Charlotte Haven, a visitor to Nauvoo in 1843, walked along the bank of the Mississippi River with a friend. “We followed the bank toward town,” she wrote of the stroll, “and rounding a little point covered with willows and cottonwoods, we spied quite a crowd of people, and soon perceived there was a baptism. Two elders stood knee-deep in the icy water, and immersed one after another as fast as they could come down the bank. We soon observed that some of them went in and were plunged several times. We were told that they were baptized for the dead who had not had the opportunity of adopting the doctrines of the Latter Day Saints.” 1
Such sights were commonplace in Nauvoo between August 1840 and January 1845, as baptism for the dead became a major religious activity. The Prophet Joseph Smith had alluded to the doctrine of baptism for the dead in 1836 and 1838, but in 1840 he put the practice in place. The occasion was the 15 August funeral of Seymour Brunson, a high councilor and bodyguard of the Prophet. At the burial ground located on the bluff overlooking Nauvoo, mourners listened as the Prophet eulogized his bodyguard.
Although his statements were grand, it was the Prophet’s announcement of the doctrine of baptism for the dead that captured the imagination of the Saints. According to Simon Baker, the Prophet read 1 Corinthians 15 [1 Cor. 15] and acknowledged that the Apostle Paul was “talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them.” Then, seeing among those assembled at the burial ground a widow whose son had died without baptism, the Prophet added, “This widow [has read] the sayings of Jesus ‘except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,’ [see John 3:5] and that not one jot nor tittle of the Savior’s words should pass away, but all should be fulfilled” (see Matt. 5:18). He announced that the fulfillment of the Savior’s teaching had arrived and “that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God.” 2
A Joyful Season
Elder Heber C. Kimball wrote of his wife’s reaction to the new doctrine: “A more joyfull Season She … never Saw be fore on the account of the glory that Joseph set forth.” 3 Soon Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo were wading knee-deep into the Mississippi River to be baptized as proxy for their deceased kindred and friends (see D&C 127; D&C 128).
The Prophet Joseph continued to receive revelations that clarified this glorious doctrine. He said, “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.” 4
On another occasion, the Prophet asked his followers, “‘If the dead rise not at all, why are they then baptized for the dead?’ [see 1 Cor. 15:29]. … If we can, by the authority of the Priesthood of the Son of God, baptize a man in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, for the remission of sins, it is just as much our privilege to act as an agent, and be baptized for the remission of sins for and in behalf of our dead kindred.” 5
Most memorable were the Prophet Joseph’s words: “Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free” (D&C 128:22).
Baptisms in the Mississippi
Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo to Quincy, Illinois, and even as far away as Kirtland, Ohio, entered river waters to be baptized as proxy for departed loved ones. Elder Wilford Woodruff wrote of one occasion: “Joseph Smith himself … went into the Mississippi river one Sunday night after meeting, and baptized a hundred. I baptized another hundred. The next man, a few rods from me, baptized another hundred. We were strung up and down the Mississippi, baptizing for our dead.” 6
“Why did we do it?” Elder Woodruff asked. “Because of the feeling of joy that we had, to think that we in the flesh could stand and redeem our dead.” 7
Among those entering baptismal waters in these early years was William Clayton: “I was baptized first for myself and then for my grandfather Thomas and grandmother Elen Clayton, Grandmother Mary Chritebly and aunt Elizabeth Beurchwood.” 8 Although he and others would question the lack of structured organization of these first baptisms, for the practice varied up and down the river and few recorded the events of the day, joy overcame any sense of neglect to properly regulate the ordinance. “We attended to this ordinance without waiting to have a proper record made,” said Elder Woodruff. He lamented, “Of course, we had to do the work over again. Nevertheless, that does not say the work was not of God.” 9
Latter-day Saints eagerly accepted their responsibility to seek after their kindred dead and sent a flurry of letters to distant relatives asking for genealogical information. Jonah Ball wrote: “I want you to send me a list of fathers relations his parents & Uncles & their names, also Mothers. I am determined to do all I can to redeem those I am permitted to.” 10 Sally Carlisle Randall asked a relative to “write me the given names of all our connections that are dead as far back as grandfathers and grandmothers at any rate.” She then added, “I expect you will think this [baptism for the dead] is strange doctrine but you will find it is true.” 11
Jonah Ball and Sally Randall knew of the important work for the dead, and they were eager to be proxies for loved ones in the Mississippi River. But it would not be long for them and others until the season of baptizing in the river ended. “God decreed before the foundation of the world that that ordinance should be administered in a font prepared for that purpose in the house of the Lord,” the Prophet Joseph explained. 12 Then on 3 October 1841 he declared, “There shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord’s House.” 13
A Baptismal Font of Wood
After approximately 13 months (15 August 1840 to 3 October 1841), baptisms for the dead in the river halted while William Weeks, architect of the Nauvoo Temple, prepared drawings for a baptismal font for the Nauvoo Temple. Weeks drew 12 oxen shouldering a molten sea, symbolic of the encampment of the twelve tribes of Israel encircling the tabernacle during the days of Moses.
Soon work began, and when the font was finished, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote a detailed description of it:
“The baptismal font is situated in the center of the basement room, under the main hall of the Temple; it is constructed of pine timber, and put together of staves tongued and grooved, oval shaped, sixteen feet long east and west, and twelve feet wide, seven feet high from the foundation, the basin four feet deep, the moulding of the cap and base are formed of beautiful carved wood in antique style. The sides are finished with panel work. A flight of stairs in the north and south sides lead up and down into the basin, guarded by side railing.
“The font stands upon twelve oxen, four on each side, and two at each end, their heads, shoulders, and fore legs projecting out from under the font; they are carved out of pine plank, glued together, and copied after the most beautiful five-year-old steer that could be found in the country, and they are an excellent striking likeness of the original; the horns were formed after the most perfect horn that could be procured.” 14
Acknowledging the many curious speculations about the font that appeared in newspapers from Missouri to New York, the Prophet commented to Brigham Young, “This fount has caused the Gentile world to wonder.” 15 Yet for little children, the font was not a wonder but was wonderful. Abigail Morman recalled a childhood memory: “The Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum lifted my sister Cynthia and myself up on the oxen which held up the fount, this pleased us very much and we thought it the most wonderful place we had ever seen.” 16 But for adult Latter-day Saints, adulations were subdued, for they were inclined to speak in reverent whispers of the opportunities that awaited them in continuing their work of baptism for kindred dead. They knew that the wooden font was in its place on Temple Hill, water for the font was channeled from a nearby well, and the temporary frame walls and a roof were protecting the structure from gaping eyes. To them it was time again to resume their important work.
A Proper Record Made
On 8 November 1841, the Prophet Joseph Smith dedicated the baptismal font, and on Sunday, 21 November 1841, baptisms were performed there. Acting as officiators were Elders Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and John Taylor. They baptized about 40 people in the presence of the Twelve, who had assembled to witness the ordinances.
Modern historian M. Guy Bishop counted 6,818 baptismal ordinances completed in 1841 in the river and the wooden font. 17 From this record, it is clear that the font was in continual use that year. However, the religious activity is greater than noted. The statistics do not reflect those who were baptized for the dead but failed to have their proxy work recorded. In their enthusiasm to complete the ordinances, these Saints failed to heed the Lord’s directive, “Let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation, saith the Lord of Hosts” (D&C 127:9). The Prophet admonished the Saints, “All persons baptized for the dead must have a recorder present, that he may be an eyewitness to record and testify of the truth and validity of his record.” 18
Even after this injunction, problems of recording baptismal work were still apparent. The wooden font on Temple Hill was in such demand that adult converts and children who had reached the age of eight years sought other locations in which to continue their baptismal work. They may have rationalized that the crowded font and the possibility of interfering with the manual labor on the temple opened the way for them to once again do baptismal work in the Mississippi River. On Monday, 30 May 1842, Elder Woodruff wrote of being baptized for the dead in the river under the hands of Elder George Albert Smith and added, “I also Baptized [Brother] John Benbow for six of his dead kindred [and his wife] for six of her dead friends.” 19
So frequent were river baptisms that William Marks, president of the Nauvoo Stake, convened a conference for the purpose of appointing recorders for baptisms for the dead wherever they occurred. Additional records still lacked proper recording, but this did not stop the Latter-day Saints from wading into the Mississippi. It was not until the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum on 27 June 1844 that river baptisms stopped. As the Saints mourned this loss, even the wooden font on Temple Hill was not used.
Not until President Brigham Young returned to Nauvoo in August 1844 was the question of resuming this great work for the dead raised. President Young replied that he “had no counsel to give upon that subject at present, but thought it best to attend to other matters in the meantime.” 20 Other Apostles, however, began to resume the practice. On the afternoon of 24 August 1844, “several of the Twelve Apostles were baptized for their dead” in the font. 21 A short time later, President Young told the Saints they could resume baptisms for their dead relatives. 22 The work continued until January 1845. By this time 15,722 recorded baptisms for the dead had been performed.
The Stone Font
In January 1845, the wooden font was removed from the Nauvoo Temple site. On 6 April 1845, President Young announced the need for a new font: “This font was made of wood, and was only intended for the present use; but it is now removed, and as soon as the stone cutters get through with the cutting of the stone for the walls of the Temple, they will immediately proceed to cut the stone for and erect a font of hewn stone. This font will be of an oval form and twelve feet in length and eight wide, with stone steps and an iron railing; this font will stand upon twelve oxen, which will be cast of iron or brass, or perhaps hewn stone.” 23
Stonecutters laid the first stone for the new font on 25 June 1845 after they finished their daily work on the temple. Through their combined labors, they erected a font that resembled the discarded wooden structure but with more intricate details. For example, their cutting of the stone oxen was “perfectly executed, so that the veins in the ears and nose were plainly seen.” The “horns were perfectly natural, with small wrinkles at the bottom.” 24 And the stone oxen were painted white and appeared to be standing in water halfway up to their knees.
A Change of Emphasis
By January 1846, the stone font was finished. However, a question remains as to who used the font and whether baptisms for the dead were actually performed there. If baptisms were not performed in the stone font, then the question should be asked, “Why did the Saints not continue with this important work?” The answer is not found in neglect but in a change of emphasis. The Saints had turned their energy to receiving their endowments in the upper story of the Nauvoo Temple and making preparations for the trek west. Perhaps stonecutter Joseph Hovey described it best on 1 December 1845: “I finished my work on the baptismal font and made an agreement to … put up a shop and go to work ironing wagons.” 25
The great work for the dead stopped in Nauvoo in 1845. Only faded holographic baptismal records remain to tell of the unselfish deeds of the early Saints in behalf of their deceased loved ones. Saints of today should express gratitude for the deeds of the early Saints and for the records that reveal the first “ordinance remembrances” in behalf of the deceased in this dispensation.
[In the Mississippi River]
“Joseph Smith himself … went into the Mississippi river one Sunday night after meeting, and baptized a hundred. I baptized another hundred. The next man, a few rods from me, baptized another hundred. We were strung up and down the Mississippi, baptizing for our dead.” Wilford Woodruff
[In Behalf of Our Dead]
“If we can, by the authority of the Priesthood of the Son of God, baptize a man in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, for the remission of sins, it is just as much our privilege to act as an agent, and be baptized for the remission of sins for and in behalf of our dead kindred.” Joseph Smith
“A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo,” Overland Monthly, July–Dec. 1890, 629–30, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; hereafter cited as Church Archives.
The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (1980), 49.
Words of Joseph Smith, 49.
Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 179.
History of the Church, 4:569.
Deseret Weekly, 25 Apr. 1891, 554.
In Brian H. Stuy, comp., Collected Discourses Delivered by President Wilford Woodruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others, 5 vols. (1987–92), 4:71.
Journal of William Clayton, 9 May 1841, Church Archives.
Deseret Weekly, 25 Apr. 1891, 554.
Letter to relatives, 19 May 1843, Church Archives.
Letter to family, 21 Apr. 1844, Church Archives.
History of the Church, 4:426.
History of the Church, 4:446.
In Dale Verden Boman, “The LDS Temple Baptismal Font: Dead Relic or Living Symbol?” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1985), 10.
In Autobiography of Stephen Joseph Morman, typescript, Lands and Records Office, Nauvoo, Illinois, 5.
See M. Guy Bishop, “‘What Has Become of Our Fathers?’ The Practice of Baptism for the Dead at Mormon Nauvoo” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association in Quincy, Illinois, May 1989), Church Archives, 4.
History of the Church, 5:141.
Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 30 May 1842.
History of the Church, 7:254.
History of the Church, 7:261.
History of the Church, 7:264.
History of the Church, 7:358.
Emily M. Austin, Mormonism; or, Life Among the Mormons (1882), 202.
Journal of Joseph Hovey, 1 Dec. 1845, Church Archives, 71.