Is the Celestial Kingdom Divided into Three Subdegrees?

D&C 131:1-4 reads as follows:

In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it. He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase.

These words represent comments on the priesthood from Joseph to Benjamin F. Johnson and his wife on 16 May 1843 at the home of William G. Perkins in Ramus, Illinois, as recorded by William Clayton in his journal, which is the source for them.  This material was first published in the Deseret News on 24 September 1856, and was included in the 1876 edition of the D&C (which is when the bracketed editorial insertion was also made).

The traditional understanding of this passage is that the Celestial Kingdom is divided into three subdegrees of glory.

A number of years ago, I learned of another possible reading of this passage from a friend who had heard it from a temple president in California. The basic insight of this alternate reading is this: What if the expression “celestial glory” were not intended as a technical term for the Celestial Kingdom, but in a generic sense, something like “yonder heavens”? In that event, the “three heavens or degrees” would not be subdegrees within the CK, but rather simply the same three degrees of glory spoken of in the Vision of D&C 76.

I immediately found this alternate reading appealing, for a number of reasons:

First is the spare attestation of this teaching from the first generation of Mormonism. All we have for it is this one notation in the Clayton journal. As far as we can tell, neither Joseph nor anyone else ever spoke of it again.

Second, while the adjective “celestial” to modern Mormons immediately brings to mind the CK, it may have still had a broader and sometimes generic usage in the early days of the Church. And note it is “celestial glory,” not the usual term of art, “celestial kingdom.”

Third, “heavens or degrees” does sound like the usual technical terminology for the three kingdoms we are familiar with.

Fourth, isn’t it a huge coincidence that there just happens to be three heavens or degrees within the CK, just as there are three heavens or degrees generally?

Fifth, neither D&C 76 nor the poetic paraphrase intimates anything about formal subdivisions. This of course is not definitive, as Joseph’s theology was progressing rapidly during this period.

Sixth, it seems very odd to me to speak of degrees without delineating what those degrees signify. D&C 76 goes on at length expressing the distinctions among the degrees, but this passage makes only one distinction: between marriage and nonmarriage. So we are left with a situation where we don’t even know what the second degree is supposed to entail (assuming the first degree is for otherwise eligible singles). (I am reminded of the Grondahl cartoon where a couple is eating in a fine restaurant in the CK, and they are waited on by Chad, their ministering angel for the evening, or something like that.)

None of this is definitive, of course, An argument certainly can be made for the traditional reading, and I’m sure some respondents will make it.

But I’m curious what you think. Is the CK formally subdivided into three subdegrees?


  1. I think there must be some sort of subdivision. I can’t buy that the entire CK is only for those entering into the new and everlasting covenent of marriage. It would leave out too many people. And what would be the point of singles getting their endowments? And where would ministering angels fit in? Also, in the 4th point on your list, you ask if it isn’t a huge coincidence. I don’t think of it being a coincidence, but more of a normal order of things. The godhead is in three, too. They’re probably not all just coincidences.

  2. That v. 1 is referring to the Celestial Kingdom in specific and not the Three Degrees of Glory in general (as the word “celestial” means “heavenly” some questions arise as to whether this is not simply a restate of the substance of D&C 76 where three degrees of glory are presented as opposed to the new revelation of additional divisions in the Celestial Kingdom in particular) is necessarily implied by the substance of v. 2. Verse 2 states that in order to enter into the highest degree one must have an eternal marriage. But, this is not necessary to gain access to the Celestial Kingdom alone as unmarried ministering angels will be present there also, cf. D&C 132:16-17. Thus, this passage must be referring very specifically to three additional degrees within the Celestial Kingdom proper.

    While the topmost degree is defined, and the lowest degree can be inferred as relating to celestial quality persons who were not eternally married, there remains the question as to what the middle degree of the celestial kingdom is composed of.

    More blatherings on this section here. I have brought up the question repeatedly in various places and never been able to come up with something useful for the middle degree. The lower degree being for non-eternally married ministering angels and the highest degree being for those who are eternally married suggests the stratification is based upon the presence/absence of eternal marriage/sealing. But what is the middle ground between presence and absence that would result in a middle tier?

  3. Interesting. I kind of fancy a different interpretation. I think that sub-divisions mesh rather well with Joseph’s burgeoning temple theology. I think it is safe to say that even though the complete ordinances had yet to be administered, he had them developed. I realize that it is a couple of years later, but the editor of the Millennial Star in 1847 (vol. 9 pg. 23-24) included an interesting diagram of the “Kingdom of God” with the following description:

    The chosen vessels unto God are the kings and priests that are placed at the head of these kingdoms [sub-kindoms according to the diagram] . These have received their washing and anointings in the temple of God on this earth; they have been chosen, ordained, and anointed kings and priests, to reign as such in the resurrection of the just. Such as have not received the fullness of the priesthood, (for the fullness of the priesthood includes the authority of both king and priest) and have not been anointed and ordained in the temple of the Most High, may obtain salvation in the celestial kingdom, but not a celestial crown. Many are called to enjoy a celestial glory, yet few are chosen to wear a celestial crown, or rather, to be rulers in the celestial kingdom. (emphasis added)

    According to this interpretation, it would seem that the parenthetical added to specify that this “order” was celestial marriage was mistaken. The “order” was not that of Abraham, but the Fullness.

  4. I’m not advocating this idea or anything–I’m just kind of throwing it out there as it’s germane to this topic.

    Of course, I preface this with the classic, “I heard this from a Seventy”–and I did!–but I’m by no means claiming that this makes the statement anything more than pure speculation.

    He suggested there were 3 degrees within the CK:

    Top degree: those who entered into new & everlasting marriage covenant

    Middle degree: those who were endowed but chose not to be married

    Lower degree: those who were baptized but chose not to go to the temple

    Take it for what it’s worth…

  5. The other problem is D&C 131 is just some snippets quickly taken from someone’s very incomplete notes. It isn’t a transcript of Joseph’s sermon. So I think it (and several other “statements”) need to be taken cautiously.

    Having said that though the same logic that applies to three kingdoms (degrees of glory) would seem to logically entail degrees in each as well.

  6. What value is there in our understanding the technical details of how the Kingdoms in the next life are subdivided, and how their respective inhabitants are categorized? I’ve always thought this was uninteresting gospel trivia. I’m sure others will disagree. But what does this teaching do for us at the end of the day?

    Answer: In general, the notion that “Heaven” is divided into multiple levels teaches us that life is not a Pass/Fail test; rather, we should be striving to be the best that we can be, and not settle for mediocrity. In school, when I knew a course was Pass/Fail, I tended to only do enough work so as to be able to avoid a failing grade. If the course was graded, I put forth much more effort, realizing that doing less than my best would impact my scores and be reflected in my final grades. LDS theology on the Three Degrees of Glory serves a similar function; it provides an incentive for us to strive to become all that God invites me to be. In that sense, I think it is a significant and meaningful piece of our theology.

    But what value added is there in further breaking down the celestial categories? I don’t see it. The point was made at 3. Maybe there are 527 sub-categories, but I don’t think I care.

    (I’ve got nothing against Kevin’s careful historical and scriptural analysis, mind you; I just wanted to go on record as being maybe the one Churchmember who always thought this was the dryest part of the Plan of Salvation).

    Aaron B

  7. Clark, I think that you are right that as a proof text this section isn’t particularly useful. Aaron, I think it depends on which interpretation you favor that determines the value of any division. I see it as a very important piece to the puzzle of Joseph Smith’s theology.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Personally, I think of our reward in the hereafter as pretty much individuated anyway [IE instead of three subdegrees there are numerous variations and nuanced gradations], so that a broad three-tiered subdivision that is so inadequately defined strikes me as very artificial, and therefore meaningless.

    If, however, Joseph did intend such a stratification, then I think I could see it more readily in the context J. describes in #3 above than the way it is normally taken. If Joseph meant to stratify the CK in this way, he must have had something specific in mind, it seems to me.

  9. who knows.

    (my answer: no one)

  10. Rob Osborn says:

    My two cents,
    I have heard that the Celestial Kingdom will be the earth and that it will be divided into three groupings. They are- 1.The Celestial(Kings and Queens) 2.The Terrestrial (ministering angels and such) 3.Telestial (servants to both the ministering angels and the Kings and Queens)

    In light of the book of revelations this could very well be true. There is of coarse the 88th section that kind of states that this earth will only be for the Celestial Kingdom.

  11. Johnna Cornett says:

    Kevin Barney, you have made me happy today. I was reading and thinking about Section 131 a few months ago and I think it makes much more sense not to read it as subdividing the celestial kingdom. I had your reasons, though not so well expressed to myself, and also–

    One-nineth is a really weird use of numbers, different than the way numbers are used in scripture. The Celestial Kingdom being a third part of heaven, indicates a substantial minority, which manages to convey both urgency–run that ye might obtain, many will not–and possibility–it’s not just the validictorian, but all the kids who went to college.

    But to have the goal be one-third of a third? It doesn’t fit well because it’s nine, and the symbolism around nine stinks, it’s about running short. It’s some multiple of how many chariots Israel’s enemies have against them, or how many years Patriarchs live to show them long-lived but mortal.

    It’s not that I’m into numerology, I just think numbers are used to illustrate and motivate. It makes sense to say heaven will be on individual and not arbitrary levels, but to convey that your life matters the third-part Celestial Kingdom reaches the heart.

  12. Kevin #8, certainly there will be individuals who act and think differently and therefore will be nuanced in various ways, but the sciptures dealing with the matter in question do not touch on that at all, they are all discussing the keys granted the individuals within the Celestial glory.

    There are at least two non-artificial degrees within the Celestial Kingdom which cannot be dismissed as “artificial, and therefore meaningless”. You have those not eternally married/sealed and you have those eternally married/sealed. Both sets are in the Celestial Kingdom, but only one set receives the keys for eternal lives (note the plural “s” on the “lives”).

    From the POV the scriptures are forwarding, there are at least two non-arbitrary divisions. One would only have to determine one additional substantive differentiation aside from the other two to make the straightforward reading of the D&C 131:1-4 fit.

  13. Julie M. Smith says:

    “There are at least two non-artificial degrees within the Celestial Kingdom which cannot be dismissed as “artificial, and therefore meaningless”. You have those not eternally married/sealed and you have those eternally married/sealed. Both sets are in the Celestial Kingdom, but only one set receives the keys for eternal lives (note the plural “s” on the “lives”).”

    But . . . and I’m just thinking out loud here . . . are we not promised that everyone will have the opportunity to be sealed to someone–later if not sooner? If this is the case, you end up with two categories of people: the sealed and those-who-chose-not-to-be-sealed. Does it really make sense that people who turned down the chance to be sealed would be in the celestial kingdom? Wouldn’t that be open rebellion? I know it is a little more complicated than this (i.e., people sealed in mortality to unfaithful spouses, etc.), but it is hard for me to imagine an entire (sub)kingdom full of people who rejected the chance to be sealed. Or am I missing something?

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    J. I just reread the quote you shared in no. 3, with which I had not been familiar. This seems to flow well with your recent post on the kingdom of God.

    Do you think the “fulness” spoken of in your quote is the second anointing, since as I understand it the expression “fulness of the priesthood” usually had reference to second anointings?

    If so, and if the highest subdegree is reserved for those who have received this ordinance, then we modern Mormons are in a bit of a pickle, are we not? For although second anointings are still done, they are considerably rarer than they once were pre-HJG, and that ordinance has been redefined as being non-salvific in character, and therefore not necessary for the great majority of LDS. It seems to be understood as a kind of reward for a lifetime of dedicated service to the kingdom, but not as something necessary for our progression. Whenever this topic comes up, we are repeatedly told that our extant temple ordinances (endowment and sealing) are all we need for our exaltation.

    So if this were the original intent, I suppose something like the traditional theory or my revisionist theory would be necessary in order to make this passage comprehensible in terms of today’s theological categories.

  15. Rob Osborn says:

    Julie ,#13

    I personally believe that eternal marriage is recognized by God outside of the Celestial realm. I believe this because of section 138 mostly. I believe that the teaching of sealings to spouses and children only being a part of the CK is an incorrect one. The atonement would mean absolutely nothing if after one repents, he could not recieve all of the blessings that come from obedience including an eternal marriage. To be separated for eternity because of a few bad choices makes a mockery ogf God and his will for his children.

    Like was mentioned earlier, I tto think that the three kingdom teaching gets in the way and takes the spotlight from salvation. The BoM teaches the doctrine of either saved in heaven or damned to hell, rather than the take of CK or damnation.

  16. I agree with Kevin and apj, also.

    Although in our lessons we are consistently taught that there are three subdegrees, I think there are a whole bunch of them. It makes sense to me.

    And I like what you say, Rob. I think God is that merciful. I just think we speak too much in absolutes because it comforts some people, but I guess it really doesn’t matter in the long run. God will do what He will do. I’m content with that.

  17. Bob Caswell says:

    I agree with Aaron B.; I’m not sure of the relevance, though this discussion is still fascinating to me. Great post, Kevin!

    Thinking out loud here, I wonder how many other doctrines drilled into me are based on an instance a long time ago when our first prophet was talking to someone in his/her home while someone else kept a journal of it.

    I wonder because this tidbit was pounded into me all through my childhood growing up in the Church. What if William Clayton forgot to write this down? Heck, what did he forget to write down, which could have been singled out as such powerful doctrine in the modern Church?

    It’s just interesting for me to see the historical roots of something made out to be much more grand now (it’s canonized) than it probably was then (Joseph chatting over dinner). I’m curious to know if anyone raised in the Church has missed out on hearing this tidbit many times? Again, for me growing up, at least, it (specifically this traditional interpretation) was repeated as fairly important truth time and time again.

  18. Julie M. Smith #13: . . . are we not promised that everyone will have the opportunity to be sealed to someone–later if not sooner? If this is the case, you end up with two categories of people: the sealed and those-who-chose-not-to-be-sealed. Does it really make sense that people who turned down the chance to be sealed would be in the celestial kingdom? Wouldn’t that be open rebellion?

    I 100% agree, & this has been perplexing to me as well. It also boggles the mind that at the beginning of the millenium, when Christ reigns personally upon the earth, that the legions of spirits in spirit prison or paradise aren’t going to be aware of this and say, “Sign me up for all the ordinances!!” Who would be left to populate the Telestial Kingdom?

    As a woman who got married outside of the temple, I figured at first, well I can get divorced, “repent” and then be dutiful and marry someone else in the temple, or stick with my decision to stay married to my husband. (This course of action would obviously be highly destructive IMO). I chose to stay married. Fast forward a few years. I finally get my Patriarchal B. and it promises me that I will have an eternal family and be sealed to a priesthood holder of my choice. So, I suppose that I’ll have the opportunity to choose to be sealed to someone, but just in case that person doesn’t turn out to be my husband, maybe I’ll just say, no thanks, I’d rather be a ministering angel and get to hang out with DH casually rather than to be sealed to someone else and never get to be with my true love. I have no idea. Just trying to make sense of it!

  19. Rob Osborn says:

    There is another part of the doctrine of the three kingdoms that just seems to strike a strange sounding bell in my head. That bell is the assumed state we think the Telestial heirs will be. We know so little really. We get little bits of information here and there, but there always seems to be this large amount of misinformation and presumptions about things that get taught. Maybe it is just me but I really think the Telestial people will be holy and just people. They of coarse cannot get to that point without some penalty for sins, but, through repentance and obedience I believe they will be redeemed through the ordinances of the temple.

  20. Kevin, I think the statement in the Millennial Star is unnequivically describing the the higher ordinances of the Temple. The full piece is available here. I also think that you are correct that the modern Mormon perception is rather problematic. The current Temple liturgy defies the modern tendency that you outline in your comment to minimize or even disregard the importance of the second annointing. Moreover, Joseph and everyone else in the 19th century were rather explicit on the matter. In the April conference before his death, Joseph preached on the matter:

    …when the House is done, Baptism font erectd and finished & the worthy are washed, anointed, endowed & ordained Kings & priests, which must be done in this life, when the place is prepared you must go through all the ordinances of the house of the Lord so that you who have any dead friends must go through all the ordinances for them the same as for yourselves; (Woodruff Account, WoJS pg. 363)

    I think that we have to hope for it in this life or for posthumous proxy-work in the next. I do think that a reasonable reading of the nineteenth century exaltation and temple doctrine can mesh with your reading of Sec 131.

  21. I wonder how many other doctrines drilled into me are based on an instance a long time ago when our first prophet was talking to someone in his/her home while someone else kept a journal of it.

    I wonder about this as well.

  22. costanza says:

    Regarding the issue of fulness of the priesthood/second anointing–David J. Buerger deals with this in some depth in THE MYSTERIES OF GODLINESS. As I recall, he writes of discussing the issue with a temple president (Oakland temple?). Buerger basically set forth the rather obvious sources indicating that in the period from the 1840s to the turn of the century (roughly) the fulness of the priesthood meant second anointing. The temple president quotes Joseph Fielding Smith and B.R. McConkie, who as the architects of twentieth-century LDS thought, equated the fulness of the priesthood with all temple ordinances up to and including celestial marriage, but not including the second anointing. It is an interesting example of two interpretations clashing.

  23. Costanza, I don’t remember Beurger going that far in his analysis. My understanding is that, though quite veiled, both JSFII and McConkie had a more nineteenth century view of the fullness.

  24. Costanza says:

    Check footnote 57 on page 165 of the Buerger book for the discussion with the temple president. On McConkie and Smith, you are right that they don’t explicitly deal with what is or isn’t required for the fulness of the priesthood, beyond saying that “all the ordinances” of the temple are required. I guess that would include the 2nd anointing. I should have been clearer on my original point, though, which is that the temple presidents (I have looked it up and see that there were two of them) that Buerger spoke to cited BRM, JFSII to sustain their argument that the second anointing is not required. Buerger thinks that they are misreading these two authors.

  25. Gotcha – I remembered the Temple President conversations, but forgot about the appeal to authority. I agree that there is significant misreading going on of those authors on this point.

  26. Steve A. says:

    What if the three degrees are as follows:

    Degree 1: Couples sealed in the New and Everlasting Covenant.

    Degree 2a: Single Women

    Degree 2b: Single Men

    I picture it as a sort of triangle, with the top section being Degree 1, and the base being Degrees 2a and 2b.

    To me, this matches the scripture:

    1 IN the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees;

    2 And in order to obtain the highest [Degree 1], a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage];

    3 And if he does not, he cannot obtain it [Degree 1].

    4 He may enter into the other [Degree 2b], but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase. [Likewise, the woman may enter into the other (Degree 2a)].

  27. I wasn’t around when this was first posted, but thanks to Stapley linking back to this on a recent post I ended up here. I was only recently introduced to this possible reading Kevin advocates in the post, but I think I have become convinced that Kevin’s reading above is the more likely one. Glad to see the key arguments layed out so nicely.


  1. [...] Ibid., pg. 101. Note that when Orson Pratt redacted the journal for inclusion in section 131, he inserted a bracketed note that the highest order of Priesthood of which the prophet spoke was temple marriage. Kevin Barney had a great post with a nice discussion here about the relative merits of that position. [...]


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