and Thy Kindred!

Bruce R. McConkie

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 littie 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 men raised their hands 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, 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 cease (Moses 1:4, 38.)

Because he is no respecter of persons (Deut. 1:17; Acts 10:34) 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 into God where the outpouring of his gifts is concerned. 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 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.

There was nothing new about 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.

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: “Today 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 tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (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.

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 come. But in his then relatively untutored spiritual state, we cannot suppose that their full significance would burst upon him.

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. (see Alma 34, 32–33, 35–36; 3 Ne. 12–20.)

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 pleaded for 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. (See 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 right extends to all of “the literal seed, or the seed of the body,” whether they lived when the gospel was on the earth or not! The eternal life spoken of grows out of celestial marriage. This knowledge is axiomatic among us.

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 of the endowment was being reserved for a future performance when a temple designed for ordinance work itself should be built.

In this setting, the doctrinal foundation having been laid, and with the Spirit of the Lord resting mightily upon them, the barrier between heaven and earth was opened. “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, who 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.” (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 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 comes—To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to their 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 Elijah conferred upon men the sealing power, the power by which the promises made to the fathers could work 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, 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 everywhere, 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 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!