Joseph Smith states in Section 131 of the Doctrine and Covenants that “in the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.” Modern Latter-day Saints often view “celestial glory” as synonymous with “Celestial Kingdom.” However, the historical record suggests that the phrase likely meant something different to Joseph. In this interview, Bryan Buchanan expounds on Shannon Flynn’s research about the Prophet’s use of “celestial glory” in D&C 131.
Read the article by Shannon Flynn in Signature Books’ Continuing Revelation: Essays on Doctrine.
Table of contents
- Celestial Kingdom sub-degrees
- D&C 131:1
- Shannon Flynn’s thoughts
- D&C 131 context
- William Clayton’s journal
- “Celestial glory”
- “Celestial kingdom”
- Potential scribal error
- 19th century “celestial” synonyms
- Origins of celestial sub-degrees
- Pivot points
- General conference
- Shannon Flynn’s conclusion
- Other examples
- Memories of Shannon Flynn
- About the author
Are there sub-degrees within the Celestial Kingdom?
Well, there’s the rub! If you asked contemporary Latter-day Saint folks, you would probably get a universal “yes.” In fact, I think you would really have to do some searching to find someone who said no.
What does D&C 131:1 say?
In the current text (2013), this verse reads:
“In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.”Doctrine and Covenants 131:1
What did Shannon Flynn believe the verses refer to?
In the 1980s, Shannon Flynn attended a lecture by Van Hale in which Van stated that he didn’t believe that this concept of three degrees within the celestial kingdom could be traced to Joseph Smith’s time. Instead, this was an idea developed sometime after 1900.
This intrigued Shannon who started to look into the question and concluded that he agreed with Van.
Where do the first four verses of D&C 131 come from?
Like two other sections in the Doctrine and Covenants from this period (129 and 130), these verses are based on William Clayton’s journal. Orson Pratt extracted this section from Clayton’s journal when he was preparing the 1876 edition of the D&C.
What is the full text from William Clayton’s May 16, 1843 journal?
According to the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the full text of William Clayton’s 16 May 1843 journal reads as follows:
He put his hand on my knee and says “your life is hid with Christ in God.” and so is many others”. Addressing Benjamin [F. Johnson] says he “nothing but the unpardonable sin can prevent him (me) from inheriting eternal glory for he is sealed up by the power of the priesthood unto eternal life having taken the step which is necessary for that purpose.” He said that except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity while in this probation by the power and authority of the Holy priesthood they will cease to increase when they die (i e) they will not have any children in the resurrection, but those who are married by the power & authority of the priesthood in this life & continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost will continue to increase & have children in the celestial glory. The unpardonable sin is to shed innocent blood or be accessory thereto. All other sins will be visited with judgement in the flesh and the spirit be
ingdelivered to the buffetings of Satan untill the day of the Lord Jesus.” I feel desirous to be united in an everlasting covenant to my wife and pray that it may soon be.
prest. J. said that theJS, Instruction, Ramus, Hancock Co., IL, 16 May 1843; in William Clayton, Journal, 16 May 1843, pp. –; handwriting of William Clayton; CHL.
yway he knew in whom to confide. God told him in whom he might place confidence. He also said that in the celestial glory there was three heavens or degrees, and in order to obtain the highest a man must enter into this order of the priesthood and if he dont he cant obtain it. He may enter into the other but that is the end of his kingdom he cannot have an increase.
What was the context of Joseph Smith’s teachings that night?
These verses have a very specific and fascinating context. Joseph Smith was visiting his friend, Benjamin Johnson, who lived in Ramus, a small settlement about 25 miles east of Nauvoo. William Clayton came along for the trip, which is lucky for us, because he recorded what Joseph Smith had to say during the visit.
Johnson, as a trusted associate, had been taught the principle of plural marriage by Joseph Smith. Smith had married two of Benjamin’s sisters—Delcena and Almera, the latter just a month before this visit to Ramus. Joseph Smith would marry Benjamin to a plural wife the next day.
Before retiring for the night, Joseph Smith taught Benjamin, Melissa and William Clayton various things, including this specific content on the importance of polygamy.
What did “celestial glory” mean in Joseph Smith’s day?
If we look at contemporary dictionaries (like Webster’s 1828 dictionary), “celestial” was simply a synonym for “heavenly.” In other words, Joseph Smith may have been expressing the idea that “in the heavenly glory (or just, heaven), there are three gradations.”
What is the difference between “celestial glory” and “celestial kingdom”?
This is the crux of the matter, since Latter-day Saints have a very particular definition for celestial. Based on Joseph Smith’s February 1832 vision (now D&C 76), specific concepts of three kingdoms of glory—celestial, terrestrial and telestial—became entrenched in Restoration thought.
However, modern members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a tendency to apply overly concrete theological structures to the Joseph Smith era that likely were more fluid at the time. Other questions, like the identity of Jehovah and the related role of Adam, demonstrate very clearly that nineteenth century Latter-day Saint thought was far from the neat, ordered theology of today.
Is there any evidence that William Clayton wrote down the wrong words?
When discussing this topic, some will suggest that Clayton simply meant to write “celestial kingdom.”
That seems to reflect the modern Latter-day Saint understanding of what they term “the plan of salvation,” frequently depicted visually with a defined, highly ordered diagram of bubbles and arrows.
What synonyms might William Clayton have used for “celestial” that would have led to a less ambiguous meaning?
If we argue that Joseph Smith did not intend to convey that the celestial kingdom (the highest of the three kingdoms of glory in the February 1832 vision), then Clayton could have written instead, “in heaven there are three degrees” or “in God’s realm, there are three kingdoms.”
In other words, the Prophet was just restating the heavenly framework from his vision, rather than making another subdivision within the one kingdom.
What are the earliest known instances of Latter-day Saints teaching that there are three kingdoms within the celestial kingdom?
We see Orson Pratt occasionally exploring the idea of division within the celestial kingdom but he never referred to three specific gradations.
The first known reference to three degrees within the celestial kingdom comes from an 1888 sermon by a Salt Lake Stake presidency counselor who noted:
Joseph has made it known that ‘in the celestial kingdom are three heavens or degrees,’ and that the highest can only be reached by observing the patriarchal order of marriage.Joseph E. Taylor, “The Resurrection,” Deseret Weekly, Dec. 29, 1888.
As Shannon Flynn notes, here “kingdom” has been substituted for “glory,” making this interpretation easier.
When does Shannon Flynn suggest a shift in understanding this issue occurred?
Shannon Flynn felt that the major impetus for understanding these verses in the modern sense was a talk published in pamphlet form entitled The Three Degrees of Glory. Melvin Ballard, a relatively new apostle (and grandfather of current apostle, M. Russell Ballard), gave a talk—in several venues—that was subsequently published in 1924.
Shannon argued that, while Ballard was likely not envisioning himself as correlator of this idea, the popularity of this pamphlet—which is still available—had a huge impact on making the idea stick.
How often has this issue been addressed in general conference?
Shannon Flynn located three instances of the concept being addressed by general authorities—but only in passing, without any additional clarification. While the three degrees topic was addressed elsewhere, “official” mentions were few.
Why did Shannon Flynn believe we haven’t received more details regarding the three sub-degrees of the celestial kingdom?
For Shannon Flynn, the matter was very simple. No additional details were “forthcoming because there were none to begin with.”
In his view, it was a simple misreading that took on a life of its own.
Are there any other prominent 20th century examples where a misreading or misunderstanding of scripture led to a new interpretation that took hold?
Two other intriguing concepts that Shannon Flynn mentioned briefly in a footnote were the idea that a temple sealing guarantees the exaltation of their children (popularized by Orson Whitney and then repeated) and that the sacrament renews all covenants (first stated by Delbert Stapley, it seems).
Just like the idea of three degrees within the celestial kingdom, these concepts have taken root in modern Latter-day Saint thought.
As we wrap up, could you tell us a little bit about Shannon, his personality, and his approach to historical research?
Shannon was an absolutely delightful person. He had a very sharp sense of humor while also being very sensitive emotionally. Shannon was both very curious about the rabbit holes of Mormon history and thought, while also remaining an ardent believer. He could acknowledge the fallibility of religious leaders while also appreciating that, for others, it was impossible to reconcile.
Shannon loved B. H. Roberts and had a very extensive collection of his writings. Up until the end, we were working on another project trying to compile all known “lineage lessons” used before the temple and priesthood ban for those of African descent was lifted in 1978.
Shannon was very tenacious. Once something piqued his curiosity, he was determined to figure it out. I miss seeing him walk through the door, frequently giving the Vulcan sign for “live long and prosper.”
A very fitting motto, friend.
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About the author
Bryan Buchanan is a book buyer for Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City. He is the co-host of the Sunstone History Podcast with Lindsay Hansen Park and the editor of Continuing Revelation: Essays on Doctrine. He is currently editing the diaries of Michael Quinn as well as Joseph Musser (with Cristina Rosetti).
- Come Follow Me 2023
- What Have Scholars Learned about the Book of Mormon?
- How Important Is the King Follett Discourse?
- What Did it Mean to “Shake Off the Dust of Thy Feet”?
- Grace vs. Works: Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far?
- Is the Song of Solomon Scripture?
Levels of heaven resources
- Celestial Kingdom (Gospel Topics)
- Kingdoms of Glory (Gospel Topics Essay)
- Do the Latter-day Saint “Three Degrees of Glory” Have a Basis in the Bible? (FAIR)
- Celestial Kingdom: Glossary (Joseph Smith Papers)
- “The Kingdoms of Glory”: D&C 76; 131; 132:19–24; 137 (Interpreter Foundation)
- Six Visions of Eternity (Sperry Symposium Classics)