Historical Context and Background of D&C 131

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

Section 131 also includes esoteric temple knowledge but maybe less new knowledge about the celestial kingdom than it has been interpreted to include. The first four verses came in the evening of May 16, 1843. Joseph was in the home of Melissa and Ben Johnson with his scribe/recorder, William Clayton. Melissa and Ben were in their mid-twenties, married two years prior on Christmas day, and parents of one child so far, Benjamin Jr. Joseph invited them to sit down and told them he was there to marry them according to the law of the Lord. 

Ben had joked with Joseph before and thought he was joking now. Ben tried to join in the fun, saying he wouldn’t marry Melissa again until she paid for their dates, since he paid the first time they courted. Joseph might have thought that was funny on a different day, but he was in a hurry, he was solemn, and this occasion was sacred. He scolded Ben for being light-minded in that moment. Then he invited Melissa and Ben to stand and sealed them together by the power of the holy priesthood vested in him by ministering angels of Almighty God. He promised that if they kept the terms and conditions of this covenant, no power on earth or in hell could prevent them from being resurrected together and crowned with exaltation and eternal lives (D&C 132:19–24).1

That got their attention. Joseph sat them down again and taught them about the new and everlasting covenant of marriage they had just “made and entered into” (D&C 132:7). He said there were three parts to it (see section 132), and its blessings wouldn’t be sure unless and until Melissa and Ben made them sure by being faithful to the covenant. Using his secretary, William Clayton, as an example of one who had taken the step the Johnsons were taking, Joseph taught them the doctrine of exaltation through faithfulness to covenants sealed by sacred ordinances.

The context for the first four verses, then, is exaltation. All of the sources suggest that what Joseph taught the Johnsons that night is not the same as what D&C 131:1–2 has been understood to mean—that there are three degrees inside the highest of the three degrees of glory. That idea hangs on nothing more than D&C 131: “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees” and the assumption that “celestial” there means the highest of the three heavens revealed in D&C 76. That is not the only possible interpretation, and in context it’s not the best one. In the vocabulary of both Joseph and the Johnsons, “celestial” could still just mean heavenly. If we read D&C 131:1 that way, it makes sense in context. In other words, Joseph probably taught the Johnsons what we are taught—there are three glories in heaven, and exaltation in the highest one comes from making and keeping the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. Joseph meant what sections 76 and 132 teach.

According to William Clayton’s journal, Joseph taught that “in order to obtain the highest [degree of glory] a man [and woman] must enter into this order of the priesthood,” meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. Joseph explained that a man and a woman sealed together “by the power and authority of the holy priesthood” would continue to be married and have their family after resurrection, while those who weren’t sealed would not.2 There are many, many descendants of the Johnsons today, and they will be their descendants forever, as a result of this revelation.

The day after he sealed the Johnsons, Joseph preached a sermon on 2 Peter 1 about making one’s eternal destination sure. It included section 131:5–6. William Clayton noted Joseph teaching

that knowledge is power and the man who has the most knowledge has the greatest power. Also that salvation means a man’s being placed beyond the powers of all his enemies. He said the more sure word of prophecy meant, a man’s knowing that he was sealed up unto eternal life by revelation and the spirit of prophecy through the power of the Holy priesthood. He also showed that it was impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.3

In speaking of knowledge and ignorance, Joseph did not mean that book learning or secular subjects were sources of salvation. He meant that unless people know for themselves the fulness of temple ordinances and their promised blessings, they are not yet endowed with power over all enemies, including death, both spiritual and physical.

Joseph had taught the same principle in other words the preceding Sunday. He tried to help the Saints understand the difference between having a testimony that one could be saved if they obeyed the gospel and gaining the testimony that one had been saved because they obeyed the gospel. Step one is to gain a testimony of Christ and the possibility of salvation, Joseph taught. That was just the beginning of the quest for knowledge of God, which to Joseph was the equivalent of power over sin and death. “They would then want that more sure word of Prophecy that they were sealed in the heavens & had the promise of eternal live in the Kingdom of God,” Joseph taught. This is what he called “knowledge,” which is what he meant in section 131—and what the Lord meant all the way back in section 84:19–24.4

Section 131 leads willing Saints to the knowledge of God, the certainty of a future exaltation by virtue of the sacred covenants sealed by priesthood. Ignorance of the knowledge of God leads to a less certain, or at least less celestial, future. One wants to be more sure in what the young Joseph called “matters that involve eternal consequences” (D&C 131:5).

Samuel Prior, a Methodist, had listened to Joseph’s sermon on 1 Peter 1 and come away unexpectedly impressed. Joseph returned the gesture in the evening by listening to Prior’s sermon. Afterward Joseph “arose and begged leave to differ from me in some few points of doctrine,” wrote Prior, “and this he did mildly, politely, and affectingly; like one who was more desirous to disseminate truth and expose error, than to love the malicious triumph of debate over me.” Drawing on section 93:33, Joseph noted that matter endures eternally and added verses 7–8. “I was truly edified with his remarks,” Prior noted, “and felt less prejudiced against the Mormons than ever.” Joseph invited Prior to visit him in Nauvoo, which he did.5

1. Benjamin Johnson, My Life’s Review, 96.

2. “Instruction, 16 May 1843, as Reported by William Clayton,” p. [15], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020.

3. “Discourse, 17 May 1843–A, as Reported by William Clayton,” p. [16], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020.

4. “Discourse, 14 May 1843, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff,” p. [32], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020.

5. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds. and comps., Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 1980), 202–204.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

Doctrine and Covenants 131 consists of three different items of instruction that Joseph Smith gave on three different occasions. The first part of the section (D&C 131:1–4) consists of instructions given on May 16, 1843, in the home of Benjamin F. Johnson, a close friend who lived in Ramus. During his stay in Ramus, Joseph Smith instructed Benjamin and his wife Melissa on the eternal nature of marriage. In the months following, Joseph performed a sealing for Benjamin and Melissa, making their union eternal.1

Doctrine and Covenants 131:5–6 is taken from a sermon Joseph Smith preached in Macedonia, Illinois, on May 17, 1843. The Prophet spoke using 2 Peter 1 as his text, discoursing on the meaning of the phrases “make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) and “a more sure word of prophecy” (2 Peter 1:19). Samuel Prior, a Methodist preacher who was in the congregation while Joseph spoke, later recalled, “He glided along through a very interesting and elaborate discourse, with all the care and happy facility of one who was well aware of his important station, and his duty to God and man, and evidencing to me, that he was well worthy to be styled ‘a workman rightly dividing the word of truth,’ and giving without reserve, ‘saint and sinner his portion in due season.’”2 Prior also wrote, “I was compelled to go away with a very different opinion from what I had entertained when I first took my seat to hear him preach.”3

In the evening of May 17, 1843, Joseph Smith immediately followed Samuel Prior’s speech to a large group of Latter-day Saints in Macedonia, Illinois, with a discourse of his own. Prior later wrote of the sermons, “The congregation was large and respectable—they paid the utmost attention. This surprised me a little, as I did not expect to find any such thing as a religious toleration among them.”4 After Prior finished his sermon, Joseph Smith “arose and begged leave to differ from me in a few points of doctrine, and this he did mildly, politely, and affectingly; like one who was more desirous to disseminate truth and expose error, than to love the malicious triumph of debate over me. I was truly edified by his remarks, and felt less prejudiced against the Mormons than ever.”5

Unfortunately, we do not have the text of Samuel Prior’s sermon that prompted Joseph Smith’s response. Part of Joseph’s response, however, was later canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 131:7–8. Joseph’s teachings focused on the eternal nature of both spirit and matter.

William Clayton was present in the Johnson Home on May 16, and he recorded both of Joseph’s May 17 sermons. Clayton later copied these teachings into his journal. These excerpts were used to create the History of Church, and excerpts from this history were used in Doctrine and Covenants 131. There is evidence that Clayton copied the portions of these discourses into his journal using notes that he took during the sermons, which further lends credibility to the accuracy of his reports.6 In 1876, Elder Orson Pratt, acting under the direction of President Brigham Young, added this section to the Doctrine and Covenants.7

See “Historical Introduction,” Instruction, 16 May 1843, as Reported by William Clayton.

See Discourse, 17 May 1843–A, as Reported by William Clayton.

1. “Doctrine and Covenants 131,” in Joseph Smith’s Revelations.

2. Samuel Prior, “A Visit to Nauvoo,” Times and Seasons, 15 May 1843, 4:197–98, italics in original; see also 2 Timothy 2:15 and Luke 12:42.

3. Samuel Prior, “A Visit to Nauvoo,” 4:197–98.

4. Samuel Prior, “A Visit to Nauvoo,” 4:197–98.

5. Samuel Prior, “A Visit to Nauvoo,” 4:197–98.

6. “Doctrine and Covenants 131,” in Joseph Smith’s Revelations.

7. Robert J. Woodford, Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants, 1724.