Sunday, December 6, 2015

Why I Believe: Evidence Forty-two: Joseph Smith, 1 Corinthians 15:29 and Baptism for the Dead

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was A Prophet

Evidence Forty-two:
Joseph Smith, 1 Corinthians 15:29 and Baptism for the Dead© 
(With a bibliography on baptism for the dead.)

This article is not intended to be a review of all the evidence ancient and modern to establish the Church’s position on the doctrine of baptism for the dead found in 1 Corinthians 15:29. There are numerous studies which have already done that.(1) My primary purpose is to call attention to one more example of how the revelations given to Joseph Smith answer knotty religious questions. I have argued, and will continue to maintain that one great distinctive feature of his mission as founding Prophet of the Restoration was to be the Lord’s conduit in answering important religious questions.

Lack of Consensus in Christian Interpretations

Almost since Paul wrote First Corinthians there has been dispute about chapter 15, verse 29, which reads:
29) Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all?  Why are they then baptized for the dead?
When I say that almost from the time Paul wrote that sentence it has been disputed, consider that back in 1887, Marvin Vincent, author of the multi-volume work Word Studies in the New Testament noted that “some thirty different explanations are given,” and concluded “it is best to admit frankly that we lack the facts for a decisive interpretation.”(2) A century later things had not changed except now we know there were even more interpretations than Vincent knew of. Gordon Fee, author of a commentary on First Corinthians, mentions forty different interpretations,(3) and in 1975 Hans Conzelmann, knew of two hundred.(4) Gene Brooks who did a study of the passage in 2005, noted that in recent years “scholars frustrated by a lack of consensus, have come to an exegetical impasse on the verse. Fresh approaches, therefore, have slowed to a trickle, and an uncomfortable agnosticism has settled over the verse in question.”(5) He further cites Fee and Richard DeMaris to the effect that there is “no satisfactory explanation of the practice,” and “No one knows in fact what was going on.” According to Brooks, Fee concludes, “The best one can do in terms of particulars is point out what appear to be the more viable options, but finally admit to ignorance.”(6)

There may be, however, one consensus among many scholars. That is, that though they do not know what 1 Cor. 15:29 means, many are certain the Mormons have it wrong. Again from Brooks: “Marcionites and Mormons have had no trouble approaching the verse for heretical purposes, but evangelical scholars have remained stumped over this verse dubbed one of the most difficult in the New Testament.”(7) That was from his introduction, but he returns to the subject later.  He cites the eminent and distinguished Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Gerhard Frederich who says in reference to this verse, “None of the attempts to escape the theory of vicarious baptism in primitive Christianity seems to be wholly successful.” Brooks then observes, “That concession should make the Mormons happy.”(8) This is followed by a page of somewhat convoluted history of LDS baptism for the dead, with this conclusion:
Soon afterward Smith was baptized for his father who had just died.  (Alvin had already entered paradise through a legal loophole). Since that time the Mormon doctrine of baptism for the dead has baptized millions into the celestial kingdom. 
Back to reality, ....(9)
Brooks can hardly contain his contempt for the heretical Mormon practice. In his conclusions he comments, “This one verse has caused massive heretical misapplication on the basis of misinterpretation and / or mistranslation.”(10) In the introduction he lumps Mormons in with the Marcionites as heretics, but interestingly the paper never explains why the position of either or both is heretical. Nevertheless, given his evangelical background, it is not difficult to discern. Brooks’ biggest concern with the idea of vicarious baptism is the baptism itself. In explaining one interpretation of verse 29 he writes, “The difficulty with this rendering is a hint at endorsement of baptismal regeneration. The strength of this suggestion is that it takes into context chapter fifteen’s foregoing discussion on resurrection and and removes a reading encouraging heretical, esoteric vicarious baptism.”(10) And later in the paper, speaking of other interpretations he says, “Paul taught that faith alone is the condition for salvation, not any work, including baptism.”(11)

Though Brooks is aware that there are perhaps more than 200 differing interpretations of 1 Cor. 15:29, he is not reticent to add three more into the mix. The first proposed a new translation based on a study of Paul’s Greek usage; the second suggests that since there was no punctuation in the original Greek, that the verse may be punctuated differently giving it an entirely different meaning.(12) The third one proposes there may be a problem with the transmission and therefore of the translation of the verse. He notes that there is some parallel phrasing in the verse which “could be a set up for a scribal error,” most likely that of homoeoteleuton, “the omission of an intervening passage because the copyist’s eye had skipped from one ending to a second similar ending.”(13)

This review of the Brooks paper demonstrates once again the difficulty scholars have had in understanding 1 Cor. 15:29. It is a fairly typical example showing that interpretation is often based on one's theological bias to begin with. Brooks cannot consider the Mormon solution because he has accepted the Reformation doctrine of “grace alone” to the extent that even baptism is considered a “work” which is a priori heretical.

Joseph Smith and Salvation for the Dead

This brings me back briefly to Joseph Smith. Unlike Mr. Brooks who feels pretty certain he knows that the Mormon interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:29 grew out of Joseph’s concern for the premature death of his brother Alvin, the fact is, we do not know the role that either Alvin’s death or 1 Cor. 15:29 played in the origin of the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead. Joseph Smith did not tell us, so these are connections which historians make to provide some possibilities, especially if they do not believe in revelation, or in the case of some Latter-day Saint observers, to provide some possible background to the revelation. As helpful as this may be, we cannot be dogmatic about the origin of the practice. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Orson Pratt observed that the doctrines and practices of Mormonism did not come from the Bible, they came by revelation to Joseph Smith.(14) It is true that something like 1 Cor. 15:29 may have stimulated Joseph’s interest and ultimately been a catalyst for a revelation,(15) but I believe it is an error to attribute the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead to Joseph’s creative understanding and use of that verse based on his own genius.  

The doctrine of salvation for the dead is distinctive in Christianity. For me it is, as it was with Joseph Smith, one of the most glorious doctrines we have.(16)  It rounds out the theology of the Atonement and indeed, it completes the plan of salvation. It answers the thorny question, “What about those who die without knowing of Christ?” (which parenthetically, is a companion conundrum for Christians). It shows that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all of God’s children even those who died before he was on the earth or who have since passed into the spirit world without hearing or knowing of his redemptive work. It shows in the most powerful way the love, mercy, compassion, benevolence, and justice of our Heavenly Father. The LDS doctrine of salvation of the dead fits intricately, yet seamlessly, into the plan of salvation and gives the Saints intellectual and spiritual satisfaction.(17)  One of my favorite LDS authors, B. H. Roberts, added another interesting insight. He wrote that the doctrine of salvation of the dead
...vindicates the wisdom of Deity; for it must be a very imperfect wisdom that would construct a plan for the redemption of mankind so imperfect in its operations, so limited in its application as to miss the great majority of mankind, and leave them without redemption throughout the countless ages of eternity. But when one is given to understand [this doctrine] ... the wisdom, mercy, justice and love of God all stand out in bold relief; and man's heart is warmed with increased admiration and devotion to him; for it teaches him that he worships not a tyrant who delights in the miseries and damnation of his children, but One whose great pleasure and design it is to bring to pass the eternal happiness of man."(18)
I praise God for this wonderful evidence of the divine prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.

Thank God for him!

Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  See particularly the studies of Hugh Nibley, John Tvedtnes, and David Paulsen and Brock Mason, in the bibliography below.

2.  Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Volume III: The Epistles of Paul, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1977) 3:276, at 1 Cor. 15:29. 

3.  Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 762.

4.  Hans Conzelman, I Corinthians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 276 n., 120.  I hasten to add that on this and the previous footnote I have relied on a recent publication and have not yet been able to check the Fee and Conzelman references myself. See, Gene Brooks, “‘Baptized for the Dead’: A Study of 1 Cor. 15:29,” p. 2. Paper submitted for a class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 30 November 2005.  Accessed through the Academia website at: 4 December 2015. Another online versions is here: baptized-for-the-dead.html

5.  Brooks, p. 2.

6.  Brooks, pp. 2-3, citing Fee, op. cit., 763, and “Richard E. DeMaris, “Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology.”  Journal of Biblical Literature, 114, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 661.

7.  Brooks, p. 2, emphasis added.

8.  Ibid., 16.

9.  Ibid.  The “reality” is that Brooks himself has only a superficial knowledge and understanding of the LDS concept of baptism for the dead, indeed, of LDS theology itself. Each of the three sentences in the first paragraph contain serious historical and doctrinal errors, none of which come from the Turley article. Indeed, Turley provides the necessary data to correct the mistakes in the first two, and if Brooks would have read the article carefully, he would not have made the final statement as well. It is sloppy work on his part.  

First, Joseph Smith was not baptized for his father. Joseph Smith, Sr., was a member of the Church and did not need baptism for the dead. The Turley article makes no mention of such a thing, but does say that a month after Joseph first preached the doctrine of baptism for the dead he was called to the bedside of his aging father. Joseph told his father of the privilege the Saints were given to be baptized on behalf of the dead and his father requested that Joseph be baptized for Alvin. (p. 36) This answers the parenthetical sentence which somehow misconstrued the doctrine, calling it a loophole. Brooks is probably referring to a vision Joseph received 21 January 1836 where he saw Alvin in the Celestial Kingdom. But Brooks apparently missed this statement by Turley later in the paper: “Other events would have to transpire before Alvin would make it to the celestial kingdom. After all, the requirement of baptism for those who had reached the age of accountability had not been abrogated, and Alvin had not been baptized. How could he be?  he answer would come later.”  (p. 34, emphasis mine.) Moreover in footnote 81 Turley wrote, “Nauvoo baptismal records show that Alvin was baptized at the instance of his brother Hyrum. Nauvoo Temple, Baptisms for the Dead 1840-45, Book A, 145, 149, Church Archives.”  Finally, there is no teaching in the Church which says that people who are baptized for the dead are “baptized ... into the celestial kingdom.” They have the opportunity to be there, but they first have to accept the vicarious work done for them, then progress from there–all of this in the spirit world. Brooks obviously did not read the Turley article carefully, or let his contempt for Mormonism cloud his vision. In either case, so much for his “reality.”

10. Ibid., 20.

11.  Ibid, p. 18, emphasis added.

12.  Ibid, p. 14. However, this is not a new idea proposed by Brooks; it is only one which he thinks may have potential.  See p. 20.

13.  Ibid.  The discussion is on pages 13-14, the comment about homoeoteleuton is on page 13.

14.  Orson Pratt, Conference Report, April 1880, p. 26, where he gives several examples to make his point.

15.  I believe this is precisely why the Lord assigned Joseph Smith to go through the Bible and revise it. Not so much perhaps, to produce a new and corrected text, but to stimulate Joseph’s thinking and questioning and take those questions to the Lord for clarification, understanding, and knowledge. He is explicitly told in D&C 42:56 to ask questions as he pursues the project and every evidence is that he did just that. The result was more than the JST. It included numerous revelations in the D&C. Thus, the JST project not only educated a prophet, but through the things he received from the Lord during the study, to educate the whole Church theologically. It along with the Book of Mormon and the records of Abraham bring to the Church the “fulness” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

16.  “Glorious” was Joseph’s word. “This doctrine appears glorious,” and “This glorious truth....” See Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), p. 192, 3 October 1841. 

17.  Ibid., where he says, “This glorious truth is well calculated to enlarge the understanding, and to sustain the soul under troubles, difficulties and distresses.”

18.  B. H. Roberts, The Gospel, an Exposition of its First Principles and Man's Relationship to Deity, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965), pp. 236-37.

Bibliography on Baptism for the Dead

Adams, George J.  Lecture on the Doctrine of Baptism for the Dead; and Preaching to Spirits in Prison.  New York: C. A Calhoun, 1844.

Anderson, Richard L. “Appendix C: Baptism for the Dead.”  In Understanding Paul, 403-15.  Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983.

Baugh, Alexander L.  “‘For Their Salvation is Necessary and Essential to Our Salvation:’ Joseph Smith and the Practice of Baptism and Confirmation for the Dead.”  In An Eye of Faith: Essays in Honor of Richard O. Cowan, edited by Kenneth L. Alford and Richard E. Bennett, 113-37.  Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2015.

Baugh, Alexander L.  “‘For this Ordinance Belongeth to My House’: The Practice of Baptism for the Dead Outside the Nauvoo Temple.” Mormon Historical Studies 3 (Spring 2002):47-58.

Baugh, Alexander L.  “The Practice of Baptism for the Dead Outside of Temples.” Religious Studies Center Newsletter 13 (September 1998): 3–6.

Bishop, M. Guy.  “‘What Has Become of Our Fathers?’ Baptism for the Dead at Nauvoo.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (Summer 1990): 85-97.

Christensen, Kendel J., Roger D. Cook, and David L. Paulsen.  “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity.”  Journal of the Book of Mormon and other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 56-77.

Crowley, Ariel L.  “The Epistle of Kallikrates and Baptism for the Dead.”  Improvement Era 48 (July 1945): 386, 430.

DeMaris, Richard E.  “Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology.”  Journal of Biblical Literature 114  (Winter 1995): 661-82.

Engelder, Th.  “An Exegetical Curiosity.”  Concordia Theological Monthly, 3, no. 8 (August 1932): 622-624.

Foschini, Bernard M. “‘Those Who Are Baptized for the Dead,’ 1 Cor. 15:29.  An Exegetical and Historical Dissertation.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 13 (1951): 46-78, 172-98, 276-83.

Foschini, Bernard M.  “Those Who are Baptized for the Dead” 1 Cor. 15.29: An Exegetical Historical Dissertation.  Worcester, MA: Heffernan Press, 1951.

Hield, Charles R., and Russell F. Ralston.  Baptism for the Dead.  Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1960.

Howard, J. K.  “Baptism for the Dead: A Study of 1 Corinthians 15:29.”  The Evangelical Quarterly 37 (July-September,1965): 137-41.

Hull, Michael F.  Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29): An Act of Faith in the Resurrection. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

“Introduction of Baptism for the Dead.”  Improvement Era 42 (April 1939): 251.

Jensen, Nephi.  “Baptism for the Dead.”  Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 15 (July 1924): 120-23.

Launius, Roger D.  “An Ambivalent Rejection: Baptism for the Dead and the Reorganized Church Experience.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (Summer 1990): 61-84.  

Mason, Brock M., and David L. Paulsen.  “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 2 (2010): 22-49.

Millet, Robert L.  “I Have a Question.” [Was baptism for the dead a non-Christian practice in New Testament times (see 1 Cor 15:29), or was it a practice of the Church of Jesus Christ, as it is today?] Ensign 17 (August 1978): 19-21.

Moseley, A. G.  “Baptized for the Dead.”  Review and Expositor 49 (January 1952): 57-61.

Nibley, Hugh W.  “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times.”  Parts 1-5  Improvement Era 51 (December 1948:) 786-88, 836-38; 52 (January 1949): 24-26, 60; (February 1949): 90-91, 109-110, 112; (March 1949): 146-48, 180-83; (April 1949): 212-14.  Also in Mormonism and Early Christianity, 100-67.  The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 4.  Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987.

Orme, Lafayette.   “Baptism for the Dead.”  Millennial Star 70 (April 9, 1908): 225-29.

Paulsen, David L., and Brock M. Mason.  “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity.”  Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scriptures 19, no. 2 (2010): 22-49.

Penrose, Charles W.  “Baptism for the Dead.” Millennial Star 100 (February 3, 1938): 74-76.
Petersen, Mark E.  “Early Christian Historians Tell of Baptism for the Dead.” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 24 (April 1933): 63-64.

Reaume, John D.  “Another Look at 1 Corinthians 15:29, ‘Baptized for the Dead.’” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October-December 1995): 457-75.

Skinner, Andrew C.  “Baptism for he Dead.”  In Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History, edited by Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, 76-77. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000.

Smith, Joseph.  “Baptism for the Dead.”  Times and Seasons (Nauvoo, Illinois 3 (April 1842): 759-61.

Thompson, K. C.  “1 Corinthians 15, 29 and Baptism for the Dead.”  In Studia Evangelica: Vol. II: Papers Presented to the Second International Congress on New Testament Studies Held at Christ Church, Oxford, 1961, edited by Frank M. Cross, 647-59.  Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1964.

Tobler, Ryan G.  “‘Saviors on Mount Zion’” Mormon Sacramentalism, Mortality, and the Baptism for the Dead.” Journal of Mormon History 39, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 182-238.

Turley, Richard E., Jr.  “Latter-day Saint Doctrine of Baptism for the Dead.” The BYU Family Historian 1, no. 1 (2002): 23-39.  Available online at:

Tvedtnes, John A.  “Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale,” paper presented 5 June 1981 in Jerusalem, sponsored by the L.A. Mayer Memorial Museum of Islamic Art and the Israel Ministry of education and culture, later published in Special Papers of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 2 (September 1989).

Tvedtnes, John A.  “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity.”  In The Temple in Time and Eternity, edited by Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks, 55-78.  Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999.

Tvedtnes, John A.  ‘The Dead Shall Hear the Voice.’” FARMS Review of Books 10, no. 2 (1998):184-199.

Underwood, Grant.  “Baptism for the Dead: Comparing RLDS and LDS Perspectives.”  Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (Summer,1990): 99-105.

White, Joel R.  “‘Baptized on Account of the Dead’: The Meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:29 in its Context.” Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (Autumn 1997): 487-99.


  1. On this topic, why do we not do vicarious baptism for those who died before the age of accountability? Isn't baptism the gate we must all enter? I don't think that doing their work would nullify the concept that they are saved by Christ's atonement at all.

    1. Dan, wouldn't that be the same as baptizing living children before they are eight? Mormon said that was unnecessary because they are already saved and was "solemn mockery before God." (See Moroni 8:5-16.)

  2. No, that's not how I think of it. I totally agree with Mormon that baptizing them before they are accountable is wrong. Do we do other work for them? Ordain? Endow? I don't even know. How do they get those gifts? Or is that automatic as well?