D&C 137 “The Heavens Were Opened Upon Us”
Joseph Smith’s oldest brother Alvin had been enthusiastic about the visits of the angel Moroni and encouraged Joseph to be faithful in order to obtain the plates from which Joseph was to translate the Book of Mormon. But Alvin died at age 25 in November 1823, only two months after Moroni’s initial visits to Joseph. The reverend who spoke at Alvin’s funeral “intimated very strongly” that Alvin would go to hell for his failure to join the congregation (see “The William Smith Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” compiled by Elden J. Watson). Doctrine and Covenants 137, given twelve years after Alvin’s death, is a vision in which Joseph saw Alvin in the celestial kingdom. This caused Joseph to “marvel” because Alvin had died before having the opportunity to be baptized into the restored church (see verse 6). Additionally, the Lord had not yet revealed the doctrine of baptism for the dead, which Joseph began teaching in 1840, more than four years after D&C 137.
Sections 137 and 138 were added to the Pearl of Great Price in 1976, then moved to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1979. The vision account in D&C 137 highlights several glorious truths:
- In verse 1, Joseph says he did not know if this vision was “in the body or out,” which likely means he saw the vision with “spiritual eyes” rather than with his natural eyes (see 2 Corinthians 12:2-3; Moses 1:11).
- In addition to Alvin, Joseph also saw his father and mother in the celestial kingdom (Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith); both of whom were still living at the time (Joseph Sr. being in the same room of the Kirtland Temple as his son received this vision).
- Verses 7, 8, 9, and 10 all give us glimpses into the perfect omniscience, love, grace, and mercy of our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ. These verses add to our knowledge of the Lord’s plan of salvation for His children, and they serve as a perfect lead-in to Section 138.
Joseph Smith’s nephew was President Joseph F. Smith (son of Hyrum Smith). Joseph F. knew great sadness and heartache, as thirteen of his children preceded him in death; several of them as infants. He recorded the following: “Joseph Smith taught the doctrine that the infant child that was laid away in death would come up in the resurrection as a child; and, pointing to the mother of a lifeless child, he said to her: ‘You will have the joy, the pleasure, and satisfaction of nurturing this child, after its resurrection, until it reaches the full stature of its spirit.’ There is restitution, there is growth, there is development, after the resurrection from death. I love this truth. It speaks volumes of happiness, of joy and gratitude to my soul” (Gospel Doctrine, pp. 455–56).
D&C 138 Background
The year 1918 brought tragedy and death throughout the world. World War I was in the process of claiming almost twenty million lives, and a global influenza pandemic killed some fifty million people. In January 1918, Church President Joseph F. Smith suffered and mourned the death of his son, Apostle Hyrum Mack Smith, of a ruptured appendix at age 45. President Smith had also suffered through the deaths of others of his children, in addition to both his parents during his childhood. Thus, the vision recounted in Doctrine and Covenants 138 was particularly poignant for President Smith. This vision was given to him on October 3, 1918, and he told of it the next day in general conference.
Joseph F. had been questioning why his son Hyrum was taken and mourned his loss greatly. The following months were filled with spiritual reflection and revelation. In September, just a few weeks before Section 138 was given, Hyrum’s widowed wife Ida died during childbirth, adding to Joseph’s grief and wonder. Then the vision came, offering many sublime truths related to the Lord’s plan of salvation. As he rose to speak in the October 1918 general conference, he began by saying, “I will not, I dare not, attempt to enter upon many things that are resting upon my mind this morning,… and that dwell in my heart. 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 communication with the Spirit of the Lord continuously.” Only seven weeks later, Joseph F. Smith died and passed into the world of spirits.
D&C 138:1-11, 28-29 “As I Pondered Over These Things …”
Search these verses for the specific things Joseph F. Smith did, which helped lead to this vision. What can you do to learn more through the scriptures and through the Spirit, that the Lord may “open the eyes of [your] understanding”? (verse 11; see also 1 Nephi 11:1; D&C 76:15-19).
D&C 138:12-54 Our Redeemer
What does the word “redeem” mean to you? This vision is known as “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead” (verse 60) and various forms of the word redeem are used sixteen times in Section 138. Most importantly, there are five mentions of Redeemer, whose plan and work this is. Synonyms for “redeem” include rescue, restore, free, recover, reclaim, purchase, ransom, and win back. In what ways has the Lord fulfilled any of these roles for you?
Look for things the Lord has done—and will do—to redeem the following groups of people:
- The righteous (those who received and lived the gospel during mortality; verses 12-19, 23-24, 49-52).
- The wicked (including those who rejected the gospel during mortality); and also all who died without a knowledge of the gospel (verses 20-22, 29-37, 57-59; see also D&C 137:7-9).
In relation to verses 32-34, it has been taught that missionaries and others on earth are sometimes led to descendants of those who have passed on and have accepted the gospel in the spirit world. Elder Melvin J. Ballard stated: “It was made known to me that it is because the righteous dead who have received the Gospel in the spirit world are exercising themselves, and in answers to their prayers, elders of the Church are sent to the homes of their posterity [on earth] so that the Gospel might be taught to them, and that descendant in the flesh is then privileged to do the work for his dead kindred” (Melvin J. Ballard, Crusader for Righteousness, p. 219).
- Imagine how Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem must have felt when He died. Compare this to how those in the spirit world felt after Christ’s death and resurrection (see verses 15-18, 23-24). How can this help you maintain a more eternal perspective?
- Are the doctrines and principles of the gospel—as taught in the spirit world—different from what is taught here on earth? (verses 31, 33-35, 57-60).
- In addition to seeing the Savior (verses 18, 23-25), who else did President Smith say that he saw in the post-mortal spirit world? (verses 38-49, 53).
D&C 138:55-57 Closing Views
- Unlike the rest of this vision, verses 55-56 appear to describe the pre-mortal spirit world, stating that “before they were born,” leaders and “many others” received their first lessons in the world of spirits. The question arises, “How could such lessons help us here and now, unless there is some transparency in the veil? Perhaps we may conclude that the veil between our pre-mortal and mortal lives is not entirely drawn closed, for—in addition to talents, personalities, and other traits—light and lessons from our pre-mortal life indeed pass through the veil to us in our mortal state.
- Then verse 57 takes us back to a post-mortal view (in which he sees “the faithful elders of this dispensation” as they “continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel”).