The eternal fate of the child who passes away is a subject which many have considered. Before the Church was officially organized, the Saints received the teachings in the Book of Mormon, which declared that the child who dies is saved in Christ and that such individuals need not be baptized. As Mormon conceptions of cosmology, resurrection and exaltation developed beyond the binary eternities of the Book of Mormon, the simple words of Moroni were complicated in the expanded vision.
In early 1832, Joseph and Sidney received the revelation that we now number the 76th. This revelation was so controversial the Elders were asked to keep it quite and even Brigham Young put it on “the shelf” until he could deal with it (1). This revelation shows that all except those who commit the unpardonable sin receive a measure of grace and glory. There are three heavens and those that accept Christ and are baptized receive the celestial glory (the kingdom of the Father), taking part in the first resurrection.
We are not sure how or if the Saints tried to reconcile Moroni’s teachings and section 76, but Joseph was shocked by a vision in the Kirtland temple (1836) of his un-baptized brother in Celestial bliss:
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 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. (2)
The Lord responded to Joseph’s marvel with the knowledge that all those that would have received the gospel but didn’t have the opportunity would be judged as if they had. The Lord also showed Joseph “that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.”
The Kirtland doctrines, like the Kirtland endowment, would yet face further expansion in the Nauvoo. In Nauvoo, Joseph revealed the concept that the Church now generally refers to as exaltation. Joseph also began to preach more explicitly on the details of the resurrection. On March 20th, 1842, Joseph the Seer, gathered some saints to preach on baptism, but as a child had passed away and the body was presented to the congregation, Joseph chose to speak on death and resurrection, perhaps reflecting his own experience with losing children (3).
He noted that it was then a time, unlike other times in the history of the world, that the Lord would take some of his most righteous spirits in their infancy to spare them the burden of mortality (4). This was also the first recorded instance of a doctrine that created significant controversy for many decades:
As Concerning the resurrection I will merly say that all men will come from the grave as they lie down, whether old or young. Their will not be added unto ther stature one cubit neither taken from it All being raised by the power of God having the spirit of God in their bodies & not Blood. Children will be enthroned in the presence of God & the Lamb with bodies of the same stature that were on earth. (5)
Joseph repeated this sentiment several times before his death. Perhaps most famously, in the King Follet Discourse, Joseph proclaimed:
A question[:] will Mothers have their children in Eternity yes, yes, you will have the children But as it falls so it will rise, It will never grow, It will be in its precise form as it fell in its mothers arms. Eternity is full of thrones upon which dwell thousands of children reigning on thrones of glory not one cubit added to their stature. (6)
It was believed by Joseph’s contemporaries that he meant that those who died as children would be resurrected in that form to remain for eternity. For example, Brigham Young once preached in 1854:
Little childeren can, after death, increase in all the wisdom, power, glory, gifts, and blessings that pertain to the Celestial kingdom. .. . Suppose the inhabitants of the eternal world should range from two to fifteen feet what matter of that. . . . This heavenly, beautiful, and glorious variety you discover in the works of God here below, will be seen in the resurrection. You will see the child of three, four, and five years old, possessing all the intelligence in them that makes them capable of enjoyment and duration. Resurrected bodies will be as diversified as the bodies of mortal flesh, for variety, beauty and extension…. The hight of my body, or its extension in width will make no difference to my enjoyments and blessings in the eternal worlds. (7)
Near the end of his life, Joseph F. Smith confessed that this doctrine made him uncomfortable, but that he never had the courage to speak against it (8). President Smith made an effort to find individuals who had heard Joseph Smith preach on the subject of the resurrection of children and was able to secure several affidavits. These witnesses attested that Joseph believed that the children would be resurrected and grow to fill the stature of their spirits. The 1896 affidavits of Joseph and M. Isabella Horne stated that the parents would receive them. Isabella also stated what is perhaps the seed from which the idea that mothers will raise their deceased children in the Millennium (though that detail doesn’t seem to have been advocated by Joseph F. Smith):
The idea that I got from what he said was that the children would grow and develop in the Millennium, and that the mothers would have the pleasure of training and caring for them, which they had been deprived of in this life. (9)
Perhaps the greatest aspect of Nauvoo era doctrine has yet to be fully considered by the Saints. In 1843, Joseph’s scribe William Clayton recorded:
I asked the President w[h]ether children who die in infancy will grow. He answered “no, we shall receive them precisely in the same state as they died i.e. no larger. They will have as much intelligence as we shall but shall always remain separate and single. They will have no increase. Children who are born dead will have full grown bodies being made up by the resurrection. (10)
Here the prophet couples deceased children with the doctrines of the newly revealed Temple rituals. Just two days before this incident, Joseph spent the night at Benjamin F. Johnson’s with William Clayton. William recorded the preaching of Joseph, which was later redacted for inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants:
Before we retired the President gave Brother Johnson and wife some instructions on the priesthood. He put his hand on my knee and says “your life is hid with Christ in God, and so is many others.” Addressing Benjamin says he “nothing but the unpardonable sin can prevent him (me) from inheriting eternal glory for he is sealed up by the power of the priesthood unto eternal life having taken the step which is necessary for that purpose.” …He also said that in the celestial glory there was three heavens or degrees, and in order to obtain the highest a man must enter into this order of the priesthood and if he don’t he can’t obtain it. He may enter into the other but that is the end of his kingdom he cannot have increase. (11)
The phrase, “separate and single,” was also used by the Prophet in the subsequent months (12) and then in section 132 to describe the eternal state of those who do not receive the ordinances of the temple. Most definitively, the prophet spoke the day after his King Follett Discourse:
When the House is done, Baptism font erected and finished & the worthy are washed, anointed, endowed & ordained kings & priests, which must be done in this life, when the place is prepared you must go through all the ordinances of the house of the Lord so that you who have any dead friends must go through all the ordinances for them the same as for yourselves; (13)
This principle relegates those souls who never reached age eight to never having the opportunity for exaltation. This conundrum is likely the impetus for the widely held idea that children that pass away will receive all the opportunities for ordinances during the Millennium. Regardless, the church has maintained a policy that the only ordinances that deceased children are to receive are sealings to parents. The enumerated policy in the temple from at least 1877 to 1902 were based on questions posed to and answered by Brigham Young:
3. Should children who die before they attain the age of eight years be baptized for. or receive any temple ordinance, other then being sealed to their parents? Nothing more than to be sealed to their parents.
4. Shall still born children who the mothers state have quickened have anything done for them? No: they are all right without having anything done for them.
7. How Young may a dead female be sealed to a husband? Not too young; say not less than ten or twelve Years. (14)
One practice that was relatively common among the early Saints was for Priesthood holders to ordain their children as young as eight days old to the high offices of the priesthood (15). In a meeting with the Councils of the Snow First Presidency and Twelve Apostles, it was resolved that babies that were ordained (because death was thought immanent, but they lived) should follow through with the regular ordinations in the Church (16).
After the repeal of the Law of Adoption in 1894, a degree of ambiguity was accepted by the Saints in their administration of Temple rites. This ambiguity coupled with popular notions of a Millennium where all loose ends will be tied has served to comfort the mourning families of the deceased and perplexed questioner alike.
- See Deseret News, Extra (14 September 1852) pg. 24:
After all, my traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was so directly contrary and opposed to my former education, I said, wait a little; I did not reject it, but I could not understand it.
- D&C 137:1,5-6
- Wilford Woodruff Journal, March 20 1842, vol 2, pg. 159:
I have meditated upon the subject, & asked the question Why is it that infant innocent Children are taken away from us, esspe-cially those that seem to be most intelligent beings?
Compare Woodruff journal to HC vol. 4, pg. 553-556.
- Ibid. vol 2, pg. 159:
In the early ages of the world A richeous man & a man of God & intelligence had a better chance to do good to be received & believed than at the present day. But in these days such a man is much opposed & persecuted by most of the inhabitants of the earth & he has much sorrow to pass through. Hence the Lord takes many away even in infancy that they may escape the envy of man, the sorrows & evils of this present world & they were two pure & to lovly to live on Earth. Therefore if rightly considered we have, instead of morning we have reason to rejoice, as they are deliverd from evil & we shall soon have them again.
- Ibid. pg. 153.
- Wilford Woodruff Journal, 7 June 1844, vol 2, pg. 159. Compare to text of this discourse at notes 28 and 87, and the text after note 117 in Words of Joseph Smith, pg. 340-361.
- Discourse of Brigham Young, 19 February 1854, Brigham Young Collection, Church Archives as included in: Van Hale (1983)The King Follett Discourse: Textual History and Criticism. Sunstone no. 41. Compare to Brigham Young’s Sermon at the funeral for an infant son of Jesse C. Little:
The question has often been asked, how it is with little children; will they grow or not after; Joseph once said they would, and then he said they would not, he never had any revelation upon the subject. I have no doctrine to give upon this subject. I believe in the great variety in the vast Creation of God. I do not believe that the Lord ever made two worlds alike, or two things alike in any world, nor that the human family has been alike in stature in the various ages of this world. The Lord has power to give a soul or spirit in a tabernacle two or three ft. high, as in a giant 8 or 10 ft. in height….My doctrine or belief is that we shall find all children and people at the resurrection of the same stature as when they died. (Journal History, 31 January 1861)
- Joseph F. Smith (1918) Improvement Era 21:567-574.
I did not believe, never did believe that he was correctly reported or that those who died in infancy would remain as little children after the resurrection. Never had it entered my soul as a possibility that such could be the case; yet, I did not have the courage to say so, although I had been told this circumstance. I really did not care to mention it, because I knew the strong opinions that some people had in regard to little children being resurrected and, everlastingly and forever after to remain as little children.
- Transcripts for both affidavits were are included in footnote 7 of the March 20 1842 discourse in HC vol. 4, pg. 553-556.
- George D. Smith, An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, p.104. Emphasis added.
- Ibid., pg. 101. Note that when Orson Pratt redacted the journal for inclusion in section 131, he inserted a bracketed note that the highest order of Priesthood of which the prophet spoke was temple marriage. Kevin Barney had a great post with a nice discussion here about the relative merits of that position.
- See Words of Joseph Smith, pg. 232. Franklin D. Richards diary account of a 16 July 1843 discourse at the temple stand:
Those who keep no eternal Law in this life or make no eternal contract are single & alone in the eternal world (Luke 20-35) and are only made Angels to minister to those who shall be heirs of Salvation never becoming Sons of God having never kept the Law of God ie eternal Law.
- Wilford Woodruff Journal, Vol. 2, 1841-1845, pg. 388
- L. John Nuttall Journal, August 24, 1877. Typescript, BYU Special Collections Library. Compare to Manti Temple Historical Record, 24 Apr. 1902, as contained in David John Buerger, The Mysteries of Godliness. pg. 129
- See for example the eighth day blessing of Joseph Woodruff, by his father:
I ordain the to be a High Priest after the order of Melchisedic in the Church and kingdom of God and I seal upon thy head all the powers and blessings of this Priesthood that when thou shalt arive to years of accountability & discretion thou shalt have power to administer in the ordinances thereof. (Wilford Woodruff Journal vol. 2, pg. 584-586)
- Meeting minutes contained in the Scott Kenny Research Collection. MSS 2022 Box 10, Folder 1. University of Utah Special Collections Library