“Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” Revelations in Context
On the evening of Friday, November 5, 1918, Susa Young Gates and her husband, Jacob, stopped by the home of some close friends to pick up a box of apples. That home was the Beehive House, on the corner of State Street and South Temple in Salt Lake City, and those friends were Joseph F. Smith, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Julina Smith. Susa and Joseph had known each other since Susa’s childhood, in the 1860s, when he was a frequent visitor in the home of her father, Brigham Young. The Gateses and the Smiths had served together as missionaries in Hawaii in the 1880s and had remained close friends ever since. Susa and Joseph forged a particularly close friendship. She called him “My Beloved and Honored Friend and Brother”; he called her his “beloved Sister” and expressed “the truest brotherly love” for her.1 What happened during her visit that evening would become a crowning expression of that friendship and a deeply personal affirmation of Susa’s tireless efforts in what she called the “work of redeeming the dead.”2
Susa Young Gates was one of the most prominent Latter-day Saint women of her time. A woman of indomitable energy and determination, she had worked for decades as a writer, editor, educator, and leader in the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA), the Relief Society, and various national women’s organizations. But in 1918 her driving interest was genealogy and temple work, an area in which she had been a leading Latter-day Saint advocate for over a decade.3
Susa felt a sacred sense of personal mission in this work. In 1902, returning from a meeting of the International Council of Women in Europe, Susa had become seriously ill. In London she sought a priesthood blessing from Elder Francis M. Lyman, then serving as president of the European Mission, and in that blessing he told her, “You shall live to perform temple work, and you shall do a greater work than you have ever done before.” This commission became a driving force in her life. “I had been interested in Temple work before,” she said, “but now I felt that I must do something more, something to help all the members of the Church.”4
Susa could hardly have done any more than she went on to do for the cause of family history and temple work. She wrote countless newspaper and magazine articles, taught class after class, and took the message on the road to many stakes and wards. She visited genealogical libraries in the eastern United States and England and corresponded with genealogists from many other countries, seeking greater knowledge and expertise. She served on the general board of the Relief Society, where she succeeded in having lessons on genealogy (most of which she also wrote) incorporated into the curriculum. She published a 600-page reference book on surnames and contributed frequently to a new magazine devoted to genealogical research.5 With all this effort, she also found time to serve for decades as a temple ordinance worker. Susa’s work was integral to the establishment of family history as a focus for Latter-day Saints.
In these efforts she worked closely with Elder Joseph Fielding Smith—assistant Church historian, son of the Church President, and, after 1910, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Smith also served as secretary of the Utah Genealogical Society, the Church’s official genealogical organization. Susa referred to Elder Smith as “the Apostle to the spirits in prison” and as “the eloquent spokesman” of genealogy and temple work.6 Susa and Elder Smith spoke together at genealogical meetings—she provided practical instruction in methodology, and he laid out the theological foundations of the work. Thanks to their efforts and those of several like-minded associates, thousands of Latter-day Saints received training and encouragement in performing family history and temple work.
Despite these accomplishments, Susa often felt that she was waging an uphill battle. She believed that too many Latter-day Saints exhibited “a very general indifference” toward genealogy and temple work.7 “Not even an angel from heaven could induce some of these club women and these successful business men to set aside a portion of their time for temple work,” Susa wrote to a friend.8
When she visited President Smith that night in November 1918, Susa had recently been reminded of the widespread lack of enthusiasm for family history work. Members of the Relief Society general board had nearly voted to discontinue genealogy lessons. “I have had to take the part of the genealogical work against all others,” she wrote in one letter. She had barely succeeded in preserving it as part of the curriculum.9 At the October 1918 Relief Society conference, stake leaders reported that the genealogy lessons were too difficult. They suggested that the lessons be “simplified” and “emphasis placed on the spiritual rather than on the educational side of this study.” Susa assured them that the recently published Surname Book and Racial History would help make the lessons more accessible.10 But she had long insisted that the spiritual and the practical dimensions of genealogy were complementary. “All the desired inspiration in the world will not save our dead,” she declared. “We must also have information in order to consummate that noble work.”11 She labored on, making every effort to provide both information and inspiration to her fellow Saints.
In November 1918 President Smith was ill—elderly, frail, and declining rapidly. He had spent much of the year at home, unable to maintain the demanding pace that characterized most of his life. His age-related ailments were compounded by heavy grief. In January his beloved eldest son, Elder Hyrum M. Smith, had died suddenly of a ruptured appendix. “My soul is rent, my heart is broken! O God, help me!” President Smith exclaimed at the time.12 But the blows kept coming. In February a young son-in-law died after an accidental fall. And in September, Hyrum’s wife, Ida, died just a few days after giving birth, leaving five orphaned children. Meanwhile, the Great War (World War I) was dragging to a close, leaving unimaginable carnage and devastation in its wake, and a worldwide influenza pandemic was claiming millions of victims. For President Smith, it was a time of deeply personal pain amid much global suffering.13
These catastrophes formed a visible backdrop at the October general conference. Attendance was noticeably diminished, “owing to so many of the Priesthood being absent in the war.”14 The growing flu epidemic likely kept people home as well. Mustering his failing strength, President Smith made a surprise appearance and presided at four sessions of the conference. “I have been undergoing a siege of very serious illness for the last five months,” he said in his opening remarks. “Although somewhat weakened in body,” he affirmed, “my mind is clear with reference to my duty.” Then President Smith hinted at a message he was still struggling to find words to express. “I will not, I dare not, attempt to enter upon many things that are resting upon my mind this morning,” he said, “and I shall postpone until some future time, the Lord being willing, my attempt to tell you some of the things that are in my mind, and that dwell in my heart.”15 He continued: “I have not lived alone these five months. I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith and of determination; and I have had my communication with the Spirit of the Lord continuously.”16
President Smith’s remarks undoubtedly referred in part to the events of the previous day, October 3, 1918, when he had experienced a remarkable vision of the Savior’s visit to the spirit world (now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138). In this vision, President Smith saw “the hosts of the dead” awaiting the Savior’s arrival. Wondering how Christ could have accomplished His ministry among the dead in “the brief time intervening between the crucifixion and his resurrection,” President Smith saw that He “organized his forces and appointed messengers” from among the righteous spirits and “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 carry the message of redemption to the spirits of those who had not heard or had not received the gospel in their mortal lives.17
President Smith’s desire to speak of these things to the Saints in person was not fulfilled. Ten days after general conference, he dictated the vision to his son Joseph Fielding Smith.18 Two weeks later, on October 31, Joseph Fielding Smith read the text to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at their regular council meeting in the temple. It was “fully endorsed by all the brethren,” he recorded, and they made plans to publish it in the December issue of the Improvement Era.19 A week after that notable meeting, Susa and Jacob Gates made their visit to the Smith home.
As the Gateses visited with members of the Smith family, President Smith summoned Susa to come into his room. “I comforted him all I could in his severe illness,” Susa wrote.20 He told her, “You are doing a great work, greater than you know anything about.” After a few minutes President Smith and Susa were joined by Jacob and Julina and others (presumably Smith family members), and President Smith gave Susa a paper to read. It was a transcript of the account of his vision. “How blest, O how blest I am to have the priviledge!” Susa wrote in her journal that night. “To be permitted to read a revelation before it was made public, to know the heavens are still opened.”21
Susa’s description of the vision highlighted the aspects she found most compelling: “In it he tells of his view of Eternity; the Savior when He visited the spirits in prison—how His servants minister to them; he saw the Prophet and all his associate Brethren laboring in the Prison Houses; Mother Eve & her noble daughters engaged in the same holy cause!” Long an advocate for women’s causes, Susa rejoiced at the specific mention of women in the revelation, grateful “to have Eve and her daughters remembered.”22 And she rejoiced in the revelation’s affirmation of the work on behalf of the dead. “Above all,” she wrote, “to have this given at a time when our Temple work and workers & our genealogy need such encouragement. No words of mine can express my joy and gratitude.”23 “Think of the impetus this revelation will give to temple work throughout the Church!” she later wrote to a friend.24
Two weeks later, on November 19, 1918, President Joseph F. Smith died. The announcement and publication of his vision appeared alongside the many tributes published at the time of his passing. In the Relief Society Magazine, editor Susa Young Gates published a lengthy tribute to President Smith and his wives, along with eulogies from various leading women in the Church. She then included the full text of the “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” as it was called, but without disclosing her personal experience with it. Here she expanded on her private comments about the reference to Eve and her daughters in the text: “This is unusual—the mention of women’s labors on the Other Side.” Susa felt that “the direct view of [women] associated with the ancient and modern prophets and elders confirms the noble standard of equality between the sexes which has always been a feature of this Church.”25
She continued: “The Vision’s principal message to this people is a clarion call for them to awake to the immediate necessity of looking after their dead.”26 In spite of the setbacks and challenges in this effort, President Smith’s vision was “an exquisite joy and comfort” to her.27 Seven decades earlier, Joseph Smith had written to the Saints on the same subject, “Shall we not go on in so great a cause?”28 Now Susa Young Gates, with renewed vision and commitment, continued the call: “May the people, and especially our sisters, rise to the measure of fulness in response to this heavenly manifestation!”29