(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 5-28-15)
After Joseph Smith healed Alice Johnson of “chronic rheumatism” in her shoulder, Johnson and her husband invited him and his wife, Emma, to live in their home, near Hiram, Ohio. The Smiths accepted the offer, and so, for roughly a year, from September 1831 through September 1832, the Johnson house effectively served as headquarters for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Working with Sidney Rigdon, the Prophet devoted much of his time in Hiram to what’s known today as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. Many important revelations were received there. None, however, was more important than the vision of the three degrees of glory that we now know as Doctrine and Covenants 76.
“Upon my return from Amherst conference,” Joseph wrote, “I resumed the translation of the Scriptures. 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 every one according to the deeds done in the body, the term ‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints’ eternal home, must include more kingdoms than one.”
Joseph and Sidney had just worked through John 5:29, which says that the dead “shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”
According to an account given decades later by Philo Dibble, perhaps as many as a dozen others — including himself — were in the room when Joseph and Sidney received the revelation on Feb. 16, 1832.
“I saw the glory and felt the power,” he recalled, “but did not see the vision.”
Dibble provides an invaluable account of what the process of receiving the vision looked like from the outside.
“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.’
“This manner of conversation was reported 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.”
I’ve written about this memorable revelation before (in a previous column titled "Doctrine and Covenants 76 is deeply significant in many ways," Oct. 30, 2014). This time, though, I want to take up a new issue:
Since at least the 1945 publication of Fawn Brodie’s speculative and reductionist biography of Joseph Smith, some have maintained that Joseph derived the three degrees of glory from his or his associates’ reading of Thomas Dick’s 1829 “Philosophy of a Future State” and/or Emmanuel Swedenborg’s 1758 “Heaven and Hell.”
However, several problems weaken this argument. For example, it’s uncertain that Joseph had read Dick’s book, and even less so that he was familiar with Swedenborg. Moreover, the idea of three heavens is biblical, and significant differences exist between Joseph’s teachings and those of Dick and Swedenborg.
Furthermore, though, such theories completely ignore and brush aside the evidence, mentioned above, that a revelation actually occurred at Hiram, Ohio, in February 1832.
And, a subtle point but perhaps even more significant, Joseph Smith doesn’t seem to behave, in the following years, as we might have expected him to behave had it been his own study that led him to the doctrine contained in Section 76.
It’s well-known, historically, that many LDS Church members — and investigators such as Brigham Young — reacted somewhat negatively toward the new doctrines contained in Section 76, accepting them only gradually, after initial reluctance.
This seems to be true even of Joseph Smith himself. It was perhaps only after writing a versified account of the revelation for the Times and Seasons in February 1843 that he really began to emphasize it. In other words, Joseph reacted to his vision precisely as we would expect had it been a gift handed to him from someone else. Which, Latter-day Saints believe, is exactly what it was.