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The Heavens Were Opened. Doctrine & Covenants Section 138. Section 138 Origin.

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the heavens were opened

The Heavens Were Opened

Doctrine & Covenants Section 138

section 138 origin
Section 138 Origin
  • Death haunted mankind in 1918. The Great War, known to us as World War I, was in the process of claiming more than nine million lives. That staggering figure paled in comparison with the number of people slain in even less time by a global influenza pandemic. Worldwide the virus reaped a grim harvest of perhaps 50 million souls. It killed over 195,000 Americans in October 1918, the deadliest month in American history, the month the Lord revealed Section 138.
  • The “pervasiveness and ubiquity of death were overwhelming,” yet it is hard to grasp for those of us who live distant from what witnesses themselves could hardly imagine and what cultural historians have described as a terrible gnawing emptiness in tens of thousands of families mourning the losses of loved ones whose bodies were never recovered from the War’s devastation or whose families were wiped out by disease.
  • In the midst of the dead and dying was Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church. His life’s experiences equipped him to grasp the enormity of death and its implications. His father Hyrum had been brutally shot to death when Joseph was five. “I lost my mother, the sweetest soul that ever lived,” Joseph wrote, “when I was only a boy.” Death marked his life. His first child, Mercy Josephine, died at age two, leaving Joseph “vacant, lonely, desolate, deserted.” His beloved and eldest son died unexpectedly in January 1918, creating what President Smith called “my overwhelming burden of grief.” In between these untimely deaths, President Smith buried a wife and eleven other children. Few people have ever tasted the bitterness of death more.
  • As General Conference approached in October 1918, President Smith himself was less than two months from the end of his own mortality. Unwell, he surprised the Saints by appearing at conference on October 4. He spoke briefly, saying “I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith and of determination; and I have had my communications with the Spirit of the Lord continuously.” Indeed he had. The Lord had given him Section 138 just the day before. After conference he dictated it to his son Joseph Fielding.
    • Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants, Section 138.
section 138 outcomes
Section 138 Outcomes
  • Early Christians believed, as Section 138 declares in verse 58, that the dead could repent and be redeemed through the exact same gospel of Jesus Christ that saves the repentant living. The determinant was not death but agency. Individuals were not saved or damned based on when they lived or died, but based on what they decided to do with Christ’s offer of salvation when they learned about it. But over the centuries, largely through the influence of Augustine, death became “a firm boundary of salvation” in western Christianity.
  • Despite so-called “orthodox” efforts to stamp it out, the tradition of Christ saving the repentant dead persisted. Based on the same Bible passages that Joseph F. Smith pondered prior to his vision, medieval Christians believed in what they called the “harrowing of hell,” meaning Christ’s disembodied descent into the spirit world between his crucifixion and resurrection to redeem the captives. A rich tradition of drama and art depict the Savior’s mission of “deliverance” in which he declared “liberty to the captives who had been faithful” (D&C 136:18).
  • Section 138 thus restored and expanded Bible doctrine. In doing so it reinforced the Bible’s wholeness and truthfulness and its compatibility with the Book of Mormon and the restoration. President Smith saw Adam and Eve and Old Testament patriarchs and prophets along with Book of Mormon prophets together with Joseph Smith and others from the last dispensation all unified by the New Testament Savior and His unbounded gospel. The vision gives coherence to God’s perfect plans for the redemption of His children, a wholeness that is lacking from most other theologies. Moreover, the revelation protects against false doctrines. The devastating toll of death at the time of Section 138 had people understandably looking into all kinds of hopeful but unsound doctrines of the dead. Spiritualism thrived as people ached to commune with their departed loved ones. And a wide variety of alternative interpretations have been offered to the Bible passages President Smith pondered. None of them, in contrast to Section 138, declares itself revelation.
  • A scarred survivor of the influenza pandemic wrote a powerful memoir that repeatedly asks, “where are the dead?” Section 138 “answers this question and speaks to the great, worldwide need that underlies it.” Indeed, as George Tate wrote, “the vision affirms the foundations of faith in a world where the faith of so many was shattered by the great calamities they witnessed and experienced, declaring to all the world through the mouth of the Lord’s anointed that the Father and the Son live and are still earnestly engaged in the ongoing work of salvation for all God’s children.”
  • On October 31, 1918, ailing President Smith sent his son Joseph Fielding to read the revelation to a meeting of the First Presidency and quorum of the twelve apostles. They “accepted and endorsed the revelation as the word of the Lord.” The Deseret Evening News published the revelation about a month later. In the meantime President Joseph F. Smith passed from life to death knowing better than anyone else what he could expect on arrival.
    • Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants, Section 138.