Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Lesson 41: “Becoming Saviors on Mount Zion”

Posted by joespencer on August 29, 2009

Though lesson 35 was dedicated to the notion of “Redemption for the Dead” (you can see my notes for that lesson here), and lesson 36 was dedicated to the topic of “Receiving the Ordinances and Blessings of the Temple” (you can see my notes for that lesson here), Joseph Smith had enough to say on the subject of baptism for the dead specifically that lesson 41 is dedicated to this topic. Indeed, Joseph had so much to say on the topic that I think I had better confess that I found this lesson richer and more productive in many ways than the earlier two lessons that dealt with connected themes. At any rate, this lesson makes it quite clear that baptism for the dead is a topic we have hardly begun to penetrate.

From the Life of Joseph Smith

The introductory section for this lesson gives a brief history of the work of baptism for the dead in Nauvoo: the ordinance was performed rather indiscriminately in the Mississippi River in 1840 after Joseph announced it without much explanation; in January 1841 (in the revelation that is now D&C 124), the Saints were informed that they were to cease the practice until it could be performed in a font dedicated specifically to that purpose; the Saints actually came into conformity with this revelation in October of 1841; by November, a makeshift font had been constructed in the basement of the then-still-being-constructed Nauvoo temple, and baptisms for the dead were again performed; in 1842, a series of clarifications about how such baptisms had to be recorded according to a kind of “priesthood of writing” were presented to the Saints by Joseph, etc.

This timeline traces the practice of baptism for the dead, but not what might be called the developing doctrine of baptism for the dead. Joseph’s understanding of the ordinance, like his understanding of most everything, unfolded a bit at a time, and his teachings concerning baptism for the dead thus took various shapes between 1840 and 1844. Hence, just as Joseph tells us, in the last sentence on page 470, that “We need not expect to do this vast work for the dead in a short time” (emphasis added), it might be said that “We need not expect to understand this vast work for the dead in a short time” either. Joseph’s scattered teachings on the subject certainly deserve more careful treatment than they have received. The “Teachings” portion of this lesson gathers a number of them.

The doctrine of salvation for the dead shows the greatness of God’s wisdom and compassion.

For the most part, this section of the lesson summarizes (many of) the teachings gathered together in lesson 35 (“Redemption for the Dead”). Indeed, the sentence that opens the fourth paragraph on page 471 is a beautiful summary of the earlier lesson: “This glorious truth [of the possibility of redeeming the dead] is well calculated to enlarge the understanding, and to sustain the soul under troubles, difficulties and distresses.” As Joseph goes on, it is clear that this truth is what allows one to break with “the muddy stream of tradition” or “the blotted page of the book of nature.” Truth is, as always, revolutionary.

But this section does, at least at one point, make a bold claim that does not appear anywhere in the earlier lesson: “This doctrine [of the possibility of redeeming the dead] was the burden of the scriptures.” (p. 471, emphasis added) That, it seems to me, is quite a claim! Latter-day Saints generally have a hard time finding specifically biblical warrant for their doctrine of redeeming the dead, being able only to offer a few unique (and, to Christians generally, unconvincing) readings of scattered texts and a heavy reliance on 1 Corinthians 15:29. Yet Joseph here claims that the question of the redemption of the dead is something like the underlying theme of all scripture! What could he mean?

Let me be quick to point out that I am not at all convinced that this sort of claim merits a call to take up the task of proving that the theme of redeeming the dead appears throughout the Bible (and other scripture). I don’t think we have the task of showing that this or that Hebrew word, if translated with the right nuance, can be completely revamped to show that Jeremiah taught something like temple ordinances for the dead, etc. Rather, I see Joseph providing us a hint about the lens through which we ought to see all scripture. Our task is not to prove that this is the burden of the scriptures, but to allow the doctrine to inflect the way we read scripture generally: we ought to be asking how whatever we come across in the text is ultimately tied to or grounded in this central doctrine. And that, I think, is something quite productive. At any rate, it seems to be something Joseph Smith calls us to take up.

But enough of summary. On to the much heavier discussion in the subsequent sections.

We become saviors on Mount Zion by performing sacred ordinances for the dead.

Beginning with the last full paragraph on page 472, Joseph takes up Malachi 4:5-6, and in a rather striking way. In a famous text (the following paragraph), he claims that “the word turn [in “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” etc.] should be translated bind, or seal.” One could here wager a justification of Joseph’s translation (the Hebrew verb shuv, translated “turn,” has reference to repetition and is often translated “again,” such that one might attempt to justify Joseph by claiming that the idea of binding or sealing is a question of repetition for all eternity), but I don’t know that Joseph meant at all to offer a scholarly interpretation of the Hebrew word in the Malachi text. At the very least, the possibility is real that Joseph meant “translated” here in the sense of the “Joseph Smith Translation,” where it is more a question of being under the sway of inspiration than it is a question of being attuned to the nuances of another language. (This is especially important to recognize with Malachi 4:5-6, which is translated in Third Nephi exactly as it is translated in the King James Version of the Bible; which is left completely unchanged in the JST manuscripts; which is completely recast in D&C 2, Moroni’s reformulation of the text during his visit to Joseph Smith; which Joseph announced in 1842 he could translate in a “plainer” fashion were it necessary, but then deemed it unnecessary; and which Joseph several times in public sermons [such as this one] offered alternate “translations.” In a word: Malachi 4:5-6 is a highly unstable passage in Mormonism.)

The real question, then, is what Joseph is trying to teach by retranslating “turn” as “bind” or “seal.” This is what Joseph will return to in one of the last few paragraphs of the lesson, drawn from D&C 128: “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,” etc. (p. 476, emphasis added) Here, I think, things get a bit sticky. At first, it might seem that the shift from “turn” to “bind” or “seal” implies a shift from something more or less internal (a question of emotion, feeling, or attachment) to something more or less external (a ritually enacted binding, a publicly made covenant, an almost physical attachment). But the citation from D&C 128 might be taken to suggest otherwise: the “welding link of some kind or other” must be, Joseph says, “upon some subject or other,” and he goes on to announce that subject as “baptism for the dead.” This seems to imply that the question of binding or sealing is less a question of an actual bond being made between two things (here: persons) than a question of a kind of agreement across generations on a singularly privileged ordinance (baptism). It almost seems that Joseph is teaching that the ancients and the moderns, along with all the dead stretched between them, must come to see baptism as the central ordinance in which they all participate, as what binds them all together through its universality.

But this heavy emphasis on baptism alone comes, of course, from the 1842 letter that is D&C 128. The sermon cited on pages 472 and 473 comes from 1844, and Joseph seems to have developed in his interpretation or understanding of the doctrine by that point. There it almost seems as if he has left D&C 128 behind just a bit. I don’t think this is so much a question of the sealing or binding actually coming to be regarded as something more substantial, but a question of more and other ordinances making up the central complex of what binds the generations. From page 473 (and part of the same sermon in which Joseph retranslates Malachi): “But how are they to become saviors on Mount Zion? By building their temples, erecting their baptismal fonts, and going forth and receiving all the ordinances, baptisms, confirmations, washings, anointings, ordinations and sealing powers upon their heads, in behalf of all their progenitors who are dead,” etc. (emphasis added) It seems clear here that baptism has become only one (and only the first) of so many ordinances by this point, whereas in 1842—though it was that year that the endowment was first given to the Saints, and though the sealing ordinance had already been performed by that point, and though even plural marriage was already being practiced—the (at least public) emphasis was entirely on baptism.

That the shift to a whole collection of ordinances had taken place by 1844 seems to be confirmed on page 474 in a two-paragraph quotation from another 1844 sermon. Joseph there explains (in the second full paragraph on that page): “It is not only necessary that you should be baptized for your dead, but you will have to go through all the ordinances for them, the same as you have gone through to save yourselves.” (emphasis added)

This takes, I think, the most interesting shape in the third full paragraph (from the same sermon) on that page: “There should be a place where all nations shall come up from time to time to receive their endowments; and the Lord has said this shall be the place for the baptisms for the dead.” Here the gathering together of so many ordinances is made a question of a particular place, and a sort of topology of vicarious work is set forth. The place of one’s own endowment is to be the same place where one performs baptisms for the dead. This specific linkage between one’s own endowment and baptism for the dead may explain the first paragraph on that same page: “I would advise all the Saints to . . . go to with all their might to save their dead, seal their posterity, and gather their living friends, and spend none of their time in behalf of the world.” Our task is, being endowed and so given the power to preach to all, to bind together in our work of preaching the past, the future, and the present.

And all of this, Joseph emphasizes, is urgent: “The Saints have not too much time to save and redeem their dead, and gather together their living relatives, that they may be saved also, before the earth will be smitten, and the consumption decreed falls upon the world” (p. 473); “if the whole Church should go to with all their might to save their dead,” etc., “they would hardly get through before night would come, when no man can work” (p. 474). Hence the title of the next section….

God has placed upon us a great responsibility to seek after our dead.

The last section in the lesson comes from two remarkable sources. The first page or so of it comes from the famous King Follett Discourse that Joseph gave at the last General Conference before he died; the second page or so comes from, as mentioned before, D&C 128, in my opinion the most remarkable revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants. For my purposes here, though, I will leave D&C 128 to my previous comments on it above, since the quotation avoids the parts of D&C 128 that I would want to talk about at the greatest length. As for the King Follett Discourse part of the section, I want only to offer a few speculative reflections about how baptism for the dead gives us to rethink death, offering these reflections as a kind of open-ended conclusion to these notes.

Joseph twice mentions “responsibility” in the passage from the KFD, and both times it is immediately after a teaching concerning deathlessness. I want to read into this pattern. The first time (from the first paragraph on page 475): “God reveals [truths] to us in view of no eternal dissolution of the body, or tabernacle. Hence the responsibility, the awful responsibility, that rests upon us in relation to our dead. . . .” (emphasis added) The second time (from the second and third paragraphs on the same page): “When His commandments teach us, it is in view of eternity; for we are looked upon by God as though we were in eternity; God dwells in eternity, and does not view things as we do. The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead.” (emphasis added) The basic question that drives the following comments, then, is this: Why does Joseph Smith so consistently connect the responsibility to redeem the dead to the fact that God dwells in eternity and therefore regards us as immortals?

First formulation: God is and speaks without death, and so we who would be godly must take up a posture of essential indifference to death, the primary shape of which indifference would be the work of redeeming the dead.

Second formulation: God’s refusal to recognize the mortal distinction between the living and the dead functions as a call (sounding as a kind of echo in every word God speaks) that summons us to be as busy with the work of saving the dead as saving the living.

Third formulation: God’s eternality makes it such that when He speaks to us, He speaks immediately to our (eternal) spirits, rather than to our mortal bodies, and so we inevitably find that His words call us to live eternally, as if in eternity, even while in mortality; and when we assume eternal life, we are immediately confronted with the billions of spirits who, because they have already died, necessarily are faced with eternity and desire to receive the ordinances they could not during their own mortalities.

Fourth formulation: Mortality (in the body), combined with immortality (in the spirit), makes for a complicated experience of hearing the word of God, which speaks to the immortal in us so as to distract us from our own mortality, but precisely in a way that allows us to utilize that mortality (the body) to redeem the dead (those definitively beyond physical mortality).

And a final reflection: The phrase “to seek after our dead” (in the third paragraph on page 475) is a curious one for Joseph Smith to use. It arguably comes from Isaiah 8:19, where the phrase has reference not to what the righteous do, but to what the wicked do (namely, seeking after the dead ancients through seances and the like, as a way of escaping the realities of the moment). But Joseph effectively rewrites the meaning of the phrase: here is the way to seek after the dead that does not wind up being idolatrous or sinful; one seeks after the dead because one is distracted from death, not because one is trying to escape it. And maybe this sets up a nice way of framing the gap between sin and righteousness. We will, without question, seek after the dead. But the question is whether we will do so because we have been called beyond death, or because we are trying to hide from death.

3 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 41: “Becoming Saviors on Mount Zion””

  1. Jennifer O. said

    Joe, enjoyed these notes. I liked what you pointed out about the uniqueness of the burden of the scriptures being to proclaim the redemption of the dead. While preparing this lesson for our RS, I will be including the following series of scriptures which seems to assist us in doing this.

    What is the “most glorious of all subjects?”
    D&C 128:7 – baptism for the dead

    D&C 2:2 – “This is planted in the hearts…the promises made to the fathers.”
    Who are the fathers?

    D&C 27:10 – ” Joseph and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, your fathers, by whom the promises remain”
    What are the promises?

    Abraham 2:9-12 – promises of prosperity, priesthood, and promised land for the seed of Abraham.
    How do we qualify for these promises?

    Abraham 1:2 – What Abraham sought and obtained to become a rightful heir
    1. follower of righteousness
    2. to possess greater knowledge
    3. be a father to many nations, a prince of peace
    4. to receive instructions and keep commandments
    So how do we become rightful heirs and obtain the promises?

    D&C 110:7-16 – Moses, Elias (Noah), and Elijah committed unto us the KEYS.
    1. Gathering of Israel
    2. Eternal marriage covenant – seed
    3. Sealing power
    How do we receive the keys?

    D&C 13 – “Upon you my fellow servants…I confer the priesthood of Aaron…until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering in righteousness.”
    Where is the offering to be given?’

    D&C 84:31 – “the sons of Moses…and…of Aaron shall offer an acceptable offering and sacrifice in the house of the Lord (temple).”
    What is this offering?

    D&C 128:24 – “…the sons of Levi…offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple…a BOOK containing the records of our dead…”

    And here we see, then, that our offering of vicarious temple work then becomes worthy of all acceptation. Truly an essential piece of the great plan of salvation.

  2. Why and how does God use believers to save people?…

    This came up in anther discussion and I thought it deserved separate attention. Mormons definitely believe that people are an integral part of God’s plan to bring salvation to he world.  He uses us to send the message. Here is an example of some …

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