Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why I Believe: Evidence Thirty-nine: Joseph’s Early Knowledge Of Salvation For The Dead

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Is A Prophet

Evidence Thirty-nine:
Joseph’s Early Knowledge Of Salvation For The Dead©

A question which consistently reoccurs in my studies of Joseph Smith is, when did he know what as far as the doctrines of the Gospel are concerned? Time and time again I have discovered that he knew a great deal very early, but it isn’t always taught early. Sometimes there are only hints, often things come out piecemeal over a period of time. For most of the last ten years I have intently studied the temple and one of the issues I have looked into is when did he know what about the temple. It is a fascinating study in and of itself, but it also strengthens my belief in him as a prophet of God.

When did he learn about temple work? I do not propose to answer that question definitively in this brief blog, but I do want to share some interesting things that have come to light in my studies, some as recently as yesterday morning. Of course the earliest indication we have of temple related things came on the night Moroni appeared to him in the fall of 1823, when he quoted Malachi 4:5-6 regarding turning the hearts of the fathers and children to each other. Was there an explanation of temple work given to him at that time? He said Moroni offered many explanations, which he could not mention in that particular account of those appearances.

What about salvation for the dead? Richard Anderson, professor of religion at BYU for many years, made an interesting observation in a brief article which he wrote about 1 Corinthians 15:29 and baptism for the dead. He pointed out something which is easy to overlook. That is that preaching to the dead is a parallel doctrine to the ordinance of baptism for the dead.(1)He goes on to discuss several passages in the New Testament familiar to knowledgeable Latter-day Saints which emphasize this point and then proceeds on to an interesting explanation of a passage from the early Christian text The Shepherd of Hermas, in which both preaching to the dead and baptism for the dead are present. Then Anderson points out that Joseph Smith also emphasized preaching to the dead, and makes the following important point:
But how much Joseph Smith said about the preaching to the dead needs to be stressed–for in no sense was proxy baptism ever cheapened into mechanical salvation without faith and repentance of the one for whom baptism was done.(2)
One of the earliest statements I know about on this subject comes from Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which was given to Joseph Smith, 1 September 1831. Verse 2 says, “For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.” I am not aware that Joseph Smith ever used this verse in a discussion of preaching to the dead and it does not specifically say that in the passage, but it certainly infers it. That is 1831.  

The next item comes from February 1833. On the second of that month Joseph said he had completed his work on the JST. Though he continued to work on it after that, we know that by that date he made one important change which hints at what he may have known about work in the spirit world. The KJV text of 1 Peter 4:6 begins, “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead....” Sometime before 2 February 1833, Joseph was inspired to make a change. In the JST it reads: “Because of this, is the gospel preached to them who are dead...”(3) Anderson remarked that this change indicated Joseph’s “knowledge that the preparation of the spirits for the blessings of the gospel is continuous.”(4)

Another pre-Nauvoo statement comes out of Missouri in 1838, just before the Saints were driven from that state.  Joseph wrote an article for the July 1838 issue of the church publication The Elders Journal. The article was devoted to answering questions; the sixteenth question was, “If the Mormon doctrine is true, what has become of all those who died since the days of the Apostles?” Joseph answered, “All those who have not had an opportunity of hearing the Gospel, and being administered unto by an inspired man in the flesh, must have it hereafter, before they can be finally judged.”(5) This was two years before he introduced the ordinance of baptism for the dead in Nauvoo in 1840.

Brother Anderson makes another very important point relative to Mormonism’s doctrine of salvation for the dead. Joseph Smith did not simply cobble together the doctrine of salvation for the dead from disparate but related scriptural passages scattered hither and yon through the New Testament.(6) Anderson argued that Joseph received these doctrines by revelation and quoted the Prophet as saying in reference to these very doctrines, “The only way to obtain truth and wisdom, is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer and obtain divine teaching.”(7) He pointed out that Joseph wrote two “formal letters to the Church on the subject, using the language of revelation.”(8) Here is his most insightful statement on the topic:
Joseph Smith was far from anti-intellectual, but he employed a method beyond scholarship.  In writing to the Church on baptism for the dead, he gave an inspired synthesis, a revealed correlation of important scriptures that throw greater light on the practice (D&C 128), not to mention the passages from 1 Peter 3 and 4 cited throughout his discourses. The Prophet had a synoptic view of his subject, not an isolated interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:29. He eloquently pictured God’s concern with the salvation of all his children.(9)
Orson Pratt said this was true of the Restoration in general.
Like the Church of God in all former ages, we receive no new ordinances, neither old ordinances, only by new revelation. Did we presume to baptize with water on the authority of old revelation? No. Did we presume to lay hands upon the people to confirm upon them the Holy Ghost, by the authority of ancient revelation? No. Did we presume to establish the Church of Jesus Christ, or organize it, about fifty years ago, because they established one eighteen hundred years ago and upwards?  No. Did we presume to officiate in any order of the priesthood by virtue of any ancient revelation given to the ancient Saints? No. We did not undertake to do any of these things by virtue of the former revelation; but all we have done in this Church has been done by direct communication and revelation from heaven; all the ordinances that we administer have been directed by new revelation; all the priesthood that this people hold this day was given by new revelation; all the various duties of the priesthood to be performed by us in our day were given by new revelation....(10)
Following the introduction of baptism for the dead Joseph spoke repeatedly about the subject and  the preparatory work of preaching to the dead in the spirit world. We do not know exactly when Joseph Smith learned about temple work for the dead or the content of the revelation(s) given to him about it. It is evident, however, that he knew some things as early as 1823 and he left evidence in 1831, 1833, and 1838, that all of God’s children would have the opportunity to hear the Gospel message, whether living or dead. The hints are fragmentary, which may suggest that he like all mortals learned the gospel line upon line. But it may also be possible that he knew much more very early and awaited the Lord’s divine time line before teaching it, scattering hints and ideas along the way.

Evidence for this possibility comes from the famous Wentworth Letter. The following statement is in the context of Joseph explaining Moroni’s three visits the night of September 21-22, 1823.
After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty, and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22d of September A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records unto my hands.(11)
The question must be asked, was temple work, specifically the doctrine of preaching to the dead in the spirit world and proxy baptism for the dead a part of the “unfolding” of the “majesty, and glory” of the events “in the last days”? As critical as these teachings have become from Nauvoo on, it is difficult for me to believe that they were not. As many have said before, these doctrines are among the most unique of Mormonism, but they are also among its most potent doctrines. In a majestic way they testify of the completeness and extent of the Plan of Salvation as no other church knows or teaches. Moreover, they testify to the great love, mercy, and justice of God our Heavenly Father.

Thank God for Joseph Smith!

Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  Richard L. Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), p. 406. This is from Appendix C: Baptism for the Dead, which deals with 1 Corinthians 15:29 and related matters.

2.  Ibid, p. 410.

3.  See footnote 6a at 1 Peter 4:6 in the LDS edition.

4.  Anderson, Understanding Paul, p. 411. Regarding the date of this change, Anderson referred readers to Robert Matthew’s work, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1975).  He went on:  Dean Matthews courteously took the time to share his transcribed notes of the manuscript of the Joseph Smith Translation, which show that the verses on preaching to the dead in 1 Peter 3 and 4 are singled out by being handwritten, with no evidence of corrections after first being written. Thus, that the correction was made by 1833 is quite clear.  Dean Matthews also noted characteristic misspellings of Sidney Rigdon in the handscript of the letters of Peter (compare his book, p. 89). Historian Dean Jesse knows of no document showing Sidney Rigdon as the Prophet’s scribe after leaving Kirtland.” See Anderson, Understanding Paul, pp. 414-15, n. 18.

5.  Joseph Smith, The Elders Journal 1 (July 1838): 43; see also Joseph Smith, in Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), p. 121, emphasis added.

6.  Anderson, Understanding Paul, p. 412.  Anderson’s words are: “History is implied in reestablishing any principle, but divine reconstruction is not dependent on fragmentary sources....”  

7.  Joseph Smith, “Minutes of a Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Held in Nauvoo, Ill, Commencing Oct. 1st, 1841,” Times and Seasons 2 (15 October 1841), 577, emphasis added.

8.  Anderson, Understanding Paul, p. 412, see D&C 127:6-8.

9.  Anderson, Understanding Paul, p. 412.

10.  Orson Pratt, Conference Report, April 1880, p. 26.  Upon considering Pratt's statement, it seems logical to me that if there was a complete and total apostasy, then everything would have to be revealed anew–all the doctrines, principles, teachings, ordinances, and practices. God virtually revealed everything again to him, plus a whole lot of other new information.

11.   Joseph Smith, "Church History," Times and Seasons, 3 (1 March 1842): 707; also in HC 4:537, emphasis added.  Because of this statement I take exception to Richard Bushman who in my mind makes two fundamental mistakes in his book Rough Stone Rolling regarding Joseph’s development as a prophet. First, is his emphasis that Joseph’s involvement with money digging through his seeric gifts was the important background to expanding his understanding of his call. Here is his conclusion: “Neither his education nor his Christian upbringing prepared Joseph to translate a book, but the magic culture may have. Treasure-seeking taught Joseph to....”  (p. 131) (See also pp. 51, 69-70, 72-73.) Secondly, he repeatedly says that it was in 1828 that Joseph “found his prophetic voice” (p. 69), and after that he learned his identity, came to think of himself as a prophet, and began to act like it when he was working in Isaiah 29 in the Book of Mormon and with the later revelations concerning Moses and Enoch.  (See pp. 106, 128, 131, and 138-39.) Through all of this you get the impression Bushman believes Joseph had an identity crisis, or at least an identity problem, which he resolved only gradually. These issues are implied somewhat in the subtitle of the book, “Rough Stone Rolling.” 

It is strange to me that he makes nothing of how 2 Ne. 3 may have played into Joseph’s thinking. I should have thought that the numerous prophecies about Joseph Smith found there would have been far more influential than Isaiah 29, Moses or Enoch combined, because it is so much more explicit. Nor does he give enough weight to what could have been learned in the First Vision or from the many angels that visited Joseph between the First Vision and receiving the plates in 1827 as this comment in the Wentworth Letter indicates. The Wentworth account is consistent with a statement by Oliver Cowdery about the period between the Spring of 1826 and Joseph's annual visit to the Hill Cumorah that Fall, “From this time forward he continued to receive instructions concerning the coming forth of the fulness of the gospel, from the mouth of the heavenly messenger, until he was directed to visit again the place where the records was deposited.” Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, “Letter VIII,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, 2, no. 1 (October 1835): 201-202, emphasis added; a more accessible publication of this document may be found in Karen Lynn Davidson, et al., eds.  The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), p. 89.

Finally, Bushman says nothing about the tutoring done during more than twenty visits with Moroni, which I believe I can make a documentary case to show went a long way to prepare Joseph to understand his calling as a prophet. For example, what about the meaning of Isaiah 11 (especially 11:10-11) which Moroni cited to him four different times, and which is explained in D&C 113? It would be enough to provide him with a significant identity and confirm him in his role as a prophet just to know that Isaiah spoke of him, that he was a foreordained heir to the priesthood, much power, and the keys of the kingdom, and that is confirmed in his blood lineage and worthiness. I think Moroni solved any possible identity crisis the very first day he appeared. Interestingly, in contrast to the feeling you get from Bushman, after Moroni’s visits and tutoring Joseph never looked back or quivered. He never doubted, his knees never buckled, and he never said, “Maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw.” There must be some explanation. Moreover, Joseph's parents didn’t know what was needed to prepare him as a prophet, and it is difficult to believe that the Lord left that to chance discovery by reading and translating scripture. He sent Moroni as a surrogate father figure to prepare Joseph by numerous visits during those four years.  That being said, doubtless he also learned much about being a prophet from his extensive work in the scriptures.


  1. thanks, the encounter with moroni and others definetly would forge a strong confidence, that is a very good point.
    just look at paul and his lesson with Jesus! he never looked back. neither did the sons of mosiah.
    considering that joseph was a good boy, it made even more of an impact.

    1. Yup, very good examples. It seems to be a pattern....