What Went Down When “the System of Astronomy Was Unfolded”?

On this day 185 years ago, something happened. Something probably cool.

In the midst of working on translating the Egyptian papyri, a few months after procuring them, Joseph Smith wrote in his journal the following entry on Thursday, October 1st, 1835:

“October 1, 1835. This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr O[liver] Cowdery and W[illiam] W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded.” (1)

As much as I would have liked him to elaborate a bit more on that event, those are all the details that Joseph gave about that afternoon. The system of astronomy was unfolded. The question remains: What exactly does the “unfolding” of the “system of astronomy” actually mean? (2)

It could mean all of the apparently weird stuff in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL); or all that astronomy talk in Abraham chapter 3 and Facsimile 2. It could have something to do with Kolob, that enigmatic star we’ve talked a lot about on this blog. (3)

Whatever happened when the system of astronomy was unfolded unto them, the information we get from those involved (primarily Joseph) following the event include: Earth was not the first thing created; Earth was made out pieces of other planets and globes; the first creation was a star; the first star was the greatest; the first star is the farthest thing away from Earth; God doesn’t micromanage the universe; the creation took place over periods of time of unspecified length, not literal 24-hour days; time is relative; your passage of time relative to someone else depends on the planet you’re on; crystallized/glass-like globes exist in the universe; there are hundreds of millions of earth-like planets, swarming with bizarre, unrecognizable life forms; all things were made out of chaotic matter; something about this universe is around 2.555 billion years old; space did not extend at the grand beginning; there was a grand beginning; and there is no pure space. And the list could probably continue.


Images of those mentioned to be involved in the unfolding of astronomy on October 1, 1835. From right to left: Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and W. W. Phelps. [4]

All of those things, by the way, are pretty incredible considering the time period in which they were revealed: between the years 1835–1856. All of those things now are known to be true according to science (with, of course, the exception of extraterrestrial life, which is now considered highly likely).

So no, we don’t know the particulars of that early October afternoon in 1835, but we do know that after the men in that room were done, we received from them a whole bunch of doctrine/beliefs that fit strikingly well with modern cosmology. I’d bet that whatever happened when the system of astronomy was unfolded was pretty dang awesome. Oh, how I would have liked to have been a fly on that wall!

For your perusal, here’s a handy little timeline for the astronomical tidbits mentioned above:


Stuff from those involved with “the system of astronomy”:

  • Jul 1835: Egyptian papyri is obtained by JS
  • 1 Oct 1835: System of astronomy unfolded unto JS, OC, and WWP
  • Jul-Nov 1835: GAEL stuff–first thing created was a star, first star is greatest, first star is farthest away
  • 5 Jan 1841: Earth wasn’t the first creation and was made out of other broken-up planets and globes
  • 15 Mar 1842: Book of Abraham ch. 3 and Facsimile 2–Kolob has a different reckoning of time than Earth, God waits for the universe to obey (He doesn’t force it or control it), the days of creation were more like time periods than actual 24-hour days, 
  • 2 Apr 1843: Your position in the universe dictates how time passes for you relative to someone else in different location (D&C 130)
  • 8 Apr 1843: Four Beasts sermon–there are something like 10,000 x 10,000 (100 million) earth-like planets in the universe teeming with alien life. (I say “alien” because Joseph says it doesn’t look like anything we know on Earth) 
  • Dec 1844: A letter written by W. W. Phelps is published, which says that “eternity, agreeable to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system (not the world) almost 2555 millions of years” (2.555 billion years).
  • 1856: W. W. Phelps publishes his hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob”–space did not extend at the beginning of the universe, you cannot find pure space 

And now for the science:

  • 1859: Charles Darwin publishes his theory of natural selection
  • Mar 1879: Albert Einstein (the one who discovered relativity and time dilation) is born.
  • 1920: Arthur Eddington proposes that stars obtain their energy from nuclear fusion of hydrogen to form helium, and raises the possibility that the heavier elements are produced in stars.
  • 1927: Georges Lemaître theorizes the Big Bang
  • 1956: The age of the earth is determined to be around 4.5 billion years
  • 2014: Astrobiologists affirm that life on other planets would evolve differently than life on Earth
  • 2019: Astronomers confirm that white dwarfs eventually crystallize and become “crystal spheres in the sky”
  • 2020: Astronomers estimate there are some 6 billion earth-like planets in our galaxy alone

Sources and Notes

  1. https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/4
  2. The History of the Church, Volume 2, 1 Oct 1835 records the entry of this day a little differently: “This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with Brothers Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps, and during the research, the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding, the particulars of which will appear hereafter.”; http://www.boap.org/LDS/History/History_of_the_Church/Vol_II
  3. About the “system of astronomy”, the Joseph Smith Papers says: ‘18) Possibly refers to the astronomical material in three “Egyptian alphabet” documents. Astronomical material also appeared in JS’s published “Book of Abraham.” (Kirtland Egyptian Papers, ca. 1835–1836, 3, 4, 5, CHL; “The Book of Abraham,” Times and Seasons,1 Mar. 1842, 3:703–706; 15 Mar. 1842, 3:719–722 [Abraham 1–5]; see also JS History, vol. B-1, 622; and Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence,” 197–203.)’; https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/4
  4. Joseph Smith portrait: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Smith. Oliver Cowdery: https://familypedia.wikia.org/wiki/Oliver_Cowdery_(1806-1850). W. W. Phelps: https://educationinzion.byu.edu/2011/01/24/w-w-phelps-instructing-the-children/.

Timeline Sources

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