Cover image via Gospel Media Library.

On June 28, 1914, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary and his wife were shot dead by a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip.  This sparked already highly fueled tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. The Austria-Hungarian empire was a mighty European power at the time and the third most populous state in Europe.  Bolstered by their military might and alignment with Germany, Austria-Hungary presented an ultimatum to the Serbs. The Serbs did not accept all the terms of the ultimatum and Germany persuaded Austria-Hungary to go to war.

Russia, in full support of the Serbs, then mobilized against Austria-Hungary. With war underway, Germany invaded Belgium. So, France and Britain declared war against Germany and World War I had officially begun. Less than three years later, the US was forced to enter the war and join France and Britain after a number of US merchant ships were sunk and numerous American civilians killed.

In total, the number of military and civilian casualties in World War I totaled around 38 million. There were 10 million military dead, 7 million civilians killed, and 21 million people injured. Until that point in history, it was the deadliest war in history. United States casualties would total over 116,000.  Apart from the civil war, US citizens in 1918 had never experienced a war as deadly as World War I.

The war was the first to use large artillery, machine guns, poison gas and new methods of war.  Disease, however, claimed a large percentage of soldiers and civilians alike. In short, it was a time of fear, death and brutality. 

At the same time, The Church of Jesus Christ was progressing under the leadership of President Joseph F. Smith. President Smith was the son of Hyrum Smith and his second wife, Mary Fielding.  Smith and Fielding were married after the death of his first wife Jerusha.  Joseph F. Smith was born in Far West and was six years old when his father and his uncle were murdered at Carthage.

After the death of Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith was ordained President of the church in 1901. During his time as Prophet, he healed relationships between the church and the federal government, improved the church’s financial situation, organized the Aaronic Priesthood quorums and set forth the requirements for young men to be ordained to teacher and priest.

President Smith would pass away in November 1918 from pleurisy. After his death, there was not a public funeral because of the influenza pandemic in the United States and the world.  The Spanish Flu, as it was called, started in early 1918 and over the course of two years, would kill nearly 50 million people worldwide. It was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

Can you imagine?  A pandemic worse than Covd-19 but without the saving medicine, health care, vaccinations, and other measures to prevent loss of life.  At the same time, a world war with thousands of young men and civilians dying each month had no end in sight.  How would you feel?  At the time, roughly 5 percent of the world’s population had died from disease or war. Imagine the collective mourning of the saints and people of the world.

It was against the backdrop of the devastation of World War I, the pandemic of the Spanish Flu, and the devastating loss of life that Joseph F. Smith received the revelation that reassured members of the church that departed loved ones were not forgotten by the Lord.

In October 1918, Joseph F. Smith was engaged in scripture study and prayer, and received the remarkable revelation now found in D&C 138.  But he did not share that revelation in its current form in the soon-to-follow October conference.  He was in the middle of a serious illness and only gave a short address at the conference in which he stated, “I will not, I dare not, attempt to enter upon many things that are resting upon my mind this morning, and I shall postpone until some future time, the Lord being willing, my attempt to tell you  some of the things that are in my mind, and that dwell in my heart.”[i]

After the close of the conference, the prophet dictated his vision to Joseph Fielding Smith.  In only a matter of weeks, President Smith’s condition worsened and he would pass away a few weeks later.

Over the years, President Smith’s revelation was referred to several times in general conference and other talks by general authorities of the church. Then, in 1975, Elder Boyd K. Packer, Bruce R. McConkie and others began to propose the concept of adding the vision to canonized scripture.

In April 1976, President N. Eldon Tanner announced that two revelations (now known as D&C 137 and 138) would be added to the Pearl of Great Price. Five years later, the two revelations were moved to the Doctrine and Covenants.

D&C 138 is one of the most glorious revelations received in the 20th century. The principles of salvation that it teaches and conveys are remarkable.  Let’s examine just a few of the lessons learned from this great revelation.

The Power of Pondering

In D&C 138:1-2, President Smith says, “I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures; and reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God….”  This revelatory experience of the prophet teaches us the skills needed for effective pondering. 

No Distractions. Notice he was in his room. He had no cell phone. He had likely eliminated all other distractions.  His environment was conducive to pondering.  Unlike President Smith, I believe we often miss inspiration in our pondering because we are distracted.  We fail to set up the environment to focus.

I also believe that the Lord is prepared to teach and inspire us through his word. But we often only lay hold of a fraction of the blessings available through his word.  I imagine he prepares the word, like wrapped gifts for us, places them within our reach and waits for us to lay hold upon them. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. Perhaps this is why Moroni beckons us to “Come unto Christ and lay hold upon every good gift….”[ii] And perhaps this is why Alma says the word of God is “liberal unto all.”[iii]

If Heavenly Father sends his word to us liberally, then why don’t we lay hold upon it more frequently?

President Uchtdorf said, “Part of our challenge is, I think, that we imagine that God has all of His blessings locked in a huge cloud up in heaven, refusing to give them to us unless we comply with some strict, paternalistic requirements He has set up. But the commandments aren’t like that at all. In reality, Heavenly Father is constantly raining blessings upon us. It is our fear, doubt, and sin that, like an umbrella, block these blessings from reaching us.”[iv]

In addition to fear, doubt and sin, we don’t lay hold upon the word more often because we’re distracted. I believe that one of the most significant obstacles to our laying hold upon the word is our inability to fully immerse ourselves in the word and pondering of it, to fully focus on what we are reading. 

When we fully give ourselves to a thing, we center on it.  This “centering” means you center your attention and effort on what is currently before you. It means you do that thing with all of your:

  • heart (your feeling and passion),
  • might (your energy),
  • mind (your focus and attention),
  • and strength (your physical will). 

If you are reading scripture, give it all your heart and mind. It means to be wholehearted, totally invested and engaged. 

When I teach business strategy at the Marriott School, I am amazed to see that wholehearted students get so much from my class and halfhearted students take away so little. Both types of students attend class for the same amount of time and both are present for the same discussion, but some leave enriched and others indifferent. 

You see, when we are distracted, we lose power. When we focus wholeheartedly, we gain power and are more inspired. It is in the depth of things that you are inspired to lay hold on the word in ways that can change you and change your life.

Reflection. Joseph F. Smith continues in D&C 138:2 by saying, “And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God….”  I find it interesting that he uses the word “reflecting.”  To reflect means to “think deeply or carefully about.”  But is also means to “throw back” or “give back the same thing.”  When I reflect what someone has said, I restate it.  I have found this a powerful tool in scripture study.  To reflect, literally means to say the same thing in your own words.  To restate and to ask questions. 

Sometimes when you read a scripture, you can reflect what you’re reading. For example, you may say to yourself “God must have loved us so much to send his Son.”  This process of making reflecting statements is a way of testifying, pondering and asserting what you are reading.

Reflecting also means imagining or making images in your mind of what you are reading. Images are powerful. For example, who hasn’t imagined Enos praying or Peter fishing or the woman at the well listening to Jesus Christ. This way of reflecting is powerful to helping us consider the possibilities and truths in scripture we read.

Following Impressions.  Notice that in D&C 138:5, President Smith says that while he was reading, his mind “reverted to the writing of the apostle Peter” and he then opened the Bible to read.  After reading the passages of scripture in the Bible, his eyes were opened and he saw the vision recorded in D&C 138.

This is an important part of pondering–to follow the impressions in your mind of related scriptures or teaching.  D&C 84:85 says, “treasure up in your minds continually the words of life and it shall be given to you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man.” 

You have likely had times when you were studying or pondering, and a related scripture or principle of the gospel came to mind.  This is how we gain revelation, line upon line, learning after learning, identifying patterns, asking questions and seeking correlating instruction from the scriptures.

Eyes of your understanding.   In D&C 138:11 is says, “As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me.”

Elder Craig Zwick said, “Our Savior frequently opened eyes of the physically and spiritually blind. Opening our eyes to divine truth, literally and figuratively, prepares us to be healed of mortal shortsightedness.”

The Savior did many miracles during his mortal ministry in which he healed the blind allowing them to see.  These miracles, in my opinion, were largely done to teach us that through him we can see like he sees.  It is through pondering that the eyes of our understanding can be opened.

In D&C 138:29, Joseph F. Smith says, “And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked….”  Again, it was through wondering and pondering that truths were clarified and taught to President Smith.  Likewise, we can seek revelation in a similar way.  One of the most powerful questions to ask when pondering is “what is the view or perspective of Jesus Christ?”  Seeing things from the Savior’s perspective will change our attitudes and behavior.  This is the view we see with spiritual eyes.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “Through the natural eyes men see the light which guides them in their physical existence, through their spiritual eyes, the spiritual light which leads to eternal life. As long as the natural eyes are unimpaired, men can see and be guided by the light of day; and as long as the spiritual eyes are single to the glory of God—that is, as long as they are undimmed by sin and are focused solely on righteousness—men can view and understand the things of the Spirit.”[v] 

The Vision

Let’s examine a few of the truths revealed in D&C 138. 

In verse 12 & 15, we read: “And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just…I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand. They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world to declare their redemption….”

I find it fascinating that they were “gathered together.”  In fact, an innumerable company of spirit were gathered together, and they knew that Jesus was about to come to the spirit world to redeem them.  In verse 18, it says, “…this vast multitude waited and conversed….”  What does this tell you about the spirit world?  We could surmise that for the just, they can move and gather.  They converse one with another like you and I do. As such, they were aware of the pending arrival of Jesus Christ. They were anxiously awaiting this incredible moment in history.

The same sociality that exists among us here seems to exist in the world of the spirits.

What a moment in the history of God’s plan for us!  The number of spirits gathered was large because President Smith used the word “innumerable.”  Were there millions?  Hundreds of millions?  All rejoicing and conversing with each other.  Can you imagine the scene of such an incredible moment?

In D&C 138:23 it says, “And the saints rejoiced in their redemption, and bowed the knee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the chains of hell.”  Is there such a moment awaiting you and me in which we will rejoice and we will bow in testimony and acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?

Perhaps we should begin now to do the same when we are on bended knee in prayer. We can acknowledge him. We can thank him. This will prepare us for the promised day in which we will bow and acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the savior of the world.

Then, verse 24 says, that “Their countenances shown and the radiance from the presence of the Lord rested upon them, and they sang praises unto his holy name.”  This had to be an incredible sight.  Innumerable spirits gathered together. All of their countenances shining because of the radiance of the Lord. His light, his power, and his glory shines.  He shares that glory with those who love him and seek to follow him.

The Gospel is Preached to Those Who Died in Their Sins

When I was in high school, we had a classmate named Peter. He was a fine young man and he attended American Fork High School. He was exceptionally tall and played center on our basketball team. At the end of our Senior year, just a few days before our seminary graduation, Peter was riding with his girlfriend along the old Alpine highway.

At the time, much of the road know as SR-92 was a two-lane road without much of a shoulder.  It was bordered by farmland on each side of the highway. Alongside the road ran the canal.  In some places the canal was only a few feet away from the edge of the road.

As Peter and his girlfriend drove along, they wandered slightly off the road to the right.  The right-side tires of the car went off the highway onto the dirt shoulder.  If you have ever driven off the pavement on to a dirt shoulder, you know that doing so causes the car to lurch to the right. This is what happened to Peter and his girlfriend.  The car lurched right.  It just so happened to be right at the spot on the highway in which the canal ran parallel next to the road.

As the car lurched right, it traveled over the edge of the canal, tumbling into the five feet of water.  The problem was the car went into the canal at a high rate of speed and crashed upside down in the water.  I didn’t witness the accident, but here is what I was told happened.

Peter rolled down the window for his girlfriend and helped her get out of the car.  However, once she was out, Peter did not follow behind her.  With the car upside down in the canal, Peter was trapped under water. Because of his large size and the water’s current, it was impossible for her to get him out of the car.

She scrambled up the grassy side of the canal to get help.  Several cars stopped.  Among those cars were a few of Peter’s young men’s leaders.  They worked together to get Peter out of the car and then up the steep sides of the canal.  But during the minutes it took to extract Peter from the water, he drowned.  Peter had other serious injuries, but the cause of death was officially declared as drowning.

When I heard about Peter’s drowning, I was shocked.  My classmates were shocked.  And what should have been a happy time during out Seminary and High School graduation, was sad because of the loss of our friend.  At our Seminary graduation, Peter’s brother came forward when Peter’s name was read to receive his diploma.  He stopped to share his testimony.

He said that Peter was older than most boys our age.  He was already 18 and soon to be 19. Peter had planned to go on a mission. It had been a goal for Peter for years. He said that he felt impressed that Peter was in the spirit world and was one of those called to “carry the message of redemption unto all the dead” as written in D&C 138.

Over the years, every time I read D&C 138, I think of Peter.  Is he now serving with the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous that Joseph F. Smith saw in his vision?  Knowing Peter, I am pretty certain that his is serving as a missionary in the world of the spirits. 

D&C 138:5-8 says, “I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption… among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.”

Joseph F. Smith saw in his vision that Christ did not go unto the spirits of the wicked to preach his gospel.  He could not go to them because of their transgressions. Instead, in the space between his death and resurrection, he organized the work with his prophets.  He organized and prepared the faithful spirits to lead his work among the wicked.

Among these spirits were prophets whose lives are recorded in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and also modern-day prophets.  Also included in the vision, Joseph F. Smith saw that among these noble and great ones was Mother Eve and many of her faithful daughters.

What a privilege it would be to work alongside or under the direction of these noble and great spirits, these righteous men and women who lived on the earth.  No doubt, my friend Peter has served in an amazing mission with amazing leaders.

If you ponder on this section in the D&C, you have to be impressed with the scale of this work. It must be a massive undertaking. I wonder how the work at this scale is done.  I find it fascinating that Joseph F. Smith referred to the location of this missionary work as “the great world of the spirits of the dead.”

He used the words: “great world.”  That world of the spirits must be a great sight. Think of the numbers of spirits living in that great world. It must be an incredible place with millions of God’s servants going about his work to aid in the salvation of the dead.

I am truly grateful that Joseph F. Smith was able, before he passed on to that great world, to receive a vision that teaches us so much about the work of Jesus Christ after our mortal life.

[i] 89th Semi-Annual Conference, October 1918, Church Periodicals.

8 Moroni 10:30.

9 Alma 6:5

10 President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Living the Gospel Joyfully, October 2014.

[v] Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:240.