“I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great”


The Laie Hawaii Temple
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
(Click to enlarge, and click again to enlarge still further.)
President Joseph F. Smith broke the ground for this
temple in his beloved Hawaii, where he had served as a very young missionary, in 1915, but did not live to see it dedicated.


I taught a Sunday school lesson today that centered on Joseph F. Smith’s magnificentl 3 October 1918 “vision of the redemption of the dead.”


As I set the historical background for the revelation given to President Smith, I thought about how death must, unavoidably, have been much on his mind:


The armistice agreement to end the First World War was slightly more than a month ahead.  Roughly seventeen million people died or disappeared as a result of the war.


The great “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918, which continued into 1919, would kill somewhere between fifty and a hundred million people worldwide, approximately 3-5% of the earth’s population.


President Smith’s own son, Elder Hyrum M. Smith of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, had died suddenly the previous January at the still relatively young age of forty-five.  (His father and his uncle, the patriarch and founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had been murdered at Carthage Jail in Illinois when he was not yet eight years old.  Another uncle died just a month later, from injuries sustained while fleeing from an anti-Mormon mob.)


President Smith himself would die slightly more than a month later, just past his eightieth birthday, and he may well have had a premonition that his death was near.


I’m guessing that this is a case where revelation came in response to a prophet’s yearning contemplation.  (See Doctrine and Covenants 138:1-11.)  Sometimes, of course, revelation comes unbidden — for example, when you’re simply heading down the road toward Damascus without a thought in your head beyond killing Christians.  But, very commonly, as in many of the revelations of Joseph Smith (including the First Vision and the appearance of Moroni), divine answers come as replies to human questions.


It has sometimes been suggested, in fact, that the practice of baptism for the dead was revealed to the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois, in response to the sorrows they had suffered there as many of their loved ones had died from the fevers that afflicted them while they settled along the marshy banks of the Mississippi River and set about to drain the swamp and build their new city.


“I now resume the subject of the baptism for the dead,” Joseph Smith (the uncle of Joseph F. Smith) wrote from his hiding place on 6 September 1842, “as that subject seems to occupy my mind, and press itself upon my feelings the strongest, since I have been pursued by my enemies” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:1).  Even amidst his personal troubles, which were pressing and great, his focus was on the temple and its ordinances.  Somewhat later, in the same message to the Saints, Joseph refers to “this most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel, namely, the baptism for the dead.”  (Had he been writing slightly later, he might have referred, rather, to the entire work of the vicarious redemption of the dead, but that complex of ideas and practices was still in the process of being revealed.)


Once again, death was probably on Joseph’s mind.  And not only because of the steep price the Saints generally had paid during their early exile in Illinois.  His father had died two years before, and he was writing just slightly past the first anniversary of the death of one of his brothers.  Moreover, there is reason to believe that he, too, knew his own end was approaching.


“All men know that all men must die,” he is said to have remarked during the Nauvoo funeral services for Judge James Adams on 9 October 1843.  “What is the object of our coming into existence then dying and falling away to be here no more? This is a subject we ought to study more than any other. which we ought to study day and night.–If we have any claim on our heavenly father for any thing it is for knowledge on this important subject.”  (See History of the Church 6:50).


President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead provides rich insight on the subject.  I’m more grateful than I can express for prophets and apostles who speak what they know, who, therefore, teach as those with authority, and not as the scribes.  (See Matthew 7:29.)  Erudition, literary elegance, theological scholarship, and philosophical depth are wonderful — I appreciate them perhaps as much as anyone does — but to speak as a witness is a very different thing than to opine as a scholar, however learned.


Years ago, a “Moonie” — a member of the Unification Church, founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon — was interviewed by a national publication.  He was studying at Harvard Divinity School, and his interviewer, obviously thinking this quite strange, wanted to know what it was like, with such training, to be committed to the writings of a man without any theological training whatever.  “Oh,” the Harvard student responded.  “You mean St. Peter?”  Whatever one’s opinion of the Reverend Moon, I thought it an excellent answer.


Posted from Park City, Utah.



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  • G Rant

    I can’t tell you how many times my Murder Trips to Damascus have ended in revelation!
    Excellent blog. Loved the last quote. Very Nibleyesque.

  • RaymondSwenson

    During Romney’s campaign in 2012, a woman was using her connection with a disaffected but still enrolled Mormon to gain access to the Church family history records and submit names of Holocaust victims for ordinances, so she could “discover” them and sell her services to Holocaust victims’ relatives to find and prevent such occurrences. The broader criticism she engendered of LDS vicarious ordinances led a number of observers to note that, for many Christian denominations, their “solution” to the problem of people who die without hearing the gospel is to just condemn them all to hell. As people bound for hell, “they are not worth worrying about.”

    It is clear that many Christians, however, are sensitive to the question of how the “they all go to hell” approach raised serious questions about the justice of God, let alone God’s mercy and grace. Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus stated his hope that, while hell must exist, it might also be empty. Some Christians have proposed that every person is given an opportunity to accept Christ, either immediately at death, or during the period between death and the resurrection, citing I Peter and other scriptures familiar to Latter-day Saints. They tend not to mention that the Mormons had worked this out before them. They are recovering the important concept of Christ’s harrowing of hell between his death and resurrection, rescuing the righteous patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament. But in every case all the work of salvation tales place in the realm of spirits, not on earth. Only the LDS so actively work on behalf of others, though some Catholics pray to have family released from Purgatory. And the commitment by churches to teaching salvation for the non-Christian dead is not developed doctrine, so people are not supported in their hopes.

    The pseudo outrage that is targeted against LDS vicarious ordinances, over people who are in no way related to the denouncers, reached its epitome in Bill Maher denouncing Ann Romney and her brother for doing vicarious work on behalf of there father. Nothing could be more hypocritical than an atheist presuming to know better than the children what the spirit of their father would say about the ordinances.

    I have come to think that underlying the vehemence of many of those who attack the work for the salvation of the dead is a basic jealousy. Most people who have any connection with their ancestors, and who believe they still exist as conscious entities, feel impotent to help them, and envy the confidence of the Latter-day Saints that people on earth can help people who have died but are not yet in heaven. Unlike the views of Krister Stendahl, it is an “unholy envy” of the Mormons and our temples. It is a work of utter unselfishness in which no one becomes rich, in which the beneficiaries cannot reciprocate in any way physically or financially. The venal cannot tolerate the demonstration that such virtue can be called forth from ordinary people. It drives them crazy.

    • Jeremy Alleman

      I once heard someone’s response to criticisms of vicariouse temple work:
      “If we’re right, then we are doing something great for those that can no longer do it for themselves. If we’re wrong, then we are only wasting our time with no damage to anyone. It’s a win-win situation for those that are not involved.”

    • David_Naas

      Excellent comment on Dan’s piece, and, although I’m not really sure, I think that some Catholic theologians, if not Early Church Fathers were actually there on “redeeming the dead” before Mormons, although not in exactly the same understanding (but as close as the Orthodox are on “theosis”).
      And, no, I don’t watch Bill Mahler. I take that he shares the same last name as one of my favorite composers as an insult.

      • DanielPeterson

        It’s actually “Bill Maher,” without the middle “L.” So Gustav Mahler — a favorite of mine, too — remains pristine and unsullied by any connection with that amazingly unfunny comedian.

        I think I’ve already told this story, but, given the juxtaposition of the Austrian composer Mahler and the execrable Bill Maher, it seems apropos:

        My wife and I were dining in an open air restaurant in Vienna with my brother and his wife and a friend about three years ago when I heard a very familiar voice. There, standing just a few feet away and chattering with a man and a woman, was Bill Maher. I had just begun my bowl of Hungarian goulash, and I resisted the temptation to pour it over his head. Whenever people describe me as an unscrupulous and mean-sprited apologist, they should take that story into account and give me some credit, because the temptation was strong, and justified.

        • David_Naas

          The Lord will bless you for that act of Christian charity. (Which, as Mark Twain notes, is worth at least a calf-bound, gilt-edged Friendship Offering.) :)
          I relate to this very well, saving only that my moment came when I saw “a particular person”, my arms were full of books (it was at a used booksale), and I reflected that spit was a precious commodity and should not be wasted on the unappreciative.
          (I always assumed you had scruples… with a little butter and lemon, they go down very well.)

        • Lucy Mcgee

          If personal disagreements would only be handled in such a manner (presuming the goulash wasn’t too hot), the world would be a safer place. We could redirect our anger and need for revenge toward others by first slashing the military budgets of nations and redirecting these monies toward sustainable crop production and less wasteful food distribution. Then, we wouldn’t feel at all guilty when the occasional food fight erupted. I could even see an occasional snack taking place amidst the culinary combat, while combatants caught their breath.

          • DanielPeterson

            I would favor food fights over lethal combat, as well. Some of the best fun I’ve ever had came during a massive pre-planned shaving-cream fight between two dormitory floors eons ago.

            Incidentally, I notice that there’s considerable consternation over at your new message board about my little anecdote regarding Bill Maher. Several of the folks there are vigorously clucking their concern (four pages of it, thus far) about my violent inner demons, my unchristlike behavior, the fearful menace I pose to society, and other such horrors, and one has even suggested that poor Mr. Maher should probably obtain a restraining order against me.

            It’s a curious place over there, and I hope you enjoy it. The fellow who launched the relevant thread, for example, has falsely claimed to be a sitting LDS bishop who accompanied me on a tour to Israel a couple of years ago. Another, who purports to be a scientist, apparently doesn’t eat while traveling (and, in fact, may never eat at all.) He also claims to know, somehow, that I posted the anecdote about Mr. Maher solely in order to boast that I had been to Vienna. Yet, amusingly, this is the same guy, a few years ago, who posted about the impressive number of foreign countries he had visited (more than three score, if I recall correctly) in order to prove, for some reason, that he’s more cosmopolitan and urbane than I am. And, in fact, I think he did have me by two countries or so. (Idly curious while sitting in a particularly dull meeting, I made and counted my own list after reading his boast.)

            Anyway, since you’re now posting there, you might want to reassure these anxious souls that they’re in no actual danger, and that, for that matter, Mr. Maher never was, either. It was what we rubes call a “joke.” The thought of dumping my goulash on Mr. Maher’s head crossed my mind briefly as a bit of humor, but never actually seriously. Please pass them some smelling salts and loosen their corsets a bit so that they can breathe. Even self-induced terror must be an awfully unpleasant state to be in, and I don’t want them to hurt themselves.

            Please point out to them, further, that I haven’t been involved in a serious altercation since I started the Watts riots in 1965, or maybe since the Altamont Festival in 1969. And I haven’t directly harmed anybody since I stepped down from that grassy knoll in Dallas in November 1963.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            I’ve come to enjoy a good bit of what you write but not everything. Because some of your critics also breathe the rarefied air over yonder, I figured it might be a place to spend some time, but not too much. The restraining order comment was quite odd to me, and is but an example of how our society has devolved into one of litigiousness. Sad. There also seem to be a good number of posters haranguing each other off topic.

            Quite frankly Dr. Peterson, I’ve not seen evidence of your violent inner demons, lack of Christian behavior, or being a menace toward others, after reading your posts for over a year. I do believe that you can be eruditely dismissive, which goes with your turf I suppose.

            Being a world traveler doesn’t necessarily produce a mind which can fully integrate what societies are about. There is far too much information for any human to understand. What is encouraging about this age, is that there are so many sources of information available beyond CNN, FOX and MSNBC for those who are willing and interested. People like Chris Hedges are offered a venue to express their thoughts.

            My posting there has less to do with curious places and everything to do with Dr. Rodney Stark’s Table 2.1 in his book “America’s Blessings”, which I found a total sham. Given that Templeton Press cited Sir John Templeton’s first virtue as “honesty”, I believe Dr. Stark failed miserably on that count. I realize that what I’ve written is a meaningless endeavor within the scope of scholarly publishing, but I wanted to elucidate his egregious use of data; something one shouldn’t expect from a well published and respected scholar (he has, by the way, never responded to http://lucymcgee1.blogspot.com/ ). The more I think about it the angrier I become. Is this really what scholarship is all about?

            I’ll have zero influence on your critics, that’s for certain and I do appreciate your moxie.

        • RaymondSwenson

          I have suddenly discovered another reason to not fire the goulash drone at Bill Maher. According to Newsmax.com,

          “I don’t think Obama should have lied to people,” Maher said Tuesday on CNN’s Piers Morgan Live. Host Morgan, a supporter of Obamacare and native of Great Britain where healthcare is provided by the government, agreed with Maher that Obama’s repeated promise was “a barefaced lie.”

  • David_Naas

    Very good article, Dan.
    ( I was envisioning the reaction of some of your critics who only see you clad in armor, smiting them hip and thigh, to the knowledge that you teach Sunday School.) :)