Literary DCGD #40: Baptism for the Dead

October 20, 2013 | 5 comments
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Joel H. JohnsonTemple and Family History work (discussed in Gospel Doctrine lesson #40) are perhaps the most unique of LDS doctrines. The doctrine behind them solves both the problem of making salvation universally available and the need for high-church ceremony in a religion that focuses on low-church ideals in its regular worship. The origin of this doctrine appeared in Mormonism in late 1840, and by the following year it was popular enough that it was the subject of the following poem.

Its author, Joel Hills Johnson, is perhaps best known today for the hymn High on the Mountain Top, which has appeared in LDS hymnals since 1863. Born in 1802 in Grafton, Massachusetts, Johnson joined the Church in 1831 in Amherst, Ohio. He served LDS missions to New York and to Ohio and Kentucky and participated in Zion’s Camp, although he stopped in Springfield, Illinois and never reached Missouri. He served as the President of the Ramus, Illinois stake starting in 1840. Johnson reached Utah in 1848, settling in the Mill Creek area for a few years. He then helped found Enoch, Utah in 1851 and helped settle southern Utah. He was among the most prolific of early Mormon poets, recording more than 700 poems in his journal. In addition to those found in various LDS periodicals, his poetry is found in two published collections, Voice from the Mountains (1881) and Hymns of praise for the young (1882). He died in 1883 in Kane County, Utah.

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Baptism for the Dead

By J. H. Johnson

Else, what shall they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?

The glorious gospel light has shown
In this the latter day.
With such intelligence that none
From truth need turn away.

 

For ‘mong things which have been sealed,
And from the world kept hid;
The Lord has to his saints revealed,
As anciently he did.

 

And thro’ the priesthood now restored,
Has e’en prepared the way,
Through which the dead may hear his word,
And all its truths obey.

 

As Christ to spirits went to preach,
Who were in prison laid;
So many saints have gone to teach
The gospel to the dead.

 

And we for them can be baptized;
Yes, for our friends most dear!
That they can with the just be raised,
When Gabriel’s trump they hear.

 

That they may come with Christ again,
When he to earth descends;
A thousand years with him to reign,
And with their earthly friends.

 

Now, O! ye saints, rejoice to-day,
That you can saviours be,
For all your dead who will obey
The gospel and be free.

 

Then let us rise without restraint,
And act for those we love;
For they are giving their consent,
And wait for us to move.

Times and Seasons, 1 October 1841

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The understanding of the need for baptism for the dead, and for Temple work, is already here in this poem. Not only does Johnson cite 1 Corinthians 15:29 before the first stanza, he also alludes to Christ preaching to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19-20) and to the idea that by doing so “you can saviours be.” And, Johnson claims that those who have passed on are already “giving their consent” to these baptisms.

It doesn’t seem to me like the concept has changed much since then.

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5 Responses to Literary DCGD #40: Baptism for the Dead

  1. Amy T on October 20, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Great hymn text. It suffers from the same problem as “A Key Was Turned in Latter Days” (Hymn 310): its hymn tune. “A Key Was Turned” gets much better reception from the sisters if sung to the tune of “Abide With Me, ‘Tis Eventide” (165); I wonder what tune would work for this one.

    Like “A Key Was Turned,” it’s written in common meter (CM, or Common Meter Doubled, CMD), so it shouldn’t be hard to find a different tune, but CM does have a tendency to sound rather formulaic, so it would be a challenge to find or write something that was clearly better.

    Here is a great database of CM hymns:

    http://www.cgmusic.org/workshop/mus_cm.htm

    I like “Fountain” as a tune for “The Glorious Gospel Light,” with its sound and history as a 19th Century American folk tune, but its unfamiliarity might be a challenge for a congregation to sing. (Who am I kidding. A good percentage of the hymns in our book are unfamiliar to many people.) And its association with “There is a fountain filled with blood” might give some people pause. (But once again, who am I kidding. How many people could possibly know or care.)

  2. Kent Larsen on October 20, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Amy, while I see that this poem could certainly be sung as a hymn (you are correct about its meter), I’m not sure we should call it a hymn text as opposed to a poem. As far as I can see, it was never published as a hymn — it never appeared in any LDS hymnal.

    But, if someone wants to sing it, great! Go for it!!

  3. Amy T on October 21, 2013 at 6:43 am

    Oh boy. All those poor hymns in the 280s, overshadowed by “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” They should have put in in the “teens” wedged between “An Angel From On High” and “Sweet is the Peace” and then it might actually get sung from time to time, tune and all.

  4. Kent Larsen on October 21, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    OK, I see now. I need to remember to look under the first line of the poem instead of the title when first published. “The glorious gospel light has shown” is in the current hymnal as #283. It first appeared in LDS Hymnals in the 1843 hymnal by John Hardy.

    Sorry for being cluseless.

  5. Mark B. on October 21, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Oh, come on Kent. Get a cluse.

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