In the April 1976 general conference, the Saints sustained the recommendation of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve that two revelations be added to the scriptures of the Church. The action of that conference focused attention on certain events in the early history of the Church—not just the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom, received by Joseph Smith on 21 January 1836, but also events in the Joseph Smith, Sr., family that had preceded the organization of the Church.
The vision occurred in the Kirtland Temple as the Prophet was administering those ordinances of the endowment that had been received by that time. In this sacred setting, the Prophet was greatly moved as he saw the appearance of figures well known to himself. He recorded:
“I saw Fathers Adam and Abraham, and my father and mother, my brother Alvin, that has long since slept, and marvelled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set His hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.” (D&C 137:5–6.)
Joseph did not doubt the truthfulness of the vision, but he “marvelled” at it: His parents were still alive in Kirtland, Ohio, and Alvin, who had been dead for thirteen years, had never been baptized for the remission of his sins. Alvin had, in fact, died seven years before the Church was organized.
Responding to the Prophet’s inner bewilderment, the Lord explained: “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.” (D&C 137:7.)
This exceptional vision was undoubtedly opened to the Prophet not only because it greatly enlarged the doctrinal understanding of the Saints, but also because it gave special solace and comfort to the grieving Smith family. The untimely death of Alvin had been a great tragedy to the household. Members of the family still grieved about the departure of this beloved son and brother, whose kindness and consideration had been unfailing even as a boy. Alvin’s influence on the Smith family and the events leading to his death can help us understand the context and intent of this choice scripture.
The 18 July 1821 birth of Lucy Smith, daughter of Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith, increased the size of the family to eleven, and the Smiths renewed their efforts to construct a new and roomier house. Lucy Mack Smith described Alvin’s supervision and enthusiasm for the project:
“He would say, I am going to have a nice pleasant room for father and mother to sit in, and everything arranged for their comfort, and they shall not work any more as they have done.”1
That was in November 1822, when Alvin was in his mid-twenties. On November 15 of the next year, 1823, Alvin became very ill with something his mother called “bilious colic” and came in from work in great pain. They couldn’t find Alexander M’Intyre, their family doctor, but summoned a Dr. Greenwood who gave Alvin a heavy dose of calomel which “lodged in his stomach.” A total of five doctors, including Dr. M’Intyre, worked on the case, but Alvin, after three days, felt that the “calomel was still lodged … and that it must take his life.”2
He called each of his brothers and sisters in turn to his bedside and gave them a parting admonition. His faith in his eighteen-year-old brother’s prophetic mission was underscored when he pleaded with Joseph to “be a good boy, and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the Record [the Book of Mormon plates]. Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given you.”3 Alvin’s instruction referred to the angel Moroni’s five visits to Joseph two months earlier during the night and day of September 21–22.
The Prophet, writing some years later, recounted his feelings at the moment of Alvin’s death:
“I remember well the pangs of sorrow that swelled my youthful bosom and almost burst my tender heart when he died. He was the oldest and noblest of my father’s family. … He lived without spot from the time he was a child. From the time of his birth he never knew mirth. He was candid and sober and never would play; and minded his father and mother in toiling all day. He was one of the soberest of men, and when he died the angel of the Lord visited him in his last moments.” (History of the Church, 5:126–27.)
Alvin died on 19 November 1823.4 The family’s grief was keen. Part of their sorrow came from a feeling that his death could have been prevented if proper medical attention had been available. As we know, medical science in the early nineteenth century was much less developed than it now is; many practices since found to be unwise were engaged in by the doctors of the day. Lucy Smith, expressing the family’s emotion, said he was “murdered by a quack physician.”5 William Smith, another brother, commented in his Nauvoo newspaper, The Wasp, on 4 August 1842: “We will not say that he that gives Calomel murders, nor he that takes it commits suicide, but we will say … that he that uses the least medicine lives longest in nine cases out of ten.”
The family’s grief undoubtedly cut keener when, about a year after his death, the rumor became current that Alvin’s body had been given over for dissection. With obvious hurt and irritation, Joseph Smith, Sr., published a report “to the Public” in the Palmyra Wayne Sentinel on 29 September 1824.
“Whereas reports have been industriously put in circulation that my son Alvin had been removed from the place of his interment and dissected which reports, every person possessed of human sensibility must know, are peculiarly calculated to harrow up the mind of a parent and deeply wound the feelings of relations—therefore, for the purpose of ascertaining the truth of such reports, I, with some of my neighbors, this morning repaired to the grave, and removing the earth, found the body which had not been disturbed.
“This method is taken for the purpose of satisfying the minds of those who may have heard the report, and of informing those who have put it in circulation, that it is earnestly requested they would desist therefrom; and that it is believed by some, that they have been stimulated more by a desire to injure thh [the] reputation of certain persons than a philanthropy for the peace and welfare of myself and friends.
JOSEPH SMITH [Sr.]
Palmyra, September 25, 1824”
Alvin’s death occurred six years before the restoration of the priesthood and seven years before the organization of the Church. His unbaptized condition may have weighed upon the Prophet’s mind, and the 1836 revelation of Alvin in celestial glory must have been received with great joy by the whole family. When Elijah restored the sealing powers on 3 April 1836, three months after the vision, the way was finally open for Alvin to be baptized.
On 10 August 1840, the Prophet made the first public mention of the doctrine of baptism for the dead at the funeral of Seymour Brunson. (History of the Church, 4:179, 231.)
Joseph Smith, Sr., died the next month. On his deathbed he earnestly requested that Alvin be baptized vicariously, and some of his last words were, “I see Alvin.”6 In accordance with his father’s request, Hyrum Smith was baptized for Alvin by proxy in 1840 and again in 1841 in Nauvoo.7
Family history records two other remembrances of Alvin. When the Prophet’s younger brother, Don Carlos, died in Nauvoo on 7 August 1841, it intensified the sadness Joseph had experienced earlier. Speaking at the funeral of Ephraim Marks on 9 April 1842, he said:
“It has been hard for me to live on earth and see these young men [Alvin and Don Carlos] upon whom we had leaned for support and comfort taken from us in the midst of their youth. Yes, it has been hard to be reconciled to these things. I have sometimes thought that I should have felt more reconciled to have been called away myself if it had been the will of God; yet I know we ought to be still and know it is of God, and be reconciled to His will; all is right.” (History of the Church, 4:587.)
The next year, in 1842, the Prophet had an opportunity to visit with his sister, Catherine Salisbury, in Illinois. They shared many family reminiscences, particularly of their brother Alvin. With affection, the Prophet recalled:
“He was a very handsome man, surpassed by none but Adam and Seth [prophets whom Joseph had seen], and of great strength. When two Irishmen were fighting, and one was about to gouge the other’s eyes, Alvin took him by his collar and breeches, and threw him over the ring, which was composed of men standing around to witness the fight.”8
In these reminiscences we catch glimpses of Alvin, serious, concerned about his parents, committed to the prophetic mission of his younger brother, and eager to spend his strength doing good. In tribute, the Prophet Joseph said of Alvin “In him there was no guile.” (History of the Church, 5:126.) Verification of Alvin’s goodness and the Lord’s justice for those who do not hear the gospel on the earth came as the Prophet saw his brother in the celestial kingdom and received this confirming testimony from the Savior: “I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (D&C 137:9)