Relief Society Lesson 41: Becoming Saviors on Mount Zion

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by ZD’s Vada

It has been many years since I taught Relief Society.  Over the past few years I’ve rarely even managed to attend Relief Society (due a little to callings, but mostly to 3 small children).  Thus, I think I’m more nervous about this lesson than I’ve ever been about a Relief Society lesson.  (This might also be due to the fact that if in-person lessons are not very good, people will just forget them, whereas here the lesson will be stored and out there for all to see for the indefinite future.)  That said, I am extremely grateful for the chance to prepare this lesson, since I often don’t make the time to really study the lessons these days.  Hopefully the rest of you will get out of it at least a fraction of what I did.

Lesson 41: Becoming Saviors on Mount Zion

I would start this lesson by talking about some of the historical and cultural framework that were around when the Saints first started practicing baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo.

I’m not sure when Joseph Smith first introduced the idea of baptisms for the dead (the lesson doesn’t say), but the first baptisms by proxy were performed in 1840.  This was an extremely radical practice at the time (as it is in our time, as well).  “The practice was forbidden by the Catholic Church in the 4th century as an aberrant practice of heretical groups, and is not practiced in modern mainstream Christianity, whether Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant.” (from Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism_for_the_dead)

The Saints learned about baptism for the dead line upon line, precept upon precept.  To begin with the baptisms by proxy were performed in the Mississippi River.  “But in January or 1841 … the Lord declared: “A baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead—for this ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me” (D&C 124:29–30).  Proxy baptisms in the river were discontinued on October 3, 1841, when the Prophet announced: “There shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord’s House. … For thus saith the Lord!1 The Saints quickly began building a temporary wooden font in the newly excavated basement of the Nauvoo Temple. The font … was dedicated on November 8, for use “until the Temple shall be finished, when a more durable one will supply its place.”2 On November 21, 1841, six members of the Quorum of the Twelve performed baptisms for 40 people who had died, the first baptisms for the dead performed in the font.” (p. 469-470)

Joseph also taught that there was a basis in the church of Christ’s time for the practice of performing baptisms for the dead.  In a December 1840 letter to members of the Quorum of the Twelve he said: “I presume the doctrine of ‘baptism for the dead’ has ere this reached your ears, and may have raised some inquiries in your minds respecting the same. I cannot in this letter give you all the information you may desire on the subject; but … I would say that it was certainly practiced by the ancient churches; and St. Paul endeavors to prove the doctrine of the resurrection from the same, and says, ‘Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?’ [1 Corinthians 15:29.]” (p. 472)  This basis in scripture was very important in the early church, as they sought to restore the doctrines and ordinances that had been lost in the time since Christ was on the earth.

Later the Saints also learned that it was important to keep records of the baptisms they had performed.  Although they had performed many baptisms in the river, with the proper authority, they hadn’t kept records of the ordinances, and they had to be re-performed.  Joseph received further revelation about baptism for the dead that was recorded in letters to the Saints dated September 1 and September 6, 1842.  These letters were later canonized into sections 127 and 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and included the instructions to keep records of the ordinances performed.  “When any of you are baptized for your dead, let there be a recorder, and let him be eye-witness of your baptisms; let him hear with his ears, that he may testify of a truth, saith the Lord; that in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven. … And again, let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation” (D&C 127:6–7, 9).

The last quote in the introduction is a great one to use as well: “As the Saints moved forward with this sacred work, “it soon became apparent that some had long records of their dead, for whom they wished to administer,” recalled Elder George A. Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. “This was seen to be but the beginning of an immense work, and that to administer all the ordinances of the Gospel to the hosts of the dead was no light task. Some of the Twelve asked Joseph if there could not be some shorter method of administering for so many. Joseph in effect replied: ‘The laws of the Lord are immutable; we must act in perfect compliance with what is revealed to us. We need not expect to do this vast work for the dead in a short time.’ ”4” (p. 470)  We know now that there is little hope of finishing this work in our lifetimes, but we can continue to contribute to the work started by the early Saints by doing ordinances for the dead ourselves.

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

As I pointed out before, the doctrine of baptism for the dead was not something taught or practiced by other religions.  It is a comforting thought now, as I’m sure it was then, that those who were not taught the gospel of Jesus Christ in this life could still be saved in the next life.  (I would maybe pause here and ask if anyone would like to share their feelings on the ability to save those who are dead who were not taught the truth in this life.)

From the manual:

“All those who have not had an opportunity of hearing the Gospel, and being administered unto by an inspired man in the flesh, must have it hereafter, before they can be finally judged.”5

“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…6” (p. 471)

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

From the manual: “If we can, by the authority of the Priesthood of the Son of God, baptize a man in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, for the remission of sins, it is just as much our privilege to act as an agent, and be baptized for the remission of sins for and in behalf of our dead kindred, who have not heard the Gospel, or the fullness of it.”8 (p.472)

This section is getting into the heart of the lesson: how we can become Saviors on Mount Zion — which can obviously be achieved by performing ordinances for our deceased relatives.  Joseph Smith quotes Obadiah 1:21 in relation to becoming Saviors on Mount Zion, and he repeatedly quotes Malachi 4:5-6: ‘I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord; and he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.’

Joseph also directly answers the question of how we can become Saviors on Mount Zion: “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, and redeem them that they may come forth in the first resurrection and be exalted to thrones of glory with them; and herein is the chain that binds the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, which fulfills the mission of Elijah. …” (p. 473)

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

If I were teaching this lesson in Relief Society (depending on the class), I might cut out some of the historical information to be able to spend the bulk of my time on this section.  This is the place to really get the Sisters involved in the lesson.  Ask them to share their experiences doing genealogy or doing temple work.

Here are some great quotes from the manual that you can have class members read on the importance of this work:

(1) “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead. The apostle says, ‘They without us cannot be made perfect’ [see Hebrews 11:40]; for it is necessary that the sealing power should be in our hands to seal our children and our dead for the fulness of the dispensation of times—a dispensation to meet the promises made by Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world for the salvation of man.

“… It is necessary that those who are going before and those who come after us should have salvation in common with us; and thus hath God made it obligatory upon man. Hence, God said, ‘I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.’ [Malachi 4:5–6.]”12 (p. 475-476)

(2) The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote the following in a letter to the Saints, later recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 128:15–18, 22, 24: “And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect. (p.476)

(3) “… Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free. …

“… Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.”13 (p. 476-477)

End with sharing your testimony about the importance of genealogy and temple work.

A few more ideas:

1. One of the suggestions for study at the end of the lesson says “What can we do to help children appreciate their family heritage? What can we do to help children participate in temple and family history work?”  This is a great topic to bring up, especially if you have any experiences you can share relating to how you taught your children, or how your parents instilled a love for the work in you.  Ask for class members to share their experiences as well.

2. I have universalist leanings, so I tended to steer clear of passages that talked about how everyone who had died without receiving the gospel of Christ would be condemned unless we did their work.  There are some quotes to that effect that you can use, however.  Here are a couple:

“I will open your eyes in relation to the dead. All things whatsoever God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit and proper to reveal to us, while we are dwelling in mortality, in regard to our mortal bodies, are revealed to us in the abstract, and independent of affinity of this mortal tabernacle, but are revealed to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all; and those revelations which will save our spirits will save our bodies. God reveals them 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; for all the spirits who have not obeyed the Gospel in the flesh must either obey it in the spirit or be damned. Solemn thought!—dreadful thought! Is there nothing to be done?—no preparation—no salvation for our fathers and friends who have died without having had the opportunity to obey the decrees of the Son of Man? … ” (p. 475)

“All those who die in the faith go to the prison of spirits to preach to the dead in body, but they are alive in the spirit; and those spirits preach to the spirits [who are in prison] that they may live according to God in the spirit, and men do minister for them in the flesh; … and they are made happy by these means [see 1 Peter 4:6]. Therefore, those who are baptized for their dead are the saviors on Mount Zion, and they must receive their washings and their anointings for their dead the same as for themselves.”11 (p. 474)

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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13 Responses

  1. Vada says:

    I obviously need to proof read before sending things. In the the third to last paragraph it should be “There are some…” (That’s one of my pet peeves, too. Oops.)

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Vada, sorry! I missed it, too. (All fixed now, though.)

  3. Vada says:

    Thanks for fixing it… now I see that in my comment about my improper grammar use I somehow managed to say “the the”. Oy vey; apparently I’m too tired to type today.

  4. Sinclair says:

    Actually, I think the Catholic church does offer baptism for the dead, though not by proxy.

  5. Vada says:

    Sinclair, it was clear in my research that no one else (definitely not Catholics) does proxy baptism for the dead. I didn’t see anything about non-proxy baptism for the dead… I assume you mean like baptizing a baby who was born and died shortly thereafter before they’re buried? I can’t find anything in my (quick) searches, but I’d love to learn more.

  6. EmilyCC says:

    When I was a hospital chaplain, we were given the direction that we weren’t supposed to baptize Catholic babies who had died in-utero and they had to be alive during the baptism, but we could do a blessing instead.

  7. Jane Mcbride says:

    here’s a good object lesson to go along with # 41 Have one volunteer hold a glass of water (they represent deceased, water represents ordinances) Tell them they can drink it but they can’t move any part of their body and they can’t ask anyone in audience to help. Let them try when they can’t introduce another volunteer tell 2nd volunteer (earthly mortal) if they will help 1st volunteer drink water she will clean their house, mow their lawn, feed dog etc.(blessings) (this should get a laugh or two) you get the picture. Have 2nd volunteer help 1st volunteer drink water. Tell them what it all meant after demo.

  8. Kristin says:

    Jane, Thanks for the object idea. It’s always good to get the ladies laughing.

  9. Lorrie says:

    It’s interesting to think that Moroni recited this Elijah message 4 times to 17 year-old Joseph Smith in that time period of less than 24 hours. Of all things Joseph might have expected to hear from an angel of God, this probably wasn’t one of them. He certainly must have wondered what it meant and why it was so important.

  10. Wendy says:

    Thank you. I have been asked to teach this lesson fand have been in Primary for years. I was trying to ppull some thoughts together and you did a great job of helping me get on track. Thanks also to Jane for a fun object leson. I think I have to do that! Sorry for typos here – I can’t see part of this comment screen. 🙂

  11. Monty says:

    Thanks for your post, I have been struggling with this lesson. It seems so similar to a lesson a few chapters back. What does it mean to have universalist leanings? Just curious.
    Thanks again and good luck everyone who is teaching!

  12. Meagen says:

    I found this on lds.org referring to other religions practicing baptisms for the dead by proxy. I found it interesting that we are the only religion who do it for our long deceased family members not just those we knew personally.

    In our day, some Christian churches offer prayers and light candles on behalf of the dead, a Jewish custom also. The Coptic Church of Egypt continues to practice baptism by proxy for deceased members of Coptic families. The same is true of the Neo-Apostolic Church in Europe.

    As would be expected of the Lord’s church and true doctrine, only The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints engages in genealogical work to provide proxy baptisms for all the kindred dead of its members, for those who accept the gospel in the spirit world must have this ordinance performed for them before they can progress eternally.

  1. August 5, 2013

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