Sunday School lessons for Gospel Doctrine Class

Saturday, August 12, 2017

“The Prisoners Shall Go Free”

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A couple of years a go I went with a friend for what I thought was the best birthday present ever.  She had bought us tickets to the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit in Fort Worth. I have always had such an interest in this subject as well as lost books of the bible.  I've always wanted to know where the truth was lost where it fell and went wrong and who may have known it before.  With much study I have found that the loss lies in the translation and choices of man in what we should as a people know.  

While at the exhibit I read through the original scrolls noting how they matched so perfectly with the text of the Book of Mormon, how they fell in with the gospel as we know it, and I saw how secular and other religions still do not understand what I understood.  I found it really interesting that one of the focuses at the exhibit was verses from Corinthians in particular 1 Corinthians 15–16 which speaks of baptism for the dead.  Yet not one of the many books present or presentations throughout the exhibit seemed to have an understanding. 

I think in some ways Joseph Smith felt this same way when he was given revelation to understand the plain and precious truths that have been taken away and missed.  The Doctrine of Baptism for the Dead  was one of those, that truly gladdened his heart, and because of his ability to be worthy of receiving such revelations, my heart is gladdened too.

On November 19, 1823, at age 25 Alvin Smith Joseph's older brother, died of Mercury poisoning from calomel, which had been administered to cure a case of  bilious colic.  This for Joseph 
was not only tragic but traumatic.  Not only in the since that he would not be with him on this earth but also because it was the general belief that Alvin was a lost soul because he had not been baptized.  This is something that hurt Joseph's heart greatly and for other men could have driven them with anger towards God.  But thankfully Joseph was already being taught the truth, and so there was, as we are always given by God, hope.  said he of his brother's death, “He was … the noblest of my father’s family. He was one of the noblest of the sons of men. … In him there was no guile. … He was one of the soberest of men, and when he died the angel of the Lord visited him in his last moments” (History of the Church, 5:126–27)  

Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord revealed the doctrine of priesthood ordinances for the dead.

The Lord began teaching Joseph Smith about work for the dead very early in the Prophet’s ministry.  On September 21, 1823, the angel Moroni visited Joseph for the second time. This was the first  manifestation since young Joseph's vision of the Father and the Son in 1820. On that night, Moroni quoted from the words of the ancient prophet Malachi:  

  Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.  Malachi 4:5–6

The Vision from Joseph further records in his history and the D&C 

"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." (Joseph Smith History 1:38-39)

1 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.
2 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.
3 If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.  D&C 2

Why was the priesthood referred to early on in the second vision of instruction to Joseph?  Because it was important for young Joseph to be taught, to understand and to know that the gospel and priesthood authority, to be restored through him, would once again begin the work of salvation for all mankind.  President Gordon B Hinkely said.:  

“It is tremendously significant to me that … this repetition of the wondrous words of Malachi concerning the work for the dead, was given to the boy Joseph four years before he was allowed to take the plates from the hill. It was given before he received either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood, before he was baptized, and well before the Church was organized. It says much concerning the priority of this work in the plan of the Lord” (“A Century of Family History Service,” Ensign, Mar. 1995)

This reference to salvation of the dead was made from the earliest moments of the Restoration, but it was six years after the Church was organized before Elijah returned bestowing vital priesthood keys. On April 3, 1836, the prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple and bestowed upon them the keys of turning "the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers"  D&C 110:13-16

At this time also, March 27 1836, just before the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, the Prophet Joseph had a vision of the Celestial Kingdom, with this vision he saw that Alvin and others like him would be provided for, would be saved.  "The Lord has provided the means for Alvin Smith and others who would have received the gospel with all their hearts if they had been permitted to tarry to enjoy a fulness of His blessings in the eternal worlds.."  D&C 137:7

Joseph had gained the knowledge that all people must have the opportunity to hear the gospel and receive the saving ordinances of the priesthood.  

“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; also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom; for I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” D&C 137:7–9

But it wasn't until 1840 that the notion of baptism for the dead became a discussed doctrine.  On August 15, 1840, the Prophet Joseph preached at a funeral in Nauvoo for Seymour Brunson and for the first time in public, taught the doctrine of salvation for the dead.  Simon Baker, who was present at the funeral stated, "the Prophet began by testifying that the “gospel of Jesus Christ brought glad tidings of great joy.” He read most of 1 Corinthians 15 and explained that “the Apostle was talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them.” He then declared that “people could now act for their friends who had departed this life, and that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God.”

One month after the funeral address, the Prophet visited his father, who was very ill and near death. The Prophet discussed with his father the doctrine of baptism for the dead, and Father Smith’s thoughts turned to his beloved son Alvin. Father Smith asked that the work be done for Alvin “immediately.” Just minutes before he died, he declared that he saw Alvin and in the latter part of 1840, the Smith family rejoiced as Hyrum received the ordinance of baptism for his brother Alvin.  Teachings of the Prophet Jospeh Smith

Joseph declared publicly that the plan of salvation was intended to save EVERYONE, who was willing to obey the requirements of the law of God. Including those who had passed on.  After this Church members began performing baptisms for the dead in the nearby Mississippi River.  Sister Jane Neyman, moved by the Prophet's teaching about baptism for the dead, asked Harvey Olmstead to baptize her in the Mississippi River for her dead son Cyrus. Soon after the baptism, Joseph Smith learned of this event and inquired concerning the words used by Brother Olmstead in performing the ceremony. The Prophet gave his full approval

After this additional baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi on the Montrose, Iowa, side of the river. Instructions were not given before hand, nor were records recorded. Brigham Young later wrote:  "When Joseph received the revelation that we have in our possession concerning the dead, the subject was opened to him, not in full, but in part, and he kept on receiving. When he had first received the knowledge by the spirit of revelation how the dead could be officiated for, there are brethren and sisters here, I can see quite a number here who were in Nauvoo, and you recollect that when this doctrine was first revealed, and in hurrying in the administration of baptism for the dead, that sisters were baptized for their male friends, were baptized for their fathers, their grandfathers, their mothers and their grandmothers, etc. I just mention this so that you will come to understanding, that as we knew nothing about this matter at first, the old Saints recollect, there was little by little given, and the subject was made plain, but little was given at once. Consequently, in the first place people were baptized for their friends and no record was kept. Joseph afterwards kept a record." (Discourses of Brigham Young, p398)

Clearly the Saints were anxious to participate in the opening of this great work for the dead. Though there was some confusion and the proper procedures we know today were given little by little to the saints as they could understand and obey them.

The Nauvoo Temple

  On 19 January 1841, several months after the Saints had begun performing baptisms for the dead, the Lord commanded them to build a temple in Nauvoo.

What reasons did the Lord give for this commandment?

1.  To reveal additional priesthood ordinances D&C 124:28, 40–41.
2.  To provide a place to perform baptisms for the dead D&C 124:29–30, 33.
3.  To have the Saints prove their faithfulness in keeping His commandments so He could bless them with honor, immortality, and eternal life.  D&C 124:55

The Saints with their great joy in being able to have such blessings made monumental sacrifices to obey the commandment to build this temple. Construction of the temple was extremely expensive, exceeding $1,000,000 by the time of its completion.  Funds came from the tithes and offerings of the faithful Saints, some even donating their life savings.  The stone for the building was quarried near Nauvoo and lumber was cut in Wisconsin and brought down in rafts on the Mississippi River.  Some of the British Saints contributed a large bell. This same bell was taken west as part of the migration and now sits on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

The construction continued while baptisms were performed in the Mississippi river, but on 3 October 1841, the Prophet Joseph announced "There shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord's House; and the Church shall not hold another General Conference, until they can meet in said house. For thus saith the Lord!" (History of the Church, 4:426)

The Times and Seasons reported of the October 1841 conference new instructions from the prophet concerning this sacred ordinance.

"President Joseph Smith, by request of some of the Twelve, gave instructions on the doctrine of Baptism for the Dead; which was listened to with intense interest by the large assembly. The speaker presented 'Baptism for the Dead' as the only way that men can appear as saviors on mount Zion. The proclamation of the first principles of the gospel was a means of salvation to men individually, and it was the truth, not men that saved them; but men, by actively engaging in rites of salvation substitutionally, became instrumental in bringing multitudes of their kin into the kingdom of God....

    "This doctrine, he said, presented in a clear light, the wisdom and mercy of God, in preparing an ordinance for the salvation of the dead, being baptized by proxy, their names recorded in heaven, and they judged according to the deeds done in the body. This doctrine was the burden of the scriptures. Those saints who neglect it, in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation." (Times & Seasons, 2:578)

The Lord instructed Joseph at this time, in what we know as Doctrine and Covenants 124 28-32

"For there is not a place found on earth that he may come to and restore again that which was lost unto you, or which he hath taken away, even the fulness of the priesthood.

    "For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead—

    "For this ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me.    

    "But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.

    "But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not be acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead, saith the Lord your God." D&C 124:28-32

So for a time, while the saints did all they could to obey the word of the Lord in building a temple and making ready a proper place for this ordinance, the Lord allowed them to use the river, but as soon as it was possible this was to stop and proper procedure was to be followed.

By April 1841, the basement of the temple had been dug and walled. Priority was given to the construction of a baptismal font in the basement of the temple. On 8 November 1841, Brigham Young dedicated a temporary but carefully crafted wooden baptismal font in the basement of the unfinished temple and it was there that ordinances continued.  (History of the Church, 4:446–47)

Two weeks later, proxy baptisms began in the font. Reuben McBride was the first proxy and Sidney Rigdon was baptized by Joseph Smith for his deceased parents.  With this beginning, the work of baptizing proxies for their dead ancestors began in earnest. The following May, Wilford Woodruff and Charles C. Rich baptized one hundred persons for their dead. Porter Rockwell's mother set a record for the most proxy baptisms when she was baptized for 45 of her dead ancestors.

The Nauvoo Temple was the second temple built in this dispensation. One of the primary purposes of this temple was to provide a place for the Saints to perform ordinances such as baptisms and confirmations for the dead, the endowment, and temple marriage. These ordinances were not performed in the Kirtland Temple so it was indeed a grand blessing.

This doctrine and the command to build a temple was so beloved by the saints that even as they began evacuating Nauvoo in early 1846, construction still continued and was completed and the temple was dedicated on May 1, 1846.  The temple was abandoned in September 1846. By then, most of the Saints had evacuated Nauvoo and were moving west.  Mobs desecrated the temple and in 1848, an arsonist set fire to the temple, burning all but the bare walls. Later the temple was hit by a tornado knocking down the walls, the damage was so great, the remainder of the temple had to be destroyed.

When I first visited Nauvoo in 1983, there were just the beginnings of rebuilding this great city.  The draw other than the visitors center was the remains of the precious temple.  There was nothing standing only the square outline in stone with the cornerstones of where this sacred house stood.  I don't remember much of that day, but what I do remember, was the feeling I had when walking upon the temple grounds and seeing the ravenged remains.  It was humbling...

What are your thoughts as you have visited or learned of the Nauvoo Temple and the price that was paid for its construction?

Importance of Accurate Records

In August 1842, Joseph was accused as an accessory in the attempted murder of Lilburn W. Boggs, the former governor of Missouri. To avoid arrest, he remained more or less in hiding for about three months.  Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal that though “Joseph has been deprived of the privilege of appearing openly,” yet “the Lord is with him as he was upon the Isle of Patmos with John,”  During his time away like John, Joseph sent letters to the church with guidance and instruction and a set of letters called "Letters on Baptism for the Dead"  were received.  

On August 31,1842, after going into hiding, Joseph appeared briefly to speak to a small gathering of Female Relief Society members and communicated for the first time on record what he had learned in the previous weeks: “All persons baptized for the dead must have a recorder present, that he may be an eyewitness to record and testify of the truth and validity of his record. It will be necessary, in the Grand Council, that these things be testified.”  The following day, he began writing a letter to the Church that would later become Doctrine and Covenants 127.

In this letter, Joseph explained that the Lord had revealed to him the necessity of a recorder for baptisms for the dead and explained the reason why: “That in all your recordings, it may be recorded in heaven. . . .  And again, let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my Holy Temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation, saith the Lord of Hosts.

On September 7, Joseph Smith dictated a second letter on the same subject. This second letter is now found in Doctrine and Covenants 128.  In it, the Prophet gave a more detailed record-keeping guide, calling for witnesses, a recorder in each of Nauvoo’s 10 wards, and a general recorder who would compile all the ward records into a “general Church Book.”

Joseph then gave scriptural justification for the practice of baptisms for the dead as stated in Revelation 20:12: "...and I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works"

He stated that "You may think this order of things to be very particular; but let me tell you that it is only to answer the will of God, by conforming to the ordinance and preparation that the Lord ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world, for the salvation of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel." (D&C 128:5)

He concluded with this call to action: “Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not . . . backward. Courage, brethren! and on to the victory. Let your hearts rejoice and be exceeding glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the king Immanuel, who hath ordain’d, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prisons; for the prisoner shall go free. . . . Let us present in his holy Temple, when it is finished, a Book, containing the Records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.”

After Joseph's death in June 1844, Brigham Young, after assuming leadership for the church, introduced an additional refinement to the practice of baptisms for the dead and explained this development at the April 1845 conference.

 In their hurry to administer this ordinance for their loved ones, the Saints had performed the baptisms without regard to gender, men being baptized for women and women for men.  Brigham taught, “never will see a man go forth to be baptized for a woman, nor a woman for a man.” ......“When it was first revealed all the order of it was not made known, afterwards it was made known, that records, clerks, and one or two witnesses were necessary or else it will be of no value to the saints.” He concluded, “Joseph in his life time did not receive every thing connected with the doctrine of redemption, but he has left the key with those who understand how to obtain and teach to this great people all that is necessary for their salvation and exaltation in the celestial kingdom of our God.”

The Importance of Work for the Dead

In what ways do the dead depend on us for their salvation? 

15 And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.  

16 And now, in relation to the baptism for the dead, I will give you another quotation of Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:29: Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead? D&C 128:15-16

In what ways does our salvation depend on the salvation of the dead? 

17 And again, in connection with this quotation I will give you a quotation from one of the prophets, who had his eye fixed on the restoration of the priesthood, the glories to be revealed in the last days, and in an especial manner this most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel, namely, the baptism for the dead; for Malachi says, last chapter, verses 5th and 6th: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

18 I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands. It is sufficient to know, in this case, that the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other—and behold what is that subject? It is the baptism for the dead. For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.  D&C 128:17–18

President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “That which goes on in the House of the Lord … comes nearer to the spirit of sacrifice of the Lord than any other activity of which I know. Why? Because it is done by those who give freely of time and substance, without any expectation of thanks or reward, to do for others that which they cannot do for themselves” (Ensign, Mar. 1995)

Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve said: “In our preexistent state, in the day of the great council, we made a certain agreement with the Almighty. The Lord proposed a plan, conceived by him. We accepted it. Since the plan is intended for all men, we become parties to the salvation of every person under that plan. We agreed, right then and there, to be not only saviors for ourselves, but … saviors for the whole human family. We went into a partnership with the Lord. The working out of the plan became then not merely the Father’s work, and the Savior’s work, but also our work. The least of us, the humblest, is in partnership with the Almighty in achieving the purpose of the eternal plan of salvation” (“The Worth of Souls,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Oct. 1934, 189)

How do you feel knowing that through baptisms for the dead you can help others receive salvation?  

What should our attitude be about the gospel and about performing baptisms for the dead?

19 Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those that bring glad tidings of good things, and that say unto Zion: Behold, thy God reigneth! As the dews of Carmel, so shall the knowledge of God descend upon them!  

22 Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.

23 Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!

24 Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand; and who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.  D&C 128:19, 22–24


The Prophet Joseph Smith called the work of redeeming the dead the “most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel.”  We also have learned tthrough the Lord's prophets that Baptism for the dead is essential but should be done in all proper manner, with witnesses to verify the proceedings and to make sure that the ordinance is being performed properly, to avoid repetition and to enable the Church to see its progress.  Further we have learned that it must be performed by one with authority, It must be done in the name of the Lord, It must be done precisely as the Lord has instructed, and a proper record must be kept.  D&C128:6-9 24

 Through the history of the early saints we can see that the Lord taught his people the doctrine of Baptism for the dead as he does all things, here a little and there a little, as the people can understand.  The doctrine was given to Joseph and perfected as the saints could understand it over time and through prophets to follow. 

We should do all we can to perform baptisms for the dead, we should do it joyfully and gladly for it is a indeed a great gift.  Not only do our individual souls depend on it but the souls of all mankind.

Record your thoughts on this wonderful sacred ordinance in your journal or gospel doctrine notebook, if you don't have one now is a great time to start!


The Worth of Souls,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Oct. 1934, 189

Ensign, Mar. 1995

Times & Seasons, 2:578

History of the Church vol 2,4,5  BYU Studies History of the Church

Discourses of Brigham Young

Joseph Smith History   Joseph Smith—History 1:36–39.

Gospel Doctrine Class

Letters on Baptism for the Dead    Letters on Baptism for the Dead

The Nauvoo Temple by E. Cecil McGavin

Our Heritage pg  58–61, information under “The Nauvoo Temple.”

Ministry of John Taylor work for the Dead Video  Video

Encyclopedia of Mormonism edited by Daniel H. Ludlow

Doctrines of Salvation by Joseph F. Smith

Conference Reports

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