On February 16, 1832 Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon recorded their Vision of the Three Degrees of Glory. Because this vision (published now as Section 76 of “The Doctrine & Covenants”) set the groundwork for that which is unique in Mormonism’s theology of eternity, Reform Mormons set aside February 16 as a holiday. Popularly called either “Three Degrees Day” or “The Day of Eternal Progression,” Reform Mormon use this day to meditate on the Universalist themes running throughout Mormonism’s unique theology, as well as on its positive view of humanity’s divine potential.
FEBRUARY 16th: THE DAY OF ETERNAL PROGRESSION
With backgrounds in Evangelicalism and Christian Primitivism, the first generation of Mormons tended to believe that the entire human race was divided into two groups: those who would be eternally damned in Hell and those who would be eternally saved in Heaven.
Even Joseph Smith himself defended the doctrine of Hell and Eternal Damnation when writing “The Book of Mormon.”
But even as the text of that book was being readied for publication, Joseph began to rethink the doctrine of Eternal Damnation. In a March 1830 personal revelation to Martin Harris (now published as Section 19 in “The Doctrine & Covenants” Section 19), Joseph taught that the words “Endless” and “Eternal” are used to describe God’s punishment not because of the duration of that punishment but because God and all his works are endless and eternal.
Joseph knew that rejecting the concept of eternally enduring damnation would cause a stir among many of his followers (given their Christian upbringing) and so he told Martin Harris “show not these things unto the world, for they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore they must not know these things, lest they perish.” (This is the originally version of this revelation as it was originally written and published in “A Book of Commandments,” not the abridged version that is currently published as Section19 of “The Doctrine & Covenants.”)
Joseph began to envision Hell as something similar to the Catholic notion of Purgatory: a temporary state from which one would be delivered once one had been punished for one’s un-repented sins; eventually all would be saved.
Most orthodox Christians considered the idea of Universal Salvation not only as heretical but also as undermining morality itself. After all, they reasoned, if all would eventually be saved, what was the incentive to live righteously? (Joseph Smith himself had put forth this idea when writing the earlier portions of “The Book of Mormon.”)
Also at stake was the concept of justice and fairness. Was it just or fair that in the end an unrepentant murderer would share the same “eternal reward” as the person who strove all her life to be righteous? Since Christians tended to believe in one Heaven in which are shared an equal reward, this line of questioning made perfect sense.
Unitarians and Universalists had been preaching universal salvation for years. Joseph Smith’s own father and paternal grandfather had, at various stages of their lives, been associated with these movements. As time progressed it became apparent to those who associated with him privately that even though Joseph Smith had written against the doctine of Universal Salvation in “The Book of Mormon,” in actuality, he shared his father’s and grandfather’s beliefs in the doctrine.
And so it not only surprised many Mormons, but also troubled some, when on February 16, 1832 Joseph Smith and his councilor, Sidney Rigdon had a vision of eternity that was not only rejected the orthodox Christian concept of Salvation versus Eternal Damnation, but also hinted that human nature itself was quite different than what was commonly believed.
Even Mormon leader Brigham Young admitted, "My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was so directly contrary and opposed to my former education, I said, wait a little; I did not reject it, but I could not understand it" (Deseret News, Extra, September 14, 1852, p. 24).
Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had been studying the Bible when they came across the Apostle Paul’s writings on the Resurrection of the Dead. Paul’s reference to there being “bodies Celestial and bodies Terrestrial” piqued their curiosity, and they decided to study further and pray over the matter.
Joseph Smith wrote:
"From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled. It appeared self-evident from what truths were left, that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body, the term ‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints’ eternal home, must include more kingdoms than one."
After studying further in the Gospel of John, Joseph and Sidney decided to pray for further understanding and knowledge. As a result of their prayers, they envisioned a startling new concept of Eternal Life and set it down in writing. At first known simply as “The Vision,” it was widely circulated among Mormons and eventually was canonized as Section 76 of “The Doctrine & Covenants.”
Of "The Vision," Mormon pioneer leader Wilford Woodruff said it was "a revelation which gives more light, more truth, and more principle than any revelation contained in any other book we ever read."
In 1832 the majority of Christians believed that only Christians would inherit “The Kingdom of God.“ The majority of mankind would be damned. Thus it was believed that one’s eternal happiness would depend on whether one had accepted the right religion.
According to “The Vision,“ one’s religious affiliation, as well as the doctrines that one accepted, were not as important as one’s character, personal virtue and righteous. One's moral character would be manifested in one’s actions; works reveal personal virtue.
In “The Vision” the Glory of God--that is, God’s virtue, knowledge and power--was likened to the brilliant light of the sun. Those who become like God will inherit this glory: the Glory of the Sun, or Celestial Glory. “The Vision” went so far as to declare that those who inherited this Celestial Glory would., in fact, become Gods.
Because of their choices and works, some will not progress as far. Using the symbolism of light, “The Vision” says that some will inherit a glory that could be compared to the light of the Moon (Telestial Glory). Still others will progress and inherit a glory that could be compared to the Light of the Stars (Terrestrial Glory).
These various degrees of glory are not given to people by God or anyone else. One’s degree of glory is the direct result of the type of person that one has become--the knowledge gained, the virtue cultivated. Because of this, all people will have some degree of happiness in eternity.
Each of us is on an eternal journey not to a particular destination such as traditionally envisioned with Heaven and Hell, but journey towards becoming a particular type of person. We are each progressing, evolving; and since we are each a free agent, we each control the pace and extent of our progress and evolution. Being born in the image of God, each of us--by our very nature--can progress and become like God.
Joseph Smith likened “The Vision” of February 16, 1832 to a “light which burst upon the world,“ the truths of which were “so much beyond the narrow-mindedness of men, that every man is constrained to exclaim: "It came from God"' (“The Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” p. 11).
A REFORM MORMON HOLIDAY
Because of the new understanding of humanity’s nature and divine potential laid forth in “The Vision,“ Reform Mormons revere February 16th as a holiday. In some Reform Mormon homes, the Sacrament will be taken as part of the day’s main meal. In some of their homes, Reform Mormons will light three candles--symbolizing the Celestial, Telestial and Terrestrial Glories. Still others may read “The Vision,” published as Section 76 in “The Doctrine & Covenants,” and mediate upon it. What unites all will be the feeling of celebration and thankfulness for a vision of eternity in which all human beings will inherit a degree of glory and happiness; a vision in which the labels of “saved” and “damned” have no place; a vision that truly embraces all mankind.
Eternal Progression is central to Reform Mormonism. Whereas others might ask, “What must I do to be saved?,” Reform Mormons ask, “How can I become more like God?”
One key to answering this question can be found in Joseph Smith’s writing from December 1832 on the Three Degrees of Glory. Joseph begins by directing his followers to look within themselves to “the same light that quickened your understandings; which light proceeded forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space--The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed…” (See “The Doctrine & Covenants 88: 11-13)
He then wrote that individuals will only be able to inherit the degree of glory that they can “abide”--meaning, the degree of glory which they can stand or live with. (See verses 22-24)
Of Celestial glory and law, Joseph writes:
“….Verily I say unto you, the earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of its creation, and transgresseth not the law…” (Verse 25)
This is a radical doctrine to which few have paid much attention. Orthodox Christian doctrine holds that the earth (the natural world in which we all live) is fallen, corrupt and sinful. This doctrine is tied in with the doctrine of Original Sin which holds that human nature is likewise fallen, corrupt and sinful.
But Joseph Smith taught that the world (meaning the actual planet on which we all live) AT THIS TIME functions and abides under a celestial law BECAUSE it “filleth the measure of its creation” (meaning, it is true to its nature) and “trangresseth not the law”---meaning it operates in harmony with “the light” which is “the power” operating throughout all nature (see Verses 7-13) and which ITSELF is “the law by which all things are governed.”
The radical new doctrine that comes through is that one must look to Nature---existence as it actually is--to understand one’s self, to discover what is of real value and what is not, to learn what is ethical and what is not.
Just as the earth abides a celestial law BECAUSE it fulfills the measure of its creation (or nature), so each of us abides by celestial law when we strive to fulfill the measure of our creation (nature).
When Joseph Smith began writing “The Book of Mormon,” he initially continued to preach the Orthodox Christian concept that “the natural man [human nature] is an enemy to God.” (See Mosiah 3:19)
Joseph’s idea quickly changed--so much so that decades later Brigham Young, in preaching on that particular passage in “The Book of Mormon”, taught that because of the knowledge we now have, if those verses in Mosiah were to be written today they would state “the natural man is a friend of God.”
Mormonism’s final break with orthodox Christianity came during the Nauvoo period when this positive understanding of human nature became the dominant view among the leading theologians of Mormonism. Parley P. Pratt wrote against those who taught that human nature needed to be “overcome,” “subdued” or “weakened.”
Lorenzo Snow in summing up Joseph’s beliefs concerning God’s own history, gave the final key to understanding the path of humanity's progression to divinity: “As man now is, God once was…”
Understanding our own nature is part of the same process as understanding God. Joseph Smith taught, “If men do not understand God, they do not understand themselves.” By understanding God we can begin to envision and understand our own potential. By understanding ourselves (man as he now is) the means of our progression can be revealed.
The degree of happiness that we know in this life as well as “the degree of glory” we inherit in eternity will be result of our own individual effort in this direction. Our life on earth, our existence here in time, is not something to be “endured” or “suffered through,”--it is not a state that we must somehow “overcome.”
Our life on earth, our existence here in time is to be embraced, experienced and cultivated. Our progress and our “degree of glory” is in the here and now.
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