December 16, 2008

Committing Suicide to Get to the Telestial Kingdom?

"Joseph Smith said the Telestial Kingdom 
is so great that if you were able to see it you'd 
kill yourself just to get there..." 

Did he? Some members of the LDS Church might recall hearing this folk doctrine at some point but are usually unable to identify a source. It has been mentioned in a few talks and books by various Latter-day Saints, each offering their own take on the quote.

In a 1964 address to students at Brigham Young University, Patriarch Emeritus Eldred G. Smith attributed the statement to Joseph Smith, mentioning it as though it was a certain or verified statement:
I cannot for a minute conceive the telestial being hell, either, because it is considered a heaven, a glory. The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that if we could get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there.
Then if the telestial is such a glorious occasion, a glorious heaven to get into, then how much greater would be the terrestrial, and still how much greater the celestial.1
I believe Patriarch Smith may actually be referring to a questionable third-hand account from Charles W. Walker who lived in St. George when Wilford Woodruff was assigned as the St. George temple president in 1877. (Incidentally, Walker wrote the hymn "Dearest Children, God is Near You."2) Walker's journal entry for August 19, 1877 states:
And on Friday last while speaking at the Funeral of Matilda Moody3 [Brother Woodruff] said we should improve the present time and do all we could for our dead ere death called us away. He referred to a saying of Joseph Smith which he heard him utter (like this) That if the People knew what was behind the vail, they would try by every means to commit suicide that they might get there, but the Lord in his wisdom had implanted the fear of death in every person that they might cling to life and thus accomplish the designs of their creator.4
"Friday last" would place the date of the quote on Friday August 17, 1877. Thus, rather than being a first-hand quote from Joseph Smith, the quote is a paraphrase written by Charles W. Walker two days after he heard Wilford Woodruff recall a statement from Joseph Smith, which would have been spoken at least 33 years earlier. As a result, the historical veracity of the quote is somewhat questionable. I would go as far as to call it a "rumor."

Compounding the mystery, however, is a quote from Lorin Farr. According to historian Steven Harper, Farr reported in 1900 that some sixty years earlier he had heard Joseph say something like "If we knew the condition of the spirits in the spirit world, thousands would commit suicide to get there.”5

The Walker quote is the only one I've seen quoted in subsequent LDS literature. Perhaps Farr heard it from Woodruff, though it wouldn't have been at the funeral, since there is no record of Farr traveling to St. George at the time. Further research needs to be done to see when Farr might have heard the quote from Joseph Smith, or perhaps from Woodruff or another source.

Regardless of the questionable nature of the quote it took on a life of its own. In addition to Patriarch Smith's reference mentioned above, several LDS authors and speakers have referred to the third-hand statement from Walker.

In volume 1 of the Deseret Book Studies in Scripture series (1989), edited by Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, contributor Larry Dahl referred to the folk doctrine in combination with D&C 76:89-90:
And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding; And no man knows it except him to whom God has revealed it.
In response to these verses Millet and Jackson clarify the suicide quote, stating it was not in reference only to the Telestial kingdom, but to "life behind the veil," still seeming to accept the quote at face value as an authentic quote by Joseph Smith:
Regarding "surpasses all understanding": A rather common notion in connection with this verse is that Joseph Smith had taught that if we knew what the telestial kingdom was like, we would commit suicide to get there. What the Prophet said was not in reference to the telestial kingdom, but to life ‘behind the veil,’ which may mean a number of things.6
Like Patriarch Smith they do not include the actual quote, but they do provide the reference to Walker's journal in a footnote.

At the 1992 Sperry Symposium at BYU, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel presented a paper on the poetic rendering of D&C 76. After the stanzas on the Telestial Kingdom he said:
An often repeated story associated with the telestial kingdom deals with something Joseph Smith was purported to have said: "The telestial kingdom is so great..." Wilford Woodruff recounted a comment by the Prophet that may be the basis of that apocryphal story. According to Charles Lowell Walker, Wilford Woodruff  "referred to a saying of Joseph Smith..." What he may have meant by this statement may never be known, but we do know that the happy state of those who inherit the telestial kingdom is emphasized in the poem.7

Unlike the previous references, Holzapfel appears more reluctant to accept the statement at face value, calling it "apocryphal" and noting that it is third-hand.

Likewise, Truman G. Madsen discussed the questionable nature of the quote before rephrasing it to what he believes the prophet may have said or meant:
Many of us have heard the statement made—and ascribed to either Joseph Smith or Brigham Young—to the effect that if a person could see the glory of the telestial kingdom he would commit suicide to get there. If only we could get the fundamental doctrines across to Church members as rapidly as we get across rumors, everyone would be saved. Am I saying that’s a rumor? 
Well, I am saying this, that over a period of many years I have combed everything Joseph Smith said and wrote, and I can’t find it. Hugh Nibley has done the same with Brigham Young’s words, and he can’t find it. It is hard to prove a negative, of course. What I can say is that we have found a statement from Joseph via Wilford Woodruff that says something else that is close, and I suspect it is the origin of the alleged statement. Elder Woodruff said the Prophet taught this, roughly: that if we could see what is beyond the veil we couldn’t stand to stay here in mortality for five minutes. And I suggest from the context that he was not talking about the telestial kingdom. He was talking about what it was like to be in the presence of God and the family.8
In Elder Russell M. Nelson's 1995 book Gateway We Call Death, Nelson softens the quote through ellipses rather than mentioning suicide:
Brigham Young was not the only leader to be deeply impressed with [Joseph Smith's] seership. Another contemporary penned this statement: "[Wilford Woodruff] referred to a saying of Joseph Smith, . . . That if the People knew what was behind the vail, they would try by every means . . . that they might get there, but the Lord in his wisdom has implanted the fear of death in every person that they might cling to life and thus accomplish the designs of their creator."9
Interestingly, Elder Nelson next relates a story Heber C. Kimball told about Jedediah M. Grant's visit to the Spirit World. Though Grant died shortly thereafter, it does not appear he attempted to commit suicide after his vision.10

Finally, as late as 1998 it has appeared in a book by Robert L. Millet. In his Mormon Faith: Understanding Restored Christianity Millet states:
Life's starkest reality is death...Even among those who see by the lamp of understanding, death is frequently viewed with fear and trembling. Joseph Smith is reported to have taught that "if the people knew what was behind the veil, ..."11
He offers no other commentary on the quote and I am unsure why it is included, as he next discusses spirit prison and spirit paradise without further talk of arrival-by-suicide. I suspect the quote is used to soothe trepidation regarding death or to help a grieving person see that life after death is not frightening, that a loved one is likely happy there.

Nevertheless, I believe the quote is too unverifiable to be considered a sure statement of Joseph Smith. Of course, both he and Sidney Rigdon beheld the glory of the Telestial, Terrestrial and Celestial kingdoms (see D&C 76) and managed to not commit suicide. Furthermore, even if Joseph said something similar (which I suspect he could have) I would not take such a statement as a prophecy or as doctrine, thinking that simply seeing the other side results in a suicide attempt.I place the statement in the "folk doctrine" arena, a "theological Twinkie" with the unpleasant inclusion of suicide.

Eldred G. Smith, "Exaltation," BYU Speeches of the Year, March 10, 1964, p. 4. The sermon appears to be rather extemporaneous with no clear outline. In addition to the suicide comment he discusses things like spirit birth, Mother in Heaven, and precisely calculates the "Lord's time" by referring to Abraham 3:4. ("Compare our time with the Lord's time: If we live on this earth to be a hundred years old, that is only two hours and twenty-four minutes in the Lord's time. A little simple mathematics..."). The picture is Sam Brown's "we might as well," Exploding Dog, 11/17/2008. Thanks to Greg Smith and Daniel Peterson for verifying some sources for me.

For more on Walker see Leonard J. Arrington, Davis Bitton, "Charles L. Walker: Sage of Saint George," Saints without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Signature Books, 1981), pp.63-71.

Matilda Moody, or Sarah Matilda Damron Moody, was born either on January 8, 1836 in Weekly Co., Illinois or January 31, 1836 in Barry Co., Missouri (see Florence C. Youngberg, Conquerors of the West, p. 1700). She was baptized a member of the LDS Church on July 23, 1846. She received her endowment and became the third wife of John Monroe Moody on Dec. 20, 1857 at the Salt Lake City Endowment House. She bore six children. She died in St. George, Utah on August 16, 1877, thus the funeral at which Woodruff spoke was the following day. The Deseret News, though regularly publishing death notices, did not publish her obituary or death announcement (see "Deseret News Weekly Death and Marriage Notices, 1852-1898"). Her family history information was submitted by Vern Taylor in 2006.

Charles Lowell Walker Diary, 19 Aug. 1877, LDS Church Archives. Published in Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, ed. by A. Karl Larson and Katherine M. Larson (Logan, Ut.: Utah State University Press, 1980), vol. 1, pp. 465-66. Woodruff referred to the funeral in his journal, but did not mention speaking. His entry for August 17, 1877 states "I spent the day in the Temple. Gave Endowments to 95 One half of them Swiss. Ordained 32 Elders. J D. T. McAllister sealed 13 Couple D H Cannon 11. I attended the funeral of Sister Moody wife of John M Moody. I wrote 2 letters to Sarah and B[ell/ulah?]. (Wilford Woodruff's Journal, Volume 7, pp. 366-367). Apparently this was a busy week for Elder Woodruff. On the 21st he was baptized for 100 people, including ordinance work for the signers of the Declaration of Independence. On the 29th he learned by telegraph that Brigham Young passed away in Salt Lake City. See Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, p. 501.

Lorin Farr, Weber Stake High Priests Quorum Minute Book, 1896–1929, series 13, vol. 1, p. 110, 27 October 1900, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. Found in Steven Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008) pp. 267-268.
Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, eds., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 1: The Doctrine and Covenants (Deseret Book 1989), pp. 305-308.

Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, "Eternity Sketch'd in a Vision": The Poetic Version of Doctrine & Covenants 76," Heavens Are Open: The 1992 Sperry Symposium on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History (1993) p. 155.

Truman G. Madsen, "The Awesome Power of Married Love," Radiant Life (Deseret Book, 1994) p. 91.

Russell M. Nelson, "The Veil is Sometimes Thin," Gateway We Call Death (Deseret Book, 1995), pp. 95-96 (ellipses in original).

Heber C. Kimball's account is in Journal of Discourses 4:135-36.

Robert L. Millet, "The Origin and Destiny of Man," Mormon Faith: Understanding Restored Christianity (Deseret Book, 1998) pp. 63-64.


Ardis E. Parshall said...

I doff my historical debunker's hat to you, BHodges. It is always helpful to chase down the permutations of a persistent but highly dubious/downright false folk belief. Not only do you alert people to the dubiousness of something they may never have questioned, but pulling everything together this way makes a handy reference for readers to return to when they inevitably dispute the belief the next time it is mentioned in Sunday School.

We need a Snopes-like database to keep track of posts like this.

rick said...

This came up in a youth class I taught a week ago. Good work. Thank you.

J. Stapley said...

Nice write-up. I was aware of the Walker reference; but in reviewing Harper's latest D&C volume, I found another. I don't have the volume with me so can't get the precise citation, but in his section of D&C 76 he has a brief discussion of this bit of lore and indicates that a Lorin Farr recollection of something similar is in a holograph High Priests minute book, circa 1900 (he includes the full citation).

BHodges said...

J Stape: I won't be reading Harper's book until after Dec. 25. It hurts seeing a stack of boxes under the tree like that, it really does! Thanks for the heads up. When I get the info I'll certainly add it to this post.

Thanks for stopping in Ardis and rick. I agree, we do need a Mormon Snopes. The apologetic group SHIELDS runs something like it, but they carry too much baggage imo for people to want to check that out there. It needs to be an independent thing. I started one called "Mormon Twinkies" but stopped because I want to spend my blog time making posts for this site.

BHodges said...

Jstap, that is.

Jared* said...

I, too, enjoy a good debunking. Thanks!

Justin said...

Unlike the previous references, Holzapfel appears more reluctant to accept the statement at face value, calling it "apocryphal" and noting that it is third-hand.

To clarify: By "statement" are you referring to the "telestial kingdom" statement or to the statement recorded in Walker's diary? Holzapfel describes the "telestial kingdom" story as apocryphal, but he seems to accept the statement in Walker's diary.

A minor note: Larry Dahl is the author of the article, "The Vision of the Glories (D&C 76)," published in Studies in Scripture (rather than Millet and Jackson).

BHodges said...

Justin: thanks for noticing Dahl.

Holzapfel appears to note the remark in passing, and doesn't seem to give it much credence other than to generalize the feeling of it, in my view.

Mark D. said...

You can't get to the telestial kingdom by committing suicide - you have to go the spirit world first, and repent and "be redeemed through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God."

And "after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, [they] shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation." (D&C 138:58-59)

BHodges said...

To say nothing of those who commit suicide and don't end up in the Telestial kingdom, of course.

Sione said...

This was always on my plate to identify or put to rest. I'm glad I don't have to do the leg work now.

Several years back I debunked the Joseph Smith statement "I'll follow Emma to Hell...". I didn't write a damn thing down and now I can't remember.

Could you re-do my work on that please?

Big UP!


BHodges said...

Updated with one more reference to the suicide thing. Thanks to J. Stapley and Steven Harper.

Jeremy said...

Great insights. I would still like to believe, however, that the Lord has something "beyond our understanding" in store for his children in the Telestial Kingdom. I cannot think a merciful and loving God would doom a portion of his children to Lagoon, when Disneyland may be an option.

On a separate note, I just finished Millet's, "What Happened to the Cross?" (highly recommended). Bro. Millet speaks of the quotation briefly there also, but I think he may have just recycled his arguments from "The Origin and Destiny of Man."

BHodges said...

I don't believe the Telestial Kingdom is a bad place. As section 76 says, "And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding;
And no man knows it except him to whom God has revealed it." In other words, it appears to be pretty nice.

I personally disagree with citing the quote without mentioning its historically questionable origin.

Doctor Steuss said...

Well done B-funk.

Sione said...

I think Iceberg Slim means

"well done Rabbi Shlomo"



BHodges said...


If I recall correctly, you were also apprised of this quote etc. when I was initially investigating it. Do you recall what thread on the board this was discussed in?

mikeriches said...

When all is said and done, this is fine work and should be praised!

BHodges said...

Glad you liked it.

Brian said...

I think that the debate about whether Joseph Smith Jr. really said this quotation is a reasonable question. However, the quote itself is very, very true: if we could see the telestial kingdom in all its glory "which surpasseth understanding" we would be tempted to commit suicide.

BHodges said...

Come on, the Telestial kingdom can't be THAT bad! ;)

I guess my answer to you would depend on the circumstances one is living in at the time. Further, suicide itself is a very sensitive issue, and some may assume that the quote indicates that suicide will result in a Telestial resurrection. I think that alone should discourage use of the quote or sentiment.

The Old Wolf said...

Coming late to the party after looking for verification of this quote, I acknowledge the diligence with which you have turned over every available stone to get at the truth thereof.

I suspect the general sentiment might be true on some level, but only for those who were unaware that there were something surpassing better to be obtained.

Thank you for your scholarship.

BHodges said...

Thanks, Old Wolf.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
BHodges said...

All views are welcome when shared respectfully. Use a name or consistent pseudonym rather than "anonymous." Deletions of inflammatory posts will be noted, as in this instance. Please try to follow the guidelines next time.

Anonymous said...

I found this blog while researching where I had read this "quote" of Joseph Smith. I remembered this "quote" while reading about the new "Avatar depression syndrome". Apparently there are a number of people who are depressed and having suicidal thoughts because they no longer want to deal with this horrible Earth life after seeing the glorious and harmonious life on Pandora.
(This article summarizes some of the comments:

Jared said...

I am already *IN* the Telestial Kingdom. I learned that in God's house.

Seriously, I think this is an idea that has profound implications.

Hannah said...

How can the Telestial Kingdom be any good if God the Father and Jesus are not there?
The Bible says that heaven will not even need a sun because God himself will give light.

BHodges said...

Hannah, for one thing, you won't have to listen to mainstream pop radio in the Telestial kingdom, which makes it invariably better than our present condition anyway.

Nathan Jensen said...

This was very well written. In Sunday school today one of my 13 year olds brought up this "quote" as though it were truth. I had been taught many years ago that it was apocryphal. So I googled on it today and found this well-researched post. Thanks!

BHodges said...

Cool, thanks for leaving a comment. I see people locating this post through Google, and I'm always curious what prompted their search.

Mark A said...

@BHoges I got here from looking for another quote.

Anonymous said...

Certainly most near death literature supports that those that have been even part way into heaven are reluctant to return to earth life, and many struggle with depression upon their return to this sphere.

Anonymous said...

BHodges, the reason I searched and found this is because I actually think I am going to the Telestial Kingdom. And I want to find out if it's really terrible and lonely there, or will I someday be happy or contentat all.In this life I had the restored gospel and I fell away through sins of the flesh. Now I lie and cover up my sexual addiction even from my own Dad and Brother.I'm pretty much toast, although I do pray. But prayer is not enough for me to give up what I want, when I want and I experiance much sorrow on this earth as a result of my own refusal to fully repent and turn from the evils of wanton sexual desires. Which has now led me into even being a liar with my own flesh and blood relatives. So, I have begun to wonder what could be in store for a complete sinner like me. By the way, I NEVER deny the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel and I would not give my assent to have the Savior crucified again. I do not want to go to outter darkness and I do not deny the workings and truthfullness of the Holy Spirit.
I am glad this page has been here. I hope the Lord does love us ones who may probably inherit the Telestial Kindom enough, that we don't suffer horribly for eternity.
Sorry for posting under anonymous, it's the most easy for me, although I'm not the anonymous from above. My first name is Karl...I'll use that when writing from now on.
I have much sorrow lately but for some reason I still do not turn away from sins of the flesh, even in the face of a compromised afterlife. I know I won't go to the Celestial, I just hope the Telestial isn't completely horrible. Because that's pretty much who I'm proving to be.

Linda said...

I found this page while searching for information about my great-great grandfather, Charles Lowell Walker. I had no idea he was in any way associated with this statement! I'm looking for a copy of his journals. I just discovered that they exist....Karl,Christ didn't suffer so that you could suffer and just give up. He suffered and he overcame so that he can help you. The healing power of the atonement is real. I've felt that power myself and I've seen it at work in my own family. Please don't turn away. You CAN become clean again, with Christ's help. Talk to your bishop. He'll understand and he'll help, too!

Scotty said...

As an atheist, I felt bad for the anon poster above who thinks he is going to the Telestial Kingdom. I feel peace not beleiving in an afterlife because it isnt experianced,, hence it wouldnt be any worse than exaltation. What this anon poster doesnt know is that the Telestial Kingdom was made up. It is a cross between Terrestrial and Celestial. The word 'Telestial' was made up in the 1820s.

Blair Hodges said...

As an enlightened atheist, you should know that ALL words are made up, Scotty. :)

Mindy said...

This was a very interesting post. We were having a missionary discussion and this quote came up (I brought it up). The missionaries corrected me. I was surprised so I looked it up. I love the internet for this very thing! Thanks for your in depth research.

Fame andFortune said...

The Telestial Kingdom is a "degree of GLORY" yes it may be the third worst BUT it's still better than earth as every prophet and apostle has told us since Joseph Smith. You all need to read Bruce R. McConkie's work: The Millennial Messiah, 1982 where you will understand just what the three degrees entail.

Fame andFortune said...

As to the above "enlightened atheist" above Blair Hodges? Since we have proof that energy never dies...And our spirit has been proving by every scientist on this earth to date...Where do our spirits go after our vessel or body dies? It's still alive. Start reading the Kybalion online now to learn just what this means. You need to stand corrected as we will bed judged and sent to a degree of glory. I bare witness to this and know it from the scriptures which are sacred and true as 2+2 will always be 4 because it's a law of this universe. It can never be five regardless if you wish to change the law or not as the law maker is God and we have no choice in the matter as he is the Highest law also known as THE ALL.

Fame andFortune said...

To B. Hodges. I see again more posts by you that sound as if you're not an atheist? Were you just being sarcastic? I apologize in advance.

Blair Hodges said...

Yep. Not an atheist.

Nathan Corry said...

Great conclusion on the subject.

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Eric Frame said...

As a graduate student under Truman Madsen, he mentioned more than once that if anyone ever found this quote, he'd like to see it since he'd been searching for over 40 years for it. How many other false doctrines creep into our discussions and we accept it? I can think of many others.

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All views are welcome when shared respectfully. Use a name or consistent pseudonym rather than "anonymous." Deletions of inflammatory posts will be noted. Thanks for joining the conversation.