The Etymology of Telestial Revisited

On January 20, 2010, I published a blog post here under the title “The Etymology of ‘Telestial’.” I proposed four possible etymologies:

  • It could be based on the Greek word telos “end.”
  • It could be based on the Greek adverb tele “distant.”
  • It could derive from Latin tellus, “earth, ground” where a term for the earth does double duty as a description of the netherworld.
  • It could simply be a combination of celestial and terrestrial. I have long associated this idea with Sam Brown, but I do not know for sure whether he is its originator.

I don’t think I expressed a preference, but between you and me at the time my favorite was the Greek adverb tele, because there was a company (having nothing to do with the Church) with the name Telestial (having to do with the use of its roaming sim card products over long distances).

Well, I have changed my mind. I now believe the Sam Brown combination of celestial and terrestrial theory is the correct one. The impetus for this change in thinking was an article I recently received from, Robert M. Bowman, Jr., “Telestial Reasonings: The Origin and Meaning of the Term Telestial in Joseph Smith’s Revelations.” 

Joseph first uses the word telestial in The Vision, D&C 76, received February 16, 1832. Only shortly thereafter he includes it twice in the JST of 1 Corinthians 15:40:

There are also celestial Celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial Terrestrial, and bodies Telestial: but the glory of the celestial Celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial Terrestrial is another, and the Telestial, another

The impetus for the coinage of telestial was based on a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 15:40-41, as shown in the chart below:

Different Bodies (1 Cor. 15:40)Different Glories (1 Cor. 15:41)
One glory of celestial bodiesOne glory of the sun
One glory of terrestrial bodiesAnother glory of the moon
?Another glory of the stars

Joseph is expecting the glory of the bodies in verse 40 to correlate with the three glories described in verse 41, but they do not. Joseph is seeing a type of glory missing from verse 40, and so he is going to fill in the lacuna with a new word.

This is the kind of thing Joseph did in the JST all the time. But here we run into a problem. The KJV uses the fancy-pants Latinate words celestial and terrestrial to correlate with the first two glories. The missing word would need to be a similar fancy-pants Latinate word, but Joseph didn’t know Latin and didn’t have the capacity to coin such a word. If it were me, I might have made up a word like infernial (meaning “netherworldian”). But I can read Latin and Joseph couldn’t, and the missing word would have to look plausibly fancy-pants Latinate. So Joseph just took the word celestial, replaced the initial c with the initial t from terrestrial, and coined telestial and called it a day. It looked plausibly fancy-pants Latinate, hardly anyone in the Church had the linguistic chops to question it, and so, good enough.

Am I bothered by this? Not at all. 1 Corinthians 15 is a beast to parse. Try reading that chapter in your trusty KJV and see how much of it you actually understand. Your only shot is, at the very least, reading it in a modern translation, and most of you would need to add a commentary to have any hope of grasping it. (Bowman conveniently provides useful commentary for the reader, in particular pointing out the reliance on vocabulary from the creation account in Genesis.)

For instance, modern translations do not use the fancy-pants Latinate terms celestial and terrestrial, but rather the more straightforward heavenly and earthly. And some translations recognize the difficulties and go out of their way to be clear, such as the AMP: “There are also heavenly bodies [sun, moon and stars] and earthly bodies [humans, animals and plants], but the glory and beauty of the heavenly is one kind, and the glory of the earth is another.”

So, Sam man, next time I’m in Salt Lake I’ll treat you to a root beer. You had it right all along.


  1. This is all new to me. Interesting. I always figured JS was looking for a word that sounded as cool as the other two and Telestial is what he came up with. I mean, it is a cool word. I doubt that The Tornados were thinking of the Telestial/stars connection when they came up with the big guitar hit Telstar, but maybe the communications satellite namers did. Two thoughts: 1) Is fancy-pants Latinate the opposite of Vulgate? and 2) Telestial Reasonings = Celestial Seasonings. Very clever.

  2. Pretty cool, Kev. Thanks.

  3. A fun read Kevin. Thanks!

  4. Fancy pants latinate ftw.

  5. It was reading 1 Cor 15 in Spanish — where fancy-pants latinate words are normal — to realize how it wasn’t talking about the three degrees of glory. I never considered this origin of “telestial,” though!

  6. I don’t know Latin, but even as a child I knew the word telescope means “seeing far distances.” I assume Joseph Smith in his time knew the same.

  7. Goodness gracious, can’t we just admit that Joseph Smith made up the word Telestial!?!? It does not make sense in any context within the Bible. I am a Spanish speaker, and celestial and terrestrial make perfect sense, and in no way does telestial fit anywhere. Now, as for the theological contribution derived from inspiration and revelation, I can understand that. He made up a word that conveys the concept of three degrees of glory. We can take that as a theological contribution, worthy of discussion in and of itself, without having to bend over backwards to assign the meaning of Telestial to some ancient language. Just take it as 19th century scripture!

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