Church History Lesson 39 (D&C 2; 110; 138; JS–History 37-39)
This lesson focuses on the redemption of the dead by briefly studying the work of four prophets: Elijah, President Wilford Woodruff, President Joseph F. Smith, and President Gordon B. Hinckley. The purpose of this lesson is to gain a greater understanding of the need to redeem the dead.
Help from the Spirit World
Life on earth is demanding and often requires our entire attention just to raise and provide for our families, serve in the Church, and overcome the challenges that come our way. We are not always focused on those who have gone on before us into the world of spirits. But those spirits are focused solely on their salvation, and they cannot achieve all that is required without our help. For this reason, they sometimes provide assistance in our work for the dead in very tangible ways.
“In May 1884, Bishop Henry Ballard of the Logan Second Ward was signing temple recommends at his home. Henry’s nine-year-old daughter, who was talking with friends on the sidewalk near her home, saw two elderly men approaching. They called to her, handed her a newspaper, and told her to take it to her father.
The girl did as she was asked. Bishop Ballard saw that the paper, the Newbury Weekly News, published in England, contained the names of more than 60 of his and his father’s acquaintances, along with genealogical information. This newspaper, dated 15 May 1884, had been given to him only three days after it was printed. In a time long before air transportation, when mail took several weeks to get from England to western America, this was a miracle.
The next day, Bishop Ballard took the newspaper to the temple and told the story of its arrival to Marriner W Merrill, the temple president. President Merrill declared, “Brother Ballard, someone on the other side is anxious for their work to be done and they knew that you would do it if this paper got into your hands.”1
Frederick William Hurst was working as a gold miner in Australia when he first heard Latter-day Saint missionaries preach the restored gospel. He and his brother Charles were baptized in January 1854. He tried to help his other family members become converted, but they rejected him and the truths he taught.
Fred settled in Salt Lake City four years after joining the Church, and he served faithfully as a missionary in several different countries. He also worked as a painter in the Salt Lake Temple. In one of his final journal entries, he wrote:
“Along about the 1st of March, 1893, I found myself alone in the dining room, all had gone to bed. I was sitting at the table when to my great surprize my elder brother Alfred walked in and sat down opposite me at the table and smiled. I said to him (he looked so natural): ‘When did you arrive in Utah?’
“He said: ‘I have just come from the Spirit World, this is not my body that you see, it is lying in the tomb. I want to tell you that when you were on your mission you told me many things about the Gospel, and the hereafter, and about the Spirit World being as real and tangible as the earth. I could not believe you, but when I died and went there and saw for myself I realized that you had told the truth. I attended the Mormon meetings.’ He raised his hand and said with much warmth: ‘I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all my heart. I believe in faith, and repentance and baptism for the remission of sins, but that is as far as I can go I look to you to do the work for me in the temple…. You are watched closely…. We are all looking to you as our head in this great work. I want to tell you that there are a great many spirits who weep and mourn because they have relatives in the Church here who are careless and are doing nothing for them.”2
A Revelation on Family Histories and Sealings
Doing work for the dead is primarily a family duty. We have become used to going to the temple, receiving “a name” on a slip of paper, and enjoying the peace and spirit of the Lord’s House. This can depersonalize the effort, and fill us with a sense of spiritual accomplishment, while our own forebears wait for centuries to enjoy the same blessings.
During the April 1894 general conference, President Wilford Woodruff announced that he had received a revelation about genealogical work. He declared that God wanted the Latter-day Saints “to trace their genealogies as far as they can, and to be sealed to their fathers and mothers. Have the children sealed to their parents and run this chain through as far as you can get it. . . . This is the will of the Lord to his people,” he said, “and I think when you come to reflect upon it you will find it to be true.”3
In this same spirit, the First Presidency has, in our own time, asked us to take our own family names to the temple when we go there to perform that sacred work. We need to re-focus on “the fathers” in our own genealogical line, and remember “the promises” we made to them in premortal life to do their work for them.
President Elder Joseph Fielding Smith taught: “What was the promise made to the fathers that was to be fulfilled in the latter days by the turning of the hearts of the children to their fathers? It was the promise of the Lord made through Enoch, Isaiah, and the prophets, to the nations of the earth, that the time should come when the dead should be redeemed.”4
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve said, “God made those promises to the ancient patriarchs—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so forth—and we undoubtedly made them to our own lineal fathers and mothers, those who came to earth before the gospel was restored but whom we promised to provide its saving ordinances.”5
Elijah: “The Keys of this Dispensation Are Committed into Your Hands”
On 3 April 1836 in the Kirtland Temple, the prophet Elijah appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. He conferred the sealing power of the priesthood upon them, which makes possible the eternal marriages and sealings we are asked to perform. Without this sealing work, the entire Plan of Salvation would have been an “utter waste” because it would have left the vast majority of our Father’s children without the opportunity for exaltation. It would also make impossible the eternal family relationships that we cherish so much.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught that without the sealing power, “no family ties would exist in the eternities, and indeed the family of man would have been left in eternity with ‘neither root [ancestors] nor branch [descendants].’ Inasmuch as . . . a sealed, united, celestially saved family of God is the ultimate purpose of mortality, any failure here would have been a curse indeed, rendering the entire plan of salvation ‘utterly wasted.”6
President Wilford Woodruff: “Somebody Has Got to Redeem Them.”
President Wilford Woodruff was particularly devoted to the work of redeeming the dead and sealing families for eternity. During his ministry, many members of the Church served genealogical missions, and in 1894 the First Presidency directed the organization of a genealogical society.7 According to Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve, “events of that historic year  established family history research and temple service as one work in the Church.”8
The urgency of temple work for the dead
For a period of time, President Woodruff served as president of the temple in St. George, Utah. It was in that temple that endowments for the dead were performed for the first time in this dispensation.9
While serving there, President Woodruff was visited by the spirits of many “eminent men” who had died. Invite a class member to share the following account by President Woodruff:
“The spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, ‘You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we . . . remained true to it and were faithful to God.’ These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence [of the United States of America], and they waited on me for two days and two nights.. . . I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McAllister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others.”10
While serving in the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Wilford Woodruff taught: “For the last eighteen hundred years, the people that have lived and passed away never heard the voice of an inspired man, never heard a Gospel sermon, until they entered the spirit-world. Somebody has got to redeem them, by performing such ordinances for them in the flesh as they cannot attend to themselves in the spirit, and in order that this work may be done, we must have Temples in which to do it.”11
Taking the Temples to the People
Clearly, the work for the dead is accelerating rapidly. Tools that would have seemed miraculous just 20 years ago are now available in nearly all our homes—computers, the Internet, and social media that can connect us to myriad others who are researching the same family lines. Literally billions of records are now available to us with a few clicks of our computer mouse.
The temples have expanded to fit the need. Man of us have lived long enough to remember when temples were numbered by 10s rather than by 100s. President Gordon B. Hinckley accelerated this work with his emphasis on building temple all over the earth, and this was prophesied more than a century ago. At a 1906 conference in Bern, Switzerland, President Joseph F. Smith stretched out his hand and declared, “The time will come when this land will be dotted with temples, where you can go and redeem your dead.”12 The first latter-day temple in Europe, the Swiss Temple, was dedicated nearly half a century later in a suburb of the city where President Smith made his prophecy. President Smith dedicated land for a temple in Cardston, Alberta, Canada, in 1913 and for a temple in Hawaii in 1915. Now, 100 years later, temples can be found by the dozens on every continent.
When President Gordon B. Hinckley became President of the Church in 1995, there were 47 temples in operation. About two and one-half years later, he made the following announcement:
“There are many areas of the Church that are remote, where the membership is small and not likely to grow very much in the near future. Are those who live in these places to be denied forever the blessings of the temple ordinances? While visiting such an area a few months ago, we prayerfully pondered this question. The answer, we believe, came bright and clear.
“We will construct small temples in some of these areas, buildings with all of the facilities to administer all of the ordinances. They would be built to temple standards, which are much higher than meetinghouse standards. They would accommodate baptisms for the dead, the endowment service, sealings, and all other ordinances to be had in the Lord’s house for both the living and the dead. . . . We are determined . . . to take the temples to the people and afford them every opportunity for the very precious blessings that come of temple worship.”13
In April 1998, President Hinckley announced a goal to have 100 temples in operation by the end of the century.14 Today the number is more than 150.
A Work for the Young and the Old
When we speak of technology, can we identify any group of members with more ability and knowledge concerning these things than our youth? They are uniquely situated by their knowledge to accelerate the work of gathering and entering names from the records now available via the Internet. They are also able to participate in temple ordinances when they are as young as 12.
Elder J Ballard Washburn of the Seventy tells the following story:
“After a stake conference, I was talking with a family with teenage children. I said to them, ‘You must live righteously so that someday you can go to the temple with your parents.’ A sixteen-year-old daughter responded, ‘Oh, we go to the temple with our parents almost every week. We go and do baptisms for our family file names.’ I thought, What a wonderful thing, for families to go to the temple together.”15
This same work can be done by new converts as they prepare to receive their own temple ordinances one year after their baptisms.
President Joseph F. Smith: “The Eyes of My Understanding Were Opened”
President Wilford Woodruff said, “President [Brigham] Young, who followed President Joseph Smith, . . . laid the foundation of [the Salt Lake Temple], as well as others in the mountains of Israel. What for? That we might carry out these principles of redemption for the dead. He accomplished all that God required at his hands. But he did not receive all the revelations that belong to this work; neither did President [John] Taylor, nor has President Wilford Woodruff.”16
President Joseph F. Smith. Explain that President Smith, the sixth President of the Church, received a revelation that helped the work of redeeming the dead continue to move forward. On 4 October 1918, just weeks before his death, he said in general conference:
“I have been undergoing a siege of very serious illness for the last five months. . I have not lived alone these 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.”17
This revelation, which is a record of the Savior’s visit to the spirit world while His body was in the tomb, is now found as section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
The Savior went to the spirits who:
— “Had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality” (D&C 138:12).
— “Had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God” (D&C 138:13).
— “Had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name” (D&C 138:13).
— “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” (D&C 138:14).
— “Were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand” (D&C 138:15).
The Savior did not visit unrighteous spirits who had rejected his prophets or lived sinfully while upon the earth (D&C 138:20–21). Instead, He organized an effort for the gospel to be preached to “those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth” (D&C 138:27–37). He organized the righteous spirits and commissioned them to teach those who had not yet accepted the gospel (D&C 138:57). This revelation also explains the differences between those in the spirit world who have been faithful in the testimony of Jesus and those who have not (D&C 138:22–24, 57–59).
As our lesson manual emphasizes, no other people in history have ever had the opportunity to do so much for so many people as we do today. We will discuss some of those ways in next week’s lesson.
1. Our Heritage, 99; also in Melvin I. Ballard: Crusader for Righteousness (1966), 16-17.
2. Diary of Frederick William Hurst, comp. Samuel H. and Ida Hurst , 204.
3. Our Heritage, 101; also in James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Churcli of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (1965-75), 3:256-57.
4. Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 2:154.
5. Christ and the New Covenant , 297.
6. Christ and the New Covenant, 297-98.
7. Our Heritage, 101.
8. In Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 114; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 85.
9. See Doctrines of Salvation, 2:171.
10. The Discourses of President Wilford Woodruff, sel. G. Homer Durham , 160-61.
11. In Journal of Discourses, 19:228-29.
12. Our Heritage, 106; Quoted in Serge F. Ballif, in Conference Report, Oct 1920, 90.
13. In Conference Report, Oct. 1997, 68-69; or Ensign, Nov. 1997, 49-50.
14. See Conference Report, Apr. 1998, 115; or Ensign, May 1998, 88.
15. In Conference Report, Apr. 1995, 12; or Ensign, May 1995, 11.
16. The Discourses of President Wilford Woodruff , 153-54.
17. In Conference Report, Oct. 1918, 2.