“A Book . . . Which Shall Be Worthy of All Acceptation”

By Brett D. Dowdle, Volume Editor

In early September 1842, Joseph Smith was hiding in the home of Edward Hunter to evade arrest and extradition to Missouri on charges that he had conspired to assassinate former Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs. In this setting, on 6 or 7 September, Smith’s mind returned to the subject of baptism for the dead and a promise he had made just days earlier to send additional instructions and “the word of the Lord” on the ordinance to the Latter-day Saints by mail.[1] Taking advantage of his seclusion, Joseph Smith wrote a nine-page letter to the Saints—which will be featured in the forthcoming Documents, Volume 11—that systematized procedures for baptism for the dead and explained its doctrinal purposes and implications.

Building off earlier instructions that a recorder should be present at each baptism for the dead, Joseph Smith used this letter to unveil a detailed set of instructions for recording each ordinance.[2] Recorders not only were to note the name of the person baptized and for whom the baptism was performed, but also were to give “the date, the names &c, and the history of the whole transaction,” including the names of three other people who had been present and who might “certify to the same.” This information was to be given to the general church recorder, who would then enter all of the above information into “the general Church Book,” which the Saints would ultimately “offer unto the Lord” as “an offering in righteousness.”[3]

Joseph Smith acknowledged that some would likely find his instructions “to be very particular.”[4] But his detailed instructions helped to systematize the recording procedures. While not all early records of the ordinances were incomplete, the record books for the ordinances performed between 1840 and these September 1842 instructions indicate that most early records lacked important details, including the names of the people who had performed the ordinance and even the exact dates that the baptisms had taken place. Smith made clear that better regulating how these records were maintained not only was optimal but also was designed to “answer the will of God.” Indeed, the created records would be among the books out of which mankind would ultimately be judged.[5]

The following Sunday, 11 September, while Joseph Smith was concealed at home, the congregated Saints read the nine-page letter. According to Smith’s journal, which was then being kept by William Clayton, “the important instructions contained in the . . . letter made a deep and solemn impression on the minds of the saints, and they manifested their intentions to obey the instructions to the letter.”[6] Demonstrating that commitment, general church recorder James Sloan began recording baptisms for the dead in a new record book, which was presumably to serve as “the general Church Book” that Smith had called for. The first baptisms for the dead Sloan recorded in the book were performed on the same evening the Saints read the letter, and Sloan’s entries reflected the procedural changes that Smith had requested. Although the records moving forward were often scanty and imperfect, Sloan’s record book reflected a concerted effort on the part of the Saints to perform and record baptisms for the dead in a manner that was consistent with the instructions in Smith’s September 1842 letter to the Saints.



[1] Joseph Smith to “all the saints in Nauvoo,” 1 Sept. 1842, Revelations Collection, CHL.

[2] Joseph Smith to “all the saints in Nauvoo,” 1 Sept. 1842, Revelations Collection, CHL.

[3] Joseph Smith to the Church, 6 or 7 Sept. 1842, Revelations Collection, CHL.

[4] Joseph Smith to the Church, 6 or 7 Sept. 1842, Revelations Collection, CHL.

[5] Joseph Smith to the Church, 6 or 7 Sept. 1842, Revelations Collection, CHL.

[6] Joseph Smith, Journal, 11 Sept. 1842.