Alvin Smith died some five years before the restoration of the priesthood, but he had accepted his brother Joseph’s testimony of the First Vision. Speaking of his oldest brother, Alvin, Joseph said, “He was … one of 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).
The Lord revealed the doctrine of priesthood ordinances for the dead
Since Alvin’s death, the gospel restoration has made available the saving ordinances as part of the fullness of the gospel. Because the Saints can function as proxies for deceased family members, we can provide the temple ordinances for all those who were unable to receive those saving ordinances in their mortal lifetime.
Everyone must have the opportunity to hear the gospel message and receive the ordinances of salvation administered through the authority of the restored priesthood. If that opportunity was not available to an individual in mortality, it will be extended in the spirit world. Since these ordinances require a mortal body, and spirits in the spirit world are separated from theirs, we act as proxies serving “for and in behalf” of the dead who are receiving these ordinances. The deceased may then accept or reject the ordinance in accordance with the principle of free agency.
President Gordon B. Hinckley commented on the teachings that the Prophet Joseph Smith received from the Lord: “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” (Ensign, Mar. 1995, 61).
On 15 August 1840, the Prophet spoke at Seymour Brunson’s funeral. During his sermon, he quoted extensively from 1 Corinthians 15, in which verse 29 refers to baptism for the dead. He followed this scripture with an announcement that members could be baptized for their family members or friends who had died without receiving the gospel. The Prophet further assured the Saints that the plan of salvation offered the opportunity to save anyone who was willing to obey God’s law and accept the gospel covenants. The nearby Mississippi River became the site of the baptisms for the dead until a proper site could be prepared in a house of the Lord. (See the Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 15 Aug. 1840)
The Lord commanded the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo
We find in D&C 124:25-27 that several months after baptisms for the dead began to be performed in the river, the Lord commanded the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo. Reasons for constructing a temple included:
Additional priesthood ordinances would be revealed (D&C 124:28, 40-41)
A font for baptizing the dead would be provided (D&C 124:29-30, 33)
An opportunity for the Saints to prove their faithfulness would be offered. Their faithfulness would allow the Lord to bless them with honor, immortality, and eternal life. (D&C 124:55)
The Nauvoo temple was the second temple in this dispensation and as such, was designed for ordinances that were not performed in the Kirtland Temple, such as baptisms and confirmations for the dead, the endowment, and temple marriage.
After great sacrifices by the Saints to build the temple and obey the Lord, the temple was built in Nauvoo. (See “The Nauvoo Temple”, Our Heritage, pgs 58-60.)
For a short time, baptisms for the dead continued to be performed in the Mississippi River, but in October 1841, the Prophet gave instructions that the practice should cease “…until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord’s House” (History of the Church, 4:426). The baptisms quickly resumed after a temporary, but carefully crafted, wooden baptismal font was dedicated. The dedication was performed in the unfinished temple’s basement by Brigham Young on 8 November 1841. Today all ordinances for the dead must be performed in temples. We should give serious thought to the determination and priority demonstrated by the anxious efforts of the early Saints to prepare a place where they might redeem their dead.
We should be enthusiastic and joyful in our efforts to perform baptisms for the dead
While some baptisms for the dead were performed after the Savior’s resurrection, the great work of redeeming the dead falls to Latter-day Saints in this last dispensation. To participate in baptisms for the dead, proxies must be 12 years of age or older and hold a current temple recommend appropriate for their age and membership status. New converts can participate, but any male member must hold the priesthood.
D&C 128:15 emphasizes the mutual dependency for salvation that we share with our dead. D&C 128:17-18 give further enlightenment. 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, 62-63).
Elder John A. Widtsoe said: “In our preexistent state, in the day of the great council, we made certain agreements 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” (Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Oct. 1934, 189).
Baptisms for the dead are a work of the heart, as illustrated by the story of some youth in Idaho. “After researching more than 400 names, both male and female, the Young Women of the Meridian [Idaho] 15th Ward invited the Young Men to go with them to the Boise [Idaho] Temple to do baptisms. The temple arranged for the names to be kept in a file for their ward. Heather Bennett, 15, said, The best part was being baptized for them. The names sounded familiar to me. That was the neatest thing about the whole project. We did work for people that otherwise wouldn’t have been done. They might have been forgotten.'” Cori Christensen, another member of the group, said, “While we were sitting in the baptistry in the temple, we had this totally good feeling. It was a feeling of victory. We’d given them a chance” (New Era, Feb. 1994, 32).
The Prophet Joseph Smith called the work of redeeming the dead the “most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel.” As faithful Saints, we should seek to do all that we can to redeem our dead and offer salvation and exaltation to all of our brothers and sisters.
Historical background for D&C 127 and 128
In the summer of 1842, a group of men were seeking to unjustly imprison the Prophet. Because of this persecution, Joseph left Nauvoo, saying, “I have thought it expedient and wisdom for me to leave the place for a season, for my own safety and the safety of this people” (D&C 127:1). In spite of difficult circumstances, he wrote joyful words in letters to the Saints. In D&C 128:1 we find that the subject of baptism for the dead was very much on the Prophet’s mind during this time.
The importance of record keeping
D&C 127:5-9; 128:1-9 record the Lord’s command to the Saints to keep careful records of baptisms for the dead. D&C 128:6-8, 24 indicates that when the Savior returns in the Second Coming, those very records will be presented to Him and the dead will be judged from these books