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.