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The story behind the first baptism for the dead in this dispensation is one you may have never heard

by | Nov. 07, 2020

Did you know the first baptism for the dead was a mother acting in proxy for her recently deceased son? Did you know she was baptized in the Mississippi River? It’s true. Jane Neyman was baptized for her son, Cyrus, with a woman named Vienna Jacques on horseback serving as witness. It was not until 1845, following the death of the Prophet Joseph, that Brigham Young said that in the future Saints “never will see a man go forth to be baptized for a woman, nor a woman for a man,” according to ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

In his new book, Repicturing the RestorationAnthony Sweat said, “We have primarily shown the same Church history images over and over: the First Vision, Joseph with Moroni, Joseph and Oliver with John the Baptist or Peter, James and John, and images of pioneers. It is for good reason that these scenes are repeatedly painted since they are central to our founding Restoration narrative. But important and instructive Latter-day Saint history is often more diverse than these handful of events. As I have taught about Church history seeking to help learners develop a broad, deep, historically-informed, and doctrinally-mature faith, I have longed for paintings to visually accompany these types of discussions.”

As a result, Sweat set out to paint some of these lesser-known events from Church history. They are now captured in Repicturing the Restoration, a book that also includes the historical background behind each painting. On this week’s All In podcast, host Morgan Jones spoke with Sweat about his painting of Jane Neyman’s baptism.

Listen to the episode in the player below or by clicking here. You can also read a full transcript of the episode here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity. 

Morgan Jones: Which painting in the book has your favorite historical background and can you tell us a little bit about it?

Anthony Sweat: That is a great question. Probably my favorite one would have to be the first baptism for the dead with a woman named Jane Neyman. Now, think of baptisms for the dead—work for the dead. That’s a huge thing in the Restoration. And yet, most people don’t know when or how baptisms for the dead started. So I did a painting called “The First Baptism for the Dead,” and it shows a woman named Jane Neyman being baptized in the Mississippi River by a man named Harvey Olmstead, and the witness is a woman named Vienna Jacques who rode into the river on horseback to observe and witness the baptism.

So number one, cool foundational story that’s never been visually depicted. I mean, a woman on horseback in a river as someone gets baptized, how could it be cooler than that? But number two, the great thing about the story is the woman was baptized for her son. So it’s a woman being baptized for a man, it’s happening in a river, not in a temple, the elder made up the prayer on the spot. There was no set prayer, and the witness was a woman on horseback.

And when Joseph Smith heard that the first baptism for the dead had been done, he asked how it was done. When he heard, he basically said, “That counts.” And to me, it’s just a cool example that God accepts of our righteous efforts, even in our imperfections. And that our history can inform us of things like that. So, for example, too, when the Church recently just changed their policy to allow women in the temple to act as witnesses for ordinances, my first thought was, “Well, we’ve been doing that from the very beginning.” That’s actually nothing new if you know our history, which is why images like this matter. They help us understand things more broadly. So that’s just one story of one cool Church history story with a great background behind it.

Morgan Jones: That’s super cool. So I have a question. From there, did Joseph seek revelation on baptism for the dead or how did that evolve?

Anthony Sweat: Yeah, this is great. See what you’re doing right now. Morgan, this is the point of the book—to get you to start thinking of questions like that, like, “Whoa, I didn’t know that’s how it started.” So then how did it evolve into what we have today? And what we see is that, like a lot of practices in the Church, God didn’t deliver the thing perfectly packaged, wrapped up in a bow. Things developed line upon line.

It took a few years before Joseph started to say, “No, we need to record these. We need to say the prayer the same way. They need to be done in the temple . . . not in a river.” It wasn’t until Brigham Young that Brigham starts saying, “We should have men be baptized for men and women be baptized for women to keep it gender-specific.” So, line upon line, those things slowly started to develop.


Image titleWhile existing artwork that portrays the Restoration is rich and beautiful, until now many key events in Latter-day Saint history have surprisingly never been depicted to accurately represent the historical record. The purpose of this volume is to produce paintings of some of the underrepresented events in order to expand our understanding of the Restoration. Each image includes a richly researched historical background, some artistic insights into the painting's composition, an application section providing one way this history may inform our present faith, and an analysis section offering potent questions that can be considered for further discussion. Through these new paintings, artist, author, and professor Anthony Sweat takes readers through a timeline history of pivotal events and revelations of the early Restoration. This book is not just a wonderful art book; it is also a pedagogical book using art as a launching pad to learn, evaluate, apply, and discuss important aspects of Latter-day Saint history and doctrine as readers repicture the Restoration. Learn more here.

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