Of visions, angels and swords

I have to admit that I am pretty weak when it comes to the Hebrew Bible. But my perception is that the divine sword of the Lord is wielded by angels, typically in vision, to show God’s displeasure with the principles of the narrative in which they appear.

In 1 Chronicles 21, we have David, who decides to execute a census of Israel in spite of God’s command. The Lord speaks to David’s seer, Gad, and gives David a choice between destruction by famine or by army. David chooses famine and the Lord sends the Destroyer to move upon Israel:

15 And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it: and as he was destroying, the Lord beheld, and he repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough, stay now thine hand. And the angel of the Lord stood by the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite.

16 And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the Lord stand between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders of Israel, who were clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces.

David repents and prays to God to stay his hand and the angel responds to Gad who speaks in the name of the Lord. The instruction is that David is to go build an altar at Ornan’s place and offer sacrifice. It is a poignant narrative, really. Upon David’s sacrifice, “the Lord commanded the angel; and he put up his sword again into the sheath thereof.”

I’m looking forward to Sam’s treatment of the Destroyer (I remember his excellent MHA paper on the Word of Wisdom on this), to be more widely available. But, I think that this vignette of David was pregnant with meaning for the nascent Mormons (as an aside, the other famous sword baring angel was the one which the talking donkey evades on behalf of Balaam; also, the flaming sword east of Eden – Am I right to understand that it was a giant spinning blade of fire, which was not wielded by a personified being?). Perhaps the most famous recapitulation of this episode was Joseph Smith and his introduction of polygamy.

However, my most favorite sword baring angels in the Restoration, aren’t what I would call Destroyers. To me, they seem to be better understood as part of the heavenly host. For example, before the deadline to leave Jackson County arrived, the locals nevertheless threatened the Mormons and subjected their property to various levels of vandalism. Mary Rollins Lightner, who is best known for saving leaves of the Book of Commandments and then running into the corn field, wrote of one attack on her home in her autobiography:

One night, a great many got together and stoned our House part of which was hewed Logs, the front was Brick, after Breaking all the Windows, they commenced to tear of[f] the Roof of the Brick part, amidtst awful oaths, and howls, that were terrible to hear, all of a sudden, they left, and all was quiet. Next morning, Oliver, and John Whitmer came to the ^House^ and informed us, that hearing the terrible noise in the night, they feared for our lives and started to come to our assistance But hapening to look up to the Roof of our House they saw two Angels with drawn swords in their hands, standing on the Ridge pole, then, they retired knowing we were safe. [1]

The other account is from the January 21, 1836 entry of Joseph Smith’s journal. He and other Church leaders had spent the evening washing, anointing and then sealing blessings upon each other. Upon completion of this liturgy, a vision of heaven opened up to Smith. Section 137 of the Doctrine and Covenants was an extract of this vision added in 1981 in conjunction with 138. This is where he sees his parents and Alvin in the Celestial kingdom. The vision goes on and among other things, Smith saw:

Eldr Brigham Young standing in a strange land, in the far south west, in a desert place, upon a rock in the midst of about a dozen men of colour, who, appeared hostile He was preaching to them in their own toung, and the angel of God standing above his head with a drawn sword in his hand protecting him, but he did not see it [2]

I think all of these cases are best understood as visions. I don’t imagine that the Missourians saw the angel. I imagine Lightner would have remarked some audible reaction had they seen it. Instead, it was a vision to Cowdery and Whitmer and perhaps assured them that their cause was not completely lost (despite the dire circumstances). God was on their side.

These visions situated the Saints within the broad cosmic struggle between good and evil. This is evidenced a week after JS’s vision into heaven. After administering the Temple liturgy to a group of men, “Roger Orton saw a flaming Angel riding upon a horse of fire with a flaming sword in his hand followed by five others— encircle the house & protect the saints even the Lords anointed from the power of Satan & a host of evil spirits which were striving to disturb the saints—”

Like the biblical antecedents, Mormon angels were anthropomorphic beings. However, the Destoyer was no longer the bane of sinner, but the defender of the Saint. While this isn’t universally the case (note previous mention of JS and his polygamy commander, among several other examples), perhaps it made more sense for early Mormons to see these angels as battling with them. Instead of ontologically discrete sentinels for Yaweh, they were fellow citizens and fellow Saints, albeit temporally displaced.


  1. Mary Rollins Lightner, Autobiography, 6, holograph, Box 14, fd. 4, Susa Young Gates Papers, Utah Historical Society Archives, Salt Lake City.
  2. JS, Journal, January 21, 1836, JSPP Online, Documents, ID:6663; Journals, Vol. 1, 170-71.
  3. Ibid., January 28, 1836.


  1. Fascinating contrast!

    “I think all of these cases are best understood as visions. I don’t imagine that the Missourians saw the angel.”

    I also wonder if the sword is metaphorical (even if the angel is real). Getting hewn down by an invisible sword would be a perplexing way to go…

  2. I think we mistake what angels are really like. Because they are associated with heaven, we tend to associate them with everything nice and good. So we think of them as kind and friendly, as well as strong and helpful.

    I don’t necessarily think this is true. I think Hugh Nibley captured it better when he said of angels:

    “The angels envy us for only two things: our ability to forgive, and our ability to repent – because they can do neither.”

    Angels are adherents of light, truth and righteousness. I’m not entirely certain that they always view us – who are not always models of those things – very kindly. In Nibley’s book Enoch the prophet, he references apocryphal accounts of the angels of heaven crying out in sorrow and anger at the horrific wickedness of the world and demanding that God release them to destroy those who would work such evil. Certain accounts of the atonement even have a merciful God being called to account to the hosts of heaven for allowing such wickedness – thus the need for an atonement.

    I think that’s possibly going a bit too far. But it does illustrate a picture of angels quite different than the cute cartoon illustrations your Primary teachers slapped up on the blackboard. The Bible itself speaks of the destroying angel who was loosed upon Egypt and killed all the firstborn of Egypt only passing by the houses of Israel because of blood smeared upon the doors. It’s a rather frightening and gruesome tale – if you put aside the comfort that comes from familiarity with the story.

    No, I don’t think angels are fluffy and cuddly or particularly friendly. I don’t think Alma the Younger would have said that of them – having seen one himself. He and his companions were terrified out of their minds by the appearance of an angel. Alma himself was comatose from shock for days after the experience.

    Not to mention accounts of angels with flaming swords surrounding Elijah and Elisha and descending upon the enemy army and mercilessly slaughtering it.

    I personally think angels are terrifying in their own way. Sort of like the perfectly trained attack dog who is leaving you alone for now – but one word from it’s master, and…

    No… Not eager to meet one myself really.

  3. This is a really beautiful review of the imagery/symbolism J. I wonder if we might say lightsaber rather than flaming sword?

  4. Kyle – right on. Phantom decapitation is, as I understand it, fairly rare.

    Seth, I think that your comments describe well angels in the hebrew bible. However, does it fit well with Restoration angels?

    Tod the question then becomes, what color?

  5. Blue. Duh. For BYU. ;-)

  6. Old Testament angels: red.
    Restoration angels: green.

  7. Great fun. I’m fascinating by the bellicose images that are so easily integrated into our religious experience. There are resonances in the internal struggles with sin, our external struggles with each other, our perception that death wields a scythe for cutting short our lives. It certainly leaves open the possibility that Tolkein and D&D fans are not so far from the main streams of human experience and consciousness when the long historical view is taken. Don’t forget the swords in the sky–sometimes meteor showers, sometimes comets, sometimes just the play of light, but before the mid 19th century there was a lot of knowledge to be gained from the play of light in the skies, and sometimes swords were what they saw.
    (On the Destroyer, Kate and I are slowly putting together an edited volume on WoW, and I think I will expand the paper into a chapter for the book. That’s probably 2-4 years out at this point.)

  8. I’m most taken with the various accoutrements/accessories of angels. Destroyer angel Abbatton of Revelations 20 holds keys (to life and death?). Then, there’s the sword-holding angel, as mentioned in the OP. I believe the sword may be representative of the word of god. (“Thou has made my tongue a sharp sword.)” This would jive with traditional etymology of “angel” (angelos = messengers). Angels are often seen with trumpets, too, typically as heralds, sometimes waving banners. Angels are represented with a variety of other instruments–the harp, ‘course–but the trumpet packs the most punch. Angels carry books and scrolls, as well. I wonder about this order of angels: I’m sure their role wil be to punish me for overdue library books. One thing in all traditional angelology seems common. Angels should NOT be depicted with the nimbus halo–tho they most often are.

  9. My favorite angel/sword bit is the transference of the Tylers from Masonry to be akin to the angel guarding the garden of Eden in Gen 2 only now it’s guarding the endowment.

  10. One of the most fascinating stories from the Doctrine and Covenants is the destroyer on the Missouri River in section 61. Usually it is assumed that this would be Satan, but I think it actually makes more sense that it is the destroying angel, like the destroyer in the Passover story. Context to this revelation can be found in the HC 1:202:

    “On the 9th, in company with ten Elders, I left Independence landing for Kirtland. We started down the river in canoes, and went the first way as far as Fort Osage, where we had an excellent wild turkey for supper. Nothing very important occurred till the third day, when many of the dangers so common upon the western waters, manifested themselves; and after we had encamped upon the bank of the river, at McIlwaine’s Bend, Brother Phelps, in open vision by daylight, saw the destroyer in his most horrible power, ride upon the face of the waters; others heard the noise, but saw not the vision.”

    The destroyer is also mentioned in D&C 105:14-15:

    “For behold, I do not require at their hands to fight the battles of Zion; for, as I said in a former commandment, even so will I fulfil—I will fight your battles. Behold, the destroyer I have sent forth to destroy and lay waste mine enemies; and not many years hence they shall not be left to pollute mine heritage, and to blaspheme my name upon the lands which I have consecrated for the gathering together of my saints.”

    This states that the destroyer is sent from the Lord. This usage is also used in the Word of Wisdom, which links this to its more commonly used meaning outside of revelations, to refer to mortal illnesses. For example in Heber C. Kimball’s autobiography he wrote:

    “On the morning of the 24th we started for Liberty, Clay County, where our brethren were residing, who had been driven from Jackson County, taking our course round the head of Fishing River, in consequence of high water. When we got within five or six miles of Liberty, General Atchison, and several other gentlemen, met us, desiring that we would not go to Liberty, as the feelings of the people of that place was much enraged against us. Changing our course and bearing to the left, we pursued our way across a prairie; then passing through a wood until we came to brother Sidney Gilberts, where we camped on the bottom of Rush Creek, in a field belonging to brother Burket on the 25th. This night the cholera came upon us, as we had been warned by the servant of God. About 12 o’clock at night we began to hear the cries of those who were seized with the cholera, and they fell before the destroyer. Even those on guard fell with their guns in their hands to the ground, and we had to exert ourselves considerably to attend to the sick, for they fell on every hand. Thus it continued till morning when the camp was separated into several small bands and were dispersed among the brethren.” (http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/HCKimball.html)

    And in Jonathan Crosby’s autobiography:

    “The Destroyer was after me as soon as I was born into the world. When I was nine years old, in the winter of 1816, I was attacked with the spotted fever which prevailed at that time. Many children of my age were made deaf and dumb. The doctor that attended on me had two boys near my age who were deprived of those senses by that disease and at last, the doctor himself, was taken with the same disease and died. I went to his funeral with my parents. Through the blessing of God, by the vigilance of my mother, I was spared. Again, when I was eleven years old the Destroyer was after me, for I was taken with “Putrid Disentery” which brought me near the point of death. . . When I was seventeen years old I got hurt and had a sore on my side. The Destroyer thought he had me then, and the neighbors thought I was going to die but our Father in Heaven thought differently. By His blessing my life was spared, not by the faith of anybody except that they had faith in the doctor who attended me. But the Lord blessed the means used, and I was restored, although I was not able to do anything for six months or more and I have felt the effects of it all my life.”

    And from the autobiography of Nancy Tracy:

    “A young lady, Emily Fuller by name, had joined the church and came from another branch to visit for a few days. She was at Brother Blaksley’s and was suddenly taken ill and went into convulsions. She grew worse. Her frame was racked with cramping. It took three or four of us to keep her on the bed. The elders were away quite a distance, filling appointments. My husband was at home, but he only held the office of a deacon, so consequently could not administer the ordinance of the laying on of hands to rebuke the destroyer. But everything was done that could be, but nothing relieved her. It seemed the evil spirits were bound to destroy her. At last my husband got on a horse and rode 14 miles and brought Elder Ducher to administer to her. She was in great agony when he came in. He knelt down and prayed mightily for strength and power that he might rebuke the destroyer and bid him depart. He arose and went to the bed side, laid his hands upon her head and clothed with the authority and power of the priesthood, be rebuked the destroyer and told her to be made whole and arise from her bed, which she did and called for water to wash and the comb to comb her hair, although she was very weak for she had been in this state for twenty-four hours. Time can never erase this from my memory for I was an eye witness of the whole thing and it was the power of God that raised her up.” (http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/NTracy.html)

    Bloodthirsty angels are present elsewhere in the scriptures, such as in D&C 86:5-7:

    “Behold, verily I say unto you, the angels are crying unto the Lord day and night, who are ready and waiting to be sent forth to reap down the fields; But the Lord saith unto them, pluck not up the tares while the blade is yet tender (for verily your faith is weak), lest you destroy the wheat also. Therefore, let the wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest is fully ripe; then ye shall first gather out the wheat from among the tares, and after the gathering of the wheat, behold and lo, the tares are bound in bundles, and the field remaineth to be burned.”

    You get the sense that the Lord has to restrain the angels from coming down and destroying people (and in section 61 the Lord says he’s not restraining the destroyer from causing havoc on the river).

    A related image is Death (a.k.a. the Grim Reaper) on the pale horse in Revelation.

    Fun stuff.

  11. @mapman Great sources! I think you may be onto something here, but how do angels dwell in God’s presence and yet remain so violent in nature. I guess you could argue it’s benevolence for them to kill… Uh…

  12. Sam gets into that quite a bit in his piece. The Zion’s Camp episode is particularly interesting with a personified death, from which they fled. However, did they or do we as modern Mormons see that choleric plague as being administered by angels?

  13. The cholera question is a really interesting one and there is the conflict of whether this kind of thing can be or would be left to, devils.

  14. Isn’t part of the problem that we’ve come to view God as too much of a cuddly bunny? Like a popularized image of Santa Claus?

  15. Now I’m wondering if angels also have naughty and nice lists.

  16. How does this all fit into the angels sleeping with women in the OT?

    I know there is a ton of literature out there about that already, haven’t read too much myself, but I suppose it could relate somehow.

  17. Or fit with, rather…

  18. It does make sense that there is a reason that Angels frequently start their spiel with a “fear not” one of the few visitations of any kind that does seem to start with a fear not is Joseph Smith, but I’ve always assumed that after seeing Satan, he understood which being he needed to fear and which he needed to respect.

    we just read Nephi’s first angel visit this morning. I suppose there was no “fear not” there just because Nephi and Sam were just grateful the beating stopped. It was a miracle…for them.

    I am a believer that angels are around more than we can see. It didn’t occur to me that they would be chomping at the bit to kill people.

  19. Mommie Dearest says:

    Maybe destroying angels perceive death differently than we do, and don’t see themselves as ferocious slaughtering monsters, but instruments of the will of God.

  20. I never suggested that they were savage killing machines.

    I suggested that they are just – and unforgiving. And they cannot abide evil.

    There’s a difference.

    And for all we know I could be full of it since a large part of this is speculative anyway.

  21. I believe that judgments nearly always come when the Spirit withdraws and people are left to their own devices and according to their own strength without any guidance or support. And when people do sufficiently serious things (killing other people for example) it withdraws completely, and some sort of self destruction is simply a matter of time.

    In other words, except in the rarest of circumstances, I don’t think God has to do anything to cause judgments to come upon people, he simply has to cease providing the support he already gives, in a manner, to a degree, and for a time appropriate to the situation,

  22. I don’t have any answers for why angels might be eager to kill other than that they might be able to see enough things to really see the damage that wickedness causes. The Lord can see things even better, so he can tell the angels to wait and that their “faith is weak” (D&C 86:6). The Lord knows that everyone needs a chance to repent.

    Something that I just remembered is that Porter Rockwell is sometimes called “the Destroying Angel of Mormondom”, but I’m not sure who gave him the nickname.

    There’s story about my ancestor, Rosel Hyde, that is more inspirational. He was living near to the Kirtland Temple although he had not yet joined the Church. According to family tradition he was outside during the dedication and he saw a pillar of light and a cloud descend on the temple and saw angels enter through the roof. Shortly thereafter Rosel was baptized.

  23. Joseph Smith’s description of the angel Moroni included this comment:

    “When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.”

    In Terryl Givens’s “By the hand of Mormon”, on page 21, he writes:

    On a business errand for his father in nearby Manchester, Joseph was unusually late returning home. When he at last arrived, in one of his not uncommon public acknowledgments of his own shortcomings, Joseph revealed that he had just experienced at the hands of the angel Moroni “the severest chastisement I ever had in my life,” well deserved because of his neglect of spiritual things, he explained.

    It seems often in the scriptures the appearance of an angel is accompanied with words saying something along the lines of “fear not” or “be not afraid.” So one can only assume that fear must be a natural side-effect of such a visitation.

  24. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    There seems to be some ambiguity over the identity of the destroyer.

    It was a common disciplinary decision in the 1830s to deliver the offender over to the “buffetings of Satan”. In this conception, rather than sending an avenger the Lord is withdrawing protection.

  25. My most favorite sword baring angels are the two that stood behind the sister-missionaries when they tracted into a serial killer covered with blood.

    Or were those the Three Nephites? I can never remember.

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