We are very pleased to have Emily U back as our guest. Be sure to catch her posts at The Exponent.
Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.
The stated purpose of this lesson is “to help class members rejoice in their opportunity to provide ordinances for the dead.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I find it very odd to be told I should rejoice in something. If it’s so joyful wouldn’t I rejoice without being told to do so? Making rejoicing a duty zaps the joy right out of a thing, if you ask me. So I would rephrase the purpose as “to help class members appreciate the importance of ordinance work for the dead and rekindle some enthusiasm for it.”
OK. Ready to be enthused?
In August 1840 Joseph Smith preached a sermon at a funeral in which he said baptisms could be done on behalf of the dead. The idea apparently appealed to people very much, because they soon started doing baptisms for the dead in the Mississippi River. An underlying assumption behind their enthusiasm must have been that baptism was required for salvation. I wonder what the common belief was at the time about people who died without baptism. Eternal damnation? The Saints came mostly from Protestant backgrounds, and modern Protestants are divided on whether baptism is required for salvation (mostly they say it isn’t), so it’s not obvious to me how much angst the Saints would have had about this. Though I imagine antebellum Protestants leaned toward today’s conservative Protestant idea that hell was real, eternal, and the destination of those who were not saved in this life.
Section 124, given in January 1841, was received while the main body of Saints were in Nauvoo. It contains clear and forceful instructions to build a temple, the purposes of which would be to more fully restore the priesthood (v. 40-41), to provide a proper place to baptize for the dead (v. 33), and to prove the faithfulness of the saints (v. 55). The revelation also implies that more ordinances will be revealed after it’s built (v. 40). The revelation leaves the door open to performing baptisms for the dead outside the temple, so long as the Saints are working hard on building one. I imagine the Saints’ enthusiasm for vicarious baptism waxed and then waned with the winter weather, so the idea of doing baptisms indoors would have been a welcome one.
Section 127 (September 1842) contains instructions to keep records of all baptisms for the dead. So the Mormon love of record keeping stems directly from our sacred texts. Section 128 (September 1842) contains more instructions on baptizing for the dead. It expands on why record keeping is important, and gives scriptural precedent for it (verses 10 & 14) and gives explicit instructions for witnessing and recording baptisms for the dead (v. 2-5). In verse 7 it sounds like Joseph Smith is taking the book of Revelations seriously when it says there is a “book of life” kept in heaven, which apparently reflects the “records which are kept on the earth.” Implying that if the works are not recorded they are compromised, if not nullified. I’m not very literal minded when it comes to this stuff so I don’t know what that verse really means, but the main point is that “whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 8). A bold doctrine, as verse 9 says, but what would be the point of doing ordinances on earth at all, if they didn’t hold true after death?
Verse 15 is where things really start to get interesting to me. The idea that we cannot be made perfect without our dead nor they without us is a puzzling one, since we usually think of salvation as an individual matter. Christ died to save us from death and hell; why do we need anything but his grace? Can the dead really depend on the living for their salvation?
In Catholic theology the dead go to Purgatory, where their sinful souls are refined and made ready for heaven. At least in literature (which is my only experience with this subject), Catholics pray for their dead to hasten their way through Purgatory. I’ve never heard anyone pray for the dead, but maybe vicarious ordinances are the Mormon incarnation of the impulse to continue caring for loved ones, even after their death.
Mormons not only believe they provide a necessary step toward salvation when they are baptized for the dead, but are told to make haste about it. I don’t really get the haste thing. What is the whole span of human history compared to eternity? Also, about 108 billion births have occurred since the beginning of human existence. It seems like digging through a sand dune with a teaspoon to baptize them all. And how many died without having their names recorded somewhere? Probably a lot, so if a name is required for proxy baptisms we are never going to get to them all. Getting everyone currently alive baptized or preached to is not an achievable goal, either. So, this imperative to turn to our fathers and mothers must have more to do with us than with them. Remember Jesus said, “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.”
Verse 15 also says we can’t be made perfect without our dead. What does that mean? In what ways does “redeeming the dead” complete us, since being perfect means being whole? Why do we need our ancestors to be whole? How does attending to our fathers and mothers help make us disciples of Jesus?
There seems to be some deep human need here. People have forever been drawn to their forebears. So much so that ancestors themselves can become the object of worship. Maybe baptism for the dead gives us a way to connect with ancestors that are in other says unreachable (either directly, if they are our own ancestors, or vicariously, if they aren’t). Pres. Hinckley said redeeming the dead is selfless service (see the lesson manual). Perhaps it is a way of ministering to Jesus’ sheep, who are still his sheep even though dead. Time need not be a barrier in our ministering to one another.
The American folk hymn “Bright Morning Stars Are Rising” speaks to a yearning for our forebears by asking the questions, Where are our dear fathers? Where are our dear mothers? They are down in the valley (of death?) praying, or gone to heaven shouting. They, like us, look to the “Bright and Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16) for release from the prison of sin and death. The Nauvoo temple has five-point stars across the top of it; I’ve heard they represent Christ as the bright morning star. The Saints stood beneath those stars and turned their hearts toward their fathers and mothers as they were baptized on their behalf. We’re invited to do the same, and perhaps doing so will in some way complete both us and them.
If you have three minutes, treat yourself to listening to The Walin’ Jennys sing “Bright Morning Starts are Rising.” It’s beautiful.