We will live to sense the significance of it [the announcement of sections 137 and 138 being added to the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 137; D&C 138]]; we will tell our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, and we will record in our diaries, that we were on the earth and remember when that took place,”1 said Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Additions to the Doctrine and Covenants are rare. Not since President Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 manifesto was added has the Church been given the opportunity to accept a new revelation as part of our standard works.
A closer look at how we got these revelations and what they say may help us understand why they are now included in the Doctrine and Covenants.
The historical setting of Joseph Smith’s Vision of the Celestial Kingdom is both inspiring and informative. In 1833 the Lord reminded the Saints in Kirtland of his commandment to “build a house, in the which house I design to endow those whom I have chosen with power from on high.” (D&C 95:8.) After it was built, the Lord rewarded their sacrifices with a marvelous outpouring of light and truth. One Latter-day Saint historian has recently written concerning this eventful epoch in our history:
“During a fifteen-week period, extending from January 21 to May 1, 1836, probably more Latter-day Saints beheld visions and witnessed other unusual spiritual manifestations than during any other era in the history of the Church. There were reports of Saints’ beholding heavenly beings at ten different meetings held during that time. At eight of these meetings, many reported seeing angels; and at five of the services, individuals testified that Jesus, the Savior, appeared. While the Saints were thus communing with heavenly hosts, many prophesied, some spoke in tongues, and others received the gift of interpretation of tongues.”2
On Thursday evening, 21 January 1836, the Prophet and a number of Church leaders from Kirtland and Missouri gathered in the temple. After anointings and after all the presidency had laid their hands upon the Prophet’s head and pronounced many glorious blessings and prophecies, a mighty vision burst upon the assembled leadership. (See History of the Church, 2:379–80.)
“The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell.
“I saw the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire;
“Also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.
“I saw the beautiful streets of that kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold.” (D&C 137:1–4.)
This vision of the celestial kingdom was not unlike John the Revelator’s vision of the holy city, the earth in its sanctified and celestial state: “The foundations of the wall of the city,” writes John, “were garnished with all manner of precious stones.” Further, “the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.” (Rev. 21:19, 21.)
Joseph’s account of the vision continues:
“I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;
“And marveled 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’s vision was a glimpse into the future celestial realm; he saw his parents in the kingdom of the just, when in fact both were still living in 1836. Father Smith was, interestingly, in the same room with his son at the time the vision was received.
The Prophet also saw his brother Alvin. Alvin Smith was the firstborn of Joseph, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith. He had a pleasant and loving disposition, and he constantly sought opportunities to aid the family in their financial struggles. The Prophet later described his oldest brother as one in whom there was no guile, (History of the Church, 5:126) and as “a very handsome man, surpassed by none but Adam and Seth” (History of the Church, 5:247).
As Alvin was dying, he asked that each of the Smith children come to his bedside for his parting counsel and final expression of love. According to Mother Smith’s record, “When he came to Joseph, he said, ‘I am now going to die, the distress which I suffer, and the feelings that I have, tell me my time is very short. I want you to be a good boy, and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the Record. [Joseph had been visited by Moroni less than three months before this time.] Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given you.’”3
Alvin died on 19 November 1823. Lucy Mack Smith writes of the pall of grief surrounding his passing: “Alvin was a youth of singular goodness of disposition—kind and amiable, so that lamentation and mourning filled the whole neighborhood in which he resided.”4
Joseph wrote many years later: “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. … 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.)
Inasmuch as Alvin had died seven years before the organization of the Church and had not been baptized by proper authority, Joseph wondered during his vision how it was possible for his brother to have attained the highest heaven.
“Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: 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;
“Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
“For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (D&C 137:7–9.)
Joseph learned that every person will have an opportunity—here or hereafter—to accept and apply the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This vision reaffirmed that the Lord will judge men not only by their actions, but also by their attitudes—the desires of their hearts. (See also Alma 41:3.)
Another of the profoundly beautiful doctrines enunciated in the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom deals with the status of children who die. “And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” (D&C 137:10.)
This affirmed what earlier prophets had taught. King Benjamin had learned from an angel that “the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy.” (Mosiah 3:18.) And after having described the nature of those who will come forth in the first resurrection, Abinadi said simply: “Little children also have eternal life.” (Mosiah 15:25.)
A revelation given to Joseph Smith in September 1830 had specified that “little children are redeemed from the foundation of the world through mine Only Begotten.” (D&C 29:46; see also JST, Matt. 19:13–15].) And Joseph taught in 1842 that “the Lord takes many away, even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth; therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil, and we shall soon have them again.” History of the Church, 4:553.) These children will come forth from the grave as they lie down—as children. (See History of the Church, 4:555–56.) They will not be expected to face in their resurrected state the same challenges we face in our mortal state, but will go on to enjoy the highest and grandest blessings of exaltation associated with the everlasting continuation of the family unit. (See Ensign, Apr. 1977, pp. 5–6.)
Four and one-half years after receiving the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom, Joseph the Prophet delivered his first public discourse on the subject of baptism for the dead. One man who was in attendance has left us the following account:
“I was present at a discourse that the prophet Joseph delivered on baptism for the dead 15 August 1840. He read the greater part of the 15th chapter of Corinthians [1 Cor. 15] and remarked that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought glad tidings of great joy. … He also said the apostle [Paul] was talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them. He went on to say that people could now act for their friends who had departed this life, and that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God. He went on and made a very beautiful discourse.5
A month following this address, Joseph Smith, Sr., passed away. Just before his death, Father Smith requested that someone be baptized in behalf of his oldest son, Alvin. Hyrum Smith complied with his father’s last wishes and was baptized by proxy for Alvin in 1840 and again in 1841.6 Alvin received the endowment by proxy on 11 April 1877 and was sealed to his parents on 25 August 1897.7
The truths revealed initially to the Prophet Joseph Smith continued to be expanded “line upon line” after his death. The Lord revealed to the Prophet’s nephew—Joseph F. Smith—additional insights into the manner in which the gospel is preached in the world of spirits.
During the last six months of his life, President Joseph F. Smith suffered from the effects of age and spent much time in his personal study in the Beehive House. He did, however, garner enough strength to attend general conference in October 1918. In the opening session, he arose to address the Saints, and with a voice filled with emotion said:
“I will not, I dare not, attempt to enter upon many things that are resting upon my mind this morning, and I shall postpone until some future time, the Lord be willing, my attempt to tell you some of the things that are in my mind, and that dwell in my heart. I have not lived alone these last five months. I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith and of determination; and I have had my communication with the Spirit of the Lord continuously.”8
According to his son, Joseph Fielding Smith, the President was here expressing in broad terms the fact that during the past six months he had been the recipient of numerous manifestations, some of which he shared with his son. He had received one of these manifestations, the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead, just the day before, on 3 October 1918, and recorded it immediately following the close of the conference.9
Joseph F. Smith’s attention was drawn to the world beyond mortality by his frequent confrontation with death. His parents, Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith, both died while he was a young man. Among his later trials were the deaths of many of his children. Joseph Fielding Smith has written: “When death invaded his home, as frequently it did, and his little ones were taken from him, he grieved with a broken heart and mourned, not as those mourn who live without hope, but for the loss of his ‘precious jewels’ dearer to him than life itself.”10
Just a few months before President Smith received the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead, his oldest son, Hyrum Mack Smith, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, died; he was only forty-five years of age. This was a particularly traumatic affliction for the President. Already in a weakened physical condition due to age, he suffered “one of the most severe blows that he was ever called upon to endure.”11
However, during much of his life, the veil covering the post-mortal life had been thin. As a young missionary in Hawaii, he had received a dream/vision that strengthened his faith and built his confidence. Through the years that followed, it helped him chart his course and gave him assurance that his labors were acceptable to the Lord and to his predecessors in the presidency of the Church. In the dream, young Joseph encountered his uncle, the Prophet Joseph, and was fortified in his desire to remain free from the taints of the world. In addition, he learned at an early age that the separation between mortality and immortality is subtle and that the Lord frequently permits an intermingling of the inhabitants of the two spheres.12
The last thirty months of Joseph F. Smith’s life, April 1916 to October 1918, represent an era of particular spiritual enlightenment. During this time he delivered to the Church some of the most important and inspiring insights of this dispensation.
At the April 1916 general conference President Smith delivered a remarkable address entitled “In the Presence of the Divine.” He spoke of the nearness of the world of spirits, and of the interest and concern the spirits have for us and our labors. He stressed that those who labored so diligently in their mortal estate to establish the cause of Zion would not be denied the privilege of “looking down upon the results of their own labors” from their post-mortal estate. In fact, “they are as deeply interested in our welfare today, if not with greater capacity, with far more interest behind the veil, than they were in the flesh.” Perhaps his keynote statement in this sermon is the following: “Sometimes the Lord expands our vision from this point of view and this side of the veil, that we feel and seem to realize that we can look beyond the thin veil which separates us from that other sphere.”13
In June 1916 the First Presidency and the Twelve released a doctrinal exposition in pamphlet form entitled “The Father and the Son,” to alleviate doctrinal misunderstandings concerning the nature of the Godhead, and specifically the role of Jesus Christ as “Father.”14
President Joseph F. Smith delivered one of his most significant addresses—“Status of Children in the Resurrection”—at a temple fast meeting in February 1918. From it we gain not only an insight into the power and prophetic stature of one schooled and prepared in doctrine, but we are allowed also a brief glimpse into the heart of a noble father who—having lost little ones to death and having mourned their absence—rejoices in the sure knowledge that (1) children are immortal beings, spirits who continue to live and progress beyond the veil; and (2) as taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith, children will come forth from the grave as they lie down—as children—and such persons will thereafter be nurtured and reared to physical maturity by worthy parents. “O how I have been blessed with these children,” exulted President Smith, “and how happy I shall be to meet them on the other side!”15
Months later, on Thursday, 3 October 1918, President Smith, largely confined to his room because of illness, sat reading and meditating about the universal nature of the Atonement and about the Apostle Peter’s allusions to Christ’s post-mortal ministry. The stage was set: preparation of a lifetime and preparation of the moment were recompensed with a heavenly endowment—the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead.
“As I pondered over these things which are written,” the President wrote, “the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.” (D&C 138:11.)
Joseph F. Smith saw in vision “an innumerable company of the spirits of the just,” the righteous dead from the days of Adam to the meridian of time. They are anxiously awaiting the advent of Christ into their dimension of life, and are exuberant in their anticipation of an imminent resurrection. (See D&C 138:12–17.) Having consummated the atoning sacrifice on Golgotha, the Lord of the living and the dead passes in the twinkling of an eye into the world of the departed. The dead, having “looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage” (see D&C 138:50; see also D&C 45:17), are, in a sense, in prison; even the righteous seek “deliverance” (see D&C 138:15, 18). Thus, the Master comes to declare “liberty to the captives who had been faithful.” (D&C 138:18.) As Peter had said, Christ went beyond the veil to preach “unto the spirits in prison.” (1 Pet. 3:19.) Joseph Smith had taught: “Hades, Shaole, paradise, spirits in prison, are all one; it is a world of spirits.” (History of the Church, 5:425.) And as Elder Bruce R. McConkie has explained, in this vision, “it is clearly set forth that the whole spirit world, and not only that portion designated as hell, is considered to be a spirit prison.” (Ensign, Aug. 1976, p. 11.) However, Christ extends to the righteous spirits “power to come forth, after his resurrection from the dead, to enter into his Father’s kingdom, there to be crowned with immortality and eternal life.” (D&C 138: 51.)
While pondering the question of how the Savior could have taught the gospel to so many in the spirit world in the brief period between his death and resurrection, President Smith receives what is a most significant doctrinal insight. He comes to understand “that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient,” but rather “organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority” (D&C 138:29–30), that such representatives might carry the message of the gospel “unto whom he [the Lord] could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression” (D&C 138:37). The chosen messengers carry the gospel message to those who had no opportunity in mortality to accept or reject the truth, and also to those who rejected the prophets on earth. These are taught the first principles and ordinances of the gospel (including the vicarious nature of the ordinances), in order that they might be judged and rewarded by the same divine standards as those who inhabit the world of mortals. (See D&C 138:31–34.)
The insight that Christ did not personally visit the disobedient is a doctrinal matter introduced to the Church for the first time in this vision, broadening our scope of understanding of the work within that sphere. However, this clarification confirmed what had been taught by Joseph Smith: the faithful in this life continue to teach and labor in the world of spirits in behalf of those who know not God. (See D&C 138:57.) As recorded in George Laub’s journal under date of 12 May 1844, the Prophet Joseph declared: “Now all those die in the faith goe to the prison of Spirits to preach to the ded in body, but they are alive in the Spirit & those Spirits preach to the Spirits that they may live according to god “in the Spirit and men do minister for them in the flesh.”16 Joseph F. Smith had taught this doctrine on a number of occasions17; here he became an eyewitness of it.
As the vision continues, President Smith perceives the identity of many of the noble and great from the beginning of time, including Adam, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaiah, the Nephite prophets before Christ, and many more. In addition, he recognizes Mother Eve and many of her faithful daughters. President Smith had taught a number of years earlier that women minister to women in the spirit world, even as they do in holy places on earth.18 Again, through this vision, he became an eyewitness of that fact.
Having laid before us his remarkable vision—“a complete and comprehensive confirmation of the established doctrine of the Church where salvation for the dead is concerned” (Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign, Aug. 1976, p. 11)—President Smith climaxes his doctrinal contribution with testimony: “Thus was the vision of the redemption of the dead revealed to me, and I bear record, and I know that this record is true, through the blessing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, even so. Amen.” (D&C 138:60.)
The vision was presented to the First Presidency, the Twelve, and the Presiding Patriarch in a council meeting on Thursday, 31 October 1918. Because of his weakened condition, the President was not able to be in attendance but asked his son, Joseph Fielding Smith, to read the revelation to the gathered General Authorities.
Elder James Talmage recorded the following in his personal journal: “By united action the Council of the Twelve, with the Counselors in the First Presidency, and the Presiding Patriarch accepted and endorsed the revelation as the word of the Lord.”19
President Smith’s physical condition worsened during the first weeks of November 1918, and he died November 19. At the next general conference Elder Talmage delivered a touching and appropriate tribute to the President: “Where is he now?
“He was permitted shortly before his passing to have a glimpse into the hereafter, and to learn where he would soon be at work. He was a preacher of righteousness on earth, he is a preacher of righteousness today. He was a missionary from his boyhood up, and he is a missionary today amongst those who have not yet heard the gospel, though they have passed from mortality into the spirit world. I cannot conceive of him as otherwise than busily engaged in the work of the Master.”20
Joseph Smith’s Vision of the Celestial Kingdom portrays a loving God who has indeed many mansions prepared. Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of the Redemption of the Dead sets forth with remarkable clarity the manner in which the Savior “declared liberty to the captives” in the meridian of time and also unfolds the pattern by which the doctrines of salvation continue to be made known in the world beyond the grave.
And so it is that the work of redemption goes forward on both sides of the veil. “Because of this,” Peter taught the Saints, “is the gospel preached to them who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live in the spirit according to the will of God.” (JST, 1 Pet. 4:6.)