Spencer: On September 13th, 1840, just down the bluff from where the Nauvoo Temple would eventually stand, a woman stepped into the cool waters of the Mississippi River. Her name was Jane Neyman, a widow and church member residing in Nauvoo. She was joined in the river by her friend Harvey Olmstead. Once several feet into the water, Harvey baptized Jane.
The thing is, Jane had been baptized years earlier when she joined the church. But this baptism was different. Jane was acting as proxy for her deceased son, receiving this saving Christian rite for him.
So, on that September day, Jane Neyman became the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to participate in proxy baptism for a deceased person, what Latter-day Saints would eventually come to call baptisms for the dead.
The introduction of this rite, or what Latter-day Saints call an ordinance, is a key part of the story of the Nauvoo Temple. In this episode, we explore when and how Joseph Smith revealed this practice to Latter-day Saints and how the practice helped them to see the necessity of family connections in the kingdom of heaven. And eventually, the Latter-day Saints would come to see baptisms for the dead as inseparable from the temple they were working so hard to construct. This is The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 3: A Welding Link
Spencer: For Latter-day Saints, the ordinance of baptism for the dead, which is mentioned in the New Testament, is sacred. Whereas the Bible records Jesus teaching that “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” Joseph Smith would eventually teach that a person could be baptized as a proxy for a person who died without the opportunity to receive the gospel of Christ. As Latter-day Saints came to understand it, those who died without this opportunity would have the chance to accept or reject the ordinance for themselves. It was a big doctrinal development, but not one that came quickly.
Like so many of Joseph Smith’s revelations, the introduction of baptism for the dead came as an answer to a question, a question that Christians had been asking for centuries. And, as is also often the case with Joseph and his revelations, the answer did not come all at once.
Alex: I think it’s important to know that with many of the doctrines Joseph Smith introduces to the Saints, it is developmental.
Spencer: That’s Alex Baugh, a professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Alex: And in looking at the doctrine and practice of baptism for the dead, it’s very clear that Joseph had questions, particularly about those who have not received an opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ or to receive the ordinance of baptism. It’s an age-old question, and it continues to prevail in Christianity today. What about people who never heard of Jesus Christ? Is there hope in the eternal worlds? And clearly that passed Joseph Smith’s mind many times. And in 1836, he begins to really receive some important answers. And on the evening of January 21, 1836, in the Kirtland Temple there was some very important things going on. But on that occasion, Joseph Smith had this marvelous visionary experience, it’s a futuristic vision, wherein he sees his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom in the presence of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. He also sees his mother and father who are still alive. But it brought to question how did Alvin, his deceased brother who died in 1823, how could he be an heir of the kingdom of God if he hadn’t had baptism and if he died—which he did—before the restoration of the gospel? And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying that all those who would have received the gospel had they been permitted to tarry, who would have received it with all their hearts, are heirs of the celestial kingdom. And then the revelation goes on to say that all those henceforth who die without a knowledge of the gospel who would have received it had they been permitted to tarry, or would have had it introduced to them and received it, will also be heirs. That is profound. In other words, the Lord is going to grant according to the desires of our hearts, and if you desire righteousness and Christ’s gospel and receive a testimony of Him, you’ll be just fine.
Spencer: This 1836 vision brought Joseph comfort, for sure, but it did not answer all of his questions. In fact, it seems to have generated some new questions.
Alex: What he did not totally understand at the time was, okay, so how does he get the ordinances necessary for salvation, or what Latter-day Saints would say exaltation? In other words, John chapter 3 verse 5 is very relevant: “except a man be born of [the] water and of [the] spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of [Heaven].” So obviously Alvin accepted the gospel in the spirit world, but how did he get the ordinance of baptism? So that’s still probably on Joseph’s mind, he’s there, he’ll be an heir, but how can he receive it without the proper ordinances? And again, that’s developmental. I think we get a glimpse of Joseph Smith starting to understand this.
Spencer: So, when did Joseph Smith first learn of the ordinance of baptism for the dead, or being baptized as a proxy for a deceased individual? Did he ever state when this doctrine was revealed to him?
I posed these questions to Brett Dowdle, a historian working on the Joseph Smith Papers.
Brett: So, we don’t know exactly when Joseph himself learns about baptisms for the dead. Clearly, there’s references in 1 Corinthians 15 verse 29, and Joseph cites those references really early on, and then he makes allusions to having knowledge independent from the Bible, and Vilate Kimball, the wife of Heber C. Kimball, she wrote a letter to Heber saying that Joseph had received “a more full explanation of it by revelation.” When these revelations came, we don’t know exactly. But the first time that Joseph teaches it to the Saints is at the funeral of Seymour Brunson, a member of the Nauvoo High Council who had died.
Spencer: That funeral, held August 15, 1840, although somber in spirit for the passing of a beloved community member, proved to be a momentous event for the Saints in Nauvoo.
Brett: Vilate Kimball described the funeral a little bit and said that it was a solemn site, but this was a day that was joyful because of the light and glory which Joseph set forth. And as Joseph was teaching, we don’t have an accurate representation of the sermon, but as Joseph was teaching, one member recalled that he saw a widow in the congregation, that’d had a son who died without being baptized. This is evidently a reference to Jane Harper Neyman, and he said that this widow should have glad tidings through the doctrine of baptism for the dead. He told the Saints that the people could now act for their friends who had departed this life, and that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God.
Spencer: It was only about a month after this funeral sermon that Jane Neyman entered the Mississippi River to be baptized for and in behalf of her deceased son. Joseph had not given explicit instructions of the words to be used in the ordinance, so Harvey Olmstead apparently used the words of the baptismal prayer that Latter-day Saints typically said but adapted them for the circumstances of a proxy baptism. Church member Vienna Jaques rode out into the river on a horse to witness the baptism. She noted the words that Olmstead said, and when these were reported to Joseph Smith, Joseph gave his approval.
And so began the practice of proxy baptisms at Nauvoo. But there were some guidelines for this practice that Joseph Smith gave the Saints along the way. They mostly pertained to what deceased individuals a person could stand in proxy for with this ordinance.
Brett: Phebe Carter Woodruff says that “Joseph . . . has learned by revelation that those in this church may be baptized for any of their relatives who are dead and had not a privilege of hearing this gospel, even for their children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles and aunts,—but not for acquaintances, unless they served as . . . ministering spirit[s] to their friends on earth.” And so early on, the restriction was really familial in nature. Vilate Kimball even says that Joseph taught that “it is the privilege of this church to be baptised for all their kinsfolk that have died before this Gospel came forth” even back to their great grandfather and mother, if they have been personally acquainted with them. And so, it seems that in these earliest days, there wasn’t the immediate thought of gathering up all the generations as far back as we could get, but there was perhaps a restriction on, you had to have personally known this person to be baptized for them.
Spencer: This practice seemed to answer so many questions for Latter-day Saints, questions that had long lingered within Christianity. But it was especially poignant for many of the Saints who had essentially joined the church alone, who had joined the church at the cost of familial relationships, owing to the disapproval of their relatives. They rejoiced in their faith and now they saw that, in terms of their familial lines, they did not have to be alone in this rejoicing. Alex Baugh explains:
Alex: It makes so much sense. And they’re very excited about it. Again, the ball gets rolling, but in the next few months, especially when weather allows, the Latter-day Saints will begin to do this in large numbers for that time.
Spencer: In Nauvoo, the excitement for baptism for the dead was palpable. In the letter Vilate Kimball wrote to her husband, she stated,
“President Smith has opened a new and glorious subject . . . which has caused quite a revival in the church. That is, being baptized for the dead. Joseph has received a more full explanation of it by Revelation . . . It is the privilege of this church to be baptised for all their kinsfolks that have died before this Gospel came forth . . . I want to be baptised for my Mother . . . I calculated to wait until you come home, but the last time Joseph spoke upon the subject, he advised every one to be up and doing, and liberate their friends from bondage as quick as possible . . . Thus you see there is a chance for all. Is not this a glorious doctrine?”
Spencer: So much of what we know about the introduction of baptism for the dead in Nauvoo comes from letters written by women, especially from the wives of the church’s apostles to their husbands on missions.
When Joseph Smith introduced the doctrine of baptism for the dead, most of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were thousands of miles away from Nauvoo on a mission. And it was one of the most consequential missions in the early history of the church, one that would change the size and composition of church membership in significant ways. I spoke with Brett Dowdle about it.
Brett: In June 1837, Joseph Smith had called apostles Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde to lead a mission to England, and they went and served that mission from June 1837 to May 1838 and had tremendous success in England, almost unexpected success, and then returned home and met with the Saints who had gathered to Missouri at that point. On July 8th, 1838, so just a couple of months after Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde had returned home, a revelation was received, it’s now Doctrine and Covenants 118, and that revelation was given at Far West, Missouri, directing that the Twelve go over the great waters the following spring and there promulgate the gospel. I think one of the chief purposes of this mission was really to build on the successes that Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde had had this previous year, but another important purpose of this was to galvanize the Quorum of the Twelve in a way that maybe they hadn’t had a chance to do before. If you recall, during this period there had been tremendous turnover in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles through apostasy and through the death of David Patten later that year. There were some real challenges in the Quorum of the Twelve, and this mission had a way of bringing them together in a unified work after a really tumultuous period.
Spencer: In my study of church history, I have often wondered why the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles undertook this mission in 1839. It was hardly an ideal time in their personal lives or in the life of the church they helped lead. But they believed it was a commandment from God through his prophet, and so they obeyed. And while it came with some drawbacks, the long-term benefits of this mission to the leadership of the church were immense. After all, the church was less than a decade old when the apostles left on their mission.
Brett: By and large, it’s a positive thing that occurs. This galvanizes the Quorum of Twelve, it tremendously builds the church in England, many of those converts coming over to the United States adding strength to the church.
Spencer: And the mission was instrumental to the process by which the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles assumed its place in church leadership, a place designated by revelation.
Brett: I think we have to understand as Latter-day Saints that our perception of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles today is shaped by what occurred during that mission. Although the scriptures had explained that the Twelve formed a quorum equal in authority and power to the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became a real power because of this British Mission. In fact, as the first members of the Twelve, Brigham Young and others, returned back to Nauvoo in the summer of 1841, Joseph began consulting with them more than he had really ever done before, and began counseling with them. In a really significant meeting on August 16, 1841, Joseph told the Saints that “the time had come when the Twelve should be called upon to stand in their place next to the First Presidency . . . and assist to bear off the kingdom victorious to the nations.” This becomes a really important moment in the history of church government, because the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles begins to become the power that it is today as a result of that British Mission.
Spencer: The significance of the British Mission on the general membership and composition of the church is difficult to overstate, especially as so many of the British converts emigrated to the United States to gather with their fellow Saints in Nauvoo.
And many of these British converts played essential roles in the building and eventual operation of the Nauvoo Temple. For example, William Player joined the church in England and became the primary stone setter in the temple’s construction. Similarly, convert Charles Lambert was a skilled stonecutter and contributed many of the detailed carved stones on the temple’s exterior. And British convert William Clayton became the temple’s second recorder, and he wrote the first history of the building.
But bringing the story back to the introduction of baptism for the dead, the British Mission resulted in a delay in formally informing the Apostles of this doctrinal development.
Spencer: So, as you may have surmised, most of the Apostles serving missions in Great Britain first learned about baptism for the dead in letters they received from their wives back in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith even acknowledged as much when he finally had the time to write to the Apostles to apprise them of the doctrinal development. Alex Baugh explains:
Alex: It’s interesting to note that Joseph Smith finally writes the Quorum of the Twelve in December of 1840 and tells them,
“I presume the doctrine of ‘baptism for the dead,’ has ere this reached your ears . . . I first mentioned the doctrine in public, when preaching the funeral sermon of Brother Seymour Brunson, and have since then given general instructions to the Church on the subject. The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, who they [feel to] believe would have embraced the gospel if they had been privileged [of] hearing it, and who have received the gospel in . . . Spirit, through the instrumentality of those who [may] have been commissioned to preach to them while in prison.”
So, he’s highlighting a number of things here, but it’s also the application of the doctrine that we believe the gospel is also preached in the spirit world, and that will be of course amplified many, many times over as we understand even more doctrines associated with that. So there’s a lot of interconnected doctrine, preaching the gospel, spirit world, a person’s heart and desire, what it would have been in mortality. And notice again, he mentions in here in that letter, they’re doing it for individuals, or more particularly family members, who they feel would have accepted it.
Spencer: As a historian, I am thankful for all the surviving records that shed light on the early history of the church. Letters that Joseph and the Apostles wrote to one another are tremendous, but I am especially grateful for the surviving letters of women like Vilate Kimball who not only reported what Joseph Smith taught, but how those teachings, how these new religious practices, made her feel. From invaluable records like those kept by Vilate Kimball, we know more about how the revelations pronounced and published by Joseph Smith energized the women and men who had given up so much to be part of a cause they believed in.
Spencer: To me, the story of the introduction of baptisms for the dead is particularly compelling because it is one that unfolds over time. And in September 1842, Joseph Smith added new instructions for this ordinance, instructions that expanded the religious significance of this practice. The instructions had to do with the keeping of records.
Brett: So the story of recording the baptisms for the dead ordinances is really fascinating to me. Early on, these records are a little haphazard. The records were kept in record books that were either set aside specifically to record baptisms for the dead, or a portion of a record book that was set aside for that. Branches like the Quincy Branch and the Iowa Stake had their own record books, and they recorded their baptisms in those record books. As they record these baptisms, as you look back over the records, oftentimes they would record the name of the person that was baptized, who they were baptized for, and the relationship that the two people held to each other, and then you would usually get a year date that the baptism took place in. But very, very infrequently do you find any specific dates. Some of the earliest records we have, which are recorded on some loose sheets, do have exact dates, but the information is pretty limited as far as what had taken place. And so, from 1840 to 1841, these records are not very detailed.
Spencer: Then, in September 1842, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to the Latter-day Saints and he explained that they needed to keep better records of their proxy baptisms. And he was very clear that this wasn’t a case of him being overly picky, but that there was a spiritual component to keeping orderly records of these baptisms.
Brett: On September 1, 1842, he wrote a letter to the church where he informs the Saints that he was going to need to go into hiding. Then as he was talking about this, he said that he had received instruction from the Lord that the work on the temple in particular needed to continue to go forward. And so, he included that instruction, and then said that he had received some information regarding the need for these ordinances to be recorded more precisely. He had received instructions from the Lord about a general church recorder, and that by recording these ordinances precisely, they would not only be written on earth, but written in heaven.
Spencer: One week later, Joseph sent another letter to the Saints at Nauvoo that was read publicly. And this one went into greater detail about the way these records should be kept, but also dove deeper into the spiritual significance of these records. That letter is now canonized as section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Brett: As you read this revelation, the first several verses are all about how the records are to be kept; they give detailed information that the record was not only to include the name of the person who was baptized, who they were baptized for, and the relationship they had to that person, but it was also to include the precise date, it was to include the names of witnesses who were there who could testify that the baptism had been performed correctly. And this information was supposed to be kept by recorders. Each ward could assign a recorder so that you didn’t have to have one person who was at every baptism for the dead. You could have multiple people recording these baptisms as they took place, and they were supposed to put all of this information on paper and then give it to the general church recorder, a man by the name of James Sloan, who was instructed to keep a book, a general church record of these baptisms. And he was to take the information from these ward recorders and record it into this book, which was to be kept in the temple. The purpose of this book, as is explained later in the letter, was that the Saints were to give this book as an offering to the Lord when he came again to his temple, and so this collection of the names and the ordinances that they had performed and for whom, they were doing for the Lord, and they were recording all of this for the Lord.
Spencer: Joseph then expounded on the way that these baptisms, and the corresponding records, created a welding link between generations.
Brett: As Joseph explained all of the information and the process of keeping these records, there’s a point in the letter where he says, “You may think this to be very particular.” And then he goes on to explain why it mattered so much, and he went into greater detail about how the records that we keep here on earth are essential because what we record here on earth is subsequently recorded in heaven, and so these records of the Saints were the precursor to records that would be kept in the archives of heaven, showing that these baptisms and ordinances were valid. And this was, according to Joseph, part of the way that we create a welding link between children and their parents and so forth back to the beginnings of the world. This is a really significant teaching that Joseph gives to the Saints at this time about the importance of the baptisms that they perform and the records that they keep, and he explained that because of these baptisms and these records, they could do something for their ancestors, and at the same time, do something for themselves, and he talks to them about how without their ancestors, they could not be made perfect any more than their ancestors could be made perfect without them and the performance of these ordinances. Baptism for the dead became the link that bound the generations together.
Spencer: You may wonder, did the Saints in Nauvoo follow Joseph Smith’s counsel? Did they take it to heart and improve the records they were keeping of their proxy baptisms? Brett, who has worked extensively with these records, shared his thoughts on the subject.
Brett: One of my favorite parts as I researched Doctrine and Covenants 128, this letter on September 7, is I had an opportunity to look through the Nauvoo baptisms for the dead records, and could see how in these early years, the record keeping is haphazard and maybe not very detailed, but there are four baptisms for the dead record books that we have as a church, and the third one, Book C, began the evening of September 11, 1842. Now, Joseph had written this letter September 7th, 1842, and had instructed that it be read to the Saints during their Sunday meeting on September 11, 1842. So the first time that the Saints hear this letter from Joseph and all of these instructions, that evening they go to the font and begin performing baptisms for the dead, and the first entries are that night. And you see step by step as you walk through the wording of the letter, and then you look at the record book, you see all of the information that Joseph had asked for on that very first page in those very first ordinances, performed right after they have learned all of this. I think it was one of the highlights for me of this interesting little testament to the faith of the Saints and their desire to do what they’d been asked, even when it came to keeping records.
Spencer: Joseph Smith’s instructions on record keeping came in 1842. And I think it’s important to note that for Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints of that time, they often saw revelation as a process. And this included the ordinances of the temple. Because Joseph Smith taught that these ordinances were of ancient origin, that he was restoring that which was a lost form of Christian worship, it might be tempting to assume that he restored them all at once.
But historical records clearly demonstrate that this was not the case. These revelations often came incrementally and allowed for Joseph and other church leaders to fine-tune them, seeking additional revelation as they went.
This was certainly the case with baptisms for the dead. Recall the start of this episode when we talked about how, in 1840, Jane Neyman was baptized for and in behalf of her deceased son. This may seem odd to Latter-day Saints in the present, as today males are baptized for males and females are baptized for females. But that development did not occur under the direction of Joseph Smith. Instead, it happened after Joseph’s death by the direction of Brigham Young. In addition, while the first proxy baptisms were performed for those that living Latter-day Saints had personally known, that practice eventually developed to where these baptisms now occur for people who had died long ago. Today, Latter-day Saints participate in the work of family history, partly in an effort to identify ancestors for whom they can perform proxy temple work.
As a historian, I think the development of temple ordinances is important to understand because it reflects a more common type of revelation, that is, revelation as an ongoing and unfolding process, often designed to meet the needs or capabilities of a time and place.
So, where baptism for the dead is concerned, in January 1841, after the Saints had been performing proxy baptisms for only four months, a revelation to the church declared a significant change. It read:
“For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead—
For this ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me.
But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.
But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not be acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead, saith the Lord your God.”
In short, the Saints would soon have to move all proxy baptisms to the temple.
This lit a fire under the Saints to get started on the temple. And once the basement was complete in the fall of 1841, the Saints constructed a baptismal font out of wood. This was a temporary font, one that would suffice until they could construct a more permanent one out of stone. They placed a temporary roof over the basement to protect it from the elements and then, on November 8, 1841, Joseph Smith invited Brigham Young to dedicate the font at a public meeting. After the prayer, Brigham entered the dedicated font with Reuben McBride. As they entered, Joseph reportedly told Reuben, “Blessed is the first man baptized in this font.” And then Brigham proceeded to baptize Reuben for six different deceased family members.
Spencer: And so it was on November 8, 1841, ordinance work commenced in the still-unfinished Nauvoo Temple. And the nature of the ordinance forever connected the temple to proxy ordinances, a connection that would only grow stronger with time.
Still, as exciting as the completion and dedication of the baptismal font was, there was an immense amount of work required to finish the temple. Adding to the pressures of that work were obstacles that the Saints would find difficult to overcome. Some of these obstacles related to money and how the Saints would cover the cost of this all-important construction project. Other challenges seemed to come from the Saints’ past. Specifically, officials in Missouri attempted to reclaim Joseph Smith as the specter of persecution’s past seemed to rise up in an effort to impede the progress of the Saints in Nauvoo.
Obstacles and challenges, that’s what we’ll talk about in the next episode of The Nauvoo Temple: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.