Defining ‘exaltation’

What do we mean when we use the word exaltation? Is what we mean different than what those who are not Mormon mean when they use this word?

Off and on for the past few years I’ve worked on a kind of dictionary of Mormon Terms (this link is to website where this project is hosted–free registration and login required), an attempt to define the language that is unique to Mormons and those who discuss Mormonism or that is used more often or in different ways by Mormons than others. This includes individual words and phrases, slang and Church-specific terminology–anything that might not be understood well by those outside of Mormon culture.

I plan to post about specific terms from time to time as I come across things that might be of interest, or as I feel the need to give a boost to my own efforts and interest. And perhaps in doing so, I might also persuade others to give a hand to help this effort along. Today I’m posting about exaltation, a word I chose at random from among those not yet defined.

Mormons give the word exaltation a definition that is, at least, more specific than the definition  used by others. Our use of the word may even be unique to Mormonism. And, Joseph Smith, in one of his most famous addresses, gave the word a definition that even most Mormons today don’t use.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives 4 definitions (and a total of 12 senses) for the word exaltation. Two of these senses come close to the definition we use in Mormonism:

  • (2.a.) Elevation in authority, dignity, power, station, wealth, etc.; esp. the elevation of a sovereign to a throne. Also occas. An exalted position; elevated rank
  • (2.d.) The raising to a lofty point of excellence; exalted degree; an exalted manifestation.

I think both of these definitions leave a lot out of Mormon use, and this is something that becomes clear when we start looking at Mormon texts that include the word exaltation. Surprisingly, of all the LDS scriptures, exaltation only appears in the D&C, and 11 of the 12 times it appears are all in section 132. The King James Version of the bible only includes a single use in the Apocrypha (Judith 16:8). But despite the limited use of exaltation in the scriptures, it has seen regular use in General Conference addresses, a total of 2365 uses stretching all the way back to 1844. Exaltation has usually appeared at least 100 times a decade in conference addresses.

So what does it mean to Mormons?

When I mentioned this project to a friend at Church yesterday, he suggested that exaltation is a synonym for salvation. And looking at Mormon use I agree that they are close enough in meaning to be synonyms. However, the OED definitions of exaltation suggest that the meaning is more than simply salvation, that it includes an elevation to a higher state. For example:

“For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition”¦” (D&C 132:17)

suggests that those who have received exaltation are also “enlarged” (and that some individuals may be saved but not exalted). And D&C 132:39 says:

“”¦and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.”

Thus, while exaltation is often used as a synonym for salvation, it is not just salvation, but also “enlargement,” elevation to thrones and godhood.

In addition to these two Mormon definitions of salvation, and of enlargement or elevation to godhood, I discovered a third definition in the word’s use by Joseph Smith. In his famous King Follett Discourse, Joseph said:

“Here, then, is eternal life–to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you–namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one–from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.”¦”

Here exaltation is not exactly salvation, but instead steps in the process to obtaining resurrection and eternal life. But I’m not sure what Joseph Smith meant by this doctrinally. And I must point out that we can’t even be sure that this is what Joseph Smith said, since in 1844 talks were transcribed by clerks (before shorthand) while they were being delivered, so a lot of what was said could have been missed. As I understand it, the prophet never reviewed the transcription and was published years later.

This use of exaltation is, as far as I can tell, unique. But since  I haven’t yet done a thorough search, I can’t be sure. I invite others to also look for similar or other uses. For now I think I’ll add this as an obsolete definition, given that it was used by Joseph Smith in one of his most widely-read addresses.

This leaves us with the following entries for a preliminary definition for exaltation:

  1. Salvation (i.e., reaching the highest degree of the celestial kingdom)
  2. Elevation or enlargement to be like god
  3. obs. Each step in reaching a state of being like that of god.

Of course, I may not have worded these definitions that well (I’m learning). Nor have I been as thorough as I should in researching how the word exaltation is used by Mormons–its a big job, and will probably require a lot of help from others. So I welcome comments and criticisms that will lead to a better and more complete definition.

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7 thoughts on “Defining ‘exaltation’”

  1. Actually, I think Mormon usage of exaltation is relatively consistent, compared with certain other terms–specifically salvation. In fact, while I agree with your preliminary definition of exaltation, I don’t agree with your preliminary definition of salvation. D&C 132:17, which you cite, shows that one can be saved but not exalted. The folks referenced in that scripture are those who married outside the new and everlasting covenant (verse 15). But D&C 131 makes clear that those who married outside said covenant will not achieve the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. Combining the fact that they are saved (132:17) with their exclusion from the highest degree of the CK (131:2-4) I conclude that one can be saved in lower degrees of the celestial kingdom.

    If you want to further explore Mormon usage of salvation, I recommend the following:

  2. OK, I should say I don’t agree with the way you use “salvation” in definition 1. I think “reaching the highest degree of the celestial kingdom” is a perfectly plausible definition of exaltation, and does not materially differ from definition 2.

    Also, I notice that the entry for exaltation in True to the Faith simply says “see Eternal Life.”

  3. Sorry, I got hung up on the salvation thing and forgot to mention a few additional thoughts on exaltation. There is a nuance to exaltation that is implied in the D&C scriptures in the OP, but is frequently overlooked in common usage, namely that it is inherently a collective enterprise. Russell Nelson emphasized this in both of his 2008 conference talks. The summary at the top of his April talk reads “In God’s eternal plan, salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.”

    In my opinion, D&C 128:15 also speaks to the collective nature of exaltation–“neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” (Of course, I an equating exaltation with being made perfect, here.)

    Common usage of exaltation, in contrast, seems to be more of a “salvation on steroids” concept, without any acknowledgement of its collective nature. Your proposed definitions remain ambiguous on the question–they are consistent with my viewpoint, but do not insist upon it.

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