30. “The Prisoners Shall Go Free”

Learning of baptism for the dead and teaching it to the Saints was part of a life of experiences that led Joseph Smith to give this ringing encouragement: “Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not . . . backward. Courage, brethren! and on to the victory. Let your hearts rejoice and be exceeding glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the king Immanuel, who hath ordain’d, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prisons; for the prisoner shall go free.”
Baptism for the Dead (D&C 127-128)

“Baptism for the Dead: LDS Practice,” H. David Burton, Encyclopedia of Mormonism
The first public affirmation of the ordinance of baptism for the dead in the Church was Joseph Smith’s funeral sermon for Seymour Brunson in Nauvoo in August 1840. Addressing a widow who had lost a son who had not been baptized, he called the principle “glad tidings of great joy,” in contrast to the prevailing tradition that all unbaptized are damned. The first baptisms for the dead in modern times were done in the Mississippi River near Nauvoo.

“Theological Underpinnings of Baptism for the Dead,” David L. Paulsen, Roger D. Cook, Brock M. Mason, BYU Studies, Vol. 55, no. 3
“Lord, are there few that be saved?” (Luke 13:23). This question has troubled thinkers from Christianity’s beginning, generally known as the soteriological problem of evil, which stems from the logical tension between three propositions: (1) God is perfectly loving and just and desires that all of his children be saved; (2) salvation comes only through an individual’s appropriation of Christ’s salvific gifts; and (3) countless numbers of God’s children have lived and died without having a chance to hear about, much less accept, these saving gifts. Would a truly loving and just God condemn his children simply because they never heard of his Son or his salvific gifts?

“Ann Booth’s Vision and Early Conceptions of Redeeming the Dead among Latter-day Saints,” Christopher James Blythe, BYU Studies, Vol. 56, no. 2
In March 1840, Ann Booth, a new Latter-day Saint convert in Manchester, England, had a vision of the spirit world in which she saw an LDS apostle teach and baptize John Wesley. She also saw in vision some of her family be baptized, and she later learned that the apostle she had seen was David W. Patten. Brigham Young, in Manchester, wrote a copy of the vision in a letter to his wife, in Nauvoo, and the vision became known in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith talked about this vision to the Church in October 1840 and taught that spirits will have the gospel taught to them, but they will not be baptized in the spirit world. The article places this vision in the context of a larger conversation about the history of Christian and LDS beliefs regarding the salvation of the unbaptized dead.