Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » In Our Ward: Lesson 30: “The Prisoners Shall Go Free”

In Our Ward: Lesson 30: “The Prisoners Shall Go Free”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 11, 2013

Lesson 30 “The Prisoners Shall Go Free”

Doctrine and Covenants 2, 124, 127, 128
Joseph Smith–History 1

Purpose: To help class members rejoice in their opportunity to provide ordinances for the dead.

Attention Activity

Today we’re going to return to the very first moments of this last dispensation: Joseph Smith’s first vision took place in the spring of 1820. In it he received answers to his personal questions: Yes, your sins are forgiven; and no, no existing church is right, so join none of them. Unless the Lord said something in the part of the vision where Joseph said “and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time” (JS-H, 1:20), Joseph had no inkling that he had a mission to fulfill, or what that mission was.

It was three and a half years – September 1823 – before Joseph again approached the Lord in prayer:

Joseph Smith–History 1:29:

29 … I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had done.

This time, his prayer was answered by the appearance of an angel who introduced himself as Moroni. [Ask class to turn to Joseph Smith–History 1:32-35] Skimming through those four verses, let’s identify what Moroni told Joseph Smith. [called him by name, introduced himself, said Joseph’s name would be known for good and evil everywhere, told about the plates of the Book of Mormon and about the Urim and Thummim.] Later in the same vision Moroni tells Joseph that he will obtain those plates and translate them with the Urim and Thummim.

This vision is Joseph’s first indication that he has a mission to fulfill – it is his call, and Moroni is explicit in noting some of the duties that are part of that call.

Moroni continues his mission call by quoting passages of scripture to Joseph Smith. This is not a change of subject – this is very much a part of Joseph’s call: he is called to fulfill the scriptures that Moroni quotes. Let’s look at some of them briefly:

Malachi 3:2-3:

2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:

3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

Who are the sons of Levi? [Along with the literal definition, bring out the fact that they were the ones who administered the ordinances of the Lord’s house in the days before the Savior’s earthly mission.]

Malachi 4:5-6 (but with differences): JS-H 1:37-39

37 For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble; for they that come shall burn them, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.

And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.

Joseph could not have understood those words so early in his prophetic career, but with the knowledge that was revealed later, how do we understand these words?

Moroni quoted Isaiah, chapter 11:

Isaiah 11:11-12:

11 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.

12 And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

It’s possible that Isaiah meant all these places literally, but for us, who are unfamiliar with these places, it’s probably safe to read this as referring to God gathering scattered Israel from here, there, and everywhere. With our knowledge of later revelations that were given to Joseph Smith, how do we interpret these words?

Moroni then quoted from Acts (about God cutting off those who do not hearken to Jesus Christ), and from Joel in the Old Testament (about the spirit of God being poured out upon the people of the last days), and other scriptures which Joseph does not identify. We’ll pass over them in the interest of time and focus on these first quotations.

I don’t suppose any of us thinks that Moroni was simply quoting random verses just to prove that he knew the scriptures. These verses are quoted as part of Joseph Smith’s call to be the great prophet of the last dispensation: He will receive the ancient plates and translate a new book of scripture, he will fulfill prophecies about preparing the Lord’s people in the last days, by gathering them from the four corners of the world, by preparing them to make their offerings in righteousness in the house of the Lord, and by binding the hearts of the living and the dead into one great family.

Lesson Discussion and Application

[1. Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord revealed the doctrine of priesthood ordinances for the dead.
2. The Lord commanded the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo.
3. We should be enthusiastic and joyful in our efforts to perform baptisms for the dead.
4. The importance of record keeping.]

Joseph came to understand these parts of his mission gradually. In fulfillment of Moroni’s quotation of Malachi that Elijah would return, the ancient prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and others in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836, and, as part of the restoration of the ancient gospel, delivered the priesthood keys, or authorities, to Joseph.

In January 1836, before Elijah’s visit, Joseph had puzzled over a vision in which he had seen his older brother, Alvin, a man who had died without baptism, in the presence of God. He recorded what the Lord said to him about that question:

Joseph Smith, History, 2:380:

All who have died without a knowledge of the Gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.

Who do you know who is in the same condition as Alvin – someone, perhaps a friend or family member, who died before having a chance to hear the gospel and be baptized? This may be a concern that is more difficult for many of us today to feel as deeply about as those in Joseph Smith’s day, either because families have been Church members for generations, or because we aren’t faced with the deaths of loved ones as often as they were. Let’s recognize that, and try to imagine what a devastating consideration this was.

But the Lord’s assurance to Joseph Smith that Alvin could receive celestial glory did not end Joseph’s mental struggles. He was, of course, aware that the Lord had said that baptism was necessary before anyone could enter into the kingdom of God. He continued to wrestle with the seeming contradiction between these two doctrines.

By August 15, 1840 – the anniversary of that date is coming up this Thursday – Joseph had worked out a partial solution, when he preached the funeral sermon for a man named Seymour Brunson in Nauvoo. He declared:

Joseph Smith, History, 4:231:

The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, whom they believe would have embraced the Gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it.

This teaching was eagerly embraced by Church members. Brigham Young received it this way:

It made me glad… that I could go forth and officiate for my fathers, for my mothers, and for my ancestors, of the earliest generation, who have not had the privilege of helping themselves; that they can yet arise to the state of glory and exaltation as we that live have a privilege of rising to ourselves.

There the Saints were in Nauvoo, listening to a sermon outdoors, with the Mississippi River within their sight. What do you suppose they did?

The first baptism for the dead that we know of – there may have been others that went unrecorded – was the baptism for a young man named Cyrus Neyman. Any idea who was baptized for him? Jane – his widowed mother.

Knowing how baptisms for the dead are done today, what are some problems you see with what I’ve just told you? [No sure record of baptisms; woman being baptized for man.]

Because of this haphazard behavior of something that was obviously so important, Joseph continued to seek wisdom from the Lord. In January 1841, he announced that baptism for the dead was an ordinance that belonged to the holy temple, not to the streams and rivers of the everyday world. So, with the authority of revelation, he called on the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo:

Doctrine and Covenants 124:25-27

25 And again, verily I say unto you, let all my saints come from afar.

26 And send ye swift messengers, yea, chosen messengers, and say unto them: Come ye, with all your gold, and your silver, and your precious stones, and with all your antiquities; and with all who have knowledge of antiquities, that will come, may come, and bring the box tree, and the fir tree, and the pine tree, together with all the precious trees of the earth;

27 And with iron, with copper, and with brass, and with zinc, and with all your precious things of the earth; and build a house to my name, for the Most High to dwell therein.

Work on the temple progressed slowly, though, and Saints were continuing to do baptisms for their dead in the Mississippi River. In October 1841, Joseph declared that “there shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord’s House.” (Smith, History 4:426).

What affect do you suppose that prohibition had on progress toward building the temple? Do you think there are commandments today we might be more willing to fulfill if our privileges were withheld this way?

The cessation of outdoor baptisms for the dead was announced on October 14. How long do you think it was before the Saints got serious about building the temple? A temporary font was installed in the unfinished basement of the Nauvoo Temple. That font was dedicated, and on November 8 – only three weeks after baptisms for the dead were halted – baptisms continued.

[Ask for experiences about the importance of baptism for the dead; if necessary, share story of my own work for John Saunders to start the discussion.]

In following months, additional refinements were made.

Doctrine and Covenants 127:9

9 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, saith the Lord of Hosts.

What makes recordkeeping so important?

Doctrine and Covenants 128:15

15 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.

We hear these words a lot, but I’m not sure I completely understand them. Why must the dead also be saved – made perfect – in order for us to be saved?

Let’s go back to Malachi 3:3, which Moroni quoted to Joseph Smith on that first interview in 1823:

3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

I’m aware that some people believe that this verse refers to a temporary restoration of animal sacrifice because those were the ordinances that the sons of Levi performed in the days of ancient Israel – that may be, but I’m more certain that it refers to the work we do in temples today. The sons of Levi were the officiators at temple ordinances; baptism and other rites are the ordinances performed in temples now. If that’s what we are to understand by Malachi’s words, how can our work in gathering the records of the dead and performing ordinances for them be considered a sacrifice?

Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve said: “In our preexistent state, in the day of the great council, we made a certain agreement with the Almighty. The Lord proposed a plan, conceived by him. We accepted it. Since the plan is intended for all men, we become parties to the salvation of every person under that plan. We agreed, right then and there, to be not only saviors for ourselves, but … saviors for the whole human family. We went into a partnership with the Lord. The working out of the plan became then not merely the Father’s work, and the Savior’s work, but also our work. The least of us, the humblest, is in partnership with the Almighty in achieving the purpose of the eternal plan of salvation” (“The Worth of Souls,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Oct. 1934, 189).

If this is the case, then our work for the dead is absolutely crucial to completing the plan of God – and if that plan were not to be achieved by the salvation of the dead, then the plan fails and salvation for us, the presently living, fails along with it.

[Ask for expressions of understanding, and experiences, with performing temple ordinances for the dead that indicate how urgent this work is.]


Doctrine and Covenants 128:22-23:

22 Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! 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.

23 Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!



  1. Wow, this is a pretty powerful lesson. All of those in your class are missing the boat if they don’t get involved with their family history work. Good for you.

    Comment by Maurine — August 11, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

  2. Some great stuff here, thanks.

    Comment by Naismith — August 12, 2013 @ 9:11 am

  3. 1842 Wentworth letter gives account of first vision.

    “at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me. ”
    Published in times and seasons march 1842. Found in the Joseph smith papers.

    Joseph was given this promise in the first vision. He did have an inkling that at some furtive time the fullness of the gospel would be made known unto him at the time of the first vision.

    Comment by Trudy — August 14, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

  4. I wonder what that meant to him then, Trudy, when he was 14? Could “receiving the fulness of the gospel” possibly have alerted him that he would organize a Church? Build temples? Die a martyr? Since his assignment to translate the Book of Mormon was news to him in 1823, the promise in the First Vision didn’t go into any detail about his future responsibilities.

    But you’re right, he did receive that promise, however imperfectly he could have understood it at the time. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

  5. Ardis, this a really great outline. You that those early baptisms lacked some of the order we have today but how early do we see gender becoming an important component in determining who is able to be baptized by proxy for whom?

    Comment by Aaron R. — August 16, 2013 @ 8:04 am

  6. I don’t have a date for that, Aaron, but it seems to have been established by the time baptisms are being done in the Temple. I’m looking for something Brigham Young said in a talk years later about those early baptisms and the gender distinction … will post when I find it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 16, 2013 @ 8:37 am

  7. Thanks Ardis. The Church’s ‘Revelations in Context‘ series included this statement from BY:

    “Henceforth, Young taught, the Saints “never will see a man go forth to be baptized for a woman, nor a woman for a man.” Why, then, had this practice been allowed to persist? “When an infinite being gives a law to his finite creatures, he has to descend to the capacity of those who receive his law, when the doctrine of baptism for the dead was first given, this church was in its infancy … The Lord has led this people all the while in this way, by giving them here a little and there a little, thus he increases their wisdom, and he that receives a little and is thankful for that shall receive more.””

    Could this have been the earliest statement prohibition on inter-sex proxy baptisms?

    Comment by Aaron R. — August 17, 2013 @ 4:59 am

  8. Ardis,

    Your reflections on Moroni’s references to scriptures in his 1823 visit to Joseph Smith–and the implications about how we interpret many restorationi references to the “sons of Levi” and an “offering in righteousness” are very powerful. Thank you so much for this insight!

    I used this in giving my own lesson (with attribution, of course). I also pointed out the possible connection to the Prophet’s urging the Saints to make “an offering in righteousness” to the Lord, which is immediately followed by the admonition to “present in his holy temple . . . the records of our dead, which is worth of all acceptation” (D&C 128:24).

    Comment by CarlH — August 26, 2013 @ 10:51 am

  9. Thanks, Carl. I think we should do as you outline here: pay attention to the logical order of revelations and notice when something comes just before or after something else. *We* may be in the habit of picking out isolated lines to proof-text, but Moroni may not have been!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 26, 2013 @ 11:16 am

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