One of my favourite passages of LDS scripture, both personally and historically, is found in Section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is an epistle from Joseph Smith:
And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed. A voice of the Lord in the wilderness of Fayette, Seneca county, declaring the three witnesses to bear record of the book! The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light! The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times!
And again, the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette, Seneca county, and at sundry times, and in divers places through all the travels and tribulations of this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! And the voice of Michael, the archangel; the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time, all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood; giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope.
This epistle from the fall of 1842 describes encounters with several significant angels within LDS theology. Joseph Smith taught that certain angels had particular assignments on earth, often related to their human experience. For example, Moroni was the appointed angel who would restore the record of ancient America. Similarly, Michael or Adam and Gabriel or Noah have been identified as having specific dispensational duties. I have always been intrigued by the mention of the angel Raphael in this section as there is virtually nothing else said about him – only his presence is mentioned and there is little other discussion about his identity or purpose in the Restoration.
Raphael is identified as an archangel in apocryphal writings, but he is never mentioned in the Old Testament or New Testament. His name comes from the Hebrew word “rapha” meaning healer, thus the name Raphael means “God has healed” and he is frequently identified as the healing presence of God. Raphael is the central figure in the apocryphal Book of Tobit which tells the story of how Raphael heals the blindness of Tobias and binds the demon that previously had slain seven husbands of Sarah on her wedding nights. It is only at the end of this book that Raphael reveals himself by name as “one of the seven holy angels” that attend the throne of God. Raphael is also a prominent figure in the Book of Enoch. In Jewish lore, Raphael is credited with healing Abraham of the pain of circumcision and is one of the three angels who visited him and his wife, Sarah. Louis Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews recounts that Michael summons Raphael to heal the thigh injury Jacob sustains as a result of wrestling with an adversary at Peniel. Raphael is traditionally depicted artistically carrying a fish and a jar of anointing oil or ointment. Some biblical commentators identify Raphael as the angel who would come down from time to time and stir up the water in the pool of Bethesda. It would seem that Raphael was not only associated with healing in Catholic or Jewish thought as Cotton Mather’s 1724 medical treatise, The Angel of Bethesda also makes mention of the angel Raphael.
It is within the context of the healing pool of Bethesda that I would like to return to Joseph Smith and Section 128. On October 12, 1841, an “Epistle of the Twelve” was published in Times and Seasons which declared:
Is it that we labor in vain, and toil for nought, and that we shall be disappointed at the last? No! we know assuredly that the set time to favor Zion has come, and her sons and daughters shall rejoice in her glory. The time has come when the great Jehovah would have a resting place on earth, a habitation for his chosen, where his law shall be revealed, and his servants be endued from on high, to bring together the honest in heart form the four winds; where the saints may enter the Baptismal Font for their dead relations, so that they may be judged according to men in the flesh, and live according to God in the spirit, and come forth in the celestial kingdom; a place, over which the heavenly messengers may watch and trouble the waters as in days of old, so that when the sick are put therein they shall be made whole; a place where all the ordinances shall be made manifest and the saints shall unite in the songs of Zion, even praise, thanksgiving and hallelujahs to God and the Lamb, that he has wrought out their deliverance, and bound satan fast in chains. [my emphasis]
Emphasizing the dual purpose of the temple font at the April Conference of 1842, Joseph Smith taught that, “baptisms for the dead and for the healing of the body must be in the font, those coming into the Church, and those re-baptized may be baptized in the river.” While historians like Michael Quinn have wondered if the invocation of Raphael was connected to the Smith’s family association with folk magic, I think it could be better understood through the lens of the healing angel. This angel of Bethesda was also invoked later at the dedication of the font in the Endowment House. Wilford Woodruff recorded that the dedicatory prayer included
We now dedicate this Font unto thee O God. We consecrate it unto thee in the name of Jesus Christ. Let thine Angel O Lord touch this water & this Font with his Finger that it may be holy unto Thee Lord… We now dedicate this Font to Baptize the Living & the Living for the dead & for evry purpose which is necessary to perform the work of the Lord our God, even that the generations which are dead & passed away may be saved & that the sins of the Living may be washed away & that the sick may be healed of evry infirmety that we may be renewed in body & spirit in all things. [my emphasis]
I can’t help but wonder if there is a connection between the epistle from the Twelve in 1841 and that of Joseph Smith’s on September 6, 1842. Healing by immersion or baptism for health was certainly another aspect of Mormon restorationism and early Mormons understood the connection between the place where healing baptisms and vicarious work for the dead would be performed. While Section 128, is often understood as a detailed explication on the Mormon doctrine of baptism for the dead, I suspect that the naming of the angel Raphael is also a nod to the healing properties of the baptismal font. The Nauvoo Temple was the locus for Joseph Smith’s ultimate theology aimed at bridging mortality and immortality. In a revolutionary move, he opened the temple doors to not only include men and women, but the sick and the dying. In ancient Israel, such individuals experienced severe restrictions in relation to the temple as they were considered to be unclean. Yet instead of restricting contact with the sick as in ancient times, Joseph Smith administered rituals for their healing and sanctification. By invoking the image of Raphael the healer, Smith emphasized the concept that the temple was a place of physical healing, a sacred space that conveyed an amplified endowment of power, a healing that was once conveyed by one who attended the throne of God.