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How the Revelation of Baptisms for the Dead Was Received and Revealed to the Church

August 15 marks the anniversary of the Prophet Joseph Smith's first public announcement of the beautiful doctrine of baptism for the dead.

Sometime during or just after the mortal ministry of our Lord and Savior, the doctrine of salvation for the dead was revealed to the first-century Church. In chapter 15 of his first epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul testifies of the resurrection of the Lord. . . .

A Peculiar Doctrine

After establishing that the Lord has conquered all enemies, including death, Paul added: “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him [the Father] that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:28-29). Verse 29 has given rise to a host of interpretations by biblical scholars of various faiths. Many consider the original meaning of the passage to be at best “difficult” or “unclear.” One commentator stated that Paul here “alludes to a practice of the Corinthian community as evidence for Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead. It seems that in Corinth some Christians would undergo baptism in the name of their deceased non-Christian relatives and friends, hoping that this vicarious baptism might assure them a share in the redemption of Christ.”. . .

In fact, a surprising amount of evidence suggests that the doctrine of salvation for the dead was known and understood by ancient Christian communities. Early commentary on the statement in Hebrews that “they without us should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:40) holds that the passage referred to the Old Testament Saints who were trapped in Hades awaiting the help of their New Testament counterparts and that Christ held the keys that would “open the doors of the Underworld to the faithful souls there.”2 It is significant that in his work Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr cited an apocryphon that he charged had been deleted from the book of Jeremiah but was still to be found in some synagogue copies of the text: “The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.”3 Irenaeus also taught: “The Lord descended to the parts under the earth, announcing to them also the good news of his coming, there being remission of sins for such as believe on him.”4. . .

A Prophetic Statement

One of the earliest accounts we have of teachings related to salvation for the dead is found in an experience of Lydia Goldthwait, who later became the wife of Newel Knight. She grew up in Massachusetts and New York and at the age of 16 married Calvin Bailey. Calvin had a serious drinking problem and eventually left their child and Lydia, who was expecting another baby. The baby died at birth, and within months her first child died also. When she was 20 years old, Lydia moved to Canada to stay with the Freeman Nickerson family. There she was introduced to the restored gospel and first became acquainted with the Prophet Joseph Smith. On 24 October 1833 the family sat around the table and listened to the Prophet. The Spirit was poured out upon the group in a remarkable manner, and Lydia even spoke in tongues.

The next day, as Joseph’s company prepared to return to Kirtland, the Prophet:

“Paced back and forth in the sitting room in deep study. Finally he said: 'I have been pondering on Sister Lydia’s lonely condition, and wondering why it is that she has passed through so much sorrow and affliction and is thus separated from all her relatives. I now understand it. The Lord has suffered it even as He allowed Joseph of old to be afflicted, who was sold by his brethren as a slave into a far country, and through that became a savior to his father’s house and country. Even so shall it be with her, the hand of the Lord will overrule it for good to her and her father’s family.’

“Turning to the young girl he continued: ’ Sister Lydia, great are your blessings. The Lord, your Savior, loves you, and will overrule all your past sorrows and afflictions for good unto you. Let your heart be comforted. You are of the blood of Israel descended through the loins of Ephraim. You shall yet be a savior to your father’s house. Therefore be comforted, and let your heart rejoice, for the Lord has a great work for you to do. Be faithful and endure unto the end and all will be well.’”5 

This statement represents one of the earliest declarations of lineage, as well as one of the first references in this dispensation to individuals becoming what Obadiah called “saviors on mount Zion.” As a mature woman, Lydia participated in the ordinance work for some seven hundred of her deceased relatives in the St. George Temple, thus fulfilling Joseph Smith’s prophecy.6

Baptisms for the Dead

Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom (D&C 137), received on 21 January 1836, may well have been the initial revelation of the doctrine of salvation for the dead. Later, on the afternoon of Tuesday, 8 May 1838, the Prophet Joseph answered a series of questions about the faith and practices of the Latter-day Saints. One of the questions was: “If the Mormon doctrine is true, what has become of all those who died since the days of the Apostles?” His response: “All those who have not had an opportunity of hearing the gospel, and being administered to by an inspired man in the flesh, must have it hereafter, before they can be finally judged.”7 We cannot help but conclude that the Prophet must have spoken of this doctrinal matter since the time of his vision of Alvin more than two years earlier, but there is no record of such a conversation.

The first public discourse on the subject by the Prophet was delivered on 15 August 1840 at the funeral of Seymour Brunson, a member of the Nauvoo High Council.8 Simon Baker described the occasion: 

“I was present at a discourse that the prophet Joseph delivered on baptism for the dead 15 August 1840. He read the greater part of the 15th chapter of Corinthians and remarked that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought glad tidings of great joy, and then remarked that he saw a widow in that congregation that had a son who died without being baptized, and this widow in reading the sayings of Jesus 'except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,' and that not one jot nor tittle of the Savior’s words should pass away, but all should be fulfilled. He then said that this widow should have glad tidings in that thing. He also said the apostle [Paul] was talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them. He went on to say that people could now act for their friends who had departed this life, and that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God. He went on and made a very beautiful discourse.”9

After the meeting, the widow, Jane Nyman, was baptized vicariously for her son by Harvey Olmstead in the Mississippi River.10 Just one month later, on 14 September 1840, on his deathbed the Patriarch Joseph Smith Sr. made a final request of his family—that someone be baptized in behalf of his eldest son, Alvin. Hyrum complied with that wish and was baptized in 1840 and again in 1841.11

In an epistle to the Twelve dated 19 October 1840, Joseph Smith stated: “I presume the doctrine of 'baptism for the dead' has ere this reached your ears, and may have raised some inquiries in your minds respecting the same. I cannot in this letter give you all the information you may desire on the subject; but aside from knowledge independent of the Bible, I would say that it was certainly practiced by the ancient churches.” The Prophet then quoted from 1 Corinthians 15:29 and continued: “I first mentioned the doctrine in public when preaching the funeral sermon of Brother Seymour Brunson: and have since then given general instructions in the Church on the subject. The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, whom they believe would have embraced the Gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it, and who have received the Gospel in the spirit, through the instrumentality of those who have been commissioned to preach to them while in prison.”12

On 19 January 1841 the revelation we know as Doctrine and Covenants 124 was given. In this remarkable oracle the Lord gives a stern warning concerning the need to complete a temple in Nauvoo so that baptisms for the dead may be acceptable before Him (D&C 124:29-36). Further, Joseph learned that the ordinance of baptism for the dead was “instituted from before the foundation of the world” (D&C 124:33; compare D&C 128:5, 22).13 On 3 October 1841 the Prophet declared that baptism for the dead was “the only way that men can appear as saviors on Mount Zion.”14

On 20 March 1842 the Prophet stated that if we have the authority to perform valid baptisms for the living, it is our responsibility to make those same blessings available to those who have passed through death.15 On 15 April 1842, in an editorial in the Times and Seasons, Joseph the Prophet called upon the Saints to expand their vision beyond the narrow views of unenlightened humankind. “While one portion of the human race are judging and condemning the other without mercy,” he said, “the great parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care, and paternal regard; he views them as his offspring; and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men.” He observed that:

“It is an opinion which is generally received, that the destiny of man is irretrievably fixed at his death; and that he is made either eternally happy, or eternally miserable; that if a man dies without a knowledge of God, he must be eternally damned. . . . However orthodox this principle may be, we shall find that it is at variance with the testimony of holy writ; for our Saviour says that all manner of sin, and blasphemy shall be forgiven men wherewith they shall blaspheme; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, nor in the world to come, evidently showing that there are sins which may be forgiven in the world to come.” 

To this doctrinal statement the Prophet added: “The great Jehovah contemplated the whole of the events connected with the earth, pertaining to the plan of salvation, before it rolled into existence, or ever the 'morning stars sung together for joy,' the past, the present and the future, were and are with him, one eternal now.” . . .

Glad Tidings

The good news or glad tidings of salvation in Christ is intended to lift our sights and bring hope to our souls, to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1). That hope in Christ is in the infinite capacity of an infinite Being to save men and women from ignorance as well as from sin and death. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is indeed the God of the living (Matthew 22:32), and his influence and redemptive mercies span the veil of death. The apostle Paul wrote that “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

So what of those who never have the opportunity in this life to know of Christ and his gospel, who never have the opportunity to be baptized for a remission of sins and for entrance into the kingdom of God, who never have the privilege of being bound in marriage and sealed in the family unit? In a world gripped by cynicism and strangled by hopelessness, the scriptures and revelations of the Restoration bear witness of a God of mercy and vision, of an Omnipotent One whose reach to his children is neither blocked by distance nor dimmed by death. And so, after the doctrinal foundation had been laid, God made known through the Prophet of the Restoration those ennobling truths that pertain to life and salvation, both here and hereafter. Truly, as Joseph Smith explained, “It is no more incredible that God should save the dead, than that he should raise the dead.”16  . . . Surely no work could represent a more noble cause, a more valiant enterprise. And no labor in time could have more eternal implications.

Lead image from the Church's newsroom.

Notes

1. Richard Kugelman, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, 2 vols. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:273.

2. J. A. MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1930), 48-49.

3. MacCulloch, Harrowing of Hell, 84-85; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, [1956]), 1:235.

4. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.27.1, in J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1962), 277-78.

5. “Lydia Knight’s History,” 21-23, cited in Journal History, 19 October 1833, Church Historian’s Office. I am indebted to Professors David Boone and Jeffrey Marsh in Religious Education at BYU for drawing my attention to this story.

6. See Church History in the Fulness of Times (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), 117.

7. In Elders’ Journal 1, no. 2 (July 1838): 43; Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 121.

8. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 4:231.

9. Joseph Smith, Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980), 49.

10. From Alex Baugh, “The Practice of Baptism for the Dead Outside of Temples,” Religious Studies Center Newsletter13, no. 1 (September 1998): 3-6.

11. “Nauvoo Baptisms for the Dead,” Book A, Church Genealogical Society Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, 145, 149.

12. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 179.

13. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 308.

14. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 191.

15. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 201.

16. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 191.


Learn more about the next life and salvation for the dead in Life After Death.

This book offers a thorough coverage of life after death from the Latter-day Saint perspective. It particularly offers comfort to reader following the death of a loved one.

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