“Such an idea is worse than atheism”: Joseph Smith, Proxy Baptisms, and Sectarianism

By September 19, 2009

In preparing my priesthood lesson on baptisms for the dead for tomorrow (lesson 41), I’ve been going through the omissions from the text. As JNS pointed out awhile back, some of these omissions are pretty interesting. Here’s the text of Joseph Smith’s October 1841 speech on baptisms for the dead (published in Times and Seasons, October 15, 1841 and quoted in the manual on pages 471-72). I’ve italicized the portion that was deleted from the manual below.

President Joseph Smith, by request of some of the Twelve, gave instructions on the doctrine of Baptism for the Dead; which was listened to with intense interest by the large assembly. The speaker presented “Baptism for the Dead” as the only way that men can appear as saviors on mount Zion. The proclamation of the first principles of the gospel was a means of salvation to men individually, and it was the truth, not men that saved them; but men, by actively engaging in rites of salvation substitutionally, became instrumental in bringing multitudes of their kin into the kingdom of God. He explained a difference between an angel and a ministering spirit; the one a resurrected or translated body, with its spirit, ministering to embodied spirits-the other a disembodied spirit, visiting and ministering to disembodied spirits. Jesus Christ became a minestering [ministering] spirit, while his body laying in the sepulchre [sepulcher], to the spirits in prison; to fulfil [fulfill] an important part of his mission, without which he could not have perfected his work or entered into his rest. After his resurrection, he appeared as an angel to his disciples &c. Translated bodies cannot enter into rest until they have undergone a change equivalent to death. Translated bodies are designed for future missions. The angel that appeared to John on the Isle of Patmos was a translated or resurrected body.-Jesus Christ went in body, after his resurrection, to minister to translated and resurrected bodies. There has been a chain of authority and power from Adam down to the present time. The only way to obtain truth and wisdom, is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer and obtain divine teaching. It is no more incredible that God should save the dead, than that he should raise the dead. There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin, which hath no forgiveness, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. There is a way to release the spirit of the dead; that is, by the power and authority of the Priesthood-by binding and loosing on earth

(page 577)



This doctrine appears glorious, inasmuch as it exhibits the greatness of divine compassion and benevolence in the extent of the plan of human salvation. This glorious truth is well calculated to enlarge the understanding, and to sustain the souls under troubles, difficulties, and distresses.

For illustration the speaker presented, by supposition, the case of too [two] men, brothers, equally intelligent, learned, virtuous and lovely, walking in uprightness and in all good conscience, so far as they had been able to discern duty from the muddy stream of tradition, or from the blotted page of the book of nature. One dies, and is buried, having never heard the gospel of reconciliation, to the other the message of salvation is sent, he hears and embraces it and is made the heir of eternal life. Shall the one become a partaker of glory, and the other be consigned to hopeless perdition? Is there no chance for his escape? Sectarianism answers, “none! none!! none!!!” Such an idea is worse than atheism. The truth shall break down and dash in pieces all such bigoted Pharisaism; the rest shall be sifted, the honest in heart brought out and their priests left in the midst of their corruption. The speaker then answered the objections urged against the Latter Day Saints for not admitting the validity of sectarian baptism, and for withholding fellowship from sectarian churches. It was like putting new wine into old bottles and putting old wine into new bottles. What, new revelations in the old churches! New revelations knock out the bottom of their bottomless pit. New wine into old bottles!-the bottles burst and the wine runs out. What, Sadducees in the new church! Old wine in new leathern bottles will leak through the pores and escape; such Saddacee [Sadducee] saints mock at authority, kick out of the traces, and run to the mountains of perdition, leaving the long echo of their braying behind them.

The speaker then contrasted the charity of the sects, in denouncing all who disagree with them in opinion, and in joining in persecating [persecuting] the saints, with the faith of the saints, who believe that even such may be saved in this world and in the world to come, (murderers and apostates excepted.)

This doctrine, he said, presented in a clear light, the wisdom and mercy of God, in preparing an ordinance for the salvation of the dead, being baptised [baptized] by proxy, their names recorded in heaven, and they judged according to the deeds done in the body. This doctrine was the burden of the scriptures. Those saints who neglect it, in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation.

The dispensation of the fulness [fullness] of times will bring to light the things that have been revealed in all former dispensations, also other things that have not been before revealed. He shall send Elijah the prophet &c., and restore all things in Christ.

The speaker then announced, “There shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the font of the Lord’s House; and the church shall not hold another general conference, until they can meet in said house. For thus saith the Lord!”

Thoughts on the text itself? Thoughts on why the middle section was omitted?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives


  1. It interesting how JS frames the italicized part as an attack on “sectarians,” when the concept was clearly not held by orthodox Protestants. 1) They clearly did not adhere to the Mormon concept of the “true gospel” and 2) most of them did not claim the baptism was absolute necessary for salvation. Clearly JS was working through very Mormon concerns.

    Also (not to sidetrack the post) but related to our conversation yesterday when I mused about why Protestants never pushed the idea of baptism for the dead for medieval people like some early Christians did for pagans and Mormons did for non-Mormons. 1) Calivinist/Lutheran doctrine was against the idea that what you did got you to heaven, so being a medieval Catholic was not something that needed to be (after the fact) redeemed any more than anything else; God save or damned who he wished and 2) they have no sense of a saving priesthood; Luther taught the priesthood of all believers, it was a personal relationship with God that was saving, not ordinances.

    So I think the key is the notion of a saving priesthood the the Mormons had. Thus they had something necessary for all peoples, living and dead.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 19, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  2. Interesting. I would have guessed that the typical paranoia and bellicose sectarianism in the text might have led to the omission of the material, but the manual contains other examples of such things, so that can’t be it.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 19, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  3. I’ve found that one of the hardest things about teaching RS and SS is to keep the class thinking and talking about *us,* without straying out to talk about what *they* do and how bad *they* are — a discussion on sinning or repentance, for example, will always draw examples about using drugs or unmarried cohabitation or something about “those homosexuals” — anything tht seems safely outside the classroom, rather than sins that active Latter-day Saints might indulge in. Printing the italicized paragraph would be all it took for many members of my ward (including some of the teachers) to focus on the wider world and how *they* reject the gospel, rather than on why *we* should be doing all we can to further work for the dead.

    I don’t know if the curriculum committee left those lines out because they do digress from baptism for the dead, or because they are unflattering to our neighbors, but if I were teaching this lesson I would be glad of the ellipses. I mean, really, can you imagine the fun some classes would have debating whether or not there is any possibility of future salvation for excommunicants? /shudder/

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 19, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  4. Steve, he’s taking aim at most Protestantisms, not just the few who required baptism–re-read that first italicized section and he’s talking about Calvinism and election.

    I think they left it out because it’s sort of ambling and mean-spirited (particularly today) without a clear tie-in to baptism for the dead as we communicate it now.

    Comment by smb — September 19, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

  5. Help me out here Sam, I’m not seeing the Calvinism, seems like the critique would fit Arminians just as well.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 19, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

  6. wasn’t clear. he’s attacking all of them, indiscriminately, not just limiting to the few sacramentalists.

    Comment by smb — September 19, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  7. Thanks for this, David. It’s always interesting to see what’s left out and contemplate why. I agree with the possibilities already stated about why that portion was left out.

    On the text, is there any irony in the speaker, in effect, denouncing those who disagree with the doctrine of vicarious baptism and then taking other sects to task for denouncing those that do not agree with them?

    Comment by Jared T — September 20, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

  8. Thanks for your thoughts, everyone.

    Steve, interesting insights. I think you’re on to something. I do wonder what you make of the Alvin story, where the protestant minister tells the Smith family that since Alvin wasn’t baptized, he would be kept out of the kingdom of heaven. I haven’t checked the sources on that, but I assume it comes from Lucy.

    I had the same thought, Jared.

    Comment by David G. — September 21, 2009 @ 6:43 am

  9. David, the thing I find interesting is DC 137 which seems to fix the problem: Alvin is in the Celestial Kingdom because he would have embraced the gospel if he had the chance. So if this is the case, why do we need baptism for the dead? I think that while 137 may have fixed a problem it also created one, because if good people go to heaven without any help from the Mormons, then what’s the urgency of sending missionaries out to spread the true gospel? It could potentially undermine the whole raison detre of what JS was trying to do. So I see the speech you posted as JS trying to work through his own issues on the subject. He’s the one insisting that everyone needs baptism and he’s now figured out a way to get everyone the ordinance. It all looks rather Catholic to me.

    How did you lesson go?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 21, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

  10. Thanks, Steve. Do you think the protestant minister really said Alvin was damned for not being baptized, or was that a later construction?

    In the end, I didn’t have to teach. We ended up just having sacrament meeting for the conference.

    Comment by David G. — September 21, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

  11. I wonder. Not being baptized as an adult (when you had the opportunity) was probably generally condemned by the churches, so a preacher saying so about Alvin isn’t too hard to believe. I do think that Mormons constructed a motif around other churches teaching infant damnation that was likely contrived/exaggerated.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 21, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

  12. Would you be willing to discuss offline your experience at TCU with me? Thinking about applying and would appreciate your perspective. Thanks.

    Comment by Reynolds — November 12, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

  13. Sure, Reynolds. I’ll shoot you an email soon.

    Comment by David G. — November 12, 2009 @ 11:40 pm

  14. #11, there are great examples of orthodox ministers saying absolutely un-consoling things to get people to repent. I have one late 18th-cent example of a minister telling a guy who was actively dying that the had failed and was not elect. agree re: infant baptism.

    Comment by smb — November 13, 2009 @ 6:43 am


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