Witnesses of the Glories of Heaven

By Milton V. Backman, Jr.

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    The historical background of Doctrine and Covenants 137

    As members of the Church, we read with joy and gratitude the experience of the Prophet Joseph Smith viewing the glories of the celestial kingdom, and we share some of his own happiness at seeing his beloved brother, Alvin, in that sacred location. But we may not realize that the ten short verses that will appear in new editions of the Doctrine and Covenants later this year as Section 137 (formerly Joseph Smith—Vision, in the Pearl of Great Price) record only one event—even though a very significant one—in a period of Church history when the Lord’s spirit was being poured out upon the Saints in blessing upon blessing.

    The story begins about three months before the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. On the evening of 21 January 1836, a group of about forty men passed through the large doors of the freshly plastered Kirtland Temple. Masons had not yet finished the interior, and the large assembly rooms on the first and second floors were still unpainted. The men climbed the spiral stairs past these floors to the third-floor “attic” and went to the west end.

    Some of them gathered in the western most room, then being used as a Hebrew classroom. Joseph Smith called it the translating room. Oliver Cowdery called it the president’s room, and Joseph Smith, Sr., had dedicated it a few weeks earlier, on January 4, as a place of learning.

    As they lit their candles, they did not know that one of the great visions of the ages would unfold that night. Many of them would witness portions of that vision, some would behold angels, and all would feel the influence of heavenly beings.

    Who were these men? Some were “the presidency,” a term that Joseph Smith applied not only to himself and his two counselors in the First Presidency, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, but also to Oliver Cowdery (associate president of the Church and a member of the presidency of the Kirtland high council), Joseph Smith, Sr. (patriarch to the Church and former president of the Kirtland high priests), Hyrum Smith, David Whitmer (president of the high council and the Church in Missouri), and David Whitmer’s two counselors, W. W. Phelps and John Whitmer.1

    Also present with the presidency were seven other men: Warren Parrish, the scribe of Joseph Smith; Edward Partridge, bishop of Zion (Missouri) and his counselors, John Corrill and Isaac Morley; and Bishop Newel K. Whitney of Kirtland and his counselors, Vinson Knight and Reynolds Cahoon.2 Others in the temple were the members of the high councils from Kirtland and Missouri.3

    Most of these brethren lived in Kirtland, and those from Missouri had come at the Prophet’s call to conduct Church business, to receive instruction, to await the completion of the temple so it could be dedicated, and to receive an endowment—not the full endowment which would be given in Nauvoo and later temples but a preliminary ordinance.

    Earlier that afternoon, according to Joseph Smith’s diary, the “presidency,” with the apparent absence of W. W. Phelps, had met in the attic of the printing office near the temple at about 3:00 P.M., and they had performed a washing and anointing ordinance.4

    In the temple that evening the twenty-four members of the high councils waited and prayed in two third-story temple rooms. In the adjoining translating room were the “presidency,” the bishops and their counselors, and Joseph Smith’s scribe. The presidency encircled the seated Father Smith, and all raised their right hands. Joseph Smith, holding a bottle of oil in his left hand, blessed and consecrated it in the name of Jesus Christ. Then he anointed his father, invoking the blessings of heaven. All of the presidency, according to age, laid their hands upon Joseph Smith, Sr., and in turn requested that the blessings of heaven be poured upon him. Then the Prophet prayed to the Lord, requesting an acceptance of the anointing.

    Following this initial ordinance, others were anointed. Father Smith placed his hands on the heads of all of the other presidents, beginning with the oldest, anointing them and blessing them. When he blessed his son, Joseph, he sealed upon the Prophet “the blessings of Moses, to lead Israel in the latter days” and “the blessings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Joseph Smith further declared that all of the presidency “laid their hands upon me and pronounced … many prophecies and blessings.” Edward Partridge added that, after the presidency had received their anointings, Bishop Whitney and his counselors and Bishop Partridge and his counselors and Warren Parrish participated in this ordinance and received their blessings.5

    After all the men had been anointed, Joseph Smith testified that “the heavens were opened upon us” and he “beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof” (D&C 137:1–10; History of the Church, 2:380–81). He saw “the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.” He “saw the beautiful streets of that kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold.” He saw “Fathers Adam and Abraham” and others who were then living, including his father (who was with him in the room), his mother (who was home in Kirtland), and his deceased brother, Alvin. He saw the twelve Apostles, who had been called the year before, and he saw Jesus standing in their midst. He also saw in the celestial kingdom all of the presidency and many others. Upon asking the Lord how Alvin, who had died before the Church was restored, could inherit the celestial kingdom, he received the remarkable assurance that “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;

    “Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;

    “For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.

    “And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” (D&C 137:7–10.)

    According to the Prophet Joseph Smith, during this vision angels not only ministered to him but to others who had received their anointings. “The power of the Highest rested upon us,” he said, and “the house was filled with the glory of God.” His scribe, Warren Parrish, recorded his own experience at the Prophet’s dictation: “My scribe … saw in a vision the armies of heaven protecting the Saints in their return to Zion, and many [of the same] things which I [Joseph Smith] saw.”6

    Sometime after this particular vision ended, the high councilors of the Church in Kirtland and Missouri entered the west room. Prayers were offered, and the presidents of the two high councils anointed the heads of the members of their respective councils each in turn, beginning with the oldest.7

    Following this ordinance, says the Prophet Joseph Smith, “The visions of heaven were opened to them also. Some of them saw the face of the Savior, and others were ministered unto by holy angels.” He further testified that “we all communed with the heavenly host. … The spirit of prophecy and revelation,” he added, “was poured out in mighty power.”8

    In addition to the records left by Joseph Smith and his scribe, Warren Parrish, Edward Partridge wrote, “A number saw visions. Others were blessed with the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.” Moreover, Oliver Cowdery added his testimony in his 1836 diary for January 21: “The glorious scene” was “too great to be described. … I only say that the heavens were opened to many, and great and marvelous things were shown.”9

    During this spiritual feast, the men on several occasions shouted, “Hosannah to God and the Lamb.” The meeting ended with singing and prayer, Joseph Smith offering the final benediction. This solemn assembly must have continued until after midnight, for the Prophet recorded in his diary that he retired between one and two o’clock in the morning.10

    The next day was Friday. Members of the Church gathered at the usual time to study Hebrew, but instead of pursuing their lessons, they spent the morning discussing the visions of the preceding night. That evening, the same people who had met Thursday evening again gathered in the attic room and were joined by members of the Quorum of the Twelve, presidents of the First Council of the Seventy, and Don Carlos Smith, who had been called to preside over the high priests. After the Apostles, the Seventies, and Don Carlos Smith had received their anointings, the heavens were again opened and many reported seeing visions. While describing this meeting, the Prophet declared, “the gift of tongues fell upon us in mighty power, angels mingled their voices with ours, while their presence was in our midst, and unceasing praises swelled our bosoms for the space of half-an-hour.” Edward Partridge wrote, “During the evening, … a number saw visions as they declared unto us.”11

    As the days and weeks passed, other spiritual manifestations occurred in Kirtland in connection with the dedication of the temple. The vision of the glories of heaven which occurred on 21 January 1836 was the beginning of a great outpouring of manifestations of the Spirit that continued for almost three months and which blessed the lives of many faithful Kirtland Saints.

    Illustrated by Gary Smith

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    Notes

    1. 1.

      History of the Church, 2:124, 126, 176, 366; 4:190–91; Manuscript History of the Church, Book A., 5–6 December 1834, Church Hist. Dept. Archives.

    2. 2.

      History of the Church, 2:365, 381–83, 509; Joseph Smith, Kirtland Diary, 22 September 1835–3 April 1836, Church Hist. Dept. Archives, hereafter cited as Kirtland Diary; Oliver Cowdery, Sketch Book, 21 January 1836, Church Hist. Dept. Archives, published in BYU Studies, 12 (summer 1972): 413–26; Edward Partridge, “An Account of the Travels and Ministry of Edward Partridge,” typescript, pp. 36–38, Church Hist. Dept. Archives, hereafter cited as Partridge, “Account of His Ministry.”

    3. 3.

      Kirtland Diary, p. 101; History of the Church, 2:356–57, 366–67; Kirtland High Council Minute Book, p. 200–3, Church Hist. Dept. Archives. The twelve who were then serving in the Missouri high council were Simeon Carter, John Hitchcock, Levi Jackman, Peter Whitmer, Jr., George M. Hinkle, Elias Higbee, Elisha H. Groves, Calvin Beebe, Newel Knight, Lyman Wight, Alva Beeman, and Isaac McWithy (the latter two replacing Solomon Hancock and John Murdock who were absent). The standing high council of Kirtland consisted of John Smith, John Johnson, Orson Johnson, Martin Harris, Samuel H. Smith, Jared Carter, Joseph Coe, Samuel James, Noah Packard, Joseph Kingsbury, Thomas Grover, and John P. Greene.

    4. 4.

      Kirtland Diary, pp. 135–36; History of the Church, 2:379; Cowdery, Sketch Book, 21 January 1836.

    5. 5.

      Kirtland Diary, pp. 135–36, 138; History of the Church, 2:379–80; Partridge, “Account of His Ministry,” pp. 37–38; Cowdery, Sketch Book, 21 January 1836. Since this ordinance was given according to age, the men were probably anointed in this order: Joseph Smith, Sr., Frederick G. Williams, W. W. Phelps, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Joseph Smith, Jr., and Oliver Cowdery.

    6. 6.

      Kirtland Diary, pp. 136–38; History of the Church, 2:380–81.

    7. 7.

      Kirtland Diary, pp. 138–39; History of the Church, 2:382; Partridge, “Account of His Ministry,” pp. 36–38.

    8. 8.

      Kirtland Diary, p. 139; History of the Church, 2:382.

    9. 9.

      Partridge, “Account of His Ministry,” pp. 37–38; Cowdery, Sketch Book, 21 January 1836.

    10. 10.

      Kirtland Diary, pp. 138–39; History of the Church, 2:382; Partridge, “Account of His Ministry, pp. 36–38.

    11. 11.

      Kirtland Diary, pp. 140–41; History of the Church, pp. 382–83; Partridge, “Account of His Ministry,” pp. 36–38; Cowdery, Sketch Book, 22 January 1836.

    • Milton V. Backman, Jr., a professor of religious instruction at Brigham Young University, serves as a high councilor in the Edgemont Utah Stake.