Question: Did Joseph Smith derive the idea of "three degrees of glory" from Emanuel Swedenborg's book, ''Heaven and its Wonders and Hell''?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith derive the idea of "three degrees of glory" from Emanuel Swedenborg's book, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell?

The charge that Swedenborg was Joseph's source is a late one, and was not even mentioned by those who disliked both Joseph and Swedenborg, and knew both works

It is claimed by critics of Mormonism that Joseph Smith derived the idea of "three degrees of glory" in the afterlife from Emanuel Swedenborg's book, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen (1758). [1] It is also claimed that Joseph Smith's practice of plural marriage was similar to Swedenborg's philosophy of "spiritual wifery."

Swedenborg said,

There are three heavens, entirely distinct from each other, an inmost or third, a middle or second, and an outmost or first. These have the same order and relation to each other as the highest part of man, or his head, the middle part, or body, and the lowest, or feet; or as the upper, the middle, and the lower stories of a house. In the same order is the Divine that goes forth and descends from the Lord; consequently heave, from the necessity of order, is threefold....The Divine that flows in from the Lord and is received in the third or inmost heaven is called celestial, and in consequence the angels there are called celestial angels; the Divine that flows in from the Lord and is received in the second or middle heaven is called spiritual, and in consequence the angels there are called spiritual angels; while the Divine that flows in from the Lord and is received in the outmost or first heaven is called natural; but as the natural of that heaven, unlike the natural of the world, has the spiritual and celestial within it, that heaven is called the spiritual- and the celestial-natural, and in consequence the angels there are called the spiritual-natural and celestial-natural. Those who receive influx from the middle or second heaven, which is the spiritual heaven, are called spiritual-natural; and those who receive influx from the third or inmost heaven, which is the celestial heaven, are called celestial-natural. The spiritual-natural angels and the celestial-natural angels are distinct from each other; nevertheless they constitute one heaven, because they are in the same degree.[2]

However, elements in Joseph's schema are present in the Bible, but not present in Swedenborg's model. The claim of "similarity" rests on a few superficial similarities between Joseph and Swedenborg and the Bible—and ignores the many marked differences between them.

Even if one is not inclined to grant Joseph Smith prophetic status, it seems far more plausible that his view of a three-tiered heaven derives from the New Testament, and not from Swedenborg.

Some believe that Joseph Smith borrowed the concept of three degrees of glory from Swedish philosopher and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). This portrait shows him at age 75. Original from en.wikipedia.org.

The concept of different degrees of heaven is not original to Swedenborg

1 Corinithians 15:41:

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

Swedenborg was hardly the first theologian or thinker to suggest that heavenly rewards were not all identical, but graduated into degrees of glory. The discussion and debate about the fate of the righteous in heaven goes back to the earliest Christian centuries. Non-LDS scholar Emma Disley indicates that the primary sources for the idea of different degrees of glory are Matthew 5:; John 14:2 ("in my Father's house are many mansions"); Matt 5; John 14.2 (‘many mansions’); 1 Corinithians 15:41 (stars differ in glory from one another); Matthew 20:1-4 (parable of the Vineyard).

Thus, the "raw material" for such ideas is Biblical, and noted long before Joseph or Swedenborg. Joseph received the vision of the three degrees of glory on 16 February 1832. Joseph had been involved in his translation/revision of the Bible, and indicates that this effort was what led to the reflections which preceded the vision. Joseph indicated that the vision came after reading John 5:29: "And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation." [3]

Problems with the thesis that Joseph borrowed Swedenborg's ideas

The issues arguing against borrowing come in at least three different ways:

  1. a common source for both Swedenborg and Joseph
  2. no early charge that Joseph had borrowed from Swedenborg
  3. the "similarities" are superficial, while there are many deep differences.

Part of the basis for Doctrine and Covenants Section 76 is clearly rooted in the New Testament, and Swedenborg cannot be the source for the notion of three heavens because of this

First, as discussed above, there is the issue of other sources available to both Joseph and Swedenborg. 1 Corinthians 15: uses both the words celestial and terrestrial to name two of the three heavens. Joseph Smith in Section 76 uses both of these terms. Swedenborg only uses the word celestial. Whether or not Joseph borrowed from Swedenborg, part of the basis for Section 76 is clearly rooted in the New Testament. Swedenborg cannot be the source for the notion of three heavens because of this. At the most we could say that some of Swedenborg's expansions on the idea of heavenly glory have something in common with the revelations received by Joseph Smith.

The charge of Joseph "borrowing" idea from Swedenborg only occurs much later

Second, we don't really see any early charges that Joseph Smith borrowed from Swedenborg. That is, with the Book of Mormon, we have a nearly constant stream of claims that Joseph stole his ideas in the book from somewhere else—Spaulding's manuscript, Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews, and so on. But, we don't see anyone claiming that Joseph borrowed from Swedenborg—until D. Michael Quinn makes the claim late in the twentieth century.

Joseph's early critics and readers were quite familiar with Swedenborg—one early critique of Joseph compared him to Swedenborg since both were regarded as false prophets, but said nothing about Swedenborg as a source for Joseph's ideas. [4] A second critique complained about the lack of symbolism in Joseph's ideas. While regarding Swedenborg as a fraud and false prophet, this critic notes that while Swedenborg "was vailed in figures, tropes, and parabols: It: is not so with Joseph Smith: He speaks plainly. He lies openly; and hopes to succeed by inspiring falsehood with the fearlessness of truth...." [5] Thus, neither critic saw the parallels which modern critics are so keen to insist were there.

The lack of an early attack on Joseph on these grounds is thus problematic for a couple of reasons. First, while we know that Joseph probably had some contact with Swedenborg's writings by 1839, the same kinds of arguments made for early access to Swedenborg can also be made for those around Joseph. Swedenborg's work was, after all, in the public library of Joseph's home town, and it was widely published. The same kinds of individuals who would have talked to Joseph certainly could have talked to those around him—and yet we don't get the claims of his being influenced. And this means that it is quite likely that this discussion is purely of more recent manufacture.

The claim ignores the many differences between Joseph's concepts and Swedenborg's

Third, it is easy to claim that there is borrowing when you get to summarize everything. It's a lot harder when you get to read the texts. Here, for example, is the first part of the bit about three heavens from Swedenborg:

There Are Three Heavens

29. There are three heavens, entirely distinct from each other, an inmost or third, a middle or second, and an outmost or first. These have the same order and relation to each other as the highest part of man, or his head, the middle part, or body, and the lowest, or feet; or as the upper, the middle, and the lower stories of a house. In the same order is the Divine that goes forth and descends from the Lord; consequently heave, from the necessity of order, is threefold.

30. The interiors of man, which belong to his mind and disposition, are also in like order. He has an inmost, a middle, and an outmost part; for when man was created all things of Divine order were brought together in him, so that he became Divine order and form, and consequently a heaven in miniature. For this reason man, as regards his interiors, has communication with the heavens and comes after death among the angels, either among those of the inmost, or of the middle, or of the outmost heaven, in accordance with his reception of Divine good and truth from the Lord during his life in the world.

31. The Divine that flows in from the Lord and is received in the third or inmost heaven is called celestial, and in consequence the angels there are called celestial angels; the Divine that flows in from the Lord and is received in the second or middle heaven is called spiritual, and in consequence the angels there are called spiritual angels; while the Divine that flows in from the Lord and is received in the outmost or first heaven is called natural; but as the natural of that heaven, unlike the natural of the world, has the spiritual and celestial within it, that heaven is called the spiritual- and the celestial-natural, and in consequence the angels there are called the spiritual-natural and celestial-natural. Those who receive influx from the middle or second heaven, which is the spiritual heaven, are called spiritual-natural; and those who receive influx from the third or inmost heaven, which is the celestial heaven, are called celestial-natural. The spiritual-natural angels and the celestial-natural angels are distinct from each other; nevertheless they constitute one heaven, because they are in the same degree.

32. In each heaven there is an internal and an external; those in the internal are called internal angels, while those in the external are called external angels. The internal and the external in the heavens, or in each heaven, hold the same relation as the voluntary and intellectual in man - the internal corresponding to the voluntary, and the external to the intellectual. Every thing voluntary is intellectual; one cannot exist without the other. The voluntary may be compared to a flame and the intellectual to the light therefrom.

So, there are three heavens in Swedenborg. And there are three heavens in Joseph Smith, and there are three heavens in 1 Cor. 15. In the New Testament we have "bodies celestial" - from 1 Cor. 15:40

40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

And in Section 76 we have celestial bodies (verse 78)

78 Wherefore, they are bodies terrestrial, and not bodies celestial, and differ in glory as the moon differs from the sun.

And in Swedenborg, we get External, Spiritual-Natural Angels.

The New Testament and the D&C both use a tiered system based on the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars—but Swedenborg's system is repeated brought back to a comparison with the body. When Swedenborg suggests that "... for when man was created all things of Divine order were brought together in him, so that he became Divine order and form, and consequently a heaven in miniature" and for Joseph Smith, man is created in God's image.

It is therefore very easy to portray similarities—but here we can read Swedenborg, and it sounds very little like Joseph Smith. Sure, we can point to some shared words—words like "degree"—but these are not unique to Joseph Smith or to Swedenborg, and so they aren't that useful in demonstrating a connection. On the surface it sounds nice, but once you spend the time to read both texts, it becomes hard to imagine one as the source for the other.


Notes

  1. The Latin title of the original was De Caelo et Ejus Mirabilibus et de inferno, ex Auditis et Visis. An on-line version is available as translated by J.C. Ager, off-site
  2. Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell
  3. See DC 76:76; see also Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 1:245–252. Volume 1 link
  4. John A. Clark, “Gleanings by the way. No. VI,” Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) (5 September 1840): 94. off-site
  5. Walter Scott, “Mormon Bible–No. III,” The Evangelist (Carthage, Ohio) 9, no. 3 (1 March 1841): 42–45. off-site