A friend asked me about the doctrinal history of why Mormons, and specifically Joseph Smith, came up with the doctrine of baptism of the dead, and vicarious ordinances. He noted that in Elder Bednar’s 2011 General Conference talk, Bednar tied vicarious work not only with the visit of Elijah to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple, but also with the earliest foundations of the church. I hadn’t considered that as a possibility before and thought it would be interesting to look at.
Of course we all know that the First Vision occurred in the spring on 1820. Bednar notes that
Approximately three years later, in response to earnest prayer on the evening of September 21, 1823, Joseph’s bedroom filled with light until it “was lighter than at noonday” (Joseph Smith—History 1:30). A personage appeared at his bedside, called the young boy by name, and declared “he was a messenger sent from the presence of God … and that his name was Moroni” (verse 33). He instructed Joseph about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. And then Moroni quoted from the book of Malachi in the Old Testament, with a little variation in the language used in the King James Version:
“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” (verses 38, 39).
Moroni’s instructions to the young prophet ultimately included two primary themes: (1) the Book of Mormon and (2) the words of Malachi foretelling the role of Elijah in the Restoration “of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21). Thus, the introductory events of the Restoration revealed a correct understanding of the Godhead, emphasized the importance of the Book of Mormon, and anticipated the work of salvation and exaltation for both the living and the dead. This inspiring sequence is instructive about the spiritual matters of highest priority to Deity.
Bednar skips some very important events as he jumps from 1823 to 1836 and I thought it would be good to fill in some details. Just 2 months after this angelic visitation in Sept 1823, Joseph’s older brother Alvin died on November 19, 1823, at age 25. How did Alvin die? Apparently he was suffering from stomach pain, known at the time as “bilious colic.” . In response, he was offered the “remedy” of calomel which is actually Mercury chloride. This cure killed Alvin, as he died fairly quickly of of mercury poisoning. Alvin was a big supporter of Joseph and his visions. His death occurred two months after Joseph’s first visit to the hill from which he was eventually said to have recovered the golden plates. Wikipedia records that
According to a history written by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, as Smith lay dying he called each member of his family to his bedside to give them counsel. To his brother Hyrum, Smith said, “I have done all I could to make our dear parents comfortable. I want you to go on and finish the house.” He urged his brother Joseph to fulfill all of the requirements to obtain the record. [Alvin] Smith’s death had a significant effect on the family, resulting in Joseph taking more of a leadership role.
Alvin’s funeral was held at the Presbyterian church. According to an 1893 account by his brother William, “Rev. Stockton had preached my brother’s funeral sermon and intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member”. William cites this as a reason that Joseph Sr. would not join the Presbyterians.
Smith figured prominently in the establishment of the Mormon doctrine of the redemption of the dead and the later establishment of the practice of baptism for the dead. On January 21, 1836, after the completion [but before the dedication] of the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith claimed to have had a vision of the celestial kingdom. Smith stated that he saw his brother Alvin in this vision, and was surprised at his presence since he had died before the establishment of the church and its associated doctrines. Joseph Smith stated that he then received a revelation concerning the salvation of those who die without hearing the gospel and their ability to receive the same opportunities as those who had the opportunity to hear it on earth.
The revelation concerning baptism for the dead wasn’t recorded until September 1836 in a letter from Joseph Smith, and is now section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It’s interesting to me that the vision occurred in January, before the Kirtland Temple was dedicated on March 27, 1836. Bednar says
Elijah was an Old Testament prophet through whom mighty miracles were performed. He sealed the heavens, and no rain fell in ancient Israel for 3½ years. He multiplied a widow’s meal and oil. He raised a young boy from the dead, and he called down fire from heaven in a challenge to the prophets of Baal. (See 1 Kings 17–18.) At the conclusion of Elijah’s mortal ministry, he “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11) and was translated.
“We learn from latter-day revelation that Elijah held the sealing power of the Melchizedek Priesthood and was the last prophet to do so before the time of Jesus Christ” (Bible Dictionary, “Elijah”). The Prophet Joseph Smith explained, “The spirit, power, and calling of Elijah is, that ye have power to hold the key of the … fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood … ; and to … obtain … all the ordinances belonging to the kingdom of God” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 311; emphasis added). This sacred sealing authority is essential for priesthood ordinances to be valid and binding both on earth and in heaven.
Elijah appeared with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matthew 17:3) and conferred this authority upon Peter, James, and John. Elijah appeared again with Moses and others on April 3, 1836, in the Kirtland Temple and conferred the same keys upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
We usually associate the sealing power with marriages, rather than baptism for the dead. In 1836, the doctrine of baptism for the dead wasn’t fully revealed to Joseph; otherwise the Kirtland Temple would have had a font like Nauvoo and later temples did. Section 128:15-17 does reveal that Elijah was essential for baptism for the dead. It’s always interesting to me to realize that the Kirtland Temple really was an incomplete temple with regards to temple ordinances. While they did have what they called an endowment, the Kirtland Endowment is what we now simply refer to as the initiatory rite, or washing and anointing where we are spiritually washed and anointed. The full endowment wasn’t recieved until 1842-43 in Nauvoo. The Ensign describes this.
By 1843, the temple’s full import and design seem to have crystallized in the Prophet’s teachings. The doctrines of sealing and of becoming kings and queens, priests and priestesses were often discussed. Joseph Smith taught that “except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity, while in this probation, by the power and authority of the Holy Priesthood, they will cease to increase when they die; that is, they will not have any children after the resurrection,” 31 nor can they obtain the highest degree of the celestial glory. (See D&C 131:1–4.)
This alludes to the marriage sealing which wasn’t written down until 1843 (at least in the Doctrine and Covenants, although Joseph had secretly introduced it in Nauvoo to a select group of men and women. So, the Kirtland Temple is not only missing a baptismal font like later temples, but the Nauvoo Endowment and marriage sealing too. The vision in 1836 was really quite incomplete when we talk about Elijah restoring the sealing power.
Even though we had D&C 128 in 1836, baptisms for the dead still didn’t happen until 1840, after the saints had been kicked out of Kirtland, Ohio and Independence, Missouri. Of course Joseph never lived to see the Nauvoo Temple finished, and the first baptisms for the dead were performed in 1840 in the Mississippi River. Initially, women could be baptized for dead men, and vice versa. One of my favorite stories is that of Elijah Abel, one of the earliest black Mormon converts. He was baptized on behalf of his deceased mother during this early period. However, the practice was changed so that men and women are baptized for women and men for men under the leadership of Brigham Young in order to ensure that the person being baptized for a dead man could also be ordained on their behalf to the priesthood.
Other ordinances such as endowments and sealings were not performed for several decades. I heard a wonderful presentation a few years ago by BYU Professor Richard E. Bennett who stated that endowments and sealings for the deceased first happened at the St. George Temple around the same time that the Manifesto was issued in 1890. At that time, the U.S. government passed a law to confiscate church property to pressure the church to drop polygamy. Bennett says that Woodruff believed the loss of temples would stop the vicarious work for the dead, and that it was better to give up polygamy rather than lose the ability to perform work for the dead. The Genealogical Society of Utah (now responsible for maintaining the FamilySearch website) was established by Woodruff in 1894 to help church members find records of their dead ancestors. In a previous post, I talked about Woodruff’s vision where the founding fathers came to him asking why their temple work hadn’t been completed. At the time of the vision, Woodruff was serving as St. George Temple president. (Note the St. George Temple was the first temple completed in Utah.)
So the doctrine that we have concerning ordinances of the dead, followed a long evolution over almost 80 years, if you want to tie this back to the First Vision. Were you aware how slowly the evolution of temple work occurred? I guess it makes me wonder if baptism performed prior to 1836, were really binding in heaven without this visit from Elijah? Is this why many saints were re-baptized several times throughout their life, or is this just a lack of understanding on the part of the early saints who wanted to be re-baptized?