(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) A key difference between Latter-day Saints and many other Christian churches is that Mormons believe that there are various post-judgment kingdoms in the outskirts of heaven. There’s the Telestial Kingdom, for anyone from Hitler to that lawyer who’s cheating on his wife. There’s the Terrestrial Kingdom, for those decent folks who said “not now” when the missionaries came by the door. And then there’s the Celestial Kingdom, the jackpot prize.
But even the Celestial Kingdom comes in degrees. According to Joseph Smith, there are three degrees of glory in the Celestial Kingdom. So there’s the big leagues, triple-AAA ball, and AA ball in the Celestial Kingdom. The Terrestrial Kingdom is eternal single-A ball while Telestial Kingdom folks are damned to the rookie leagues forever.
And there’s a reason I say leagues, because Mormon pop theology also flirts with the idea of progression within the lesser kingdoms … and even from kingdom to kingdom.
I refer to one of the more obscure B.H. Roberts’ books, ”Outlines of Ecclesiastical History,” first written in 1893, but my edition is from 1927. The copy I have was used by an LDS missionary of that era. Roberts was one of the “progressive model” Mormon leaders of the first half of the 20th century. He favored a more expansive interpretation of Mormon doctrine. It was a doctrinal battle that Roberts and others would eventually lose, mostly snuffed out by Joseph Fielding Smith and the rise of ultra-conservative church leaders.
Anyway, Roberts, on page 416, parts 19 and 20 of The Restoration of the Gospel section, writes:
“The question of advancement within the great divisions of glory celestial, terrestrial, and telestial; as also the question of advancement from one sphere of glory to another remains to be considered. In the revelation from which we have summarized what has been written here, in respect to the different degrees of glory, it is said that those of the terrestrial glory will be ministered unto by those of the celestial; and those of the telestial will be ministered unto by those of the terrestrial — that is, those of the higher glory minister to those of a lesser glory. We can conceive of no reason for all this administration of the higher to the lower, unless it be for the purpose of advancing our Father’s children along the lines of eternal progression. Whether or not in the great future, full of so many possibilities now hidden from us, they of the lesser glories after education and advancement within those spheres may at last emerge from them and make their way to the higher degrees of glory until at last they attain to the highest, is not revealed in the revelations of God, and any statement made on the subject must partake more or less of the nature of conjecture.
20. But if it be granted that such a thing is possible, they who at the first entered into the celestial glory — having before them the privilege also of eternal progress — have been moving onward, so that the relative distance between them and those who have fought their way up from the lesser glories, may be as great when the latter have come into the degrees of celestial glory in which the righteous at first stood, as it was at the commencement: and thus between them is an impassable gulf which time cannot destroy. Thus: those whose faith and works are such only as to entitle them to inherit a telestial glory, may arrive at last where those whose works in this life were such as to entitle them to entrance into the celestial kingdom – they may arrive where these were, but never where they are. ”
Now here is where things get really interesting. I went to an online archive of Roberts’ 1893 book for the last quote. And “… where they are” is where section 20 ends. However, if I go to the 1927 edition of “Outlines of Ecclesiastical History,” which I am holding in my hands, Roberts continues with this fascinating “conjecture”:
“But if it be granted that the chief fact about Intelligences is that they have power to add fact to fact and thus build up knowledge, and through knowledge have wisdom, and thus make progress; and if to such intelligence there is granted eternal life — immortality — then it is useless to postulate any limitations for them; for in the passing of even a few thousands of millions of years, even if progress be very slow — there will come a time when these intelligences — men and women of even the telestial glory — may become very acceptable characters, and very important personages.”
This is radical doctrine, and exciting to read. It brings Mormonism back to its most progressive roots. But, today, web searches include only the 1893 edition. Roberts’ speculation from 1927 is not there.
And since 1927, the idea of eternal progression toward exaltation has became a pariah. I came of age as a young Mormon in the 1970s and I recall more than one teacher telling classes that the idea that you could progress from any of the lower kingdoms to exaltation was damnable to consider. In fact, I recall teachers citing Bruce R. McConkie, who described the idea as one of the “Seven Deadly Heresies.” (here)
What is included in Roberts’ 1927 version was part of Mormonism’s move to more speculation of doctrine, more discussion. It was not to last, though. I have no idea of if the propensity to seeing the 1893 version of “Outlines …” online is due to disapproval of the 1927 edition, but I would not be surprised.
Today, if you go to the LDS apologetics group FARMS’ internal Wiki page on eternal progression between the three kingdoms, you get an odd non-answer that translated, more or less reads, there is no official church position on this, but it probably isn’t true.
Going back to Roberts’ book, section 7, page 408, of The Restoration of the Gospel,” he writes:
“Naturally the question arises why was the gospel preached to the spirits in prison who had once been disobedient if there were no means by which it could be applied to them for their salvation. We can scarcely suppose that Messiah would preach the gospel to them if it could do them no good. He did not go there to mock their sufferings or to add something to the torture of their damnation by explaining the beauties of that salvation now forever beyond their reach! Such a supposition would at once be revolting to reason, insulting to the justice of God, and utterly repugnant to the dictates of mercy!”
That part of Roberts’ teachings remains Mormon doctrine. It’s a reminder that the LDS belief that God does not have a “line” that divides all in a “heaven” and “hell” is still evidence of the faith’s exciting, progressive roots.
So, despite the JFS and BRM efforts to make progression within kingdoms a “sin” to speculate about, we Mormons do still wonder about these issues, and even discuss them among ourselves from time to time. (To read a fascinating article on Roberts’ and others debates within the LDS leadership over doctrine, go here).