“A Uniformity So Complete”: Early Mormon Angelology

By July 15, 2010

[To continue my attempt to post something without much work on my part, what follows is the introduction to my recent article, just put online by the Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies. I post this also to encourage other graduate students to consider submitting to IMW Journal in the future; while it is a student-run production, it boasts an impressive academic review board with professional and respected scholars to help improve your submission; I received great feedback on my earlier drafts that significantly improved the article. To view the articles from the most recent issue, as well as to see submission guidelines,  click here.]

?An angel of God never has wings,? proclaimed Joseph Smith in 1839, just as the LDS Church was establishing itself in what would come to be known as Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormon prophet then proceeded to explain to the gathered Saints the ability to ?discern? between true angelic beings, disembodied spirits, and devilish minions by a simple test of a handshake. He assured them that ?the gift of discerning spirits will be given to the presiding Elder, pray for him?that he may have this gift[.]?[1] His statement, esoteric in nature and sandwiched between instructions on the importance of sacred ordinances and a reformulation of speaking in tongues, offers a succinct synopsis of Joseph Smith?s evolved understanding of angels and their relationship to human beings. Teaching that they didn?t have wings rejected the classic stereotypes and caricatures of the mysterious and mystical beings that had long held a significant part in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Indeed, one can say that Joseph Smith made a career out of challenging classic stereotypes, yet each particular challenge represented a larger, undergirding worldview from which his theology sprung. Among the many religious innovations Smith proposed during his prophetic tenure was a radical redefinition of the nature of angelical beings, which in turn closed the gap between humans and angels. Long held to be a ?wholly other? species, Smith reconceptualized these metaphysical beings as members of the same human family, taking part in the same salvific work, and even dwelling mortally at some point upon the same planet; when asked whether an angel?s temporal time depended upon the ?planet on which they reside,? Smith responded that ?there is no angel [that] ministers to this earth[,] only what either does belong or has belonged to this earth,? thereby rejecting the notion of ontologically distinct angelic beings and collapsing the conceptual distance between ?mortal? and ?immortal.?[2]

While Smith?s fully developed angelology is significant in itself, Mormonism?s belief in angels is significant for another reason. Like any other religious group, early Mormon thought developed over a period of time, evolving from its beginnings as a mildly diverging form of American Protestantism to eventually a new religious tradition with numerous distinctive beliefs.[3] During this period of change, angels served as an important doctrinal touchstone, often appearing at important shifts during the first two decades of the movement and representing the larger developments that were simultaneously occurring. Changing conceptualizations of angels help chart Mormon thinking in important ways that reflect transitions into periods of elaborated ecclesiology and increasingly materialistic theology. This paper engages Mormonism?s evolving views of angels specifically as a window to the evolving views of Mormon thought generally, arguing that angelology provides a useful vantage point from which to interpret early LDS thought.

Specifically, this study will engage four specific theological and ecclesiastic developments. First, early Mormon thinkers? evolving belief in angels demonstrates their agenda to place supernatural claims on more rationalistic foundations, adapting Romantic impulses with the growing necessity for systematic thought, while at the same time invoking a uniquely literalistic reading of the Bible; though they held onto supernatural beliefs like angelic beings, those beings could be tested through empirical means like a handshake, or, more importantly, by priesthood authority. Second, the use of angels was intimately involved with Mormonism?s appeal to authority, and resurrected patriarchs were increasingly invoked as the importance of priesthood increased. Third, connected to the idea of ministering angels was the notion of evil spirits and the accompanied necessity for spiritual discernment?establishing the origin, purpose, and limits of what they recognized as the many false and competing spirits of the day. And finally, Smith?s theological reformulation of angelic beings correlated with his larger ideological project to weld all beings?humans, Gods, and angels?into one collaborative group of ?intelligences,? the capstone of Mormonism?s Nauvoo theology.

Beyond the development of Mormon thought, however, this topic offers an intriguing glimpse into the wider religious milieu of the day, as well as the tensions involved in antebellum religion-making. In a period defined as both a ?spiritual hothouse?[4] and time of theological innovation,[5] Mormonism often embodied many of the significant themes that confronted contemporary religionists. Indeed, in dealing with issues like rationality, authority, competing spirits, and even ontology, early Mormons were in indirect conversation with their broader environment, attempting to answer many of the same questions, rebut many of the same accusations, and react to many of the same ideological assumptions. Mormon angelology, then, serves as an important standpoint from which to engage the larger general issues of the day, an efficient micro-history to encounter broader trends.

[To read the rest of the article, click here.]


[1] Joseph Smith, Sermon, before August 8, 1839, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Religious Studies Monograph Series, no. 6 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 12-13.

[2] Joseph Smith, Sermon, in George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1995), 96.

[3] For a brief?if sometimes simplistic?outline on the evolving nature of Mormon thought, see Thomas G. Alexander, ?The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology,? Sunstone 5:4 (July-August 1980): 24-33. For Mormonism as a ?new religious tradition,? see Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).

[4] Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), chapter 8.

[5] James Bratt has written that the decade between 1835 and 1845?the decade in which Mormonism blossomed?is ?less distinguished by the radical extension of evangelicalism?s logic than as the launching ground of new departures.? James D. Bratt, ?The Reorientation of American Protestantism, 1835-1845,? Church History 67 (Mar. 1998): 52-53.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History JIers in Print Theology


  1. Nice work, Ben, and congrats on the publication.

    Comment by Christopher — July 15, 2010 @ 8:12 am

  2. looks like a fascinating topic, ben.

    if only h.c.kimball were still around with his illustration of the chain of being.

    my boy iamblichus offers all sorts of tips for discerning gods from archangels, angels, cosmocratores, daemones, and heroes, in case anyone is faced with a particularly tricky apparition.

    Comment by g.wesley — July 15, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  3. This is great Ben.

    G. where does Iablichus do that, De mystiriis? While people saw a lot of apparitions in the middle ages, no one gave them particular rules of thumb like JS. Though Gwenfair Adams argues that the common people gleaned that information from all the stories that were told. Visions in Late Medieval England.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 16, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

  4. Yes, that’s the one. I don’t have it with me. Can’t supply book and chapter references from memory either. But the entire work is worth the read and isn’t that long.

    There is even a nice new Greek-English edition:


    As I recall, he says stuff like, archangels look like this and behave like this as opposed to daemones who …. Nothing about testing with a handshake.

    Comment by g.wesley — July 17, 2010 @ 9:11 am

  5. Nice article, Ben. Well done.

    Comment by WVS — July 18, 2010 @ 8:17 pm


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