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Lesson 55: Doctrine and Covenants 137–38
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“Lesson 55: Doctrine and Covenants 137–38,” Doctrine and Covenants Teacher Manual (2017)

“Lesson 55,” Doctrine and Covenants Teacher Manual

Lesson 55

Doctrine and Covenants 137–38

Introduction and Timeline

On January 21, 1836, the Prophet Joseph Smith and other Church leaders held a special meeting in the nearly completed Kirtland Temple. On this occasion the Prophet saw a vision of the celestial kingdom, during which the Lord explained how He will judge those “who [die] without a knowledge of this gospel” (D&C 137:7). This revelation is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137.

On October 3, 1918, President Joseph F. Smith received the vision recorded in Doctrine Covenants 138, which further clarified the doctrine of salvation for the dead. In this vision, President Smith learned that between the Savior’s death and Resurrection, He ministered to the righteous in paradise who had been waiting for “redemption from the bands of death” (D&C 138:16). President Smith also witnessed the organization of missionary work in the spirit world.

November 19, 1823

Alvin Smith died in Palmyra, New York.

January 1836

The Kirtland Temple neared completion.

January 21, 1836

Doctrine and Covenants 137 was received.

1918

A global influenza pandemic killed millions of people worldwide. In November, World War I ended, in which over 17 million people died.

October 3, 1918

Doctrine and Covenants 138 was received.

April 3, 1976

Church members sustained and approved the Prophet Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom and President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead as part of the standard works of the Church. They were added to the Pearl of Great Price.

June 1979

The First Presidency announced that Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom (now Doctrine and Covenants 137) and Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead (now Doctrine and Covenants 138) would be included in the 1981 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Suggestions for Teaching

Doctrine and Covenants 137:1–10

The Prophet Joseph Smith sees a vision of the celestial kingdom

Display the following statement by President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency, and invite a student to read it aloud. Ask the class to listen for circumstances in mortality that seem unfair.

Eyring, Henry B.

“Only a very small minority of God’s children obtain during this life a complete understanding of God’s plan, along with access to the priesthood ordinances and covenants that make the Savior’s atoning power fully operative in our lives. Even those with the best of parents may live faithfully according to the light they have but never hear about Jesus Christ and His Atonement or be invited to be baptized in His name. This has been true for countless millions of our brothers and sisters throughout the world’s history.

“Some may consider this unfair. They may even take it as evidence that there is no plan, no specific requirements for salvation—feeling that a just, loving God would not create a plan that is available to such a small proportion of His children. Others might conclude that God must have determined in advance which of His children He would save and made the gospel available to them, while those who never heard the gospel simply were not ‘chosen’” (Henry B. Eyring, “Gathering the Family of God,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2017, 20).

  • According to this statement, what circumstances in mortality seem unfair?

  • What do some people conclude about God based on their understanding of only these earthly circumstances?

Invite students to look for doctrine and principles as they study Doctrine and Covenants 137–38 that illustrate the love, justice, and mercy Heavenly Father shows to His children.

To help students understand the context of Doctrine and Covenants 137, explain that on January 21, 1836, the Prophet Joseph Smith gathered with his father and other Church leaders in an upper room of the nearly completed Kirtland Temple. During the meeting, the Prophet had a vision.

Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud from Doctrine and Covenants 137:1–6. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what the Prophet Joseph Smith saw in vision.

  • How did the Prophet describe the celestial kingdom?

  • Who did he see in the celestial kingdom?

  • According to verse 6, why did Joseph Smith “marvel” when he saw his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom?

To help students understand why this was especially meaningful for the Prophet, display the following paragraph and invite a student to read it aloud:

Brother Joseph

At the age of 17, Joseph Smith was heartbroken over the sudden death of his older brother Alvin, whom he greatly loved and admired. The Smith family “asked a Presbyterian minister in Palmyra, New York, to officiate at his funeral. As Alvin had not been a member of the minister’s congregation, the clergyman asserted in his sermon that Alvin could not be saved. William Smith, Joseph’s younger brother, recalled: ‘[The minister] … intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member’” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 401–3).

  • If you had been in Joseph Smith’s position, how would you have felt during the minister’s sermon at Alvin’s funeral? Why?

  • How would you have felt upon seeing Alvin in the vision of the celestial kingdom?

Invite students to read Doctrine and Covenants 137:7–8 silently, looking for how the Lord responded to the Prophet’s question.

  • Based on what the Lord taught the Prophet, what doctrine can we identify about who will inherit the celestial kingdom? (Help students identify the following doctrine: All people who die without a knowledge of the gospel but would have received it will inherit the celestial kingdom.)

  • How might this doctrine comfort those whose loved ones have died without hearing the gospel?

Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 137:9–10 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for additional truths the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Invite students to report what they find. As they respond, write the following truths on the board: The Lord will judge us by our works and the desires of our hearts. All children who die before they become accountable will be saved in the celestial kingdom.

Doctrine and Covenants 138:1–11

President Joseph F. Smith ponders the scriptures and sees a vision of the spirit world

Explain that on October 3, 1918, more than 82 years after the Prophet Joseph Smith had his vision of the celestial kingdom, President Joseph F. Smith had a vision that clarifies how those who die without a knowledge of the gospel can be saved. This vision is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138.

To help students understand the context for this revelation, invite a student to read the following paragraphs aloud.

“‘My soul is rent asunder. My heart is broken, and flutters for life! O my sweet son, my joy, my hope! … O God, help me!’

“So President Joseph F. Smith wrote in his journal upon the death of his eldest son, Hyrum Mack Smith, the 45-year-old Apostle who succumbed in January 1918 to a ruptured appendix. Eight months later, on September 24, Hyrum’s widow, Ida Bowman Smith, died of heart failure just a week after giving birth to a baby boy. The couple left behind five children. At the time, the First World War … was still raging. …

“Death and the war were certainly on President Smith’s mind that year” (George S. Tate, “I Saw the Hosts of the Dead,” Ensign, Dec. 2009, 54; see also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith [1998], 407).

Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 138:1–4 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what President Joseph F. Smith was doing prior to receiving the vision recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138.

  • What doctrine was President Smith “reflecting upon” as he was “pondering over the scriptures” (verses 1–2)? (Students should identify the following doctrine: Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, all mankind may be saved. Point out that this doctrine is a fundamental message of Doctrine and Covenants 138.)

Invite several students to take turns reading aloud from Doctrine and Covenants 138:5–10. Ask the class to follow along, looking for the teachings that impressed President Smith as he read the Bible. Ask students to report what they find.

Invite students to read Doctrine and Covenants 138:11 silently, looking for what happened as President Smith pondered these passages of scripture.

  • What happened as President Smith pondered these passages of scripture?

  • What principle can we identify from President Smith’s experience about how to prepare to receive revelation? (Help students identify a principle similar to the following: As we read and ponder the scriptures, we prepare ourselves to receive revelation.)

Doctrine and Covenants 138:12–24

President Joseph F. Smith sees the righteous awaiting the Savior in the spirit world

Invite several students to take turns reading aloud from Doctrine and Covenants 138:12–17. Ask the class to follow along, looking for who President Smith saw in his vision of the spirit world. Ask students to report what they find.

Summarize verses 18–24 by explaining that during his vision, President Smith saw the Savior teaching “the everlasting gospel” (verse 19) to the righteous spirits while His physical body lay in the tomb. He also noted that the Savior did not visit the wicked spirits (verse 20).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:25–60

President Joseph F. Smith learns how the Savior organized the preaching of the gospel in the spirit world

Write the following questions and scripture references on the board:

What question did President Smith have about the Lord’s ministry in the spirit world (D&C 138:25–28)?

What did Jesus Christ do while He was in the spirit world (D&C 138:29–32)?

What do the Lord’s authorized messengers teach in the spirit world (D&C 138:33–35)?

Divide the class into three groups, and assign each group one of the questions on the board. Invite members of each group to look for the answer to their assigned question by studying the accompanying scripture reference. After sufficient time, invite one or more students from each group to report what they learned.

Summarize Doctrine and Covenants 138:38–52 by explaining that President Smith listed the names of many “great and mighty” spirits whom he saw “assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous” awaiting the Savior’s appearance after His Crucifixion (verse 38). Among these were “Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters” (verse 39). In addition, President Smith saw many Old Testament prophets, as well as Book of Mormon prophets.

Explain that President Smith also saw in the spirit world “choice spirits who were reserved to come forth in the fulness of times” (verse 53). Invite several students to take turns reading aloud from Doctrine and Covenants 138:53–56. Ask the class to follow along, looking for how these individuals contributed in mortality to the salvation of those in spirit prison.

  • How have latter-day Church leaders helped those in spirit prison?

  • When did these leaders begin preparing for their work on earth?

Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 138:57 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what President Smith learned about “the faithful elders of this dispensation.”

  • What will faithful elders continue to do after death?

Explain that although verse 57 specifically mentions elders, President Joseph F. Smith also taught that faithful Latter-day Saint women who have died “will be fully authorized and empowered to preach the gospel and minister to the women” in the spirit world (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. [1939], 461).

Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 138:58–60 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for how those spirits “who are in darkness, and under the bondage of sin” (verse 57) can be redeemed.

  • What doctrine can we identify from these verses about what the unrighteous must do to be redeemed? (Help students identify the following doctrine: Spirits who repent, are obedient to the ordinances of the temple, and are cleansed through the Atonement of Christ will be redeemed and receive their reward.)

  • How does the preaching of the gospel in the spirit world and the redemption of the dead illustrate Heavenly Father’s mercy and His love for His children?

Remind students that we can help redeem those in spirit prison by identifying their names through family history and indexing and by performing ordinances for them in temples.

  • How have you been blessed by participating in family history and temple service?

Conclude by sharing your testimony of Heavenly Father’s love for His children, demonstrated in His plan of salvation. Invite students to consider what they will do to help those in spirit prison—especially their own ancestors—receive saving ordinances so they can be redeemed.