At the dedication of BYU’s new Joseph F. Smith Building on September 20, 2005, President Gordon B. Hinckley said of President Joseph F. Smith, “It is my opinion that no man, save the Prophet Joseph only, has had a greater and better understanding of the origin and history of the Church and of its doctrines—not only concerning this life but also concerning the eternities.” Of the “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” which comprises Doctrine and Covenants 138, he said, “It is a document without parallel. . . . There is nothing quite like it in all of our sacred literature.” And in the dedicatory prayer he said of President Smith, “His mind . . . reached into the depths of the things of eternity, the great spiritual architecture of Thy divine and eternal plan.”1
This article is an effort to understand more fully the context of D&C 138—our only passage of canonized scripture from the twentieth century. The discussion is necessarily somewhat provisional. We do not know, as we do for the Word of Wisdom, for example, the immediate circumstances that led to this revelation. But it is illuminating to consider it in terms of biographical detail and contemporary events (fig. 1). It is worth asking—even if a complete answer remains elusive—why this revelation was given just when it was.
First, a word about “context.” As used here, the term is meant to suggest the attendant environment—events, conditions, widespread concerns and sentiments that bear upon the passage at hand. The term does not necessarily imply causality. Indeed, as historian of ideas Quentin Skinner reminds us, it is problematic when “‘context’ mistakenly gets treated as the determinant of what it said” rather than as a framework.2 This article considers several events and conditions, large and small—some that precede the vision, some that are concurrent with it, and some that follow it. Some conditions, such as Joseph F. Smith’s own grief, may have influenced him to meditate on the realm of the dead; others, such as the flu pandemic, which reached its height shortly after the vision, are unlikely to have directly caused his meditation. The prophet was aware of most of these contexts—some acutely so; of others (especially of subsidiary matters which I discuss, like Prince Max’s telegram or C. S. Lewis’s musing on 1 Peter) he was not. We should, however, consider not only to whom but by whom the revelation was given.3 And while it would be presumptuous to make assertions about the workings of God’s mind or will—except to acknowledge that he sees all that was, is, and will be, and that he loves his children—we can at least recognize and be grateful for the timeliness of the vision in addressing profound, worldwide needs. For when this vision is read against the backdrop of the contexts discussed here—and perhaps others not dealt with—it resonates in ways it may not otherwise.
The vision that became D&C 138 was received on October 3, 1918, the day before the Church’s general conference. President Smith (fig. 2) had been in poor health for some time, and it came as “a complete surprise to the large congregation” when he entered the Salt Lake Tabernacle for the first session.4 In his weakened condition he spoke only briefly. The front page of the Deseret Evening News for October 4 summarizes his comments. He referred to his illness and said: “I have not lived alone these five months. I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith and of determination; and I have had my communications with the Spirit of the Lord continuously.”5
The prophet shared the vision of October 3 with his son Joseph Fielding, who took it in dictation immediately following the close of conference.6 As the headnote to section 138 indicates, the text was presented on October 31 to President Smith’s counselors, to the Quorum of the Twelve, and to the Patriarch of the Church and unanimously accepted by them. President Smith died on November 19, and the text was first published in the Deseret Evening News on November 30 under the title “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead” (fig. 3). It appeared thereafter in the December 1918 issue of The Improvement Era.7 Though it was accepted as authoritative and occasionally cited, the vision did not make its way into the scriptural canon until 1976, when it was added (along with the present D&C section 137) as a supplement to the Pearl of Great Price. Three years later, on June 6, 1979, the First Presidency announced that it would become section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants; it first appeared as we have it in the 1981 edition.
Let us first consider a biographical context for section 138. Early in 1918, Joseph F. Smith suffered a staggering blow. His eldest son Hyrum Mack (fig. 4), an Apostle then forty-five years old, died on January 23 of complications from a ruptured appendix. President Smith wrote in his journal: “My soul is rent asunder. My heart is broken, and flutters for life! O my sweet son, my joy, my hope! . . . O God, help me!”8 After his sons Joseph Fielding and David Asael took him to view Hyrum’s body, President Smith confided again in his journal:
At the noon hour David and Joseph took me to Hyrum’s where I once more kissed the lips of my boy—whose lips I have never failed to kiss since his birth whenever we have met, or parted until now—they did not, for the first time in all his life, kiss me back again! O how bitter is this unwelcome fate! I am actually thankful that I can find some relief from my overwhelming burden of grief in tears.9
The death of his firstborn son, in whom he took such pride and placed such hope, was devastating to the prophet. Suffering from ill health since 1916, President Smith declined markedly in the months following Hyrum’s death.
As heartbreaking as his son’s death was, it is only part of the long legacy of death in Joseph F. Smith’s experience. He was just five when his father, the Patriarch Hyrum, was slain with the Prophet Joseph Smith at Carthage Jail. His mother died when he was thirteen. In 1915 his wife Sarah Richards died, followed later that year by his twenty-five-year-old daughter Zina Greenwell, who left behind a three-year-old child. By 1918, only one of his four adult sisters survived; his brother John had died in 1911.10 Of his forty-four children from five wives, thirteen had died, many in their childhood.11 Joseph F.’s expressions of grief over the death of each child in his journal and letters are heartbreaking from first to last. When his first child, Mercy Josephine, died before her third birthday, he wrote:
My heart is bruised and wrenched almost asunder. I am desolate, my home seems desolate. . . . I look in vain, I listen, no sound, I wander through the rooms, all are vacant, lonely, desolate, deserted. . . . No beaming little black eyes sparkling with love for papa; . . . but a vacant little chair . . . and only the one desolate thought forcing its crushing leaden weight upon my heart—she is not here, she is gone!12
Joseph F. Smith composed commemorative poems for his deceased children and grieved deeply over their loss. His memory of each remained vivid and affectionate. He continued to mark important anniversaries long after their deaths, noting in 1916, for example, that forty-nine years had passed since Mercy’s birth.13 Finally, just days before the vision of October 3, Hyrum Mack’s widow, Ida Bowman Smith, died of heart failure on September 24, six days after giving birth to a son, whom she had named after his deceased father.14
In the abundant literature of mourning, there are few expressions more poignant than those of Joseph F. Smith. Death had surrounded him throughout his life, and the longings these deaths awakened could not be fully soothed in mortality.
The death of his daughter-in-law just before conference could not but renew his grief for his son. The prophet, asking himself what purpose the death of the young Apostle might serve, must have found consolation in the words of the vision that now comprise verse 57: “I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance . . . in the great world of the spirits of the dead.” It must also have brought him comfort to see among the noble and great ones his father Hyrum (D&C 138:53), after whom he had named his son and after whom in turn his new orphaned grandson was also named. (Some four months earlier, on June 27, 1918, the anniversary of the Martyrdom, President Smith, surrounded by his family, had dedicated a monument to the Patriarch Hyrum Smith in the Salt Lake Cemetery.) On a personal level, the spirit of Elijah, referred to in verse 47, by which the hearts of fathers are bound to children and those of children to fathers, is thus immediate and direct in President Smith’s life.
The Great War
The second, multifaceted context dominates most of the front page of the Deseret Evening News from October 4, 1918 (fig. 5). It is the Great War (or World War I).15 From the page’s various headlines one might form the impression that the Germans and Austrians were retreating as fast as they could. The Macedonian front had indeed collapsed, but resistance elsewhere was fierce and desperate, and some costly battles lay just ahead. The great American battle, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, was just beginning, and what came to be known as the Lost Battalion was right in the midst of its devastating week-long ordeal. Still, we are just thirty-eight days from the end of the war.16
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—the same who died in 1918—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.17 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.18
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.19
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 war laid the land waste. Wilfred Owen describes it as “Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe, / And pitted with great pocks and scabs of plagues.”20 When the rains came, as they so often did, the land, churned up by artillery, was transformed into what Mary Borden called “The vast liquid grave of our armies.”21 Thousands simply sank to oblivion. Tolkien’s horrible Dead Marshes in The Two Towers, in which Sam, falling, sees “dead things, dead faces in the water,” come directly from his experience at the Front.22
In many places the devastation can still be seen on the landscape: craters from mines (the one at La Boisselle is three hundred feet wide and ninety feet deep), a land pocked by artillery, abandoned trenches. Not even the grass Carl Sandberg writes of can hide the destruction23 (fig. 6).
Like the valley of bones Ezekiel saw (to which D&C 138:43 refers), the land is a boneyard still. Often farmers turn up bones of the dead as they plow. In 2001 a shallow grave containing twenty British soldiers, their arms linked together, was uncovered near Arras.24 Munitions from the war continue to kill: in 1991, for example, thirty-six people died and another fifty-one were injured from happening upon hitherto unexploded shells.25
The pervasiveness and ubiquity of death were overwhelming. Isaac Rosenberg describes the Front as “Dead Man’s Dump,” with “wheels lurch[ing] over the sprawled dead.”26 Wilfred Owen writes to his mother of “the distortion of the dead” and of their “unburiable bodies.”27 No Man’s Land, the space between the opposing trenches, was dotted with unrecoverable corpses, some perpetually suspended in the barbed wire. As the war went on, one could hardly dig anywhere without uncovering decay. As a defense mechanism, some became numb to death, or assumed a kind of bravado, joking about body parts projecting from trench walls or a corpse’s macabre grin, but most could not, however much they may have wished to.28 It is no wonder that Charles Sorley begins a sonnet: “When you see millions of the mouthless dead / Across your dreams in pale battalions go.”29 Such dreams often haunted the soldiers, even in daylight. In London on leave, for example, Siegfried Sassoon thought he saw corpses on Piccadilly.30
Seeing what lay about them, and imagining their own fate, poets (imitating A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy) sometimes adopted the perspective of the dead, speaking from graves. Perhaps the most famous example is John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” the second stanza of which reads:
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.31
It is the perspective T. S. Eliot later adopts at the beginning of The Waste Land (1922), for it is only from under ground that the speaker can say paradoxically “Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow.”32
In the end, seventy million men took up arms. There were over thirty million military casualties, including over nine million dead. Nine million! Such numbers roll easily off the tongue, and we can become inured to them in the way Kubrick parodies in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove: “Ten, twenty million tops, depending on the breaks.” On only the first day of the battle of the Somme, on a fourteen-mile segment of the overall five hundred-mile Western Front, the British suffered nearly sixty thousand casualties on a single day: July 1, 1916.33 That is more than one casualty for every second of daylight. It remains the deadliest day in British military history.34
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (fig. 7) bears, inscribed on its sixteen great piers, the names of 73,412 British soldiers who died in the battle of the Somme and have no known graves. Its counterpart in Flanders is the Menin Gate at Ypres. On its inner walls, recesses, and outer porticos are inscribed the names of 54,896 British soldiers of the Ypres salient whose graves are unknown. Every evening at eight, buglers still play the Last Post in honor of the dead. But the memorial turned out to be too small, and another 34,984 names of the missing from the same salient are inscribed on the semicircular wall and alcoves of Tyne Cot Cemetery near Passchendaele. On the night the Menin Gate was dedicated, Australian war artist Will Longstaff had a reverie in which he imagined the fallen soldiers of the Ypres salient rising from the ground and passing into eternity—a reverie he then painted.
Such memorials are related to a theme of the period—that of absence. Thucydides describes the Greek practice of carrying “one empty bier decked for the missing, that is, for those whose bodies could not be recovered” (2.34). With respect to the Great War, this idea manifests itself in various ways: for example in sculpted representations of soldiers carrying an empty bier, at times accompanied by a quotation from chapter 44 of Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach): “And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been” (verse 9);35 or again in the most important British memorial of all: the Cenotaph, or empty tomb, in Whitehall, which has been the focal point of mourning and remembrance since it was first erected. Here the dead are honored by silence, itself an absence. When the Unknown Warrior was brought with great ceremony to be buried in Westminster Abbey in November 1920, over one million mourners flooded past the Cenotaph and the warrior’s tomb (fig. 8).
Virginia Woolf also evokes the war and its devastation through absence: the empty room at the end of Jacob’s Room, where we learn through his absence that Jacob Flanders has died in the war; the bracketed reference to Andrew Ramsey’s death from shell fire, narrated in an empty house in the middle “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.36
Death itself was an absence. (Remember the “vacant little chair” in Joseph F. Smith’s lament for his daughter.) For the bereaved whose kinsmen were among the missing or had distant graves in foreign fields, even the rituals of closure that revolve around a body were not available.37 And the sheer, overwhelming quantity of death awakened individual and communal grief on an unprecedented scale.38 With loss came questions: What is the fate of the dead? Do they continue to exist? Is there life after death? Will I see my loved ones again? The world was dense with loss and, as soldier journalist Stephen Graham wrote upon revisiting the battlefields in 1920, “There is a pull from the other world, a drag on the heart and spirit.”39
One form the quest for consolation and answers took was spiritualism, the people involved often believing themselves to be responding to efforts of their dead to contact and to comfort them. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote:
In the presence of an agonized world, hearing every day of the deaths of the flower of our race in the first promise of their unfulfilled youth, seeing around one the wives and mothers who had no clear conception whither their loved ones had gone to, I seemed suddenly to see . . . that it was really something tremendous, a breaking down of the walls between two worlds, a direct undeniable message from beyond, a call of hope and of guidance to the human race at the time of its deepest affliction.40
Late in the war, Conan Doyle, who had lost several loved ones during its course, including his son Kingsley,41 became one of the leaders of spiritualism. Although the movement was widely denounced as misguided and even heretical by many clergymen, hundreds of thousands were drawn to the possibility of communicating with their dead. As Jay Winter observes: “Spiritualism gave people a chance to have a ritual interment of members of their family whose graves were not known or who had literally been blown to pieces. Maybe half of the men who were killed in the First World War had no known graves. The families had no place to go through the rituals of separation. A séance was one of them.”42
Sir Oliver Lodge’s Raymond, which went through a dozen printings between 1916 and 1919, is a further influential example showing the relationship of spiritualism to grief. Lodge was a prominent man of science, whose work as a physicist had brought him a knighthood. His early interest in psychic research proceeded from a scientific perspective (wireless telegraphy, etc.). When their twenty-six-year-old son, Raymond, was killed near Ypres in September 1915, the Lodges eventually sought solace through a spiritualist medium. Over time, convinced that he could base his conclusions on his own experience, Lodge set about to share his findings, trusting that his experience might bring comfort to others:
I have thought it my duty to speak out, though it may well be believed that it is not without hesitation that I have ventured thus to obtrude family affairs. I should not have done so were it not that the amount of premature and unnatural bereavement at the present time is so appalling that the pain caused by exposing one’s own sorrow and its alleviation, to possible scoffers, becomes almost negligible in view of the service which it is legitimate to hope may thus be rendered to mourners, if they can derive comfort by learning that communication across the gulf is possible.43
The book is divided into three parts: The first part consists of letters from the Front that Raymond sent while he was alive. The second, “supernormal” part is made up of psychic communications from Raymond. The third part is a philosophical section that concludes with an effort to reconcile spiritualism with belief in Christ. Toward the end Lodge writes, for example: “Whatever the Churches may do, I believe that the call of Christ himself will be heard and attended to by a large part of humanity in the near future . . . as never yet it has been heard or attended to on earth.”44 However much we may reject spiritualism—its trappings of mediums, séances, automatic writing, and the like—, we can only feel sympathy for the grief that propelled it during this period of such great loss.45
The realm of the dead is also obliquely evoked by C. S. Lewis, a convalescing young soldier, wounded in Flanders in April 1918 during the German spring offensive and invalided back to England. Around the same time that Joseph F. Smith began to meditate on the First Epistle of Peter (see D&C 138:5), Lewis chose the title for a book of poetry from 1 Peter 3:19. In the summer and early fall of 1918, he gathered together poems he had written before being posted to France and some while at the Front and arranged them into a collection he proposed to title Spirits in Prison. The volume was accepted in the fall and published under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton early in 1919, by which time the title was changed to Spirits in Bondage.46 Although the original title comes from the New Testament, Lewis wrote the poems during his agnostic period. There is little here of the later Christian apologist or, directly, of Christ’s visit to the spirits in prison.47 Indeed the realms seem reversed; this life has become the hopeless realm of the dead. The last poem, “Death in Battle,” pleads for escape to a different world, “Beyond the tide of the ocean, hidden and sunk away, / Out of the sound of battles, near to the end of day.”48
Finally, while we are still considering the war, it may be worth noting a further article on the front page of the Deseret News for October 4, column 5: “Prince Maximilian of Baden Appointed German Chancellor” (see fig. 5). Prince Max, a political moderate who opposed unrestricted submarine warfare and who had worked to ensure humane treatment of prisoners of war, was appointed chancellor on October 1, 1918, and installed on October 3. What the article does not say, since it was not then generally known, is that late on the night of October 3—the date of Joseph F. Smith’s vision—the new chancellor, urged by the German High Command, cabled President Woodrow Wilson asking him to intervene with the Allies to arrange an armistice and to begin negotiations for peace.49 This was the beginning of the formal process leading to the war’s end some five weeks later.
The Flu Pandemic
Many more deaths were soon to follow—so many, in fact, that the horrific losses of the last four years of war would more than double within a short period of time. This brings us to our last major context, one which is partly intertwined with the last weeks of the war—the influenza pandemic of 1918. The new killer was the genetically reassorted flu virus, more virulent than any ever known, and even today little understood.50 In the United States alone, in the month of October 1918—that is, the period between the vision of October 3 and its formal acceptance on October 31—there would be more deaths than in any other month in the nation’s history. Three short excerpts from the American Experience documentary, Influenza 1918, will give some sense of the disease’s scope:
In thirty-one shocking days, the flu would kill over 195,000 Americans. It was the deadliest month in this nation’s history. Coffins were in such demand that they were often stolen. Undertakers had to place armed guards around their prized boxes. The orderly life of America began to break down. All over the country, farms and factories shut down—schools and churches closed. Homeless children wandered the streets, their parents vanished. The vibrant and optimistic nation seemed to be falling apart. . . .
In Washington, Victor Vaughn [the government’s chief epidemiologist] came to a frightening conclusion: “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration, civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth. . . .”
On November 11, the Armistice ended the Great War. In San Francisco the scene was surreal. Thirty thousand people paraded through the streets—all dancing, all singing, all wearing masks.51
To return to the Deseret Evening News of October 4 (see fig. 5), consider column 3: “Spanish Influenza Still Spreads over Land”—the surgeon general said that the only way to stop it was to close churches, schools, theatres, and the like. In retrospect, the subheadings adumbrate more than could be known at the time. For example, “Influenza spreads in Philadelphia” refers to 738 new cases in the last twenty-four hours. In the month of October alone, however, eleven thousand people in Philadelphia would die of the flu, 759 on a single day (October 10). Bulldozers and steam shovels dug mass graves. The next subheading, “Influenza Making Headway in New York,” foreshadows a grim harvest: about 1 percent of the city’s population (33,387 people) died of the epidemic between September 1918 and March 1919, over half of them in October and early November.52
Notice, too, the references to army camps lower in the column. It was in these that the flu first emerged in a milder form, and it was to these that the deadly reassorted strain of the virus first returned in September. At Camp Devens, near Boston, a doctor described how soldiers arriving at the infirmary with what appeared as ordinary influenza
rapidly develop the most viscous type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen. . . . It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand to see one, two, or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths a day, and still keeping it up.53
An alarming and still puzzling aspect of the flu was that the most vulnerable age group was twenty-five to thirty-four—people in the prime of their lives. In the military camps and on the troop ships, people were perishing at an astonishing rate, their bodies stacked like cordwood in the morgues.
In France, of the 116,000 American soldiers who died in the war, more than half died of the flu or attendant pneumonia.54 A physician at an American Expeditionary Force (AEF) field hospital describes what it was like to try to deal simultaneously with wounds and flu:
Everything is overflowing with patients. Our divisions are being shot up; the wards are full of machine-gun wounds. There is rain, mud, “flu” and pneumonia. Some hospitals are overcrowded, some are not even working. Evacuation 114 had no medical officer but hundreds of pneumonias and no one to look after them. . . . Every sort of infectious case was there, packed in as close as sardines with no protection. . . . Hundreds of cases of desperate pneumonia that are dying by the score. . . . Rain, rain; mud, blood; blood, death!55
One such flu casualty was Stanford Hinckley, Gordon B. Hinckley’s older brother, who died on October 19 at a training camp near Bordeaux, attended by B. H. Roberts, chaplain of the 145th Field Artillery.56 He left behind a widow and a six-month-old child and now lies buried at Suresnes overlooking Paris. An account of his death, in the form of a letter from the unit commander Richard W. Young to his friend Bryant S. Hinckley, Stanford’s father, appears in the same issue of the Deseret Evening News as the Armistice—a melancholy counterpoint to the jubilation.57 In her biography of President Hinckley, Sheri L. Dew writes that when news of Stanford’s death arrived, it was the first time that Gordon, who was eight and was himself just recovering from the flu, had seen his father cry.58
Utah was less devastated by the flu than were large urban areas, but it is worth considering the development of the epidemic in the state. In the same October 4 issue of the Deseret Evening News, there is a report of Utah’s “first authenticated case” of Spanish influenza (as it was then called), contracted from ailing soldiers taken off a troop train in Ogden. By October 9, the number of flu cases had grown so alarmingly that an order was given to close all public gatherings. On October 10, the heading reads: “Many Towns are Closed by Order of Health Board.” On the same page we read: “All collegiate study at the University of Utah suspended by order of President John A. Widstoe.”59
At BYU, a Student Army Training Corps unit had been established with great fanfare at the Maeser Building on October 1 (fig. 9). Two weeks later, the university suspended classes. The White and Blue speculated that the closure might last only a week; in fact, the university did not resume until January 1919.60 When it did so, students and faculty still wore masks well into winter semester (fig. 10). As the threat seemed to diminish, wags writing for the White and Blue began to see amusing sides to this practice with articles on a “masked ball” and “love with a mask on” as well as fanciful mask designs.61
Perhaps the most poignant Utah flu story concerns the Goates family. Within three days, in the third week of October, four members of this young family died in Ogden: first Kenneth (age ten), then Elaine (six), then their father Charles Hyrum (thirty-five), and finally Vesta (eight). With each death, Charles’s father, two of whose sons were serving in France at the time, drove to Ogden to bring the body to Lehi. He made caskets for the children and buried them in the family plot while, without his knowing it, his elders quorum harvested his sugar beets from his freezing fields on the Saratoga road:
Then father sat down on a pile of beet tops—this man who brought four of his loved ones home for burial in the course of only six days [sic]; made caskets, dug graves, and even helped with the burial clothing—this amazing man who never faltered, nor flinched, nor wavered throughout this agonizing ordeal—sat down on a pile of beet tops and sobbed like a little child. Then he arose, wiped his eyes with his big red bandanna handkerchief, looked up at the sky, and said: “Thanks, Father, for the elders of our ward.”62
The Armistice was declared on November 11. A few days later, on November 19, just after his eightieth birthday, President Smith died. As the small inset under his photograph in the Deseret Evening News account indicates, the General Authorities of the Church and family representatives agreed that “in view of existing health conditions in the community, it would be improper to hold public funeral services.”63 A month later, Church leaders designated December 22 as a day of fasting “for the arrest and speedy suppression by Divine Power of the desolating scourge that is passing over the earth.” Shortly thereafter the epidemic seemed to have passed its crest, and the decision was made to resume Church services on January 5 and to reopen the temples on Monday, January 6. But a further wave of the epidemic in the spring caused the April general conference to be postponed until June, the only time April conference has not been held.64
In the end, 675,000 Americans died of the flu, more than all the deaths (620,000) suffered in the Civil War.65 From 1917 to 1918, the nation’s average life expectancy dropped by twelve years.66 Worldwide, the death toll was staggering. The most conservative estimate is twenty million (more than twice the number of combat deaths in the entire First World War); British virologist John Oxford thinks one hundred million is a more likely number, arguing that twenty million died in India alone.67 The most recent study locates the toll somewhere between these two, at fifty million.68 According to historian Alfred Crosby, “Nothing else—no infection, no war, no famine—has ever killed so many in as short a period.”69
Timely and Timeless: “A Document without Parallel”
Katherine Anne Porter also nearly died of influenza. Her condition was so hopeless that she was left on a gurney for dead; the Denver newspaper for which she wrote set her obituary. She did not know, during her long periods of delirium and unconsciousness, that her fiancé, the lieutenant who had cared for her before she was hospitalized, had himself died of the flu.70 In her short autobiographical novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider, her fictionalized self, struggling through hallucination, her face covered with a white cloth, hears a voice in her mind ask: “Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh, the dead, where are they?”71 The vision given to Joseph F. Smith on October 3, 1918, answers this question 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.
The vision shows how the work of redemption was and is organized among the dead. (With respect to the war, the quasi-military language of verse 30—“organized his forces,” “commissioned them”—is intriguing.) In the last weeks of his life, Joseph Smith had alluded to missionary work among the dead, and this teaching was affirmed (speaking of the work by the Prophet himself) by Brigham Young and (more generally) by Wilford Woodruff.72 Joseph F. Smith had also earlier spoken of such work.73 Yet from a purely scriptural perspective, the teaching remained a matter of inference. In Jesus the Christ, for example, a work completed in 1915 during the first year of the war, James E. Talmage considers the same passage from 1 Peter that Joseph F. Smith later pondered. Talmage’s language is provisional, if assertive: “The fact that the gospel was preached to the dead necessarily implies the possibility of the dead accepting the same.”; or “Missionary labor among the dead was inaugurated by the Christ; who of us can doubt that it has been continued by His authorized servants, the disembodied.”; or further, “A continuation of such labor among the disembodied, is so abundantly implied in scripture as to be made a certainty.”74 Joseph F. Smith’s vision not only affirms that this is so, but it also articulates how such work was established and how it is continued. Although the vision was not officially adopted as canonized scripture until 1976, its formal ratification on October 31, 1918, gave it particular authority. In its grandeur and scope, the vision is the capstone of all teachings on the work of salvation among the dead.
The vision renews the connection of temple work to the redemption of the dead, inviting us, the living, to remembrance and active participation, through seeking after the dead and performing “vicarious baptism” (verse 33) and other ordinances, and in so doing drawing the two worlds together. The references to temples (verses 48 and 54), should remind us that two of them, Hawaii and Alberta—the first outside Utah since the Saints settled in the West—, were begun while Joseph F. Smith was President of the Church.75 The timing of the Alberta temple, dedicated in 1923, well before the Canadian memorials at Vimy Ridge (1936) and elsewhere, is especially pleasing given the extraordinary valor and losses of the Canadian forces, including LDS soldiers, during the war.76 It seems a poignant juxtaposition to see on the corner across from the temple grounds Cardston’s war memorial bearing the names of the small town’s fallen. At the unveiling of the memorial in 1925, stake president Hugh B. Brown, who had served in the war as a cavalry officer and who would later become a counselor in the First Presidency, was a speaker.77
In an age so painfully preoccupied with absence, especially where the bodies of loved ones had irretrievably vanished—“corpselessness” is the term most often used by cultural historians—,78 the vision, with its inherent promise that the Atonement opens the way for all to be resurrected, affirms the central and eternal importance of the body in very vivid terms. For after enumerating ancient patriarchs and prophets up to Elijah, whose mission “foreshadow[ed] the great work to be done in the temples of the Lord . . . for the redemption of the dead” (verse 48), it says of this righteous host: “All these and many more, even the prophets who dwelt among the Nephites and testified of the coming of the Son of God, mingled in the vast assembly and waited for their deliverance, For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage” (verses 49–50, emphasis added). Hence their eager gladness at the prospect of being liberated “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” (verses 16–17).
As an inspired commentary on a scriptural passage (1 Pet. 3–4), which draws upon other passages in its explication (Isa. 61:1 [verse 42], Ezek. 37:1–14 [verse 43], Mal. 4:5–6 [verses 46–47]), the vision—with its representation of “great and mighty ones” (verse 38) from Adam and Eve through the patriarchs and prophets to Joseph, Hyrum, and their associates—harmonizes Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon (verse 49), the Restoration, and the inspiration of the living prophet, at once expanding our understanding and showing us that the gospel is, indeed, everlasting. As Richard Bennett has observed, the section affirms biblical authority in the midst of the “higher criticism” prevalent in the early twentieth century.79
As revealed truth, the vision counters and corrects many widespread, well-intentioned but erroneous teachings, such as some found in Conan Doyle’s treatises The New Revelation (which also appeared in 1918) and The Vital Message (1919). It is fascinating to read Conan Doyle’s treatises in relation to D&C 138. There are many common themes—the reality of a spirit world and of the soul’s existence after death; whether, given the sheer abundance of dying, Christ can appear to all who die; and the evidence of scripture. But these are mostly addressed in opposite ways. For example, Conan Doyle would “tear the Bible in twain,” setting aside the Old Testament, and would emphasize Christ’s life rather than his death and resurrection, believing the idea of redemption to be a mystical accretion which is “hardly ever spoken of” in spirit communications. D&C 138 does the opposite;80 it harmonizes the Old and New Testaments and reasserts the centrality of “the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world” (verse 2).
Finally, the vision affirms the foundations of faith in a world where the faith of so many was shattered by the great calamities they witnessed and experienced,81 declaring to all the world through the mouth of the Lord’s anointed that the Father and the Son live and are still earnestly engaged in the ongoing work of salvation for all God’s children.
This remarkable “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead” is more than a doctrinal clarification that when Christ visited the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3–4) he did not go himself among the wicked but “organized his forces” and “commissioned them” (verse 30) to go forth on his behalf. Nor is its audience limited only to members of the Church who may be interested in such questions. It is, as President Hinckley declared, “a document without parallel.” In its grandeur and scope, it is, indeed, the capstone of all teachings on the work of salvation among the dead. But it is more than this. Addressed to all the world through the living prophet in the last weeks of his life, the vision came at a time of great, worldwide need. Such a panoply of dying; such universal and unresolved grief, particularly where loved ones had vanished without a trace; such pervasive hunger to know the fate of the dead—all these things give a special resonance to D&C 138, with its great concourses of the dead, its assurance of divine love and of the unspeakable comfort of the Atonement, the blessings of which extend to all mankind, both the living and the dead. Timely and timeless, the vision spoke directly and compassionately to an agonized world in 1918, as it still speaks to us today and will continue to speak in future ages.