From all that we know, Alvin Smith was an exceptionally hard working and caring man. Born just before the beginning of the 19th century, he was the oldest brother in a family that lived on the edges of the frontier.
By the time he was 18, he was well accustomed to hard physical labor. Together with his brothers and father, he cleared acres of forest land to make room for crops. He was skilled in the carpentry of that day. When his parents settled near Palmyra, N.Y., it was he who planned and supervised the building of a new home for them.He was a strong young man of 24 when his brother, Joseph, visited the Hill Cumorah for the first time in 1823 to see the plates of the Book of Mormon. Two months later Alvin fell ill of bilious colic, an acute abdominal pain. He was given a dose of calomel, a compound of mercurous chloride that lodged in his intestinal system and caused gangrene to develop. As he worsened, he felt he would die, and asked his brother Hyrum and sister Sophronia to make sure that their home was finished and their parents cared for as they grew older.
Then he told 17-year-old Joseph to do as he was commanded and get the sacred records to translate. Four days later, he died. It was devastating to the tight-knit family. (From Encyclopedia of Mormonism 2:875, 3:1359; Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, by Richard L. Bushman, p. 64.)
Of him, Joseph later said he was the noblest of the family.
Some 13 years later Joseph had indeed received and translated the plates. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded, based on revelations to Joseph, and more were coming. In January of 1836, Joseph Smith was in the Church's first temple in Kirtland, Ohio, and received one of the great visions recorded in scripture, now the 137th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. The heavens were opened and he saw the celestial kingdom of God and people in it, including his father and mother who were then still alive.
To his astonishment, he also saw his brother Alvin. He marveled how Alvin could be there because he died before the ordinance of baptism was restored to the earth with the Aaronic Priesthood.
The Lord explained that those who died without knowing about the gospel and who would have received it had they remained on earth would be heirs of the kingdom, as would children who die before they reach the years of accountability. (D&C 137:7-10.)
It later became clear that the ordinances that would make this all possible would take place in the temples of the Lord.
For Joseph Smith, Alvin was much more than a name in a dusty record book, or our modern equivalent, the Ancestral File. Alvin was a beloved brother, a strong man whose character and capabilities had never been on earth before, nor would be again. And that is true of every person in our own family lines, a sobering fact that we grow to appreciate the more we research into their lives.
Given that perspective, it's little wonder that members of the Church are so excited about today's great boom in temple construction. As President Gordon B. Hinckley noted in this month's general conference sessions, it now seems that "in all likelihood we will have 100 or more temples operating in the year 2000 - more than twice the number we have today." It's an immense project, he added, and "we shall not stop at these."
The temples, of course, bring blessings to the living as well as those who preceded us. But because we must be active participants to bring those same blessings to our ancestors, we are renewed with each visit. It's one of the great privileges of an active faith.
The ordinance of baptism for the dead preoccupied Joseph Smith in 1842 as he moved from one place to another to escape his enemies. He wrote two epistles to the Church on the subject, which are now Sections 127 and 128, giving instructions, among other things, to make sure that all these baptisms be witnessed and recorded properly "that in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven." (D&C 127:7.)
We should share Joseph Smith's rejoicing in "this most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel. . . ."
"Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead. . . ."
"Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison for the prisoners shall go free." (See D&C 128:17,19,22.)