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.Â 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?