Three Degrees

Language is a tricky thing. Sometimes, when someone says a word, it can mean something very different to them than it does to us. This can be particularly true when that person is from the past and the exact meaning of a word changes over time. In a recent interview with Bryan Buchanan about an article by Shannon Flynn at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk discussed a major example of where this seems to have happened in our understanding of the afterlife about divisions within the Celestial Kingdom. What follows here is a copost – a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion.

The concept that there are three subdivisions within the Celestial Kingdom is based on one section in the Doctrine and Covenants (131). In the current edition of the scriptures, it reads as follows: “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.” The assumption is that “celestial glory” is precisely equivalent to the Celestial Kingdom-the highest degree of glory announced in Joseph Smith’s 1832 vision (D&C 76). As it turns out, that may not be a great assumption.

The word in question is “celestial”. Buchanan explained that:

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.” …

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 [who recorded the original text] 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.  Based on that understanding, it might be inaccurate to think that the Prophet was stating that there are three degrees within the Celestial Kingdom – he may have just been saying that there were three degrees of glory.

The statement in the original text (a May 16, 1843 journal entry by William Clayton) is very similar to the current text, so it does give room for that interpretation:

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 being delivered 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 they way 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.

JS, Instruction, Ramus, Hancock Co., IL, 16 May 1843; in William Clayton, Journal, 16 May 1843, pp. [13]–[16]; handwriting of William Clayton; CHL.

The context was a discussion about plural marriage. But, again, the statement that “in the celestial glory there was three heavens or degrees” remains basically the same.

If that is the case, then when did the shift in language and understanding happen? In the interview, it is explained that:

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 notes, here “kingdom” has been substituted for “glory,” making this interpretation easier. …

Shannon 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 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.

In the sermon, Elder Ballard stated that: “There are three degrees of glory in the Celestial Kingdom and only those who attain the highest degree of Celestial Glory will be candidates to become what God is.” That seems to have become the key statement that has made the current interpretation so ubiquitous today.

This did bring to mind an interesting thing I noticed while reading James Talmage’s The Articles of Faith some years ago.  I noticed that when he discussed the degrees of glory, he discussed the Celestial Kingdom as one group of people who are “admitted to the celestial company, being crowned with the celestial glory, which makes them Gods.”  Meanwhile, when he discussed the Telestial Kingdom, he does write that: “In the telestial world there are innumerable degrees of glory, comparable to the varying lustre of the stars.” (James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith 11th edition [Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1919], 95.)  It stood out to me that there was no mention of multiple sub-degrees when discussing the Celestial Kingdom, but there were when discussing the Telestial Kingdom.  With the context described in the interview and article, however, that statement by Talmage (written before the Melvin Ballard’s sermon) makes more sense.

For more details about the three degrees of glory and even a few other examples of this type of shift in language happening, head on over to read more of the interview with Bryan Buchanan at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk.

17 comments for “Three Degrees

  1. Controversial take that those who are baptized, confirmed, and endure to the end still don’t go to the Celestial Kingdom of they aren’t married.

  2. Thought I would repost what I posted there-

    “Celestial” should be understood to mean Heavenly in the sense of the place where God resides or that place where the saints shall live after resurrection and judgment. Now, both “telestial” and “terrestrial” too are both considered heavens but it needs proper context because it is a part of our doctrine that has grossly been misinterpreted.

    There are 3 heavens, but not “heaven” like we tend to define or imagine in the pure future eternal sense. According to scripture we are actually in the “first heaven” now. The temple also correlates this by teaching we are in the telestial kingdom now. In Revelations and other scripture it speaks of this first heaven passing away by fire and then we come into a new heaven. This second heaven is the terrestrial kingdom or otherwise known as the millennium. This second heaven too will pass away by fire and then comes the third heaven which is eternal. It is referred to as the celestial kingdom.

    Now, what’s interesting is that section 76 mentions those celestial inhabitants as being “gods”. Yet, section 131 mentions that only a portion, those in the highest gradation, become Gods. So, We have a problem here. Now, it could mean, that there was some translation error or recording error but it does make a pretty good case that all celestial heirs will be entered into marriage and that part of the plan of salvation requires the marriage covenant. After all, almost every covenant made in the temple endowment has to do with couples.

    So, to come full circle. The error in section 131 could be that it is not understood that salvation in the end requires the marriage covenant. Celestial inhabitants really do become gods themselves and only that one heaven will exist as the other two have slready passed away.

  3. Rob: I also think it can be interpreted to mean that everyone eventually makes it to the “top”/Celestial Kingdom.

  4. Chad: Good stuff! Your post made me go back and re-read Dallin Oaks’ talk in the last General Conference, where he talks about celestial marriage and exaltation. Not surprisingly, Oaks is careful and deliberately uses the phrase “celestial glory.” Interestingly, I didn’t see anything in his talk that relies on a belief in divisions within the Celestial Kingdom. For example:

    In the “celestial” glory there are three degrees, or levels. The highest of these is exaltation in the celestial kingdom, wherein we may become like our Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. To help us develop the godly attributes and the change in nature necessary to realize our divine potential, the Lord has revealed doctrine and established commandments based on eternal law. This is what we teach in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because the purpose of the doctrine and policies of this restored Church is to prepare God’s children for salvation in the celestial glory and, more particularly, for exaltation in its highest degree.

    “Divine Love in the Father’s Plan”, President Dallin H. Oaks (General Conference address, April 2022).

  5. jpv: Honest question here: what do you find controversial about that? To me, it’s no more controversial or arbitrary than what the Church has taught for years: to be with God and to be like God, a man and woman must be temple married/sealed. So, I’m interested in hearing the basis for your comment. Thanks.

  6. I can’t speak for jpv, but the darker implications to me are that people who aren’t sealed to a spouse don’t get into the Celestial Kingdom at all.
    Though, technically, in context, it does seem Joseph Smith was talking specifically about plural marriage, so most of us are probably out of luck.

  7. It is important to note that Brigham Young did say that “there would be men saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God with one wife, with wany wives, and with no wife at all.” (Wilford Woodruff’s journal, 12 February 1870). It also implies in D&C 137 that:

    7)All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;

    8 Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;

    9 For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.

    So if God can provide a way for those who have never heard of the gospel through vicarious ordinances, then I’m confident that he’ll provide a way for those who didn’t have an opportunity to marry due to extenuating circumstances.

  8. There is obviously some missing pieces to the puzzle. I am personally of the belief that there won’t be single saved people after the millennium at judgment. I believe everyone wanting salvation will need to be paired up in eternal marriage. God did not create us to be single nor to find joy or happiness being single. At some point we will come to realize we are only perfect through the marriage sealing. Every ordinance and covenant in the temple points towards eternal blessings only realized through the marriage sealing. It is only after one is sealed to a spouse that they are blessed and sealed to receive the blessings pertaining to the endowment and sealing which include the blessing or promise of resurrection, thrones, dominions, etc, of the celestial glory.

  9. So Rob: God made me too ugly to catch a husband and now he is just going to throw me out?

  10. Anon,
    The millennium is a very long time and in the resurrection there will be no ugly nor less desirable looking people.

  11. We talk about the morning of the first resurrection. I assume that also means late morning of the first resurrection, a mid-day of the first resurrection, a late afternoon of the first resurrection, a twilight of the first resurrection, etc. Who knows how many there are? If there’s a first, there must be a second. Could there be a third?
    I figure that there will be many gradients in all of the three major kingdoms.

  12. Not sure–but I think the morning of the first resurrection might pertain to the righteous who live(d) before the Millennium.

  13. Of interest is that nowhere in scripture is mentioned the morning of the first resurrection let alone an afternoon or evening of the first resurrection. In scripture only two resurrections are mentioned. The first resurrection and the last resurrection. The resurrection of the just and resurrection of the unjust. In fact, as far as I am aware, the temple sealing is the only official word specific I have seen, outside of manuals or other church publications, that mentions the morning of the first resurrection.

    I am guessing that Christ’s doctrine, of which Christ teaches, doesn’t have morning, afternoon, evenings, etc of resurrections.

  14. I’m with you, Anon for This. It’s always a hoot to hear married people, online or in a ward, dispose of us for eternity, according to whatever bass ackwards interpretation they have of some fragment of scripture or a faulty memory of what Joseph Fielding Smith might have written somewhere. I’m never so grateful as I am in these cases that Jesus Christ is my judge and my advocate. Him, I trust. Mortal [married] men, not so much.

  15. I don’t think of it as disposing singles for eternity. There are myriads of real situations that prevent many people from finding an eternal companion in eternity. Truth is that life in the lone and dreary world is anything but fair. That said, I think we largely dismiss the reality and main purpose of the millennium which is to perfect man and woman. The situation there will be absolutely opposite of this life. The situation will be totally different which will highly favor people finding eternal companions and perfecting themselves through that union. It is very much true that man was not created to be alone in eternity.

  16. I will say, in connection to both my comment above and Southern Saint’s that the full Wilford Woodruff journal entry for that day reads that:
    “I spent the day in the Council House untill noon. I attended the school of the prophets. Brother John Holeman made a long speech upon the subject of Poligamy. He Contended that no person Could have a Celestial glory unless He had a plurality of wives. Speeches were made By L. E. Harrington O Pratt Erastus Snow, D Evans J. F. Smith Lorenzo Young. Presidet Young said there would be men saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God with one wife with Many wives & with No wife at all.”
    In other words, there were times that it was contended that people in monogamous marriages were viewed as unable to enter the Celestial Kingdom/Glory, and a prophet flatly said that it wasn’t the case (both for monogamous marriages and single people). I would rather go with what President Brigham Young said than to personally fight for a specific vision of what the Celestial Kingdom has to be like from a marriage perspective.

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