Sections 127 and 128: Baptism for the Dead
The doctrine of baptism for the dead in this dispensation actually had its origin in August of 1840. An elder in the Church named Seymour Brunson died, and Joseph was asked to preach his funeral sermon. In that sermon, Joseph introduced to the Church the principle of baptism for the dead. He said that he had received a revelation from the Lord on the topic, and then he preached for an hour on the principle of vicarious work for the dead. Wilford Woodruff, in his journal, corroborated the existence of this revelation when he mentioned that he had actually read it. Brother Woodruff also declared that he had never read a revelation more magnificent and sublime. Wouldn’t it be thrilling to read that revelation? Unfortunately, it has never been published, and it may even be lost to the Church.
The first baptism for the dead in this dispensation was performed on Sunday, September 14, 1840. On that day Joseph preached another sermon on baptism for the dead. In this sermon, he said that it would be the privilege of a mother in the congregation who had lost her only child to be baptized for him. Sister Jane Nyman knew that Joseph was speaking about her, and so on that same day she persuaded Brother Harvey Olmstead to baptize her in the Mississippi River on behalf of her deceased child.
Some time later Joseph himself went out into the Mississippi River and was baptized a hundred times for dead persons. Several of the other brethren were also baptized for a hundred souls each. The following Sunday on the Montrose, Iowa, side, several of the saints went out into the river and were baptized for all the dead ancestors they could call to mind. Not one of these baptisms was recorded. No records were kept. The saints were so excited about the new principle that they just jumped right into the practice of the principle and into the river without much forethought. Men were baptized for both men and women. In many instances full names were not known.
You will recall that in section 124 received in January 1841, the Lord agreed to recognize the baptisms performed in the river for deceased persons only until such time as the temple font was completed (D&C 124:32). On October 30, 1841, Joseph declared that all baptisms for the dead in the river would cease, and that they would wait for the font in the temple to be completed (HC, 4:426). On November 8, the font and temple basement were dedicated, and baptisms were commenced there two weeks later.
In September 1842, Joseph was in hiding living at various homes of the saints in Nauvoo and on an island in the Mississippi River. In spite of his nearly constant concern and fear over being found and taken into captivity, Joseph’s mind was imbued with the principle of vicarious ordinance work for the dead. Before leaving Nauvoo, and while living at the home of James Taylor, the father of John Taylor, future president of the Church, he wrote two letters to the Church during the first week in September concerning the need for eyewitnesses and recorders of the baptisms for the dead, so that they could be performed on earth and sealed in heaven. In an address to the Relief Society on August 31, 1842, he had briefly mentioned the need to record the baptisms and addressed that need in the letters recorded in sections 127 and 128. These letters have become sections 127 (written on September 1) and 128 (written on September 6). Keep in mind that while these revelations are concerned with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, neither of them is the original revelation received by Joseph on the subject which he referred to in a funeral sermon of August 1840.
D&C 127-128 Baptism for the Dead
1 Forasmuch as the Lord has revealed unto me that my enemies, both in Missouri and this State, were again in the pursuit of me; and inasmuch as they pursue me without a cause, and have not the least shadow or coloring of justice or right on their side in the getting up of their prosecutions against me; and inasmuch as their pretensions are all founded in falsehood of the blackest dye, I have thought it expedient and wisdom in me to leave the place for a short season, for my own safety and the safety of this people. I would say to all those with whom I have business, that I have left my affairs with agents and clerks who will transact all business in a prompt and proper manner, and will see that all my debts are canceled in due time, by turning out property, or otherwise, as the case may require, or as the circumstances may admit of. When I learn that the storm is fully blown over, then I will return to you again.
verse 1 “the Lord has revealed unto me that my enemies, both in Missouri and this State, were in pursuit of me” This verse explains that the prophet Joseph was in hiding because the Lord had warned him of the dangers threatening him. Thus, his going into hiding was not simply from fear, as some have supposed. Much was going on in Nauvoo and in the Prophet’s personal life that demanded he be available in Nauvoo. Joseph’s father was very ill and on his deathbed. The building of the temple was in full swing. Missionaries were coming and going. And an influx of converts was gathering in Nauvoo. In these busy times, Joseph had to retire from actively directing the affairs of the Church and community due to the pressures put on him by the demands of politicians, law officers, and mob members from Missouri.
2 And as for the perils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; and for what cause it seems mysterious, unless I was ordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end, or bad, as you may choose to call it. Judge ye for yourselves. God knoweth all these things, whether it be good or bad. But nevertheless, deep water is what I am wont to swim in. It all has become a second nature to me; and I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation; for to this day has the God of my fathers delivered me out of them all, and will deliver me from henceforth; for behold, and lo, I shall triumph over all my enemies, for the Lord God hath spoken it.
verse 2 “as for the perils which I am called to pass through” The prophet Joseph Smith was under threat of persecution most of his life. From the day he walked out of the grove of trees and declared that he had seen the Father and the Son to the day he was murdered in Carthage Jail, enemies both inside and outside the Church had made charges against him. There were relatively few days in which he and Emma and their family could enjoy peace and quiet. Perils had indeed become second nature to him, and being fully aware of their cause, he was accepting of them.
“unless I was ordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end” About a year and a half after this letter was written to the saints, Joseph taught: “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was. I suppose that I was ordained to this very office in the Grand Council” (HC, 6:364). It was inevitable that if Joseph were to live up to that foreordination, he would experience all of the blessings and challenges of that office. Throughout his life, he passed through troubled times.
“deep water is what I am wont to swim in” The word wont means “to be accustomed to or used to.” Joseph was well acquainted with troubled times in his life. Elder Carlos E. Asay observed: “I assure you that the waters in which we are wont to swim are but little puddles when compared with the deep rivers of opposition in which the Prophet Joseph and others swam” (CR, October 1981, 94).
“I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation” To “glory” in something is to proudly rejoice or exult with triumph over it. Paul’s life was one of great trials and afflictions. He was generally maligned, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, and finally martyred. Yet he declared, “Most gladly . . . will I . . . glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
3 Let all the saints rejoice, therefore, and be exceedingly glad; for Israel’s God is their God, and he will mete out a just recompense of reward upon the heads of all their oppressors.
verse 3 “Let all the saints rejoice” Joseph, in spite of all his experiences, was an optimistic individual. His understanding of his own worth and mission allowed him to deal with the death of children and other loved ones, the persecution of the saints, and the daily struggles of life without the darkness of fear and despair enveloping him. He knew that the God of Israel was in charge and the saints could rejoice, for God would in the end bless them and protect them from their enemies. He had been informed much earlier that he would face trials and tribulations from the Lord (see D&C 24:8). He knew that the Lord was watching over him and the saints.
4 And again, verily thus saith the Lord: Let the work of my temple, and all the works which I have appointed unto you, be continued on and not cease; and let your diligence, and your perseverance, and patience, and your works be redoubled, and you shall in nowise lose your reward, saith the Lord of Hosts. And if they persecute you, so persecuted they the prophets and righteous men that were before you. For all this there is a reward in heaven.
5 And again, I give unto you a word in relation to the baptism for your dead.
6 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning your dead: When any of you are baptized for your dead, let there be a recorder, and let him be eye-witness of your baptisms; let him hear with his ears, that he may testify of a truth, saith the Lord;
verse 6 “let there be a recorder, and let him be eye-witness of your baptisms” On January 19, 1841, the Prophet received section 124 in which the Lord instructed the saints to do work for their kindred dead by being baptized for them. This doctrine was first preached publicly by the prophet Joseph at the funeral of Seymour Brunson, a member of the Nauvoo high council. Joseph later wrote a letter to the Quorum of the Twelve laboring in Great Britain, dated October 19, 1840, in which he informed them of the principle of baptism for the dead, stating: “The saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, whom they believe would have embraced the gospel, had they 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” (HC, 4:231). In the revelation to the Prophet (see D&C 124), the Lord informed the saints that the practice of performing baptisms for the dead belongs to his temple, but an exception was granted to them while they built the temple so that baptisms for the dead could be performed in the Mississippi River. The saints immediately began the work of baptism for their kindred dead. That work, however, was done in a random and disorganized manner. President Wilford Woodruff remembered going into the Mississippi River, along with Joseph Smith and others, and baptizing hundreds for their dead but without any recorders present to make record of the actions. “But the Lord told Joseph that he must have recorders present at these baptisms—men who could see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and record these things. Of course, we had to do the work over again. Nevertheless, that does not say the work was not of God” (Millennial Star [June 29, 1891]: 405).
As Wilford Woodruff observed, the saints did not understand that a record needed to be kept of all ordinances performed and that there had to be witnesses to the performing of the ordinances. Here the Prophet instructed the saints that in order for things to be recorded in heaven, they must be recorded on earth. The record should be kept in the temple for generations thereafter to have access to. Joseph, at another time, taught the Relief Society: “I have one remark to make respecting the baptism for the dead to suffice for the time being, until I have opportunity to discuss the subject at greater length—all persons baptized for the dead must have a recorder present, that he may be an eyewitness to record and testify of the truth and validity of his record. It will be necessary, in the Grand Council, that these things be testified to by competent witnesses. Therefore let the recording and witnessing of baptisms for the dead be carefully attended to from this time forth” (HC, 5:141).
7 That in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven; whatsoever you bind on earth, may be bound in heaven; whatsoever you loose on earth, may be loosed in heaven;
verse 7 “whatsoever you bind on earth, may be bound in heaven” Here is a reference to the sealing power restored to the earth by Elijah (see D&C 110 and its commentary).
8 For I am about to restore many things to the earth, pertaining to the priesthood, saith the Lord of Hosts.
verse 8 Baptisms for the dead were just the beginning of temple work for the dead. The whole of the temple ceremony with its attendant ordinances and covenants became available to the saints generally, both the living and the dead, as temples were built and began functioning.
9 And again, let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation, saith the Lord of Hosts.
10 I will say to all the saints, that I desired, with exceedingly great desire, to have addressed them from the stand on the subject of baptism for the dead, on the following Sabbath. But inasmuch as it is out of my power to do so, I will write the word of the Lord from time to time, on that subject, and send it to you by mail, as well as many other things.
verse 10 Joseph says, in effect, to the saints “I’ll keep in touch.”
11 I now close my letter for the present, for the want of more time; for the enemy is on the alert, and as the Savior said, the prince of this world cometh, but he hath nothing in me.
verse 11 “the prince of this world cometh” The Savior warns all who would try to follow him, “the prince of this world cometh,” who is Satan, the prince of darkness.
“he hath nothing in me” There was not a chord—not a string in Jesus’s nature—which the tempter could bring into vibration.
12 Behold, my prayer to God is that you all may be saved. And I subscribe myself your servant in the Lord, prophet and seer of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. JOSEPH SMITH.
One interesting point to consider is that no other single world religion performs the ordinance of baptism for the dead. This includes the various religious groups that have broken off from the church, including even the Reorganized LDS Church (the Community of Christ). The Reorganites have even placed sections 127 and 128 in their Doctrine and Covenants, although they have been relegated to the appendix of their book. They explain this incongruity by emphasizing that the sections are letters written by the Prophet, not revelations. A couple of difficult arguments for them to answer are: (1) Even though section 127 is a letter, in three verses (4, 6, and 8) the Prophet pronounces “thus saith the Lord.” Also, in verse 2 of section 128: “I wrote a few words of revelation to you . . .” (2) The Pauline letters in the New Testament are simply “letters,” yet are inspired scripture just the same.
Perhaps the best answer as to why no other church performs this ordinance is that they do not have the keys for the ordinance (see D&C 128:11), and they do not comprehend the necessity of it.
D&C 128:1 I now resume the subject of the baptism for the dead, as that subject seems to occupy my mind, and press itself upon my feelings the strongest, since I have been pursued by my enemies.
1 As I stated to you in my letter before I left my place, that I would write to you from time to time and give you information in relation to many subjects, I now resume the subject of the baptism for the dead, as that subject seems to occupy my mind, and press itself upon my feelings the strongest, since I have been pursued by my enemies.
verse 1 “that subject [baptism for the dead] seems to occupy my mind, and press itself upon my feelings” While the Prophet was in hiding, he had time to think about things that were of supernal importance in developing the work. He was beginning to sense that his time was short, and there was much work yet to be done.
The completion of the temple and the attendant ordinances for the living and the dead had to be paramount in his thinking.
2 I wrote a few words of revelation to you concerning a recorder. I have had a few additional views in relation to this matter, which I now certify. That is, it was declared in my former letter that there should be a recorder, who should be eyewitness, and also to hear with his ears, that he might make a record of a truth before the Lord.
verse 2 “I wrote a few words of revelation to you” Even though sections 127 and 128 were distributed to the saints in the form of letters, the Prophet viewed them as revelations.
3 Now, in relation to this matter, it would be very difficult for one recorder to be present at all times, and to do all the business. To obviate this difficulty, there can be a recorder appointed in each ward of the city, who is well qualified for taking accurate minutes; and let him be very particular and precise in taking the whole proceedings, certifying in his record that he saw with his eyes, and heard with his ears, giving the date, and names, and so forth, and the history of the whole transaction; naming also some three individuals that are present, if there be any present, who can at any time when called upon certify to the same, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
verse 3 “ward” Although stakes are mentioned often in the Doctrine and Covenants, this is the first and only reference in the Doctrine and Covenants to the “ward” as a key church unit. As early as 1839, Nauvoo was divided into three geographic areas called “wards,” each of which was presided over by a bishop. This division served both ecclesiastical and political purposes. Wards were primarily created to assist the bishops in identifying and meeting the needs of the poor. They also made it easier to conduct the recruiting of individuals to work on the temple and to collect tithing. Additional wards were later organized in Nauvoo, and that pattern continued when the Church was established in Salt Lake City.
Although these instructions are directed specifically to recorders selected to keep records of the ordinance of baptism for the dead, they might appropriately be applied to any records kept by “ward clerks.”
4 Then, let there be a general recorder, to whom these other records can be handed, being attended with certificates over their own signatures, certifying that the record they have made is true. Then the general church recorder can enter the record on the general church book, with the certificates and all the attending witnesses, with his own statement that he verily believes the above statement and records to be true, from his knowledge of the general character and appointment of those men by the church. And when this is done on the general church book, the record shall be just as holy, and shall answer the ordinance just the same as if he had seen with his eyes and heard with his ears, and made a record of the same on the general church book.
verse 4 “let there be a general recorder” Provisions are made for a “general church recorder.” With today’s modern technology, this office had been superseded by the genealogical, historical, membership, and other departments at church headquarters.
5 You may think this order of things to be very particular; but let me tell you that it is only to answer the will of God, by conforming to the ordinance and preparation that the Lord ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world, for the salvation of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel.
verse 5 “before the foundation of the world” The plan of salvation was prepared before this world was created. Included in that plan were provisions for the salvation and exaltation of those who lived on the earth at times when the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ was not available. These individuals will still need the ordinances of the gospel, which can only be performed on this earth.
“salvation of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel” See the commentary for D&C 137:5-9.
6 And further, I want you to remember that John the Revelator was contemplating this very subject in relation to the dead, when he declared, as you will find recorded in Revelation 20:12—And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
verse 6 The doctrines and principles taught in section 127 and 128 concerning the work for the dead and the eternal nature of the ordinances of the priesthood are not new to this dispensation but were practiced in New Testament times. Joseph cites a few New Testament scriptural passages that refer to these ordinances for the dead (see also verses 10, 14, 16, 17).
7 You will discover in this quotation that the books were opened; and another book was opened, which was the book of life; but the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works; consequently, the books spoken of must be the books which contained the record of their works, and refer to the records which are kept on the earth. And the book which was the book of life is the record which is kept in heaven; the principle agreeing precisely with the doctrine which is commanded you in the revelation contained in the letter which I wrote to you previous to my leaving my place—that in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven.
verses 6-7 “the books spoken of must be the books . . . which are kept on the earth” The Prophet teaches us that the “books” out of which we will be judged are “the records which are kept on the earth.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie expanded this definition of “books” to include “the Book of Life”—“figuratively . . . our own life . . . the record of our acts transcribed in our souls, an account of our obedience or disobedience written in our bodies, literally, it is the record kept in heaven of the names and righteous deeds of the faithful” (McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:578).
8 Now, the nature of this ordinance consists in the power of the priesthood, by the revelation of Jesus Christ, wherein it is granted that whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Or, in other words, taking a different view of the translation, whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; for out of the books shall your dead be judged, according to their own works, whether they themselves have attended to the ordinances in their own propria persona, or by the means of their own agents, according to the ordinance which God has prepared for their salvation from before the foundation of the world, according to the records which they have kept concerning their dead.
verse 8 Elder Rudger Clawson taught in general conference: “Truly it is a great and marvelous work, and not the least important thing about it is that these ordinances are all carefully recorded in the books and are filed away in the archives of the temple, to be brought forth in due time. From these records the people who have gone to that house will be judged. Nothing that is done in that temple will be accepted of the Lord, except it is properly witnessed and recorded” (CR, April 1900, 44).
“in their own propria persona, or by means of their own agents” The expression propria persona means “in person.” The expression “by means of their own agents” means “by proxy.” The Lord indicates that the ordinances are acceptable whether done in person or by proxy—so long as they conform to the requirements that he lays down.
9 It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of—a power which records or binds on earth and binds in heaven. Nevertheless, in all ages of the world, whenever the Lord has given a dispensation of the priesthood to any man by actual revelation, or any set of men, this power has always been given. Hence, whatsoever those men did in authority, in the name of the Lord, and did it truly and faithfully, and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah. This is a faithful saying. Who can hear it?
verse 9 “this power has always been given” The power to seal is not new to this dispensation. In fact, it has always been available whenever the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood have been on the earth. Joseph Smith received the keys of sealing from the Old Testament prophet Elijah. They included the power to seal both the wicked and the righteous. Elijah had the power to seal the heavens as well as the power to call down fire upon the wicked (see 1 Kings 17–2 Kings 2). The sealing power was first used on the earth in the Garden of Eden when God sealed Adam and Eve as husband and wife. However, in Old Testament times it was used only in behalf of the living.
In this verse four requirements are outlined in order that an ordinance performed on earth become binding in heaven:
- It must be performed by one “in authority”—one holding the proper priesthood commission.
- It must be done “in the name of the Lord” Jesus Christ.
- It must be performed “truly and faithfully”—precisely as the Lord has instructed.
- A “proper and faithful record of the same” must be kept.
10 And again, for the precedent, Matthew 16:18, 19: And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
11 Now the great and grand secret of the whole matter, and the summum bonum of the whole subject that is lying before us, consists in obtaining the powers of the Holy Priesthood. For him to whom these keys are given there is no difficulty in obtaining a knowledge of facts in relation to the salvation of the children of men, both as well for the dead as for the living.
verse 11 “the summum bonum of the whole subject” The expression “summum bonum” means “the highest good.” An expanded meaning is “that in which all goods are included or from which they are all derived” (Webster’s Third International Dictionary, s.v. “summum bonum”). In other words, through the power of the priesthood and the one who holds the keys to the priesthood will come all the knowledge needed for salvation.
“obtaining the powers of the holy priesthood” There is no other way to obtain salvation except through the priesthood of God based on the atonement of Jesus Christ. It is through the ordinances of that priesthood that one qualifies for exaltation. It is also through the priesthood and the ones who hold the keys to the priesthood that revelation and the will of God are obtained. Thus, prophets, seers, and revelators will receive the knowledge necessary for the children of God on this earth as well as the dead to obtain exaltation (see also D&C 84:19-21).
12 Herein is glory and honor, and immortality and eternal life—The ordinance of baptism by water, to be immersed therein in order to answer to the likeness of the dead, that one principle might accord with the other; to be immersed in the water and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves; hence, this ordinance was instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, being in likeness of the dead.
13 Consequently, the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another—that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly, as Paul hath declared, 1 Corinthians 15:46, 47, and 48:
verses 12-13 “a similitude of the grave” The Prophet reminds the saints that baptism by immersion is a representation of death and burial and then a coming forth from the grave as a resurrected personage into a new life. The baptismal font thus symbolizes the grave, and it should be located “underneath where the living are wont to assemble.” In our temples the font is found in the lower part of the building. Even in small one-story temples, the font is situated in a step-down area.
14 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy; and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as are the records on the earth in relation to your dead, which are truly made out, so also are the records in heaven. This, therefore, is the sealing and binding power, and, in one sense of the word, the keys of the kingdom, which consist in the key of knowledge.
verse 14 In this passage, the apostle Paul is writing of Adam who, after being thrust out of the garden, was a mortal or “natural” soul. Then later he became “spiritual”—that is not to say a spirit but a spiritual or resurrected body. So the natural or mortal state of Adam came first, then the spiritual or resurrected state. The first state of Adam was earthly (“earthy”) and the second state of Adam (“the second man”) was spiritual—he was “the Lord from heaven.” The mortal souls are corruptible or mortal (“such are they . . . that are earthy”). The resurrected souls are eternal and incorruptible (“such are they also that are heavenly”).
“as are the records on the earth . . . so also are the records in heaven” In a figurative manner, the earthly records of the dead (especially those which are carefully and accurately kept—“truly made out”) become heavenly or eternal—binding in heaven for eternity. This is an important manifestation of the sealing power.
“the keys of the kingdom, which consist in the key of knowledge” We have spoken previously about the “mysteries of the kingdom” (see the commentary for D&C 6:7; 8:11). They are spiritual facts and concepts that cannot be understood by the carnal mind. They can only be truly understood and appreciated by the man whose mind is connected with and responsive to the influence of the Holy Ghost. There is a certain subgroup of human beings here on earth who have an advantage in learning the mysteries of the kingdom—they have a “leg up” in obtaining and keeping the influence of the Holy Ghost. These are the men who hold the higher priesthood and are righteously administering the affairs of the Lord’s earthly kingdom. For these there is more two-way communication between heaven and earth—the figurative gaps or openings in the veil which separates heaven from earth are larger and filled, in one direction, with the petitions of the Lord’s righteous servants on behalf of those members of the kingdom whom these servants are serving; and filled in the other direction with the blessings of heaven to those servants (see Priesthood in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 2, chapter 12). On one level, therefore, we may say that righteous holders of the Melchizedek have an advantage in learning, by the Spirit of God, the mysteries of the kingdom. The Lord promised those who exercise their priesthood in righteousness that “the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven” (D&C 121:45). Joseph Smith taught that the priesthood is the “channel through which all knowledge, doctrine, the plan of salvation, and every important matter is revealed from heaven” (HC, 4:207; TPJS, 166-67). One of the great blessings of the Lord to mortals who are consistently striving to obey his commands, is that he will reveal himself to the man through the influence of the Holy Spirit by the process of personal revelation (see D&C 93:1). We also learn here from this verse that the holders of the Melchizedek have an advantage in coming to truly know God (John 17:3). Again, the two-way communication between heaven and earth is more open for those who hold and honor their higher priesthood.
On another level, when the higher priesthood is on the earth, so are the keys of that priesthood, which keys include the authority to administer in the area of the spiritual gifts of the Spirit which are granted to those who have the Lord’s priesthood.
15 And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.
verse 15 “neither can we without our dead be made perfect” In Hebrews 11:40, the apostle Paul teaches that without us our ancestors cannot be made perfect. This is presumably because they need vicarious ordinances for the dead performed on their behalf, and without us these would not be completed. Here in this verse, the prophet Joseph gives additional insights into Paul’s teaching. Here the Prophet declares that we cannot be made perfect without our ancestors, and that this is a principle that cannot be taken lightly. Why is that? In what way are we dependent upon our ancestors for our salvation? Joseph Smith taught: “Those Saints who neglect it [the vicarious ordinance work] in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation” (HC, 4:426, October 2, 1841). In other words, we are materially helped in working for our own salvation by attending to the vicarious ordinance work for those who have gone before us.
16 And now, in relation to the baptism for the dead, I will give you another quotation of Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:29: 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?
17 And again, in connection with this quotation I will give you a quotation from one of the prophets, who had his eye fixed on the restoration of the priesthood, the glories to be revealed in the last days, and in an especial manner this most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel, namely, the baptism for the dead; for Malachi says, last chapter, verses 5th and 6th: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
verse 17 “he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” On the face of it, this scriptural phrase seems to teach that if an individual’s sympathies for his ancestors and for his descendants are increased then that will prevent the Lord from smiting the earth with a curse. Joseph taught that a mere increase in sympathy is not the intent of this phrase. Rather, he taught that “turn the heart” means to “bind” or to “seal.” Again, we see evidence of the importance of vicarious ordinance work for the dead.
We will read in verse 18 the Lord’s decree that each of us must make a concerted effort in helping to forge a welding link or a complete and perfect union which will bind all of God’s children together from Adam to the present time. No one of us can be exalted without doing our part to form this union and becoming a part of the union ourselves. This welding link is formed as we in families are sealed to one another, as we seek out the names of our dead ancestors, and as we do proxy endowments, baptismal work, and sealing ordinances for them. To man’s frail intuition it is not obvious why this union must be formed, but there is no mistaking the Lord’s intent regarding this work. It is obviously of central and supreme importance. Without this welding link, the earth would fail to fill the measure of its creation, and the Lord would smite the earth with a sore curse.
18 I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands. It is sufficient to know, in this case, that the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other—and behold what is that subject? It is the baptism for the dead. For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.
verse 18 “a welding link of some kind” See the commentary for verse 17. The Prophet again emphasizes here the essential role of doing vicarious ordinances for the dead. He speaks here only of baptism for the dead. What of the other ordinances which are now performed vicariously for the dead? In September 1842, baptisms were the only ordinances being performed for the dead. Vicarious endowments were not inaugurated until 1877 in Salt Lake City. What Joseph says here about baptism might well be applied to other necessary ordinances, however, such as sealings.
19 Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those that bring glad tidings of good things, and that say unto Zion: Behold, thy God reigneth! As the dews of Carmel, so shall the knowledge of God descend upon them!
verse 19-21 “what do we hear?” In the following two verses, the Prophet reviews some of the visits of heavenly beings to himself and others. Most of these accounts are well known to the saints. For instance, the visits of Moroni and Peter, James and John are widely known and are recorded in the History of the Church. The voice of God in the chamber of Father Whitmer instructing Joseph to ordain Oliver Cowdery an elder and that he should be ordained an elder by Oliver when the Church was organized (see the commentary for D&C 13:1) is another example of events that were recorded in the History of the Church (1:60-61). There is, however, no record of the voice of Michael detecting Satan on the banks of the Susquehanna River, nor of the visits of Gabriel and Raphael, nor the many “divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time.”
Yet this review of the various visitors from the presence of God to the Prophet and the saints gives witness to the restoration of the keys of the priesthood and the keys of past dispensations to Joseph Smith, who stands at the head of the dispensation of the fulness of times. The priesthood and its keys, together with knowledge and instruction, were not given all at once but rather were given line upon line during the Prophet’s lifetime, and the instruction continues to this day.
20 And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed. A voice of the Lord in the wilderness of Fayette, Seneca county, declaring the three witnesses to bear record of the book! The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light! The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times!
verse 20 The experiences mentioned in this verse include Joseph’s visit from Moroni on the night of September 21, 1823; possibly his receiving of section 17 of our present-day Doctrine and Covenants; and the experience Joseph and Oliver Cowdery had on the banks of the Susquehanna River as they received the Melchizedek Priesthood from Peter, James, and John. In an intriguing way, Joseph refers to an otherwise unexplained participation of Adam in Joseph and Oliver’s experience having the Melchizedek Priesthood restored to them by Peter, James, and John.
This verse provides information that had never been given previously. For example, we learn that Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood between the towns of Colesville, New York, and Harmony, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River. Also, other than these verses, there is no other record of the incident, which also occurred on the Susquehanna River, wherein Michael or Adam detected the devil when he appeared as an angel of light. It is certainly possible that this experience occurred at the same time as the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
21 And again, the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette, Seneca county, and at sundry times, and in divers places through all the travels and tribulations of this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! And the voice of Michael, the archangel; the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time, all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood; giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!
verse 21 Michael is Adam. Gabriel is Noah. And Elder Bruce R. McConkie supposed that Raphael is Enoch (Ensign, April 1980, 23).
22 Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.
verse 22 “Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory!” As you read the history of our Church, particularly of the myriad heartbreaks, betrayals, discouragements, disappointments, and loneliness suffered by Joseph Smith, you will likely note a tendency to feel an empathetic sense of discouragement for him. You may wonder why Joseph was not inclined to despair and quit. You may even admit to yourself, “After all, I would have been so tempted to ‘throw in the towel.’” What enabled Joseph to go on in spite of all his difficulties, you may wonder? The answer is really quite simple. He simply knew, without question or doubt, that what he was doing was the personally communicated bidding of God. He had been instructed in person by the Father and the Son and by several other angelic personages. How could he possibly quit? He obviously never even considered it. It was not a negotiable point. He just knew, and he wanted others to know just as he did.
23 Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!
24 Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand; and who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.
verse 24 “he shall purify the sons of Lehi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” See the commentary for Alma 34:10; 3 Nephi 24:3; and D&C 13:1.
25 Brethren, I have many things to say to you on the subject; but shall now close for the present, and continue the subject another time. I am, as ever, your humble servant and never deviating friend, JOSEPH SMITH
Brief Historical Setting
The late winter of 1842 and spring of 1843 brought Joseph a brief respite from persecution and harassment. In February Parley P. Pratt returned from his mission to England. He could not wait to visit with Joseph and be instructed by him. Joseph did instruct him on, among other things, the way in which one might discern a false from a true spirit [D&C 129 -Discernment of False Spirits].
Joseph also took advantage of these peaceful months to visit and instruct the saints in small settlements surrounding Nauvoo [D&C 130 -Items of Instruction by Joseph Smith] [D&C 131 -Exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom].
- Michael J. Preece