Section 138: The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead
Much of the following material on Section 138 is taken from Robert L. Millet’s helpful essay entitled “Salvation Beyond the Grave” found in Studies in Scripture, Volume One, The Doctrine and Covenants, pages 554-62. Some material will be quoted and some will be adapted for our use.
During the last six months of his life (May through November 1918), President Joseph F. Smith was eighty years old and was seriously ill and incapacitated, and he spent much of his time in his personal study in the Beehive House. Current events weighed heavily on the mind of President Smith. World War I, the supposed war to end all wars, was ending with many fatalities. An influenza epidemic was spreading throughout the world, resulting in the death of millions. Perhaps the most challenging event personally for the aging prophet was the unexpected death of his eldest son Hyrum Mack Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and a close advisor. On January 20, 1918, Hyrum Mack Smith was taken to the hospital with a sudden acute illness, and the physicians diagnosed a ruptured appendix. Despite constant medical attention and repeated prayers, Hyrum Mack—then only 45 years of age and at the time with a pregnant wife—died on the night of January 23. This was a particularly traumatic affliction for the President. Hyrum had been called to the Quorum of the Twelve at the same conference wherein his father had been sustained as the Church’s sixth President (October 1901). Hyrum Mack was a man of depth and wisdom beyond his years, and his powerful sermons evidenced his unusual insight into gospel principles. “His mind was quick and bright and correct,” remarked President Smith. “His judgment was not excelled, and he saw and comprehended things in their true light and meaning. When he spoke, men listened and felt the weight of his thoughts and words.” Finally, the Prophet observed: “He has thrilled my soul by his power of speech, as no other man ever did. Perhaps this was because he was my son, and he was filled with the fire of the Holy Ghost” (Ibid., 474). Already in a weakened physical condition due to age, the prophet’s sudden sense of loss caused him “one of the most severe blows that he was ever called upon to endure” (Ibid.).
President Smith did manage to garner enough strength to attend the general conference of the Church in October 1918. At the opening session of the conference of the Church on Friday, October 4, he arose to welcome and address the saints, and with a voice filled with emotion he spoke the following:
As most of you, I suppose, are aware, I have been undergoing a siege of very serious illness for the last five months. It would be impossible for me, on this occasion, to occupy sufficient time to express the desire of my heart and my feelings, as I would desire to express them to you. . . .
I will not, I dare not, attempt to enter upon many things that are resting upon my mind this morning, and I shall postpone until some future time, the Lord being willing, my attempt to tell you some of the things that are in my mind, and that dwell in my heart. I have not lived alone these last five months. I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith and of determination; and I have had my communication with the Spirit of the Lord continuously (Joseph F. Smith, CR, October 1918, 2).
According to the President’s son, Joseph Fielding Smith, his father was here expressing the fact that during the previous six months he had been the recipient of numerous manifestations, some of which he had shared with his son. One of these, the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead, had been received just the day before on October 3. It was recorded by Joseph Fielding Smith as his father dictated it following the close of the conference (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Life of Joseph F. Smith, 466).
The account of this vision was presented to the First Presidency, Twelve, and Patriarch in a council meeting on Thursday, October 31, 1918. Because of his weakened condition, the President was not able to be in attendance but asked Joseph Fielding Smith to read the revelation to the gathered General Authorities. These brethren unanimously endorsed the revelation as the word of the Lord.
The text of the vision first appeared in the November 30, 1918, edition of the Deseret News and in the 1976 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. It did not appear in the Doctrine and Covenants until the 1981 edition when it was included as section 138.
The aged prophet’s attention was drawn to the world beyond mortality by his frequent confrontation with death. His parents, Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith, both died while he was a young man. Joseph F. was born in 1838 at Far West, Missouri. His father, of course, died with the Prophet in Carthage Jail. His mother died in 1852. Among the great trials of his life, none was more devastating than the passing of many of his children in death. President Smith was possessed of an almost infinite capacity to love, and thus the sudden departure of dear ones brought extreme anguish and sorrow. Joseph Fielding Smith later wrote: “When death invaded his home, as frequently as it did, and his little ones were taken from him, he grieved with a broken heart and mourned, not as those who mourn without hope, but for the loss of his `precious jewels’ dearer to him than life itself” (Ibid., 455).
Even though, as mentioned, the final half year of his life was particularly productive in terms of revealed material, he actually began in April 1916 to give to the Church the benefit of his inspired and inspiring insights. At the April 1916 general conference, President Smith delivered a remarkable address, the thrust of which established a theme for the next thirty months of his life and, most importantly for this discussion, laid the foundation for his final doctrinal contribution—the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead. In his opening sermon entitled: “In the Presence of the Divine,” Joseph F. spoke of the nearness of the world of spirits, and of the interest and concern for us and our labors exercised by those who have passed beyond the veil. He stressed that those who labored so diligently in their mortal estate to establish the cause of Zion would not be denied the privilege of “looking down upon the results of their own labors” from their post-mortal estate. In fact, the President insisted, “they are as deeply interested in our welfare today, if not with greater capacity, with far more interest, behind the veil, than they were in the flesh.” Perhaps the keynote statement of the prophet in this sermon was the following: “Sometimes the Lord expands our vision from this point of view and this side of the veil, so that we feel and seem to realize that we can look beyond the veil which separates us from the other sphere” (CR, April 1916, 18).
One of the most significant fruits of this segment of time was a talk delivered by President Smith at a temple fast meeting in February of 1918 entitled “The Status of Children in the Resurrection.” In this address we gain not only an insight into the power and prophetic stature of one schooled and prepared in doctrine; in addition, we are allowed a brief glimpse into the heart of a noble father who—having lost little ones in death and having mourned their absence—rejoices in the sure knowledge that: (1) mortal children are immortal beings, spirits who continue to live and progress beyond the veil; and (2) as taught by the prophet Joseph Smith, children will come forth from the grave as they lie down—as children—and such persons will thereafter be nurtured and reared to physical maturity by worthy parents. Having lost eleven children in childhood, President Smith exclaimed: “O how I have been blessed with these children,” exulted President Joseph F. Smith, “and how happy I shall be to meet them on the other side!” (Improvement Era, May 1918, 467-74).
As finite man stands in the twilight of life, he is occasionally able to view existence with divine perspective and is thus capable of opening himself to the things of eternity. “If we live our holy religion,” President Brigham Young taught in 1862, “and let the Spirit reign,” the mind of man “will not become dull and stupid, but as the body approaches dissolution, the spirit takes a firmer hold on the enduring substance behind the veil, drawing from the depths of that eternal Fountain of Light sparkling gems of intelligence which surround the frail and sinking tabernacle with a halo of immortal wisdom” (JD, 9:288). This poignant principle was demonstrated beautifully in the life of President Joseph F. Smith.
About one and one-half months after receiving section 138, President Smith contracted a severe case of pneumonia that led to his death on November 19, 1918. Because of the influenza epidemic, no public funeral was held to honor him. Thus ended the mortal life of the last President of the Church whose life actually intersected that of the prophet Joseph. Here was a man who met death and sorrow and persecution with a quiet dignity, and thus through participating in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings was made acquainted with the things of God.
verses 1-11 On Thursday, October 3, 1918, President Smith, largely confined to his room because of illness, sat meditating over matters of substance. On this day the prophet specifically began to read and ponder upon the universal nature of the atonement and the Apostle Peter’s allusions to Christ’s post-mortal ministry in the third and fourth chapters of 1 Peter. The stage was set. The preparation of a lifetime and the preparation of the moment were complemented by a heavenly endowment—the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead.
D&C 138 Vision of the Redemption of the Dead
D&C 138:18-20 The Son of God appeared in the spirit world declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful, but unto the wicked he did not go.
1 On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures;
2 And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world;
verses 1-2 “pondering over the scriptures” “reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice” We have made the point previously that the prime source of gospel learning is the scriptures. But a casual reading and re-reading of the scriptures often does not result in effective learning through the scriptures. Important tips for scripture study might include: (1) Develop a systematic plan for scripture study rather than a casual and haphazard approach. (2) Commit a set amount of time daily for scripture study rather than setting a certain number of pages to read. Sometimes the consideration of a single verse of scripture will consume the entire time allotted for scripture study. (3) Do not pass right on by the verses or phrases you do not understand. In fact look for words, phrases, and verses you do not fully grasp, and then commit yourself to find an answer to your questions before you continue on. For a further discussion of the topic of effective scripture study, An Approach to Studying the Scriptures, in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, Appendix A.
3 And the great and wonderful love made manifest by the Father and the Son in the coming of the Redeemer into the world;
verse 3 “the great and wonderful love” The love God has for his children is charity (Ether 12:34). Charity has been defined as follows: When a man yearns for the temporal and spiritual welfare of another individual as much or more than he yearns for his own, then the man has charity. In the atoning sacrifice, this charity was plainly made manifest by both the Father and the Son. The Father for allowing his Firstborn to be cruelly sacrificed, and the Son for voluntarily submitting himself to the unimaginable suffering which he knew the atonement would entail.
4 That through his atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved.
verse 4 This verse aptly summarizes the essence of salvation: our obedience (our works) and the Savior’s atonement. Nephi summarized this essence as follows: “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).
5 While I was thus engaged, my mind reverted to the writings of the apostle Peter, to the primitive saints scattered abroad throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and other parts of Asia, where the gospel had been preached after the crucifixion of the Lord.
verse 5 “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia” These areas are all part of Asia Minor, those areas directly south of the Black Sea. Pontus was a region in northeastern Asia Minor on the south shore of the Black Sea. Galatia was a region in north central Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Cappadocia was a mountainous region in east central Asia Minor. The gospel was preached to these people after the crucifixion of the Savior, and Peter, as the presiding officer of the Church, wrote to them concerning the practices and doctrines of the Church.
6 I opened the Bible and read the third and fourth chapters of the first epistle of Peter, and as I read I was greatly impressed, more than I had ever been before, with the following passages:
verse 6 “greatly impressed, more than I had ever been before” President Smith had read these verses many times before. This time, however, his mind and heart had been prepared to receive greater knowledge and understanding, not only for himself but for the Church and the world.
7 “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
verse 7 “the just for the unjust” Christ was the only one without sin, the only one who could satisfy the demands of justice. He was the only truly just person to live upon this earth. All others are classified as the unjust, guilty of violating one or more of the laws of God.
“that he might bring us to God” The atoning sacrifice required an unblemished lamb, an individual who had never broken the law.
“being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” This phrase refers to the time between the death of Jesus and his resurrection. Although his body had died, his spirit lived on. The word quickened means “made alive, revived.”
8 “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
verse 8 “the spirits in prison” Prison here refers to the post mortal spirit world which is known to be located on this very earth. Aren’t these righteous dead in paradise rather than prison? The whole of the spirit world is considered a prison, but there appears to be a separation of the righteous and the wicked. This separation may be less a physical separation than a separation of blessings and responsibilities experienced by each group. For a thorough discussion of the post mortal spirit world, see The Spirit World, volume 2, chapter 13 of Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine.
Why would even those post mortal spirits who were blessed to receive the blessings of paradise consider themselves to be in prison? It is because they “looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage” (see also D&C 45:17). Even the righteous sought “deliverance” when the Master came to declare “liberty to the captives who had been faithful.” Joseph Smith taught: “Hades, Sheol, paradise, spirits in prison, are all one; it is a world of spirits” (HC, 5:425). Elder Bruce R. McConkie added “it is clearly set forth that the whole spirit world, and not only that portion designated as hell, is considered to be a spirit prison” (Ensign, August 1976, 11).
9 “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3:18-20.)
verse 9 This verses refers to a particular group of spirits in the spirit world. These are the spirits of those who lived in Noah’s day who were taught the gospel during their mortal probation (Moses 8:19-24). Their opportunity to believe and obey the truths of salvation came while they yet dwelt in mortality. Hence, even though they may accept the gospel in the spirit world, the highest inheritance available to them is the terrestrial kingdom. They are forever barred from eternal life, or life in the celestial heaven. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “This limitation on the doctrine of salvation for the dead was revealed to Joseph Smith in the vision of the degrees of glory. Speaking of the terrestrial world, the Lord said: These are ‘they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it’ (D&C 76:73-74). Thus: ‘There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation by accepting the gospel in the spirit world after spurning, declining, or refusing to accept it in this life. It is true that there may be a second chance to hear and accept the gospel, but those who have thus procrastinated their acceptance of the saving truths will not gain salvation in the celestial kingdom of God” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:313).
“few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” This does not refer to the baptism of anyone. These eight were saved temporally in that they did not drown with the rest of the inhabitants of the earth.
10 “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6.)
verse 10 This verse refers to the preaching that began following Christ’s post crucifixion visit to the world of spirits. Those in a state of paradise were dispatched to preach the gospel to those who had not achieved a state of paradise. Though these latter are spirits (they “live according to God in the spirit”), they will be judged by the same standards by which they would have been judged had they received the gospel while they were still on earth (they will be “judged according to men in the flesh”).
11 As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.
verse 11 “the eyes of my understanding were opened” President Smith began to understand through this vision things which he had not understood previously. For example, he had previously taught that Christ himself had gone to the wicked in the spirit world and had personally taught them—that they had heard the gospel from the Savior’s own mouth. This great vision instructed the prophet, and through him all the members of the Church, that Christ did not personally visit the wicked spirits. Thus, this vision expanded our understanding of the nature of the spirit world.
“I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great” The terms small and great here refer to mortal rank, the rank that is acquired by socioeconomic and political factors here on earth. The gospel is and will continue to be carried to all people on the earth and in the postmortal spirit world, no matter the wealth or rank acquired in this lifetime. All kings and rulers of this world as well as all the poor beggars on the streets must hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether or not they accept and embrace the gospel, eventually “every knee shall bow . . . and every tongue shall confess to God” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Romans 14:11).
verses 12-18, 23-24, 50 President Smith saw in vision “an innumerable company of the spirits of the just,” the righteous dead who had lived on the earth from the days of Adam to the time of Christ. These all were anxiously awaiting the advent of Christ and were exuberant in their anticipation of their imminent resurrection. These spirits rejoiced at Christ’s coming since they knew the implications of his visit. They would soon be released from their captivity.
12 And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality;
verse 12 “the spirits of the just” Note that the word just is used differently in this verse from the way it is used in verse 7. Verse 7 applies to the Savior only as perfectly just. Verse 12 applies more broadly. The Lord defines “the just” as those imperfect beings “who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality,” had been obedient to the law of sacrifice, and had suffered the tribulations in the name of Christ (see verse 13). This verse makes an important contribution to our understanding of what at least some of those in Old Testament times knew and understood concerning the Savior, Jesus Christ. People from Adam’s time to Christ’s time knew of Christ, worshiped him, and offered sacrifices in his name (see Moses 5:47).
13 And who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God, and had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name.
verse 13 “suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name” It is one thing to suffer on account of the challenges of mortality and another to suffer the same challenges in the name of the Redeemer. He suffered “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” and therefore knew how to “succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12). When a person understands and has faith in the powers of the atonement and mission of the Savior, life becomes a more peaceful journey (D&C 19:23; 59:23). To suffer for Christ means to suffer in his defense. To suffer in his name means to deal with the challenges of life with faith in and devotion to the Savior and his mission.
14 All these had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through the grace of God the Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
15 I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand.
verse 15 “the day of their deliverance was at hand” Remember, only when the body and spirit are inseparably connected can an individual have a fulness of joy (see D&C 93:33-34), and this is true even for those in a state of paradise in the spirit world. These paradisiacal souls were about to receive that great blessing. The Savior would soon be resurrected and graves would open, and the bodies of many saints who had slept would arise (see Matthew 27:52). The righteous viewed their “long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage” (verse 50; D&C 45:17).
16 They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death.
verse 16 “redemption from the bands of death” In this verse, redemption refers to the resurrection from the dead. It is the reuniting of the spirit with the body, never again to be separated (see Alma 11:45; D&C 93:33; Romans 6:9). All who have lived on this earth will be granted that blessing unconditionally through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The word redemption is also used in scriptures to apply to overcoming the effects of the fall of Adam (the unconditional redemption from the spiritual death caused by Adam’s sin) and the effects of every man’s sin based on repentance (the conditional redemption from the spiritual death of each individual due to the sins of that individual).
17 Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy.
verse 17 “Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame” The language here is figurative only. The celestial eternal bodies that these paradisiacal saints in the spirit world were awaiting will contain no mortal elements, but will be of celestial eternal matter.
18 While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful;
verse 18 “vast multitude” Recall that all of the individuals in the spirit world had received, at death, the “partial judgment” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 448), and they had been separated into the righteous in paradise and the wicked in prison. We will learn that Jesus Christ visited only the righteous in paradise. It is encouraging indeed that a large or “vast” number of souls were designated “righteous.” The Lord taught these righteous spirits concerning the fall, repentance, the atonement, and resurrection (see verse 19). These teachings brought to them great hope and peace (see verse 22).
It is notable also that at the day of Christ’s visit to the spirit world, the saints in paradise were physically separated from those individuals in spirit prison, and there was no direct interaction between the two groups. Since the day of Christ’s visit, however, that physical gulf has been bridged and today there is no physical separation between the spirits in paradise and those in a state of “prison.”
“liberty to the captives” Liberty to these spirit world saints in paradise will soon arrive in the form of resurrection.
19 And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.
verses 19, 51 While in the world of spirits, Christ taught the gospel to those who had been righteous, or those who lived in the state we refer to as “paradise.” After teaching them he gave to them an invitation and the power to be resurrected and inherit the celestial kingdom following his resurrection.
verses 20-22, 25-29 Did Christ go among the unrighteous spirits in prison as Peter implied (1 Peter 3:18-20)? It was while pondering the question of how the Savior could have taught the gospel to so many in the spirit world in so short a time (the time intervening between his death on Friday and his rise from the tomb on Sunday morning) that President Smith received what may well be the most significant doctrinal insight of the entire vision. He learned that the Lord did not go among those who had been unrighteous—those in “prison” or “hell.” This certainly modifies our interpretation of D&C 76:73 (see the commentary for that verse).
20 But unto the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised;
21 Neither did the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets behold his presence, nor look upon his face.
verses 20-21 “ungodly and . . . unrepentant” “the rebellious” It is interesting that here the Lord divides the spirits in spirit prison into two separate groups, the ungodly and the rebellious. The ungodly are those who had defiled themselves by giving in to their natural man selves. The rebellious are those who rejected the testimonies and warnings of the ancient prophets. These two groups are actually not a different as they may initially seem, since both suffer from worldly pride.
22 Where these were, darkness reigned, but among the righteous there was peace;
verse 22 “darkness . . . peace” Those in prison suffered in relative spiritual darkness (relative absence of the light of Christ), while those in paradise enjoyed the spiritual peace that was there.
23 And the saints rejoiced in their redemption, and bowed the knee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the chains of hell.
24 Their countenances shone, and the radiance from the presence of the Lord rested upon them, and they sang praises unto his holy name.
verse 24 “Their countenances shone” Because of their faithfulness and obedience, the people visited by the Savior in the spirit world reflected the light and peace of the gospel and the glory of the Lord (see D&C 88:67). Conversely, darkness reigns among the wicked, and their unlighted countenances “doth witness against them” (Isaiah 3:9).
25 I marveled, for I understood that the Savior spent about three years in his ministry among the Jews and those of the house of Israel, endeavoring to teach them the everlasting gospel and call them unto repentance;
26 And yet, notwithstanding his mighty works, and miracles, and proclamation of the truth, in great power and authority, there were but few who hearkened to his voice, and rejoiced in his presence, and received salvation at his hands.
27 But his ministry among those who were dead was limited to the brief time intervening between the crucifixion and his resurrection;
verses 25-27 President Smith wondered how much success the Savior could enjoy in less than two days in the spirit prison, given the limited success of the three years of his mortal ministry among the Jews. It was in response to this wondering that he received the revelation that the Savior did not actually go to the spirits in prison during his visit.
28 And I wondered at the words of Peter—wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah—and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time.
verse 28 “in the days of Noah” The apostle Peter referred to the Savior’s preaching in the spirit world to those who were disobedient “in the days of Noah.” Those who occupied the spirit world in the days of Noah were those who had lived during Adam’s dispensation and in Noah’s dispensation prior to the Flood. What about those who lived after the Flood? Were there features of the pre-Flood and post-Flood groups that rendered them somehow unique and distinctly different from one another? As it turns out, there were. Prior to the Flood all who lived on the earth had ample opportunity to hear the gospel preached to them and to either accept or reject the gospel—the days of Adam and his children were “prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh” and “their time was lengthened” (2 Nephi 2:21). The use of the word “prolonged” here is a curiosity since the time a man spends on this earth is certainly a relative thing. In other words, the days of the children of men were “prolonged” compared to what or to whom? The same concept is restated later in 2 Nephi 2:21—“their time was lengthened.” This same phraseology is used elsewhere several times in the scriptures (Deuteronomy 4:40; 5:16,30; 6:2; 11:9; 30;18; 32:47; Isaiah 13:22; 53:10; Helaman 15:4,10; 2 Nephi 23:22; Alma 9:18). A study of these references suggests that the verb “prolonged” might also be interpreted as “given sufficient time.”
Apparently, the lives of Adam and his children before the Flood were lengthened so that no one died during Adam’s dispensation without first having had the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel (see D&C 29:42). Thus, no one, prior to the Flood, died in ignorance of the gospel. Further, it would seem that in that dispensation the Lord was particularly inclined to send to the earth angels to preach his gospel (Moses 5:58; 7:27). Thus, through the preaching of Adam, Enoch, Noah, angels from heaven, and even God himself (see Moses 5:58), no one who died before the Flood died in ignorance. Nevertheless, many of Adam’s children “believed it not, and they loved Satan more than God” (Moses 5:13). This longevity changed with the Flood (see Genesis 6:3), and it then became possible for people to die in ignorance.
Preaching the gospel to spirits in prison is described by Peter as beginning with those “which sometime were disobedient [not ignorant], when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:20). Was it among this group of disobedient antediluvian souls that the preaching in the spirit world started? That is the implication of Peters writing in 1 Peter 3:20. Yet, Elder James E. Talmage has explained:
The disobedient who had lived on earth in the Noachian [pre-Flood] period are especially mentioned as beneficiaries of the Lord’s ministry in the spirit world. They had been guilty of gross offenses, and had wantonly rejected the teachings and admonitions of Noah. . . . We are not to assume from Peter’s illustrative mention of the disobedient antediluvians that they alone were included in the blessed opportunities offered through Christ’s ministry in the spirit realm; on the contrary, we conclude in reason and consistency that all whose wickedness in the flesh had brought their spirits into the prison house were sharers in the possibilities of expiation, repentance, and release” (Jesus the Christ, 672-73).
verses 29-31 One important contribution of section 138 to our knowledge of the postmortal spirit world is the fact that the Savior, himself, did not associate with the wicked and teach them directly but rather he organized the righteous and sent them to teach the wicked and rebellious. Note that he gave to the righteous power and authority and commissioned them to preach to the wicked (see verse 30). This action implies an organization, perhaps similar to what we have on earth, designed to preach the gospel under priesthood keys and authority. This truth was new to the saints when this revelation was received and is an example of the Lord’s adding line upon line to the knowledge of the leaders and members of the Church. For example, before President Smith had this vision, Elder James E. Talmage wrote in his great work on the life and mission of Jesus the Christ: “While divested of his body Christ ministered among the departed, both in paradise and in the prison realm where dwelt in a state of durance the spirits of the disobedient” (Jesus the Christ, 672). This vision adds information that Elder Talmage did not understand at the time of his writing. As Elder Orson F. Whitney stated in February 1919: “President Smith’s pronouncement is a modification of the view commonly taken, that the Savior’s personal ministry was to both classes of spirits” (Millennial Star 81 [20 February 1919]: 116).
29 And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them;
30 But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
verses 30 “even to all the spirits of men” According to the great plan of salvation, every child of our Father in Heaven will be given a full opportunity to have the gospel of Jesus Christ preached to him of her in the spirit world. No one will be passed over in this process, not even those who “died in their sins . . . in transgression, having rejected the prophets” (verse 32).
“he organized his forces and appointed messengers” President Heber C. Kimball related the following conversation with President Jedediah M. Grant in 1856:
He said to me, brother Heber, I have been into the spirit world two nights in succession, and, of all the dreads that ever came across me, the worst was to have to again return to my body, though I had to do it. But O, says he, the order and government that were there! When in the spirit world, I saw the order of righteous men and women; beheld them organized in their several grades, and there appeared to be no obstruction to my vision . . . I looked to see whether there was any disorder there, but there was none; neither could I see any death nor any darkness, disorder or confusion. He said that the people he there saw were organized in family capacities; and when he looked at them he saw grade after grade, and all were organized and in perfect harmony, . . . Why it is just as brother Brigham says it is, it is just as he has told us many a time” (Young, JD, 4:135-36, as quoted in Maxwell, Promise of Discipleship, 107-08).
31 And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel.
verses 31, 34 Not only did the Savior organize the missionary effort, but he sent them forth. These spirit missionaries carried the gospel message (“declare[d] the acceptable day of the Lord”) to those spirits in prison that they might be judged and rewarded by the same divine standards as those who inhabit the world of mortals.
“the acceptable day of the Lord” The acceptable year or the acceptable day of the Lord is the moment, the point in time, when salvation is offered to the souls of men (see also Luke 4:19; D&C 93:51).
32 Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets.
verse 32 Two groups in the spirit prison are mentioned in this verse—those who have sinned without the knowledge of the truth and those who have transgressed by rejecting the prophets. Both must repent in order to receive the blessing of a resurrection into a kingdom of glory.
Whether or not any individual in spirit prison will be resurrected with a celestial eternal body and be exalted is uncertain. There are two schools of thought in the Church. The first one claims that all who have died without hearing the gospel, including those who would have accepted it had they heard it, will be relegated at death to the spirit prison. The other school suggests that only terrestrial, telestial, and perdition bound souls end up in the spirit prison, since all those who would have accepted the gospel and endured in it will be placed in paradise at their death (D&C 137:5-9). See a more thorough discussion of this question in “Precisely Who Will Be Found Worthy of Paradise?” in The Spirit World in chapter 13, volume 2 of Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine.
33 These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands,
verse 33 This verse suggests that inhabitants of the postmortal spirit prison may repent and inherit the celestial degree of glory, since the pathway to exaltation is outlined here: faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. The baptism, of course, must be performed vicariously on earth since it is an earthly ordinance.
It is important to note that although baptism was instituted from the time of Adam, vicarious baptism for the dead was not instituted until after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Joseph Fielding Smith observed: “There was no baptism for the dead before the days of the Son of God and until after he had risen from the dead, because he was the first who declared the gospel unto the dead. No one else preached unto the dead until Christ went to them and opened the doors, and from that time forth the elders of Israel, who have passed away, have had the privilege of going to the spirit world and declaring the message of salvation” (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:116).
34 And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
35 And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross.
verse 35 All in the spirit world heard the announcement that redemption from death had been accomplished through Christ’s death on the cross. The righteous in “paradise” heard the announcement from the Savior himself. Those in “prison” heard the news from the spirit missionaries whom Christ dispatched.
36 Thus was it made known that our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh;
verse 36 “the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh” The gospel of Jesus Christ has been on this earth since the beginning. Every prophet who held keys and priesthood authority has testified of the Savior and his mission. When the Savior visited the spirit world, he organized and prepared those prophets to continue the work of preaching and testifying.
37 That they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead, unto whom he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression, that they through the ministration of his servants might also hear his words.
verse 37 “he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression” Just how is it that the Savior was prevented from ministering personally among those in spirit prison? After all, did he not minister among publicans and sinners here on earth? The logical answer is that they did not deserve a personal visit from the Savior. The law of justice, or the law of fairness, would likely preclude him from ministering among those in prison because those in prison were not worthy of such a visit and his visit would have given them an unfair advantage in coming to believe in the Savior and his gospel.
verses 38-52 By the power of the Holy Ghost, President Smith perceived the identity of many of the noble and great from the beginning of time. He recognized Mother Eve and many of her faithful daughters. He also identified prophets and dispensation heads as being among those who were called to preach in the spirit world.
38 Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous were Father Adam, the Ancient of Days and father of all,
39 And our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshiped the true and living God.
verse 39 “Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters” This verse emphasizes the importance of the role of the daughters of God in the work of the salvation of mankind. As in this life, so in the world of spirits—their work and responsibility continues. Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke of the role of women in the plan of our Father in Heaven when he declared:
We know so little, brothers and sisters, about the reasons for the division of duties between womanhood and manhood as well as between motherhood and priesthood. These were divinely determined in another time and another place. We are accustomed to focusing on the men of God because theirs is the priesthood and leadership line. But paralleling that authority line is a stream of righteous influence reflecting the remarkable women of God who have existed in all ages and dispensations, including our own. Greatness is not measured by coverage in column inches, either in newspapers or in the scriptures. The story of the women of God, therefore, is, for now, an untold drama within a drama (CR, April 1978, 13).
President Joseph F. Smith, at an earlier time, made this observation:
Now, among all these millions of spirits that have lived on the earth, and have passed away, from generation to generation, since the beginning of the world, without the knowledge of the gospel—among them you may count that at least one-half are women. Who is going to preach the gospel to the women? Who is going to carry that testimony of Jesus Christ to the hearts of the women who have passed away without a knowledge of the gospel? Well, to my mind, it is a simple thing. These good sisters who have been set apart, ordained to the work, called to it, authorized by the authority of the holy Priesthood to minister for their sex, in the House of God for the living and for the dead, will be fully authorized and empowered to preach the gospel and minister to the women while the elders and prophets are preaching it to the men. The things we experience here are typical of the things of God and the life beyond us (Gospel Doctrine, 461).
40 Abel, the first martyr, was there, and his brother Seth, one of the mighty ones, who was in the express image of his father, Adam.
verse 40 “Seth, one of the mighty ones” The Doctrine and Covenants teaches us some interesting truths about Seth. He was a “perfect man” who was so similar to his father, Adam, in “all things,” that they could only be distinguished by age (D&C 107:43). He was with Adam and his righteous posterity in the valley of Adamondi-Ahman when Adam bestowed his last blessing upon the saints (D&C 107:53). He was ordained by Adam at the age of sixty-nine with the promise that his posterity would be “the chosen of the Lord, and that they should be preserved unto the end of the earth” (D&C 107:42).
41 Noah, who gave warning of the flood; Shem, the great high priest; Abraham, the father of the faithful; Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, the great law-giver of Israel;
verse 41 “Shem, the great high priest” Shem was the son of Noah and father of the Semitic race through whom the promises and birthright blessings of the priesthood would be shared with the world. He was a forefather of Joseph, the husband of Mary (see Luke 3:36) and is designated in this verse as “the great high priest” (see also the LDS Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Shem”).
42 And Isaiah, who declared by prophecy that the Redeemer was anointed to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that were bound, were also there.
43 Moreover, Ezekiel, who was shown in vision the great valley of dry bones, which were to be clothed upon with flesh, to come forth again in the resurrection of the dead, living souls;
44 Daniel, who foresaw and foretold the establishment of the kingdom of God in the latter days, never again to be destroyed nor given to other people;
45 Elias, who was with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration;
verse 45 “Elias” There’s that confusing name again—Elias! Just who is this Elias who appeared with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. Before considering Elias’s identity, let us review the three possible definitions of Elias: (1) There is a specific person named Elias—the prophet Noah. His name is Elias in the same sense that Adam’s name is Michael. This knowledge comes from a sermon Joseph gave to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1839 (HC, 3:386). In this sermon he taught that Gabriel is Noah. In D&C 27:7 we learn that Elias is the messenger who visited Zacharias to announce that his wife, Elisabeth, would bear a son. Hence, Elias is Gabriel is Noah. (2) The name Elias may be used as a title. The Prophet Noah accomplished one of the most important feats of restoration in the history of the earth following the Flood. Noah was thus given the keys of restoration or of preparing the way for the Savior and for the gospel. Hence when anyone does restorative or preparative kinds of work, he is really doing the work of Noah and may be called an Elias. An example is John the Baptist whose major role was in preparing the way for Christ and in setting the stage for the restoration of the gospel. Thus he is accorded the title—an Elias. Other examples of Eliases in this final dispensation include Moroni, Peter, James, John, Moses, Elijah, Raphael, and Michael (D&C 13; 110; 128:19-21). (3) The Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Elijah is Elias. Generally, in the New Testament when the name Elias is used it refers to the prophet Elijah.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has postulated even a fourth possible explanation for the name “Elias” in his book Mormon Doctrine. He suggested that there might have been a prophet in the days of Abraham whose name was “Elias.” Elder McConkie admitted that we know nothing else about such a prophet.
In this verse, Elias refers to Elijah who appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses. The Elias who appeared in the Kirtland Temple with Moses and Elijah to commit the gospel of Abraham to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (D&C 110:12) is an otherwise unidentified person of Old Testament times (see the LDS Bile Dictionary, s.v. “Elias”).
46 And Malachi, the prophet who testified of the coming of Elijah – of whom also Moroni spake to the Prophet Joseph Smith, declaring that he should come before the ushering in of the great and dreadful day of the Lord – were also there.
47 The Prophet Elijah was to plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to their fathers,
verse 47 “plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to their fathers” See the commentary for D&C 2:2.
48 Foreshadowing the great work to be done in the temples of the Lord in the dispensation of the fulness of times, for the redemption of the dead, and the sealing of the children to their parents, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse and utterly wasted at his coming.
verse 48 “lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse and utterly wasted at his coming” See the commentary for D&C 2:3.
49 All these and many more, even the prophets who dwelt among the Nephites and testified of the coming of the Son of God, mingled in the vast assembly and waited for their deliverance,
verse 49 “even the prophets who dwelt among the Nephites” We must not forget the great Book of Mormon prophets many of which sacrificed much to testify of Christ—for example, the prophet Abinadi (Mosiah 11-17).
50 For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.
verse 50 See the commentary for D&C 45:17.
51 These the Lord taught, and gave them power to come forth, after his resurrection from the dead, to enter into his Father’s kingdom, there to be crowned with immortality and eternal life,
verse 51 “These the Lord taught” Again, this phrase refers only to the spirits in paradise and not those in spirit prison.
52 And continue thenceforth their labor as had been promised by the Lord, and be partakers of all blessings which were held in reserve for them that love him.
verses 53-56 It appears that the scene of the vision shifts from the first century after Christ to the time and personalities of the dispensation of the fulness of times. President Smith saw the leaders of this dispensation, after leaving this mortal sphere, also preaching the gospel in the spirit world. The keys they held on earth in this dispensation were also active in the spirit world, and they continued their work after death, acting under the keys held by the Prophet Joseph Smith (see D&C 90:3).
53 The Prophet Joseph Smith, and my father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and other choice spirits who were reserved to come forth in the fulness of times to take part in laying the foundations of the great latter-day work,
verse 53 You the reader should be reminded that you also were “reserved to come forth in the fulness of times to take part” in this great latter-day work.”
54 Including the building of the temples and the performance of ordinances therein for the redemption of the dead, were also in the spirit world.
verse 54 This verses completes the sentence begun in verse 53.
“Including the building of the temples and the performance of ordinances therein” This phrase highlights the vital central role of the temple both in the restoration of the gospel and in the redemption of the dead.
55 I observed that they were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.
56 Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men.
verse 56 “world of spirits” This phrase refers to the premortal world of spirits.
This interesting verse indicates that those “noble and great ones” in the premortal world who were foreordained to come forth in this final dispensation were schooled on their future responsibilities while still in their premortal state.
57 I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.
verse 57 “the faithful elders of this dispensation” What are we going to be doing during our sojourn in the spirit world while we await our own resurrection? It is not just the leaders of the Church in this dispensation who will be involved in preaching repentance to the spirits in prison after this life, but all faithful elders and sisters (see verse 39). President Smith’s vision confirms another doctrine that had been taught by Joseph Smith: the faithful in this life continue to teach and labor in the world of spirits in behalf of those who know not God. Joseph F. Smith had taught this doctrine on a number of occasions, and here he became an eyewitness of the same.
58 The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,
verse 58 “through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God” Brigham Young stated: “It is supposed by this people that we have all the ordinances in our possession for life and salvation, and exaltation, and that we are administering in those ordinances. This is not the case. We are in possession of all the ordinances that can be [administered] in the flesh; but there are other ordinances and administrations that must be administered beyond this world. I know you would like to ask what they are. I will mention one. We have not, neither can we receive here, the ordinances and the keys of resurrection” (JD, 15:137, as quoted in Kimball, CR, April 1977, 69).
59 And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.
verses 58-59 “shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation” Salvation does not necessarily mean the same as exaltation, although it is often used in that context. D&C 76:43-44 affirms that the Lord “saves” all except the sons of perdition, and D&C 76:88 specifically refers to those in the telestial kingdom as “heirs of salvation.” In a broad sense, salvation means to be saved from death, hell, and the devil and to be placed in the telestial, terrestrial, or celestial kingdom. In a more narrow sense, salvation means to be exalted. All those in the spirit prison who confess Christ and repent will be saved. Doubtless most will inherit terrestrial or telestial glory. Whether any will earn celestial glory, we will just have to wait and see (D&C 137:5-9).
60 Thus was the vision of the redemption of the dead revealed to me, and I bear record, and I know that this record is true, through the blessing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, even so. Amen.
verse 60 Having laid before us his remarkable vision, President Smith climaxed his contribution with his testimony.
President Smith’s physical condition worsened during the first weeks of November 1918. He died on November 19, 1918. At the next general conference in April 1919, Elder James E. Talmage paid an appropriate tribute to the President:
Well where is he now? He was permitted shortly before his passing to have a glimpse into the hereafter and to learn where he would soon be at work. He was a preacher of righteousness on earth, he is a preacher of righteousness today. He was a missionary from his boyhood up, and he is a missionary today amongst those who have not yet heard the gospel, though they have passed from mortality into the spirit world. I cannot conceive of him as otherwise than busily engaged in the work of the Master (CR, April 1919, 60).
- Michael J. Preece