President Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of the Redemption of the Dead is one of the most recent documents to be included in our cannon (only followed by Official Declaration 2). Experienced on 3 October 1918 and recorded shortly thereafter, the vision outlines the underlying theology behind proxy work for the dead that we perform in the temples. Received against a dramatic backdrop of death, the vision gives hope for all of humankind. Yet rather than breaking new ground, the document is a capstone of years of theological development in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That doesn’t undercut its significance, however, since its later inclusion in the scriptures canonized those developments for the Church.
Received over 100 years ago, this important vision came at a time of wide-spread death and destruction. WWI was just a month away from its official end, after four years of carnage that resulted in millions of deaths. Similar to today, a deadly pandemic was raging at that time that would kill tens of millions of people. Joseph F. Smith himself had experienced loss not long before the vision. In that year alone, his eldest son, a son-in-law, and a daughter-in-law had all died at young ages. In addition, as his great-grandson stated: “During his lifetime, President Smith lost his father, his mother, one brother, two sisters, two wives, and thirteen children. He was well acquainted with sorrow and losing loved ones.” It was against this backdrop that Joseph F. Smith was pondering on the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the words of Peter about the “harrowing of hell.”
The vision is beautiful and covers a lot of ground about life after death. Susa Gates described the contents as follows: “In it he tells of his view of Eternity; the Savior when He visited the spirits in prison—how His servants minister to them; he saw the Prophet and all his associate Brethren laboring in the Prison Houses; Mother Eve & her noble daughters engaged in the same holy cause!” President Gordon B. Hinckley later noted that: “It is a document without parallel. … [It sets] forth the deep and eternal meaning of the Atonement of the Redeemer. There is nothing quite like it in all of our sacred literature.” And, as President Russell M. Ballard stated: “We … can be comforted and learn more about our own future when we and our loved ones die and go to the spirit world by studying this revelation and pondering its significance. … The vision revealed more fully the depth and breadth of Heavenly Father’s plan for His children and Christ’s redeeming love and the matchless power of His Atonement.”
Yet, much of what is presented in the vision is not original to that vision. Where it is the only canonized document that goes into detail on the subject of redemption for the dead beyond what Joseph Smith discussed in his September 1842 letters to the Church (D&C 127-128), it can be easy to overlook that fact. We can go through and discuss examples from the text of the section itself and the development of the ideas before being presented in Section 138:
“I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great. And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality. … While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful, and there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance”
The idea of the “harrowing of hell” is present in traditional Christianity thanks to the very verses of the New Testament that Joseph F. Smith was pondering: “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.” It was deemed important enough that the early Christian document known as the Apostles Creed included the idea: “He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead.” One apocryphal gospel portrayed this in dramatic terms, describing Christ storming hell, where he broke “the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron asunder,” and rescued “Adam and his sons.” The idea of Christ visiting hell became a standard part of many Christian traditions.
The shape of the experience in the Spirit World developed early in the Church. Alma in the Book of Mormon describes “the state of the soul between death and the resurrection” as a time when “the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness” while the “spirits of the wicked” would exist “in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them.” This liminal period of the soul between death and the resurrection was a subject of some discussion by 19th century Latter-day Saints. Elder Parley P. Pratt, for example, stated that he believed that in the Spirit World, “societies are made up of all kinds,” including many who “have lived in part of the spirit world … where the key has not yet been turned nor the gospel preached.” To help them, however, “modern saints that have departed this earth clothed upon with … priesthood go to the world of spirits not to sorrow but as joyful messengers with glad tidings of eternal truth anointed to preach the gospel.” Ultimately, this gave rise to the view that the Spirit World is a place where both wicked and righteous live, but the righteous live in a paradisiacal state while the wicked live in a prison of some sort.
As for the ministry of Christ in the world of spirits, that too was something that early Latter-day Saints discussed. Joseph Smith declared that: “Jesus Christ became a ministering Spirit, (while his body <?was?> lying in the Sepulchre,) to the Spirits in prison; to fulfil an important part of his mission, without which he could not have perfected his work or entered into his rest.” His 16 February 1832 vision (D&C 76) also referenced “the spirits of men kept in prison whom the son visited and preached the gospel unto them.” President Brigham Young likewise taught that: “Jesus was the first man that ever went to preach to the spirits in prison, holding the keys of the Gospel of salvation to them. Those keys were delivered to him in the day and hour that he went into the spirit world, and with them he opened the door of salvation to the spirits in prison.” The idea of the hosts of righteous being gathered in the Spirit World, that Jesus came to visit the Spirit World between his death and resurrection, and that his visit turned the key to allow redemption of the spirits in prison had a lot of precedent in earlier Latter-day Saint teachings.
“But unto the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised, neither did the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets behold his presence, nor look upon his face.”
This is one of the areas that does seem to be more unique to this revelation. Some of the early Christian Church Fathers were uneasy with the literal description of Jesus visiting hell and chose to describe it in different ways. Clement of Alexandria, for example, wrote that: “Hades says to Destruction, We have not seen His form, but we have heard His voice.” This is similar in portraying the idea that Christ did not fully visit the wicked between his death and resurrection, since Clement didn’t feel it was appropriate for the wicked to see Jesus in hell. Yet, for most Latter-day Saints prior to Joseph F. Smith, they embraced the idea of Jesus visiting and preaching to the wicked. Referencing the 1832 Vision again, it describes: “The spirits of men kept in prison whom the son visited and preached the gospel unto them.” Generally, they took the First Epistle of Peter at its word that “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” This is in contradiction to what Joseph F. Smith states in this document (“unto the wicked he did not go”), but Joseph F.’s statement is, perhaps, a logical conclusion on his part, since he was concerned about how the Christ’s “ministry among those who were dead was limited to the brief time intervening between the crucifixion and his resurrection … and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time.”
“I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; but behold, from among the righteous he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men. And thus was the gospel preached to the dead. … Thus was it made known that our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh, that they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead unto whom he could not go personally”
The idea of missionary work to the dead was something that was a part of Latter-day Saint belief throughout much of the 1800s. In the 16 February 1832 Vision (D&C 76), Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon described the Terrestrial Kingdom as a place for: “they who are the spirits of men kept in prison whom the son visited and preached the gospel unto them that they might be judged according to men in the flesh who received not the testamony of Jesus in the flesh but afterwards received it.” Joseph Smith would continue to expound on this idea of conversion in spirit prison, stating in 1844, for example, that: “All those who die in the faith goe to the Prison of spirits to preach to the dead in body but the[y] are alive in spirit and those spirits preach to the spirits that the[y] may live according to god in the flesh Spirit and men do minister for the flesh and angels bare the glad tidings to the spirits and the[y] are made hapy by these means.” Many early Church leaders taught similar concepts, establishing the concept of missionary work organized among the righteous vising the wicked in the world of spirits as widely-believed Church doctrine.
“And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord, and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound; even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. … The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God, and after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.”
Vicarious baptism for the remission of sins is something that Joseph Smith instated in the later years of his life, as shown by D&C 127-128. I’ll just point folks to a previous post for more details on that concept.
“Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous, were Father Adam, the Ancient of Days and father of all, and our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshiped the true and living God.”
This reference to women being among those who were doing missionary work was something that Susa Gates found to be particularly exciting. She wrote that: “This is unusual—the mention of women’s labors on the Other Side. … The direct view of [women] associated with the ancient and modern prophets and elders confirms the noble standard of equality between the sexes which has always been a feature of this Church.” The idea had been around before the vision, however—for example, six years before the vision, Joseph F. Smith had indicated that he believed sister missionaries would be working in the Spirit World: “Who is going to preach the Gospel to the women? Who is going to carry the testimony of Jesus Christ to the hearts of the women who have passed away without a knowledge of the Gospel? Well, to my mind, it is simple thing. [Faithful sisters] will be fully authorized and empowered to preach the Gospel and minister to the women while the elders and prophets are preaching it to the men.” I’m unaware of earlier references to this idea of sister missionaries in the Spirit World (most other quotes discuss priesthood offices being a part of the missionary work), but it was at least an idea that was present before 1918.
“They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death. Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy. … The dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.”
The resurrection was a standard doctrine in the Church from early on. In fact, the first part of the text here is referencing a couple different scriptures. In the Book of Mormon, Amulek discusses the idea that: “The death of Christ shall loose the bands of this temporal death. … The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be returned to its proper frame. … This mortal body is raised to an immortal body, that … they can die no more; their spirits uniting with their bodies, never to be divided.” The vision of Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones (them bones, them bones, them dry bones) is also referenced, where: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.” Used here as a description of the resurrection, the Amulek and Ezekiel texts are woven together.
The second part about the dead being in bondage because they lacked bodies is a bit more complicated. A December 1832 revelation that Joseph Smith received (D&C 88) suggests this in stating that: “Through the redemption, which is made for you; is brought to pass the resurection from the dead; (and the spirit, and the body is the soul of man) and the resurection from the dead, is the redemption of the soul.” Joseph Smith preached a further-developed theology of embodiment, stating that: “We came to this earth that we might have a body, & present it pure before before God in the celestial kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The Devil has no body, & herein is his punishment.” He added that embodiment gives power: “All beings who have bodies have power over these who have not.” Hence, “Salvation is nothing more or less than to triumph over all our enemies & put them under our feet … as in the case of Jesus he was to reign untill he had put all enemies under his feet & the last enemy was death … No power <?person?> can have this Salvation except through a tabernacle.” While not explicitly stated that lacking a body is bondage, it’s certainly implied in Joseph Smith’s teachings on the subject.
“The Prophet Joseph Smith, and my father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and other choice spirits, who were reserved to come forth in the fulness of times to take part in laying the foundations of the great Latter-day work, including the building of temples and the performance of ordinances therein for the redemption of the dead, were also in the spirit world. I observed that they were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.”
This section goes into more detail on the idea of commissioning the departed righteous in the Spirit World by giving specific examples of the people who were known by the Latter-day Saints who were actively performing the work. Wilford Woodruff was particularly vocal on expounding similar thoughts during his lifetime. He taught the idea in the 1850s at the funeral of President Jedediah M. Grant, saying: “The same Priesthood exists on the other side of the v[e]il. … every Apostle, every Seventy, every Elder, etc., who has died in the faith as soon as he passes to the other side of the v[e]il, enters into the work of the ministry.” He even talked about people in the Church dying specifically so they could serve as missionaries in the Spirit World. On one occasion, he talked about an experience in Cache Valley of three different men getting sick in succession and being visited by a former local Church leader who had died (Peter Maughan). In each visit, Maughan told them that “we held a council on the other side of the veil. I have a great deal to do, and I have the privilege of coming here to appoint one man to come and help. I have three names given me in council, and you are one of them.” The first was deemed too busy with Church callings and recovered, the second was deemed to lack sufficient faith and recovered, and the third died (and so apparently passed inspection). (As an aside, the idea of being visited by the ghost of stake presidents past and being threatened with death so I can serve a full-time mission in hell is terrifying to me, but I can also see how it is comforting to Church members who have experienced an unexpected death in the family to believe that they were given a higher calling and needed elsewhere.)
President Woodruff also described Joseph Smith as being particularly busy in the Spirit World, stating that: “Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Father Smith, David Patten and the other elders who have been called to the other side of the veil have fifty times as many people to preach to as we have on the earth.” He said that he had been visited by Joseph Smith many times after Smith’s death, but that the last time he saw him, Joseph Smith told Woodruff that: “He said he could not stop to talk with me because he was in a hurry,” as did all the other former Church leaders he met in that dream. When he asked why (noting that “I expected my hurry would be over when I got into the kingdom of heaven, if I ever did”), Smith told him that: “We are the last dispensation, and so much work has to be done, and we need to be in a hurry in order to accomplish it.” Wilford Woodruff believed that Church leaders and faithful members would be very busy with Church work after death.
Thus, for the most part, the vision of the redemption of the dead is presenting doctrines that were already established in the Church. The document itself and its later canonization in the 1970s are still significant, however, for brining those doctrines together into one place, presenting them in a coherent structure of the afterlife. Many of the doctrines, while established in the Church by prophets and other leaders prior to that time, were not included in the scriptures. Inclusion in a canonical document gave added authority to those doctrines.
 M. Russell Ballard, “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” CR October 2018, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/10/the-vision-of-the-redemption-of-the-dead?lang=eng
 See George S. Tate, “‘The Great World of the Spirits of the Dead’: Death, the Great War, and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as Context for Doctrine and Covenants 138,” BYU Studies 46 no. 1 (2007), https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3821&context=byusq. For a shorter version, see George S. Tate, “I Saw the Hosts of the Dead,” Ensign, December 2009, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2009/12/i-saw-the-hosts-of-the-dead?lang=eng.
 Susa Young Gates diary, Nov. 5, 1918. Cited in Lisa Olsen Tait, “Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” Revelations in Context: The Stories behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Matthew McBride and James Goldberg (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016), https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/revelations-in-context/susa-young-gates-and-the-vision-of-the-redemption-of-the-dead?lang=eng
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “Remarks at the Dedication of the Joseph F. Smith Building at Brigham Young University,” September 20, 2005, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/gordon-b-hinckley/remarks-dedication-joseph-f-smith-building-brigham-young-university/
 Editors’ Table: “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” Improvement Era (Dec. 1918), 166-167, https://archive.org/details/improvementera2202unse/page/166/mode/2up.
 1 Peter 3:18-20, NRSV.
 Apocryphal New Testament, 3rd ed. (London: William Hone, 1821), 64.
 Alma 40:11-14.
 Parley P. Pratt sermon, 7 April 1853, papers of George D. Watt, transcribed by LaJean Purcell Carruth.
 “History, 1838–1856, volume C-1 [2 November 1838–31 July 1842],” p. 1229, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-c-1-2-november-1838-31-july-1842/401
 “Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76],” p. 7, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/vision-16-february-1832-dc-76/7.
 Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954), 378.
 “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” 167.
 Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book VI, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/clement-stromata-book6.html.
 “Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76],” p. 7, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/vision-16-february-1832-dc-76/7.
 “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” 167-168.
 “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” 168.
 “Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76],” p. 7, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/vision-16-february-1832-dc-76/7
 “Discourse, 12 May 1844, as Reported by George Laub,” p. 21, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-12-may-1844-as-reported-by-george-laub/3
 “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” 168, 170.
 “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” 168-169.
 Susa Gates, “In Memoriam: President Joseph F. Smith,” Relief Society Magazine, vol. 6, no. 1 (Jan. 1919), 21.
 Address of President Joseph F. Smith Delivered at the Funeral Services of Sister Mary A. Freeze,” Young Woman’s Journal 23, no. 3 (March 1912): 130.
 “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” 167, 169.
 Alma 11:42-44.
 Ezekiel 37:7-8, NRSV.
 “Revelation, 27–28 December 1832 [D&C 88:1–126],” p. 35, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-27-28-december-1832-dc-881-126/3
 “Discourse, 5 January 1841, as Reported by Unidentified Scribe,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-5-january-1841-as-reported-by-unidentified-scribe/1
 “Discourse, 14 May 1843, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-14-may-1843-as-reported-by-wilford-woodruff/1
 “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” 170.
 Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 22:333–34 (Oct. 8, 1881).
 Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses, 22:334.
 Wilford Woodruff, JD, 16:269 (Oct. 8, 1873).
 Wilford Woodruff, Deseret Weekly, 53:642-643 (Oct. 19, 1896).