Review of Joseph Stuart, “Development of the Understanding of the Postmortal Spirit World.”

Stuart, Joseph.  “Development of the Understanding of the Postmortal Spirit World.”  In Joseph F. Smith: Reflections on the Man and His Times, edited by Craig K. Manscill, Brian D. Reeves, Guy L. Dorius, and J. B. Haws, 221-32. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2013.

This article, one of twenty-six studies of the life of Joseph F. Smith, selected for publication from a 2012 symposium co-sponsored by the BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, the LDS Church History Department, and BYU Religious Studies Center, adds very little that is new to our understanding of the development of the doctrine of the Spirit World.  Some nuances and a fact here and there surface from the study which concluded that from the time of Joseph Smith to this revelation in 1918, two main things were taught about the Spirit World and redemption of the dead, based largely what may be found in the New Testament.  First, that Christ visited the Spirit World and taught those in prison.  Secondly, that missionary work is going on in the Spirit World.  It is conducted by the ancient prophets and modern saints, under the direction of the priesthood.  Stuart concludes that Joseph F. Smith’s 1918 revelation was “largely an affirmation” of those teachings.  (p. 229)  The main significant new doctrinal insight in the revelation according to Stuart is the fact that Jesus did not go to the wicked, rebellious,  or those who rejected the gospel in mortality.  Rather, he organized his priesthood and commissioned them to do so.  These messengers were “chosen messengers.”

Though the article basically tells us largely what we already knew, it has some additional flaws that are troublesome and may lead to misunderstanding.  First, the author does not tell us the extent of his research in determining what the teachings of the Church were between 1830 and 1918, regarding preaching the gospel to the spirits in the Spirit World.  While he cites a variety of sources for this period an examination of the thirty-six footnotes accompanying this article does not suggest a comprehensive study was conducted.  We are left wondering if he has gathered the low fruit available via computer searches, or if he has systematically studied the subject during this ninety-year period.  That is a pretty hefty task, one which heightens one’s suspicions about how thorough of a study he has done.  This is important because most who have looked into the intellectual history of Mormonism in any depth understand that with so many sermons, meeting minutes, diaries, and letters to name just a few potential sources, that the complexities of such a study and of such a doctrine can yield many surprises and insights when pursued thoroughly.  It seems a little simplistic that in that period the major teachings of the Church regarding work for the dead in the Spirit World can be grouped into two rather obvious categories which most Seminary graduates might guess.

Secondly, Stuart makes several statements that contain fairly significant errors or misreadings. For example, in his analysis of the teachings of Joseph Smith on the subject, Stuart gives us two exclusive statements about what shaped Joseph’s understanding of these doctrines.  First he asserts, “…his understanding would have been shaped by his translation of the Book of Mormon.”  (p. 222) The first sentence of the next paragraph reads, “Joseph Smith’s understanding of the postmortal spirit world likely came from what he had been taught by his parents, from the religious culture in which he lived, and from his personal and family study of the Bible.”  (p. 222) As written, it sounds like our author was of two minds about Joseph’s early understanding about the Spirit World.  More than likely the Prophet’s understanding was influenced by all of the factors named and perhaps others.  To clarify this possibility, a simple “also” included in the second statement would have been sufficient.  It would then be inclusive: “…understanding of the postmortal spirit world also likely came from….”

The second issue is also a matter of analyzing one’s own writing, but perhaps more serious in terms of Stuart’s analysis as it regards a supposed “expansion” of Joseph’s teachings by Brigham Young after the martyrdom.  However, having just explained that Joseph Smith taught about Jesus preaching in the Spirit World, and quoting him as saying “all those who die in the faith go to the prison of spirits to preach to the dead in body…” (p. 222), both of the themes that dominated the period of study, Stuart asserts that Brigham’s expansion involved “teachings that faithful Latter-day Saints went on to preach in the spirit world after their mortal lives were over.” (p. 224) In my view “those who die in the faith” and “faithful Latter-day Saints” who peach after death are synonymous.  Brigham may have expanded Joseph’s teachings in other areas, but Joseph’s original insight about “those who die in the faith” preaching to the dead does not seem to be one of them.

Third, Stuart states, regarding Church teachings on the subject between 1901 and 1918, “Part of the larger part of the Atonement was that Jesus’ death had opened up the spirit world for missionary work.” (p. 228)  The footnote at the end of this sentence leads one to an address by James E. Talmage in the April 1912 general conference.  I was interested to see what Elder Talmage may have said further about the Atonement and work for the dead so I tracked the sermon down.  The only reference I could find that could be construed that Talmage was teaching that work for the dead was “part of the larger part of the Atonement,” were references to the Easter season and the resurrection.  Talmage did not use the word “atonement” in this section of his talk.  So, it appears that Stuart took the liberty to logically associate the atonement with the idea of resurrection, but that was not Elder Talmage’s point.  For clarity sake, here is what Elder Talmage said in 1912:

“We rejoice in the work that was inaugurated at that first Easter period, for and in behalf of the dead. For while the body of the Christ lay in the tomb, as we learn beyond question, His spirit went to the spirits in prison, to those who were held in bonds because of their disobedience, to those who had not been privileged to learn of the redeeming efficacy of the Gospel; and He introduced and inaugurated there a missionary labor that has been going on ever since-a missionary work compared with which that which we attempt to do here upon earth, with our two thousand missionaries out in the field, is not even as a drop compared to the ocean. Men are needed for missionary service among the dead. Who are the dead but those who once have lived? God is Lord of both the living and the dead; and all live unto Him. If it be true that the man who is now living cannot hope to enter into the Kingdom of God unless he complies with the simple law and requirement laid down by the author of our salvation, namely, that we must be born of water and of the spirit, that applies equally to each and every one of the uncounted myriads who have lived and passed beyond.

The doctrine of salvation for the dead came as a revelation to the earth. It had to be made known anew; for while it had been known of old, it, like many other of the saving doctrines of the Gospel, had been lost sight of and forgotten. The labor in behalf of the dead was cited by Paul, an apostle of old, as an argument and evidence of the resurrection: said he: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” Throughout the centuries of the deep night of the apostasy, not a single ordinance was performed in behalf of the dead. Yet, the ranks of the dead at that time were increasing by uncounted thousands. We are greatly behind in the work, but the Lord has provided a means by which it shall be done, and by which it is the privilege of those who come in at the door themselves to hold that door open to admit others, others who were once among the living and are now among the dead.

To me there is special significance in our assembling upon this block, by the great temple that is consecrated mostly to the work for the dead. For be it known that this great labor of temple-building, for which the Latter-day Saints are so well known and so widely famed, is very largely, though not entirely, a work in behalf of the dead. They are not giving of their substance to erect these great buildings for themselves, for aggrandizement, nor for the beautification of earth. The temple-building spirit manifested among the Latter-day Saints is the spirit of absolute unselfishness; it is the spirit of Elijah, the spirit by which the feelings of the children are turned toward the fathers, and the feelings of the fathers are directed toward the children; for no man stands upon this earth alone. We talk of independence. No man is independent. We are all interdependent; and we shall only rise as we carry others with us, and as we are assisted by others. My own mind is led to that great subject, and I have thought of it much as I have sat through the exercises of the morning, because of the fact that it was at the glorious Easter time the work for the dead was inaugurated; it was at this season the great missionary labor in the spirit world was begun, and the doors were there opened and a means of deliverance preached unto those who had been sitting in darkness, some of them even from the days of Noah.”  [James E. Talmage, Conference Report, April 1912, pp. 126-27.]

These are not huge issues, but neither are they, except perhaps the first one, correct,  much less genuine significant insights.  Joseph Stuart is a graduate student at the University of Virginia.  His work here is a good draft of a graduate paper, but under the watchful guidance of a knowledgeable instructor he may have been prodded to study a narrower subject, do deeper analysis, produce more meaningful insights, and polish and re-polish his draft.  He may not have had such an instructor in Virginia, but the symposium committee that approved the giving of this paper and its publication should have set a higher standard for their student-participant, both to benefit him and the reading public.  As it is, it does not seem to this reader that this paper merited inclusion in collection of scholarly essays about President Joseph F. Smith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *