Although we don't have writings directly from the pen of Elijah,1 it is obvious from the writing and records of others that he had one of the major missions of all the prophets who have lived on this earth.
In fact, just as Moses is often seen as the representative of "the law," Elijah is seen as the representative of "the prophets."2 Furthermore, the fact that Malachi's promise about Elijah's coming in the latter-days is repeated in all the Standard Works symbolizes well the fact that Elijah's mission spans all eras of this earth's existence. The importance of that mission is further evidenced by those who repeated the prophecy. Malachi, of course, produced the first version we have of the prophecy. It reads: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." (Mal. 4:5-6).The second reciting of the prophecy comes from the Savior Himself. During His visit to the Nephites after His resurrection, He made sure that they had the prophecy recorded. (See 3 Ne. 24:1 and 25:5-6.) Later, Moroni, the first time he visited Joseph Smith the night of Sept. 21, 1823, quoted the prophecy with some slight variations. Joseph's record of that quotation became Doctrine and Covenants 2, and is also found in Joseph Smith – History 1:39. Very few other scriptures occur in all four Standard Works.
We suspect that more about Elijah's coming may have also been in other records consequently lost to the world but maintained in traditions. This may be why Jews always set a place for Elijah at the Passover table and open the door for him to enter the house at a certain point in their Passover ceremony.3
The importance of Elijah's mission is further evidenced in the prophecy by the listing of the consequences if he had not come: Malachi 4:6 and 3 Nephi 25:6 say: " . . . lest I come and smite the earth with a curse," while Joseph Smith – History 1:39 and D&C 2:3 declare: "If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming."
Once we understand the importance of Elijah's mission, it is natural to want to know more about it. Some of Elijah's own statements when he fulfilled the Malachi prophecy help us in this regard. Appearing to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836, (which happened to be Passover night that year),4 Elijah announced that the time had "fully come which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi – testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent before the great and dreadful day of the Lord to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. . . . Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors." (D&C 110:14-16.)
We know that the keys which Elijah committed into the hands of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery have been passed down through the latter-day prophets and are now held by our living prophet, President Howard W. Hunter. Likewise, the mission of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers has been passed down and now falls upon us. President Hunter's urging us to be temple worthy and to go to the temple more often is a partial fulfillment of the responsibility he holds because he holds the keys. Our responsibility lies in following his counsel and doing all we can to help fulfill Elijah's mission.
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained: "This is the spirit of Elijah, that we redeem our dead, and connect ourselves with our fathers which are in heaven, and seal up our dead to come forth in the first resurrection; and here we want the power of Elijah to seal those who dwell on earth to those who dwell in heaven."5 D&C 138 (sometimes referred to as "The Vision of the Dead") also explains that this is part of the mission of Elijah. There President Joseph F. Smith recorded: "The Prophet Elijah was to plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to their fathers. Foreshadowing the great work to be done in the temples of the Lord in the dispensation of the fulness of times, for the redemption of the dead, and the sealing of the children to their parents, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse and utterly wasted as his coming." (D&C 138:47-49).
Latter-day temple building since 1836, when Elijah came, gives physical evidence that the prophets and the Saints do indeed recognize that Elijah has come. The numbers of ordinances performed in those temples by individual Saints give evidence that many are feeling the "spirit of Elijah" and helping to carry out his mission. Other evidence that has been frequently cited by President Joseph Fielding Smith and others is the amount of genealogical research which has been done since 1836. There were apparently no genealogical societies at all in the United States nor Europe in 1836.6 Now there are hundreds, and genealogical research ranks very near to gardening as the favorite hobby of people in the United States.
We know also that work is taking place on the other side of the veil. People there are being readied to receive the ordinances that are being performed here. In the previously mentioned "Vision of the Dead," President Joseph F. Smith saw that, as a vast multitude of the righteous "waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful." (138:18). President Smith also stated, "I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, . . . to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead." (D&C 138:29-30).
We know that Elijah and Moses had appeared to the Savior on the Mount of Transfiguration shortly before His crucifixion and the visit to the spirit world just cited. These prophets gave the keys of gathering and sealing to Peter, James and John, so eternal gathering and redemption of the dead could begin. Apparently, they also discussed with the Savior His upcoming death and resurrection. (See JST Luke 9:31-31.)
This visit on the Mount of Transfiguration links Old Testament and New Testament dispensations and may have pre-figured the current mission of the Church in this dispensation: Moses came representing the gathering or the preaching of the gospel, Elijah came representing the redeeming of the dead, and Christ was present representing the perfecting of the Saints.
But the redemption of the dead was only part of Elijah's mission, a fact that we currently sometimes overlook. In the early days of this dispensation soon after Elijah's coming, the perspective was exactly the opposite. The Saints were so focused on what the coming meant for the living that Joseph Smith had to remind them that the work for the dead was part of the mission. Today Joseph's reminder can help us see that Elijah's mission also encompasses the living. In the reminder, Joseph talks of God sending Elijah "to seal children to the fathers, and the fathers to the children," and then he asks, "Now was this merely confined to the living, to settle difficulties with families on earth?"7
Today we seldom think of the spirit of Elijah helping us through family difficulties on earth, and yet it is clear that Joseph saw it that way. The sealing power that Elijah brought apparently gives added power to help families work. President Ezra Taft Benson expressed this idea clearly: "When you attend the temple and perform the ordinances that pertain to the house of the Lord, certain blessings will come to you: You will receive the spirit of Elijah, which will turn your hearts to your spouse, to your children, and to your forebears. You will love your family with a deeper love than you have loved before. You will be endowed with power from on high as the Lord has promised."8
As we think of linking both our families on earth and our families in heaven, examples from Elijah's mortal life can serve to teach us helpful principles. To begin with, we know that Elijah appeared at one of the lowest spiritual times in Israel's history. Baal worship, with its sacrifice of little children and its obsession with lascivious fertility rites,9 was common and supported by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. The majority of the Israelites had turned from the worship of the true God. Likewise in our times, many people have turned from the worship of God and indulged in lustful, indecent and even violent behavior.
Elijah spoke out against the idolatrous and adulterous practices, first by sealing the heavens so there was no rain except at his word and then challenging all of Baal's priests to see who could call down fire from heaven in acceptance of the sacrifice being offered. As 1 Kings 18 shows, Baal's priests were able to get nothing from their "god." But they and we can learn much from the Lord's response to Elijah's prayer. Overpowering all common natural laws, the Lord-caused fire consumed not only the sacrifice, but the wood under the sacrifice, the stone altar, the dust around the altar, and remaining water from the 12 barrels Elijah had poured on the sacrifice. We can gather faith from this incident to help us as we try to do our part in the spirit of Elijah with our families. Whether we are struggling with children who have gone astray or with records of our ancestors that seem impossible to obtain, we can see that nothing is too hard for the Lord. As we do what He says, we can overcome all possible obstacles.
We can also see symbolism to give us courage and hope in the story of Elijah's raising of the widow's dead son (1 Kings 17.) We see that the Lord through the sealing power can return to us alive members of our family who we currently viewed as dead. This power, which is inextricably tied to the Atonement, can overcome death, both physically and spiritually. Just as Elijah prayed over the widow's son and the son revived, we can pray over our family members and trust the effect of the sealing power to help revive them and return them to us alive.
We can recognize our own sense of "loneness" in Elijah's despair after Jezebel sought the lives of the prophets: " . . . the children of Israel have . . . slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away." (1 Kings 19:14.) Likewise, we can take comfort in the Lord's response: "Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal." (1 Kings 19:18.) Even in our despair and apparent standing alone against evil that attacks our families or our attempts to do genealogical and temple work, there are many around us in the Church who have not bowed to the pressures and mores of our day. Likewise there are many on the other side of the veil who stand by to bless.
Finally, one of the most moving of all of the stories of Elijah's life is that which tells of Elijah's hiding in Horeb. Very powerful forces of nature were displayed – a great and strong wind that broke up the mountain and the rocks, an earthquake, and finally a fire. None of these was powerful enough to bring Elijah to worship. But after the fire, there was "a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave." (1 Kings 19:12-13.) Elijah then received counsel from the Lord.
Likewise, we who are tossed and troubled by the physical or emotional winds, earthquakes, fires, and tumultuous events of our lives and the lives of our family can learn to "go out" at the sound of the "still small voice." It will give us the counsel we need or lead us to the counsel we need. Because Elijah was faithful to his mission, we can use the sealing power he brought and the example he set, and follow the still small voice so that "each family unit [will] be linked to the generation which went before, until all the faithful, who have proved their title to family membership through obedience to the gospel, shall be joined in one grand family from the beginning to the end of time, and shall find place in the celestial kingdom of God. In this way all who receive the exaltation become heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ in the possession of eternal family relationships."10
This is according to the spirit and mission of Elijah. It is our responsibility. It is also our privilege, and the life of Elijah, just as the life of all the prophets, teaches us how to obtain the blessings they promise and we desire.
1Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 607.
2Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Volume 1, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965, p. 402.
3Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 2, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955, p. 100.
4Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 2, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, p. 101.
5Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961, p. 337.
6Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984, p. 168.
7Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961, p. 337.
8The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, p. 254.
9Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978, p. 321.
10Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 2, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955, p. 67.