When the Lord restored through Joseph Smith the doctrine of the redemption of the dead through the performance of proxy baptisms, he answered age-old questions and satisfied deep longings. For centuries, Christians had debated what would happen after this life to the untold millions who lived without knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith himself had agonized over the fate of his beloved brother Alvin, an honest but unbaptized Christian.
In January 1836, Joseph Smith saw a vision of the Celestial Kingdom in which he learned that those, such as his brother Alvin, who did not receive the fullness of the gospel in this life, but would have if given the chance, would not be denied the highest rewards in the life to come. With this vision, the Lord began to gradually reveal the doctrines and practices surrounding baptism for the dead to Joseph Smith and his successors in a process that required several years.
Joseph’s vision affirmed God’s mercy, but it was not entirely clear whether the scriptural requirement of baptism would be waived for Alvin and others like him, or whether it would be fulfilled in some other way. Some Latter-day Saints recognized this gap in their knowledge. Joseph Fielding, for example, “thought much on the subject of the redemption of those who died under the broken covenant” and speculated that “perhaps those who receive the priesthood in these last days would baptize them at the coming of the Savior.”
But at the funeral of Seymour Brunson on August 15, 1840, Joseph Smith taught the principle that men and women on earth could act for their deceased kin and fulfill the requirement of baptism on their behalf. The Saints joyfully embraced this opportunity and began almost immediately to be baptized for departed loved ones in rivers and streams near Nauvoo.
Then, in January 1841, Joseph Smith received an important revelation that not only called for the construction of a temple in Nauvoo, but forever linked the ordinance of baptism for the dead with temples: “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” (D&C 124:29-30). The Nauvoo Saints rapidly pushed forward construction on the temple, and by November 1841 the basement was enclosed and a suitable font had been carved out of wood.
Baptism for the Dead Letters
Further instructions and clarification on this new practice were to come. In August 1842, Joseph Smith was accused as an accessory in the attempted murder of Lilburn W. Boggs, the former governor of Missouri. To avoid arrest, he remained more or less in hiding for about three months in the homes of trusted friends. Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal that though “Joseph has been deprived of the privilege of appearing openly,” yet “the Lord is with him as he was upon the Isle of Patmos with John,” intimating that Joseph had experienced spiritual manifestations during his absence from public life.
On August 31, Joseph appeared briefly to speak to a small gathering of Female Relief Society members and communicated for the first time on record what he had learned in the previous weeks: “All persons baptized for the dead must have a recorder present, that he may be an eyewitness to it. It will be necessary in the Grand Council, that these things be testified.”
The following day, he began writing a letter to the Church that would later become Doctrine and Covenants 127. In this letter, Joseph explained his absence due to the charges against him and reassured the Saints that when “the storm is fully blown over, then I will return to you again.” He said the Lord had revealed to him the necessity of a recorder for baptisms for the dead and explained the reason why: “That in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven. … And again, let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation, saith the Lord of Hosts” (D&C 127:7, 9).
He concluded his letter expressing his desire to speak “from the stand on the subject,” but would have to be content to “send it by mail.” He accordingly had Erastus Derby deliver the letter to William Clayton that Sunday, September 4, "to be read before the saints when assembled at the Grove." Joseph's journal reports with satisfaction, "When this letter was read before the brethren it cheered their hearts and evidently had the effect of stimulating them and inspiring them with courage, and faithfulness."
On September 7, Joseph Smith dictated a second letter on the same subject "which he ordered to be read next Sabbath," September 11. This second letter is now found in Doctrine and Covenants 128. In it, the Prophet gave a more detailed record-keeping proposal, calling for witnesses, a recorder in each of Nauvoo’s ten wards, and a general recorder that would compile all the ward records into a “general church book" (D&C 128:4) .
Joseph then offered a lengthy scriptural justification for the practice of baptisms for the dead and the necessity of a recorder. He taught that ordinances for the dead created necessary and eternal bonds between generations: "The earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other—and behold what is that subject? It is the baptism for the dead. For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect" (D&C 128:18).
He concluded with this rousing and well-known call to action: “Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free. ... Let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation” (D&C 128:22, 24).
These two letters from Joseph Smith were canonized in 1844 and have been a part of the Doctrine and Covenants ever since. The Saints minutely followed the directions given in these letters, and recorders for each ward were called. The recorders used a common certificate or form to record baptisms: “I certify that upon the day of the date hereof, I saw and heard the following Baptisms take place in the Font in the Lord’s House in the City of Nauvoo, Illinois; to wit [blank] and that [blank] and [blank] were present as Witnesses to said Baptisms, and also that said Record has been made by me and is true.”
‘Line upon Line’
After Joseph Smith’s death in June 1844, Brigham Young assumed leadership of the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. During the winter of 1844-1845, he introduced an additional refinement to the practice of baptisms for the dead and explained this development at the April 1845 Conference.
“The Lord has led this people all the while in this way, by giving them here a little and there a little.”
In their hurry to administer this ordinance for their loved ones, the Saints had performed the baptisms without regard to gender, men being baptized for women and women for men. Henceforth, Young taught, the Saints “never will see a man go forth to be baptized for a woman, nor a woman for a man.” Why, then, had this practice been allowed to persist? “When an infinite being gives a law to his finite creatures, he has to descend to the capacity of those who receive his law, when the doctrine of baptism for the dead was first given, this church was in its infancy … The Lord has led this people all the while in this way, by giving them here a little and there a little, thus he increases their wisdom, and he that receives a little and is thankful for that shall receive more.”
Alluding to Joseph Smith’s letters, Young explained, “When it was first revealed all the order of it was not made known, afterwards it was made known, that records, clerks, and one or two witnesses were necessary or else it will be of no value to the saints." He concluded, "Joseph in his life time did not receive every thing connected with the doctrine of redemption, but he has left the key with those who understand how to obtain and teach to this great people all that is necessary for their salvation and exaltation in the celestial kingdom of our God.”