is so great that if you were able to see it you'd
kill yourself just to get there..."
Did he? Some members of the LDS Church might recall hearing this folk doctrine at some point but are usually unable to identify a source. It has been mentioned in a few talks and books by various Latter-day Saints, each offering their own take on the quote.
In a 1964 address to students at Brigham Young University, Patriarch Emeritus Eldred G. Smith attributed the statement to Joseph Smith, mentioning it as though it was a certain or verified statement:
I believe Patriarch Smith may actually be referring to a questionable third-hand account from Charles W. Walker who lived in St. George when Wilford Woodruff was assigned as the St. George temple president in 1877. (Incidentally, Walker wrote the hymn "Dearest Children, God is Near You."2) Walker's journal entry for August 19, 1877 states:I cannot for a minute conceive the telestial being hell, either, because it is considered a heaven, a glory. The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that if we could get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there.Then if the telestial is such a glorious occasion, a glorious heaven to get into, then how much greater would be the terrestrial, and still how much greater the celestial.1
And on Friday last while speaking at the Funeral of Matilda Moody3 [Brother Woodruff] said we should improve the present time and do all we could for our dead ere death called us away. He referred to a saying of Joseph Smith which he heard him utter (like this) That if the People knew what was behind the vail, they would try by every means to commit suicide that they might get there, but the Lord in his wisdom had implanted the fear of death in every person that they might cling to life and thus accomplish the designs of their creator.4"Friday last" would place the date of the quote on Friday August 17, 1877. Thus, rather than being a first-hand quote from Joseph Smith, the quote is a paraphrase written by Charles W. Walker two days after he heard Wilford Woodruff recall a statement from Joseph Smith, which would have been spoken at least 33 years earlier. As a result, the historical veracity of the quote is somewhat questionable. I would go as far as to call it a "rumor."
Compounding the mystery, however, is a quote from Lorin Farr. According to historian Steven Harper, Farr reported in 1900 that some sixty years earlier he had heard Joseph say something like "If we knew the condition of the spirits in the spirit world, thousands would commit suicide to get there.”5
The Walker quote is the only one I've seen quoted in subsequent LDS literature. Perhaps Farr heard it from Woodruff, though it wouldn't have been at the funeral, since there is no record of Farr traveling to St. George at the time. Further research needs to be done to see when Farr might have heard the quote from Joseph Smith, or perhaps from Woodruff or another source.
Regardless of the questionable nature of the quote it took on a life of its own. In addition to Patriarch Smith's reference mentioned above, several LDS authors and speakers have referred to the third-hand statement from Walker.
In volume 1 of the Deseret Book Studies in Scripture series (1989), edited by Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, contributor Larry Dahl referred to the folk doctrine in combination with D&C 76:89-90:
And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding; And no man knows it except him to whom God has revealed it.In response to these verses Millet and Jackson clarify the suicide quote, stating it was not in reference only to the Telestial kingdom, but to "life behind the veil," still seeming to accept the quote at face value as an authentic quote by Joseph Smith:
Regarding "surpasses all understanding": A rather common notion in connection with this verse is that Joseph Smith had taught that if we knew what the telestial kingdom was like, we would commit suicide to get there. What the Prophet said was not in reference to the telestial kingdom, but to life ‘behind the veil,’ which may mean a number of things.6Like Patriarch Smith they do not include the actual quote, but they do provide the reference to Walker's journal in a footnote.
At the 1992 Sperry Symposium at BYU, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel presented a paper on the poetic rendering of D&C 76. After the stanzas on the Telestial Kingdom he said:
An often repeated story associated with the telestial kingdom deals with something Joseph Smith was purported to have said: "The telestial kingdom is so great..." Wilford Woodruff recounted a comment by the Prophet that may be the basis of that apocryphal story. According to Charles Lowell Walker, Wilford Woodruff "referred to a saying of Joseph Smith..." What he may have meant by this statement may never be known, but we do know that the happy state of those who inherit the telestial kingdom is emphasized in the poem.7
Unlike the previous references, Holzapfel appears more reluctant to accept the statement at face value, calling it "apocryphal" and noting that it is third-hand.
Likewise, Truman G. Madsen discussed the questionable nature of the quote before rephrasing it to what he believes the prophet may have said or meant:
Many of us have heard the statement made—and ascribed to either Joseph Smith or Brigham Young—to the effect that if a person could see the glory of the telestial kingdom he would commit suicide to get there. If only we could get the fundamental doctrines across to Church members as rapidly as we get across rumors, everyone would be saved. Am I saying that’s a rumor?
Well, I am saying this, that over a period of many years I have combed everything Joseph Smith said and wrote, and I can’t find it. Hugh Nibley has done the same with Brigham Young’s words, and he can’t find it. It is hard to prove a negative, of course. What I can say is that we have found a statement from Joseph via Wilford Woodruff that says something else that is close, and I suspect it is the origin of the alleged statement. Elder Woodruff said the Prophet taught this, roughly: that if we could see what is beyond the veil we couldn’t stand to stay here in mortality for five minutes. And I suggest from the context that he was not talking about the telestial kingdom. He was talking about what it was like to be in the presence of God and the family.8In Elder Russell M. Nelson's 1995 book Gateway We Call Death, Nelson softens the quote through ellipses rather than mentioning suicide:
Brigham Young was not the only leader to be deeply impressed with [Joseph Smith's] seership. Another contemporary penned this statement: "[Wilford Woodruff] referred to a saying of Joseph Smith, . . . That if the People knew what was behind the vail, they would try by every means . . . that they might get there, but the Lord in his wisdom has implanted the fear of death in every person that they might cling to life and thus accomplish the designs of their creator."9Interestingly, Elder Nelson next relates a story Heber C. Kimball told about Jedediah M. Grant's visit to the Spirit World. Though Grant died shortly thereafter, it does not appear he attempted to commit suicide after his vision.10
Finally, as late as 1998 it has appeared in a book by Robert L. Millet. In his Mormon Faith: Understanding Restored Christianity Millet states:
Life's starkest reality is death...Even among those who see by the lamp of understanding, death is frequently viewed with fear and trembling. Joseph Smith is reported to have taught that "if the people knew what was behind the veil, ..."11He offers no other commentary on the quote and I am unsure why it is included, as he next discusses spirit prison and spirit paradise without further talk of arrival-by-suicide. I suspect the quote is used to soothe trepidation regarding death or to help a grieving person see that life after death is not frightening, that a loved one is likely happy there.
Nevertheless, I believe the quote is too unverifiable to be considered a sure statement of Joseph Smith. Of course, both he and Sidney Rigdon beheld the glory of the Telestial, Terrestrial and Celestial kingdoms (see D&C 76) and managed to not commit suicide. Furthermore, even if Joseph said something similar (which I suspect he could have) I would not take such a statement as a prophecy or as doctrine, thinking that simply seeing the other side results in a suicide attempt.I place the statement in the "folk doctrine" arena, a "theological Twinkie" with the unpleasant inclusion of suicide.
Eldred G. Smith, "Exaltation," BYU Speeches of the Year, March 10, 1964, p. 4. The sermon appears to be rather extemporaneous with no clear outline. In addition to the suicide comment he discusses things like spirit birth, Mother in Heaven, and precisely calculates the "Lord's time" by referring to Abraham 3:4. ("Compare our time with the Lord's time: If we live on this earth to be a hundred years old, that is only two hours and twenty-four minutes in the Lord's time. A little simple mathematics..."). The picture is Sam Brown's "we might as well," Exploding Dog, 11/17/2008. Thanks to Greg Smith and Daniel Peterson for verifying some sources for me.
For more on Walker see Leonard J. Arrington, Davis Bitton, "Charles L. Walker: Sage of Saint George," Saints without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Signature Books, 1981), pp.63-71.
Matilda Moody, or Sarah Matilda Damron Moody, was born either on January 8, 1836 in Weekly Co., Illinois or January 31, 1836 in Barry Co., Missouri (see Florence C. Youngberg, Conquerors of the West, p. 1700). She was baptized a member of the LDS Church on July 23, 1846. She received her endowment and became the third wife of John Monroe Moody on Dec. 20, 1857 at the Salt Lake City Endowment House. She bore six children. She died in St. George, Utah on August 16, 1877, thus the funeral at which Woodruff spoke was the following day. The Deseret News, though regularly publishing death notices, did not publish her obituary or death announcement (see "Deseret News Weekly Death and Marriage Notices, 1852-1898"). Her family history information was submitted by Vern Taylor in 2006.
Charles Lowell Walker Diary, 19 Aug. 1877, LDS Church Archives. Published in Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, ed. by A. Karl Larson and Katherine M. Larson (Logan, Ut.: Utah State University Press, 1980), vol. 1, pp. 465-66. Woodruff referred to the funeral in his journal, but did not mention speaking. His entry for August 17, 1877 states "I spent the day in the Temple. Gave Endowments to 95 One half of them Swiss. Ordained 32 Elders. J D. T. McAllister sealed 13 Couple D H Cannon 11. I attended the funeral of Sister Moody wife of John M Moody. I wrote 2 letters to Sarah and B[ell/ulah?]. (Wilford Woodruff's Journal, Volume 7, pp. 366-367). Apparently this was a busy week for Elder Woodruff. On the 21st he was baptized for 100 people, including ordinance work for the signers of the Declaration of Independence. On the 29th he learned by telegraph that Brigham Young passed away in Salt Lake City. See Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, p. 501.
Lorin Farr, Weber Stake High Priests Quorum Minute Book, 1896–1929, series 13, vol. 1, p. 110, 27 October 1900, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. Found in Steven Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008) pp. 267-268.
Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, eds., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 1: The Doctrine and Covenants (Deseret Book 1989), pp. 305-308.
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, "Eternity Sketch'd in a Vision": The Poetic Version of Doctrine & Covenants 76," Heavens Are Open: The 1992 Sperry Symposium on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History (1993) p. 155.
Truman G. Madsen, "The Awesome Power of Married Love," Radiant Life (Deseret Book, 1994) p. 91.
Russell M. Nelson, "The Veil is Sometimes Thin," Gateway We Call Death (Deseret Book, 1995), pp. 95-96 (ellipses in original).
Heber C. Kimball's account is in Journal of Discourses 4:135-36.
Robert L. Millet, "The Origin and Destiny of Man," Mormon Faith: Understanding Restored Christianity (Deseret Book, 1998) pp. 63-64.