Baptism for the Dead

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(This is an excerpt from the book Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion by Dennis Largey.)


Historical context

Joseph Smith introduced the subject of baptism for the dead on 10 August 1840, while speaking to the Saints during the funeral of Seymour Brunson. The first proxy baptisms for the dead in this dispensation were performed the following month in the Mississippi River. The ordinance continued to be performed outof- doors until October 1841, when Joseph instructed the Saints to discontinue the practice until such baptisms could be performed in a temple. On 21 November 1841, the ordinance was resumed in a temporary baptismal font in the basement of the unfinished Nauvoo Temple. While Church members appear to have kept records of these early baptisms for the dead, they did not systematically use witnesses in the process—the need for which had become apparent to Joseph by 31 August 1842, when he addressed the Relief Society in Nauvoo on the topic (Minutes, 82, 31 August 1842). Joseph wrote the letter that is now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 127, which also addresses the issue, the following day (1 September), either while working “in the large room over the [red brick] Store” in the morning or “at home attending to business” in the afternoon (Smith, 2:448). Joseph had been in and out of hiding since 8 August 1842, when state officials in both Missouri and Illinois tried to arrest him on the charge of being an “accessory before the fact” in an assassination attempt on former governor of Missouri Lilburn W. Boggs. Joseph was formally cleared of the charge the following January. In the meantime he was in constant danger of unlawful arrest. Two days after recording this letter Joseph fled his home for safety (Smith, 2:448–50)—the possible need for which he had apparently seen coming (127:1), and which accounts for his having written the letter in the first place rather than delivering its contents in a discourse (127:10). Following Joseph’s instructions, the letter was “read before the saints when assembled at the Grove near the Temple” on Sunday, 4 September 1842, in his absence (Smith, 2:455).


Content overview

Considering his persecution “but a small thing” (127:2), Joseph encouraged the Saints to continue work on the Nauvoo Temple and redouble their efforts to live the gospel (127:4). Because the Saints had been keeping somewhat haphazard records of baptisms for the dead, without noting any witnesses, Joseph stressed the importance of having the “recorder” be an “eye-witness” of the baptisms he records (127:6) and of having the records kept “in order” (127:9). Forced to close his letter “for the want of more time” (127:11), Joseph promised to “write the word of the Lord from time to time” on this subject “as well as many other things” (127:10), referring to the restoration of things “pertaining to the priesthood,” presumably in connection with the temple (127:8; cf. 124:28).

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