Given his ownership of William Hone’s controversial Apocryphal New Testament, Joseph Smith had access to a fair amount of ancient Christian literature, including texts that discuss the fate of deceased non-Christians.
William Hone was a London pamphleteer and bookseller whose name was in many circles synonymous with blasphemy. In 1820 he published a compilation of early Christian texts, with a brief preface and two appendices, the full title of which ran, The Apocryphal New Testament, Being All The Gospels, Epistles And Other Pieces Now Extent, Attributed In The First Four Centuries to Jesus Christ, His Apostles, And Their Companions And Not Included In The New Testament By Its Compilers. Translated From The Original Tongues, And Now Collected Into One Volume. For the bulk of the book Hone combined the work of two eighteen-century scholars, Jeremiah Jones’ English translation of New Testament apocrypha, and William Wake’s Apostolic Fathers. The preface, the only part Hone could claim as his, began with a question: “After the writings contained in the New Testament were selected from the numerous Gospels and Epistles then in existence, what became of the Books that were rejected by the compilers?” As a selection of those very books Hone presented Apocryphal New Testament. “He who possess this and the New Testament, has in the two volumes,” he wrote, “a collection of all the historical records relative to Christ and His Apostles, now in existence, and considered sacred by Christians during the first four centuries after His birth.” Hone’s opponents were quick to point out his plagiarism of Jones and Wake, and this, along with the popularity of the first edition, which sold out in a few months, prompted him to prepare a second edition in 1821, featuring increased annotation, a second preface, third appendix, and an additional ancient Christian text he had overlooked. In subsequent years Apocryphal New Testament saw numerous (pirated) printings and editions, and it remains in print today.
Literary critic Joss Marsh calls Apocryphal New Testament a “landmark;” Hone was the first to provide English translations of the Apostolic Fathers and New Testament apocrypha in a single volume at a moderate price. What is more, he presented those texts not as spurious and heretical, or as non-canonical though authentic, the precedent in former centuries, but as legitimate Christian scripture. Whatever his personal convictions and motivations, in a very real sense Hone was arguing against a closed canon of scripture, or at least for one that extended far beyond the twenty-seven books and epistles of the New Testament, a concept that many, especially Christian clergy, found unacceptable. “By some persons of the multitude, commonly known as Christians, and who profess to suppose that they do God service by calling themselves so,” Hone was, he wrote in the preface to the second edition, “attacked with malignity and furry.”
Hone’s book did much to contribute not only to popular interest in and awareness of New Testament apocrypha but also to the development of what could be considered a certain genre. Apocryphal New Testament stands at the beginning of a trajectory that includes the two Oxford-published volumes of the same title edited by Montague Rhodes James and then J. K. Elliot as well as Wilhelm Schneemelcher’s New Testament Apocrypha, the current academic reference work on the subject. A particularly strong corollary is Bart Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures.
Among other texts in Hone’s book are the Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of Paul and Thecla, and Gospel of Nicodemus, each of which addresses the salvation of deceased non-Christians. In the Gospel of Nicodemus, two of the saints who were resurrected with Jesus relate their experience in hell with Adam and “all the patriarchs and prophets,” from the time John the Baptist arrived to acquaint them with the Messiah, to their departure. They then explain that, per Michael’s instruction, they and “many who rose from the dead” were “baptized in the holy river of Jordan” during a special three-day dispensation. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, when the pagan Trifina meets Thelca, a Christian, her deceased daughter appears to her in vision, instructing her to allow Thecla to “be reputed by you as your daughter in my stead,” and to ask Thecla to “pray for me, that I may be translated to a state of happiness.” When Trifina relates her daughter’s requests, Thecla promptly obliges, with the desired result. Finally, in the Shepherd of Hermas, a tower is built upon a large white stone as Hermas looks on. Four groups of smaller stones “rise up out of the deep” to form the base of the building. When the tower is finished, Hermas asks an angel for the vision’s interpretation, and the angel explains that the first two groups of stones represent the first and second ages of “righteous men,” the third group the “prophets and ministers of the Lord,” and the fourth group the “Apostles and doctors of the preaching of the Son of God.” Hermas further inquires why the stones rose from the deep, to which the angel replies: “It was necessary for them to ascend by water…They therefore being dead, were nevertheless sealed with the seal of the Son of God…Now this seal is the water of baptism…Wherefore to those also was this seal preached, and they made use of it, that they might enter into the kingdom of God.” Hermas then puzzles over why the fourth group of stones also rose from the deep, “having already received that seal.” The angel clarifies: “Because these Apostles and teachers, who preached the name of the son of God, dying after they had received his faith and power, preached to them who were dead before; and they gave this seal to them. They went down therefore into the water with them, and again came up.” The first three groups “died in righteousness, and in great purity; only this seal was wanting in them.
To a certain extent these passages resemble Joseph Smith’s teachings on baptism for and redemption of the dead, as scholars such as Hugh Nibley, John Tvedtnes, and Jeffery Trumbower have observed. Perhaps prompted by Fawn Brodie’s implicit accusation that Joseph Smith had taken the concept of baptism for the dead from the eighteenth-century German mystics at Ephrata, Pennsylvania, Nibley published a lengthy defense of the Mormon belief and practice in a series of installments in the Improvement Era beginning in 1949. After citing numerous patristic and apocryphal sources, emphasizing especially the passage from the Shepherd of Hermas, he concludes:
It has not been the purpose of this discussion to treat baptism for the dead as practiced by the Latter-day Saints. No one having any acquaintance with that system, however, can fail to notice the essential identity of the ancient with the modern usage and doctrine. This close resemblance posses a problem. Where did Joseph Smith get his knowledge? Few if any of the sources cited in this discussion were available to him; the best of these have only been discovered in recent years, while the citations from the others are only to be found scattered at wide intervals through works so voluminous that even had they been available to the Prophet he would, lacking modern aids, have had to spend a lifetime running them down…To design such a work would more than tax the powers of the greatest religious leaders of the past, but to have made it conform at the same time to the patterns of the primitive church (not brought to light until the last seventy years) is asking far too much of genius and luck…Work for the dead is an all-important phase of Mormonism about which the world knows virtually nothing. Not even the most zealous anti-Mormon has even begun to offer an explanation for its discovery…The critics will have to go far to explain this one.
Fifty years later, John Tvedtnes revisited a number of the passages Nibley originally marshaled as well as several others such as the account in the Gospel of Nicodemus concerning the special baptismal dispensation for pre-Christian saints. Like Nibley, his approach to these ancient parallels is apologetic. Prefacing his discussion, Tvedtnes writes of the oddity of Joseph Smith’s introduction of baptism for dead as follows:
As peculiar as the new practice may have been to the Saints, it was met with incredulity by other Christian groups. The general feeling among Christians then, as now, is that Paul’s mention of those who are ‘baptized for the dead’ (1 Corinthians 15:29) was enshrouded in mystery. If such a practice ever existed, they believed, it was certainly not part of the Christian church. Since then [i.e. post 1840], much information has come to light from ancient documents that support the idea that some early Christians indeed baptized others by proxy for those who had died unbaptized.
Baptism for the dead is just one of the forms of the “posthumous salvation of non-Christians” described in Jeffrey Trumbower’s 2001 monograph, Rescue for the Dead. Trumbower is concerned with early Christianity proper and only occasionally mentions—as he does in his discussion of the episode between Thecla, Trifina and her deceased daughter—parallels with the Mormon belief in redeeming the dead. Summarizing his research, Trumbower states that early Christian manifestations of rescue for the dead were a “continuation of long-standing traditions within the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures of antiquity;” that the concept and practice of saving deceased non-Christians faced opposition from “a host of important Christian authors and theologians” who, among other things, were concerned with safeguarding the “relevance, power, and authority of the church on earth;” and that “Latter-day Saints and Shakers of the nineteenth century revived certain types of posthumous salvation, without necessarily being aware of the earlier history,” excepting 1 Corinthians 15:29, which for Trumbower “shows that the religious impulse to rescue the dead can arise any time there is enthusiasm for the new activity of God in the world.” Unlike the apologetics of Nibley and Tvedtnes, the purpose of his book is not “to take sides or to chart a course for Christian theology.” Yet Trumbower, who is not a Mormon, admits that he has “much sympathy for those in every age who have wished to rescue the dead.”
Whereas Trumbower generously assumes that ‘Latter-day Saints…revived certain types of posthumous salvation without necessarily being aware of the earlier history’ found in Christian patristic and apocryphal sources, Tvedtnes implies that the ancient material he cites only ‘came to light’ after 1840, just as Nibley maintains that ‘Few if any’ of his sources ‘were available’ to Joseph Smith, the ‘best’ of which ‘have only been discovered in recent years,’ and the rest of which were so disparate that the prophet ‘would have had to spend a lifetime running them down.’
The first person to publicize Joseph Smith’s ownership of Apocryphal New Testament, albeit unwittingly, was not the zealous anti-Mormon or critic Nibley described but LDS Institute director Kenneth Godfrey, whose 1974 BYU Studies article lists Joseph Smith’s contributions to the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute and carefully asks whether they were “the source for some of his intellectual ideas.” The ‘Apochryphal Testament’ listed in the NLLI minute book under Joseph Smith’s name was not identified in print as Hone’s Apocryphal New Testament until ten years later. Richard Anderson made the connection, speculating that a passage in the Acts of Paul and Thecla might have influenced a description the prophet gave of Paul. Based on the rationale that “Joseph Smith was sometimes stimulated by an idea to inquire of the Lord for himself,” Anderson posits: “So he might be dependent on the Thecla sketch purely as a point of inquiry. Or he might never have seen it.”
Immediately following this hypothesis in Anderson’s Understanding Paul is a treatment and defense of baptism for the dead, but in this case Anderson is not willing to posit any such relationship between Joseph Smith’s teachings and the books he might have read. Anderson cites Nibley’s earlier work as well as the passage from the Shepherd of Hermas in support of his argument that “baptism [for the dead] was an ancient practice and that it could be reestablished only by divine instruction to latter-day prophets,” without mentioning the fact that Hone’s book includes the Shepherd of Hermas. Yet, in his discussion of baptism for the dead Anderson seems preoccupied with assuring his audience that Joseph Smith did not rely on literary sources. He cites the prophet as stating that “the best way to obtain truth and wisdom, is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer and obtain divine teaching,” and he further asserts that “divine instruction is not dependant on fragmentary sources.”
All this raises the question of when Joseph Smith obtained his copy of Apocryphal New Testament. Beyond the fact that he donated it to the NLLI in early 1844, nothing is certain. One point to consider is the book’s publication. The first American edition was printed in 1825 by Edwin Scott of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, roughly 175 miles from the Harmony area where Joseph Smith worked and boarded from September to November of that year, and where he later resided from the close of 1827 to middle of 1829. It was printed again in 1832 by William Coolman of Ravenna, Ohio, approximately forty-five miles south of Kirtland and less than fifteen miles from the John Johnson home in Hiram, Joseph Smith’s residence from September 1831 to April 1832. That same year Apocryphal New Testament was also printed in Boston by two separate publishers: N.H Whitaker and Benjamin Mussey. In 1835 it was printed again, this time by Benjamin Gray of Chilicothe, Ohio, its last printing during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
Another piece of evidence is a Times and Seasons editorial published 1 September 1842, which paraphrases the Protevangelion of James, a text also found in Hone’s book. It concerns the “Persecution of the Prophets” and was later excerpted in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. But like much of the material that ran in the Times and Seasons during Joseph Smith’s editorship, it is anonymous, and some scholars doubt his authorship of this editorial especially, since he was in hiding before and after its publication. Whether he authored it or not, there is some evidence to suggest that it was the prophet’s copy of Apocryphal New Testament that was used in the composition of the editorial: when Joseph Smith publicly passed editorship of the Times and Seasons to John Taylor two months after the publication of the “Persecution of the Prophets” editorial, Taylor assured the paper’s subscribers that it would “continue to be a valuable periodical” because the prophet “has promised to us the priviledge [sic] of referring to his writings and books,” implying not only that Joseph Smith maintained a personal library but also that those books had been instrumental in his editorship of the Times and Seasons.
The last clue is the way Hone’s book appears in the NLLI minute book. When Joseph Smith contributed his copy of Apocryphal New Testament to the NLLI along with some forty-nine other volumes—approximately one year after Taylor mentioned the prophet’s personal library in the Times and Seasons—it was listed as ‘Apocrhyphal Testament,’ the abbreviated title found on the spine of the 1832 Ravenna printing.
None of this is conclusive. Even if it is assumed that Joseph Smith contributed a copy of the Ravenna printing to the NLLI, he might have obtained it at any time between 1832 and early 1844. The author of the “Persecution of the Prophets” editorial could have been written using a copy of Apocryphal New Testament that belonged to someone other than Joseph Smith. And the fact that he lived near the areas in which Hone’s book was first published in the United States doesn’t prove that the prophet obtained a copy at that time. But the evidence is suggestive, and standing by itself the publication of Apocryphal New Testament in America during Joseph Smith’s lifetime is enough to show that it could have easily made its way into his hands in 1832, perhaps sooner.
Just as Anderson posits that Apocryphal New Testament might have contributed to the description Joseph Smith gave of Paul in January 1841, so could it have influenced the prophet’s introduction of vicarious baptism in August 1840. The Book of Mormon mentions salvation of the dead, and there is evidence that the prophet was cognizant of evangelization of the dead by 1833, but it seems that he was unsure as to the temporal modus operandi: in early 1836, a vision of heaven left him wondering how his deceased brother “had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he…had not been baptized for the remission of sins (D&C 137:6).” Perhaps sometime within the next four and half years before the funeral of Seymour Brunson the prophet read Apocryphal New Testament. Of course, the Bible itself separately mentions baptism for the dead and posthumous evangelization, but according to Anderson it is in the Shepherd of Hermas that “the two interrelated doctrines come together.”
Yet only if he interpreted it the way Anderson and Nibley do, could the passage from the Shepherd of Hermas have been the link between Joseph Smith’s early cognizance of salvation and evangelization of the dead and his later introduction of vicarious baptism. Again, the translation in Hone’s book reads: “these Apostles and teachers, who preached the name of the son of God, dying after they had received his faith and power, preached to them that were dead before; and they gave this seal to them. They went down therefore into the water with them, and again came up.” Anderson claims that “This cooperative baptism is proxy baptism,” and that “the joint immersion in water” of the apostles and their initiates “is part of the symbolism not expressly interpreted, referring to the earthly baptisms that were a shared experience of the living and the dead.” Likewise, for Nibley, “What is perfectly clear is that the apostles while they were still living performed an ordinance—the earthly ordinance of baptism in water—which concerned the welfare of those who had already died.” But it is precisely these aspects of the passage that are anything but obvious. The preaching occurs after the death of the apostles, and the baptism seems to as well. What is more, the dead themselves are baptized. The passage seems not to describe vicarious baptism let alone a baptism performed on earth. As patristic scholar Johannes Quasten writes, “the apostles and teachers descended into limbo after death…to baptize the righteous departed of pre-Christian times.” According to Anderson, this straightforward reading “lacks common sense.” But one has to ask whether his interpretation, which relies on ‘symbolism not expressly interpreted,’ is any more commonsensical.
What then of the other passages in Apocryphal New Testament? In the Gospel of Nicodemus, the baptism is performed on earth, but again it is the dead themselves who are baptized, and after their resurrection too, hardly equivalent to Joseph Smith’s vicarious system. As for the Acts of Paul and Thecla, although it clearly depicts the efforts of an embodied Christian on behalf of a disembodied non-Christian, it suggests that prayer alone is sufficient to translate the unbaptized dead to “a state of happiness.”
So even if William Hone’s Apocryphal New Testament did influence the prophet’s introduction of vicarious baptism, it does not account for it. Following the Shepherd of Hermas, he would have taught baptism of the dead in the world of spirits. Copying the Gospel of Nicodemus, he would have taught baptism of the resurrected on earth. And relying on the Acts of Paul and Thecla, he would have taught the much simpler concept of intercessory prayer not vicarious baptism. It is one thing for scholars to read Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice into these ancient sources, and quite another for Joseph Smith to have derived it entirely from them.
To be sure, there are other passages in early Christian texts besides those in Hone’s book that might better account for the introduction of vicarious baptism, if such an explanation is to be sought. On 15 April 1842, the Times and Seasons ran an editorial on the new doctrine citing John Chrysostum’s description of the Marcionite practice of baptism for the dead. As with the “Persecution of the Prophets” editorial, it was excerpted in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. A case can be made for his co-authorship of the editorial based on Wilford Woodruff’s journal statement two months previous that “Joseph the Seer is now the editor of that paper & Elder Taylor assists him in writing.” Whoever wrote the editorial, it is striking that the passage had already been identified and was circulating in a church periodical so soon in the history of Mormonism. And already the author shows some awareness of how it is problematic that in the least ambiguous references to baptism for the dead from antiquity, the practice is espoused by or attributed to heterodox groups. Commenting on Chrysostom’s description of the Marctionite practice, the author of the Times and Seasons editorial writes: “The church of course at that time was degenerate, and the particular form might be incorrect, but the thing is particularly clear in the Scriptures.”