Gospel Doctrine Lesson 30: The Prisoners Shall Go Free

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.


  1. Sharee Hughes says:

    Of course we will not be able to do the temple work for all of our ancestors. Of course there are those whose names were never recorded. But we need to do as much as we can. Remember that temple work will be the primary work of the millenium, when those we have no record of now can be taken care of. We aren’t expected to do it all in this life. Only what we can.

  2. Jennifer Pittenger says:

    Beautiful post, thanks. I agree about the deep human need for a familial bond; personally, I think it pertains to the whole of the human family, and that we will find one day that whole is not so large as we thought, when viewed eternally. Every soul is precious, every soul is family.
    And the music was soul-stirring. Thank you… It gave me the lift I needed today.

  3. I guess one thing I was trying to say in my post but maybe didn’t say clearly is that it’s not clear why we need to do as much temple work as we can for our ancestors. At least it’s not clear to me. We’re told it’s important, but rarely if ever why it’s important.

  4. Sharee Hughes says:

    Emily, many of your ancestors did not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel in this life. Would you want to deprive them of the blessings of exaltation because of that? The ordinances are necessary. Joseph Smith envisioned the entirety of humanity connected together in one eternal chain. Temple work keeps those chains intact, so the only breaks will be those very few that end up as sons of perdition. We need to do our part and not leave everything for the millenium. Besides, there are spiritual blessings that come to us as we attend the temple.

  5. Chris Kimball says:

    I’ve always thought that “as much as we can” does not have a precedent reason or logic but is simply a more is better statement. Can’t get too much of a good thing.

    Would you change the lesson any, in content or in tone, if you knew that half of the class was not able to go to the temple in their present circumstances? (No recommend, (living) family obligations, cost/distance/transportation/time, etc. etc., i.e., for any number of reasons most of which you don’t know and cannot change). Or do you (do we) start and end with “if you don’t you should” and then carry on as if everybody is in essentially the same position vis a vis the temple?

  6. Chris, if a teacher’s doing it right, he or she definitely should prayerfully consider the needs and situations of the class members and then tailor the lesson to their circumstances and understanding. You’d teach the temple differently to the Beehives or Deacons than you would to the High Priests, and you’d teach it differently to a gathering of people who regularly go to the temple than you would to the class you describe. Considering the needs of your class or congregation is one of the basics of gospel teaching, along with preaching nothing but repentance and teaching with the spirit.

  7. Amy, preaching nothing but repentance?

  8. Sharee Hughes says:

    A teacher in an area where temple attendance was not possible could still emphasize seeking out our ancestors and submitting their names to the temple for others to do.

    One of the big problems is that people who live near many temples (such as those of us in the Salt Lake Valley) and have recommends, don’t go. Here’s an example our GD teacher gave this morning. He decided he was going to get up early every morning. Mon, Tues, Thurs & Fri he would golf, Wed he would go to the temple. Well, he golfed Mon & Tues, but Wed was too tired to get up early, so vowed to go to the temple Thurs. Well, Thurs & Fri he golfed. This week he promised he would go to the temple on Wed.

    Here in an anecdote from my mother’s live. She was an avid genealogist and often had spiritua experiences in dreams. One night she dreamed that there was a knock at the door. When she answered it, there were several women in old-fashioned clothing. She did not know them, but from their features she realized they were members of her family. They told her simply, “We have come to thank you.” There were many blessings of family history and temple work, not the least of which is the gratitude of our ancestors.

  9. Thokozile says:

    If the purpose of temple work were to do ordinances for as many people as possible before the millennium with the final goal of connecting all of humanity in an unbroken chain, it would be a whole lot easier just to go through census records baptizing everybody.

  10. Jynnifyr — “Say nothing but repentance unto this generation; keep my commandments, and assist to bring forth my work, according to my commandments, and you shall be blessed.” Doc. and Cov. 6:9. When a person is called to teach or preach in the church, he or she should preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and not some other gospel. Not the gospel of prosperity, not the gospel of someone’s personal theory of life, etc. (That’s one of the ways I interpret that charge, at any rate.) And good teaching definitely shouldn’t be dull. It should include stories. Parables. Intriguing questions. Exploration. Appropriate analogies.

    And back to the original post and some of the questions including, “Why do we need our ancestors to be whole?” If you’re really interested in those questions, you may want to ask one of the elderly sisters in your ward, someone who has spent a significant amount of time doing genealogy and temple work. If you are willing to spend the time it will take to explore the subject and she’s willing to share, it could be an eye-opening experience.

  11. Chris – Yeah, I think carrying on as if everybody is essentially the same vis a vis the temple is usually what happens in Gospel Doctrine. I’m in that group unable to go to the temple (for reasons that are multilayered and personal), but I don’t know that I’d be able to do this lesson much differently, even if I made myself the target audience. Mainly because the given topic is pretty narrow. I often feel left out in the cold by lessons on temple work, although there have been some that I’ve enjoyed. These tend to focus on the history of temples or personal stories involving temples. This is an inherent problem with drawing such a bright line around temple worship – you either have a recommend (and participate) or you don’t – and it really does create different classes of people in the church, imo.

    Good point, Thokozile. In addition, we all have to prioritize things in life and I think my ancestors who haven’t had ordinance work done will understand my reasons for not doing their work right now. I would have the same empathy for them. I’ll go back to the temple when I’m ready to, and guilt-provoking comments about depriving my ancestors of blessings will not get me there more quickly. Possibly the reverse. I often wonder why people so frequently use guilt as a tool for getting people to the temple more. Surely there must be more positive reasons for temple attendance?

  12. I’m 42 years old, born into the gospel & I just recently received my FIRST Temple Recommend. Whenever possible I have gone along on temple trips, spending the day in the visitor’s center. The last time I was there I saw one of the short films in which a boy fell off a cliff in front of his parents, but fortunately there was a ledge onto which he fell & survived. Later in the film the parents talk about how they knew they would see him again if he had died because of their temple work sealing them together & the peace it brought them. Watching the film all I could think of & feel was “I should be next door, in the Temple”. Regardless of their situation or circumstances, I believe a person – member or not – will be brought to the temple when it is the right time for them and when they are needed.

  13. Chris Kimball says:

    Emily, you know (I think you know) that I haven’t been to Sunday School for years. Primarily for health reasons, but when the lesson speaks to an audience that isn’t me, when I feel like I can’t participate in the discussion, when the motivation is guilt or duty or obligation, I’m not encouraged to try harder.
    I don’t have any current statistics, but when I did–some years ago in a mainstream-seeming Ward not more than 30 minutes from a temple–I counted more than half of the adults present at Sacrament Meeting as NOT current temple goers. I don’t know how the Gospel Doctrine class looked (more of the non-temple goers self selecting away from Sunday School? more of the temple goers in callings that take them away from Sunday School?). The point is that the not-currently-temple-going adult membership is substantial. As you say, Sunday School (and Sacrament Meetings) on temple topics can be pretty challenging. Not-currently-temple-going-adults are invisible second class citizens. (I toyed with saying “underclass” but it seems a little too much.)

  14. Re the guilt trip for non-temple goers: We often take the one-size-fits-all approach in the church, and that’s unfortunate, but there are those who need to be guilted into going–who don’t go simply because they haven’t prioritized it, not because they have deeper issues. Those people (including me) need the guilt trip. Obviously, others don’t.

    Having said that, while I think we should always be sensitive to all members, I’m not thrilled about the idea of making sure that every comment in class is “politically correct.”

  15. I have come to the idea that the promise in Malachi is in two parts, fathers> children, children>fathers. Of the two halves, I consider the first the most important part, that the hearts of the fathers turn to the children.

    As you pointed out, Jesus said let the dead bury the dead as a general idea. This points the way to which half of the Malachi promise is the most important part. And why people with one foot in the grave become, generally, more interested in genealogy.

    Anyway, we are involved in indexing. Our stake is supposed to index 1M names this year. These names get inserted into the digital database. Who will do the old German or Chinese indexing?

  16. I suspect that some of you are missing a vital point of temple work. It isn’t just for them, it is for you and your posterity. I know children who have had visions/dreams in which their ancestors help them. I suspect that the family organization on their other side is a pretty strong force in the lives of many who are engaged in making sure that the links are forged in the temples on this side. I know it is in the lives of me and my family. The veil is very thin. I’ve seen miracles worked in the lives of youth who are engaged in family history work or their families are so engaged. Our local temple is loaded with teenagers doing baptisms for the dead.

  17. As you say, Sunday School (and Sacrament Meetings) on temple topics can be pretty challenging. Not-currently-temple-going-adults are invisible second class citizens. (I toyed with saying “underclass” but it seems a little too much.)

    The lion’s share of the most difficult and time consuming work in providing temple ordinances for the dead is in the research that identifies the dead and prepares their names to be sent to temples. Even when someone is not currently a temple goer, for whatever reason that might be, he or she can participate in a very real way. I’d lots rather be in a room full of people who understand and are converted to salvation for the dead but who can’t/don’t go to the temple themselves, than any number of active temple workers who go for their own sake without giving a thought to the dead.

  18. I am a music teacher by profession. As I watch the progression of each student, I rejoice. It brings me great satisfaction to know that I have made a difference in their lives, to know they are more confident in themselves. Any time we make a difference in another’s life there is joy in our own lives.

    I testify that the word “rejoice” pertains to the work we do for our ancestors who have crossed the veil of time.

    Our Savior, Jesus Christ, worked out the infinite atonement for all of us.
    I have felt deeply and profoundly of His love for me and all of my brothers and sisters not only here on this earth but on the other side of the veil. He desires our progression. Moses 1:39 states, “behold this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” We are blessed to be partners in this plan ie: missionary work, redeeming the dead and serving an lifting those around us, bringing them to Christ. To me it is a small price to pay, after all think of what Christ has done for us. I could never worlds without end repay Him for what He has done for me. I do the work for my ancestors because of my deep and abiding love for my Savior, Jesus Christ and for my Heavenly Father.

    I testify that I have personally felt the rejoicing of those beyond the veil as I have found their names and information, submitted their names to the temple to have their work done and then participated in doing the temple work. They are real people, with real feelings, who lived real lives. I have felt of their joy and rejoicing as they are allowed to progress. It has lifted and strengthened me in my life.

    We are counseled in Moroni 7, to have charity “the pure love of Christ” and to pray to obtain that charity with all the energy of our hearts.
    Christ loves all of us and we should work and pray for that same love for all of our brothers and sisters. In doing so we will desire their progression.

    Think of the difference we make if because of the work we do even one person is allowed to progress. Doctrine and Covenants 18:16 states: “And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!”

    Again, I testify that I have tasted of this joy and have rejoiced. I invite others to do the same. Try it, test it. Anyone who becomes involved in this work will know for themselves. It is a sacred privilege for me and my family to have felt the power of the joy and rejoicing that comes from doing the Lord’s work, to have felt the power and spirit of Elijah in our lives. I’m grateful for the prophet Joseph Smith and the part he played in the restoration of these things.

  19. Chris Kimball says:

    Ardis, thank you. You make a very good point, and also remind me of multiple instances in my life and people I know where the temple practices and ordinances have been honored–in a number of ways but most obviously and openly in family file research–while not being able to actually attend. Some of the strongest feelings and moving experiences have happened in that kind of situation.

  20. Bro. Jones says:

    Part of my teaching this lesson next week will be to discuss how messy things were when the concept of baptisms for the dead was first revealed: records weren’t well kept, men were baptized for deceased women (and vice versa), and so forth. Several additional revelations were required to bring a semblance of order to it, and even today we have problems (people baptizing Hitler [repeatedly], baptizing lists of Holocaust victims despite instructions not to, etc.). It’s a good model for understanding how we, as imperfect creatures, try to fulfill divine commandments.

    It’s also a good setup for the lessons on D&C 132 and the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, both of which are messy in their own rights.

  21. The good we do won’t save us…and the evil we do won’t condemn us. Because of Christ.


  22. For what it is worth, if you read old protestant tracts and essays you will come across a good deal of explaining why the heathen nations are all damned, etc., and how without both baptism and Christ, they are damned. My favorite was one that noted that you could ask a heathen and they would tell you “they was damned” — interesting stuff, all and all.

  23. Emily – Allow me to quibble over your quibble in the opening of your post. How does a teaching objective of ” to help class members rejoice . . . ” = a “duty” to rejoice? Second, if a teaching objective of “to help class members [do something]” = an obligation, then how is your rephrase any better? Couldn’t I equally say that it seems weird to have a duty to “appreciate the importance of ordinance work for the dead and rekindle some enthusiasm for it”? If it’s so important and exciting, shouldn’t I be able to understand the importance and excitement of it without being told so?

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