In October 1841, soon after returning to Nauvoo from a mission in England, Elder Wilford Woodruff attended a meeting in which the Prophet Joseph Smith taught the doctrine of the redemption of the dead. This was the first time Elder Woodruff heard that living members of the Church could receive saving ordinances in behalf of their ancestors who had passed away. He said: “It was like a shaft of light from the throne of God to our hearts. It opened a field wide as eternity to our minds.”1 He also commented: “It appeared to me that the God who revealed that principle unto man was wise, just and true, possessed both the best of attributes and good sense and knowledge. I felt he was consistent with both love, mercy, justice and judgment, and I felt to love the Lord more than ever before in my life. … I felt to say hallelujah when the revelation came forth revealing to us baptism for the dead. I felt that we had a right to rejoice in the blessings of Heaven.”2
Upon hearing this doctrine, Elder Woodruff thought of his mother. “The first thing that entered into my mind,” he said, “was that I had a mother in the spirit world. She died when I was 14 months old. I never knew [my] mother. I thought to myself, Have I power to go forth and seal my mother to my father? The word was, yes.”3 He later spoke of the time when he finally had the opportunity to have his mother sealed to his father: “She will have a part in the first resurrection; and this alone would pay me for all the labors of my life.”4 He also testified of the joy he felt as he performed temple ordinances for other deceased family members: “I have had the blessing and privilege of redeeming in the Temple of our God some four thousand of my father’s and my mother’s kindred. I speak of this because it is one of our blessings, the fullness and glory of which we will never know until the veil is opened.”5
While serving as President of the Church, Wilford Woodruff dedicated the Salt Lake Temple. On that occasion he pleaded with the Lord to help the Saints in their efforts to redeem the dead: “Wilt thou … permit holy messengers to visit us within these sacred walls and make known unto us with regard to the work we should perform in behalf of our dead. And, as thou hast inclined the hearts of many who have not yet entered into covenant with thee to search out their progenitors, and in so doing they have traced the ancestry of many of thy Saints, we pray thee that thou wilt increase this desire in their bosoms, that they may in this way aid in the accomplishment of thy work. Bless them, we pray thee, in their labors, that they may not fall into errors in preparing their genealogies; and furthermore, we ask thee to open before them new avenues of information, and place in their hands the records of the past, that their work may not only be correct but complete also.”6
If the dead have not heard the Gospel, the Lord is not going to send them to hell because they have not received it. The Lord is the Father of all. He is merciful to all. … Millions of people have been born in the flesh, have lived and have gone to the grave, who never saw the face of a prophet in their lives; never saw a man that was called of God and had power to administer in one of the ordinances of the House of God. Will God condemn them because they did not receive the Gospel? Not at all.7
God is no respecter of persons; he will not give privileges to one generation and withhold them from another; and the whole human family, from father Adam down to our day, have got to have the privilege, somewhere, of hearing the gospel of Christ; and the generations that have passed and gone without hearing that gospel in its fulness, power and glory, will never be held responsible by God for not obeying it. Neither will he bring them under condemnation for rejecting a law they never saw or understood; and if they live up to the light they had they are justified so far, and they have to be preached to in the spirit world.8
Many of our progenitors, now in the spirit world, never saw the face of an apostle, prophet or inspired man, and they are shut up in prison. Joseph Smith, Heber Kimball, George A. Smith and thousands of the elders of Israel may preach to those spirits, and they may receive the testimonies which the elders bear; but the elders will not baptize believers there; there is no baptism in the spirit world any more than there is any marrying and giving in marriage.9
Some person or persons dwelling in the flesh must attend to this part of the work for them; for it takes just as much to save a dead man who never received the Gospel as a living man. And all those who have passed away without the Gospel have the right to expect somebody in the flesh to perform this work for them.10
It is our duty to rise up and build these Temples. I look upon this portion of our ministry as a mission of as much importance as preaching to the living; the dead will hear the voice of the servants of God in the spirit-world, and they cannot come forth in the morning of the [first] resurrection, unless certain ordinances are performed, for and in their behalf, in Temples built to the name of God. … Somebody has got to redeem them, by performing such ordinances for them in the flesh as they cannot attend to themselves in the spirit, and in order that this work may be done, we must have temples in which to do it; and what I wish to say to you, my brethren and sisters, is that the God of heaven requires us to rise up and build them, that the work of redemption may be hastened. Our reward will meet us when we go behind the veil. …
… I do not wonder at President [Brigham] Young saying he felt moved upon to call upon the Latter-day Saints to hurry up the building of these Temples. He felt the importance of the work; but now he has gone, it rests with us to continue it, and God will bless our labors and we will have joy therein. This is a preparation necessary for the second advent of the Savior; and when we shall have built the Temples now contemplated, we will then begin to see the necessity of building others, for in proportion to the diligence of our labors in this direction, will we comprehend the extent of the work to be done, and the present is only a beginning. When the Savior comes, a thousand years will be devoted to this work of redemption; and Temples will appear all over this land of Joseph,—North and South America—and also in Europe and elsewhere; and all the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth who received not the gospel in the flesh, must be officiated for in the Temples of God before the Savior can present the kingdom to the Father, saying, “It is finished.”11
You have had laid before you … some things pertaining to the redemption of our dead, and some things in regard to the building of temples. These, brethren and sisters, are important works. They are works which we do for others that they cannot do for themselves. This is what Jesus Christ did when He laid down His life for our redemption, because we could not redeem ourselves. We have fathers and mothers and kindred in the spirit world, and we have a work to perform in their behalf. As an individual I have had great interest in this work of redeeming the dead, and so have my brethren and sisters. This is a labor we must continue as far as we have opportunity. … This is a work that rests upon the Latter-day Saints. Do what you can in this respect, so that when you pass to the other side of the veil your fathers, mothers, relatives and friends will bless you for what you have done, and inasmuch as you have been instruments in the hands of God in procuring their redemption, you will be recognized as Saviors upon Mount Zion in fulfillment of prophecy [see Obadiah 1:21].12
We are blessed with power and authority, holding the Holy Priesthood by the commandment of God, to stand upon the earth and redeem both the living and the dead. If we did not do it, we should be damned and cut off from the earth, and the God of Israel would raise up a people who would do it.13
Brethren and sisters, lay these things to heart. Let us go on with our records, fill them up righteously before the Lord, and carry out this principle, and the blessings of God will attend us, and those who are redeemed will bless us in days to come. I pray God that as a people our eyes may be opened to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to understand the great and mighty work that rests upon our shoulders, and that the God of heaven requires at our hands. Great and glorious are these principles which God has revealed to us concerning the redemption of our dead.14
We have a great work before us in the redemption of our dead. The course that we are pursuing is being watched with interest by all heaven.15
Our forefathers are looking to us to attend to this work. They are watching over us with great anxiety, and are desirous that we should finish these temples and attend to certain ordinances for them, so that in the morning of the resurrection they can come forth and enjoy the same blessings that we enjoy.16
“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.] So it will be with your fathers. There will be very few, if any, who will not accept the Gospel. … The fathers of this people will embrace the Gospel.17
President Young has said to us, and it is verily so, if the dead could they would speak in language loud as ten thousand thunders, calling upon the servants of God to rise up and build Temples, magnify their calling and redeem their dead.18
If [we] knew and understood the feelings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and those of his brethren associated with him, and the feelings of the millions of the human family who are shut up in their prison houses, we would not tire. … We would labor for the redemption of our dead.19
The eyes of the heavens are over us; the eyes of God himself, the eyes of every Prophet and Apostle in the spirit world, are watching you, watching this Priesthood, to see what they are doing and what they are going to do. It is of far more importance than we realize and comprehend. Let us awake to the ordinances of the House of God and do our duty, that we may be justified.20
You have had power to … redeem your dead. A great many of you have done this, and I hope all of you will continue as long as you have any dead to redeem. Never cease that work while you have the power to enter into the Temple. … I have had some thousands redeemed here. I have had baptisms, ordinations, washings and anointings, endowments and sealings for them, the same as if they were standing in the flesh themselves. I shall go and meet them on the other side of the veil. You will go and meet your relatives.21
When I lay my body in the tomb and my spirit goes into the spirit world, I shall rejoice and have glory with them in the morning of the resurrection, inasmuch as they receive these principles. “Well,” perhaps you may say, “what if these people whom you have been baptized for do not receive the Gospel?” That will be their fault, not mine. This is a duty that rests upon all Israel, that they shall attend to this work, as far as they have the opportunity here on the earth.22
How would I feel, after living as long as I have, with the privileges I have had of going into these temples, to go into the spirit world without having done this work? I meet my father’s house, I meet my mother’s house, I meet my progenitors, and they are shut up in prison; I held the keys of their salvation, and yet did nothing for them; what would be my feelings, or what would be their feelings toward me?23
I do not want to go into the spirit world and meet with my progenitors who never heard the Gospel in their day and generation, and have them tell me, “You held in your hand the power to go forth and redeem me, and you have not done it.” I do not want to meet that. I do not want the Latter-day Saints to meet it. I think we are doing pretty well. We have four temples reared in these valleys of the mountains [in 1897], and they are fairly well occupied by the Latter-day Saints. But we want to continue this until we have redeemed all within our power to redeem. If we will carry this principle out, we will have the blessing of it. It will be with us in the morning of the resurrection, when our fathers and mothers and our progenitors come up with us because we have redeemed them.24
If we do not do what is required of us in this thing, we are under condemnation. If we do attend to this, then when we come to meet our friends in the celestial kingdom, they will say, “You have been our saviors, because you had power to do it. You have attended to these ordinances that God has required.”25
We have been called as Saviors upon Mount Zion, while the kingdom has been the Lord’s. These are glorious principles. To be saved ourselves, and to save our fellowmen, what a glorious thing! What is gold and silver; what are the riches of this world? They all perish with the using. We pass away and leave them. But if we have eternal life, if we keep the faith and overcome, we shall rejoice when we go upon the other side of the veil. I rejoice in all these things. There is hardly any principle the Lord has revealed that I have rejoiced more in than in the redemption of our dead; that we will have our fathers, our mothers, our wives and our children with us in the family organization, in the morning of the first resurrection and in the Celestial Kingdom. These are grand principles. They are worth every sacrifice.26
Consider these ideas as you study the chapter or as you prepare to teach. For additional help, see pages v–ix.
How did Wilford Woodruff feel when he first heard the doctrine of the redemption of the dead? What was his first thought? (See page 185.) What can we learn from these responses?
President Woodruff said that temple work for the dead is as important as missionary work for the living (page 188). Ponder or discuss the significance of this statement. What experiences have shown you the connection between temple work and missionary work?
President Woodruff said that when we receive ordinances in behalf of the dead, we do a work that others “cannot do for themselves” (page 189). How does this understanding influence your feelings about temple work?
Review the section that begins on page 190. According to President Woodruff, how do our ancestors feel about temple work? How does God the Father regard the work? How do you feel as you read these statements?
Review the final section of the chapter, beginning on page 191. Consider how you might feel when you meet your ancestors in the spirit world.
How can we make time for temple and family history work? What resources does the Church provide to guide and assist us?
How can participation in temple and family history work strengthen our families? What can we do to help the youth of the Church find joy in their responsibility to redeem the dead?