General Conference Minutes, and JS, Discourse, , Hancock Co., IL, 3–5 Oct. 1840. Featured version published in “Minutes of the General Conference,” Times and Seasons, Oct. 1840, 185–187. For more complete source information, see the source note for Letter to Isaac Galland, 22 Mar. 1839.
JS presided over a general of the in , Illinois, from 3 to 5 October 1840. The conference originally was scheduled to begin on 2 October but was delayed due to inclement weather. Nevertheless, four to five thousand people attended the conference, according to estimates. One observer believed the conference was “the largest company of People that I ever saw together on a religious ocation [occasion].” The assembly likely met at the meeting grounds near ’s house in the southwest part of the Nauvoo peninsula. The conference discussed business related to responding to crime in the area; constructing a in Nauvoo; drafting a city charter; organizing church units and leadership in and , Ohio; and creating another committee to try to obtain redress for the Saints’ expulsion from .
One of the conference’s significant participants was , who had recently arrived in after corresponding with JS and in previous months. Although Bennett was a new convert, the conference placed a great deal of responsibility on him, especially by enlisting him to help obtain legal incorporation for the city of Nauvoo. Bennett held political clout in as the current quartermaster general of the Illinois militia and the former brigadier general of the Invincible Dragoons, a division of the Illinois militia. Hoping to capitalize on Bennett’s influence, the conference appointed him to support efforts to obtain a city charter for Nauvoo from the state legislature.
At the conference, JS spoke on a new church doctrine: members could be on behalf of deceased persons. JS had mentioned this concept on 15 August 1840 during a funeral sermon for . On that occasion, according to reminiscent accounts, JS read from 1 Corinthians 15 and promised Jane Harper Neyman, a woman in attendance who was grieving the death of her unbaptized son, that she “shou[ld] have glad tidings in that thing,” “that thing” meaning vicarious baptism. Although the following minutes of the conference do not preserve the details of JS’s instruction, two accounts confirm that JS provided the conference with additional guidance about baptism for the dead. Specifically, JS explained, “it is the privilege of this church to be baptised for all their kinsfolks that have died before this Gospel came forth; even back to their great Grandfather and Mother if they have ben personally acquainted with them.” The Saints were not to be baptized for their “acquaintances unless they [the deceased] send a ministering spirit to their friends on earth.” When someone was baptized on behalf of the deceased, the deceased would be “released from prison and they [the living Latter-day Saint] can claim them in the resurrection and bring them into the celestial kingdom.” JS may have been familiar with the entry on “Baptism for the Dead” in Charles Buck’s theological dictionary, which stated that it was a “practice formerly in use, when a person dying without baptism” would depend upon another to be “baptized in his stead; thus supposing that God would accept the baptism of the proxy, as though it had been administered to the principal.” In the first vicarious baptisms took place in the as early as 13 September 1840. According to , “During conference there were sometimes from eight to ten in the river at a time baptiseing” for the dead. The Saints may have performed baptisms while the conference took place because JS encouraged them to “liberate their friends from bondage as quick as posable [possible].”
served as clerk of the conference and took the minutes, which were then published in the October 1840 issue of the Times and Seasons.
Editorial, Times and Seasons, Oct. 1840, 1:184; Benjamin Dobson, “The Mormons,” Peoria (IL) Register and North-Western Gazetteer, 30 Oct. 1840, ; Vilate Murray Kimball, Nauvoo, IL, to Heber C. Kimball, 11 Oct. 1840, photocopy, Vilate Murray Kimball, Letters, 1840, CHL.
Times and Seasons. Commerce/Nauvoo, IL. Nov. 1839–Feb. 1846.
Peoria Register and North-Western Gazetteer. Peoria, IL. 1837–1843.
Simon Baker, “15 Aug. 1840 Minutes of Recollection of Joseph Smith’s Sermon,” JS Collection, CHL; see also Jane Harper Neyman and Vienna Jaques, Statement, 29 Nov. 1854, Historian’s Office, JS History Documents, ca. 1839–1860, CHL.
Smith, Joseph. Collection, 1827–1846. CHL. MS 155.
Historian’s Office. Joseph Smith History Documents, 1839–1860. CHL. CR 100 396.
According to Phebe Carter Woodruff, “Brother Joseph was expected to preach today on the Priesthood but his health would not admit of it so A. Babbit took the stand and delivered an interesting discourse upon the same subject.” (Phebe Carter Woodruff, Lee Co., Iowa Territory, to Wilford Woodruff, 6–19 Oct. 1840, digital scan, Wilford Woodruff, Collection, CHL.)
Woodruff, Wilford. Collection, 1831–1905. Digital scans. CHL. Originals in private possession.
This decision may have been based on the Saints’ reading of Old Testament law. An identical prescription had already been followed in cases of alleged adultery. (See Deuteronomy 19:15; and Revelation, 23 Feb. 1831 [D&C 42:80–81].)
Although Congress had denied their petition in February 1840, church leaders still held out hope that they could obtain compensation for their lost lands and property in Missouri. The April 1840 general conference officially resolved that the first committee in charge of seeking redress should “continue to use their endeavors to obtain redress for a suffering people.” Higbee was a member of the earlier committee. (Minutes and Discourse, 6–8 Apr. 1840.)