Doctrine and Covenants, Section 131 has had a huge impact on how we understand the afterlife. There is, however, some debate about a few key aspects of the text mean that also have implications for our fate in the afterlife, especially when it comes to marital status. Given the debates, it is probably best to observe a degree of humility about our knowledge of how the afterlife works.
Section 131 is canonized as a part of the Doctrine and Covenants, though it isn’t a revelation in the form of the Covenants that comprise most of the early sections. Instead, it’s made up of excerpts from three discussions with Joseph Smith that his secretary (William Clayton) recorded in his journal. The portion I’m focused on here is taken from remarks Joseph Smith made to Melissa and Benjamin Johnson on May 16, 1843 (D&C 131:1-4). At that time, Joseph Smith was in the process of introducing some of his inner circle to the practice of polygamy. William Clayton had already married Margaret Moon as a second wife a few weeks earlier (April 24, 1843) and Joseph Smith had married several women, most recently Eliza and Emily Partridge. About a month beforehand, Joseph Smith had introduced the concept to the Johnsons with the intention of gaining Benjamin’s approval to marry his sister Almera.
Initially, the proposal didn’t go over well. Benjamin later recalled that: “His words astonished me and almost took my breath. I sat for a time amazed and finally, almost ready to burst with emotion, I looked him straight in the face and said: ‘Brother Joseph, this is something I did not expect, and I do not understand it. You know whether it is right, I do not. I want to do just as you tell me, and I will try, but if I ever should know that you do this to dishonor and debauch my sister, I will kill you as sure as the Lord lives.’” President Smith responded that “you will know the principle in time, and will greatly rejoice in what it will bring to you,” and that later that day he would “preach a sermon to you that none but you will understand.” Benjamin Johnson eventually would practice polygamy himself, but had some major reservations at the time.
The discussion that took place on May 16 seems to be a follow-up to these previous discussions. Joseph wouldn’t marry Almera until August 1843, after all. While visiting the Johnsons with William Clayton, Joseph Smith “put his hand on my [Clayton’s] knee and says ‘your life is hid with Christ in God,’” then turned to Benjamin Johnson and explained his belief that since Clayton was sealed as a polygamist, “nothing but the unpardonable sin can prevent him (me) from inheriting eternal glory for he is sealed up by the power of the priesthood unto eternal life having taken the step which is necessary for that purpose.” It was at that point that he stated that:
except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity while in this probation by the power and authority of the Holy priesthood they will cease to increase when they die (i e) they will not have any children in the resurrection, but those who are married by the power & authority of the priesthood in this life & continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost will continue to increase & have children in the celestial glory. . . .
He also said that in the celestial glory there was three heavens or degrees, and in order to obtain the highest a man must enter into this order of the priesthood and if he dont he cant obtain it. He may enter into the other but that is the end of his kingdom he cannot have an increase.
It was a pointed speech aimed at selling the concept of eternal marriage and polygamy. This, however, opens up a few points of discussion.
The first is what did Joseph Smith mean by stating that: “in the celestial glory there was three heavens or degrees”? In contemporary Latter-day thought, it is common to take this to mean that there are three divisions within the Celestial Kingdom–the highest kingdom of glory spoken of in Section 76. Shannon P. Flynn, however, has challenged this interpretation, indicating that “the celestial glory” refers to heaven and that the “three heavens or degrees” refers to the Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial Kingdoms rather than sub-divisions within the Celestial Kingdom. He pointed out that in that time and place, the word “celestial” simply meant “heavenly,” noting that: “It is clear . . . from the context and common usage at the time that Clayton intended–in his journal entry–to report Joseph Smith’s teaching that in the next life, that is, the hereafter, there are three degrees/divisions of glory.” With a couple notable exceptions, this is how the statement was interpreted throughout the nineteenth century.
It seems to be that Elder Melvin J. Ballard’s 1924 talk about the “Three Degrees of Glory” was the turning point in shifting to our current understanding of three sub-degrees within the Celestial Kingdom. Elder Ballard’s statement that: “there are three degrees of glory in the Celestial Kingdom and only those who attain the highest degree of Celestial Glory will be candidates to become what God is, and graduate” proved particularly influential. Thus, based on his research, Flynn concluded that: “The idea started off slowly and gained steam until it is generally believed, I suspect, by the majority of Church members today. In my opinion, more details regarding the three sub-degrees have not been forthcoming because there were none to begin with.”
The second point of debate is what Joseph Smith meant by stating that “this order of the priesthood” is necessary for entering the highest degree of glory. Modern interpretation is generally that he simply meant a marriage sealed by priesthood authority. Given the context (that he was selling the idea of plural marriage to Melissa and Benjamin Johnson), it also very possible that the order or the priesthood he referred to was plural marriage. Both options are possible based on Clayton’s entry.
There are a few things that do make it possible to understand the statement as referring to marriage (monogamous or polygamous) sealed by priesthood authority. Earlier in the conversation, President Smith stated that:
except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity while in this probation by the power and authority of the Holy priesthood they will cease to increase when they die . . . but those who are married by the power & authority of the priesthood in this life & continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost will continue to increase & have children in the celestial glory.
The entry then includes the statement that: “I feel desirous to be united in an everlasting covenant to my wife and pray that it may soon be.” It is unclear whether the “I” in the latter statement refers to Joseph Smith or William Clayton. Both were polygamists at that point, though Joseph Smith would not be sealed to Emma Hale Smith by priesthood authority until May 28, 1843, about two weeks after his discussion with the Johnsons. This makes it likely that the “I” was referring to Joseph Smith and opens the possibility that the marriage sealing ordinance was the basis of the “everlasting covenant” that allowed entry into the Celestial Glory, regardless of the number of wives that were sealed to a man.
It is difficult in that era, however, to disentangle the practice of plural marriage from celestial marriages and the sealing authority. Emma was allowed to be sealed to Joseph Smith only after she had accepted the practice of plural marriage (if only temporarily) and consented to him being sealed to the Partridge sisters. And, while the text of D&C 131 may not have been familiar to most Latter-day Saints in the mid-nineteenth century, it was not uncommon to believe that plural marriage was a requirement for exaltation. For example, Mary Ellen Harris was sealed in the Nauvoo Temple to Heber C. Kimball because “she felt that if she did not take this step her own glory would be clipt.” In 1869, William Clayton would teach that: “men with only one wife would be nothing but angels in the next world.” In 1878, Joseph F. Smith taught that: “some of the Saints have said, and believe, that a man with one wife, sealed to him by the authority of the Priesthood for time and eternity, will receive an exaltation as great and glorious, if he is faithful, as he possibly could with more than one. I want here to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false.” It’s no wonder, then, that Jane Snyder Richards agreed to plural marriage when she “said that as [her husband] was an elder and if it was necessary to her salvation that she should let another share her pleasures, she would do so.” Thus, it is possible to understand that Joseph Smith was referring to entering into plural marriage in his remarks.
An interesting incident with President Brigham Young, however, complicates the picture even further and gets closer to the heart of the issue. On February 12, 1870, Wilford Woodruff recorded that during a meeting of the School of the Prophets, “Brother John Holeman made a long speech upon the subject of Poligamy. He contended that no person could have a celestial glory unless He had a plurality of wives.” Holeman’s remarks were in line with what many others were teaching, as demonstrated above. President Brigham Young, however, countered: “President Young said there would be men saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God with one wife with Many wives & with No wife at all.” The prophet’s statement indicates that the interpretation that only people who are sealed by priesthood authority–polygamous or monogamous–are allowed into the Celestial Kingdom is not the complete picture.
This incomplete picture, perhaps, is what President Dallin H. Oaks was speaking about in a recent general conference. In talking about concerns about relationships in the afterlife that he had heard, he asked the rhetorical question: “What do we really know about conditions in the spirit world?” and answered with a quote that: “When we ask ourselves what we know about the spirit world from the standard works, the answer is ‘not as much as we often think.’” He cautioned that:
Excessive reliance on personal teachings or speculations may even draw us aside from concentrating on learning and efforts that will further our understanding and help us go forward on the covenant path.
Trust in the Lord is a familiar and true teaching in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . . .
That same principle applies to unanswered questions about sealings in the next life or desired readjustments because of events or transgressions in mortality. There is so much we do not know that our only sure reliance is to trust in the Lord and His love for His children.
We don’t know as much as we like to think what we do, and so the best approach is to follow Cheiko Okazaki’s advice about living the principles of the gospel: “I’m not perfect, but I try to live the principle as best I can. When I see that I can improve, I try to do that.”
This approach is reminiscent of the one attributed to K?ng Qi? (Confucius). As shared in the Analects:
When Chi Lu [Tz? Lu or Zilu] asked about his duty to the spirits the Master replied: ‘While still unable to do your duty to the living, how can you do your duty to the dead?’ When he ventured to ask about death, Confucius answered: ‘Not yet understanding life, how can you understand death?’
The wisdom of Master K?ng here is that the focus isn’t so much worrying about the afterlife, but worrying about doing what is right in the current life.
Returning to Section 131, again, it is unclear whether Joseph Smith meant by stating that “this order of the priesthood” is necessary for entering the highest degree of glory. Interpretations tend to line up with the marriage system that the Church is embracing at a given point in time, be it polygamous or monogamous, as long as it is sealed by priesthood authority. The danger in being overzealous in accepting this approach to the afterlife is that leads to far more exclusion for the highest glory (be it a subdivision within the Celestial Kingdom or the Celestial Kingdom as the highest degree of celestial glory) than is articulated by President Brigham Young or by The Vision that is recorded in Section 76. In particular, people who are not sealed to a spouse but who live a righteous life feel alienated when it is stated that marriage is necessary to exaltation. Doubly so when it is pointed out that there may not be sub-degrees in the Celestial Kingdom, since that indicates that there are no opportunities for them to be in the Celestial Kingdom without being sealed to a spouse. To me, this ought not to be.
The reason that I say this is that people who aren’t sealed to a spouse–be they single, divorced, married to a non-member, etc.–are just as much fully-realized people with divine potential and worth as are anyone who are sealed. (Something that I feel should not need to be stated, but it seems like it might.) There are more ways to contribute to the good of humankind than bearing and rearing righteous children with an eternal partner, as important as that is. In fact, St. Paul suggested that the unmarried might be better positioned to carry on the work of Lord in some arenas:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain unmarried as I am. . . .
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit, but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. . . .
He who marries his fiancée does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do better. (1 Corinthians 7:7-8, 32-34, 38, NRSVUE).
It’s kind of an interesting thought to realize that if only people who are sealed to a spouse are allowed into the Celestial Kingdom that St. Paul will be among those denied entrance.
In any case, that is why I feel like it is better to hold an attitude of humility about our knowledge of the afterlife. For now, it is best to trust in the Lord and do your duty to the living than to speculate on who gets to be in the most glorious place in the hereafter and who does not. After all, by the standards of many of our polygamous spiritual ancestors, even those who are monogamous won’t be making it to the Celestial Kingdom. That is a belief I firmly hope is wrong, but likewise, what is to say that we aren’t wrong in limiting exaltation (whether it be the highest sub-divison of the Celestial Kingdom or the Celestial Kingdom as a whole) to those who are sealed to a spouse?
In reflecting on D&C 131, perhaps Joseph Smith overstated the need for sealings in an effort to convince loyal followers to practice plural marriage. Perhaps the private conversation in the Johnson home was recorded imperfectly in William Clayton’s journal and was transmitted in that imperfect form to the Doctrine and Covenants later on. Or perhaps our interpretation of it is wrong–for example, what if all he is saying is that it is necessary to be sealed in some way (either to blood family or to adopted family), whether that be to a spouse or to parents. As ironic as it might be to have written this discussion to come to this conclusion, it seems more productive to me to focus on right living and trust that the reward will be better than any of us can imagine.
 Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review – The Autobiography of Benjamin F. Johnson (1818-1903) (Provo, Utah: Grandin Book Company, 116).
 “Instruction, 16 May 1843, as Reported by William Clayton,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 14, 2023, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/instruction-16-may-1843-as-reported-by-william-clayton/2.
 “Instruction, 16 May 1843, as Reported by William Clayton,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 14, 2023, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/instruction-16-may-1843-as-reported-by-william-clayton/2
 Shannon P. Flynn, “Three Sub-degrees in the Celestial Kingdom?”, in Continuing Revelation: Essays on Doctrine, ed. Bryan Buchanan (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2021), 127-140.
 “Instruction, 16 May 1843, as Reported by William Clayton,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 15, 2023, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/instruction-16-may-1843-as-reported-by-william-clayton/2.
 Helen Mar Whitney, “Scenes in Nauvoo, and Incidents from H. C. Kimball’s Journal,” Woman’s Exponent 12, no. 10 (October 5, 1883), 74.
 Helen Mar Whitney to Horace Kimball Whitney, December 17, 1869, Whitney Family Papers, box 1, fd. 1, Milton R. Merrill Library, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.
 Joseph F. Smith, “Discourse Delivered by Elder Jos. F. Smith,” 7 July 1878, Des. News [Weekly], 11 Sept. 1878, 27:32, 498/1-5.
 Mrs. F D Richards, Inner Facts of Social Life in Utah, Interview with Mrs. Matilda Coley Griffing Bancroft, San Francisco, Calif., 1880. Cited in Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its origin, practice, and demise, ed. B Carmon Hardy (Norman, Oklahoma: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2007), 146-147.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Trust in the Lord,” Conference Report October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/17oaks?lang=eng.
 Cheiko N. Okazaki and Greg Prince, ““There Is Always a Struggle”: An Interview with Chieko N. Okazaki”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 45, No. 1 (Spring 2012), 138.
 Analects 11.11, in Confucius, The Analects, trans. William Edward Soothill, ed. Stanley Appelbaum (New York, Dover, 1995) 61.