Susa Young Gates was one of the first members of the church to learn about the vision of the redemption of the dead. Joseph F. Smith told her about his revelatory experience before it was publicly known. In this interview, historian Lisa Olsen Tait tralks about the relationship between Susa Young Gates and the prophet—and what happened the night she learned about the vision.
Learn more about Susa Young Gates and the vision of the redemption of the dead in this chapter from Revelations in Context, by Lisa Olsen Tait.
What impresses Lisa Olsen Tait about Susa Young Gates?
Susa Young Gates was productive
The thing that probably impresses me most about Susa Young Gates is the core level of energy that she sustained throughout her life. She did so much—often many things at once—and it is truly mystifying to me how she did it. I mean, at most she had a typewriter and a landline!
I can’t find half the level of productivity she reached, despite my smartphone and computer (and modern household appliances). Which points to another aspect of her life—she was truly a bridge from the pioneer generation to the modern world. She was born on the frontier, and she died in a modern urban home with a car in the garage and a fridge and electric lights.
Susa Young Gates was an educator
Susa was at heart an educator. It was not enough for her to learn something or have a new insight for her own benefit—she always wanted to share those things and teach them to others.
Related to this was her strong identification of herself as a writer. She had a native talent, but also an irrepressible drive to write from the time she was young, and it was something that family and friends recognized about her. The writing and the teaching were inextricable. She did plenty of time standing in front of a classroom, but even more, her writing was her way of educating others.
What do these things tell us about Susa’s personality?
There are compelling paradoxes in Susa’s personality. She seems to have had a great deal of self-confidence, evidenced by her willingness to put herself out there and pursue her ideas and initiatives over and over. But she also had a deep streak of insecurity and a need to find her place.
I think these conflicting elements came from the fact that she was Brigham Young’s daughter—and thus had entry into the elite circles of the church and community—but she was also one of many Youngs and felt a desire to distinguish herself.
It also had to do with gender. She was a daughter, not a son, of Brigham Young. That made a great deal of difference in her life trajectory, and she grappled for most of her life with questions about the meaning of gender.
In her thirties and forties, she undertook all kinds of work to promote women’s rights and opportunities in the context of the larger women’s movement of the time. As she got older, though, she became increasingly conservative.
And here is another paradox: she was always promoting women’s visibility and women’s work and wanting women to have a consciousness of themselves as women, especially to recognize what she saw as the glorious position of women in the gospel.
But at the same time, she repeatedly asserted that men are supposed to be the head and women are supposed to follow. Equal civil rights, sure. But in the gospel, she believed there was an eternal gendered hierarchy. She gave us the idea that men have priesthood and women have motherhood.
Describe Susa Young Gate’s friendship with Joseph F. Smith.
Joseph F. Smith was over seventeen years older than Susa Young Gates. When she was a child, he was serving missions, beginning his service as a church leader, and starting his families. So he was in and out of Salt Lake City but certainly had association with Brigham Young’s families.
Susa moved to St. George when she was fourteen (1870) and married two years later. It is likely they knew each other, but mostly in passing.
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.
Susa had a close relationship with President Smith’s wives, as well. She and Julina served together on the Relief Society board. She worked with Sarah in the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. She and Alice both served in the YLMIA. And she knew Mary, who was a niece of John Taylor, well.
Most importantly given the topic at hand, she and Edna (who was Julina’s sister) worked together in the temple. Edna was the “president of the sisters” in the temple—what we would now call the temple matron—in the 1910s. She and Susa were deeply and mutually committed to the work of the temple and to a deep study of the gospel.
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.
And that’s just to name just a few of the many connections between the families. Thus, Susa’s relationship with Joseph F. Smith was also a relationship with his family.
Was Susa Young Gates “ahead of her time” relative to genealogical work in the early 20th century?
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.
Why did Susa Young Gates refer to Elder Joseph Fielding Smith as “the Apostle to the spirits in prison”?
Joseph F. Smith, Jr., as he was known at the time, shared Susa’s intense interest in genealogy. His first published book, in fact, was on the genealogy of the Smith family of Massachusetts. By the time he was called as an apostle in 1910, he was serving concurrently as secretary, treasurer, and librarian of the Genealogical Society of Utah. He would later become vice president and president, serving in the Society until 1961.
He did much to expand the resources, methods, and services of the Genealogical Society, and he delivered powerful sermons laying out the theology behind temple and family history work. The best known of these was “Salvation Universal,” which was published in the Society’s magazine, then separately as a pamphlet, and then republished in the Society’s Lessons in Genealogy (prepared by Susa) in 1912.
Smith spurred his fellow authorities to action, believing that more needed to be done. He said:
I hope to see the time,” he wrote, “when we can have an organization looking after the salvation of the dead, that will be as important in the eyes of the Saints as are the auxiliary organizations today.Joseph Fielding Smith
He felt that the church, and perhaps the general authorities themselves were “under condemnation” for not doing enough.
Gates and Smith often worked together. He would preach the sermon on the theology, and she would give the lesson on how to do the work.
At the Relief Society conference in October 1918, for example, Susa conducted a genealogical convention at which a number of women and men gave reports and instruction on genealogy work. At the close of the session, she yielded the floor to Elder Smith to “give some inspiring words.”
This was when she referred to him as the “Apostle to the spirits in prison” and the “eloquent spokesman of the Genealogical Society of Utah.” Smith then proceeded to lay out the scriptural basis for “Salvation for the Living and the Dead.”1
How is Susa Young Gates connected to the vision of the redemption of the dead?
On October 3, 1918, President Joseph F. Smith had been frail and ill for most of the year, spending much of his time at home, unable to keep up the relentless pace he had maintained for most of his life. As he described it, he was sitting in his room in the Beehive House, pondering on the scriptures.
In particular, he considered 1 Peter 3:18-20, which described the Savior preaching to the spirits in prison. As he described it:
The eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.
He then witnessed that the Lord “organized his forces and appointed messengers” from among the faithful spirits of the prophets and other righteous people who had served him in life. They were commissioned to teach the gospel to the spirits of those who had not received it in life, thus paving the way for all of God’s children to have an opportunity to accept the gospel.
The idea that the spirits of the faithful would be preaching the gospel in the spirit world was not entirely new, but this vision gave powerful witness to it and shed new light on how it was accomplished. And it was a visionary experience granted to the Lord’s prophet.
On a Friday evening about a month later, 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.
Who else had knowledge about the vision of the redemption of the dead when Susa read it?
Very few. Two weeks after the experience, Joseph F. Smith had his son, Elder Joseph F. Smith, Jr., take down his account of the vision. Elder Smith then took the text to a meeting with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve on October 31. The brethren endorsed it and made plans to publish it, but not until the December issue of church magazines.
By the time it was published, President Smith had died, and it appeared alongside the many tributes to him.
It’s likely that President Smith or other authorities had mentioned it verbally to a few people, but Susa was certainly one of the first lay members—and possibly the first woman—to see the account.
How did Susa react to the reference about “Mother Eve” in the vision?
She was thrilled by it. As I said, she was always very gender conscious, and she felt it was significant that the vision specifically included women. She wrote in her journal that night:
In it he tells of his view of Eternity; the Savior when He visited the spirits in prison—how His servants minister to them; he saw the Prophet and all his associate Brethren laboring in the Prison Houses; Mother Eve & her noble daughters engaged in the same holy cause!
She thought it was wonderful to have “Eve and her daughters remembered.” She elaborated on this theme when she published the vision in the Relief Society Magazine (of which she was currently the editor). You can read more about it in the article.
Why was this experience so profound for Susa Young Gates?
Two reasons. First, as I said, because of its mention of women, which Susa Young Gates saw as a validation of the great work of righteous women throughout the ages.
Second, she experienced it as a great boost and encouragement at a time when she was increasingly discouraged about the progress of genealogy and temple work among the Saints. She had recently done battle in meetings of the Relief Society general board, only narrowly succeeding in keeping genealogy lessons in the curriculum.
And she felt a broader spirit of apathy and slothfulness. She wrote to a friend:
Not even an angel from heaven could induce some of these club women and these successful business men to set aside a portion of their time for temple work.
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.
Why did President Smith share this vision with Susa before the church membership?
I think he knew how much it would mean to her, both the fact of it and the content it revealed. He knew that she had labored in what often felt like a thankless effort, and he knew that she would be interested in the expansive understanding it provided. I think he also knew that she needed some personal validation for all the seemingly thankless effort she had expended in the cause.
They were close friends. Certainly he knew of the discouragement she often experienced.
All that having been said, 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.
What did Lisa Olsen Tait learn studying about Susa Young Gates and the vision of the redemption of the dead?
Having grown up in the mid-late twentieth century when genealogy/family history and temple work were firmly entrenched in the church, I had never really thought about what it took to get us there.
We often tell the story of Joseph Smith restoring the doctrine of baptism for the dead and then jump to modern-day temple work as if it’s a short dot-to-dot in between. But this is one of the delights of history, for me—to better understand all the intervening dots and how they came to be connected.
Along the same lines, section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants has been there since I was very young, and I grew up encountering it here and there in seminary or Sunday school. It has been remarkable and inspiring to learn the personal stories behind it.
This story makes me love Susa Young Gates even more. There is a real vulnerability in her open expressions of frustration and discouragement on what, after all, is a profoundly important subject.
How often do we teach lessons or have discussions about the great importance of a certain gospel principle, but then what do we do about it? She was not content to embrace the principles—she went out and got to work in putting them in action and helping others to do the same.
When you read her writings about this subject—and there are many—you can feel the depth of her faith and urgency. It’s really quite lovely and powerful.
What is Lisa Olsen Tait’s next project?
With co-authors Amber Taylor, James Goldberg, and our dear, late colleague Kate Holbrook in the Church History Department, I have been working for several years on a book about the history of the Young Women’s organization. It is now in editing, and we are excited about how it is coming together. I am also a general editor on the Saints series; we are more than halfway through drafting volume 4.
I have an article about Susa’s divorce coming out in the Journal of Mormon History next year, and I am working on a project about Emmeline Wells—her spiritual life and how it was rooted in networks of women. I am slowly making progress on a book about Susa Young Gates’s contributions to the Latter-day Saint tradition, including a chapter about her work on genealogy and temple work.
About the author
Lisa Olsen Tait is a Latter-day Saint historian with expertise in women’s history and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She is a general editor of Saints and is currently working on a biography of Susa Young Gates, in addition to a journal article about Susa’s divorce. Tait has also published an interview with From the Desk about women and the priesthood.
Be notified of new Latter-day Saint history interviews!
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- How Was Joseph F. Smith Visionary?
- How Did Wilford Woodruff Change the Sealing Ceremony?
- Are There 3 Degrees of Glory Within the Celestial Kingdom?
- What Does BYU Studies Say about D&C 138?
Susa Young Gates and the vision of the redemption of the dead resources
- Revelations in Context: Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead
- BYU Religious Studies Center: Susa Young Gates’s “Vision Beautiful”
- Deseret News: Historians Share Perspective, Roles of Women related to Joseph Smith’s First Vision
- Latter-day Saint Perspectives: Episode 36: Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead – Lisa Olsen Tait
- J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah: Register of the Susa Young Gates Papers
- BYU Studies: Provoking the Brethren to Good Works
- See “General Conference of Relief Society,” Relief Society Magazine, vol. 5, no. 12 (Dec. 1918), 676. For an excellent account of the full story, see James B. Allen, Jessie L. Embry, and Kahlile B. Mehr, Hearts Turned to the Fathers: A History of the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1894-1994 (BYU Studies, 1995).