Redeeming the Dead:
Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority
Redeeming the Dead:
Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority
Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority
David L. Paulsen, Kendel J. Christensen, and Martin Pulido
Christ’s charge to his disciples at the end of the book of Mark energizes the hearts of believers in capturing the intended scope of the gospel message: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15, emphasis added). This universal commission was followed by a sobering stipulation that “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). Since many of God’s children have lived without ever hearing the gospel, the question arises: how can they be saved?
Stephen Davis, Claremont-McKenna professor of philosophy,
expressed the problem this way:
there was a woman named Oohku who lived from 370–320 B.C. in the interior of Borneo.
Obviously, she never heard of Jesus Christ or the Judeo-Christian God: she was
never baptized, nor did she ever make any institutional or psychological
commitment to Christ or to the Christian church. She couldn’t have done these
things; she was simply born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Is it
right for God to condemn this woman to eternal hell just because she was never
able to come to God through Christ? Of course not. . . . God is just and loving.1
The problem Davis states is known as the soteriological problem
of evil,2 which can be expressed as an
inconsistent triad of three apparently true premises that become contradictory
is almighty, perfectly loving and just, and desires that all of his children be
saved (1 Timothy 2:3–4).
comes only in and through one’s personal acceptance in this life of God’s
salvation through Jesus and the ordinances of the gospel (exclusivism, Mark
numbers have lived and died never having heard of Christ or never having had a
fair chance to personally accept God’s salvation.
As outlined in our first article, some prominent Christian
theologians after the third century qualified the first premise in the triad
rather than seeking ways to harmonize all three.3 They spoke of the massa damnata of God’s children, “as though it pained God not at all”4 to damn even those who, like Oohku in Davis’s example,
did not have the chance to “believe and be baptized.” As we will
briefly explore in this paper, others rejected or significantly revised the
second premise: personal salvation was understood by some as being achieved
through obeying whatever light any given person received (inclusivism) rather
than being based upon a strictly exclusivist ideal, thereby diminishing the
role of ordinances, or even the personal acceptance of Christ, in the salvation
of a believer.5
The early Christian doctrine of Christ’s redemptive descent into
hell and vicarious ordinances performed on behalf of the dead can be contrasted
with both of the above positions. Unlike the religious doctrine articulated by
St. Augustine6 and reaffirmed by prominent
Reformers like Calvin,7 this early doctrine does
not compromise God’s justice and mercy, nor does it weaken the significance or
necessity of gospel ordinances. Christ’s descent into or “harrowing”
of hell, whereby he instituted and enabled postmortem evangelization, was a
common early Christian teaching among many Christian communities.8 Christ’s harrowing, taken in conjunction with
vicarious ordinance work, a rite which some early Christians practiced,9 provided these Saints with a solution to the
soteriological problem of evil by qualifying premise three. However, vicarious ordinances were largely condemned by “orthodox”
Christianity from an early date, garnering little, if any, support from mainstream
Christian theologians as a viable solution to the paradox.10
Strangely, even though vicarious ordinances fell into disfavor,
it appears that remnants of the doctrine of postmortem evangelism remained. This interesting disconnect between orthopraxy and orthodoxy will
serve as our starting point in contextualizing the practices of the
Restoration. We will therefore begin by (1) briefly sketching historical
responses to the doctrine, beginning with St. Augustine’s rejection;
(2) examining, as a prelude to the Restoration, modern treatments of
postmortem evangelization and vicarious baptism for the dead;
(3) detailing the sequence of Joseph Smith’s revelations and teachings
wherein the doctrine of postmortem evangelization was gradually laid out; and
(4) showing how this doctrine, in conjunction with proxy ordinances,
largely solves the soteriological problem of evil. In a subsequent paper, we
will detail the doctrine’s further development in the teachings of later church
leaders, including Joseph F. Smith’s 1918 revelation on the redemption of the
Christian Thought through the Medieval Period
As we explored in our first paper, St. Augustine of Hippo’s
(354–430) interpretation of Peter’s writings on the preaching of the
gospel to the dead was very influential.11 Augustine denied that Christ’s descent to hell provided evidence of a second
probationary state. He feared such a doctrine would create apathy, weakening
people’s desire to repent, receive baptism, and keep the commandments.12 As a result, Augustine was inclined toward a
restrictive interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19–20 and 4:6.13
While popular, Augustine’s interpretation did not overturn all
acceptance of postmortem evangelism. Cyril of Alexandria (376–444), for
example, thought that Christ preached to the spirits in prison to deliver all
those who would believe in him. He described Christ as “appearing to them
as one soul to other souls, . . . the only-begotten Son
shout[ing] . . . ‘Come out!’ and to those in darkness: ‘Be enlightened.’
In other words, he preached to those who were in hell also, so that he might
save all those who would believe in him.”14
In the next century, Severus of Antioch (465–518) taught
that Christ’s descent to hell saved only the righteous. For prior to his
descent, “everyone, including those who had been educated in
righteousness, was bound by the chains of death and was awaiting his arrival.”15 Severus specified that those who were released from
hell were only those who had believed and acknowledged Christ while alive, as
all spirits however, even righteous ones, had to remain in hell until Christ
released them. Though rejecting an inclusive posthumous evangelism, Severus
acknowledges that Christ’s descent allowed righteous men to come to paradise.16 In the eighth century, St. John of Damascus (ca.
676–749) considered the harrowing as Christ bringing light to the
underworld “just as He brought the message of peace to those upon the
earth . . . and became to those who believed the Author of
everlasting salvation . . . so He might become the same to those in
In the eleventh century, Theophylactus strongly denied the
Augustinian interpretation of 1 Peter (3:19 and 4:6), insisting that
postmortem evangelism must be seen in the text. He wrote:
It was the habit of the Fathers to take this
verse completely out of context. They therefore said that the word dead has two
different meanings in Scripture, referring either to those who are dead in
their sins and who never lived at all or to those who have been made
conformable to the death of Christ. . . .
But if they had paid the slightest attention to the context, they would have
seen that here the “dead” are those who have been shut up in hell, to whom Christ went to preach after his death on the
In concluding this abbreviated survey, we would leave this paper
wanting if we did not mention the contribution of the great Thomas Aquinas
(1225–74). Thomas held that Christ descended into different layers of
hell for different purposes:
For going down into the hell of the lost He
wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their
unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave
hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely
on account of original sin, He shed the light of glory everlasting.19
This interpretation became the official Catholic position on the
harrowing, later defended by Pope Pius IV (1499–1565) and the Council of
Prelude to the Restoration
The Reformation brought about a radical rethinking of many
Catholic doctrines. Among these was the doctrine of postmortem evangelism. This
doctrine was immediately suspect due to its direct
connection to indulgences.21 Another factor that contributed to its being suspected was the growing
acceptance of “soul sleep,” or Christian mortalism.22 Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) opposition to the
doctrine was largely motivated by his defense of soul sleep.23 However, Luther did not always doubt Christ’s
descent. In his 1537 lectures on Genesis, Luther entertained the idea that the
dead to whom Christ preached were those who died during the deluge, but his
preaching would have been restricted to children and those whose simple-mindedness had hindered them from belief.24 Likewise, Melanchthon (1497–1560), who collaborated extensively with
Luther, believed that Christ descended into hell to make himself known to the spirits there.25
In the same way, some Renaissance theologians felt that God may
have predestined some of the righteous heathens for salvation, like Socrates
and Brutus;26 Desiderius Erasmus
(1466–1536) thought Cicero was probably saved.27 Even so, most saw God as actualizing the pagans’
salvation in a manner that did not involve postmortem evangelism.
The Anglican Church tried to pave a middle road between the
Catholic faith and the more radical Reformation movements. Striving to show its
commitment to orthodoxy, the articles of the Anglican Church issued in 1552
asserted that while Christ’s “body lay in the sepulchre until his
resurrection; the spirit which he gave up was with the spirits who were
detained in prison, or the lower regions, and preached to them, as the passage
of Peter testifies.”28
Other Christian thinkers were also contemplating the nature of
God’s administration of the gospel message. John Milton (1608–74),29 Isaac Barrow (1613–80),30 and the Quakers under George Fox (1624–91)31 held that God grants all men a part of his light and
grace, by which they receive a time of probation to obey. As this light is
received and accepted, salvation is granted them.
In the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, more Christians began to reconsider postmortem
evangelism. Samuel Horsley (1733–1806), bishop of St. Asaph, attempted to
reconcile a generally traditional interpretation of the harrowing with the
belief that there is no repentance after death. Horsley’s solution was that
Christ did actually visit hell and preach to spirits in prison, but these
spirits were the antediluvians who believed and
repented before perishing in the flood and others who repented before death.32
Other thinkers allowed that repentance was possible in the spirit
world but believed Christ’s preaching was efficacious only for the
unevangelized.33 A few Christians claimed that
the message of postmortem redemption was open to all. Universalists cited Peter
as evidence that men can repent after this life and that God would eventually
save all mankind. Indeed, they claimed there never is an end to the period of
probation; man can always return to God.34
Many other Protestant thinkers, including Henry Dodwell
(1641–1711), rejected or qualified the Augustinian interpretation.
Dodwell believed that Christ preached to the souls of those who had passed away
before his Incarnation.35 Charles Hudson, a pastor
in Westminster, Massachusetts, supported a form of postmortem evangelism in
which the disembodied spirit of Christ brought the gospel to the disembodied
spirits in hell in order that they might accept his preaching and make a moral
change in the realm of spirits.36 The
preaching allowed them to repent, but they would still be judged based on their
deeds in the flesh.37
Ann Lee (1736–84), the founder of the Shakers, developed a
detailed portrayal of postmortem evangelism. She taught that the gospel will be offered to all souls, either in this world or
through postmortem evangelism in the world of spirits.38 The Shakers had a duty to preach the gospel to the
living and the dead, and they believed that they could minister to the dead
while in the flesh.39 Ann Lee even claimed
that while Shaker elders preached to the living, the dead also attended the meetings
and listened to their words. In addition she claimed to have seen faithful
Shakers preaching to the dead after they passed away.40
However, as Protestantism evolved, new opinions arose regarding
the possibility of baptism for the dead. Dodwell believed that since Christ preached
to the dead, there was a possibility that the dead might “be Baptized also. And that even with the Baptism of Water.”41 He supposed that “the Reason of the Practice alluded to by the Apostle, of Baptizing for the Dead” was
for the spiritual cleansing of the deceased’s sins.42 He imagined that some worthy believers died before
being baptized yet warranted the “Equity of the Baptismal
1837 Alexander Campbell (1788–1866),44 a
Christian restorationist, and John B. Purcell (1800–1883), the Catholic
Bishop of Cincinnati, debated tenets of the Catholic faith. In trying to prove
the doctrine of purgatory, Purcell defended prayers on behalf of the dead and
even cited baptism for the dead as an early Christian practice that validates
the performance of pious works on behalf of the dead:
The doctrine of purgatory can be proved by a
few plain texts. The first is from 2d Machabees, xii. 42; where we read, that
the valiant Machabeus sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem, for
sacrifice, to be offered for the souls of the dead. “It is, therefore,”
says the scripture, “a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may
be loosed from their sins.“
What is the meaning of the universally
prevalent practice, of which St. Paul speaks, of performing pious works, called
baptisms for the dead: “Else what shall they do who are baptized for
the dead, if the dead rise not at all. Why are they then baptized for them?”
(1st Cor. XV. 29.)45
Even before Purcell’s
statements, baptism for the dead was being practiced in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, by
an offshoot of the German Baptist Brethren, or
Dunkers, led by Johann Conrad Beissel (1691–1768).46 One member was concerned that a deceased leader of
the group had not been baptized correctly. As a result, queries were made to
Beissel to see if baptisms could be performed on behalf of dead relatives.
Beissel approved the proposal, and starting in 1738, baptisms for the dead
became an extravagant and popular ceremony for the whole community, as
members were eager to secure blessings for departed family members. Author
William Knecht claims such baptisms were performed for several years afterward,
but the practice eventually died out and did not spread from Beissel’s
community to any other.47
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or
Shakers, who accepted postmortem evangelism, also practiced a form of baptism
for the dead.48 Jeffrey A. Trumbower
investigated how Shaker communities practiced the rite during the early 1840s.
According to Trumbower, Shakers summoned the spirits of the unevangelized—often
Native Americans, Eskimos, and Hottentots—and invited them to receive the
gospel and be baptized.49 If accepted, the spirits
expressed their desire to listen by possessing the bodies of the Shakers. In
the bodies of the living, the spirits of the dead could then be baptized and
These radical communities were not representative of Christian
orthopraxy overall. However, their contribution is telling. For
as we have seen, the scattered remnants of the doctrine of the harrowing of
hell had led to a disparity between belief and practice. These radical
communities had merely reconnected practice and belief in an attempt to make
sense of the doctrine of Christ’s descent and apostolic teachings on salvific
ordinances. Their attempts show us, definitively, that the doctrine of
harrowing was never fully erased from Christianity.
Joseph Smith’s Restoration of Salvation
for the Dead
The doctrine of salvation for the dead was restored to Joseph
Smith gradually through divine revelations, beginning as early as 1823 and
coming to full fruition in 1841. The revelations came primarily as a result of
his study of, meditation on, and prayers concerning passages contained in the
Bible and later in the Book of Mormon. And troubling events in his life also,
no doubt, occasioned sustained reflection and searching. These events include:
• The death in 1826 of his unbaptized brother Alvin, whom he
loved and admired dearly.
• The reluctance of Joseph’s beloved father to accept baptism.
Joseph worried about his father’s salvation until he witnessed his father’s
baptism on 6 April 1830 into the newly organized church.
deaths of several of his infant children: Alvin lived only a few hours in 1828;
twins Thaddeus and Louisa lived only a few hours in 1831; adopted son Joseph
Murdock died at 11 months in 1832; Don Carlos died at 14 months in 1841; and a
son was stillborn in 1842.50
These events, in light of
Joseph’s steadfast belief in the biblical requirement of baptism for entrance
into heaven, no doubt weighed heavily on Joseph, causing him to seek fervently
to understand the eternal condition of his own loved ones, as well as the
eternal condition of all mankind in similar situations.
Insights from the Book of Mormon
One of the primary objectives of the ancient authors of the Book
of Mormon was to show God’s desire to save all his children.51 The authors were univocal on Christ’s central role in
that process (see, for example, 1 Nephi 13:40; 2 Nephi 9:23).
Nevertheless, Book of Mormon writers were mindful of the fact that not everyone
has the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ during his or her mortal life.
However, their approaches to this problem were not completely uniform.
Specifically we can see two apparently opposed sentiments that create a field
of tension. The relief of such tension requires further restoration insights.
The first sentiment is that God grants to all men a portion of his light to
live by; if they are obedient to that light, then they will be heirs of
salvation (inclusivism).52 The other is the view
that without belief in Christ and baptism, mankind will be damned
For all we know these tensions were left in place by the Lord so
as to provoke further reflection by the Saints on the subject, thereby paving
the way for the restoration of subsequent truths. Whatever the case, the
solution given through Joseph reconciles these two positions, thus releasing
them from opposition and inviting them into a mutually beneficial solution
to the soteriological problem of evil.
Therefore, to begin, let us examine the first of these two
approaches as outlined by Book of Mormon authors. These writers noted that
although not all men have the opportunity to learn and obey the gospel’s laws
during their mortal life, man is not left totally in the dark, no matter when
or where he was born. They taught that while many inhabitants of the earth are
unaware of the gospel message and its ordinances, they are still all
sufficiently instructed by God to be judged of him (2 Nephi 2:5). For
example, the prophet Mormon taught that the light of Christ “is given unto
[man] to judge, that [he] may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as
plain, that [he] may know with a perfect knowledge. . . . For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he
may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every
thing which inviteth to do good . . . is sent forth by the power and
gift of Christ” (Moroni 7:15–16; see also Ether 4:7–11). In
this sense, all people are given a chance to abide by the light or knowledge
given to them, even if it is less than the full gospel message.
Likewise, Jacob, an early Nephite prophet, explained the
salvation of the unevangelized in this manner:
where there is no law
given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no
condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of
Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered
by the power of him. For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice
upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from
that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil. (2 Nephi 9:25–26)
Similarly, the prophet Abinadi proclaimed, “they that have
died before Christ came, in their ignorance, not having salvation declared unto them,”
will have part in the first resurrection, which Abinadi called eternal life,53 as they are “redeemed
by the Lord” (Mosiah 15:24). He further stated that “little children also have eternal life” (Mosiah 15:25).54 However, those who
have accepted the law of the gospel, and the faculties to follow it, must be
true to their covenants or they will be damned (2 Nephi 9:27;
28:7–9; 3 Nephi 11).
The prophet Alma the Younger learned from an angel that when one
dies and the spirit returns to God, the spirit will be consigned to either
paradise or hell, paradise being a state of happiness, rest, and peace (Alma
40:12). It is important to note that, according to Alma the Younger, one’s
assignment to paradise (or elsewhere, such as spirit prison) is not based on
the acceptance of the Christian faith and its ordinances, but rather depends on
whether or not one performed good works in the flesh. The standard seems to be
the extent to which one hearkened to or disregarded God’s light (Alma
As we can see, the Book of Mormon delineates a sense in which
divine light is given to all mankind to enable them to obey God.55 All are called by Christ and can come unto him even
without their conscious recognition of his hand.56 As Nephi noted, “he inviteth [all his children]
to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come
unto him . . . and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto
God” (2 Nephi 26:33).
Next, we briefly present the
second approach—namely, that man without baptism and belief in Christ is
damned. This teaching comes from the most definitive of sources. In
3 Nephi 11:33–34 the resurrected Savior speaks to the people in Zarahemla, teaching that “whoso believeth in me, and is
baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the
kingdom of God. And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be
damned” (see 2 Nephi 31:13–21; D&C 84:64, 74; 112:29.)
Thus the Book of Mormon apparently presents somewhat conflicting
answers to the soteriological problem of evil. There are ideas similar to
inclusivism (each person’s salvation depends on how well his life conforms to
whatever light he received), and yet there is an absolute requirement for
baptism (exclusivism). To understand this paradox, the reader must remember
that the principle of continuing revelation was just as pertinent in Nephite
history as it is in our dispensation. Nephite prophets received “line upon
line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a
little” (2 Nephi 28:30; D&C 128:21; see 98:12).
However, one thing is clear. The emphasis in the Book of Mormon
on the necessity of gospel ordinances was in tension with the inclusionist
ideas presented in other Book of Mormon passages. Thus, questions akin to those
that had troubled Augustine were posed to early Mormons.57 Joseph’s own writings attest to a struggle to
reconcile scriptural passages stating that God’s grace is open to all men with
those passages explicitly stating that salvation is available only through the
gospel ordinances. The reconciliation that emerged came only through a
significant reformulation of traditional notions of salvation and damnation,
heaven and hell, and the introduction of the concept of exaltation58—in other words, it came through additional
Joseph’s Early Revelations
In March 1830, Joseph received a revelation that clarified the
nature of damnation. The Book of Mormon, as we have previously shown, spoke of
the unbaptized as being damned. Understood in the traditional sense, damnation
is of an unlimited duration. But Joseph was told by the Lord that man’s torment shall have an end (see D&C 19:6–12). Specifically,
the Lord revealed to Joseph in those passages that the terms eternal
punishment and endless torment refer not to nonterminating punishment,
but to divine or God’s punishment since God is “eternal” and “endless.”
Even those who suffer “endless punishment” shall be released.
In December 1830, Joseph’s translation of the Bible paved the way
for a revelation now known as the Book of Moses, which noted the liberation of
captive spirits who perished in the flood. As the text records, Enoch saw in
vision the wicked generation of Noah, and the Lord tells him that
These which thine eyes are upon shall perish in
the floods; and behold, I will shut them up; a prison have I prepared for them.
And That which I have chosen [Christ] hath pled before
my face. Wherefore, he suffereth for their sins; inasmuch as they
will repent in
the day that my Chosen shall return unto me, and until that day they
shall be in torment. (Moses 7:38–39)
Enoch saw that “many of the spirits as were in prison came
forth, and stood on the right hand of God; and the remainder were reserved in
chains of darkness until the judgment of the great day” (Moses 7:57).
Between these two early revelations, a very broad, inclusivist doctrine of
harrowing is unveiled, especially when one considers that these passages do not
speak specifically of the unevangelized but rather of the willfully rebellious.
In March 1831 further details pertaining to the
resurrection of the unevangelized were unveiled by the Lord. For the
first time in non–Book of Mormon revelations, we are given information as
to the state of those who have never heard of Christ. Specifically, Joseph was
informed that, “they that knew no law shall have part in the first resurrection;
and it shall be tolerable for them” (D&C 45:54). Again, in January
1832, the Lord revealed that in the day of judgment “it shall be more tolerable for the heathen”
than for those that reject the voice of warning raised by the Mormon
missionaries (D&C 75:20–22, consistent with Alma 24:30 and 9:23).
Already, within three years of the commencement of the latter-day
restoration and the publication of the Book of Mormon, the Saints were given a
considerably more detailed harrowing doctrine. Among these revelations,
Doctrine and Covenants 19 added significantly to the existing Mormon canon of
the time. To this point, the restoration account of Christ’s salvific scope was
wider and deeper than others given previously. However, the doctrine had not
been fully revealed and would await further eschatological clarification and
eventual reintroduction of proxy ordinances.
Joseph’s Understanding Continues to Expand
During his inspired revision of the King James Bible,59 Joseph also expressed his understanding of the
doctrine of postmortem evangelism during the harrowing of hell. His revision of
Peter’s first epistle, which may have preceded or followed his vision of the
degrees of glory, enlightens us regarding the preaching of the gospel to the
For Christ also once suffered for sins, the
just for the unjust, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the
Spirit, that he might bring us to God. For which cause also, he went and
preached unto the spirits in prison; Some of whom were disobedient in the days
of Noah, while the long-suffering of God waited, while the ark was preparing;
wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. . . . Because of this, is the gospel preached to them who are dead, that they
might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live in the spirit according
to the will of God. (1 Peter 3:18–20; 4:6 JST)60
This undated revision clarifies that Christ’s preaching to the
spirits in prison is aimed at drawing men to God and encouraging them to follow
the Father’s will. Furthermore, this account and Joseph’s 1832 vision of the
three degrees of glory remove any possible particularization problem in the
traditional King James rendition of the passage. Peter mentioned only the
disobedient spirits of Noah’s day. As such, the passage does not indicate
whether Peter meant to also include other disobedient souls who lived either
before or after the days of Noah until the Savior’s harrowing of hell. By
contrast, Joseph’s version clarifies that the wicked antediluvians were only a
subset of the people the Savior taught in the spirit world.
At the conclusion of 1832, Joseph received his “olive leaf
revelation,” which explained the inheritance of kingdoms of glory in terms
of each heir’s obedience in abiding by the law corresponding to a respective
kingdom of glory (D&C 88:20–26, 38). The whole universe is filled
with kingdoms, each with its own bounds and conditions. Individuals can inherit
a kingdom if they abide by the laws of that kingdom. This revelation showed how
God brought the gospel within the reach of all.
The revelation presents the resurrection chronologically.
Doctrine and Covenants 88:95–98 explains that at the second coming,
people on the earth and in “their graves” who are worthy of celestial
glory will be caught up to meet the Lord. The next verse describes the
terrestrial resurrection, subsequent to the second coming, for those who “received
their part in that prison which is prepared for them, that they might receive
the gospel” (D&C 88:99).61 The
final judgment and the telestial resurrection will not occur “until the
thousand years are ended” (D&C 88:100–101). Lastly, the sons of
perdition are judged and found to “remain filthy still” (D&C
Postmortem evangelization is again affirmed, for “all
people, both in heaven and in earth, and that are under the earth,”
will hear the trump of the angel who bears the everlasting gospel (D&C
88:103–4). So Christ’s preaching of the gospel during his three days in
the tomb is not the only instance of postmortem evangelism. With this doctrine,
Joseph’s vision relates to texts of apocalyptic Christianity like the Apocalypse of
Zephaniah and even the Apostles’ Creed, in which the spirits in
hades can hear the word of the Lord and repent of their sins.62
While Joseph’s vision of the
three degrees of glory and the olive leaf revelation shed significant light on
the soteriological problem of evil by deepening and enlarging Joseph’s
understanding of the nature of salvation and allowing the unevangelized an
inheritance in the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms after accepting the
gospel, there still remained what appeared to be an unpleasant implication that
the unevangelized could not receive the highest degree of salvation.63 This is similar to the burden in Enoch’s Dream Visions,
as we explored in part one of this series: While righteous Gentiles could
become the “white cattle” that the Lord delighted in, they could
never achieve the higher glory of the Jews described as “white sheep.”
How was such a plan just, either in the ancient Jewish text or in Joseph’s
In a later vision of the celestial kingdom at the Kirtland Temple
in 1836, Joseph received clarification on this issue. In God’s highest kingdom,
Joseph saw both living and dead members of his family, including his deceased
brother Alvin. That the Prophet and the Saints previously did not think
unbaptized adults could enter the celestial kingdom is evident when Joseph “marveled how it was that [Alvin] had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he . . . had not been baptized for the remission
of sins” (D&C 137:6). How was it possible, given the strict
requirement on baptism for entrance into the celestial kingdom, that
Alvin—even if not currently dwelling there—could possibly ever
achieve entrance to the celestial kingdom? The Lord explained to Joseph, “All
who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if
they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of
God” (D&C 137:7).
The Lord’s explanation above seemingly implied what is referred
to as “middle knowledge”: the idea that by knowing the characters of
persons, the Lord can ascertain whether they would have accepted the gospel if
they had been given the opportunity. However, this revelation does not claim
that the Lord’s “middle knowledge” is sufficient for salvation in the
celestial kingdom of the unevangelized. While the Lord will ensure they are
saved in the celestial kingdom, the means by which he will accomplish their
salvation was not disclosed here. This vision in the Kirtland Temple also
discussed the fate of unbaptized children, thus adding to the previous
pronouncements on the doctrine in the Book of Mormon and an earlier revelation.65 Joseph learned that “all children who die before
they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom
of heaven” (D&C 137:10). Again, how little children would receive
celestial salvation is not disclosed in this revelation.
The Promised Coming of Elijah: Turning Hearts and Restoring Authority
In translating the Book of Mormon in 1829, the words in 3 Nephi
25:5–6 must have stood out to Joseph. For not only do these verses match
the prophecy found in Malachi 4:5–6, but six years earlier an angel had
repeated a variation of the verses to Joseph at least four times.66 Joseph recorded in 1838 that when the angel Moroni
first appeared to him in 1823 he “commenced quoting the prophecies of the
Old Testament. He first quoted part of the third chapter of Malachi, and he
quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same prophecy, though with a
little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles.”67 Doctrine and Covenants 2:1–3 chronicles the
words spoken to Joseph:
Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood,
by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful
day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises
made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.
If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.
The phrase “plant in the hearts of the children the promises
made to the fathers” is different enough from the King James rendering as
to change its meaning. Elijah’s coming reveals the
priesthood and plants the promises made to the fathers in the hearts of the
children, rather than turning the hearts of the fathers to the children. Joseph
was quick to point out this different reading, though he left no written
commentary on its importance. It appears the “promises made to the fathers”
would reference the Abrahamic promises—or covenant
relationship—made to the Old Testament prophets and peoples throughout
the Bible. Rather than focusing on priesthood keys alone, Moroni’s quotation
seems to suggest that Elijah’s coming held a broader import in restoring the
Abrahamic tradition. This variation of the prophecy found in Malachi
4:5–6 and 3 Nephi 25:5–6 may have been brought to Joseph’s
memory again when he was told in an 1830 revelation about “Elijah, unto
whom I have committed the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the
fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that
the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse” (D&C 27:9). From this
time onward, Elijah was connected more and more with the specific duties of
restoring priesthood keys that provided the authority to “turn the hearts
of the fathers to the children” (D&C 110:15) rather than focusing on
the broad restoration of priesthood, covenants, and doctrine noted earlier. The
understanding of Elijah’s role in the restoration was becoming more specific.
It was not until April 1836 that Elijah actually appeared to the Prophet Joseph
and Oliver Cowdery subsequent to the dedication of the Kirtland Temple:
Behold, the time has fully come, which was
spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be
sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—To turn the
hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest
the whole earth be smitten with a curse—Therefore, the keys of this
dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the
great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors. (D&C
In fulfillment of Malachi’s
prophecy, the keys of Elijah were finally committed to Joseph Smith in the
temple at Kirtland. Significantly, Elijah’s appearance followed that of Elias,
who committed into Joseph’s hands the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham,
which encompasses the promises made to Abraham and the accompanying covenants.
Supporting Joseph’s 1830 revelation, his experience at Kirtland reaffirmed
Elijah’s special place in restoring the keys of the priesthood that allow for
the hearts of the children to be turned to the fathers. While very
enlightening, these accounts do not tell us when Joseph came to understand that
the keys restored by Elijah specifically allowed for performing baptisms for
the dead and other vicarious ordinances relating to the salvation of the
deceased.69 At least by 1840, Joseph
associated the keys from Elijah with the ability to properly perform all the
Elijah was the last Prophet that held the keys
of the Priesthood, and who will, before the last dispensation, restore the
authority and deliver the keys of the Priesthood, in order that all the
ordinances may be attended to in righteousness. . . . “And I will send Elijah the Prophet before the great and
terrible day of the Lord.” . . . Why send Elijah? Because he
holds the keys of the authority to administer in all the ordinances of the
Priesthood; and without the authority is given, the
ordinances could not be administered in righteousness.70
Joseph used the prophecy in Malachi 4:5–6, explaining:
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. (D&C 128:18)
By 1844 the connection is explicit, and there is no question that
Joseph associated Elijah’s keys with the authority to perform baptisms and
other ordinances on behalf of the deceased:
This is the spirit of Elijah, that we redeem
our dead, and connect ourselves with our fathers which are in heaven, and seal up our dead to come forth in the first resurrection;
and here we want the power of Elijah to seal those who dwell on earth to those
who dwell in heaven. This is the power of Elijah and the keys of the kingdom of
Returning now to April 1836, the prophet Elijah
appeared to Joseph and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple, as had earlier
been foretold by the angel Moroni (see D&C 2:1–3; JS—H
1:38–89). Elijah informed the Prophet that “the time has fully come”
for the turning of “the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the
children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse”
(D&C 110:14–15). Then, Elijah committed into their hands “the
keys of this dispensation” (D&C 110:16).
In an article in the July 1838 Elders’ Journal, Joseph responded
to the following question: “If the Mormon doctrine is true, what has
become of all those who have died since the days of the apostles?” He
answered, “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.”72 Thus, those who died without the law 73 would eventually hear the gospel message.
Baptism for the Dead
Over time, Joseph came to understand that the “turning of
hearts” spoken of by Malachi, Elijah, and Moroni (D&C 2:1–2) and
the keys that Elijah had committed to him referred to the baptisms for the dead
that Paul had mentioned (1 Corinthians 15:29). This, then, was the means
by which Alvin and others could fulfill the baptismal requirement for entrance
into the celestial kingdom of God. Simon Baker recorded Joseph’s first public
pronouncement of baptism for the dead, which occurred on 15 August 1840,
at the funeral of Seymour Brunson. Baker, who was present at the event,
recorded in his journal:
[Joseph] 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
On 15 December 1840, Joseph wrote the brethren regarding baptism
for the dead and assured them that the ordinance was
practiced by the ancient Christian churches. Joseph’s letter confirms
Simon Baker’s account, as Joseph stated that he “first mentioned the
doctrine in public while preaching the funeral sermon of Bro Brunson.”75 The baptisms were “for their relatives who are
dead, who they feel to believe would have embraced the gospel if they had been
with hearing it, and who have received the gospel in the spirit through the
instrumentality of those who may have been commissioned to preach to them while
in prison.”76 Therefore, at this time, baptism
for the dead was exclusively intended for those considered righteous but
unevangelized in the flesh. Indeed, the wicked could hardly qualify for
entrance into the celestial kingdom, so what would vicarious baptism achieve
Throughout the rest of his life, Joseph gave several discourses
in which he very energetically discussed baptism for the dead and postmortem
evangelism, as did other Latter-day Saint leaders.77 In this, the Saints followed some primitive Christians
in correlating postmortem evangelism with ordinances performed for the
The Need for a Temple
In January 1841, the Lord instructed Joseph that the Saints must
build a temple with a baptismal font for the purpose of officiating on behalf
of the deceased (D&C 124:25–55) and clarified that baptism for the
dead was an ordinance that belonged to the temple rites (D&C 124:39).
In 1841, many Saints were already discussing and writing about
baptism for the dead and postmortem evangelism. An article entitled “Baptism
for the Dead” appeared in the church newspaper the Times and
Seasons in that year. The author argued that the scriptures clearly
state that those who reject the gospel and are not baptized in this life are
damned, but that if the deceased accepted the gospel in the hereafter and
received a vicarious gospel ordinance they could “be blessed with a part
in the first resurrection, and be a partaker and an inheritor of a celestial
A poem by Joel H. Johnson80 entitled “Baptism for the Dead” supported the doctrine.81 In the following issue the Twelve published an
epistle that spoke of the opportunity the Saints had to “enter the
Baptismal Font for their dead relations, so that they may be judged according
to men in the flesh, and live according to God in the spirit, and come forth in
the celestial kingdom.”82 Temple ordinances for the salvation of the unevangelized were understood to act
in conjunction with the preaching of the gospel to the dead.
On the same day these statements were published in the Times and
Seasons, Joseph gave a discourse in which he explained that
vicarious baptism was the means by which “men can appear as saviors on
mount Zion.”83 He also shared how ministering
spirits teach the gospel in the spirit world and cited the Savior’s visit to
the spirits in prison after his death as an example. He explained:
A difference between an angel and a ministering
spirit; the one a resurrected or translated body, with its spirit, ministering
to embodied spirits—the other a disembodied spirit, visiting and
ministering to disembodied spirits. Jesus Christ became a minestering spirit,
while his body [was] laying in the sepulchre, to the spirits in prison; to fulfil[l] an important part of his mission, without which he
could not have perfected his work or entered into his
rest. . . . Jesus Christ went in body, after his resurrection,
to minister to translated and resurrected bodies.84
Vicarious Ordinances: A Manifestation of God’s Tender Mercies
Joseph thought it reasonable that God would raise and save the
dead and that “there is never a time when the spirit is too old to
approach God.”85 According to Joseph’s
revelations and teachings, all can receive God’s mercy except those who have
committed the unpardonable sin of denying the Holy Ghost.86 Joseph was aware of how this belief reflects upon the
merciful character of God and answers the soteriological problem of evil.
Joseph asked the audience to consider
the case of two men,
brothers, equally intelligent, learned, virtuous and lovely, walking in
uprightness and in all good conscience, so far as they had been able to discern
duty from the muddy stream of tradition, or from the blotted page of the book
of nature. One dies, and is buried, having never heard the gospel of
reconciliation, to the other the message of salvation is sent, he hears and embraces
it, and is made the heir of eternal life. Shall the one become a partaker of
glory, and the other be consigned to hopeless perdition? Is there no chance for
his escape? Sectarianism answers, “none! none!! none!!!” Such an idea is worse than atheism.87
The doctrine of baptism for the dead established God’s
compassion, justice, and mercy “in preparing an ordinance for the
salvation of the dead, . . . their names recorded in heaven, and they
judged according to the deeds done in the body.”88 However, on 3 October 1841 Joseph declared the
need to do such work in a temple rather than in the Mississippi River and
therefore proclaimed that no more vicarious baptisms would be performed until
they could be attended to in the Lord’s house.89
Joseph knew that the doctrine was new to the Saints and that some
questioned its biblical basis. After all, the practice was mentioned only once
in the New Testament. So in March 1842, Joseph explained that “if the[re] is one word of the Lord that supports the doctrin it
is enough to make it a true doctrin.” The Saints have the privilege “to
be baptized for the remission of sins for & in behalf of our dead kindred
who have not herd the gospel or fulness of it.”90 The ordinance was designed for those who, like Joseph’s
brother Alvin, would have received the fulness of the gospel if given the
An article in the April 1842
issue of Times and Seasons, presumably written by Joseph Smith,91 extolled the goodness of God in bringing about
baptisms for the dead. Though religions have often claimed exclusive salvation
for their adherents and damnation for all others, yet, the author wrote, God
looks upon all with paternal regard and mercy and judges men of all nations
equally, “not according to what they have not, but according to what they
have.”92 Thus those who lived without the
law will be judged without the law. Joseph then testified against traditional
views that sins committed in this life cannot be forgiven in the next. Joseph
cited Peter’s account of Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison and asked:
Why else would Jesus preach to them unless there was something they could do to
improve their condition? This visit was evidence of God’s equal love for the
human family. Joseph believed that God “knows the situation of both the
living, and the dead, and has made ample provision for their redemption,
according to their several circumstances, and the laws of the kingdom of God,
whether in this world, or in the world to come.”93 That God should damn men for circumstances beyond
their control is contrary to the love of God. Rather, God has authorized
servants to administer to our forefathers in the spirit world. Their release
from imprisonment will be brought about upon the same principle as the disobedient of Noah’s day when visited by the Savior. The living are baptized on behalf of the dead, just as in
ancient times. Joseph further noted the witness of John Chrysostom as to the
Marcionites’ practice of vicarious baptism.94 Although Joseph admitted the church by the Marcionites’ time was degenerate, he
felt it was yet evidence of an originally pure practice sanctioned by God.
Procedures Formalized for Baptisms
for the Dead
Later, in August 1842, Joseph expressed his desire to address the
Saints on his revelations regarding baptism for the dead, but persecution
forced him into seclusion. As a consequence, Joseph wrote two letters, one
dated 1 September and the other 6 September, containing what had been
revealed to him and laying out the doctrine of baptism for the dead at length.
The first letter detailed the manner in which the baptisms were to be performed
and recorded (D&C 127:5–10). The second dealt with the recording
procedures in more detail and stressed its importance for the accounting and
judgment of the people (D&C 128:3–8). The second letter further
instructed the Saints to construct a baptismal font with appropriate symbolism
in the temple in which baptisms for the dead could be performed. Because of
this ordinance, Joseph believed, the dead should “speak forth anthems of
eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was,
that which would enable [the Saints] to redeem [the dead] out of their prison;
for the prisoners shall go free” (D&C 128:22).
A Comparative Analysis
These letters and Joseph’s previous writings and discourses show
a marked distinction between Joseph’s baptism for the dead and the earlier
practice of the Ephrata community under Beissel. The Pennsylvanian Dunkers’
baptism on behalf of the deceased was not based upon any belief in postmortem
evangelism. Rather, the practice was instituted to secure the salvation of one
of the group’s founders; thus the intent was to save faithful Christian
ancestors rather than to bring salvation to the unevangelized.95 The practice Joseph introduced also differed in
another regard from the contemporary practice of the Dunkers. While both the
Ephrata community 96 and
the early Mormons baptized for the dead in rivers, Joseph quickly directed that
the practice be suspended until it could be performed in the temple. He also
instituted systematic record keeping and ordinance procedures for the salvation
that God had conceived on a very broad scale.
Joseph’s pattern for baptism for the dead was also different from
the Shakers’. While both showed more concern for the unevangelized than did the
Dunkers, the Shakers did not baptize for the dead unless their
members were possessed by disembodied spirits who were interested in receiving
the gospel. Such baptisms were largely targeted toward the spirits of deceased
Native Americans. Latter-day Saint baptisms, on the other hand, did not involve
possession and were generally performed without any supernatural knowledge of
the salvific state of the deceased; early LDS baptisms also did not target specific
On 11 June 1843, Willard Richards wrote in Joseph’s diary that
the Prophet taught about Christ’s mission to save the spirits in prison. Joseph
elaborated that when Jesus spoke to the penitent thief on the cross (Luke
23:43), he said, “this day you will be with me in the world of Spi[ri]ts. & then I will teach
you all about [the gospel].”97 Joseph also cited the passage from 1 Peter 3:19 concerning Christ’s visit
to the spirit world and said it was for the purpose “that [the spirits]
would receive [the gospel, and] could have it answered by proxey [baptism for
the dead] by those who live on the earth.”98 He
also explained that “God ordained that he who would save his dead should
do it by getting together” and building a temple to perform the saving
ordinances of God.99
Additional Vicarious Ordinances
On 21 January 1844, the Prophet addressed the Saints about the
coming of Elijah. He explained that the “turning of hearts” mentioned
in Malachi (and by Moroni in 1823) would be better rendered the binding or
sealing of hearts.100 During this discourse,
Joseph also extended the proxy ordinances performed on behalf of the dead
beyond baptism. He taught that the Saints are to receive “all the
ordinances, Baptisms, Confirmations, washings[,]
anointings[,] ordinations & sealing powers upon [their] heads in behalf of
all [their] Progenitors who are dead & redeem them that they may Come forth
in the first resurrection & be exhalted to thrones of glory with [them].”101 These ordinances bind the hearts of generations
Joseph’s Final Teachings
In March 1844, Joseph gave his famous King Follett discourse in
which he stressed the importance of receiving knowledge as a preliminary step
to obedience in one’s path toward salvation. According to William Clayton’s
report of the sermon, Joseph declared that “knowledge saves a man and in
the world of spirits a man can’t be exalted but by knowledge. So long as a man
will not give heed to the commandments he must abide without salvation.”102 The preaching by Jesus and by faithful Saints who
have passed on, therefore, was necessary for saving the dead from ignorance.
The Prophet also taught during this sermon how effective their missionary
efforts could be: “All sins . . . except one there is a
provision [for] either in this world or in the world of spirit . . .
every spirit can be ferreted out . . . [and] every man who has a
friend in the eternal world who hath not committed the unpardonable sin[,] you can save him.”103
On 12 May 1844, Joseph
explicitly declared that the Saints must receive “their washings and their
anointing for their dead” for the purpose of connecting “to the ones
in the dispensation before us and trace their leniage [sic] to connect the
priesthood again.” Joseph continued to preach the glad tidings of
postmortem evangelization and vicarious work for the dead, and the Saints’ role
in both, saying
those who will not
obey the gospel will goe [sic] to the world of spirits there to stay till the[y]
have paid the utmost farthing or till some person pays their de[b]ts they owe.
Now all those [who] die in the faith goe to the prison of Spirits to preach to
[those who are] de[a]d [as to the] body, but they are
alive in the Spirit & those Spirits preach to the Spirits that they may
live according to god in the Spirit and men do minister for them in the flesh
and angels bare the glad tidings to the Spirits & the[y] are made happy by
Other church leaders echoed the Prophet’s teaching that the
faithful Saints would evangelize in the spirit world, and Orson
Pratt specifically included women in this work.105
Samuel W. Richards, who was also present at this May 1844
discourse, wrote that Joseph felt his position was morally superior to other
Christians. Perhaps unaware of some Christians’ acceptance of postmortem
evangelism or other answers to the soteriological problem of evil, Joseph,
according to Richards, claimed, “The sectarians have no Charity for me but
I have for them. I intend to send men to prison to preach to them, and this is
all on the Principle of entering in by Water and Spirit.”106 Joseph continued, saying the Saints can perform
baptism and “the ordinances being administered by proxy” for the
dead, by which “administrators in the eternal world [can] release those
spirits from Prison . . . [when] the law is fulfilled.”107 Both Richards and Thomas Bullock noted, however,
that Joseph instructed that baptisms were only to be performed on behalf of one’s
ancestors and near relatives, although Bullock recorded Joseph saying “we
may be baptized for those who we have much friendship for, but it must be revealed
to the man of God, lest we should run too far.”108
Joseph Smith’s understanding of redeeming the dead via postmortem
evangelization and vicarious ordinances performed by the living on behalf of
the dead came line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a
little. His concern for the eternal condition of the unevangelized dead likely
arose most immediately as a result of premature deaths in his own family,
causing Joseph much anguish of soul as he feared for
their eternal salvation. To this his soul expanded in concern for the eternal
outcome of all mankind.
Joseph began with the precepts taught in the Book of Mormon
(although, admittedly, the highest knowledge of the Book of Mormon authors
remained unrevealed to our generation in the sealed portion of the golden
plates).109 From this basic foundation,
Joseph studied the scriptures, meditated, and prayed fervently for further
light, which came gradually from heaven over a period of fourteen years. In the
end, Joseph had the joy of comprehending the infinitely tender mercies of the
Lord, who provided the means of working for the salvation of each and every
soul who would accept it. He had the joy of knowing that God loves us all and
desires not to lose a single one of his children.
Joseph’s understanding readdresses the soteriological problem of
evil by adding a fourth premise to the original inconsistent triad (see page
who live and die without having a chance to hear, accept, render obedience to,
and receive the ordinances of the gospel will have that opportunity following
death. All will be judged according to their works and the degree of light they
received while in mortality and in the spirit world and can receive an
appropriate kingdom of glory.
This fourth premise resolves the soteriological problem of evil
we have explored in this paper. With this premise added, the previous premises
no longer contradict one another, and the prospect of God damning entire
populations because they had no possibility of hearing the word of salvation is
dismissed. God’s plan of salvation has been shown to be both just and merciful,
inclusivist and exclusivist110—and
the determining factor was not being fortunate to hear and belong to the right
religion, but rather, one’s personal reception of the truth whenever or
wherever one is availed the opportunity (compare Alma 41:3). For Joseph
Smith—as for Tyrannius, Origen, Clement, apocalyptic Christians, and many
first-century Christians111 (and numerous other
Christians throughout the ages, including contemporaries of the
Prophet)—who believed that Christ was sent to the realm of the dead for a
salvific purpose, the answer lay with the postmortem preaching and acceptance
of the true gospel.112
But what was uniquely revealed to Joseph Smith, and which could
only come from heaven, were the priesthood keys to perform vicariously those
saving acts in the sanctity of the temple: baptism, conferring the gift of the
Holy Ghost, ordination to Christ’s true priesthood order for the brethren, the
washing and anointing to become a priest or priestess and a king or queen, the
gift of a new name, the endowments, and the sealing power to bind families
together for all eternity. Only heaven could grant these, and heaven sought out
a righteous, worthy vessel through whom to restore them to the earth.
Thank God for Joseph Smith, not merely for being God’s conduit in
clearly resolving the troubling soteriological problem of evil, but for being
the instrument through whom God restored the knowledge and priesthood powers
that make redemption of the dead possible. No doubt these facts were among
those that motivated Elder John Taylor to pen the words “Joseph Smith, the
Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation
of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C
In the fourth and final installment in this series, we will
portray the ongoing unfolding of the doctrine and practice of salvation for the
dead as revealed by Joseph Smith’s successors in the prophetic office,
David L. Paulsen is a professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University. He earned a BS degree in political science from BYU, a JD from the University of Chicago Law School, and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Michigan. He has published in the areas of philosophy of religion and Mormon studies.
Kendel J. Christensen was recently accepted to Teach for America and thus will be pursuing a master’s degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he plans to study law.
Martin Pulido is a recent BYU graduate and independent scholar, with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and English. He has published philosophical articles on the logical structure of language and the nature of space, and theological articles on theodicy, divine embodiment, and the LDS belief in a heavenly mother.
article is the third in a series entitled the Harrowing of Hell that explores
the historical teachings of salvation for the dead and vicarious baptism on
their behalf. In our first article we explored ancient Christian beliefs
concerning Christ’s harrowing of hell and contemporary solutions to the
soteriological problem of evil. See David L. Paulsen, Roger D. Cook, and Kendel
J. Christensen, “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early
Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19/1 (2010):
56–77. Our second article surveyed the early Christian practice of
baptism for the dead and related teachings concerning vicarious work by the
living on behalf of the dead. See David L. Paulsen and Brock M. Mason, “Baptism
for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other
Restoration Scripture 19/2 (2010): 22–49. In our subsequent
and final article we will outline post–Joseph Smith teachings concerning
the redemption of the dead. Shirley Ricks of the Maxwell Institute and Laura
Rawlins, managing director of the BYU Faculty Editing Services, and her staff
have significantly improved the quality of this paper with their skillful
editing. Hal Boyd, Judson Burton, Benjamin Leto, Brock Mason, and Benjamin
Thornell, current BYU undergraduates, and Aaron Tress, recently graduated BYU
philosophy major, have also notably contributed to this paper by their careful
research and editing. This paper is also stronger because of critical responses
of five unnamed reviewers. The authors thank the College of Humanities and the
Department of Philosophy for their generous financial support of this project.
1. Stephen T. Davis, “Universalism,
Hell, and the Fate of the Ignorant,” Modern Theology 6/2 (January
1990): 176. Davis cautiously explores postmortem evangelization as a possible
answer to the question.
2. While this issue of the apparent
partiality of salvation will be referred to in this paper as “the
soteriological problem of evil,” this is admittedly but one soteriological
problem. For even granting that everyone can be saved does
not show that the way in which salvation is brought about is just. Other
questions also arise: Why must we accept ordinances to be saved? Cannot we just
turn away from bad habits and live a good life? Why must we necessarily accept
Christ for our salvation? If the atonement was required by God, how is it just?
These and other related questions are also problematic for the moral status of
God’s chosen means of salvation, but they will not be addressed here.
3. Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 70.
4. John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the
Destiny of the Unevangelized (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 72.
5. Sanders, No Other Name, 215–86.
6. St. Augustine taught that any implication
of postmortem salvation bordered on heresy, for “if mercy leads us to
believe that the punishment of the wicked will come to an end, what are we to
believe concerning the reward of the just, when in each case eternity is
mentioned in the same passage?” In Jeffrey Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous
Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001), 131.
7. John Calvin claimed that any idea that
Christ descended into hell to perform any work of salvation was “childish”
and “nothing but a fable.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry
Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 1:442.
8. Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 60–68; Christ’s descent is affirmed in the Apostle’s
Creed, an early Christian composition, and is understood in connection with
postmortem evangelism. See further J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (New York:
McKay, 1972), 368, 379, 380; Paulsen and Mason, “Baptism for the Dead,”
9. Paulsen and Mason, “Baptism for the
Dead,” 31–33, 39–41.
10. Apart from the canonization of
1 Corinthians 15:29, in the “orthodox” tradition there is little
trace of baptisms for the dead. Those early Christians who did practice the
rite seem to have died out in the fifth century AD.
Paulsen and Mason, “Baptism for the Dead,” 39–42.
11. Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 68–70.
12. Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 68–70.
13. Augustine still accepted the descent of
Christ into the underworld on the weight of other scriptures (such as Acts
2:24–31) and admitted that Christ’s visitation to hell referenced in Acts
and Peter may have loosed the bands of some who were bound. He
granted the possibility that the pains of hell were loosed for “those to
whom He had resolved to grant deliverance,” but Augustine considered it
overly presumptuous to define who these people were. See Augustine, Letters of St. Augustine 164.2.3–4,
and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, ed. Philip Schaff (reprint,
Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:515–16.
14. Ancient Christian Commentary on
Scripture—New Testament XI: James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, Jude,
ed. Gerald Bray and Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,
15. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 108.
16. In Severus we see an approach to the
issue that mirrors Augustine’s.
17. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 3.29, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, ed.
Philip Schaff and Henry Mace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 9:73.
18. Theophylactus, Commentary on I Peter, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 114.
19. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 3a.52.2.
20. See the Creed of Pope Pius IV; cf. R. P.
Blakeney, Manual of Romish Controversy, Being a Complete Refutation of the
Creed of Pope Pius IV (Edinburgh: Paton and Ritchie, 1851),
21. Commentary note on 1 Peter 3:19, in The Holy Bible: The Catholic Bible
Douay–Rheims Version, Notes by Bishop Challoner (Boston: Benziger
Brothers, 1941), 238.
22. This is the belief that the soul either
died with the body at death or “fell asleep,” thus entering an
inactive state. Since the soul’s activity would resume only at the
resurrection, the harrowing conceived of as a personal visitation, or
postmortem evangelism, could not be accepted.
23. Luther was far more conservative in his
defense of the doctrine than other mortalists; see Norman T. Burns, Christian Mortalism from Tyndale to Milton (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1972), 27–32.
24. Luther’s Works, vol. 2, Lectures on Genesis Chapters 6–14, ed. Jaroslav
Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1960), 85.
25. Philip Melanchthon, A Melanchthon Reader, trans. Ralph
Keen (New York: Lang, 1988), 286.
26. For example, Huldrych Zwingli; see
E. H. Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison and Other Studies on the Life after Death (New York:
Thomas Whittaker, 1884), 168.
27. Plumptre, Spirits in Prison, 169.
28. John Pearson, “An Exposition of the Creed (1659; repr.,
New York: Appleton, 1844), 341. Horsley renders it thus: “for the body lay
in the sepulchre until the resurrection, but his ghost departing from him, was
with the ghosts that were in prison, or in hell, as the place of St. Peter doth
testify.” See Samuel Horsley, sermon 20, in Sermons (New York:
Swords, 1811), 2:99.
29. “The rule of judgment will be the
conscience of each individual, according to the measure of light which he has
enjoyed.” See John Milton, A Treatise on Christian Doctrine, trans.
Charles R. Sumner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1825), 514.
30. He defended this view in his sermons “The
Doctrine of Universal Redemption Asserted and Explained,” in The Theological Works of Isaac Barrow, vol. 3 (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1818), 350–426.
31. “Mind the pure light of God within,
which will teach every one to know God, . . . so every one will be
rewarded according to his works, whether they be good or evil.” See The Works of George Fox, vol. 4 (New York:
Harding, 1831), 39.
32. Horsley, sermon 20, 188.
33. Henry Dodwell, the rector of
Shottesbrook, believed that the “Saviour did not go to preach to Those in
Hell, to give Them another Opportunity of recovering the favour of their
Creator; but to Those, who were in Hades, the State of Departed Souls betwixt
Death and Judgment, to preach to Them that Gospel, which They did not hear,
whilst on Earth.” Whenever one has a fair opportunity to hear the gospel
and rejects it, whether it occurred in this world or the world to come, one
will be eternally damned. See Henry Dodwell’s The Eternity of Future Punishment Asserted
and Vindicated (Oxford: Fletcher, 1743), 37–38.
34. Based on Peter’s statement, the
Universalists reasoned that Christ would not have preached to the spirits in
prison if their state was unalterably fixed at death.
35. Henry Dodwell, An Epistolary Discourse (London: Angel
and Bible, 1706), 170–76. He rejected an interpretation of 1 Peter
which claimed that Christ’s spirit worked through Noah to teach the wicked in
Noah’s day. Dodwell, Epistolary Discourse, 170. Instead,
Dodwell embraced the idea that Christ preached to those who had been in
mortality during the time of Noah but were spirits when Christ preached to
36. For Hudson’s full view on the matter, see
Charles Hudson, A Series of Letters Addressed to Rev. Hosea Ballou, of Boston; Being
a Vindication of the Doctrine of a Future Retribution against the Principal
Arguments Used by Him, Mr. Balfour, and Others (Woodstock, VT:
Watson, 1827), 223–39.
37. Hudson, Series of Letters, 226–27.
38. Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations
and Doctrines of Mother Ann Lee, 2nd ed.
(1816; repr., Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons, 1888), 185.
39. Testimonies, 186–90.
40. Testimonies, 188–91;
F. W. Evans, Ann Lee (The Founder of the Shakers), 4th ed.
(London: Burns, 1858), 152. Lee claimed that Jonathon Wood, a deceased Shaker,
was “like claps of thunder among [the dead], waking them up.” See
Evans, Ann Lee, 154.
41. Dodwell, Epistolary Discourse, 176.
42. Dodwell, Epistolary Discourse, 178.
43. Dodwell, Epistolary Discourse, 178.
44. Alexander Campbell was a Christian
restorationist and a primary leader in the Disciples of Christ movement of the
nineteenth century. Believing that the Catholic Church had perverted true
Christian doctrine over time, he sought to restore Christian faith to its
45. Alexander Campbell and John B. Purcell, The Battle of the Giants: A Debate on the Roman Catholic Religion (Cincinnati:
Vent, 1875), 335, 336.
46. William L. Knecht, “Mysteries of the
Kingdom: More or Less,” BYU Studies 5/3–4 (1964): 231–40.
47. Knecht, “Mysteries of the Kingdom,”
48. Ann Lee taught that as Jesus “preached
to the spirits in prison,” so faithful Shakers are “baptized for the
dead.” See Evans, Ann Lee, 152. Another work by an anonymous Shaker
states rather vaguely: “It is by the power of Christ Jesus, that the dead are raised, and as he was baptized for the dead, with the
power of the Holy Spirit, both in his first and second appearing, and therefore
quickeneth whom he will” (emphasis in the original). Testimony of Christ’s Second Appearing
Exemplified by the Principles and Practices of the True Church of Christ (1808), 571. In
what sense was Christ baptized for the dead? There appears to be a relationship
between the Holy Spirit and being baptized for the dead, but it is unclear.
Some contemporary Christians understood baptism for the dead as a baptism of
blood, effort, and suffering in the ministry for either the dead (the
worldly-minded) or those who passed away. This seems to fit with Ann Lee’s
teachings regarding the suffering of the faithful on behalf of the dead, and
the Savior’s and Shakers’ postmortem evangelism.
49. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead, 3–4.
50. “Joseph Smith, Prophet of the
Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ,” http://www.prophetjosephsmith.org/
joseph_smith_timeline (accessed 5 April 2011).
51. See the title page of the Book of Mormon
and 1 Nephi 1:14.
52. As previously established, John Milton,
Isaac Barrow, and the Quakers were adherents to this view.
53. Abinadi’s definition of eternal life was entrance
into heaven, or what Latter-day Saints would call a kingdom of glory. The
Latter-day Saint definition of eternal life is exaltation. In different ages, a given term
may have different meanings.
54. An often neglected section of Mormon’s
letter to Moroni similarly proclaimed that not only are little children alive
in Christ, but also those who are “without the law. For the power of
redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned,
or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing” (Moroni
8:22). According to Mormon, baptism is not needed for children and those
ignorant of the law. Where no law is given or understood, there is no ability
for men to obey or disobey the commands of God. Baptism does not aid those who
lack the ability to obey God’s law since these people cannot sin and therefore
need no remission of sins.
55. Clearly these Book of Mormon teachings
echo in some instances Paul: “For not the hearers of the law are just
before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles,
which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these,
having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law
written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their
thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Romans
56. The Book of Mormon indicates that not all have a capacity
of knowing right and wrong. Alma the Younger observes that while “good and
evil have come before all men[,] he that knoweth not good from evil is
blameless” (Alma 29:5).
57. A newspaper article in the Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter
Day Saints features some twenty questions about Mormonism
and Joseph Smith, with accompanying answers. The questions and answers,
including one that demonstrates that Mormons were thinking about the fate of
the unevangelized, appear about two years before Joseph introduces the doctrine
of baptism for the dead to the Saints during his 10 August 1840 sermon.
Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 1/3 (July
58. Mark Staker argues that some of Joseph’s
early eschatological revelations should be understood, at least in part, as
revelatory revisions of contemporary Campbellite thought. For more on the
historical context of Joseph’s Ohio revelations, see Mark L. Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical
Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake
City: Kofford Books, 2009), 319–42.
59. Joseph purchased a King James Bible in
1828. He began revising the Bible in June 1830 by command of the Lord and
continued throughout his life. See Steven and Julie Hite, “Introduction,”
in The New
Testament with the Joseph Smith Translation (Orem, UT: Veritas
Group, 2001), v.
60. See Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson,
and Robert J. Matthews, Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (Provo, UT: BYU
Religious Studies Center, 2004), 553, 555.
61. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt
Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 640.
62. Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 62, 66–67.
63. Neither Doctrine and Covenants section 76
nor section 88 addressed this question.
64. Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 60.
65. In addition to the Book of Mormon’s
exposition of the doctrine in Moroni 8, Doctrine and Covenants 29:46 also
addressed the fate of unbaptized children.
66. History of the Church, 1:11–15.
Although Moroni repeatedly stressed Elijah’s coming, Joseph’s account of his
history in 1838 gives no indication the young Joseph thought this event had any
significance for the fate of the unevangelized or for temple work. Moroni’s
rendering of Malachi did proclaim that the priesthood would be revealed by
Elijah and that the hearts of the children would have planted in them the “promises
made to the fathers” (D&C 2:1–2; given in 1823). In August 1830,
the Lord told Joseph that to Elijah he had “committed the keys of the power
of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children” (D&C 27:9),
corroborating Moroni’s prophecy of Elijah’s special priesthood mission. At that
time, though, these matters had no apparent relation to work for the dead. Of
note, the turning of hearts has not always suggested temple work in revealed
scripture. On 6 August 1833, the Lord observed the Saints’ troubles and
instructed them to uphold the constitutional law of the land. He explained that
he would try them to see if they would uphold their covenants and commanded
them to “renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the
hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the
children; And again, the hearts of the Jews unto the prophets, and the prophets
unto the Jews; lest I come and smite the whole earth with a curse, and all
flesh be consumed before me” (D&C 98:16–17). This usage of the
turning of hearts to the fathers, made long before the building of a temple or
the institution of vicarious ordinances as early as 1823, suggests that it
meant the general preaching of the gospel to bring about righteous living and
the turning of the lost descendents of the righteous to the correct teachings
of their parents (the Jews to the prophets). At this time, Joseph may not have
understood the turning of hearts as referring to temple work.
67. History of the Church, 1:12.
68. No explanation of what these keys entailed
was given in this account, and we have found no records disclosing what Joseph
understood by Elijah’s visitation or of the keys Elijah committed to him. As
Richard Bushman has noted, “Joseph never mentioned the event in his other
writings. There is no evidence he told the Kirtland Saints.” Richard Lyman
Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York:
Vintage Books, 2007), 320. Even when Joseph later discussed Elijah’s mission,
we have found no record of his relating it to this visitation in the temple.
Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 623 n. 63. This though, is not particularly
unusual, since only a very small percentage of Joseph’s discourses were
recorded, and many of these in only a cusory manner. Mark Staker, however, has
referenced the memoir of one Mary Ann Stearns Winters, which tells of her
experience in the Kirtland Temple. Mary Ann writes: “After the close of
one of the meetings [in the Kirtland Temple during the spring of 1837], mother
took me to the stand and showed me the place on the pulpit where the Savior had
stood when He appeared to the Prophet, and where afterwards Moses and Elias
came and delivered the keys for the gathering of the Saints (Israel), and the redemption of the dead”
(emphasis added). This story was recited long after the fact. Mary Ann Stearns
Winters “Reminiscences.” MS 119. Typescript copy (n.d.) from original
in possession of Elizabeth Bennett Winters.
LDS Church Archives, cited in Staker, Hearken O Ye People, 152.
69. In an article in the July 1838 Elders’ Journal, Joseph
responded to the following question: “If the Mormon doctrine is true, what
has become of all those who have died since the days of the apostles?” He
answered, “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” (p. 43). Thus, those who
died without the law (Romans 2:12) would eventually hear the gospel message.
70. History of the Church, 4:211.
71. History of the Church, 6:252.
72. Elders’ Journal, 43.
73. Romans 2:12 reads: “For as many as
have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have
sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.” There appears to be a
distinction between law denoting any system of laws or morality, and the law denoting, for
the purposes of this paper, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
74. The Words of Joseph Smith,
ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book,
75. Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C.
Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 486.
76. Joseph Smith Letter to the Twelve,
15 December 1840, LDS Archives.
77. Joseph discoursed on baptism for the dead
on 4 October 1840. See Words of Joseph Smith, 77, 38. On
2 February 1841 Joseph declared the need to build a temple for the Saints
to be baptized for the dead and that without building the temple, the Saints
would not be accepted by God (Words of Joseph Smith, 62–63).
He spoke again on the subject on 7 April 1841; see Times and Seasons 2/12
(15 April 1841): 387–88; on 9 May 1841 (Words of Joseph Smith, 71); and on
31 August 1842 (Words of Joseph Smith, 131). Lyman
Wight spoke on baptism for the dead in October 1840. Times and Seasons 1/12
(12 October 1840): 187. Sidney Rigdon and John C. Bennett spoke on the
subject in April 1841. Times and Seasons 2/12 (15 April 1841): 387–88.
Additionally an Elder Babbit also talked about it in May 1841. “Conference
Minutes,” Times and Seasons 2/17 (1 July 1841): 459.
78. Odes of Solomon 42:19–20;
Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 9.16.2–4.
79. “Baptism for the Dead,” Times and Seasons 2/13
(1 May 1841): 399.
80. Born 23 March 1802 in Massachusetts,
Joel H. Johnson joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in
1831. After serving missions in New York and Ohio, he joined the Saints in
Kirtland and helped construct the temple. He moved from Kirtland to Missouri,
and then due to religious persecution fled to Illinois and eventually to Utah,
reaching the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
81. Johnson’s poem, which appeared in the 1
October 1841 Times and Seasons, notes, “As Christ to spirits went to
preach, / Who were in prison [l]aid; / So many saints have gone to teach / The
gospel to the dead. / And we for them can be baptized, / Yes for our friends
most dear! / That they can with the just be rais’d, / When Gabrial’s trump they
hear.” See his “Baptism for the Dead,” Times and Seasons 2/23
(1 October 1841): 565. Both Johnson and Joseph’s thought harmonizes with
the teachings of the Shepherd of Hermas in which departed teachers and apostles
of the church (departed saints) preach to the dead in the spirit world. See
Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 9.16.5. Johnson’s poem would become hymn no.
105 in A
Collection of Sacred Hymns, comp. John Hardy (Boston: Dow & Jackson’s,
1843). Other poems like Johnson’s followed. In June 1842, William W. Phelps
wrote a poem called “The Temple of God at Nauvoo,” which affirmed
that postmortem evangelism was active. It states, “To spirits in prison
the gospel is sent, / For on such a mission the Savior once
went; / And we are baptiz’d for the dead—surely, too, / In the font at
the Temple of God at Nauvoo.” Times and Seasons 3/16
(15 June 1842): 830. A hymn published in the 1843 Collection of Sacred Hymns tied Christ’s harrowing
of hell and baptism for the dead: “But hark! and hear the joyful sound, /
How greatful to the ear, / A ransom for the lost is found, / A Savior doth
appear. / The power of death and hell he breaks, / His power and love to show,
/ The prison doors assunder breaks, / And lets the captive’s go. / Then for
this cause our body bends, / Beneath the liquid wave, / In favor of our kindred
friends, Who slumber in the grave.” See verses 1–3 of hymn no. 106
Collection of Sacred Hymns.
82. See “An Epistle of the Twelve to the
brethren scattered abroad on the Continent of America,” Times and Seasons 2/24
(15 October 1841): 569. Note the Twelve’s application of Peter’s language
on why the gospel was preached to the dead (1 Peter 4:6) to vicarious baptisms.
83. See Words of Joseph Smith, 77, and
84. See “Minutes of a Conference of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” in Times and Seasons 2/24
(15 October 1841): 577. See also Words of Joseph Smith, 77. This
discourse clarified that Christ preached to the spirits in the spirit world
while his body lay in the tomb, whereas some Saints had thought Christ’s visit
was after his resurrection. Previously, in responding to a question by Joseph
Fielding on the meaning of the passages in 1 Peter 3–4, Parley P.
Pratt had answered that they mean “that Jesus Christ, after his resurrection visited the
spirits in prison, who had been confined in chains of darkness and bondage from
the flood until Christ’s coming, and that he preached the gospel unto them that
they might be judged according to men in the flesh” (emphasis added). See “Questions—By
Elder Joseph Fielding, and Answers by the Editor,” in Millennial Star 1/10 (February
1841): 258. Although Joseph corrected this viewpoint, it still continued in LDS
writings. Thomas Ward wrote that “the Lord Jesus Christ, after his
resurrection, went by the spirit with which he was quickened, and preached to
these spirits that were in prison.” See his “On Future Punishments,” Millennial Star 3/11 (March
85. Words of Joseph Smith, 77.
86. Mormons believe that there is only one
unpardonable sin, the denial of the Holy Ghost. Joseph Smith stated, “What
must a man do to commit the unpardonable sin they must receive the Holy Ghost
have the heavens opened unto them, & know God, & then sin against him.” Words of Joseph Smith, 347.
Additionally, Alma 39:6 reads: “For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when
it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a
sin which is unpardonable.” Likewise, Doctrine and Covenants 76:31,
34–35 identifies the sons of perdition as “those who know my power,
and have been made partakers thereof, and suffered themselves through the power
of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy my power.
. . . Concerning whom . . . there is no forgiveness in this
world nor in the world to come—having denied the Holy Spirit after having
received it, and having denied the Only Begotten Son of the Father, having
crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame.”
87. Words of Joseph Smith, 78.
88. Words of Joseph Smith, 78.
89. Words of Joseph Smith, 76–77,
79. Also, in December 1841, an article appeared in the Times and Seasons from the
Twelve, which observed that only some of the Saints had heeded with seriousness
the Lord’s call to build the temple so baptisms could be performed on behalf of
the deceased. “Baptism for the Dead,” Times and Seasons 3/4
(15 December 1841): 626.
90. Words of Joseph Smith, 109–10.
91. Joseph Smith was listed as the editor of
the journal, and the editor is listed as writing this article. In that period,
Joseph was often in seclusion and did not write many pieces in these journals.
However, we presume and proceed on the assumption that Joseph was the author.
92. “Baptism for the Dead,” Times and Seasons 3/12
(15 April 1842): 759.
93. “Baptism for the Dead” (1842):
94. For the full quotation, see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,
comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 1976), 222. The
topic of Marcionite baptisms for the dead was explored in Paulsen and Mason, “Baptism
for the Dead,” 32–33.
95. This is not to say that Joseph’s baptism
for the dead did not also appeal to those concerned with the salvation of their
immediate ancestors. It absolutely did, but its scope was far broader. The very
narrow scope of the Ephrata community’s practice helps explain why the practice
died quickly, whereas the Mormon practice remains and continues to expand.
96. See Knecht, “Mysteries of the
97. Words of Joseph Smith, 211. Wilford
Woodruff’s account says Joseph taught the Savior said, “this day I will be
with thee in the world of spirits & will teach thee or answer thy
inquiries.” See Words of Joseph Smith, 213.
98. Words of Joseph Smith, 211.
99. Words of Joseph Smith, 211.
100. Words of Joseph Smith, 317–18.
This record comes from the diary of Wilford Woodruff.
101. Words of Joseph Smith, 318. As
Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook have pointed out, Woodruff’s account has
Joseph include all progenitors as recipients of the temple rites (Words of Joseph Smith, 386 n. 9).
This may mean Joseph was expanding the temple work beyond those persons whom
the Saints believed warranted entrance into the celestial kingdom. It is also
possible that the limitation was still in place and that Joseph was referring
to all righteous ancestors.
102. Words of Joseph Smith, 360–61.
103. Words of Joseph Smith, 360. See also Teachings of the
Prophet Joseph Smith, 219, emphasis added. In this latter text, the
Prophet observes, “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, although the
sin of blasphemy [against the Holy Ghost] cannot be forgiven” (emphasis
104. Words of Joseph Smith, 370. This is
from George Laub’s journal. Joseph’s discussion of sinners staying in the world
of spirits until their debts are fully paid by themselves or others is
reminiscent of Catholic teachings regarding purgatory and the prayers and alms
offered on behalf of the disobedient to end their suffering.
105. Parley P. Pratt speculated that with the
Melchizedek Priesthood, the elders “may visit the dark and gloomy regions
of the spirits in prison, and there, like a risen Jesus, preach the gospel to
those who are dead.” See “Extract from a New Work Just Published,” Times and Seasons 5/7
(1 April 1844): 490. Orson Pratt claimed that “as [Christ] went in
the spirit before his resurrection, during the three days that his body lay in
the sepulchre, to preach to the spirits in prison, so also do and will his
disciples in all ages of the world since he opened the door of the
resurrection. . . . What ‘greater work,’ as Jesus had raised the
dead, could his disciples do, unless, after death, as ministering spirits, they
should minister to the spirits in prison, and so save the dead?” See “The
Angels,” Times and Seasons 6/4 (1 March 1845): 824. At the funeral
of Mrs. Caroline Smith, Orson Pratt also observed, “During the period of
this separation [from the body] the spirit will not be employed in ministering
to beings of flesh and bone; but they will minister to their own kind; they
will be ministers to the world of spirits, preaching the gospel to those who
did not embrace it previous to their separation from their bodies.
. . . You too, my sisters, will take a part therein, for you will
hold a portion of the priesthood with your husbands, and you will thus do a
work, as well as they, that will augment that glory which you will enjoy after
your resurrection.” See “Funeral of Mrs. Caroline Smith,” Times and Seasons 6/10
(1 June 1845): 919–20. See also Thomas Ward, “Salvation,” Millennial Star 6/7
(15 September 1845): 98. It is also significant to note that the
second-century Shepherd of Hermes speaks of apostles and teachers preaching to
righteous spirits who had died (Similitude 9.16.1–7).
106. Words of Joseph Smith, 371.
107. Words of Joseph Smith, 372.
108. Words of Joseph Smith, 368.
109. Review 2 Nephi 27:7–8, 10, and
Ether 4:4–7; 5:1.
110. See David L. Paulsen and Brent Alvord, “Joseph
Smith and the Problem of the Unevangelized,” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005):
111. Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 60–68. See further Paulsen and Mason, “Baptism for
the Dead,” 37–41.
112. As Gardiner M. Day summarizes, the
harrowing’s insertion into the Apostle’s Creed meant that God does not leave
anyone without a chance of salvation. See Paulsen, Cook, and Christensen, “Harrowing
of Hell,” 66–67.