The Etymology of “Telestial”

I often get the question of where “telestial” comes from. I thought it would be fun to put up here as much as I’ve been able to figure out/find on the subject, and then let the collective wisdom of the Bloggernacle add to it, so as to create a permanent record for future reference.

Telestial is a neologism (a “new word”) that was coined as part of the revelation of D&C 76.

Celestial and terrestrial are both derived from Latin. The word caelum means “sky, heaven”; turned into an adjective, that form becomes caelestis “heavenly”; and apparently that ending was extended with another Latin adjectival ending, -(i)alis, to get the form caelestialus. The Latin ending -us was dropped when the word was anglicized (and the ae diphthong was reduced), giving us “celestial.”

Terrestrial underwent a similar evolution. Terra means “earth”; terrestris is the adjectival form, “of or relating to the earth”; and terrestrialus would be an extended adjectival form, with the -us ending being dropped in English, for terrestrial.

Telestial appears to have been formed by analogy to celestial. Working backwards, the hypothetical forms would be telestialus, then telestis. The -stial is thus an adjectival formation. The question then becomes what the root tele signifies.

There is of course no answer book we can open to find out for sure what was intended. But here are four possibilities:

1. Although the word has a Latin formation, the root may be taken from Greek. One possibility would be telos, which means “end, purpose”; the cognate verb telein means “to bring to an end; to complete.” Apparently the idea here would be that the telestial is the last resurrection and would bring to an end, finish or complete the resurrection of man.

2. Another possibility based on Greek is that the root comes from the Greek adverb tele, which means “far away, distant.” This adverb is commonly seen in English formations, such as telephone, telescope and television. As an adverb, normally it is a combining form with other words, but it may convey the basic idea of something far away or distant (from God?), or it may have been coined backwards from English telescope, reflecting the basic idea that the stars are far away (much further than the sun or moon). It is interesting in this regard that there is a modern company having something to do with international roaming sim cards that uses the name “Telestial” (see; the company name clearly is based on the Greek adverb tele, alluding to the use of its products over long distances.

3. What about Latin? Well, it may be helpful to think about what we ought to expect based on the progression of terms from celestial to terrestrial to telestial. The analogy used in the revelation talks about sun, moon and stars, so certainly any connection we can find to the stars would be worth considering. But the terms themselves reflect a different progression: caelum is heaven/sky, terra is earth, so to me the natural progression would be something designating a nether or underworld, something like Sheol or Hades. We see this progression in Phil. 2:10 which talks about things “in heaven” (GR epouranios), things “on earth” (GR epigeios), and things “under the earth” (GR katachthonos). The latter term is formed from the preposition kata (here “under”) and chthon “earth,” and is the Greek equivalent of such words as subterranean, infernus. When used in the plural, that Greek term refers to those who dwell there, the departed souls who dwell in the world below, the netherworld.

With that background, it has been suggested that perhaps the root to telestial is the Latin tellus, which means “earth, ground” and from there “land, district, country, region, territory.” (In Hebrew literature, words for the “earth” often do double duty and also can represent the netherworld.) If that were the case, the word was imperfectly formed, dropping an l from the root of the word. It might be odd to have two kingdom names both grounded in terms for “earth,” but recall that this earth is considered to be in a telestial state, its terrestrial state being a higher existence from which it fell.

4. I saw someone suggest that telestial is simply a combination of celestial and terrestrial.

I also wonder (calling smb!) whether W.W. Phelps might not have had a hand in coining the term. Phelps had a passion for such creative linguistics and had a profound influence on the linguistic aspects of Joseph’s revelations. Michael Hicks has argued that it was actually Phelps, not Joseph, who composed the poetic paraphrase of D&C 76 (see his “Joseph Smith, W.W. Phelps, and the Poetic Paraphase of’ The Vision.’” Journal of Mormon History 20 (Fall 1994): 63-84).

The other option I suppose is that telestial is a completely made up word.

OK, now add your insights and wisdom in the comments, and in the future I can send people who ask this question to this post for a distillation of our collective wisdom on the subject.

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  1. I have always been a bit bothered by the word. Especially the forced parallel between celestial, terrestrial, and telestial with “the sun, the moon, and the stars.” Given that celestial doesn’t mean sun, terrestrial certainly doesn’t mean moon, and telestial is a made up word so it doesn’t mean stars any more than it means anything else I have felt that the “Mormon” and especially the JST reading 1 Cor 15 is very problematic. It doesn’t seem to me that Paul is making an argument for exactly three kingdoms of glory. Rather he is talking about the difference between a mortal body and a resurrected one. As Mormons we tend to lose that reading in favor of using this passage as some sort of proof of a three leveled afterlife.

  2. I suspect it’s an English neologism, probably a merger of cele- and terre- to fit the flow. Although Phelps is tempting, I don’t think he had sufficient influence in 1832, certainly not with Rigdon at the height of his power and key contributor to the prose of The Vision.

  3. I think #4 is the answer.

    I also think that the lack of correspondence between sun, moon and stars and celestial (heaven), terrestrial (earth) and telestial (?), is one reason why many people (myself included) have a hard time remembering whether the order of the kingdoms is: celestial, terrestrial, telestial or celestial, telestial, terrestrial.

  4. FreeAgencyEnforcer says:

    I had once been taught in an institute class that the word telestial was supposed to convey the idea of what remains after everything else, in other words the left overs. As if to say, if you didn’t make it to either the Celestial or Terrestrial Kingdoms, then you must have wound up in the Telestial Kingdom with everyone else. I can’t remember what the instructor based this idea on and I make no claim that it is in any way valid, but I just thought I’d throw it out there to see if anyone else had heard something similar and what if anything it was based on.

  5. Mark Brown says:

    Not bad, FEA, not bad.

    My seminary teacher told me that the telestial kingdom was closest to hell and hell rhymes with tel, so that is why telestial begins with tel.

    You simply cannot argue with that.

  6. kamschron says:

    Another relevant interpretation of telos is initiation. David Larsen has suggested that the earth is analogous to the Telesterion of Athens as a place where initiation takes place in our progression towards the celestial.

  7. StillConfused says:

    I think it is a made up word.

  8. linescratchers says:

    The root comes from the Itza Maya word täl, a verb meaning “beat,” because that’s exactly what they’ll do to you in the Telestial Kingdom. I’m surprised Seminary teachers aren’t teaching the true meaning of this word, I’m sure it would have a positive effect on student morale and discipline.

    Click to access itza_based-on_hofling1991.pdf

  9. Considering that the Telestial kingdom is situated between the Terrestial and Outer Darkness, I think considering ‘tele’ to mean distant is the most appropriate. In this meaning, the meaning of their kingdom is ‘distant from God’ – they are just as close as they want to be. Any further, and they are completely out in the dark.

  10. How well known were basic cosmological principles at the time? It’s all well and good to explain that the stars are at the lower end, until you realize that many of the stars are actually brighter than the sun — it’s just that they’re more distant. Certainly all of the stars are much more significant than the moon, on an absolute scale.

  11. Alex T. Valencic says:

    “I think it is a made up word.”

    When you really get down to it, though, aren’t all words made up?

  12. I think that discussing the actual size of stars is pushing the analogy too far. The essential point is a hierarchy of light and if you get bogged down in considering eclipses, phases of the moon, and varieties of stars on a HR diagram, you are completely missing the point. I don’t think the Celestial is actually thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen, any more than than I think the Terrestrial is actually a moon.

    The names (like the Sun/Moon/Stars hierarchy) is trying to convey a point – not tell us what it literally looks like, or sounds like. So, of course the name was made up…. but what point is it trying to convey?

  13. I vote for #2 for the same reasons as Zen #9’c comments. It just seems to make the most sense.

  14. Thanks Kev, I’ve always wondered this. I just thought it was a bit of Latin I did not know. Very interesting.

  15. I get confused, too, and I mix up the hierarchy with Telecaster and Stratocaster the Fender guitars. The Tele has two pickups and the Strat has three. So then I’m left with the Terracaster, which isn’t a guitar, but if it were it would probably have only one pickup. Or maybe one humbucking pickup with a coil splitter, which would be cool. The other Fenders have only single coil pickups, which have a great ringy bright sound, but aren’t as warm sounding as the double coil humbuckers which are famously used on Gibsons.

    Anyway, that plus my astronomy background make me think of stars as being bigger and brighter than the moon, not lesser. So it’s quite confusing. I also think the three levels of heaven are metaphorical and actually there are unlimited levels. And it’s not just a single hierarchy with a two dimensional ranking, but rather there are a lot of different dimensions so that one afterlife might have, say, the best music while another one may be better for other reasons like good food or the funniest jokes.

    Anyway, I’m going with the tele- meaning “far” explanation, with a side bet on it being the two-single-coil-pickup kingdom, which would also be fun.

  16. Pedro A. Olavarria says:

    The “tele” in Telestial comes from “television”.
    The people who go there did nothing but watch TV during mortality thus keeping them from the important stuff;)

    ps. This is meant to be a cheesy half-joke.

  17. Rob Osborn says:

    My 2 cents-

    Not sure if “telestial” really means anything. We do know that the naming of this earth is “The Telestial Kingdom” according to temple wording specifics. So, if we define what “telestial ” means, we can thus define it as “the place where we enter into mortality and gain a physical body”. This also brings up “telestial law”- what is this law? Many in the church have surmised it to mean the “law of the world” or carnal worldly pleasure. Of course this is wrong as God’s laws are not carnal or worldly. What we can assume is that-

    1. We have laws given us by God in this kingdom, and-
    2. This kingdom is the Telestial Kingdom.

    So, it appears that at minimum, the law of the telestial kingdom is the preparatory gospel- that gospel of repentance and baptism.

    So, in a way, telestial can mean “initiation”. By reference to the stars, this means “glory”. Glory is “light and truth”. So, when telestial is compared tot he stars, it means that each of us have different levels of light and truth, and yet it is so little (I mean really, how little do we really know here) because of the veil on our minds coupled with having to abide in faith.

    It’s basically all symbolism in th end. After the millennium there won’t be a Telestial or Terrestrial kingdom for the saved to dwell on. Telestial and Terrestrial are but temporary to fulfill a purpose. When that purpose is fulfilled, the earth dies and gets quickened to a new glory just like our own bodies will.

  18. With respect to the etymology of the term, there is an entry of considerable interest in the predecessor to the OED. It doesnt appear in any modern OED I have seen.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, ED, we’ll make that English archaism theory no. 5.

  20. I think this is an interesting question, but tend to agree with #17. We know what ‘telestial’ (as well as ‘celestial’ and ‘terrestrial’ for that matter) means in the LDS context quite simply because it is thoroughly defined in its debut revelation and in subsequent Church teachings. The Church’s English-speaking membership will have no general difficulties discussing the three degrees of glory now or in the future despite the somewhat ambiguous etymology of ‘telestial’. In my mind, where etymology becomes an issue at all is in translation. Remember our D&C (and of course other Church materials which contain the term) is translated into manifold languages. Leaving aside many European languages which often have quite similar terms if not exact cognates for ‘celestial’ and ‘terrestrial’ and which can quite easily form words analogous to ‘telestial’, translations of the terms in the Church’s East Asian lexicon (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) have rendered not the meaning of the roots ‘cele-‘, ‘terre-‘, and ‘tele-‘ but their respective referents in section 76, namely the sun, moon, and stars. Hence for the Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms the Church’s CJK lexicon gives us quite literally the Sun, Moon and Star Kingdoms. Sounds a bit science fictiony, don’t you think?

  21. Nibley comments on the term in his “The Meaning of Temples”
    I apologize for not having time to extract the passage here, only the link.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 20, that is fascinating! I didn’t stop to think how the Church translates those terms into other languages. The Sun, Moon and Star Kingdoms is a total hoot! Thanks for letting us know about that.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Keith. For people’s convenience I’ve pasted in the most relevant paragraph below. Nibley sees the root as telos, as in my no. 1, but emphasizes a different connotation of the word, that of initiation. So let’s call the Nibley theory No. 1A. [Nibley quote is below}:

    In this connection, there is an interesting sidelight to the word telestial, a word long considered as one of Joseph Smith’s more glaring indiscretions. We know now that there are three worlds: the telestial, in which we live; the celestial, to which we aspire; and in between them another world, called the terrestrial. It is of neither the celestial nor the telestial. According to the ancients, this world is represented by the temple, the in-between world where the rites of passage take place. Indeed the root telos is a very rich word in this regard and has been treated a lot recently. It deals with the mysteries. Telos means initiation.45 Teleiomai means to be introduced into the mysteries.46 Professor Werner Jaeger of Harvard, a close friend of mine who wrote Paideia, was much exercised with that word teleiotes when he was editing Gregory of Nyssa. He claimed that Gregory was talking about the mysteries. A teleiotes is a person who has been initiated into some degree or other of the mysteries, and the completion of the degree qualifies him as complete or “perfect.”47

  24. I had always assumed in analogy to celestial – above the earth, terrestrial – on the earth, then telestial must mean below the earth, whatever that means. But Sun, Moon, Stars will do.

    We assume that we are living in a model of the telestial world where Adam and Eve were driven. It will be changed to a terrestrial world (what ever that means) on Christ’s coming. We await the earth (this beautiful globe) to be baptized by fire (cremated) to be transformed into the celestial world.

    This may be a further set of definitions.

  25. Sorry, your point #3

  26. Tatiana, # 15, in my guitar cosmology, here is how I would rank them:

    Celestial – Gibson Les Paul or ES-335, Dual Humbuckers
    Terrestial – Fender Telecaster, dual single coils (love the twang)
    Telestial – Fender Esquire, with a single coil in the bridge position only, same shape as the Telecaster, though. Only made in the early 50’s.

    As to the Stratocaster, (everybody’s favorite, I know, but then “many are called, but few are chosen”), to me it’s an alternate universe kind of thing.

  27. nibley goes on a bit after that. it’s all very baffling.

    iamblichus might be of some help (de mysteriis 8.3-4). in his discussion of egyptian (feel those goosebumps!) first principles, he begins with the highest and most transcendent metaphysical principles above and ends with the lowest level of cosmic principles below. (think celestial to telestial, though iamblichus himself employs the three-fold division of empyrian, epouranian, and aitherian.)

    the adjective he uses for the lowest level of principles is teleutaios, -a, -on (last, terminal, uttermost, final …). it is apparently related to the the verb teleo (i’m no lexicographer) and to the compounding prefix (yes, i am making this terminology up as i go) teles- (though i can’t say whether all greek words beginning with teles- are necessarily related).

    so from a top-to-bottom perspective, telestial might make rather good sense and even have an ancient precedent in wacko neoplatonic/theurgic/hermetic literature. not that there is any connection between the two.

    i actually think terrestial is the more problematic descriptor.

  28. g. wesley,

    I think you are right. The terminology is all mixed up. What does this world have to do with anything in the next? What does this present terrestrial have to do with a heavenly terrestrial?

    And what does the lone and dreary world have to do with the telestial?

    The only sense that you can make of it is that the terminology is supposed to make relational metaphors.

  29. Actually it derives from telemark, an archaic and senseless mode of skiing wherein one’s heels are not fixed. Proponents suggest that freeing one’s heel frees one’s mind. In reality, one should fix the heel and fix the problem.

    In the telestial world, all skiers will be forced to use telemark gear as punishment for failing to be sufficiently valiant in the second estate. In the terrestial world, they’ll be allowed snowboards, and in the celestial world, proper alpine or alpine touring equipment, the highest degree of glory, will be provided.

    OK, I just made all that up, but it’s no more ridiculous than the original usage of the word telestial. Or JS’s made-up etymology for mormon.

  30. I think it is like the word “gnolaum.” It is a word that God made up to give Joseph Smith a greater mystique….

    Or maybe God foresaw this blog post, and thought he’d humor us.

  31. As to gnolaum, the footnote in the Pearl of Great Price says it is a transliteration of the Hebrew word for eternal; that Hebrew word is usually written (in the Roman alphabet) as ‘olam.

    I can confirm that the Japanese LDS terms referred to the “glory of” the “sun”, “moon” and “stars” (hi no sakae, tsuki no sakae, hoshi no sakae), although I have noticed in my current Japanese Liahona that some words that have special meaning in the Church have been transformed from translations (such as bishop to “kantoku” or overseer) to transliterations (bishop to “bi-shoppu” written using the katakana syllabary or “alphabet” used to represent words with foreign etymologies). Thus, while I think the Japanese D&C still retains the terms, contemporary discussions may transliterate the English. The Japanese have a fetish for adopting English terms, even when they have serviceable Japanese words, and Japanese Mormons tend to learn more
    English than average due to working alongside American missionaries, hanging out with US missionaries, studying at BYU, and wanting to read the broader range of LDS literature available in English.

    I read Nibley’s discussion about “telos” as a possible root of “telestial”. It is the word that is in the Greek original of the command at the end of Matthew Chapter 5, “Be ye therefore perfect (telos)”. Some discussions of this verse suggest that “complete”, as in a ritual sense of completing the ordinances of exaltation, is closer to Christ’s intended meaning (see, for example, John Welch’s book The Sermon at the Temple). The Telestial Kingdom is, in our understanding, a sort of Purgatory, where those persons who failed to achieve basic salvation in mortality are given the opportunity to achieve a level of justification through paying the penalty for their sins in mortality, since they have refused to allow Christ to pay it for them. They come out of it chastised and chastened and purified and “completed” or “perfected” so they are fit to be servants of God for the rest of eternity.

  32. Going back to early English translations of the Bible, the Wycliffe Bible 1382 (middle English) renders the terms in 1 Cor 15:40 as “hevenli bodies and ertheli bodies.” Then the Tyndale Bible 1526 comes along and says, “Ther are celestiall bodyes and ther are bodyes terrestriall.” Why the change? Tyndale is translating from Greek into English. Why then does he come up with these two Latin words? Then along comes the Douay Bible 1610 which was translated from the Latin Vulgate into English for Catholic use also using the terms celestial and terrestrial. A year later comes the King James Version 1611 continuing to use celestial and terrestrial. When the Revised Standard Version 1885 comes out, the great successor to King James, celestial and terrestrial are still used. Yet it seems like all later translations into English go back to using heavenly and earthly. We must ask ourselves why it went that way.

  33. Nice post. I’ve always wondered if it’s related to the Latin stella, -ae, meaning star or planet.

    Well we all shine on
    Like the moon and the stars and the sun
    -John Lennon

  34. Keith Van Soest says:

    Hugh Nibley in his response to Fawn Brodie’s book “No Man Knows My History” writes the following in “No Ma’am That Isn’t History writes the following ” . . . the coined word “telestial” and the idea of a third degree of glory which is as that of the stars. It is almost unbelievable that anyone presuming to write on religion should not be perfectly familiar with this very well-established and ancient doctrine–it is regular old stock-in-trade in ancient times, though the sources were not accessible to Joseph Smith.” “Stock-in trade?,” somebody please tell me where.

    (Please don’t publish my last name!)

  35. Keith,
    You probably shouldn’t include your last name in the name box if you don’t want your last name to appear in the name box.

  36. LOL

  37. Thanks Kevin, this is a nice resource on a question that has been with me for some time, and I like the summary of approaches you outline.

    To Kruiser (#32):
    the Greek of verse 40 uses the adjectives epouranios (in the sky/heaven; from “epi, ” basically “on/in” and “Ouranos ” – Father Sky in Greek thinking) and epigeios (on the earth; Gaia being Mother Earth). Those were Paul’s word choices. The Vulgate translates these two terms as caelistis and terrestris, which, as Kevin pointed out, just mean “of the sky” and “of the earth.”

    It would seem that Wycliffe simply translated the Greek into English adjectives (from Germanic roots) which also mean “in the sky” and “on earth.” Tyndale, for some reason, seems to let the Vulgate determine his vocabulary choices, though his chosen synonyms mean the same thing as Wycliffe’s choices. It would be interesting to know if this is because these Latin synonyms were in more common use in English at his time (he was post-1453), because of political considerations (1526 was a tricky time to be translating the Bible!), or out of theological commitments he may have had to the Vulgate. The King James clearly follows Tyndale in aligning itself with the Vulgate.

    As far as what “telestial” means, my vote is for option 4.

    Since no one has mentioned it here yet, let me just point out that 1 Cor. 15 reads as an argument structured on a dichotomy – between the mortal and the resurrected, especially in verses 35-49 where the terms under consideration are found. I don’t think this is controversial. The physical cosmos of the Greeks to whom Paul was writing consisted of an earthly realm of death and decay opposed to a realm of the sky where all is eternally perfect and never varies (astronomy was the study of this reliable, predictable perfection). For Paul to make his point about how the resurrection will differ from mortality, the mortal human body is compared to the earthly realm of corruption and the resurrection to the sky/heavens of incorruption.

    In verse 39 Paul lists various types of earthly or “terrestrial” bodies: humans, beasts, fish, and birds. In verse 41 he lists various types of heavenly or “celestial” bodies: the sun, the moon, and the stars. Without any inspired emendation, verse 40, between these two lists, can easily be read to simply say that there are two kinds of bodies (earthly and heavenly) that Paul’s audience knows from experience, and that they have two different kinds of glory as mortal and resurrected bodies do:

    “There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.”

    Thus, in verse 42 he continues, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption.” And later says in verse 49, “And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.”

    (This reading is complicated by Paul’s insistence that the various earthly bodies are not the same as each other and that the heavenly bodies also differ among themselves in glory, creating multiple degrees or categories within each of the two terms of his dichotomy. This may be the difficulty that caused Joseph’s attention to pause on this section for inspiration.)

    Like Matthews, Barlow and others, I tend not to find the JST to be a restoration of the original text. I think Joseph saw here a passage which inspired his further development of the recently revealed idea of multiple kingdoms. This insertion of a three-part structure into an argument shaped by a two-part structure causes difficulties such as the lack of a third term in verse 40 (provided by simply smashing T-errestrial and c-ELESTIAL together) and the difficulties of our subsequent attempts to line celestial, terrestrial and telestial up, etymologically or otherwise, with “sun,” “moon,” and “stars” (all terms subsumed by “celestial” in the original).

    I think Joseph just needed terms to express what had been revealed to him and found most of them in verse 40. I also think this is a case where the revelation of the idea is probably more profitable than conclusions wrested from a linguistic analysis of the terms in which Joseph presented it, which, on this point, seems to produce more heat than light.

  38. It’s a portmanteau of the first two kingdoms. Has to be.

  39. The Lewis and Short Latin dictionary mentions the word “tellus” in the meaning of “the earth,” although it also mentions that it is a word belonging almost entirely to poetry.
    However, the earth is already included in the word “terrestrial,” while the the word moon, “luna” in Latin is not included in any of the words pertaining to any of the glories, and neither is the word “stella” meaning star. It would appear, therefore, that the word “telestial” is a word coined by either Joseph Smith or one of his friends, in spite of Hugh Nibley’s statement that is a regular old stock in trade.

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