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!

  8. It would be interesting to see a survey of how “telestial” has been translated into other languages by the church translation department. I went on a Russian-speaking mission in the early 1990s when we did not yet have a translation of the D&C available. The only rendering of “telestial” that I was aware of at the time was the 4th missionary discussion where the plan of salvation is taught. In that text, “celestial” and “terrestrial” were taken from the text of 1 Corinthians 15, Russian words that mean “heavenly” and “earthly”. For “telestial”, the translator came up with a word roughly meaning “sub-earthly”. It sort of works, but doesn’t exactly feel like the “glory of the stars”. Later in the 1990s a translation of the D&C was made available, and in that one the translators went with the Latin-sounding words, including “telestial”, instead of the native Russian words. I don’t know whether they went back and updated the missionary discussions and flipcharts, and I don’t know how well the average Russian speaker understands the borrowed Latin-ish words.

  9. Adam Franklin says:

    Hey there Kevin my name is Adam let me start by saying I’ve been reading your blogs and I’ve taken an interest in your topics in particular the debate on the three levels of Glory or the three stages of the Kingdom of heaven and I just wanted to give my opinion on some of what you said and on how I was raised and how I believe and how I think things could possibly be I just want to say I was raised in Southern Ohio on a big ranch about 15 minutes outside of a little country town called Felicity I attended Felicity Franklin local schools as well as my two older brothers and my 2 sisters and as well as my parents who also attended Felicity Franklin local schools when they were growing up matter of fact my father grew up on the same ranch that I did so we pretty much planted our Roots deep you could say I guess , we lived off the land we didn’t have much money at all we grew our own fruit and veggies,we hunted our own meat, had chickens for our eggs, we even hauled our own water and we didn’t even have indoor plumbing, I was raised old school in the ways of how most great-grandparents were raised I was raised in a similar fashion and it was different from my generation but it’s made me who I am, even tho we didn’t have anything we wanted for nothing we were poor yes but we were very adamant proud at sticking together and always being there for each other as a family, we did everything together, especially church, I started going to church when I was four,. my father started preaching when I was 7, I remember my mother she was a prayer warrior she would hit her knees and lock herself in her room and would stay there praying on her knees for 2 to 3 days sometimes that’s the level of determination and dedication that we had as a family who loved God, I remember as a young child how my grandparents would hold church revivals and our barn at my grandparents farm that is and it was no different than everyday Sunday school or church in a church building it was always a great time it was always just like you would see walking into a fancy building sometimes 10 20 people sometimes more than I remember my dad became an assistant pastor for the first time when I was around 14 and a Baptist Church that was our first for being Baptist and then he got called to a different Church about 6 years after that that’s when we fell into Pentecostal denomination, then finally about 25 years ago my father he started preaching at his own church and that’s when you really learn what you believe and feel about God and the the denomination that you follow, and that was always my father’s biggest argument when he was asked what denomination is your church and people would give their opinions and it was always well you should be this or you should be that and that’s when my family obtained our own denomination we were able to break free of the political side of Christianity to what we believed and what we have held true to to this day, we were able to follow what we felt and what we knew to really stick with us and we became non-denomination Christians and that was our title we were just Christians and our church was the New Life Church of God and like my father said the Bible talks about one church and that’s the Church of God that’s the one that matters that way no one can sit and argue and fight about what they think someone else should be or what they think someone else should believe, contrary to one’s beliefs that’s an argument that didn’t happen anymore that was a part of politics taken out of God’s house that didn’t need to be there anyway, I know I’m getting off topic here I apologize but getting back to your thoughts on your blog I was raised in church most of my life and I was raised to love God respect your neighbors and help those in need I’ve help people all my life because it’s the right thing to do but also because that’s one of my understandings of life and Christianity that I finally understood when I was younger and I got to live what I believe in that falls in the category of what you’re talking about and that’s the different works for God that you do that determines your level of rewards that you will receive and it’s always been a battle for humanity when it comes to being a Christian and it’s so hard to do this it’s so hard to always be a good person or whatever I can’t do it without sinning or whatnot, but it’s not difficult it’s not that hard it just takes people being able to reach that level of understanding to be able to understand how simple it actually is because all you have to do to be a Christian is help other people that’s what a Christian is that’s what it means to be a Christian that’s what it takes that’s that’s how you qualify all you have to do is be a good person and help others do the right thing no matter what stand up for what you believe is right stand up for those who are weak and help those that are in need we all learn when we’re younger at one time or another we hear a preacher say when you stay in judgment when you get to heaven the Lord’s going to ask you when I was hungry why didn’t you feed me or when I was cold why didn’t you clothed me and give me a place to stay or what I was tired wouldn’t you show me a bed where I could rest and what that means is his children who were in need you saw someone who was hungry why didn’t you help them get food for someone who was cold why didn’t you give them a jacket to be warm and etc etc we’re All God’s children so in a way it’s like being a big brother forgot and you’re just looking out for your little brother because you know that’s what your father wants you to do you know it’s the right thing to do in your father’s eyes and that’s what it amounts to no matter how much you wrap it up and no matter how much you sprinkle it with this and sprinkle it with that it’s nothing fancy it’s actually that simple to be a Christian just be a good person and help those in need because the more people you help while you’re here is what determines your level of the blessing you will receive and your father’s house your father’s Kingdom when you get to heaven that’s the three levels and I’ve always studied on anything that has to do with knowledge or learning what may be or what could happen or what could come to pass I’m big so naturally I really jumped at it when the development of epistemology come along little over 5 or 10 years ago or so maybe longer, it’s the learning and studying of knowledge, u have two students sitting at the same table reading from the same book having the same lessons having the same answers given to them but when it comes to those students learning the same thing in the same way with the same answers who’s to say who is right and who is wrong when it comes to teaching what you have just learned, because no two people are alike so no two people can think alike, that doesn’t mean you can’t agree that’s not the same ,no two people learn the same way because it all falls on what you believe how you’re brought up ECT that affects the way you learn and that’s how epistemology was established and it’s becoming major study and I’ve taken to it a lot because t from everything I learned in life and in church and from study and from others during their opinions and thoughts and I was reading how you said some people think that the three levels of Glory or the three levels of the Kingdom of heaven the terrestrial telestial and the celestial I see how you said some people think that the word telestial was made up and then I seen how you said something about it being the underworld or what not and I’m not here trying to say you’re wrong I’m not trying to correct you or nothing like that it’s it’s not my intentions at all but from u studies I don’t see how it makes sense for someone to say that the word telestial is a made-up word or that it could mean the underverse or the underworld that doesn’t make sense if you look at it at a couple ways like one you have terrestrial which is the low Kingdom the bottom Kingdom then you have celestial being the highest Kingdom and that would put telestial in the second highest Kingdom right under celestial so that would dismiss it from being a part of Earth altogether but to be categorized as an underverse or the underworld or what not that would really make an argument because it’s almost like you’re dismissing hell altogether if that was the case, if you think about that then where does hell fall in place bc you also have perdition or purgatory however you want to call it the way I teach it or explain it to people you have the three levels of Glory in the kingdom of heaven and then you have the fourth stage which is perdition or purgatory which is the Kingdom on Earth basically it’s the lowest form of your destination rather than your last stop being hell again it all comes down to the works u perform that measures your wealth in the Kingdom of heaven you can believe in God and you can not be a bad person but you don’t go o heaven for simply believing and doing nothing for others, you don’t help people you don’t care about that kind of things you just stay to yourself or you just don’t care either way but you still believe and you’re still not a bad person but you still have to work at what you receive in life and afterlife and I think and I believe that’s what purgatory is it’s our self-made pit stop before the kingdom of heaven where we or where are car breaks down at I guess you could say LOL just like it’s taught you can create your own hell on Earth you can create your own Kingdom in heaven by your works and how to measure just like you can create your own perdition or purgatory by your actions and the consequences or your lack of action or your lack of works for God, so it all really comes down to just believing, it comes down to believing that’s it, its a given it’s more like it comes down to the level of faith and how deep of a belief you’ve been able to reach in your soul and in your heart you have to reach a level to achieve a level if that makes sense just like with me I’m very intuitive like they always say seeing is believing but believing the seeing I’m very adamant about my beliefs in my heart and my faith I stand up for what’s right I’m big on that very big on that I don’t have to see something to believe it when I know it in the bottom of my gut when I know it in the depths of my heart to be true to be 100% pure and real nothing can change that nothing can make me falter or make me stumble from my beliefs, good n evil facing down each other good versus evil that kind of thing evil will never win evil cannot win because nothing is stronger than the goodness of God and nothing can touch you or hurt you when you have conviction on you..the conviction of God the conviction of faith is a power unlike anything ever created or invented there isn’t a weapon or a machine ever created in history that can even come close to the level of power and destruction that the conviction of God can create and that I believe 100%! I’m sorry I gotten off the topic quite a bit Kevin but I honestly believe in the end there’s always going to be three levels of rewards just like in life you got the bronze silver and gold I don’t think that changes even when you hit the afterlife and I guess you could say perdition or purgatory could be like an athlete running a marathon and twisting his ankle and not getting to finish the race that’s kind of I guess how you can describe perdition or purgatory in a good way lol but no matter what it’s all about what you do for other it’s all about how you help others and how you are there for others when they need you or when they need someone, that makes you the level of the Christian that you are or want to be being a Christian is just being a good person who helps God’s children,! But again Kevin I apologize for getting off topic so much and I appreciate you allowing people to give you their thoughts and I appreciate your blogs I really enjoy the different subjects that you share I really appreciate you sharing that with us and I’ll be sure to keep following I appreciate your time and I appreciate you allowing me to give you my time again it was great sharing with you I hope to hear back from you if not I wish you the best take care God bless


  1. […] example, a couple of weeks ago someone over at By Common Consent posted about the possible etymology of the term “telestial.”  Now, I mean no disrespect to the author, and if people find that […]

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