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
President M. Russell Ballard spoke about the "Vision of the Redemption of the Dead" and asked members to read and study the revelation. This month marks the 100th anniversary of Joseph F. Smith's vision. We recommend George S. Tate's article, “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".
From its inception in late summer 1914, President Smith had watched the war from afar with concern and sadness. At the outset he had personal cause to be anxious as well: his son Hyrum Mack was serving as the European Mission president at the time and, while traveling in Germany when the war broke out, was arrested briefly on suspicion of spying for the British. In a Christmas message that December, the First Presidency wrote:
While rejoicing over the birth of the Incomparable One, the light of our gladness is overshadowed with the warclouds that have darkened the skies of Europe, and our songs and salutations of joy and good will are rendered sadly discordant by the thunders of artillery and the groans of the wounded and dying, echoing from afar, but harrowing to our souls as the awful tidings come sounding o’er the sea.
Abandoning its earlier hope of avoiding the conflict “over there,” the United States declared war on April 6, 1917, during general conference as it happened, but it would be almost a year before American troops saw action in France. Several of President Smith’s sons were drawn into service; one of them, Calvin S., was wounded at the Front.
What many thought would be a short war, “over by Christmas,” soon settled into a long slaughter, facilitated by new technology: the improved machine gun, long-range high-explosive artillery, airplanes, tanks, submarines, and mustard gas. The loss of life was unparalleled. At Verdun, for example, an offensive consciously undertaken as a “battle of attrition” to bleed the French army dry, there would be over one million casualties between February and December 1916. The ossuary at Douaumont, which overlooks a vast cemetery, contains the bones of one hundred thirty thousand unidentified soldiers. To take pressure off Verdun, the French appealed to the British to launch an offensive on the Somme. By the time that battle ended in November 1916, the Somme, too, claimed over one million casualties.
The vision given to Joseph F. Smith on October 3, 1918, answers the question “Where are the dead? Are they forgotten?” and speaks to the great, worldwide need that underlies it.
D&C 138 first shows us the vast concourses of dead—”the hosts of the dead, both great and small” (verse 11); “innumerable company” (verse 12); “vast multitude” (verse 18); “vast congregation” (verse 38); “great world of the spirits of the dead” (verse 57)—vast, even when (as in verses 12, 18, and 38) the reference is only to the just.
The vision proceeds from and affirms the “great and wonderful love” of God (verse 3) as it is expressed through the Atonement of Christ—an atonement it shows to be universal, proffered to all who have ever lived or died. The vision comes, in a sense, in medias res: addressing the unfathomable losses of the war years just past, and anticipating the even greater quantity of dying that lay ahead, not only in the next months of the pandemic, but through the Second World War (which would grow directly out of the First and would, with its millions of civilian casualties, be five times more costly in loss of life than World War I) and beyond—comforting, “bind[ing] up the brokenhearted” (verse 42), and providing hope and reassurance.