“Chapter 49: Doctrine and Covenants 125–28,” Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (2017)
“Chapter 49,” Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual
By the summer of 1839, many of the Saints who had been forced from their homes in Missouri were establishing new settlements on land purchased by the Church in Commerce, Illinois, and in Iowa Territory. In March 1841 the Prophet Joseph Smith received the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 125, in which the Lord revealed His will concerning the gathering of the Saints in Iowa Territory.
After his baptism in April 1832, Brigham Young served missions in Upper Canada, in the northeastern United States, and in England. His extensive missionary service required him and his family to make significant sacrifices. On July 1, 1841, Brigham Young returned from his mission in England after an absence of almost two years. On July 9, 1841, the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation for Brigham Young, which is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 126. In this revelation, the Lord told Brigham that he was no longer required to leave his family to serve missions “as in times past” (D&C 126:1).
On September 1, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote a letter to Church members instructing them to keep records of the baptisms they performed for their deceased ancestors. This letter is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 127. Recent research indicates that on September 7, 1842 (rather than September 6, as reported in the section heading), the Prophet wrote another letter to Church members, in which he taught them further about the proper administration and recording of baptisms for the dead. He also explained the doctrinal significance of this ordinance. This letter is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 128.
August 15, 1840The Prophet Joseph Smith delivered his first public discourse on baptisms for the dead at the funeral service for Seymour Brunson in Nauvoo, Illinois.
March 6–16, 1841Doctrine and Covenants 125 was received.
July 1, 1841Brigham Young arrived in Nauvoo after serving a mission in England.
July 9, 1841Doctrine and Covenants 126 was received.
November 8, 1841A temporary baptismal font was dedicated for baptisms for the dead in the basement of the unfinished temple in Nauvoo, Illinois.
August 1842To avoid being unlawfully arrested and returned to Missouri, the Prophet Joseph Smith hid in various locations in and around Nauvoo, Illinois.
September 1, 1842The Prophet Joseph Smith dictated a letter to Church members, which is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 127.
September 7, 1842The Prophet Joseph Smith dictated another letter to Church members, which is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 128.
After Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued the executive order to remove all Mormons from the state of Missouri in October 1838, thousands of Church members fled to Iowa Territory and Illinois. The Prophet Joseph Smith and other Church leaders arranged to buy 700 acres of land in Commerce (later named Nauvoo), Illinois, and nearly 18,000 acres in Lee County, Iowa Territory. Branches of the Church were eventually established in Iowa Territory in Zarahemla and Nashville and in other small settlements near the existing community of Montrose. During a Church conference held on October 5, 1839, the Iowa Stake was created. In March 1841 the Prophet Joseph Smith received the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 125, in which the Lord named Zarahemla and Nashville as principal gathering places for Church members in Iowa Territory. In August 1841 the name of the Iowa Stake was changed to the Zarahemla Stake. However, because all available Church members were needed to help build the Nauvoo Temple and complete other construction projects in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Zarahemla Stake was dissolved in January 1842 after numerous Church members moved from Iowa Territory to Nauvoo. (See “Historical context and overview of Doctrine and Covenants 125,” in Dennis L. Largey and Larry E. Dahl, eds., Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion , 840.)
Several of the revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants taught that Church members were to gather to places designated by the Lord through His prophet (see D&C 37:3; 57:1–2; 101:20–21; 115:6–8). By gathering together, these Church members received spiritual strength, gospel instruction, and other benefits of associating with each other and with Church leaders. In the revelation the Prophet Joseph Smith received in March 1841, the Lord explained that Church members in Iowa Territory were to “build up cities unto my name” (D&C 125:2). He also told these Saints that they were to gather in Zarahemla or Nashville in Iowa Territory, “in the city of Nauvoo,” or in any of the stakes that the Lord had appointed (see D&C 125:3–4). Today, Church members are not commanded to gather to one particular place; rather, each member is assigned to a local ward or branch within a stake or mission in the area in which he or she lives. President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) taught:
“As the Church grows, it is very important that we build solidly and well, and that our prospective stakes have the basic ingredients that are necessary for success and that existing stakes work tirelessly for full stakehood in the sense of spiritual achievement. These stakes are to be the gathering spots for the Zion of today, and they need to be spiritual sanctuaries and to be self-sufficient in as many ways as is possible.
“The stakes and districts of Zion are symbolic of the holy places spoken of by the Lord where His Saints are to gather in the last days as a refuge from the storm” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson , 293).
From the time of his baptism on April 5, 1832, Brigham Young demonstrated great missionary zeal. Describing the feelings he had, he later said: “I wanted to thunder, and roar out the gospel to the nations. It burned in my bones like fire pent up. … Nothing would satisfy me but to cry abroad in the world what the Lord is doing in the latter days” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young , viii).
During his first five years as a member of the Church, Brigham Young served missions throughout Upper Canada and in New York and other eastern states. He also participated in the Zion’s Camp march from Ohio to Missouri in the summer of 1834. He was ordained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Kirtland, Ohio, on February 14, 1835, and later became the president of that Quorum on April 14, 1840, while he was serving a mission in England. On July 1, 1841, after completing his mission in England, President Young rejoined his wife and children, who were then living in Nauvoo, Illinois. (See Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses , 413–14.) On July 9, 1841, the Prophet Joseph Smith visited President Young in his home and dictated the revelation that is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 126.
Brigham Young’s many absences while he was in the Lord’s service were difficult for his wife Mary Ann and their children. In the summer of 1839, while he and the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were preparing to serve missions in Great Britain, a malaria epidemic struck the area, leaving Brigham and most of his family members ill (see Lisa Olsen Tait and Chad M. Orton, “Take Special Care of Your Family,” in Revelations in Context, ed. Matthew McBride and James Goldberg , 245, or history.lds.org). However, this did not stop him from serving his mission. He later recalled: “I was determined to go to England or to die trying. My firm resolve was that I would do what I was required to do in the Gospel of life and salvation, or I would die trying to do it” (Teachings: Brigham Young, 5).
Brigham Young left Montrose, Iowa Territory, for England on September 14, 1839, just 10 days after his wife Mary Ann gave birth to their fourth child. Mary Ann was also still suffering from malaria. This was the eighth time since they had been married that they had been separated while President Young served a mission (including the Zion’s Camp expedition). In addition, because they had been driven out of Missouri the previous year and had lost most of their possessions, Brigham was only able to leave Mary Ann $2.72 with which to support their family, which also included two daughters from his marriage to his first wife, Miriam, who had died about five months after he joined the Church. But the Youngs trusted that the Lord would provide for them, and they relied on the Prophet Joseph Smith’s promise that the families of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would have their needs met while the Apostles were away on their missions. (See Arrington, Brigham Young, 74–75, 413, 420; “Historical context and overview of Doctrine and Covenants 126,” in Largey and Dahl, Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion, 841.) As Brigham Young and his friend and fellow Apostle Heber C. Kimball departed for their mission, they arose from the back of the wagon where they lay gravely ill and cheered their ailing families, shouting, “Hurrah, hurrah for Israel” (in Orson F. Whitney, The Life of Heber C. Kimball, 3rd ed. , 266). During her husband’s absence, Mary Ann moved the family from Montrose, Iowa Territory, to Nauvoo, Illinois, where she constructed a log home “with blankets hung over the doors and windows to keep out the elements.” After returning from his mission to England on July 1, 1841, President Young began building a brick home in Nauvoo for his family, “although he was not able to move his family into it until May 1843” (in Tait and Orton, “Take Special Care of Your Family,” 246, or history.lds.org).
As a result of Brigham Young’s faithful obedience and dedicated service, he received the Lord’s reassurance that he had done well and that his offering was acceptable to the Lord (see D&C 126:1).
According to the Lectures on Faith, a collection of lessons that were published with the sanction and approval of the Prophet Joseph Smith, one thing that is “necessary in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation” is “an actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing is according to [God’s] will” (Lectures on Faith , 38). Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles added:
“Obviously, our imperfections make God’s full and final approval of our lives impossible now, but the basic course of our life can be approved. If we have that basic reassurance, we can further develop faith. Once our direction is correct, we can give attention to pace.
“There are various and specific duties in the ‘course of life’ which go with (and help us to keep) the commandments. These duties are usually quite measurable and are quite familiar. They include partaking of the sacrament, attending meetings and the temple, praying, fasting, studying the scriptures, rendering Christian service, attending to all family duties, being involved in missionary work and reactivation, doing genealogical work, paying our tithes and offerings, and being temporally prepared. …
“When we perform these measurable duties properly, they produce a series of highly desirable results which are less measurable but very real. Indeed, when we have personal, reinforcing spiritual experiences, they will almost always occur in the course of our carrying out the duties just named. Further, carrying out these duties will entitle us to an ever-increasing companionship of the Holy Ghost” (“The Christ-Centered Life,” Ensign, Aug. 1981, 13).
Before the Prophet Joseph Smith received the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 126, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles generally functioned as local authorities in the outlying areas of the Church and in the mission field. As Brigham Young and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles returned from their missions in Great Britain, the Lord indicated that President Young, who was then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was not required to leave his family any longer to serve missions (see D&C 126:1). Rather, the Lord said that he was to remain near the headquarters of the Church and “send my word abroad” (D&C 126:3), meaning that he would oversee missionary work. Although President Young served three more brief missions in 1842, 1843, and 1844, he generally was able to remain in Nauvoo, Illinois, with his family. There he had the blessing of spending time with and learning from the Prophet Joseph Smith during the remaining three years of the Prophet’s life.
After returning home from a mission to England, Brigham Young followed the Lord’s command to “take especial care of [his] family” (D&C 126:3). He took time each day to instruct and pray with his children, who remembered him as a gentle and loving father. Brigham was 40 years old when the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 126 was received, but the following account illustrates his longstanding devotion to his family:
“At age 23 he married [his first wife,] Miriam Angeline Works. Two daughters were born to the young couple. Brigham supported his family by making and repairing chairs, tables, and cupboards and installing windows, doors, stairways, and fireplace mantels. …
“When Miriam contracted tuberculosis, Brigham assumed much of the burden of her work in addition to his own. As she became progressively more bedridden, he regularly prepared breakfast for the family, dressed his daughters, cleaned up the house, and ‘carried his wife to the rocking chair by the fireplace and left her there until he could return in the evening,’ when he cooked supper, got his family into bed, and finished the household chores [Susa Young Gates and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Life Story of Brigham Young (1930), 5]. His experiences in his youth and early marriage in caring for children and managing a home taught him much about family cooperation and housekeeping. Years later he counseled the Saints on these subjects and teasingly boasted that he could beat ‘most of the women in [the] community at housekeeping’ [Deseret News Weekly, Aug. 12, 1857, 4]” (Teachings: Brigham Young, 2).
Learning to balance our family responsibilities with schooling, work, and Church callings can be difficult. In a 1999 letter to the membership of the Church, the First Presidency proclaimed:
“We call upon parents to devote their best efforts to the teaching and rearing of their children in gospel principles which will keep them close to the Church. The home is the basis of a righteous life, and no other instrumentality can take its place or fulfill its essential functions in carrying forward this God-given responsibility.
“We counsel parents and children to give highest priority to family prayer, family home evening, gospel study and instruction, and wholesome family activities. However worthy and appropriate other demands or activities may be, they must not be permitted to displace the divinely-appointed duties that only parents and families can adequately perform” (First Presidency letter, Feb. 11, 1999; see also Handbook 2: Administering the Church , 1.4.1).
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s first public teaching about the doctrine of vicarious baptisms for the dead occurred as he preached a funeral sermon for Brother Seymour Brunson, who had been a member of the Nauvoo High Council and a bodyguard of the Prophet, on August 15, 1840, in Nauvoo, Illinois. Soon afterward, Church members began performing baptisms for the dead in the Mississippi River. (See Matthew McBride, “Letters on Baptism for the Dead,” in McBride and Goldberg, Revelations in Context, 273, or history.lds.org; Susan Easton Black, “A Voice of Gladness,” Ensign, Feb. 2004, 35.) Four months later the Prophet announced the doctrine in a letter to members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles serving in Great Britain: “The saints have the priviledge of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, who they feel to believe would have embraced the gospel if they had been priviledged with hearing it, and who have received the gospel in the spirit through the instrumentality of those who may have been commissioned to preach to them while in the prison” (Letter to Quorum of the Twelve, 15 December 1840, page 6, josephsmithpapers.org).
Before the baptistry in the Nauvoo Temple was completed, the Lord permitted the Saints to temporarily perform baptisms for the dead in places other than the temple, explaining: “This ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me. … I grant unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me” (D&C 124:30–31). By the end of November 1841, a large, wooden baptismal font was prepared in the basement of the Nauvoo Temple and “enclosed … in a temporary clapboard building” while the construction of the walls and upper floors of the temple continued (see Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise , 250–51).
In May 1842, Lilburn W. Boggs, the former governor of Missouri who had issued the extermination order against Church members, was wounded in an assassination attempt. Missouri authorities accused the Prophet Joseph Smith of helping plan the attack, and both Missouri and Illinois officials tried to arrest the Prophet, who was living in Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time, and return him to Missouri for trial. Knowing that if he returned to Missouri he would likely be killed, the Prophet was in and out of hiding from early August 1842 through December 1842 to avoid being arrested. In January 1843 it was determined that the proceedings to arrest the Prophet and return him to Missouri were illegal. (See “Letter to John M. Bernhisel, 7 September 1842,” pages 2–3, josephsmithpapers.org; “Historical context and overview of Doctrine and Covenants 127,” in Largey and Dahl, Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion, 842.)
On September 1, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith worked in a room above the Red Brick Store (where Church business was often conducted) as well as at his home. At some time during that day, the Prophet wrote a letter containing instructions for Church members letting them know that he was planning to once again go into hiding and instructing them regarding the ordinance of proxy baptism for the dead. Two days later he was forced to hide once more. On September 4, 1842, the letter was read aloud to Church members who were gathered at the outdoor meeting grove near the Nauvoo Temple. The contents of that letter are recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 127. (See “Journal, December 1841–December 1842,” pages 184, 189–90, josephsmithpapers.org; “Historical context and overview of Doctrine and Covenants 127,” 842.)
Following the attempted assassination of former Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs on May 6, 1842, some of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s enemies falsely claimed that the Prophet helped plan the attack. Formal legal charges were filed, and beginning in early August 1842, Missouri and Illinois officials attempted to arrest the Prophet and return him to Missouri for trial. The Prophet Joseph Smith strongly denied the charge, explaining in his letter to the Saints that “they pursue me without a cause” (D&C 127:1). In a separate letter written to a Church member on September 7, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The Missourians, together with some of the principal officers of this state [Illinois] … are again disgracing themselves by persecution and cruelty. They have so little regard for truth,—the laws of the land,— and constitution of the United States, that they have issued processes for my arrest as illegal as can be imagined, and they themselves are aware of it. … Thus you see I am obliged to exile myself to save the lives of the people as well as my own life from day to day” (“Letter to John M. Bernhisel, 7 September 1842,” pages 2–3, josephsmithpapers.org).
In spite of the threats to his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote: “As for the perils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me. … And I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation; for to this day has the God of my fathers delivered me out of them all, and will deliver me from thenceforth; for behold, and lo, I shall triumph over all my enemies” (D&C 127:2). The Prophet also declared, “Let all the saints rejoice, therefore, and be exceedingly glad; for Israel’s God is their God” (D&C 127:3), meaning that Church members could trust that the Great Jehovah who performed mighty miracles on behalf of His people anciently would continue to do so in their day.
Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained why God permitted the Prophet Joseph Smith to experience adversity: “There is meaning and purpose in our earthly challenges. Consider the Prophet Joseph Smith: throughout his life he faced daunting opposition—illness, accident, poverty, misunderstanding, false accusation, and even persecution. One might be tempted to ask, ‘Why didn’t the Lord protect His prophet from such obstacles, provide him with unlimited resources, and stop up the mouths of his accusers?’ The answer is, Each of us must go through certain experiences to become more like our Savior. In the school of mortality, the tutor is often pain and tribulation, but the lessons are meant to refine and bless us and strengthen us, not to destroy us” (“Faith through Tribulation Brings Peace and Joy,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2003, 17).
A revelation received on January 19, 1841, directed Church members to build a temple in Nauvoo, Illinois (see D&C 124:27, 34, 40–44). The Prophet Joseph Smith presided over the laying of the four cornerstones of the Nauvoo Temple on April 6, 1841 (see Manuscript History of the Church, vol. C-1, pages 1184–86, josephsmithpapers.org). In his letter to Church members dated September 1, 1842, the Prophet urged the Saints to be diligent and complete the construction of the temple (see D&C 127:4). In our day, President Howard W. Hunter (1907–1995) urged Church members to participate in temple worship:
“It should be no surprise to us that the Lord does desire that his people be a temple-motivated people. I repeat what I have said before: It would please the Lord for every adult member to be worthy of—and to carry—a current temple recommend, even if proximity to a temple does not allow immediate or frequent use of it. The things that we must do and not do to be worthy of a temple recommend are the very things that ensure we will be happy as individuals and as families.
“Let us truly be a temple-attending and a temple-loving people. We should hasten to the temple as frequently, yet prudently, as our personal circumstances allow. We should go not only for our kindred dead but also for the personal blessing of temple worship, for the sanctity and safety that are within those hallowed and consecrated walls. As we attend the temple, we learn more richly and deeply the purpose of life and the significance of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us make the temple, with temple worship and temple covenants and temple marriage, our ultimate earthly goal and the supreme mortal experience. …
“… As the prophets have said, the temple is a place of beauty; it is a place of revelation; it is a place of peace. It is the house of the Lord. It is holy unto the Lord. It must be holy and important to us” (“A Temple-Motivated People,” Ensign, Feb. 1995, 5).
As recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 127:5 and 128:14, the Prophet Joseph Smith referred to the deceased persons for whom the Saints were performing proxy baptisms as “your dead”—meaning their own deceased ancestors. Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that as we participate in family history and temple service, our primary responsibility is to find our own ancestors and perform saving ordinances for them: “The Lord in initial revelatory instructions referred to ‘baptism for your dead’ [D&C 127:5; emphasis added]. Our doctrinal obligation is to our own ancestors. This is because the celestial organization of heaven is based on families [see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (2013), 68]. The First Presidency has encouraged members, especially youth and young single adults, to emphasize family history work and ordinances for their own family names or the names of ancestors of their ward and stake members [see First Presidency letter, Oct. 8, 2012]. We need to be connected to both our roots and branches. The thought of being associated in the eternal realm is indeed glorious” (“Roots and Branches,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2014, 45).
Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the blessings that come to those who participate in the work of salvation for their ancestors:
“I encourage you to study, to search out your ancestors, and to prepare yourselves to perform proxy baptisms in the house of the Lord for your kindred dead (see D&C 124:28–36). And I urge you to help other people identify their family histories.
“As you respond in faith to this invitation, your hearts shall turn to the fathers. The promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be implanted in your hearts. Your patriarchal blessing, with its declaration of lineage, will link you to these fathers and be more meaningful to you. Your love and gratitude for your ancestors will increase. Your testimony of and conversion to the Savior will become deep and abiding. And I promise you will be protected against the intensifying influence of the adversary. As you participate in and love this holy work, you will be safeguarded in your youth and throughout your lives” (“The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2011, 26–27).
On August 31, 1842, the day before the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote the letter recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 127, he met with the members of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in the outdoor meeting grove located west of the temple. According to the notes Eliza R. Snow took at that meeting, the Prophet stated that “a few things had been manifested to him [while he had been in hiding], respecting the baptisms for the dead.” He briefly explained to the sisters that “all persons baptiz’d for the dead must have a Recorder present, that he may be an eye-witness to testify of it” (in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History, ed. Jill Mulvay Derr and others , 94–95). The Lord emphasized the importance of record keeping throughout revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants (see D&C 21:1; 47:1, 3–4; 69:8), including records such as journals, minutes of meetings, and other historical records. In the Prophet Joseph Smith’s letter dated September 1, 1842, he taught that record keeping is a vital part of temple ordinance work. Records associated with temple work were to “be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of [the] holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation” (D&C 127:9).
Initially, before receiving additional instruction and “in their hurry to administer [baptism] for their loved ones,” Church members did not always accurately record their baptisms for the dead. In addition, proxies were sometimes baptized for people of the opposite gender, and the ordinance was often performed without witnesses. (See McBride, “Letters on Baptism for the Dead,” 275–76, or history.lds.org.) President Brigham Young (1801–1877) explained:
“When an infinite being gives a law to his finite creatures, he has to descend to the capacity of those who receive his law[;] when the doctrine of baptism for the dead was first given, this church was in its infancy, and was not capable of receiving all the knowledge of God in its highest degree. …
“… When [the doctrine of baptism for the dead] was first revealed all the order of it was not made known, afterwards it was made known, that records, clerks, and one or two witnesses were necessary or else it will be of no value to the saints.
“The Lord has led this people all the while in this way, by giving them here a little and there a little, thus he increases their wisdom, and he that receives a little and is thankful for that shall receive more and more” (“Speech,” Times and Seasons, July 1, 1845, 954; see also McBride, “Letters on Baptism for the Dead,” 275–76, or history.lds.org).
While teaching of the necessity of building a temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Lord declared, “Let this house be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people” (D&C 124:40). “In response to the Lord’s command, the Prophet and the Saints moved forward as quickly as possible to begin building a house of the Lord. But the Prophet realized that the construction would take years, and he knew that the Saints needed the full blessings of the temple. Consequently, on May 4, 1842, even though the temple was not complete, Joseph Smith administered the endowment to a small group of faithful brethren” (in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 413). He later taught the doctrine of eternal marriage and introduced the sealing ordinance to the Saints (see D&C 131:1–4; 132:19–25).
On September 3, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith was at home with his family when he learned that sheriffs from Missouri and Illinois were approaching with the intent to arrest him and return him to Missouri. The Prophet was able to slip away unnoticed and eventually made his way that evening to the home of Edward Hunter. (See Manuscript History of the Church, vol. D-1, page 1 [addenda], josephsmithpapers.org.) The following day, the Prophet’s letter dated September 1, 1842, was read aloud to Church members who had gathered in the outdoor meeting grove near the Nauvoo Temple (see “Doctrine and Covenants 127: Additional Historical Background” in this chapter). On September 7, while still at Brother Hunter’s home, the Prophet “dictated a long Epistle to the Saints which he ordered to be read [the] next Sabbath” (“Journal, December 1841–December 1842,” page 192, josephsmithpapers.org). The contents of that letter are recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 128.
Billions of Heavenly Father’s children have died without knowledge of Jesus Christ and without receiving the essential ordinance of baptism (see 2 Nephi 2:6–7; Alma 9:27). The restoration of the doctrine of redemption of the dead demonstrates that God has prepared a way for salvation to be offered to all—including those who have died without the opportunity to receive the gospel in mortality (see D&C 128:22). The Prophet Joseph Smith explained in his September 7, 1842, letter to Church members that the ordinance of baptism for the dead had been “prepared before the foundation of the world” (D&C 128:5).
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that as records of our works, including a record of sacred ordinance work, “are kept on the earth,” a similar “record … is kept in heaven” (D&C 128:7). These records will someday be among the books that will be opened when the dead are judged (see D&C 128:6–7; see also Revelation 20:12; 3 Nephi 27:24–26). The Prophet likened the power of the priesthood used to perform and record ordinances to the sealing power the Lord promised to Peter when He declared, “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (D&C 128:10; see also Matthew 16:18–19). The Prophet also linked the word bind with the word record as he modified the Bible verse, saying, “Whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven” (D&C 128:8). This binding or sealing power of the priesthood enables ordinances performed on earth for God’s children to have binding power in heaven.
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that the “keys” and “the powers of the Holy Priesthood” that had been conferred upon him qualified him to “[obtain] a knowledge of facts in relation to the salvation of the children of men, both as well for the dead as for the living” (D&C 128:11). The same priesthood keys have been committed to the latter-day prophets who have succeeded the Prophet Joseph Smith, allowing them to search out greater understanding of the salvation of the dead.
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained, “The ordinance of baptism by water, to be immersed therein … and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves” (D&C 128:12). He also explained that “the baptismal font [for baptisms for the dead] was instituted as a similitude of the grave” and was therefore to be located in the basement area of the Nauvoo Temple, or “in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness” (D&C 128:13).
President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972) 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. (See 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” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 2:332).
Using the words of the Old Testament prophet Malachi, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the ordinance of baptism for the dead was intended to forge “a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children” (D&C 128:18), or between generations of families, and “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (D&C 128:17; see also Malachi 4:6). The Prophet also used the words of the Apostle Paul to teach that our deceased ancestors’ “salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation,” emphasizing that “they [the dead] without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (D&C 128:15; see also Hebrews 11:40).
President Joseph Fielding Smith taught: “There must be a family organization, a family unit, and each generation must be linked to the chain that goes before in order to bring perfection in family organization. Thus eventually we will be one large family with Adam at the head, Michael, the archangel, presiding over his posterity” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie , 2:175).
The process of linking generations begins with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, but it also requires that our deceased ancestors receive the other ordinances of salvation by proxy. These saving ordinances, which must also be performed in temples, include confirmation and the receipt of the gift of the Holy Ghost, ordination of men to the Melchizedek Priesthood, the temple endowment, and family sealings. Church members did not begin performing endowment and sealing ordinances for their deceased ancestors until after they relocated to Utah (see Richard O. Cowan, “The Unfolding Restoration of Temple Work,” Ensign, Dec. 2001, 39). Elder Quentin L. Cook explained: “The essential doctrine of uniting families came forth line upon line and precept upon precept. Vicarious ordinances are at the heart of welding together eternal families” (“Roots and Branches,” 45).
Although the Prophet Joseph Smith was in hiding and was being pursued unlawfully when he wrote the letter recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 128, he concluded his letter with a remarkable summary of the blessings of the Restoration of the gospel. Though we do not have specific details about “Michael … detecting the devil” (D&C 128:20) or know the identity of the angel Raphael (see D&C 128:21), the Prophet’s words gave particular emphasis to the glorious doctrine of redemption for the dead.
The scriptures often refer to the portion of the spirit world inhabited by those who have not received saving ordinances as a prison or a place of darkness (see Isaiah 24:22; 1 Peter 3:19; Alma 40:13–14; D&C 38:5; 138:18, 22, 30). The Prophet Joseph Smith announced that the ordinance of proxy baptism for the dead “enable[s] us to redeem [the dead] out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free” (D&C 128:22). Elder Quentin L. Cook encouraged Church members to consider how the ordinances we perform in the temple affect our ancestors:
“Think of those on the other side of the veil waiting for the saving ordinances that would free them from the bondage of spirit prison. Prison is defined as ‘a state of confinement or captivity’ [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (2003), ‘prison’]. …
“One faithful sister shared a special spiritual experience in the Salt Lake Temple. While in the confirmation room, after a vicarious confirmation ordinance was pronounced, she heard, ‘And the prisoner shall go free!’ She felt a great sense of urgency for those who were waiting for their baptismal and confirmation work. Upon returning home, she searched the scriptures for the phrase she had heard. She found Joseph Smith’s declaration in section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 128:22; see also D&C 138:42]” (“Roots and Branches,” 46). Similar language is also found in Isaiah’s messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:1.
One of the purposes of the Restoration of the gospel is to prepare Heavenly Father’s children for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Prophet Joseph Smith expanded upon words written by the Old Testament prophet Malachi to show that those “who [will] abide the day of [the Lord’s] coming” will make “an offering in righteousness” to Him of “a book containing the records of [their] dead”—meaning a record showing that ordinances of salvation have been performed on behalf of their deceased ancestors (D&C 128:24; see also Malachi 3:2–3). After quoting Doctrine and Covenants 128:24, Elder Allen F. Packer of the Seventy taught:
“This ‘book’ will be prepared using the records of names and ordinances in the Church’s FamilyTree database.
“I am checking and adding records to this database because I want the names of all those I love to be in the book. Don’t you? …
“Family history is more than genealogy, rules, names, dates, and places. It is more than a focus on the past. Family history also includes the present as we create our own history. It includes the future as we shape future history through our descendants. …
“Like partaking of the sacrament, attending meetings, reading the scriptures, and saying personal prayers, doing family history and temple work should be a regular part of our personal worship. The response of our youth and others to prophetic invitations has been inspiring and proves this work can and should be done by all members at any age.
“… Doing the work now is much easier and limited only by the number of members who make this a priority. The work still takes time and sacrifice, but all can do it, and with relative ease compared to just a few years ago.
“To assist members, the Church has gathered records and provided tools so that much of the work can be done in our own homes or in the ward buildings and the temple. Most obstacles have been removed. Whatever your past perception, it is different now!
“However, there is one obstacle the Church cannot remove. It is an individual’s hesitation to do the work. All it requires is a decision and a little effort. It does not require a large block of time. Just a little time on a consistent basis will yield the joy of the work. Make the decision to take a step, to learn and ask others to help you. They will! The names you find and take to the temple will become the records for ‘the book’ [D&C 128:24]” (“The Book,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2014, 100–101).