One of the interesting aspects of the LDS Church’s claim that the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored to Joseph Smith is our belief that the most important aspects of that restoration came through the ministration of angels. Joseph Smith claimed that it was an angel (Moroni, the last prophet of the Book of Mormon) who directed him to the golden plates that were the source of the Book of Mormon. He claimed that an angel (John the Baptist) restored the Aaronic priesthood and that three angels (Peter, James and John) restored the Melchizedek priesthood. He claimed that several other angels restored other doctrines and authority, including Moses, Elijah and Elias. The Book of Mormon contains numerous stories of interactions between angels and prophets of God. Along with the many accounts of angels in the Bible, it is evident that angels play an important role in Mormon theology. Clearly we believe in them, but what do we believe about them?
The importance of angels was brought home to me years ago in a talk given by Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Church’s quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In that talk, Elder Holland said:
May I suggest to you that one of the things we need to teach our students, and one of the things which will become more important in their lives the longer they live, is the reality of angels, their work, and their ministry. Obviously I speak here not alone of the angel Moroni, but also of those more personal ministering angels who are with us and around us, empowered to help us, and who do exactly that. …
Perhaps more of us, including our students, could literally, or at least figuratively, behold the angels around us if we would but awaken from our stupor and hear the voice of the Spirit as those angels try to speak. …
I believe we need to speak of and believe in and bear testimony to the ministry of angels more than we sometimes do. They constitute one of God’s great methods of witnessing through the veil.
(A Standard unto My People [address to religious educators at a symposium on the Book of Mormon, Brigham Young University, Aug. 9, 1994], 11–13).
Mormons believe that there are three types of “angels” that might be sent to minister to mortal people. The first is the spirits of people who have not yet been born into mortality. The second is spirits of people who already have lived on earth. The last category would be people who have lived on earth, died, and subsequently been resurrected. (Recall that the New Testament tells us that the graves were opened and many were resurrected following the resurrection of Christ). We believe that any of these types of personages may visit us as necessary. One of the early presidents of the LDS Church, Wilford Woodruff, taught that such visitations only occur where the work to be performed only could be performed by an angel. (Deseret Weekly, Nov. 7, 1896, 641). That means that such visitations are not something that occur with a high degree of frequency, and certainly not for the purpose of showing us how cool angels are.
Such angels are not the subject of worship by Mormons. Rather, we believe that anything done by an angel is done at the direction and under the authority of Jesus Christ. We do not pray to angels or otherwise venerate them. Granted, most of our temples are adorned with a statue of the angel Moroni blowing a horn on their steeples, but that statue is merely symbolic of the restoration of the gospel, as it was Moroni who first taught Joseph Smith and introduced him to the ancient record that would be translated as the Book of Mormon. We believe that Moroni fulfills the prophecy in Revelation 14:6 of an angel bringing forth the everlasting gospel, and this imagery adorns our temples. (Incidentally, I used to wear a tie pin of the angel Moroni, but I gave it up because it kept turning upside down and looked instead like someone golfing).
One distinction between the Mormon belief in angels and some other Christians is that Mormons believe that angels do not have wings. While this may seem doctrinally insignificant, it actually is quite important to understanding the nature of angels. We believe that our spirits before we come to earth were in the form of men and women, and therefore when such angels appear it will be in the form and likeness of man. Similarly, we believe that all of us will be resurrected into the same form that we have now, and therefore (like Christ) all resurrected beings will look like men or women. Stated differently, since man is created in the image of God, and God is perfect, then angels don’t need to be dressed up in wings in order to reflect His glory.
The concept of angels with wings comes from at least a couple of different sources. One is from the Bible passages (particularly from Isaiah and Revelation), in which certain heavenly creatures seen in visions have wings. Other times angels are seen in vision as “flying,” without any reference to the means by which they do so. In these instances, a distinction needs to be made between how angels appear in actual visitations and how they appear in dreams and visions. When the Bible speaks of angels actually visiting the earth, there is no mention of any wings, and often the angels are confused with human beings. (An example would be the angels that visited Abraham and rescued Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah). One would presume that such blending in would be exceedingly difficult if their physical description included “wingspan.”
On the other hand, when angels or other creatures are referred to as having wings, that generally is in the case of visions and dreams, in which wings are likely symbolic of power, mobility, majesty, and so forth. It may also be true that there are some far-out looking creatures in heaven, with multiple eyes, arms and wings, but if they do exist, that has virtually no importance to our relationship with Christ or our quest to return to Him.
What is far more important is knowing that God has not left us alone in this life. Even Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, required and received the ministration of angels. The most notable such occasions were during his 40-day fast and dialogue with Satan, on the Mount of Transfiguration when Moses, Elijah and Elias appeared, and during His infinite sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane when an angel came to “strengthen” Him. If the Redeemer of mankind needed the aid of angels, how much greater is our need in our imperfections and infirmities? I believe that a loving Father in Heaven would not deny us such desperately needed aid.
Now, I’m won’t pretend to have had extensive experience with visitations from angels, although our family has had experiences in which I believe that angels were present. Most of those are of a private and sacred nature that would be inappropriate to recount here. Still, those experiences have provided me with an internal spiritual conviction that, coupled with my understanding of the nature and mission of angels, persuades me of their existence. I am confident that my family has been preserved by the power of Christ demonstrated through angelic ministrations, and I am grateful for the assurance that we can count on such aid again in the future.