Historical Context and Background of D&C 137

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

Soteriology (so·te·ri·ol·o·gy) is theology about salvation. Christianity’s soteriological problem is based on three premises: 

  1. God loves all people and desires their salvation (1 Timothy 2:3–4).
  2. Salvation comes to those who knowingly and willfully accept Jesus Christ as their Savior (John 3:16).
  3. Most people live and die without accepting Christ or even knowing that they could or should.

The problem says that all three premises are true, but they can’t be reconciled. Proposed solutions tend to discredit one of the premises. Maybe God doesn’t desire the salvation of all people. Or maybe Jesus saves people who don’t knowingly and willfully accept Him. 

The first Christians didn’t have this problem because they didn’t make the unstated assumption that makes it a problem in the first place. In other words, the first Christians didn’t believe that death was a deadline that determined a person’s salvation. Peter taught that Jesus Christ preached His gospel to the dead so they could be judged as justly as the living (1 Peter 3:18–20; 4:6). Paul taught that Christians could be baptized for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). 

Jeffrey Trumbower’s very cool book Rescue for the Dead (Oxford 2001) traces the doctrine of redemption for the dead through Christian history. It turns out that it was Augustine, not Jesus or his apostles, who decided that death should be a deadline that determined a person’s salvation. But Augustine’s view prevailed in Christ’s church, at least in the West. Many medieval Christians continued to believe that (after his death and before his resurrection) Christ opened the spirit prison. They called this event the “harrowing of hell,” and they created a lot of art depicting it.1 My favorite images are the ones in which hell is an awful monster, and Christ causes it to cough up its captive dead (as in 2 Nephi 9). However, the Protestant reformers, for all the good they did, generally followed Augustine on this point. Then along came Joseph Smith.

He was immersed in Protestant culture and assumptions. His big brother died painfully in 1823. The loss was heartbreaking to Joseph. It stung even worse when Reverend Benjamin Stockton implied pretty strongly at Alvin’s funeral that he would spend eternity in hell. Joseph couldn’t reconcile Alvin’s goodness, Reverend Stockton’s doctrine, and a just and merciful God. 

Fast-forward twelve years to 1836. Joseph now knows from the Book of Mormon that unaccountable infants who die are not damned, but as distasteful as Reverend Stockton’s doctrine still sounds, Joseph doesn’t know that adults who die before embracing the Savior’s gospel are not automatically damned. Sincere and devout but mistaken theologians have caused this problem.

If you’re the Lord Jesus Christ, how will you solve it? How will you inform a world that has already decided otherwise that your saving grace reaches beyond death and saves all who choose to embrace your gospel? Joseph hasn’t even thought to ask. He is so thoroughly acculturated by Protestantism. So how do you get him to become open to it? How do you help him become aware of things he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know?

You show him a vision of the future, and of heaven, and you make sure he sees Alvin there. That makes him marvel and wonder. How will Alvin get past the flaming gates of God’s kingdom? Having purposely provoked the question, you answer it:

All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it, if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God—also all that shall die henceforth, without​ a knowledge of it, who would have received it, with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom, for I the Lord ​will​ judge all men according to their works according to the desires of their hearts (D&C 137).2

Desire, not death, is the determinant of salvation through Jesus Christ. He saves all who desire to be saved by Him once they know that good news. Which side of death they are on makes no difference. By removing the assumption that death determines salvation, Jesus resolved the soteriological problem for Joseph and for everyone else. There is no conflict between the premises now. 

1. David L. Paulsen, Roger D. Cook, and Kendel J. Christensen, “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19:1 (2010): 56–77.

2. “Visions, 21 January 1836 [D&C 137],” 136–137, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 7, 2020.

Additional Context, by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

Doctrine and Covenants 137 consists of a vision given to Joseph Smith while he was in the Kirtland Temple on January 21, 1836. The vision was part of the pentecostal outpouring that occurred in the weeks and months leading up to the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in April 1836. The vision came after Joseph Smith and the Presidency of the Church met in preparation to receive the endowment ceremony as it was practiced in Kirtland. As part of their preparation, the Church leaders present washed and perfumed themselves “preparatory to the anointing with the holy oil.”1 As the sun was setting, the Church Presidency gathered with a group of leaders, including the Kirtland and Missouri high councils. Oliver Cowdery recorded that the members of the Presidency were “anointed with the same kind of oil and in the man[ner] that were Moses and Aaron, and those who stood before the Lord in ancient days.”2

Joseph’s journal recorded these events as follows: “I then took the seat, and father anointed my head, and sealed upon me the blessings of Moses, to lead Israel in the latter days, even as Moses led [them] in days of old,—also the blessings of Abraham[,] Isaac[,] and Jacob,—all of the presidency laid their hands upon me and pronounced upon my head many prophesies, and blessings, many of which I shall not notice at this time, but as Paul said, so say I, let us come to visions and revelations.”3 Joseph’s journal then record’s the vision found in Doctrine and Covenants 137 and noted, “Many of my brethren who received this ordinance [the Kirtland endowment] with me, saw glorious visions also,—angels ministered unto them, as well as myself, and the power of the highest rested upon us, the house was filled with the glory of God, and we shouted Hosannah to God and the Lamb.”4

Though the vision was recorded in Joseph Smith’s journal in 1836, Doctrine and Covenants 137 is a relatively new addition to the scriptural canon. It was formally added to the Pearl of Great Price on April 3, 1976, under the direction of President Spencer W. Kimball. On June 22, 1979, the First Presidency announced that this revelation would be moved to the Doctrine and Covenants and designated section 137 as part of the 1981 edition of the scriptures.5 Commenting on this new addition to the scriptural canon, President Boyd K. Packer said, “I was surprised, and I think all of the Brethren were surprised, at how casually that announcement of two additions to the standard works was received by the Church. But we will live to sense the significance of it; we will tell our grandchildren and our great grandchildren, and we will record in our diaries, that we were on the earth and remember when that took place.”6

Not all of the vision was placed into the scriptural canon. A part of the vision that concerned the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was left out of section 137. This portion of the vision was recorded in Joseph Smith’s journal as follows:

I saw the 12 apostles of the Lamb, who are now upon the earth [and] who hold the keys of this last ministry, in foreign lands, standing together in a circle much fatigued, with their clothes tattered and feet swollen, with their eyes cast downward, and Jesus standing in their midst, and they did not behold him, the Savior looked upon them and wept—I also beheld Elder McLellen [William E. McLellin]in the south, standing upon a hill surrounded with a vast multitude, preaching to them, and a lame man standing before him, supported by his crutches, he threw them down at his word, and leaped as an heart [hart] by the mighty power of God.

Also Elder Brigham Young standing in a strange land, in the far southwest, in a desert place, upon a rock in the midst of about a dozen men of color, who, appeared hostile[.] He was preaching to them in their own tongue, and the angel of God [was] standing above his head with a drawn sword in his hand protecting him, but he did not see it,—and I finally saw the 12, in the celestial kingdom of God,—I also beheld the redemption of Zion, and many things which the tongue of man, cannot describe in full.7

See “Historical Introduction,” Visions, 21 January 1836 [D&C 137]

1. Oliver Cowdery Diary, January 21, 1836, cited in “Historical Introduction,” Visions, 21 January 1836 [D&C 137], JSP.

2. Oliver Cowdery Diary, January 21, 1836, cited in “Historical Introduction,” Visions, 21 January 1836 [D&C 137], JSP.

3. JS Journal, 21 January 1836, p. 136, JSP.

4. JS Journal, 21 January 1836, p. 138, JSP.

5. Stephen E. Robinson and H. Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, 2005, 4:295–96.

6. Boyd K. Packer, “Teach the Scriptures,” address delivered to CES personnel, October 14, 1977, Salt Lake City, in Charge to Religious Educators, 21.)

7. JS Journal, 21 January 1836, p. 138, JSP.