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Something surprised Joseph in his vision of the celestial kingdom, and we’ll tell you what that is today.
Hello and welcome to Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast where today we will study Sections 137 and 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants that includes Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead, and a vision Joseph Smith had of the celestial kingdom.
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Sections 137 and 138 happened both miles and decades apart, but both deal with the redemption of the dead. The first was a vision given to Joseph Smith, the Prophet, in the temple at Kirtland in January of 1836, before the temple was dedicated. These first meetings in the temple were a time of visions and glory, and on this occasion, Joseph said “the heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God” and “the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire; also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son” (vv. 1-3).
Not only did Joseph see Adam and Abraham, but to his surprise also his father and his mother, and his oldest brother Alvin. His father and mother, at this time, were both still living, but a bigger surprise—and joy– was that Alvin was there.
Joseph marveled because Alvin had died before priesthood keys were obtained and “had not been baptized for the remission of sins.” This must have been a concern to Joseph who had grown up in an atmosphere where it was believed that those who were not baptized were damned.
Joseph adored Alvin, his big brother and hero. In 1842, Joseph said of Alvin, “He was the oldest and noblest of my father’s family… In him there was no guile. He lived without spot from the time he was a child…and when he died the angel of the Lord visited him in his last moments.” (Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants, https://www.gospelink.com/library/document/31697?highlight=1). It was Alvin who helped his family move to New York when his father had gone on ahead. It was Alvin who built the frame house on the farm in Manchester so that his parents could have some comfort as they were getting on in years.
That’s why the circumstances of his death were so heartbreaking. It didn’t need to happen. Lucy Mack Smith records the story. “On the fifteenth of November, 1823, about ten o’clock in the morning, Alvin was taken very sick with the bilious colic. He came to the house in great distress and requested his father to go immediately for a physician, which he…did. But the doctor who generally attended upon our family being absent, Mr. Smith …found in the next village one Dr. Greenwood, who, when he came, immediately administered a heavy dose of calomel to the patient, although he objected much against it.” This doctor was incompetent.
“This calomel lodged in his stomach, and all the powerful medicine which was afterwards prescribed by skillful physicians could not remove it.
“On the third day of his sickness, Dr. McIntyre, the favorite of the family and a man of great skill and experience, was brought and with him four other professors of medicine. But all their exertions were of no avail, just as Alvin had declared would be the case. He said, ‘The calomel is still lodged in the same place and you cannot move it. Consequently, it must take my life.”
“He then called Hyrum to him and said, ‘Hyrum, I must die, and now I want to say a few things to you that you must remember. I have done all that I could do to make our dear parents comfortable. I now want you to go on and finish the house and take care of them in their old age and do not let them work hard anymore.’
“He then called Sophronia to him and said, “Sophronia, you must be a good girl and do all that lies in your power for Father and Mother. Never forsake them. They have worked hard, and they are now getting old. Be kind to them and remember what they have done for us.”
“In the latter part of the fourth night he called for all the children and again exhorted them separately to the same effect as before. But to Joseph he said, ‘Joseph, I am going to die now. The distress which I suffer and the sensations that I have tell me my time is very short. I want you to be a good boy and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the record. Be faithful in receiving instruction and in keeping every commandment that is given you. Your brother Alvin must now leave you, but remember the example which he has set for you, and set a good example for the children that are younger than you. Always be kind to Father and Mother.
“He then asked me to take his little sister Lucy up and bring her to him, for he wished to see her. This child was the youngest of the family, and he was extremely fond of her and was in the habit of taking her up and caressing her, which naturally attached her to him. She could not then talk plainly, and always called her brother ‘Amby.’ I went to her and said, ‘Lucy, Amby wants to see you.’ At this she started out of her sleep and screamed out, ‘Oh, Amby, Amby.’ We took her to him, and she sprang from my arms and caught him round the neck and cried out, ‘Oh, my Amby,’ and kissed him again and again.
“To Lucy he said, ‘You must be the best girl in the world and take care of Mother. You can’t have your Amby anymore. Amby is going away.’” I can understand very directly how this feels because I lost my beloved older brother, and that loss is powerful.
We tell you this story so that you can see the tender and adoring feelings his family had for Alvin. To make matters worse, the terrible doctrine of the Christian world was the that unbaptized, and religiously unaffiliated, as he was, were damned.
“When Alvin died, the family asked a Presbyterian minister in Palmyra, New York, to officiate at his funeral. As Alvin had not been a member of the minister’s congregation, the clergyman asserted in his sermon that Alvin could not be saved. William Smith, Joseph’s younger brother, recalled: ‘[The minister] … intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy and my father did not like it.’” (“Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith”, Redemption for the Dead).
We can imagine the joy Joseph felt to see Alvin in the celestial kingdom and learn:
“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 (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 137:7-9).
It is also noteworthy here that Alvin was single when he died. What a generous God we have, who is able to do His work. Billions of people have died on this earth, beloved to their family and friends, as was Alvin, but much of the world believe that these dead are damned. Our doctrine is unique in demonstrating that the Lord provides a way for all of His children to be saved and exalted if they will.
Now for Section 138, we skip ahead to Oct. 3, 1918, in Salt Lake City where Joseph F. Smith, the president of the Church had been ailing for several months, but he was suffering under a much greater and gloomy burden. The Great War had just devastated the world with the death toll climbing to 20 million people and a flu pandemic, spreading across the world had claimed another 100 million. During the year he had lost three more beloved family members, including his first-born son, Elder Hyrum Mack Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, whose appendix suddenly ruptured, causing his death.
Elder M. Russell Ballard reported that President Smith wrote: “’I am speechless—[numb] with grief! … My heart is broken; and flutters for life! … O! I loved him! … I will love him forever more. And so it is and ever will be with all my sons and daughters, but he is my first born son, the first to bring me the joy and hope of an endless, honorable name among men. … From the depths of my soul I thank God for him! But … O! I needed him! We all needed him! He was most useful to the Church. … And now, … O! what can I do! … O! God help me!’”
“The next month, President Smith’s son-in-law, Alonzo Kesler, died in a tragic accident.12 President Smith noted in his journal, ‘This most terrible and heart-rending fatal accident, has again cast a pall of gloom over all my family.’”
“When he was President of the Church, he visited Nauvoo in 1906 and reflected on a memory he had when he was just five years old. He said: ‘This is the exact spot where I stood when [Joseph, my uncle, and my father, Hyrum] came riding up on their way to Carthage. Without getting off his horse father leaned over in his saddle and picked me up off the ground. He kissed me good-bye and put me down again and I saw him ride away.’ (Elder M. Russell Ballard, “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/10/the-vision-of-the-redemption-of-the-dead?lang=eng)
His mother died in 1852. In all he lost “his father, his mother, one brother, two sisters, two wives, and thirteen children” (See Ballard, “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead”). What would be heavier on his mind, then, than the Spirit world and the conditions there? His loved ones were there and people of all ages were dying around him in that time of war and pandemic? What he was about to ponder was a reflection of his deepest experience. It is not surprising that on that Oct day in 1918, he said, “I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures” and “was greatly impressed, more than I had ever been before’ when reading passages from 1 Peter, chapters three and four. These were about Christ preaching to the spirits in prison. (v. 6).
“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, and I saw the hosts of the dead, small and great. And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality” (Doctrine and Covenants 138: 11, 12)
An insert here about the place this vision happened. I had the wonderful privilege of interviewing Amelia Smith McConkie a number of years before she passed away. She was the granddaughter of Joseph F. Smith, and she was 2-1/2 years old, living in the home of her grandfather with her sister when this revelation was received. She and her sister remembered that in the last five or six months of his life he was quite ill and so they moved him downstairs into the southeast corner of the Beehive house where he was living. They made a bed for him there and that’s where he spent most of his time. So, it was in that room on the main floor in the southeast corner of the Beehive house that he received the revelation.
The next day, Friday, Oct. 4, in General Conference, he related this revelation, and after conference, walked home with a junior member of the Twelve, his own son, Joseph Fielding Smith, who wrote down the entire revelation.
Let’s return to Joseph F. Smith’s own words. He was “pondering” and was “greatly impressed” with some scripture passages. Do we want to know what the key to receiving revelation is? It is pondering, which means deep meditation, weighing something out in one’s mind, thinking deeply. We this idea throughout scripture. Serious reflection precedes revelation.
When Nephi desired to know the things which his father had seen, and ”believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me”, he “sat pondering” in his heart (1 Nephi 11:1), and what was open to him was the great revelation about the land of promise. Nephi tells us “For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them,” (2 Nephi 4:15).
After Gabriel visited Mary to tell her she would be the mother of Christ, she “pondered these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Joseph Smith tells us that before he received his First Vision of the Father and the Son, his “mind was called up to serious reflection.” What is serious reflection? It is focused and concentrated thought, like sunlight through a magnifying glass that will burn a hole in paper. It is not superficial. It does not flit around from one distraction to another. It does not leap off course or waver like the waves of the sea. Serious reflection precedes revelation.
Before Joseph Smith and Sidney Ridgon received the vision of the three degrees of glory, they wrote, “While we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of of our understandings”(Doctrine and Covenants 76:19).
Prayer and spirituality demand mental discipline and focus. Is it any wonder that this kind of prayer does not lead to revelation: “Dear Heavenly Father, Thank thee for … did I thaw the meat for dinner? Bless us to … I hope this won’t take long. I have so much to do. And please bless … Is the party Friday or Saturday night?”
Unfortunately, we live in a world that fosters a short attention span, skimming instead of learning, and a chaos of superficiality always raining down upon us. Surely the Adversary loves it when we let ourselves become too distracted to think deeply.
Memory specialist and neuroscientist Lisa Genova tells us something about the way the brain works to create memory and why we forget so much. She parked her car in a garage, and since was scheduled to give a talk a couple of blocks away and was worried she was running late, she hurried out of the garage without taking much notice. When she returned to the garage, she went to where she thought the car was parked and it wasn’t there. Surely she had parked it on the fourth floor? Or could it have been the third or the fifth? She kept pressing the remote on her keys trying not to panic and got nothing. In painful high heels she ran from level to level, her feet screaming. Ready to report the car missing, she stumbled upon it exactly where she had left it on the fourth floor “relieved, embarrassed and sweating”.
She wrote, I reflexively wanted to blame the whole maddening experience on my memory. But the neuroscientist in me knew better. I couldn’t find my car. Not because I had a horrible memory, amnesia, dementia or Alzheimer’s. Temporarily losing my car had absolutely nothing to do with my memory. I couldn’t find my car, because I never paid attention to where I had parked it in the first place.”
The reason she did not remember where the car was is that she had never put it into her memory in the first place by paying attention to it. Each day you are bombarded with stimuli, but your brain in its working memory only holds onto it for about 15 to 30 seconds, unless you choose to pay attention to it. That choosing to pay attention actually consolidates all the pieces of that memory—sight, sound and more—and stores it in your hippocampus. Otherwise, it is just erased, like an etch-a-sketch from your working memory.
Genova writes, “Paying attention requires conscious effort. Your default brain activity is not attentive. Your inattentive brain is zoned out daydreaming on autopilot, and full of constant background repetitive thinking. You can’t create a new memory in the state. If you want to remember something, you have to turn your brain on. Wake up, become consciously aware and pay attention.” (Lisa Genova, Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting.)
So here’s the point, we will not be engaged and remember what we read in scriptures, unless we open up and pay attention—and pondering is what takes it to the next level. We have to act as if our lives matter as we read. We have to know that the key to coming closer to Christ is in our reading the scriptures to understand what it takes. To ponder and engage deeply with them.
We ask ourselves about what we just read. What are all the meanings of this phrase? What does it mean in my journey to come to the Lord? What do I learn as I cross-reference it? What does this teach me about how God works? These are the questions we always ask ourselves and each other as we ponder the scriptures. Revelation does not come from superficiality. Look at the scriptures as the keys to unlock the door to the light.
Our circumstances and our hunger to receive specific answers help us to ponder as it did Joseph F. Smith, thinking about Christ ministering in the world of spirits. And he said, “the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great, And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality” (vv. 11,12).
“They had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through the grace of God the Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ” (vv. 14,15). What a scene to be shown, that moment when the faithful dead were awaiting the arrival of Christ to come to the Spirit world between his crucifixion and resurrection. That moment when Christ was on the cross in great, unrelenting and incomprehensible agony and finally gave up the ghost was immediately followed by this scene of the vast multitude waiting with “joy and gladness” for His deliverance, “declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful” (v. 18). Now it is the joy that is incomprehensible.
These faithful will be resurrected, “their sleeping dust…to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fullness of joy” (v. 17).
Christ preached to them and “their countenances shone, and the radiance from the presence of the Lord rested upon them, and they sang praises unto his holy name” (v. 24).
In that multitude with the shining countenances, Joseph F. Smith saw the mighty ones, “Adam, the Ancient of Days and father of all”; and “our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages”; Abel; Seth; Noah; Shem; Abraham; Isaac; Jacob; Moses, the great law giver of Israel; and so many more, including the prophet Elijah who “was to plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to their fathers” (vv. 38-47).
It is interesting that the name of Elijah is a theophoric name, meaning it has the name of God in it—in fact it has it twice. El is the name of the Father and ijah refers to the Son. His name can mean “My God is Jehovah”, or in this instance, the Father and the Son. It is the most appropriate name for one who was to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and the fathers to their sons.
In that scene, the news is spread to all the dead, “the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross” (v. 35). Can you imagine the shouts of joy, “The work has been accomplished. He did it. We are free.
Here the Lord organized missionary work in the spirit world. “Our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh; that they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead, unto whom he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression, that they through the ministration of his servants might also hear his words” (v. 37).
This is a glance at the great work we are involved in on both sides of the veil. The righteous dead preach the gospel to those who will hear. The living do the temple work for those who have been waiting. What purpose and meaning this gives our lives to be a part of this great redemptive work. President Russell M. Nelson said, “When we speak of gathering Israel on both sides of the veil, we are referring, of course, to missionary, temple, and family history work. We are also referring to building faith and testimony in the hearts of those with whom we live, work, and serve. Anytime we do anything that helps anyone—on either side of the veil—to make and keep their covenants with God, we are helping to gather Israel: (President Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail”, Oct. 2020 General Conference).
We see something about how this work in the spirit world is carried out from this vision that President Nelson’s grandfather had that he reported in the 2017 RootsTech conference.
President Nelson explained that his grandfather, Andrew Clarence Nelson, died when his father was only 17 years old, so that AC, as they knew him, was the only one of his own four grandparents that he didn’t know.
Ironically AC, was only 27, himself, when his father died. Then about three months later, on April 6, 1891, this father, now deceased, came to visit AC, who recorded the details in his journal for his family and his friends.
These were his words about that sacred experience. “I was in bed when father entered the room. He came and sat on the side of the bed. He said, ‘Well, my son, as I had a few spare minutes, I received permission to come and see you for a few minutes. I am feeling well, my son, and have had very much to do since I died.’
“’What have you been doing since you died, father?’
“’I have been traveling together with apostle Erastus Snow ever since I died, that is since three days after I died. I received my commission to preach the gospel. You cannot imagine, my son, how many spirits there are in the spirit world that have not yet received the gospel. But many are receiving it and a great work is being accomplished. Many are anxiously looking forward to their friends who are still living to administer for them in the temples. I’ve been very busy preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“AC said, ’Father, can you see us at all times and you know what we’re doing?’
“’No, my son. I have something else to do. I can’t go when and where I please. There is just as much and much more order here in the Spirit world than in the other world. I have been assigned work to do and it must be performed.
“’We intend to go to the temple and get sealed to you as soon as we can.’
“’That my son, is partly what I came to see you about. We will yet make a family and live throughout eternity.’
Now AC asked:
“’Father, is it natural to die?’
“’It is just as natural to die as it is to be born, for we pass out of the door.’” [Here he pointed to the door.]
“’When I told the folks that I could not last long, it turned dark, and I could not see anything for a few minutes, then the first thing I could see was the number of spirits in the spirit world. The paper, you gave me, my son, is dated wrong., but it makes no particular difference. Correct records are kept here.
Now AC asked:
“’Father, is the gospel as taught by this Church true?
“’My son, you see that picture [pointing to a picture of the First Presidency of the Church hanging on the wall]?
“’Yes, I see it.”
“’Well, just as sure as you see that picture, just as sure is the gospel true. The gospel of Jesus Christ has within it the power of saving every man and woman that will obey it and in no other way can they ever obtain salvation in the kingdom of God. My son, always cling to the gospel. Be humble. Be prayerful. Be submissive to the priesthood. Be true. Be faithful to the covenants you have made with God. Never do anything that would displease God. Oh, what a blessing is the gospel. My son, be a good boy.’”
This is the visit of a grandfather called to serve a mission in the spirit world.
The spirits there who have received the gospel are eager for us to help them receive their ordinances. Without this, their progress is impeded. Sometimes miracles happen to forward the work.
This is a story that happened to President M. Russell Ballard’s great-grandfather, Henry Ballard soon after the Logan Temple was dedicated on May 17, 1884. He was the bishop of his ward, working in his office interviewing people for temple recommends, when his daughter Ellen came to give him a newspaper called the Newbury Weekly News, which had been published near his birthplace of Thatcham, England. What was astonishing was the newspapers date, May 15, meaning it had been printed only three days earlier! Yet this was impossible, for in that time a trip across the ocean and across a continent from England took several weeks. This defied all logic.
Ellen explained she had been playing when two strangers approached her and gave her the newspaper with instructions that she should give it to no one except her father. When he looked at it, he saw a story that contained the names of 60 people with vital information on their dates or birth and date from their headstones. President Marriner W. Merrill, of the new Logan temple presidency told Bishop Ballard, “Someone on the other side is anxious for their work to be done, and they knew you would do it if this paper got into your hands.” As it turned out most of the people named in the newspaper were related to the Ballards.
Now here is the rest of the story as told by Susan Easton Black in President Ballard’s new biography Anxiously Engaged. This miraculous story meant so much to the Ballard family, that at the end of his young missionary service in England, he asked to visit the offices of the Newbury Weekly News, go into the archives, and see that newspaper, take out into the sunlight and take pictures. Then he went with one of those lovely people, who are masters in genealogy in their area, to visit Thatcham. Her name was Ada Linton. “As Elder Ballard walked into the little village church, he experienced deep feelings, for it was in the church that his great-grandfather and other ancestors had worshipped. In the church cemetery, the very cemetery that inspired the article in the Newbury Weekly News, he heard Sister Linton exclaim, ‘Elder Ballard, Elder Ballard, some quick!’ He thought that Sister Linton had met with some misfortune. ‘I came out of the church rather rapidly to find her on her hands and knees in the small churchyard with a wire brush, a wet rag cloth, and a broom sweeping off the headstones. ‘I think I have found them!’ she said. “Your great-great grandfather and grandmother, and their parents!” He carefully wrote down all the information and when he got home, his Aunt Myrtle said of the information, ‘You have found the missing key that we have been looking for all these years. Because of the work you did in the Thatcham cemetery on your knees looking at a headstone…we can now proceed to do the marvelous work in the temple.’” (Susan Easton Black, Anxiously Engaged, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book).
We had our own sweet experience learning how eager our kindred dead are to have their work done. Scot, you and I spent the summer in England with our youngest two daughters, and part of that time we were doing family history. The night before we were going to spend the day in the Huntingdonshire archives where your ancestors were from, we were studying those family records, looking particularly for an end of line where we could break through. That night as I slept, I heard the name Sarah Holden, Sarah Holden, Sarah Holden. There was an eagerness and an insistence about this as if she were saying, ‘Look for me. Help me. Notice me.” The next morning I said to you, “Do you have a Sarah Holden in your line?” You said, yes, and we looked her up. That day in the archives we looked for Sarah, who had had her work done, but the work was incomplete for most of her siblings. Since then we have continued to make breakthroughs on that line, and just recently sealed her great grandparents to one another.
I love what Sister Wendy Nelson said at RootsTech, “It is my testimony that however fabulous your life is right now or however discouraging and heartbreaking it might be, your involvement in family history and temple work will make it better.
“What do you need in your life right now? More love, more joy, more self-mastery, more peace, more meaningful moments, more of a feeling that you’re making a difference, more fun?
“Could you use more answers to your soul’s searching questions, more heart to heart connections with others, more understanding of what you are reading in the scriptures, more ability to love and to forgive? How about more ability to pray with power? More inspiration and creative ideas for your work and other projects, more time for what really matters?
“My dear brothers and sisters I entreat you to make a sacrifice of time for the Lord by increasing the time you spend doing temple and family history work and then watch what happens. It is my testimony that when we show the Lord that we are serious about helping our ancestors, the heavens will open and we will receive all we need.”
Thank you for joining us today. Next week we will study The Articles of Faith and Official Declarations 1 and 2. Thank you to Paul Cardall for the music and to Michaela Proctor Hutchins, our producer. See you next week.