The vision that we have printed as Section 138 was received by Joseph F. Smith in the last few months of his life. Among the very first people he asked to have review the document was none other than his friend, Susa Young Gates. In one of the excellent essays presented in the Revelations in Context book, Lisa Olsen Tait talked about Susa’s experience with the revelation. More recently, Lisa Olsen Tait discussed more about Susa and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).
Why was Susa one of the first people to read the vision? Part of it has to do with her personal friendship with Joseph F. Smith. As Tait described:
Joseph F. Smith was over seventeen years older than Susa Young Gates. … They became friends in Hawai’i in 1885-87. Susa accompanied her husband, Jacob F. Gates, on a return mission to the Sandwich Islands, and their service overlapped with the time that Joseph F. Smith and his wife Julina were there, basically keeping a low profile during the anti-polygamy crusade. (Smith was a highly-wanted man due to his church leadership position and his knowledge of the records.)
A few letters between them from that time survive, and, in my reading, evince a progression from friendly but formal acquaintances to deep love and friendship.
They shared many experiences at the mission home in Laie. Susa and Julina both gave birth to babies while there. The Gateses, along with other missionaries, enjoyed gathering to hear President Smith teach the gospel and offer spiritual guidance. Susa particularly seems to have engaged in some intensive and profoundly influential discussions with Joseph F. She was a thinker, not content to leave theology and doctrine to the men.
The real turning point, though, was the wrenching tragedy that unfolded over a single week early in 1887, when two of the Gates’s little boys died in quick succession of diphtheria. Susa and Jacob wore themselves out caring for the little ones and carrying an unbearable load of grief. Julina and Joseph were right there, nursing the children and comforting the parents.
President Smith later told them that he had had a dream in which he saw the grave of the first child being dug big enough for two. He knew that they would lose both children, but he also wanted them to know that it was not their fault. The Lord wanted the boys for a higher purpose, he said. This was a great comfort to Susa and Jacob.
President Smith was called home in 1887 as John Taylor’s health declined. After that point he and Susa carried on a robust correspondence for many years.
I have found well over a hundred letters between them from 1887 to 1918. Even many years later, Smith would write to the Gateses to the effect that that their hearts had been bound together with bands of steel by their experiences in Laie, and sometimes they would write long passages in Hawaiian. Smith supported Susa’s public work, starting with her founding and editing of the Young Woman’s Journal for the YLMIA in 1889, and he seems to have been instrumental in having her called to the Relief Society General Board in 1911. …
The connections carried on into the next generation. Susa worked closely with Joseph F. Smith, Jr. (whom we now call Joseph Fielding Smith) in promoting genealogy and temple work. Her daughter, Leah, went to New York with President Smith’s daughter, Donnette, where they both attended college.
So there were a lot of personal experiences shared with each other that would have made President Smith think of Susa when he received the vision.
Part of it had to do with Susa’s own interests and work to promote genealogy and temple work. In the interview, Tait wrote that:
We need to understand that it was not until 1894, when Wilford Woodruff received a revelation reorienting the Saints to being sealed to their direct ancestors, that the impetus for family history work really took off in the church.
That same year, the Genealogical Society of Utah was formed as the church’s official genealogical agency. Susa had long been interested in genealogy and temple work—she was the first person baptized for the dead in the St. George temple and served as an ordinance worker there in her early twenties, and she had taken trips to research genealogy in the 1890s—but after the turn of the century, due to some experiences outlined in the article, she felt a burning call to the work on a whole new level.
So, whether she was “ahead of her time,” she was certainly on the front edge of a very consequential curve.
One of Susa’s driving messages was that members of the church, especially women, needed to learn to do the hard, tedious work of researching and recording family history. This was a time when literacy and familiarity with what we would now call knowledge work were very unevenly distributed in the community, especially among the older generations. So she went to work to teach people how to find names and set up record books, fill out genealogical forms, and keep track of what temple ordinances had been done.
People often complained that it was too hard and not well understood. “Can’t we just have lessons about the spiritual side of work for the dead?” they would ask. Susa’s reply was that all the inspiration in the world would not save the dead; we must have information in order to do their work. She wrote lessons and traveled around giving them, and she battled to keep genealogy in the Relief Society curriculum. It was often uphill work.
More broadly, Susa recognized that there was a movement taking place in the world, creating awareness and expertise in genealogy. She sought out professional genealogists, went to genealogical libraries, read reference books. And then she brought what she learned home to Zion. She believed that those “outside” forces were being driven by a spirit they did not fully understand—which is something many members of the church would still say. …
Susa and her husband Jacob visited the Smiths. Even though he was ill and in bed, President Smith called for Susa to come to his room. There, in the company of Jacob and Smith family members, he gave her a paper to read. It was the transcript of the vision, which had not yet been released publicly.
He knew it would be meaningful to Susa, his dear friend, given all the work she was doing to promote genealogy and temple work in the church. “You are doing a great work, greater than you know anything about,” he told Susa.
She was thrilled almost beyond expression. “How blest, O how blest I am to have the priviledge” of reading the vision, she wrote in her journal that night. …
She felt that President Smith’s revelation would provide a great impetus to the work at a time when it was desperately needed. On a personal level, President Smith’s declaration that she was “doing an important work” must have resonated deeply in her soul.
So, her interest and work in promoting genealogy research was another major reason for President Smith sharing his vision with her.
Finally, it was also a case of being in the right place at the right time. As Tait put it:
It’s impossible to know whether Susa Young Gates would have had this experience if it hadn’t been for the box of apples she and Jacob went to get from the Smiths that night. President Smith was very ill and frail; he might not have thought to share it with Susa—or have had the strength to invite her to see it, otherwise.
Perhaps there were some spiritual promptings involved on both sides that led to the seemingly coincidental meeting.
In addition to the reasons mentioned above, a box of apples made it possible for Susa Young Gates to be present to read the document of the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead.
For more on Susa Young Gates and Joseph F. Smith’s vision, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk and read the interview with Lisa Olsen Tait. It’s a pretty meaty interview, with a lot more on Susa Young Gates, genealogy work, Joseph F. Smith and even Joseph Fielding Smith.