Historical Context and Background of D&C 76

Early Manuscript of D&C 76
Original manuscript of "The Vision," now known as Doctrine and Covenants 76.
Source: JosephSmithPapers.org

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

Various people love Joseph Smith or object to him for the same reason: he revealed “realms of doctrine unimagined in traditional Christian theology.”1

On February 16, 1832, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon read John 5:29, where Jesus testified to some Jews that he would raise the dead who “shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of the just; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” Joseph and Sidney “meditated upon these things” and the Lord touched, perhaps literally, their eyes, and they understood. They testified together of Jesus Christ. They saw and understood God’s plans for salvation and the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, whom they saw and with whom they spoke, at his Father’s right. After all the testimonies given of Christ, they give the ultimate testimony: “He lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—that by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:22–24).

Original manuscript of “The Vision,” now known as Doctrine and Covenants 76.
Image via Joseph Smith Papers.

In a major reversal, another vision opened to Joseph and Sidney. They saw an angel, Lucifer, revolt against God to steal the kingdom from its rightful heir—Jesus Christ. Weeping, Heavenly Father banished Lucifer permanently from his presence.

Having been punished for his rebellion, Satan chooses to attack the Saints by surrounding them with evil. Joseph and Sidney envisioned the suffering of those who fell under Satan’s onslaught. The Lord told them that all who knew his gospel and then chose to follow the devil and become subject to his power, denying the truth and defying Christ’s power, become Satan’s children rather than Christ’s. They are sons of the utterly lost. It had been better for them not to have been born. They suffer God’s justified anger with the devil and the spirits who rebelled with him. The Lord has said they are not and will not be forgiven. They don’t want to be. They denied the Holy Spirit after they received it. They denied Christ. It was as if, knowing the power of his gospel, they openly crucified him themselves. They are sent to hell with the devil and the spirits who rebelled with him. Though resurrected, they remain spiritually dead forever, cut off from the Godhead, the only ones unredeemed by Christ, who saves everyone else and would have saved them if they wanted that.

A heavenly voice testified to Joseph and Sidney of these glad tidings: Jesus Christ came into the world to be crucified to endure the sins of the world, to sanctify and cleanse the world for all unrighteousness for the express purpose of saving every one of Heavenly Father’s children who exercises their God-given agency to be saved, all except the few who “defect to perdition.”2

Juxtaposed against the suffering of the damned, Joseph and Sidney testified of seeing and hearing about the resurrection of the just: those who receive the testimony of Jesus Christ, believe and are baptized by immersion, signifying burial and rebirth as Christ commanded. Christ cleanses from sin all who choose to keep these commandments. They receive the Holy Spirit when an authorized priesthood holder lays on hands. The just overcome Satan by exercising faith in Christ. The Holy Ghost, in his role as the Holy Spirit of Promise, seals them by testifying that they have been faithful to their covenants. Heavenly Father sheds this Holy Spirit of Promise on all who are keeping their covenants. Covenant keepers belong to the church of the Firstborn. Heavenly Father gives them everything—including the fullness of temple blessings. They are priests and kings, priestesses and queens. They are the children of God who fully inherit his glory. They are thus gods themselves. Everything is theirs. Death cannot stop them. Their future is limitless. They belong to Christ, and he belongs to Heavenly Father. Nothing can damn them or hem them in.

The just are resurrected first and come with Christ at his second coming to reign on earth. They dwell in Zion, the New Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth. They commune with angels and the people of Enoch’s Zion and the other Saints throughout time who have received the fullness of temple ordinances and been faithful to their covenants. Their names are written in heaven, where God and Christ judge everything. They have kept their covenant promises to obey the laws of God, and Christ therefore keeps his covenant promise to resurrect and perfect them by the power of his perfect Atonement in which he shed his own blood. They are resurrected with celestial bodies as glorious as the sun, which is typical of God’s glory.

Joseph and Sidney then envisioned the terrestrial world, which differs from the celestial as the moon differs from the sun. The celestial church of the Firstborn receive all Heavenly Father has. Inhabitants of the terrestrial glory do not. They died without obeying the laws of God. Christ arranged for the gospel to be preached to them in the spirit world. They received the testimony of Jesus Christ there, but they would not receive it when they were alive on earth. They were honorable but deceived, blinded by crafty men. They receive God’s glory, just not all of it. They receive the Savior’s presence, just not all the Father has. They were promised the blessing to become kings and queens if they would obey the laws of God, but they did not, and thus they forfeit their crowns.

Joseph and Sidney then envisioned the telestial glory, which pales in comparison to the others as stars pale in comparison to the sun and moon from our perspective. Heirs of telestial glory do not deny the Holy Ghost, but they do not receive it either. They do not want the gospel of Jesus Christ. They remain in Satan’s power and are not resurrected until the very end of time, after Christ has finished his work. They receive only a portion of what Christ offers them, but they are saved.

When the visions ended, the Lord commanded Joseph and Sidney to write them before the Holy Ghost left them. They marveled and acknowledged their inability to conceive of or communicate what they had seen. They saw much the Lord commanded them not to write.

Section 76 testifies. Two eyewitnesses repeatedly declare what they saw, heard, and understood. “I know God,” Sidney Rigdon testified in conference in April 1844. “I have gazed upon the glory of God, the throne, the visions, and glories of God.”3 Such testimony can be rejected but not discredited. It is powerful evidence.

Wilford Woodruff read section 76 before he ever met Joseph. “It had given me more light and more knowledge with regard to the dealings of God with men than all the revelation I had ever read in the Bible or anywhere else,” he said. Wilford “had been taught that there was one heaven and one hell,” and that those who were baptized would go to heaven and those who were not would go to hell. Personal righteousness made no difference. “That was the kind of teaching I heard in my boyhood,” he noted. “I did not believe one word of it then.” He said section 76 “opened my eyes. It showed me the power of God and the righteousness of God in dealing with the human family. Before I saw Joseph I said I did not care how old he was, or how young he was; I did not care how he looked.” Wilford knew that only one thing mattered about Joseph. “The man that advanced that revelation was a prophet of God,” Wilford wrote. “I knew it for myself.”4

1. E. Brooks Hollifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 335. Richard Bushman calls such texts “exaltation revelations.” Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 195.

2. Elder Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign (November 1995): 18.

3. Times and Seasons, 5:522–6. History of the Church, 6:290.

4. Deseret Weekly News, (43:2), page 321.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

No revelation given in this dispensation demonstrates the importance of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible than does Doctrine and Covenants 76. One simple verse, John 5:29, sparked this panoramic vision of the afterlife and the final state of men and women. An introductory note in the earliest manuscript of the vision summarizes it as “concerning the church of the first born and concerning the economy of God and his vast creation throughout all eternity.”1 A later revelation defined the “church of the Firstborn” as “all those who are begotten through me [Jesus Christ] are partakers of the glory of the same” (D&C 93:22). An 1828 dictionary defines economy as “primarily, the management, regulation and government of a family or the concerns of a household.”2 The aim of the vision is nothing less than to show the final fate of the righteous and to show how God governs and regulates His family.

Most of the information we know about how the vision was received comes from Philo Dibble, who was present while the vision was received in the John Johnson home. Elder Dibble relates “that Joseph and Sidney were in the spirit and saw the heavens open, there were other men in the room, perhaps twelve, among whom I was one during a part of the time—probably two-thirds of the time,—I saw the glory and felt the power but did not see the vision.” Philo recorded that “Joseph would, at intervals, say: ‘What do I see?’ as one might say while looking out the window and beholding what all in the room could not see. Then he would relate what he had seen or what he was looking at. Then Sidney replied, ‘I see the same.’ Presently Sidney would say ‘what do I see?’ and would repeat what he had seen or was seeing, and Joseph would reply, ‘I see the same.’”3 Philo continued, saying,

This manner of conversation was repeated at short intervals to the end of the vision, and during the whole time not a word was spoken by any other person. Not a sound nor motion made by anyone but Joseph and Sidney, and it seemed to me that they never moved a joint or limb during the time I was there, which I think was over an hour, and to the end of the vision. Joseph sat firmly and calmly all the time in the midst of a magnificent glory, but Sidney sat limp and pale, apparently as limber as a rag, observing which, Joseph remarked, smilingly, “Sidney is not used to it as I am.”4

Philo may not have been present for the entirety of the vision experience, but he did note changes in Joseph Smith’s appearance during the time of the vision. In another recollection he said, “I arrived at Father Johnson’s just as Joseph and Sidney were coming out of the vision alluded to in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, in which mention is made of the three degrees of glories. Joseph wore black clothes, but at this time seemed to be dressed in an element of glorious white, and his face shone as if it were transparent, but I did not see the same glory attending Sidney.”5

At least four different times in the vision, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were commanded to write what they saw (D&C 76:28, 49, 80, 113). They recorded the vision shortly after receiving it and signed both of their names at the end. Sidney signed first, indicating that he was most likely the scribe; however, the earliest copy of the vision we have is in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams. In his own history, Joseph Smith introduced the vision by writing, “From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points, touching the Salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled. It appeared self-evident from what truths were left, that if God rewarded everyone according to the deeds done in the body, the term ‘heaven,’ as intended for the Saints eternal home, must include more kingdoms than one. Accordingly, on the 16th of February, 1832. while translating St John’s Gospel, myself and Elder [Sidney] Rigdon Saw the following [D&C 76].”6

See “Historical Introduction,” Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76]

1. Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76], JSP.

2. “Economy,” Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.

3. Philo Dibble, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, 27 (1892).

4. Dibble, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, 27 (1892).

5. Philo Dibble, “Philo Dibble’s Narrative,” Four Faith Promoting Classics, 1968, pp. 74–96.

6. JS History, vol. A-1, p. 183, JSP.