Baptism for the dead is one of the most unique things Mormons do in all of Christianity.  What were the events that led Joseph to inquire about this practice?  They started in Kirtland, although a lot of the events also happened in Nauvoo.  I asked Dr. Richard Bennett, a BYU professor in Church History talks about these events.

The origin of baptism for the dead is a mystery.  We don’t know where and when Joseph actually comes to grips with this ordinance.

I was under the impression that baptism for the dead came to Joseph following his brother Alvin’s death.  Alvin died in 1823, and was a big supporter of Joseph’s prophetic gift.  He died from what was called bilious colic back in the day.  Doctors gave him some mercury to cure him, which ended up killing him.  The cure was worse than the disease in that case.  A Presbyterian minister said that since Alvin was never baptized, he was consigned to hell.  Joseph Smith, Sr. was so offended that he never joined with any of those protestant churches.  I asked Dr. Bennett if this was the source of Joseph’s thoughts on baptism for the dead.

It’s reasonable to suppose that this was a factor, but it’s impossible to prove.  It is certain though that Joseph Smith, Sr. himself is sick and dying in 1839, before Joseph Smith reveals baptism for the dead, and he dies within days of a few weeks of the announcement and Joseph Smith is clearly thinking about his father and perhaps of Alvin, so you wouldn’t want to dismiss this as immediate factors for it, but you can’t say for certain yet. We haven’t found anything yet where Joseph Smith says, this is where I came up with this idea.  It was a process of revelation.  We talked about the reclamation of revelation.  We have to think about the progression of revelation too.

What is the answer to the Haun’s Mill Massacre?  Joseph now is not just leading a church, people are dying for his religion.  The ante goes up in his mind.  It’s one thing to believe in what I’m telling you but people are giving their lives for it.  The Missouri conflict and conflagration, all those who died in sickness and death, David Patton [an apostle who died at Battle of Crooked River] and all the rest of the young boys and men and all the rest who died at Haun’s Mill, well what’s my answer to this?  What’s the Lord’s answer to this?  I think Joseph was asking the Lord very carefully.  We’re having an H of a time.  What are the answers to this?  I think that’s where you have to see baptism for the dead coming out of a much bigger context.

It should be noted that the Kirtland Temple never had a font.  A previous discussion said it was originally intended to be a school, not a temple, so that may explain some of that.  We talk about the Spirit of Elijah as being a spirit of genealogy work.  Could Elijah’s visit be more properly recognized as sealing dead ancestors through temple work, more so than marriage sealings?  What do you think?  What are your thoughts about baptism for the dead?

(Note you can listen to the complete interview for free here.)