Baptism for the Dead: True Christian Doctrine and Practice, or LDS Construction?

Note: The following essay was contributed by frequent contributor Scott S. Mitchell.

 

In the one of the most enigmatic scriptures in the entire Bible, the apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians about the universality of the resurrection, said these words: “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?” (See 1 Corinthians 15:29.) This passage has perplexed Christian scholars, and been the subject of much debate, since the second century A.D., and rightfully so. Jesus himself never taught baptizing for the dead to the Jews in Palestine or the Nephites in the New World. No other prophet, apostle or disciple made any mention of it, either. And even Paul uses the word “they” instead of the word “we” in describing who practices it, without clarifying who “they” refers to.  In the next verse, however, he does use the word “we” to describe a separate practice in which he personally participated–“standing in jeopardy every hour”, or being physically endangered by persecutors at all times because of his and his fellows’ Christian beliefs.  See 1 Cor. 15:30.

In 1841, however, Joseph Smith, founder of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “LDS Church” or “Mormonism”), began teaching that the practice of vicarious baptisms for the dead was a vital and integral practice among God’s people, dating back to the beginning of time.  The only proof text Joseph cited which actually mentions baptism for the dead was the aforementioned 1 Corinthians 15:29.  Consequently, however, the LDS Church began performing baptisms of live persons vicariously for persons who had died without being baptised into Mormonism.  To this day, millions of such baptisms are performed each year, exclusively in LDS temples, in order to provide the possibility of salvation to those who died without it.

Interpretation by Bible Scholars

The scholarly response to this passage is uniformly uncertain about it. From the Fully Revised Fourth Edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible: “It is not clear what was involved in the Corinthian practice of baptism on behalf of the dead. Paul appeals to the practice to suggest to the Corinthians that they have an implicit faith in the resurrection.”1

From Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary:

The exact meaning of this practice is uncertain. Some scholars believe it refers to the re-baptism of Christians for the benefit of people who had died unbaptized but already believing. But other scholars insist it refers to a baptismal formula in the Corinthian church that promised that believers would rise from the dead at the end of time to reign with Christ.2

From Archaeological Study Bible:

Every theory has some problems, but some are more plausible than others:

One explanation holds that Paul was alluding to some form of “proxy baptism” (an individual being baptized to secure the salvation of ancestors, relatives or friends who had died without Christ). There is no indication in his text, however, that Corinthians were being baptized for their ancestors or for other dead pagans—and no evidence that this was ever practiced in the early church.

Some suggest that the term refers to baptism for believers who had died unbaptized; others that it may have been some ritual rated in a superstitious belief that baptism itself almost magical, life-giving power. The Corinthian believers may have been influenced by a local cult of the dead at Corinth. On the other hand, if such a pagan background were behind this practice, we would expect Paul to have voiced disapproval.

Still others propose that the phrase actually means “baptized in the place of the dead” in the sense of taking the place of Christian martyrs who had lost their lives for the faith. This kind of baptism would have been a rite whereby a living believer symbolically took the place of this or her fallen brother or sister. This interpretation has some support in the context, since Paul immediately spoke in the following verses (vv. 30-32) of his own endurance of persecution.3

 

Book of Mormon Teachings

As stated above, Jesus Christ himself is not reported to have said a word about baptism for the dead when he founded his church in Israel or in the western hemisphere.  However, the Book of Mormon prophet Mormon, as quoted in Moroni 8:21-24, left no doubt that a practice like baptism for the dead was not only unnecessary, but was a corruption of the pure gospel preached in the Book of Mormon. This scripture unequivocally teaches that people who don’t have the gospel preached to them in this life don’t need baptism, either as living mortals or as spirits in the spirit world.  Baptism is only for people who have had the gospel preached to them and have had the opportunity to knowingly break God’s law.  Mormon said:

21 . . . I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them [Mormon’s words] and give heed, or they stand against you at the judgment-seat of Christ.
22 For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing—
23 But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.
24 Behold, my son, this thing ought not to be; for repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law.

Dead people who died without the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel comprise the overwhelming majority of those who have lived on this earth.  When they die, they no longer have the ability in the spirit world to break the commandments of God.  Having lived in mortality without Christ’s gospel law, they therefore need no baptism in this life, nor in the world of spirits, where they cannot break any law.

Teachings of Joseph Smith

Despite Mormon’s teachings in the Book of Mormon, in 1841, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith began teaching his followers the church needed to build a temple in its then-headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois, wherein they could perform baptisms for the dead.  Purporting to be quoting the Lord himself, Joseph produced this mandate:

For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead–

. . .

But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.

But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not ve acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead [!], saith the Lord you God.

For verily I say unto you, that after you have had sufficient time to build a house to me, wherein the ordinance of baptizing for the dead belongeth, and for which the same was instituted from before the foundation of the world, your baptisms for your dead cannot be acceptable unto me;

. . .

And after this time, your baptisms for the dead by those who are scattered abroad, are not acceptable unto me, saith the Lord.

(See Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter “D&C”) 124:29, 31-33, 35.  Emphasis and commentary added.)

The assertions and ramifications of the above verses are stunning.  According to Joseph Smith, the Lord is claiming something never before taught by anyone in the Old Testament, New Testament or Book of Mormon, even during the time when the kingdom of God was on earth with the Nephites and the resurrected Lord reigned over it–that baptisms for the dead performed in temples was a practice instituted from the foundation of the world.  Historically, this assertion is simply false.  Everything done in the Israelite and Jewish temples is described in the Bible, and baptisms for the dead are never mentioned.  The foremost Jewish scholars have never heard of this temple practice.  The Nephite temples were modeled after the Israelites’ temple of Solomon, and the rites of the Mosaic law prevailed there until Jesus brought it to an end.  (See 2 Nephi 5:16; Alma 25: 15-16; 3 Nephi 15: 4-9.)

The other startling notion from D&C 124 is that the Lord would not only reject the church, but also its dead, if the Mormons in Nauvoo don’t build the temple by the unstated deadline imposed.  Thus, not only would the church cease to be the Lord’s church, ostensibly leaving Him without a church on earth in the latter days, but all the earth’s innocent deceased former inhabitants, who played no part in the Nauvoo saints’ failure to work fast enough, would lose their chance at salvation.  This author has no qualms about declaring this notion absurd.  God doesn’t work that way.  He doesn’t punish the innocent for the supposed derelictions of others.  Mormons purport to agree with the author on this point, as manifested by the LDS Church’s second Article of Faith:  “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s [or anyone else’s, we might add] transgression.”  This author’s conclusion is that D&C 124 is simply not a revelation from God, and Joseph Smith was fallible enough to claim otherwise because he wanted the temple built in Nauvoo that had failed to be built in Jackson County, Missouri.

After mandating a temple be built to facilitate baptisms for the dead and other ordinances to be performed therein, Joseph Smith to expound on his doctrinal views concerning the necessity for baptisms for the dead.  His writings from 1842 on this subject are found in a letter he wrote to the church which was later canonized in D&C 128.  The passages related to baptisms for the dead are found in D&C 128:12, 16-18.4  It is noteworthy that, unlike most other sections of the D&C,  Joseph did not purport the writings in this section to be a revelation from God.5  Instead, D&C 128 is a mere letter to the church that Joseph wrote, in which he argues his scriptural views.  It’s also evident from verse 16 that Paul’s one-verse offhand remark from 1 Corinthians 15:29, quoted in the first paragraph of this essay, forms the doctrinal foundation for Joseph’s linking of baptism for the dead to the larger grand gospel plan of salvation.

How is it possible that Joseph Smith, the man who used the seer stones to produce the Book of Mormon text, could misinterpret biblical scripture, and teach his interpretations as the very word of God?  Because, very simply, he didn’t do his homework, and there was no one left in the church by 1842 who dared tell him that his scriptural knowledge was insufficient to support what he was now teaching.  Isaiah had described him accurately by referring to “him who is not learned.”  (See Isa. 29:12.)  Joseph misunderstood a great deal of what he read in the Bible, and forgot much of what he’d read in the Book of Mormon.  He seems to have forgotten all of Moroni 8.   Not only did he ignore Moroni’s teachings on whom baptism is for, but he had already instituted as a new commandment the baptism of eight-year-olds, who are little children.  This violated the clear teaching of Moroni 8 as well, which scrupulously avoids setting any specific age for baptism, instead teaching that parents should be baptized, not their little children. See Moroni 8:10, 11.

Joseph also forgot in his later years in Nauvoo, when the idea of baptizing for the dead began to take shape, what he himself had previously taught in 1836. He forgot that he had already claimed that his brother Alvin, who had never in his mortal life been baptized, was already in the celestial kingdom of God (which Mormonism teaches is the highest level of heavenly glory), without any person ever having been baptized for him.  As Joseph had explained, this was because God knew Alvin would have received the gospel had he been permitted to tarry on earth long enough to get baptized.  (See D&C 137: 1-8.)  No baptism for the dead had been performed for Alvin in 1836, because Joseph Smith hadn’t even thought of the idea, let alone instituted the practice, nor had he claimed to have had a revelation on said point.  Even though the Kirtland temple was built during this time, no baptism for the dead were performed therein.  So Alvin, and all other good people (see D&C 138: 8-9) were heirs of the celestial kingdom, according to Joseph Smith, without the need of either live baptism or vicarious baptism for the dead.  But by 1842, Joseph had forgotten what he’d said six years earlier.  This forgetting of his own previous teachings happened a lot during Joseph’s life, which is why Mormonism today contains so many contradictory beliefs. It’s also one of the perplexing problems this website exists to address and illuminate.

Arguments of LDS Apologists

Even if the LDS belief in baptism for the dead weren’t contradicted by Book of Mormon teachings, arguments by LDS apologists defending the practice would still face serious difficulties.  Several of them claim that baptism for the dead was a secret practice of the early church which was too sacred to be revealed, but can’t logically explain why it would be any more secret or sacred than baptism of live individuals.  If both are essential for salvation of the earth’s inhabitants, both teachings would of course be of equal sacredness, and discussing one would necessarily involve discussing the other.

Apologists also face this question:  If Jesus freely discussed and mandated baptism of live individuals, as we know he did (Matt. 28: 19, 3 Nephi 27: 20), why would he never be recorded as having taught baptism for dead individuals, since it was equally important, and would save far more people than live baptisms would?  Why would Jesus omit such an important teaching, unless it wasn’t  part of his gospel in the first place?

Third, how can it be argued that this teaching and practice was kept secret, while at the same time trying to show that it was NOT kept secret in the writings of early church scholars, and by Paul himself?  When God wants something kept secret, why does he allow it to be commonly  taught, as apologists claim?

One apologist friend of the author’s has argued that baptism for the dead was obviously taught to the Brother of Jared, then made part of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.  But how could someone be confident of this, when we have no idea what was in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, and don’t know what specific things the Lord told the brother of Jared, other than that which Moroni recorded?  Any time one argues something took place while admitting no record of what took place has been revealed, he’s not just on thin ice—he’s fallen through it.

Similarly, what is the point of having a sealed portion of the BoM, if the sealed, secret words get revealed anyway, as some allege occurred with baptism for the dead?

Sixth, since the Book of Mormon teaches that only people who have proven themselves righteous will get to have the contents of the sealed portion revealed to them (3 Nephi 26: 8-11), why would Mormonism publicly teach baptism for the dead to the whole world, regardless of the degree of righteousness of the audience?

Seventh, if baptism for the dead was one of the things shown to the brother of Jared, and thereafter sealed up to be kept secret until a certain time when the righteous were deserving of it, why didn’t Joseph Smith say so?  Joseph Smith himself never taught this doctrine to be part of what was taught to the brother of Jared.

Eighth, if baptism for the dead is one of the plain and precious parts of the gospel which was almost totally removed from the New Testament, why didn’t the Book of Mormon restore it?  Nephi specifically taught that we could find out what plain and precious parts of the gospel had been removed from the Bible by reading those teachings in the Nephites’ records, which would restore them.  1 Nephi 13: 40.

Ninth, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to the Gentiles, and then to the remnant of the house of Israel, is described as both groups receiving “the fulness of the gospel” in 3 Nephi 20: 28, 30.  This cannot be referring to the Gentiles receiving the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, because verse 28 speaks of the Gentiles rejecting that fulness, which we already know won’t happened with the sealed portion.  So, how could the BoM be described by Jesus as “the fulness of the gospel” if it’s missing such an extremely essential part of the gospel as apologists claim baptism for the dead to be?

Tenth, why would our current LDS practice require all baptisms for the dead to only be performed in the temple by “Melchizedek Priesthood” authority, when we know anciently neither temples nor Melchizedek priesthood were involved?

Some Mormon scholars have attempted to bolster the historical legitimacy for baptisms for the dead by reference to early patristic and apocryphal writings showing the practice existed among some small groups of Christians.  See, e.g.,  here.  In so doing, said scholars begin with the supposition that Joseph Smith’s teachings could not have been in error, and then set out to corroborate him with scattered writings from after the death of the apostles.  But it is the Book of Mormon’s purpose, not that of the patristic fathers’ or apocryphal writings’ purpose, to supply us with the plain and precious teachings missing from the Bible.  If the Apocrypha or writings of early Catholic fathers were the source to which we should look, the Book of Mormon would have said so, but it said the opposite.  But even we were to attach more weight  to apocryphal writings, from my own reading of them, I would still interpret them differently than Mormon scholars have done.  Those scholars make reference to apocryphal sources such as The Shepherd of Hermas, Epistula Apostolorum or the Gospel of Nicodemus to support Mormonism’s current practice of baptism for the dead.  But some early Christian scholars who discussed Paul’s one-verse reference to baptism for the dead seem to agree that it is closely related to other statements he made in other epistles.  I happen to agree with them on this point, and feel that the key to understanding 1 Corinthians 15:29 lies in comparing it to three other Pauline scriptures.

This Author’s Theory on What Paul Might Have Meant

These other scriptures seem to suggest the idea of baptisms being  performed not only to signal an acceptance of Christ’s gospel, but in a specific, symbolic way so as to memorialize the Christian belief, stated by Paul, that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” See 1 Cor. 15:22.  Consider another similar statement by Paul found in Romans 6, which utilizes the same words and concepts, italicized and boldfaced below, as those set forth in 1 Corinthians 15:29, only in a different and more understandable combination:

3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

This scripture speaks of Christian believers being baptized for the purpose of memorializing Christ’s death, thereby symbolizing our own physical and spiritual deaths. It teaches that not only should we memorialize and symbolize Christ’s death, but we must also allow our old man, i.e., our old, sinful self, to die.  If we do,  just as Christ rose from the dead, we too shall rise from the dead, both temporally and spiritually.   This scripture therefore seems to have the three same main elements as 1 Corinthians 15:29–baptizing for some purpose related to death or the dead and the resurrection.

The second epistle of Paul wherein this same concept of baptism, death and the resurrection being interrelated is repeated is Colossians 2:12, 13, wherein Paul writes that we are–

Buried with [Christ] in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.

In light of these two scriptures, I proffer the following possible interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:29, keeping in mind that the verse is an English translation of a short, cryptically worded piece of Pauline esoterica written in Greek (with concepts shared with the previously quoted scriptures in italics and boldface):  “Otherwise, what would they do who baptize in such a manner as to symbolize the physical death of the body, and the permanent spiritual death that results from it, if there were no resurrection to save the dead from such a fate?    Why would they then perform baptisms which symbolize people dying?”

Even if one accepts that what Paul was describing in 1 Cor. 15: 29 referred to a then-current practice of performing vicarious baptisms for the dead by proxy (a proposition which is by no means universally accepted among scholars), other facts weigh against the conclusion that he was endorsing vicarious baptisms performed on behalf of deceased persons.  Virtually every biblical scholar, both ancient and modern, agrees that baptism for the dead was never practiced within the mainstream Christian church, and was never taught or advocated by any apostle or disciple mentioned in the New Testament.   It’s entirely possible that Paul was referring in 1 Cor. 15:29 to people who, in their baptismal ceremonies, made special reference to the doctrines taught in 1 Cor. 15:22, Romans 6:3-6 and Col. 2:12-13, quoted above.

Most scholars cite Tertullian’s writings to show that the practice of vicarious baptisms for  dead persons was practiced at latest by the late 2nd Century A.D.  However, this argument, while true, doesn’t help demonstrate that the practice was well-accepted among Christians; it does the opposite.  Tertullian condemned the idea of baptism for the dead as heretical, writing in 207 or 208 AD.  In “Against Marcion” 10, he wrote that the proper interpretation of 1 Cor. 15: 29 was that it concerned the idea of being baptized for the body which was destined to die and rise again.  He made clear that Marcion, a cult leader who practiced baptism for the dead, but didn’t even believe in the resurrection from the dead, was far removed from actual Christian doctrine and practice.  All Christian scholars accept that Marcion was apostate, and his denial of the resurrection constituted good evidence of that, despite the fact that he may have enjoyed a sizable following.  So, the fact that the Marcionites engaged in baptisms for the dead certainly isn’t evidence of it being practiced in the early church.

About a century after Tertullian, scholar John Chrysostom, writing in Homily XL of his Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (available free of charge online), explained that what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 15: 29 was an accepted practice among Christians for the convert to say these words immediately before descending into the water:  “I believe in the resurrection of the dead,” whereupon the baptism would be performed to symbolize death and resurrection.  This explanation of why Paul might have worded that one little verse the way he did seems entirely plausible to me, much more so than the Book-of-Mormon-contradicting and uncorroborated explanation that Joseph Smith came up with when he decided to expound on those words eleven years after the LDS church was founded.

A final word:  Our habit in Mormonism to accept without questioning Joseph Smith’s teachings on biblical subjects has often led us to have less biblical understanding than mainstream Christians of other churches.  Notice how much doctrinal structure we Mormons have built on a few, awkwardly worded and cryptic words from Peter, found in 1 Peter 3: 18-20:

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in he days Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

Christian scholars interpret this scripture to demonstrate that the group Jesus taught in the spirit prison (which is itself another term  not found elsewhere in the Bible or Book of Mormon) is a very small, narrowly defined group; it appears to be the same souls who are described in Genesis 6: 1-5, who were sons of God who should have known better than to copulate with the daughters of men.6  But if it were an important part of the gospel to understand this scripture, assuming Peter knew what he was talking about, I believe Jesus would have expounded on it perhaps in the Bible, but certainly in the Book of Mormon.  But he didn’t.  When Joseph Smith did start expounding on it, there was again no one left in the early LDS Church who dared challenge his understanding of it; they’d already left.  Predictably, the doctrine which resulted from Joseph Smith’s interpretation was at odds with Alma’s teachings in Alma 40 of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph appears not to have remembered.  It’s up to us now to do the homework and research such doctrines, intellectually and spiritually, before we accept and teach ideas built on such insubstantial scriptural foundations.

FOOTNOTES

  1. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th edition, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 2021.
  2. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Ronald F. Youngblood, Gen. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), p. 160
  3. Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010), p. 1646
  4. For the author’s thought on Joseph’s misinterpretations of scriptures found in these verses, see Erroneous LDS teachings from the Doctrine and Covenants and LDS Church History Regarding Elijah and Redeeming the Dead elsewhere on this website.
  5. It’s also interesting to note that in the LDS Church’s published 1842 personal history of Joseph Smith (see Joseph Smith—History 1:36-39 in The Pearl of Great Price) Moroni is reported as having quoted Malachi 4: 5-6 differently to Joseph than the way Joseph himself quotes Malachi in D&C 128: 17. The Church history version is also different from the way Jesus himself quoted the same verses from Malachi in 3rd Nephi 25:5, 6. The Church’s 1842 version also differs from Joseph’ own original 1835 version of Moroni’s visit, as told to Oliver Cowdery, in which he didn’t claim Moroni had quoted Malachi at all. (See Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, pp. 78-80, February 1835.) It thus appears that for some reason, the LDS Church’s 1842 history of Joseph Smith supplements Moroni’s words and adds things the angel didn’t actually say when he visited Joseph in 1823, unless Jesus was quoted incorrectly in the Book of Mormon when he repeated Malachi’s words, and unless Joseph’s accounts in the Messenger and Advocate and in D&C 128 are both in error.
  6. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Ibid., p. 2130

Jesus’s Doctrine and Gospel versus Mormonism’s Teachings of Temple Priesthood Ordinances and Exaltation

(Note: The following essay will appear as Chapter 1 of a book currently being written by M.S. Brothers entitled Restoration II: Defending the Bible and Book of Mormon Against LDS Theology.)

It might come as a surprise to the average member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to encounter the assertion that the gospel taught by his or her church is in conflict with the gospel taught in the Book of Mormon. That which made the church famous and unique in 1830 when it was founded was the Book of Mormon, and the nickname “Mormon Church” is derived from that same book. Presumably, nothing should be more in line with LDS Church doctrine than the Book of Mormon itself. But in truth, the contrast between the two couldn’t be more pronounced.

Jesus’ biblical message regarding how to attain salvation and inherit eternal life, which he preached to the Jews in Israel, and then to some New World inhabitants whose history is chronicled in the Book of Mormon, bears little resemblance to current LDS teachings on the same subject. This stark doctrinal difference has been chosen as the subject of the first chapter because, of all the conflicts to be discussed in this book between Mormon theology and what Jesus himself taught anciently, this is the most fundamental and important.

Jesus’ message of salvation, as it fell from his own lips to his Jewish audience, was simple and straightforward. After delivering the Sermon on the Mount, in which he preached a new set of moral principles by which his disciples would be measured, Jesus defined who would be saved in the kingdom of heaven. It would be that individual who “doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven,” the same person who “heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them.” Matthew 7: 21; 24-25. Jesus’s apostles were later commissioned to go into all the world, teaching this same message, announcing that Jesus was the Son of God who had come to earth as a new lawgiver, had been crucified, and had resurrected, and that resurrection and redemption were now available to all mankind through him. Those who believed this message, repented and were baptized for the remission of sins would be saved. Matthew 27: 18-20; Mark 16: 16; Luke 24: 45-49.

The Book of Mormon in many ways is much like the Bible. It’s a record of God’s dealings with peoples living anciently in the Americas during a period which came to an end 421 years after the birth of Christ. Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon narrative was dutifully written by religiously-oriented individuals who recorded general historical developments as well as the preaching of prophets as they attempted to keep their people close to God. As demonstrated below, its version agrees with the biblical version of Christ’s gospel, and appears to define and simplify it even further.

The Book of Mormon’s definitive statement of Christ’s “doctrine”, as Jesus himself calls it, is contained within an account of the resurrected Jesus descending out of heaven and appearing to a multitude of Nephites (a people descended from the house of Israel who left Jerusalem and came to the Western Hemisphere shortly before Judea fell to the Babylonians). On this occasion, some 2,500 men, women and children were gathered at a temple in the land Bountiful, somewhere in the Americas, approximately one year after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The account of Jesus’ visits and teachings, beginning in the 11th chapter of the book of Third Nephi (hereafter “3 Nephi”) constitutes the apex of the Book of Mormon narrative. The prophecies chronologically preceding this apex built up to it, and the teachings in the centuries thereafter referred back to it. It’s the climactic event precisely because while it lasted, it represented the kingdom of God on earth, though it was temporary. Whatever Jesus taught as immutable doctrine on this occasion could not be superseded by prior prophetic teachings, nor by those which would come later, for no teacher or prophet could ever be more authoritative than Jesus, the resurrected Son of God. The Book of Mormon records that Jesus emphasized his preeminence over all other teachers by declaring himself to the people gathered to the temple,

Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world.
And behold, I am the alight and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning . . .
I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole dearth . . . (3 Nephi 11: 10-11, 14)

After descending out of heaven, in full view of all who were gathered there, Jesus invited the multitude to come forth and thrust their hands into his side, and feel the prints of the nails in his hands and feet, thus evidencing his crucifixion and resurrection. What did the “God of the whole earth” teach the gathered Nephites? He defined what he called his “doctrine”, and the process whereby one can “inherit the kingdom of God”. We find Jesus’ words in the following verses of the Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi Chapter 11, with emphasis added to key phrases with italics, and in two crucial verses, italics and boldface:

31 Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine.
32 And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.
33 And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.                                                                                 34 And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned . . .
37 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things.
38 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.
39 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
40 And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.
 

Having defined his doctrine, Jesus then proceeded to teach the New World equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount, the same moral code he had given to the Jews in Israel. For the most part, the sermon to the Nephites, found in 3 Nephi chapters 12-14, it is a word-for-word duplication of the one found in the Bible, with two important exceptions.1 When he had finished, Jesus repeated what he had told the Jews regarding who would fare well with God in the hereafter:
“Behold, ye have heard the things which I taught before I ascended to my Father; therefore, whoso remembereth these sayings of mine and doeth them, him will I raise up at the last day.” 3 Nephi 15: 1

On a subsequent occasion, as set forth in the following verses from 3 Nephi 27, Jesus further explained to his twelve disciples, whom he had chosen from among the Nephites, what his “gospel”2 consisted of. I have italicized one verse for emphasis:

13 Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.
14 And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the ccross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—
15 And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.
16 And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world . . .
19 And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.

In addition to Jesus describing precisely what his doctrine and gospel actually consist of in the verses quoted above, his words also display two salient features. First, the doctrine and gospel he announces are remarkably simple. Believe in his atoning sacrifice, repent of your sins, become as a little child, be baptized, and continue humbly as a little child in this mode, repenting when necessary, and you will be saved and inherit the kingdom of God. There are no extra ritual or ceremonial requirements, or “ordinances,” as Mormons call them, included in Jesus’ teachings. Baptism is the first and last physical ritual required.3

Nor does Jesus’ message contemplate any greater reward than to “inherit the kingdom of God.” If a greater reward than this were to be striven for, this occasion, where the Lord taught his doctrine to the Nephites gathered at the temple, would have been the occasion when he would have said so. As it stands, however, not only did Jesus not add extra requirements or rewards to his message of salvation and its corresponding promise of inheriting God’s kingdom, but nowhere in the Book of Mormon is inheriting the kingdom of God described as being more complicated than Jesus described it here.
The second salient feature is Jesus’ warning in 3 Nephi 11: 40, stated with unequivocal plainness, not to add to or subtract from the doctrine he enunciates; doing so “cometh of evil.” The existence of this warning creates a conflict with current Latter-Day Saint (hereafter “LDS” or “Mormon”) doctrine. As we shall see, LDS doctrine embraces a much more elaborate and ritual-heavy gospel than the one Jesus declared to the Jews and Nephites. So much has been added by Mormonism, in fact, that Jesus’ original teachings bear little resemblance to the church’s current theology.

Mormonism’s Departure from Biblical and Book of Mormon Doctrine

In modern Mormonism, baptism is taught as only the first of several ceremonies in which believers are urged to participate. In fact, Mormon theology ignores Jesus’ above-quoted warning to not add to his doctrine, and plainly, if unknowingly, trivializes the mere inheritance of the kingdom of God. The church replaces Jesus’ above-quoted promise of salvation with a far greater reward for which to strive—one never taught by the Lord in the Bible or Book of Mormon—exaltation and godhood. And to achieve exaltation and godhood, the believer must do much more than merely live the gospel Jesus taught the Jews and Nephites. Otherwise, Mormons are taught, mere baptism will only get you salvation—a disappointing consolation prize.
LDS theology teaches that to only be saved in the kingdom of God is to fall short of one’s potential, in much the same way as ending one’s education upon graduation from high school should fail to satisfy an individual bent on becoming an astrophysicist. Instead, Mormons who go on to participate in further ordinances do so to become gods. If they perform these rituals and keep Mormonism’s version of required commandments, they qualify to acquire the same powers as those currently held by God the Father and Jesus, and to perform the same function as gods to the worlds they will someday create.

To achieve this higher reward of exalted godhood, Mormonism adds to the requirement of baptism an elaborate list of ordinances, none of which can be skipped. However, not only are these rituals and ceremonies unmentioned and uncontemplated by the New Testament or the Book of Mormon, as stated above, they are clearly contra-indicated by those books. But Mormons justify adding layers of required ritual because of the faith’s embrace of teachings attributed to Joseph Smith, which Joseph Smith, in turn, claimed he received from God.4 Vague, nondescript references to those rituals are contained within another book Mormons have canonized as scripture, The Doctrine and Covenants. This book contains transcripts of revelations church founder Joseph Smith claimed to receive from God from the 1820s through the early 1840s, as well as a compilation of some of Smith’s personal teachings. As will be demonstrated herein, however, the teachings of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants are worlds apart, and indeed, mutually contradictory.

With respect to exaltation and godhood, Mormon doctrine declares that after we die (“we” meaning every member of the human race), almost all of us wind up in one of three places. After we’re judged by God, we inherit either the Celestial, Terrestrial or Telestial kingdom, depending on how well we performed during our respective earthly sojourns,5 with the Celestial being the highest. Attaining exaltation in the Celestial degree of glory, which is far more glorious than simply being saved in the kingdom of God, involves an individual becoming a god himself. An individual cannot attain this highest realm, where God the Father dwells, without participating in the aforementioned ritual ceremonies.

All but the first of such rituals are performed only in Mormon temples; they cannot be performed in mere meetinghouses. If a person dies without participating in the ceremonies himself, he cannot attain exaltation until and unless the rituals are performed for him by a living proxy, once again in a Mormon temple. These exalting ceremonies or ordinances, which are “higher” and more important than mere baptism, may only be performed by a Mormon holder of the “Melchizedek Priesthood.” They are as follows, in chronological order:

1. Receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands following baptism.

2. Being ceremonially washed and anointed, and declared clean from the sins of the    outside world.

3. Being given underwear garments to wear throughout one’s life, which the individual then dons in the temple. The garments contain symbols sown into them. The symbols represent reminders of principles of righteous living, which are explained to the individual during the ordinance.

4. Being given a sacred new name by which the individual will be known to God. The individual is admonished to keep the name secret until she repeats it to God during the ceremony described in the following paragraph. Eventually, she is taught, she will repeat her “new name” to God before entering the Celestial Kingdom.

5. Undergoing an elaborate “endowment” ceremony wherein individuals learn sacred signs, tokens and words, which they covenant not to disclose, and which they’re told will also be needed to enter God’s presence. There are four sets of signs, tokens and names, and each represents a separate covenant into which the person enters, promising God to live different aspects of a righteous life. The covenant-making is followed by the person repeating his or her newfound knowledge of the names, signs and tokens, and symbolically enacting entry into God’s presence.

6. Finally, and equally in contrast with the rest of Christianity, Mormons teach that no one can attain the highest realm of heavenly glory with God unless they are married, and such a marriage must be performed in a sacred temple. See Doctrine and Covenants 131: 1-4. The marriage itself is the fifth and crowning ordinance. It doesn’t guarantee exaltation, but without it, exaltation is impossible.6

Consequently, Mormon marriages are frequently not attended by family or friends of the bride or groom who would like to attend, because they’re not Mormons themselves, or if they are, they’ve been deemed unworthy for insufficient compliance with the Mormon version of the commandments. Without a temple recommend, which is a certification issued by an ecclesiastical leader attesting to a Mormon’s righteousness and worthiness, no person can attend a marriage in an LDS temple.

Amazingly, another larger group that’s not allowed to attend, are all persons who aren’t at least 18 years old, unless they’re the ones getting married, regardless of whether they’re the bride’s or groom’s siblings, and regardless of their personal righteousness. So, though someone twelve or older is allowed to perform baptisms for the dead in the temple, the “higher” ordinances mentioned above, including the marriage of a sibling, are considered too sacred for those of such young age, notwithstanding the Mormon emphasis on family togetherness. Such restrictions on attendance are, obviously, unheard of in the Protestant and Catholic worlds. Nor do they find any support in the Bible or Book of Mormon.7

As alluded to above, a further restriction is that these marriages, or “sealings” as Mormons call them, may only be performed by one holding proper Melchizedek priesthood authority. This claimed authority is the same high priesthood possessed anciently by the great high priest Melchizedek and by Jesus Christ himself.8  This authority, Mormons are taught, is today possessed solely by the LDS Church.  Doctrine and Covenants 132: 7 states that exclusive authority was given to LDS founder Joseph Smith to perform religious rites, and that any marriage or ceremony performed today under any religious or civil authority other than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is not valid or cognizable before God:

And verily I say unto you, that the conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.

This principle is so crucial to LDS theology that it may fairly be said to be Mormonism’s second most important claim.  The only more important one is the teaching that Joseph Smith was told by the Lord in his 1820 “First Vision” that all existing Christian churches were wrong.9 As such, these two tenets distinguish Mormonism from the rest of Christianity more than any other features, including the Book of Mormon.10

Although most of the rituals performed in Mormon temples are not laid out in LDS scriptures, what purports to be divine revelation on the requirement of Melchizedek Priesthood-performed marriages is contained in the aforementioned Doctrine and Covenants. Set forth below, in Section 132: 15-17, the contrast is made between those who are married by mere civil authority and those who’ve had their marriage sealed by proper priesthood authority. These verses purport to be the actual words of God spoken to, and revealed by, LDS founder Joseph Smith:

15 Therefore, if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not of force when they are dead, and when they are out of the world; therefore, they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world.
16 Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory.
17 For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever.

[Italics added]

Thus LDS theology relegates those who are merely saved to dramatically reduced status—angelhood— in the kingdom of God, in comparison to those fortunate individuals whose marriage was performed by a Mormon high priest. The improperly married, and those who remained single, on the other hand, are left to minister as servants to their former peers who qualify to achieve godhood.11 Those in the first category are worthy of, and receive, “far more” glory than the those in the latter. Doctrine and Covenants 132: 20 goes on to describe the fate of the properly married:

Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.

It’s therefore no surprise that Mormon leaders stress, above all other things, the importance of getting married by proper Mormon priesthood authority. Current Mormon church president Thomas S. Monson, who is regarded by the faith as a “prophet, seer and revelator”, reaffirmed in 2004 an oft-quoted LDS maxim taught by apostle Bruce R. McConkie (1915-1985): “The most important single thing that any Latter-day Saint ever does in this world is to marry the right person, in the right place, by the right authority.”12

The point here is that Mormons teach requirements for living with God which are much more complex and ritual-laden than any taught in the Bible or Book of Mormon.

LDS Justification for Conflict between its Theology and the Bible and Book of Mormon

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are unlikely to encounter, at least from within LDS circles, the allegation that the gospel and doctrine in the Bible and Book of Mormon is at odds with church theology. It’s therefore somewhat, but not entirely, speculative to anticipate how a thoughtful Mormon would respond to the allegation. However, the most likely expected response, based on the author’s personal experience in never having heard any other response, is that Mormons believe in modern revelation, and through such modern revelation, many things are revealed to latter-day prophets which were withheld from ancient Christians in the times of the Bible and Book of Mormon. This response is indeed quite versatile, as it can be used as a convenient catch-all to justify all sorts of beliefs and practices which enjoy no ancient scriptural mention. Temple marriages and all other modern temple rituals, both for the living and the dead; eventual godhood for faithful church members; Melchizedek priesthood-holding apostles and prophets; a Mother in Heaven; polygamy in the next life; the baptism of eight-year-olds—all are modern LDS teaching which fall into this category. None of these, or many other modern Mormon ideas, for that matter, existed when the church was founded in 1830. They were all introduced by Joseph Smith, who purported them to be modern revelation.

However, the “modern revelation” defense becomes patently implausible when used to justify replacing Jesus’s core doctrine and gospel with a new one. Why? Because Jesus pre-empted such modification when he unequivocally said, as quoted herein above in boldface italics, that his doctrine, which he had just defined, could not be added to: Again, from 3 Nephi 11: 40:

And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.

[Italics and boldface added for emphasis]

Jesus left no room for adding extra levels of heavenly rewards to his gospel doctrine, and especially not extra prerequisites for living with God in heaven. He didn’t preach inheriting the kingdom of God as a mere consolation prize to be upstaged by more impressive-sounding rewards. In fact, he expressly condemned such theology as ill-inspired and built on a sure-to-be-destroyed foundation. To suggest that Jesus’ definition of his own doctrine and gospel, as set forth in the Book of Mormon, could be contradicted and nullified by modern revelation, is to render meaningless his words. Such an assertion begs the question of why the Lord would say anything on this point in the first place, especially when, as Mormons acknowledge, he went to such great lengths to bring forth the Book of Mormon in the latter days and thus provide the earth with what he called “the fulness” of the gospel. The LDS position would then consist of this non-sequitur: “Jesus defined his simple gospel doctrine to the Nephites, declared it immutable, warned the reader not to add to or subtract anything from it, declared the Book of Mormon to contain “the fulness of the gospel of the Messiah,”13 preserved the book’s writings so they could be read by the latter-day reader, brought forth the book through miraculous means, and then within thirteen years of the Book of Mormon’s publication did exactly what he warned against: He revealed to Joseph Smith a gospel doctrine so altered from the original as to render it unrecognizable. Moreover, the Lord also omitted these extra levels of requirements and rewards from the Bible, knowing most of the future Christian world wouldn’t ever read the Book of Mormon, let alone the Doctrine and Covenants.”14

There are other clear indicators, besides what the author considers logical reasoning, that Jesus didn’t intend to replace what he taught the Jews and Nephites with what Joseph Smith added to Mormon theology after the church’s founding in 1830. For one thing, Jesus made clear to the Nephites that he had fulfilled and was now doing away with the Law of Moses, which had defined the Hebrews’ religion for almost 1,500 years.15 This necessarily meant that he was also doing away with the religion of ordinances in which the Law of Moses found its outward expression. In fact, when he explained his discontinuance of this form of worship, Jesus was standing in the presence of the Nephites’ temple,16 the sanctuary where rituals of the Mosaic Law were practiced. But he made no mention of the temple or the rituals practiced within it, except to say the Law of Moses, which informed all temple ceremonies, was fulfilled and would no longer be practiced. Thereafter, neither the temple nor the ceremonial religion of physical rituals was ever mentioned by Jesus or his successor disciples and prophets through the end of the Book of Mormon. If Jesus considered his gospel to consist of high priests administering a collection of temple ordinances, wouldn’t he have said so to the Nephites as he stood in the presence of their temple, especially since he knew latter-day readers would be scrutinizing his words in the book he himself was calling “the fulness of the gospel”?

In fact, so careful was Jesus to present to the latter-day reader a complete picture of his gospel, he interrupted a sermon to instruct the prophet Nephi to insert into the record a missing account of many other saints rising from the dead, following Jesus’s own resurrection, and appearing unto others.17  This instance is instructive. Clearly, the reality of the resurrection, and the joy associated with it, were indispensable elements of his own gospel. The reader needed to know exactly what the resurrection of Christ meant to ordinary people contemplating their own death or having lost love ones. If anything were left out of the Book of Mormon, it couldn’t be something this central and important. Everything true and important had to be set forth lest the reader misunderstand what mattered.

In this context, the absence of Joseph Smith’s priesthood ordinance theology in the Bible and Book of Mormon speaks volumes. The reader should judge for himself or herself the significance of the Lord omitting it from the fulness of the gospel.

 

FOOTNOTES

  1. The notable exceptions come in 3 Nephi 12: 18-19 and 46-47, where the verses differ from their counterparts in Matthew 5 of the Bible. By the time his sermon was delivered to the Nephites, Jesus had already been crucified and resurrected, and thus had fulfilled the law of Moses, but this was not yet accomplished when he spoke to the Jews. His sermon to the Nephites therefore emphasized in the above-cited verses that he was replacing the Law of Moses with his own set of moral principles, a higher law of the heart rather than a checklist of outward observances.
  2. From a comparison of the statement of “doctrine” quoted from 3 Nephi 11 with the message contained within 3 Nephi 27, it appears that the words “doctrine” and “gospel” are used almost interchangeably, with much overlap in their substance, or, at the very least, are very closely related to each other. If there is a difference between the two concepts, it might be that “doctrine” consists of Jesus’ instructions to his followers on how to inherit the kingdom of God, whereas “gospel” is the good news that justifies the giving of those instructions.
  3. Though the reception of the Holy Ghost is characterized in current Mormon doctrine as a separate ordinance which is required to “confirm” a baptism, it was taught differently by Jesus. It was understood to be something that would happen to anyone who accepted his gospel, 3 Nephi 9: 20; 27: 20, not as a core physical ritual requirement validating a baptism. In fact, occasionally, both in the Old World and New World, groups of people received the Holy Ghost without having been first baptized, or even necessarily knowing what had happened to them. The Bible and Book of Mormon demonstrate a person’s reception of the Holy Ghost might best be characterized as a spiritual transformation which could take place through varied means. See Acts 10: 44-47 and 11: 15-17; Helaman 5: 34-50 and 3 Nephi 9: 20, respectively. Indeed, the apostles themselves had not received the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands; see Acts 2: 1-4. Alhough Jesus’ twelve Nephite disciples were instructed to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands upon those who had been baptized, as was the case in the Old World, the Book of Mormon contains no account of anyone else besides the twelve having been thereafter authorized to do it. After the twelve Nephite disciples died, no mention is made in the Book of Mormon of this ritual physical practice being continued by subsequent church leaders. Similarly, in the New Testament, only apostles were described as conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. See Acts 19: 1-6; Moroni 2: 1-3. However, it’s clear that the influence of the Holy Ghost continued to work upon and cleanse those in the church who embraced the gospel and were baptized, even if the process whereby it was received remains unknown to us. Moroni 6: 4. And, in one of the most famous passages in the Book of Mormon, Moroni urges all persons reading the Book of Mormon to ask God whether that sacred record is true, adding that by the power of the Holy Ghost the truth of all things will be manifest to those who ask with true intent. Such manifestation is considered a gift from God. Moroni 10: 4-19. Presumably, this gift of the Holy Ghost can be received by anyone praying about the Book of Mormon, regardless of whether they have yet been baptized. Nevertheless, Mormonism continues to teach that the gift of the Holy Ghost can only be obtained through a physical ordinance by the laying on of hands. See Pearl of Great Price, Article of Faith 4. The only proffered scriptural support for this Mormon teaching consists of Doctrine and Covenants 130: 23, which only states that a man may receive the Holy Ghost without it tarrying with him.
  4. I use the word “attributed” because the ceremonial practices performed by Mormons in their temples are not specifically set forth in any history published by the LDS church, nor are they found in Mormon canonical works. Today, a Mormon who participates in these temple ordinances is told (if he or she asks in the first place) that they were revealed to Joseph Smith by God, but unlike other reputed revelations, if a person wants to actually read how and when the specific ceremonies came into being, and what God’s actual words were, there is nothing published by the LDS church to read. These things are kept secret by the church.
  5. Doctrine and Covenants 76: 25-113. Compare I Corinthians 15: 35, 40-42, wherein Paul mentions the existence of celestial and terrestrial (but not telestial) bodies. Mormons cite to this scripture as biblical support for the teaching that resurrected beings will go to one of the named three degrees of glory when they are resurrected. A fourth place, where “sons of perdition” go, is reserved for the worst of the worst—those who knew the truthfulness of Jesus’s gospel through the witness of the Holy Ghost but nevertheless denied it.
  6. In Mormon doctrine, a person who remains single isn’t eligible for exaltation in the highest degree of eternal glory. For discussion regarding how those who never marry during their mortal lives can later qualify for exaltation, see discussions below under footnotes 11 and 12.
  7. Curiously, in most of the world, governments don’t afford legal recognition to marriages performed solely by ecclesiastical authority in Mormon temples. In such countries, couples must be married civilly before they can be sealed in the local Mormon temple. And of course, at such civil marriages, anyone can attend, whether Mormon or not. A growing movement within Mormonism advocates handling temple marriages in the United States the same way as in most foreign countries, with a civil marriage, attendable by all invitees who wish to attend, preceding the restricted-attendance temple ritual.
  8. See Hebrews 5: 5-10; 6: 20; 7: 11-28
  9. Joseph Smith’s First Vision is the subject of Chapter 2 of this book.
  10. The requirement of a marriage performed by proper Melchizedek priesthood authority applies to deceased couples as well as living ones. In fact, Mormons teach that those who were married without such authority and are now deceased are barred from exaltation until the matter is resolved back on earth. Accordingly, LDS individuals who desire to facilitate the exaltation of forebears and ancestors who fall into this category can perform all of the six ordinances previously described, as well as baptism, by proxy in the temples. More will be written about these teachings in Chapter 3.
  11. A gaping hole exists in Mormon theology concerning those members who unintentionally remain single throughout mortality. They’re taught by church leaders that someday in heaven they’ll be given a spouse if they’ve lived righteously on earth, and will thus remain eligible for godhood. Unfortunately, no scripture exists to verify this promise, or even address this subject, within Mormonism’s expanded canon of four separate books. Nor is Joseph Smith known to have spoken on the subject publicly or privately. Within Mormon orthodoxy, those who remained intentionally single in mortality are thought to have forfeited their chance for exaltation in the hereafter, though this view is also without specific scriptural support.
  12. Thomas S. Monson in New Era Magazine, Salt Lake City, Utah, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, October 2004, p. 3
  13. 3 Nephi 15: 13-14
  14. Some Mormon apologists may defend Joseph Smith’s supplementation of the doctrine and gospel of the Book of Mormon by arguing that the Book of Mormon itself describes revelations from the Lord to the brother of Jared, which were to be kept hidden from the world and be revealed at some future latter-day time when the world is righteous enough to receive them. See Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon, chapters 3 and 4, and chapter 5, verse 1, generally. This argument ignores several important facts. First, the sealed revelation to the brother of Jared was not described as being Jesus’ core gospel, but rather, information about the history and future events of the inhabitants of this world. Second, as already emphasized, Jesus himself had described the unsealed portion of the Book of Mormon which would come forth to contain “the fulness of the gospel of the Messiah.” Third, the ordinance-heavy theology introduced by Joseph Smith had nothing to do with the world history shown to the brother of Jared in Ether 3: 25-26, and Joseph Smith didn’t claim otherwise.
  15. 3 Nephi 15: 2-5.
  16. See 3 Nephi 11: 1
  17. 3 Nephi 23: 6-13

The Initial Loss of the Gospel of Christ among the Nephites

It appears that for some reason, the teachings of Christ and his gospel died out among the Nephites at some point after Nephi’s and Jacob’s deaths.  It might have been a century later, less than that, or more than that, but it appears to have happened.  The two men had taught about Christ’s mission, his philosophy, the need to repent of one’s sins, and the process of being baptized and receiving the Holy Ghost .  Though no actual baptisms during their time are specifically recorded, it’s obvious the same teachings that would later define the church of Christ were well understood while they were alive.  But it appears that after Nephi’s death, Jacob and Joseph, who had been consecrated priests and teachers, struggled to keep the people living the gospel of Christ, and the problem grew in succeeding generations.  About four centuries later, by the time of King Benjamin’s address concerning the coming of Christ to the Nephites and Mulekites in Zarahemla, it’s clear the king was now declaring new information of which neither he nor his people had been previously aware.  I draw this conclusion from three facts:

First, Benjamin introduces his Mosiah 3 sermon on Christ by stating that an angel had appeared unto him as he slept, in an answer to his prayers, saying that he had come “to declare unto you the glad tidings of great joy.”  The angel proceeds to preach the gospel of Christ to Benjamin, which Benjamin would have already been familiar with if he’d read the small plates of Nephi. The angel’s words comprise the whole rest of the chapter from verse 3 through verse 27. The effect on the people of hearing the angel’s words in Benjamin’s speech is dramatic; they fall to the earth, overcome by the things they’ve just heard, and overwhelmed by the goodness of God toward them in being willing to come to earth and die for them.  Both the words of the angel in introducing his message, and the people’s reaction when hearing the angel’s words, indicate the message was new and momentous.

Second, Mormon tells us that after the last person to write on the small plates, Amaleki, finished the record, he gave the plates to Benjamin, who added them to the records on the large plates that had already been kept by the kings from the time of Nephi.  Words of Mormon 1:10.  Mormon doesn’t say Benjamin read the small plates, but only that he added them to the already-voluminous records he already possessed.  In fact, it’s logical that the reason the angel needed to come to Benjamin was because the king wasn’t familiar with what was on the small plates.  This conclusion is also borne out by the point made in the next paragraph.

That third point is that Mormon himself wasn’t even aware the small plates existed until he’d already abridged the entire record of the Nephites on the large plates.  He’d read all the prophecies and sermons among the Nephites over the past 950 years, but hadn’t read any quotations of the word of Lehi, Nephi and Jacob found in the small plates.  At the last minute, so to speak, he discovered the small plates, read them, and was pleased because of all the prophecies about Christ and the last days contained upon them.  See Words of Mormon 3-6. Mormon sensed great value in the small plates,”for they are choice unto me”, he said, and this value Benjamin would also have sensed had he read them.

The lessons we learn from this are twofold.  First, the consequences of failing to read all our ancient scriptures can change the course of an entire civilization or culture, depriving it of vital treasures of spiritual and historical knowledge.  How incomplete the Book of Mormon would be today if Mormon hadn’t come across the plates that constitute what we now know as First and Second Nephi!

Second, even very good men, like King Benjamin obviously was, can make the mistake of assuming that the religious and historical writings they’re familiar with contain all the gospel understanding they need, and that the more ancient writings are less relevant.  Had King Benjamin known that what the angel eventually told him during that fateful night was already written on the small plates of Nephi, which he himself possessed, he doubtlessly would have done all within his power to read them.  (We acknowledge the strong possibility, however, that King Benjamin lacked the ability to read the writing on the small plates of Nephi, given the likelihood that unlike his son Mosiah, he had received no interpreters with which to do so, and that the written language on those plates had undergone much change over the centuries of mixing with other peoples in the New World.)  He and many of his predecessors had, in effect, been in the same situation as his Lamanite brethren; they were lacking the writings they most needed to read and understand.  Similarly, we should always ask ourselves whether our church leaders, and we ourselves, have likewise ignored ancient scriptures in favor of less valuable latter writings.

(Note: This essay pertains only to the loss and restoration of the knowledge of Christ’s gospel among  the Nephites.  It does not treat the subject of the actual first reported full-fledged founding of the Church of Christ among the Nephites, which occurred after Alma’s embrace of Abinadi’s message.  A separate essay on the formal founding of the Church of Christ by Alma is found on this website under the title “The Momentous First Recorded Founding of the Church of Christ before Jesus’s Birth.”