Doctrine & Covenants/Church History
“The Prisoners Shall Go Free”
Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord revealed the doctrine of priesthood
ordinances for the dead.
The Lord commanded the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo.
We should be enthusiastic and joyful in our efforts to perform baptisms
for the dead.
A study of this lesson will help us rejoice in our opportunity to provide
ordinances for the dead.
Scripture references for study:
Joseph Smith—History 1:36–39;
Our Heritage, pages 58–61,
information under “The Nauvoo Temple.”
Note: Underlined scripture references have been hyperlinked
to the LDS Scriptures at LDS.org and will open in a new window.
Lesson 30 Handout (PDF)
Priesthood Ordinances For The Dead
On the night of September 21, 1823, the angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith
for the first time. This was the first heavenly manifestation since
young Joseph's vision of the Father and the Son in 1820. On that
night, Moroni quoted from the words of the ancient prophet Malachi when
he said, "Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood,
by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful
day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children
the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall
turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be
utterly wasted at his coming." (JS-History 1:38-39; D&C 2:1-3).
It is interesting that the restoration of priesthood keys, that which makes the
gospel available to all men in all ages, is referred to in this first revelation
after the First Vision. It was important for young Joseph to know
that the gospel and priesthood authority, to be restored through
him, would once again begin the work of salvation for all mankind.
Elder John A. Widtsoe: "In our pre-existent
state, in the day of the great council, we made a certain agreement 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 measurably 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."
(Latter-day Prophets, pp28-29)
Joseph Smith: "What is this office and work
of Elijah? It is one of the greatest and most important subjects that God
has revealed. He should send Elijah to seal the children to the fathers,
and the fathers to the children....
"I wish you to understand
this subject, for it is important; and if you will receive it, this is
the spirit of Elijah, that we redeem our dead, and connect ourselves with
our fathers which are in heaven, and seal up our dead to come forth in
the first resurrection; and here we want the power of Elijah to seal those
who dwell on earth to those who dwell in heaven. This is the power of Elijah
and the keys of the kingdom of Jehovah." (HC, 6:251-52)
On April 3, 1836, the prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver
Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple and bestowed upon them the keys of turning
hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers"
Reference to salvation of the dead was made from the earliest moments of the
Restoration, yet it was six years after the Church was organized before Elijah
returned bestowing vital priesthood keys.
It wasn't until 1840 when the Prophet first taught the doctrine of baptism
for the dead. Joseph Smith wrote a letter to the Twelve in England
in October 1840: "I first mentioned this
doctrine in public when preaching the funeral sermon of Brother Seymour
Brunson; and have since then given general instructions in the Church on
the subject. The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those
of their relatives who are dead, whom they believe would have embraced
the gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it, and who have received
the gospel in the spirit, through the instrumentality of those who have
been commissioned to preach to them while in prison. Without enlarging
the subject, you will undoubtedly see its consistency and reasonableness;
and it presents the gospel of Christ in probably a more enlarged scale
than some have imagined it." (HC, 4:231)
It seems that the Church needed time to grow and prepare before initiating
the important ordinances and doctrines surrounding salvation for the dead.
Brother Brunson's funeral sermon was preached on August 15, 1840. Sister Jane Neyman attended the funeral and was moved by the Prophet's
teaching about baptism for the dead. Soon after she asked Harvey
Olmstead to baptize her in the Mississippi River for her dead son Cyrus. Soon after the baptism, Joseph Smith learned of this event and inquired
concerning the words used by Brother Olmstead in performing the ceremony. The Prophet gave his full approval.
Additional baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi on the Montrose,
Iowa, side of the river. Instructions were not given first, nor were
records given. Brigham Young later wrote: "When
Joseph received the revelation that we have in our possession concerning
the dead, the subject was opened to him, not in full, but in part, and
he kept on receiving. When he had first received the knowledge by the spirit
of revelation how the dead could be officiated for, there are brethren
and sisters here, I can see quite a number here who were in Nauvoo, and
you recollect that when this doctrine was first revealed, and in hurrying
in the administration of baptism for the dead, that sisters were baptized
for their male friends, were baptized for their fathers, their grandfathers,
their mothers and their grandmothers, etc. I just mention this so that
you will come to understanding, that as we knew nothing about this matter
at first, the old Saints recollect, there was little by little given, and
the subject was made plain, but little was given at once. Consequently,
in the first place people were baptized for their friends and no record
was kept. Joseph afterwards kept a record." (Discourses of Brigham
The Saints were anxious to participate in the opening of this great work
for the dead. Though there was some confusion as to the proper procedures,
the Saints endeavored to heed the words of the Prophet.
The Times and Seasons reported on the October 1841 conference of the Church:
Joseph Smith, by request of some of the Twelve, gave instructions on the
doctrine of Baptism for the Dead; which was listened to with intense interest
by the large assembly. The speaker presented 'Baptism for the Dead' as
the only way that men can appear as saviors on mount Zion. The proclamation
of the first principles of the gospel was a means of salvation to men individually,
and it was the truth, not men that saved them; but men, by actively engaging
in rites of salvation substitutionally, became instrumental in bringing
multitudes of their kin into the kingdom of God....
"This doctrine, he said,
presented in a clear light, the wisdom and mercy of God, in preparing an
ordinance for the salvation of the dead, being baptised by proxy, their
names recorded in heaven, and they judged according to the deeds done in
the body. This doctrine was the burden of the scriptures. Those saints
who neglect it, in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril
of their own salvation." (Times & Seasons, 2:578)
At this same conference, the Prophet announced: "There
shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended
to in the Lord's House; and the Church shall not hold another General Conference,
until they can meet in said house. For thus saith the Lord!"
In a revelation given earlier in 1841, the Lord instructed the Prophet to
have the Saints build a temple. "For there
is not a place found on earth that he may come to and restore again that
which was lost unto you, or which he hath taken away, even the fulness
of the priesthood.
"For a baptismal font there
is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those
who are dead—
"For this ordinance belongeth
to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty,
wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me.
I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant
unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time
your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.
"But behold, at the end
of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not be acceptable
unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye
shall be rejected as a church, with your dead, saith the Lord your God."
As revealed in these verses, the Lord allowed baptisms for the dead to
be performed outside of a temple for a time. That practice ended
with the Prophet's announcement at the October 1841 conference.
The building of the Nauvoo Temple had commenced after the October 1840
conference of the Church. By April 1841, the basement had been dug
and walled. Priority was given to the construction of a baptismal
font in the basement of the temple.
Though work continued on the temple, Brigham Young dedicated the baptismal
font on November 8, 1841.
Two weeks later, proxy baptisms began in the font. Reuben McBride
was the first proxy. Sidney Rigdon was baptized by Joseph Smith for
his deceased parents.
With this beginning, the work of baptizing proxies for their dead ancestors
began in earnest. The following May, Wilford Woodruff and Charles
C. Rich baptized one hundred persons for their dead. Porter Rockwell's
mother set a record for the most proxy baptisms when she was baptized for
45 of her dead ancestors.
Glad Tidings - Sections 127 & 128
In May of 1842 governor Boggs of Missouri was shot and wounded. Obviously,
the Saints were suspected. Joseph Smith was specifically accused
of being an accessory to the crime. In August he was arrested on
those charges, but soon released.
"Let the work of my temple, and all the works
which I have appointed unto you, be continued on and not cease; and let
your diligence, and your perseverance, and patience, and your works be
redoubled, and you shall in nowise lose your reward, saith the Lord of
Hosts." (D&C 127:4)
Some Missourians threatened to take the law into their hands and so the
Prophet went into hiding for a period of time. It was while the Prophet
was in hiding that two letters were written to the Saints. These
letters have been recorded as Sections 127 and 128.
- Side note: Porter Rockwell was caught in Missouri and arrested for
the shooting of Boggs. Some months later he was released. It
was said that when Rockwell was asked if he shot the Governor he replied,
"No. He's still alive isn't he." Porter Rockwell was known
an exceptional marksman.
Importance of Accurate Records.
The Power To Bind and Loose.
These verses discuss the necessity of having a recorder present at these
baptisms. D&C 128:2-7 provides addition details.
THE LORD KNOWS WHAT IS BEING DONE, SO WHY DID HE EMPHASIZE RECORD KEEPING?
The Lord has stated that there should be witnesses to verify the proceedings.
To make sure that the ordinance is being performed properly.
To avoid repetition and to enable the Church to see its progress.
The Prophet emphasized that which was spoken by John in Revelation
20:12: "...and I saw the dead, small and great, stand
before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the
book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in
the books, according to their works" (v6).
"You may think this order of things
to be very particular; but let me tell you that it is only to answer the
will of God, by conforming to the ordinance and preparation that the Lord
ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world, for the salvation
of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel." (D&C
The Importance of Work for the Dead.
The Prophet linked the keeping of accurate records to the power to bind
or loose on earth and have this action recognized in heaven.
WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS THAT MUST BE MET FOR AN ORDINANCE PERFORMED ON
EARTH TO BE BINDING IN HEAVEN?
It must be performed by one with authority (the person must have the priesthood
and be given specific authorization).
It must be done in the name of the Lord.
It must be done truly and faithfully (precisely as the Lord has instructed).
A proper record must be kept (v9).
In D&C 128 the prophet refers to the work of the dead as among the
"most glorious of all subjects belonging to the
everlasting gospel" (v17).
"And now, my
dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles
in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over,
as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary
and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers--that
they without us cannot be made perfect--neither can we without our dead
be made perfect." (D&C 128:15)
WHY IS THE WORK FOR THE DEAD ESSENTIAL TO OUR SALVATION?
As noted above, the Prophet stated: "Those
saints who neglect it, in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at
the peril of their own salvation."
Elder Rutger Clawson: "Some
years ago, a brother approached me, and he said: 'Brother Clawson, I am
sixty-seven years of age; I have been a strong and active man in my life,
and have done a great deal of hard work, but now I am somewhat feeble;
I cannot engage in manual labor as heretofore. How shall I spend my time?'
I said to him, 'Go to the house of the Lord.' 'Thank you,' he replied,
'I will take your counsel.' About eight years later, I met this brother
again. He appeared to be very happy indeed; and there was an expression
of joy in his countenance. 'Brother Clawson,' he said, 'during the past
eight years I have been working for my ancestors, in the house of the Lord.
After that conversation with you, I went east and I gathered up eight hundred
names of my relatives; and during the past eight years I have personally
officiated for three hundred of my ancestors, and I propose to continue
on with the good work; I am happy for the Lord has blessed me.' He further
said, 'I saw in a vision, upon one occasion, my father and mother, who
were not members of the Church, who had not received the Gospel in life,
and I discovered that they were living separate and apart in the spirit
world, and when I asked them how it was that they were so, my father said:
"This is an enforced separation, and you are the only individual that can
bring us together; you can do this work; will you do it?"'—meaning that
he should go into the house of the Lord and there officiate for his parents
who were dead, and by the ordinance of sealing bring them together and
unite them in the family relation beyond the veil; and he informed me that
he had attended to the work, and I rejoiced with him and congratulated
him." (CR, October 1908)
The Prophet went on in his letter to state that "the
earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link" between the fathers and the children and that baptism
for the dead is the key (D&C 128:18). Without question, this principle
also applies to other necessary ordinances.
WHY IS THIS SO?
Elder George F. Richards: "It is the work
and the glory of God the Eternal Father to bring to pass the immortality
and eternal life of man, living and dead. He is dependent upon His living
children here to assist Him, and particularly the Latter-day Saints."
(CR, April 1942)
President Joseph Fielding Smith: "The reasons
for this are the great magnitude of the labor, and the fact that we have
the privilege of officiating for the dead and assisting in giving to them
the privileges that we also enjoy, through our obedience to the gospel."
of Salvation, 2:147)
At the time of the Prophet, baptisms were the only ordinances being performed
for the dead. Vicarious endowments were not inaugurated until 1877.
Elder Orson F. Whitney: "The dominant thought
in the mind of the Prophet Joseph Smith during his last days on earth was
expressed by him in the following forceful language: [Sec. 128:18, quoted.]
. . . Why must the house of Israel be assembled? Why must the gospel dispensations—links
of a mighty chain extending from the creation down to the end of time—be
bound together in one? It is because God is coming down upon the earth,
and the way must be prepared before him. Jesus Christ is coming to reign
as King of Kings, to inaugurate the millennial era of universal freedom,
righteousness and peace; and in order that his coming, which is designed
as a blessing, may not prove a curse, a calamity, through the unpreparedness
of His people and the world at large, he has set his hand in these days
to perform the marvelous work and wonder that the Prophet Isaiah foretold.
[Isa. 29:14.]" (CR, April 1918)
Glad Tidings for the Living and the Dead.
Upon abandoning Nauvoo in 1846, Brigham Young, and the other Saints who
understood this principle, must have felt a great deal of frustration at
not being able to perform this essential work for so many years.
The Prophet writes in
D&C 128:19-23 of glad tidings for the living
and the dead. In verses 20-21 he speaks of several manifestations
from the heavens:
Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfillment of the Prophets.
A voice of the Lord near Fayette declaring the three witnesses to bear record
of the Book of Mormon.
The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil
when he appeared as an angel of light.
The voice of Peter, James, and John near Harmony, Pennsylvania, declaring
themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom and of the dispensation
of the fulness of times.
The voice of God in the chamber of Old Father Whitmer in Fayette and at
sundry times and in diverse places.
The voice of Gabriel.
The voice of Raphael.
Other divers angels from Adam down to the present time.
John Taylor discussing the necessity for the above occurrences wrote:
was it that all these people should be associated with all these dispensations,
and all could communicate with Joseph Smith? Because he stood at the head
of the dispensation of the fullness of times, which comprehends all the
various dispensations that have existed upon the earth, and that as the
Gods in the eternal worlds and the Priesthood that officiated in time and
eternity had declared that it was time for the issuing forth of all these
things, they all combined together to impart to him the keys of their several
missions, that he might be fully competent, through the intelligence and
aid afforded him through these several parties, to introduce the Gospel
in all its fullness, namely, the dispensation of the fullness of times,
when says the Apostle Paul 'He might gather all things in Christ, both
which are in heaven and which are in earth, even in him.' Consequently
he stood in that position, and hence his familiarity with all these various
dispensations and the men who administered in them. If you were to ask
Joseph what sort of a looking man Adam was, he would tell you at once;
he would tell you his size and appearance and all about him. You might
have asked him what sort of men Peter, James, and John were, and he could
have told you. Why! Because he had seen them." (JD, 18:325-26)
"For it is ordained that in Zion, and in her stakes,
and in Jerusalem, those places which I have appointed for refuge, shall
be the places for your baptisms for your dead." (D&C 124:36)
Without question, the Prophet had a great vision of this work when he wrote
"Let the woods and all the trees of the field
praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon,
and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout
for joy!" (v23)
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
Brigham Young: "We trust in God. I reckon he will
fight our battles and we will be baptized for and in behalf of the human
family during the thousand years; and we will have hundreds of temples
and thousands of men and women officiating therein for those who have fallen
asleep, without having had the privilege of hearing and obeying the Gospel,
that they may be brought forth and have a glorious resurrection, and enjoy
the kingdom which God has prepared for them." (Discourses of
Brigham Young, p401)
We are seeing fulfillment of this prophecy in our day. Temples are
being built at a rate unprecedented in the history of the world. The work of eternal salvation is being carried to every land and being
made available to all people through all generations of time.
For additional background information see
Letters on Baptism for the Dead at LDS.org.
The Nauvoo Temple
The Lord's commandment to build a temple
Construction on the temple began after the October 1840 conference of the
The Lord knew the Saints would be in Nauvoo only a few short years.
WHY DID HE THEN COMMAND THEM TO BUILD ANOTHER TEMPLE?
The was no place on the earth where the Lord could restore the fulness
of the Priesthood.
President Joseph Fielding Smith: "You cannot
receive the fullness of the priesthood and the fullness of eternal reward
unless you receive the ordinances of the House of the Lord; and when you
receive these ordinances, the door is then open so you can obtain all the
blessings which any man can gain." (CR, Apr 1970)
The ordinance of baptism for the dead belongs to the House of the Lord.
To prove the faithfulness of the Saints.
"And again, verily I say unto you, I command you
again to build a house to my name, even in this place, that you may prove
yourselves unto me that ye are faithful in all things whatsoever I command
you, that I may bless you, and crown you with honor, immortality, and eternal
life." (D&C 124:55)
The temple was abandoned in September 1846. By then, most of the
Saints had evacuated Nauvoo and were moving west.
Construction of this temple was extremely expensive, exceeding $1,000,000
by the time of its completion.
Funds came from the tithes and offerings of the faithful Saints, some even
donating their life savings.
The stone for the building was quarried near Nauvoo.
Lumber was cut in Wisconsin and brought down in rafts on the Mississippi
Some of the British Saints contributed a large bell. This same bell
was taken west as part of the migration and now sits on Temple Square in
Salt Lake City.
As noted above, baptisms for the dead were done in the basement while construction
on the temple continued.
On December 10, 1845, ordinance work began in the temple and continued
almost day and night for several months to afford the Saints heading west an opportunity
to receive their endowments.
"Included in this first group to receive the endowment
in the Nauvoo Temple were Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, Orson Hyde,
John Smith, Newel K. Whitney, Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, Amasa Lyman,
John Taylor, John E. Page, and their wives. Willard Richards and Joseph
C. Kingsbury were in the group, but their wives did not attend that session.
Mary Smith, Hyrum's widow, and Agnes, the widow of Don Carlos Smith, were
in the first company." (The Nauvoo Temple, p60)
107 Saints received their endowments on Christmas day.
Even as the Saints began evacuating Nauvoo in early 1846, construction
Construction was completed and the temple was dedicated on May 1, 1846.
The building and activities related to the Nauvoo Temple stand as a great
testimony of the importance of temples and temple work. The sacrifice
in cost and effort was immense. The Saints continued construction
to the finish, even while Nauvoo was turned into a factory to prepare the
Saints for the migration west.
Mobs desecrated the temple.
In 1848, an arsonist set fire to the temple, burning all but the bare walls.
Sometime later, the temple was hit by a tornado knocking down walls. The damage was so great, the remainder of the temple had to be razed.
At the April 1999 General Conference of the Church, President Gordon B.
Hinckley announced: "I feel impressed to
announce that among all of the temples we are constructing, we plan to
rebuild the Nauvoo Temple.... And the new building will stand as
a memorial to those who built the first such structure there on the banks
of the Mississippi." (Ensign, May 1999)
This rebuilt temple was completed and dedicated in 2002.
In addition to the great work that will transpire in this temple, it stands as a monument to the early Saints who sacrificed so much for the
first Nauvoo Temple. It should be a reminder to every faithful Latter-day
Saint of the great and eternal importance of the work that transpires in
the sacred temples.
Photos of the restored Nauvoo Temple from my visit in 2010
Gospel Doctrine Notebook
Record your thoughts on the teachings regarding temples and
the work for the dead. What can you do to further this work?
Resources Used In This Lesson
Conference Reports (CR).
Discourses of Brigham Young edited by John A. Widtsoe.
Doctrines of Salvation by Joseph F. Smith.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism edited by Daniel H. Ludlow.
History of the Church (HC).
Journal of Discourses (JD).
Latter-day Prophets and the Doctrine and Covenants
by Roy W. Doxey.
The Nauvoo Temple by E. Cecil McGavin.
Times & Seasons.
Gospel Doctrine Class
Page created by: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please E-Mail comments.
Changes last made on:
30 May 2017