“Lesson 19 Class Preparation Material: Redemption of the Dead,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Material (2019)
“Lesson 19 Class Preparation Material,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Material
Note: Instead of reading this first section of this lesson, you may choose to watch the video “Glad Tidings: The History of Baptisms for the Dead” (6:55) and then ponder the questions at the end of the section.
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’” because Alvin had not been baptized (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 401).
The clergyman’s response to Alvin’s death may have sounded harsh. However, his teaching was based on the truth that all people must accept Christ and be baptized to be saved (see John 3:5).
In January 1836, more than 12 years after Alvin’s death, 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 of the future, now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137.
Joseph “marveled” at seeing his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom because Alvin had not been baptized. Four years later, in August 1840, the Prophet began teaching the Saints the doctrine of baptism for the dead. The Apostle Paul had taught this doctrine in the New Testament before the Lord restored it in our day (see 1 Corinthians 15:29).
In a letter to her husband, Vilate Kimball wrote of the Saints’ excitement over this newly restored doctrine:
President Smith has opened a new and glorious subject. … He says it is the privilege of this church to be baptized for all their kinsfolk that have died before this gospel came forth. … By so doing, we act as agents for them, and give them the privilege of coming forth in the first resurrection. He says they will have the Gospel preached to them in Prison. … Since this order has been preached here, the waters have been continually troubled. During conference there were sometimes from eight to ten elders in the river at a time baptizing. … Is not this a glorious doctrine? (Vilate Kimball, in Janiece Johnson and Jennifer Reeder, The Witness of Women: Firsthand Experiences and Testimonies from the Restoration , 181)
The Smith family undoubtedly felt great joy when Hyrum was baptized for his brother Alvin.
The following year, in 1841, the Lord declared that “this ordinance belongeth to my house” and that after the temple font was ready, the Saints were to stop performing baptisms for the dead in the river (see Doctrine and Covenants 124:29–34). Joseph Smith provided further instructions about the redemption of the dead in two letters he wrote to the Saints while he was in hiding due to false accusations. The content of these letters is now found in Doctrine and Covenants 127 and 128. The Prophet taught that only when a gospel ordinance, such as baptism for the dead, is performed by priesthood authority and a proper record is kept will the ordinance be binding on earth and in heaven (see Doctrine and Covenants 127:5–7; 128:1–9).
After the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord continued to reveal truths about His plan to redeem the dead “line upon line” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:12). In 1918 President Joseph F. Smith received a vision that revealed further truths about the redemption of the dead. His vision is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138.
President M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained how President Joseph F. Smith was prepared to receive this remarkable vision:
During his lifetime, President Smith lost his father [at age 5], his mother [at age 13], one brother, two sisters, two wives, and thirteen children. He was well acquainted with sorrow and losing loved ones. …
[The year 1918] was particularly painful for him. He grieved over the death toll in the Great World War that continued to climb to over 20 million people killed. Additionally, a flu pandemic was spreading around the world, taking the lives of as many as 100 million people.
During the year, President Smith also lost three … precious family members. Elder Hyrum Mack Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, his firstborn son and my grandfather, died suddenly of a ruptured appendix.
President Smith wrote: “I am speechless—[numb] with grief! … My heart is broken; and flutters for life! … O! I loved him! … From the depths of my soul I thank God for him! But … O! I needed him! We all needed him! He was most useful to the Church. … And now, … O! what can I do! … O! God help me! …”
And so it was on October 3, 1918, having experienced intense sorrow over the millions who had died in the world through war and disease as well as the deaths of his own family members, President Smith received the heavenly revelation known as “the vision of the redemption of the dead.” (M. Russell Ballard, “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2018, 72)
Joseph F. Smith received his divine vision while pondering the Savior’s atoning sacrifice and reading the Apostle Peter’s description of Jesus’s ministry in the spirit world following His Crucifixion (see Doctrine and Covenants 138:1–11).
In another setting, President Smith taught that faithful women are also called to preach the gospel in the spirit world (see Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. , 461).
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:
President Gordon B. Hinckley has expressed: “I think that vicarious work for the dead more nearly approaches the vicarious sacrifice of the Savior Himself than any other work of which I know. …” [“Excerpts from Recent Addresses of President Gordon B. Hinckley,” Ensign, Jan. 1998, 73]
Our anxiety to redeem the dead, and the time and resources we put behind that commitment, are, above all, an expression of our witness concerning Jesus Christ. It constitutes as powerful a statement as we can make concerning His divine character and mission. …
By identifying our ancestors and performing for them the saving ordinances they could not themselves perform, we are testifying of the infinite reach of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. (D. Todd Christofferson, “The Redemption of the Dead and the Testimony of Jesus,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 10)