Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants was given in Hiram, Ohio in 1832. This revelation was the first of a succession of “Exaltation Revelations”—sections 76, 84, 88, and 93. These revelations don’t just talk about receiving eternal life, but about reaching exaltation. The Lord reveals that gaining eternal life means gaining immortality and being “saved,” but exaltation is something more; it is the acquisition of the highest degree of glory within the Celestial kingdom.
The prophet described his mindset and curiosity before the reception of section 76: “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.” This statement leaves me incredibly impressed with the profundity of Joseph Smith’s thoughts, and his inspired curiosity. This is what I call scripture study! Joseph Smith was not merely a tool in the building up of God’s kingdom, but also an influencer, a leader, an inquirer. He used his rational abilities to assess the truths that were left, and draw out the discrepancies he saw. And then, instead of submitting to incomprehension, he ponders and asks questions.
In a speech entitled “By Study and Also by Faith,” former BYU president, Rex E. Lee, talks about two approaches to learning and acquiring knowledge—the rational and the extrarational. He speaks of the First Vision saying, “…in the space of just a few minutes, a boy of fourteen years learned more about the true nature of God than had come from centuries of the best rational effort of the world’s best minds. The process was extrarational. It did not depend on study, thought, or contemplative inquiry. It came through revelation, through direct contact between a mortal man and his Father in Heaven. Joseph Smith’s experience is the most outstanding example of extrarational learning that has occurred since the resurrection of the Savior….” I agree. The First Vision was truly a remarkable manifestation of the power of the Spirit. President Lee goes on to say, however, that we must not forget all the studying and pondering that preceded this vision. Joseph understood that this pattern needed to continue on in all his gospel study and revelation. President Lee explains the necessity of such study, saying “No matter how righteous you are, no matter how carefully you cultivate the companionship of the Holy Ghost, there are vast amounts of knowledge which you need to acquire and which you are not going to receive through revelation. The great plan of eternal progress anticipates our growth and development through use of our mental skills, the kind of progress that can come only through the strenuous application of our reasoning abilities.”
The saints’ reaction to section 76 was one of discussion, dissension, and debate. Brigham Young said he even had to put it on the shelf for a time because he realized it might drive him out of the church. President Lee gives further instruction for situations such as this, and I want to add my testimony to his that this is true: “…it is almost inevitable that there will be some instances in which the rational method will lead us to some conclusion—not many, but some—which is at odds with what we know to be true because it has been revealed from God…The answer is not to stop the rational struggle with the problem, but rather to recognized the fallible nature of the rational process, the infallible nature of the extrarational process, and the inescapable conclusion that where inconsistencies in results occur—until such time that they can be reconciled—it is the extrarational that must prevail.”