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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.

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