Baptism for the Dead, A Momentary Memoir

The other day, I participated as a proxy for a dead relative in a baptism (actually a confirmation). As I was sitting there, hands were laid on my head and I experienced a bit of proxy deja vu. In my mind’s eye I observed the intense feelings among early Latter-day Saints of mid-August 1840 as Joseph Smith announced that those Saints could be baptized for their dead ancestors. Weeks later, people began to go to the Mississippi and men were baptized for dead grandparents, women for a beloved deceased brother or parent. It was joyous. In the few moments that I sat experiencing my proxy position for three long-dead men in turn, I thought through Smith’s acts here. I don’t know precisely where his logic/inspiration was tipped over to surety. He knew the Pauline text certainly.[1] But what else played into this? A clue about one of those things is represented in his one prewritten sermon, delivered at the October conference the same year. In that sermon he lays out a new and rather extraordinary idea. It may be his most profound instruction ever, since it links to things like sealing, polygamy, temple ritual, priesthood, sacraments, and so forth. I imagined myself sitting there in that conference, listening to his clerk, Robert Thompson, read that sermon (Joseph composed the sermon at Thompson’s elbow and one other man in the room later remarked that he felt God’s presence more powerfully than at any other time in his life as they worked through that composition). Its content was wide-ranging and feels a bit odd to me now as I reread it but it was a turning point.

I love preaching and the theoretical constructs that have developed to study it. I’m not a good sermonizer myself, but I enjoy thinking about it. It’s a tricky business. But I digress. What was in the sermon? Every Mormon should read it I think. You can find a version here for example. What I find remarkable was its emphasis on Elijah. That the authority represented by Elijah, possessed by Elijah, needed from Elijah, was what made Mormon liturgy[2] stick, so to speak (an 1844 sermon makes some of this more explicit yet). A baptism, for living or dead was not valid, not properly written in heaven, without Elijahan impress. Remarkably, at least to me, is that Smith made no mention whatever of the visitation of Elijah on April 3, 1836—it was the last event recorded in his Kirtland diary (by Warren Cowdery, brother to Oliver, the other recipient of the vision). In fact, he never made any (public at least) mention of that—see the 1844 sermon audit linked above for some fun here. I’ve often asked myself, why the secrecy? The answer to that I think is maybe another post but the short of it is this: I think it was interpreted differently than it later came to be. One man who was familiar with Smith and Cowdery left a contemporary 1836 record of his impression about it: it was an announcement of the imminent end of time. When does this 1836 vision go public? When does it end up in the canon? Why? Very important questions. I talk a bit about this in my book on Doctrine and Covenants section 132 because it gets joined with that revelation when the latter also went public, in 1852. Why then? Also important, but I’m not venturing there.

Believe it or not, all this stuff was in my head, along with the mental picture of a woman on horseback (see the bottom of Ben Park’s post in the link for some further references) watching her friend being baptized for a dead ancestor on a Mississippi day of joy.[3]

[1] Required reading is Ryan Tobler’s Journal of Mormon History article here.
[2] See our own Jonathan Stapley’s new Oxford book The Power of Godliness for foundations of Mormon liturgy. Here’s the Amazon link. You can get the Kindle version for $10.00! I’ll be reviewing it here as soon as I can get out from under a pile of other stuff. Hint: it should be on your shelf.
[3] FYI, Ben Park (see the link at note 3 above) is working on a new “bio” of Nauvoo. It’s bound to be great.


  1. Very interesting find, WVS. My HP group was always puzzled in the lesson on priesthood restoration by the part about the sons of Levi seemingly returning and performing ritual sacrifice again. Particularly in light of Christ telling the Nephites and Lamanites that he would no longer accept them. This lecture seems to point to not just a one-time occurrence of that (“from generation to generation”). Also echos here of the origins of “ministering angels” that are mentioned in the revelations.

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