Literary DCGD #20: From The Arcana of the Infinite

May 19, 2013 | 3 comments
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0---Orson_F._WhitneyIt seems like a few verses in the D&C are all we know about the life after this. Lesson 20 of the Gospel Doctrine manual covers D&C 76, 131, 137, and part of 132, and in these scriptures we discover a structure for the hereafter, a segregation of the children of God into groups based on the lives they live here on earth. But the descriptions in scripture are far from specific—after all, how much information can be provided in a few hundred words?

I don’t know if the poem below adds much or not. Written by Orson F. Whitney, named an apostle just two years after this was published, this poem is dense, employing sophisticated language and imagery to portray what is in the scriptures. Does it give additional insight? You tell me.

While many Church members know of Orson F. Whitney as an Apostle who served during the first half of the 20th century, he should also be known as strong proponent of Mormon literature and the author of one of the most successful Mormon epic poems. Born in 1855, Whitney worked as a politician, journalist, poet, historian and academic. He was a journalist for the Deseret News in 1878, edited the Millennial Star while serving a mission in Europe in 1881 and taught English at Brigham Young College in Logan in 1896. In 1899 he was called as Assistant Church Historian, serving in that position until his call to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1906.

In 1888 Whitney, then serving as a Bishop, gave his “Home Literature” talk, widely credited with transforming Mormon literature1 Whitney wrote several hymns currently in our hymnal, and the epic poem Elias, from which the following is excerpted.

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The Arcana of the Infinite

Canto Seven of Elias, An Epic of the Ages

By Orson F. Whitney

“Each woe, each bliss,

In after worlds, the yield of life in this;
Here garnered are the fruits from fields of yore,
And sown the harvest of the evermore.

“The called are not the chosen past mischance;
The sanctified to glorified advance,
And stewardship becomes inheritance.
Redemption free, for God hath paid the price;
All else man wins by toil and sacrifice.

“As sun, or moon, or varying star, appears
Each heir of glory in those endless spheres:
Sun-like the souls that live celestial laws,
And moon-like they who at terrestrial pause—
Who honor not the Saviour in the flesh,
But after, in the spirit realm, refresh
Their fainting, fettered lives at mercy’s fount,

And, far as merit buoys them, upward mount;
Saved, glorified, by faith and penitence,
Made valid, through vicarious ordinance,
For all who Him believe, who Him obey,
And own in other worlds His sovereign sway.
Nor lost forever souls unsaved today:
Telestial they who taste the pangs of hell,
And pay guilt’s debt ere they in glory dwell,
Twinkling as stars whose numbers none can tell.

“Souls that to high celestial realms have won,
Dwell with the gods, beholding Sire and Son;
While bounds are set that bar terrestrial heirs
(With whom the Gracious One his presence shares),
And dwellers in the far telestial spheres,
To whom the Holy Spirit ministers.
God’s servants these, but to His glorious home—
The loftiest heights of heaven—they cannot come.

“Justice and Mercy each shall have its own,
Nor one thrust other from the dual throne;
Each shoal and deep a final fullness see,
And like clasp like through all eternity.

Whitney, Elias, An Epic of the Ages.
(Revised ed., 1914), pp. 73-4. Lines 2179-2215

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I did find a lot to like in this excerpt. The idea that “stewardship becomes inheritance” is intriguing, and something I’ll have to think about—do we inherit in the next life those things that we are responsible for? If that is taught in Mormonism, I’ve missed it.

I’m also intrigued with Whitney’s views of progression after this life. He says that those in the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms are barred from reaching the celestial, but are visited by specific members of the godhead:

While bounds are set that bar terrestrial heirs
(With whom the Gracious One his presence shares),
And dwellers in the far telestial spheres,
To whom the Holy Spirit ministers.

But he also suggests that progression within kingdoms requires paying debts:

Telestial they who taste the pangs of hell,
And pay guilt’s debt ere they in glory dwell,

Regardless of how you interpret these lines, there is, I think, a lot of meat in Whitney’s views of these kingdoms of glory.

Show 1 footnote

  1. See the text with my analysis here: part 1, part 2 and part 3.

3 Responses to Literary DCGD #20: From The Arcana of the Infinite

  1. Keith on May 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    I don’t read the lines about the telestial glory as talking about progression within that kingdom, but rather the pangs of hell one suffers before being resurrected to that kingdom of glory. They are described in section 76 as being in hell until they’re resurrected.

  2. justathoughtfulmormon on May 21, 2013 at 4:44 am

    I agree; there is definitely a lot of food for thought here.
    Keith, I read the lines about the telestial glory the same as you. There seems to be an idea almost akin to a kind of purgatory – that those in the telestial kingdom must suffer for their own sins before they can inherit glory at the resurrection, because they have rejected the Saviour and His Atonement.
    As for “bounds” being set which “bar terrestrial heirs,” this obviously seems to reject the idea of progression between kingdoms, which seems rather arbitrary and unjust to me.
    Overall, I can’t say I particularly like this poem. It seems to emphasise a lot of the things which frustrate me about some of the ways in which Latter-day Saints sometimes describe the afterlife.

  3. JKC on May 22, 2013 at 8:14 am

    The idea that the heirs of terrestrial and telestial glory are visited by specific members of the Godhead appears to come from section 76, verse 77 (terrestial heirs “receive of the presence of the son, but not of the fullness of the father”), and verse 86 (telestial heirs “receive not of his [Jesus'] fulness in the eternal world, but of the Holy Spirit through the ministration of the terrestrial”).

    I’m not so sure that the idea of “bounds” being set between kingdoms necessarily implies that there is no progression between kingdoms. It is possible that there are “bounds” set that bar telestial beings from entering terrestrial glory, but it does not follow that there is no possible way for a telestial being to progress to the point of becoming a terrestrial being, for example. This is true in the same way that there are “bounds” set between the offices of the priesthood: No deacon can administer the ordinance of baptism, but a deacon may become a priest and can then baptize.