Tuesday, October 26, 2004

THE DEVIL & JOE SMITH: A Mormon Concept of Evil

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Devil was very real for many people living on the western frontier in the early nineteenth century. The people of Palmyra, New York--among whom the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith came of age--were no exception.
For the money diggers, village seers and magicians--with whom the teenage Joseph and his father kept company--it was the Devil and his minions of evil spirits and spirit guardians who kept them from digging up the fabled buried treasures that would bring them financial salvation. For the revivalist ministers--with whom the teenage Joseph and his mother kept company--the devil was “the God of this world,” who led the proud and the worldly from the paths of Christian salvation.

Joseph’s earliest theological writings regarding the Devil (found in “The Book of Mormon”) reflect a mixture of both of the concepts, blending Protestant evangelicalism with early American folk-magic. In the earliest Mormon theology, the Devil tempted people to sin so that he might have power over them and make them eternally miserable. (For examples of this concept, see II Nephi 2:18; Alma 8:9, 12:17 and 15:17) When the wicked who were under the Devil’s control attempted to hide their treasures by burying them in the earth, a curse was placed upon the ground, causing the treasures to become “slippery” and it became impossible to dig them back up. (For examples see Helaman 12:18, 13:18-23; Mormon 1:18)

Belief in folk-magic, evil spirits and demonic possession were common among the first converts to Mormonism in upstate New York. In fact, the first claim that Joseph Smith could work miracles came as a result of a successful exorcism that Joseph--at the insistence of followers--performed on Newel Knight, who claimed to have been possessed by the Devil.

There is little evidence historically that Joseph Smith encouraged such activities. If any thing, the evidence indicates that he was uncomfortable with demands that he prove his prophetic calling by casting out devils and demons, or by performing supernatural feats.

As the years passed and Joseph’s theology evolved, so did his concept of the Devil. For Joseph Smith the Devil became something of a comic figure--a mixture of a traveling snake-oil salesman, a hypocritical protestant minister, a crooked lawyer and populist politician. This was reflected not only in the dramatic portions of the Temple Endowment, but in the political writings that Mormons produced as part of Joseph’s presidential campaign.

As comical a literary figure as the Devil became for Joseph, the Mormon Devil, nevertheless, became the embodiment of an evil far more threatening to modern civilization than lost faith or evil supernatural forces.


Traditional and popular concepts of the devil are the product of orthodox Christianity. Before Christianity became the state religion of Rome, thus establishing monotheism throughout the western world, many gods were worshipped--with each god or goddess ruling over some aspect of existence.

For example, the Greek god Dionysus (Bacchus--according to the Romans) was the god of wine and song. He was often depicted as a satyr--the horned half goat, half human creatures who were associated with music and sex.

Christianity, by incorporating into its emerging theology much of Plato’s philosophy, looked up the natural world and physical pleasure as sinful and fallen, as under the control of the devil. With time images of Dionysus and satyrs were used in depictions of the devil. Thus was born the goat-footed and horned Satan of tradition. Like Dionysus before him, the Satan of Christianity became the embodiment of all that was carnal and sensual.

With the emergence of monotheism as the dominant world view, a new problem was born. As long as people believed that there were many gods warring and quarreling among themselves in the heavens, there was a theological reason for the calamities and evils that fell upon humanity. But when Christianity declared that there was only one God who created all things, people began to question why evil existed. After all, Christianity taught that God was all good. But evil and suffering were realities. Did God create them? And if he did create evil, how could one maintain that God was perfect and good.

In attempting to deal with such questions, Christianity turned to the devil who became something of a demigod--an eternal adversary of the one true God. Humanity’s woes and all evil could be traced back to Satan.

But if God is the creator of all things, why did he create the devil? Christians speculated that originally Satan was created as an angel--the brightest and most beautiful of all heavenly beings. But then Satan became filled with pride, tried to elevate himself above God and was thus cast from heaven into hell, where he ruled as the devil.

Even this did not solve monotheism’s dilemma. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, wouldn’t He have known from the beginning that Satan would rebel and fall? If He knew this, why did He create Satan in the first place? And why does He allow Satan to have such power over the world now?

Christianity has never been able to answer these questions to the satisfaction of most. The dilemma over the Devil continues. During the twentieth century, as the largest denominations within Mormonism reverted back to traditional Christian concepts and theology, the devil once again became the subject of many a Mormon sermon. In current LDS Testimony, Sunday School, Priesthood and Relief Society meetings, one often hears references to the world being under the control of theDevil; of the Devil conspiring to keep faithful Latter-Day Saints from attending the Temple and such.

A question arises: Is the Christian and modern Mormon concept of Satan supported by the writings of the Bible? Using only this book of scripture, a convincing case can be made that the Devil--as popularly depicted and traditionally conceived--is not be found in the Bible at all.


If an adult raised in the Christian or LDS tradition begins to read the Bible from the beginning for the first time, he may be shocked to find that he has to read for several hundred pages before coming across any mention of “devils.”
Note that the word is “devils”--plural, not singular. The word “devils” appears in Leviticus 17:7 and Deuteronomy 32:17 in reference to the ancient Israelites offering up sacrifices to false gods. THE devil--as traditionally conceived--is mentioned no where in the Old Testament.

The only place in the Old Testament where the character of Satan makes an actual appearance is in the opening passages of the Book of Job. (See Job 2:1-7) The scene is the court of Lord on a day when the sons of God (divine beings) “came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the Lord. “

There is no mention of Satan being a devil or the Devil; there’s no indication that Satan is evil, wicked or fallen. In fact, Satan is depicted as one of “the sons of God”--a divine being who is perfectly welcomed in the courts of heaven.

The Lord brags to Satan of Job’s virtue and integrity. Satan replies that if the Lord were to bring misfortune on Job, the man would curse Him. The Lord then delivers Job into Satan’s hand in order to test him.

The word “Satan” comes from the Hebrew for “slanderer” or “accuser.” In the ancient Israelite religion Satan was not evil, was not a devil, but a divine being who played the role of “prosecuting attorney” before the Lord. When one was brought before the Lord to be judged, it was Satan’s role to point out one’s sins and shortcomings, to bear record of the human condition before the throne of God.

In it is this context that Satan is mentioned in Psalms 109:6 and I Chronicles 21: 1---the only other two places in the entire Old Testament that make any reference to him.
One must read over two thirds of the Christian Bible before one finds any passages that reflect any concept of the Devil as traditionally conceived. These verses are found exclusively in the writings of the New Testament.
These writings were the product of a different age and civilization than were the writings of the Old Testament. The New Testament was the product of both Jewish and Gentile writers living in the first and second centuries of the common era. Being the products of the Roman world, these writers were influenced by the philosophies of ancient Greece--thus they tended to believe that there was a struggle going on between the forces of a fallen material/physical world and the immaterial/spiritual world of pure ideals. Though the Devil is mentioned only in New Testament writings and even though the influence of Greek thought can be detected, its interesting to note that the Devil is still associated primarily with the worship of false gods (like the devils mentioned in Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and with the role of “prosecuting attorney”-- or “the accuser of our brethren.” (See Revelation 12:7-10)

Though the Book of Revelation refers to Satan being cast out of heaven, it should be noted that this was seen as a future event. There is not a single passage within the entire Bible stating that Satan has already fallen or has already been cast from heaven.

One could reasonably conclude, therefore, that the entire Christian myth of the fall of Satan (a myth which many Mormons have, to a great extent, incorporated into their personal beliefs) can not be supported by an appeal to the Bible alone.


Some readers of the Bible might point out that an important passage concerning the Devil has been overlooked. The passage is found in Isaiah:

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” (Isaiah 14: 12-15)

Many Christians and Mormons mistakenly think that this verse is referring to the fall of the Devil; that as a result of the Devil’s desire to become more powerful than God, God cast him out of heaven into hell. This passage is the source of the Christian idea that the Devil feel as a result of pride and ambition.

Early in his career, Joseph accepted this traditional misinterpretation of this passage. Therefore in Doctrine & Covenant 76:26 writings he referred to the Devil as Lucifer, and in section 29:36-38 incorporated elements of Isaiah‘s language when discussing the Devil‘s fall.

But if one reads these verses within their proper context (meaning within the context of the chapter in which it appears) it becomes obvious that it is not the Devil who is being addressed, but the King of Babylon. The passage in which the verses appear begins with these words:

“That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon and say…” (Isaiah: 14:4)

The verses concerning the fall of Lucifer are part of this “proverb against the King of Babylon.” No where in the entire book of Isaiah is there any mention whatsoever of the Devil or Satan. In fact, the name "Lucifer" refers to the planet Venus--which appears in the sky as a bright star.
Instead of referring to the fall of an angel, this passage in Chapter 14 is an outcry against the King of Babylon, who through his pride attempted to conquer the world and exalt himself above the God of Israel and the stars of heaven. In the end, he would prove mortal, die and descend into the grave (the Hebrew word “shaol,” which is translated here as the word “hell”).

Thus the tradition that the Devil fell because of pride and arrogance is not supported by the Bible.
(Note: For more information of this passage of Isaiah and on the origin of the idea that Lucifer is the devil, see the reference and reading material links at the end of this lesson.)


As Mormon theology evolved, a new paradigm--or scheme of things--was laid out by Joseph Smith. In this new theology, the universe was uncreated. Existence had always existed. Opposition in all things had also existed.

There existed, too, an endless number of Gods stretching through the eternities. The God of this world--like all of the Gods--had once been human, had lived and died on an earth like our own. By experiencing opposition in all things and then choosing to grow and progress in knowledge and virtue, God became God. Humans (like God before them) could also travel this same path.
By also experiencing opposition in all things and choosing to grow in knowledge and virtue, every human being had the potential for Godhood.

If opposition in all things was an eternal state, then within the Mormon scheme of things there was no need for an answer to the questions, “Why Does Evil Exist? Why is there suffering?” There was no need for a God or a Devil upon whom one could affix blame or responsibility for these things. Opposition was simply a fact of existence and what mattered most were the choices an individual made in the face of opposition.

Thus Joseph Smith told a new myth regarding the “creation” and the fall of the Devil:

“…God found himself in the midst of spirits and glory, and because he was greater, he saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have the privilege of advancing like himself--that they might have one glory upon another and all the knowledge, power, and glory necessary to save the world of spirits…Thus the head God brought forth the Gods in the grand council…[In the Grand Council a contention arose.] The contention in heaven was this: Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved, and the devil said he could save them all. The grand council gave in for Jesus Christ. So the devil rebelled against God and fell, with all who put up their heads for him." (Joseph Smith, The King Follett Discourse)

Joseph went into greater detail in “The Pearl of Great Price”:

“ [Satan] came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor. But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever. Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down.” (Moses 1: 1-3)

Mormon theology presents a radical new reason for Satan’s fall: he wanted to guarantee that no human being would choose a path other than one of righteousness. Satan wanted to make sure that not a single individual would be lost.

But in order to do this, the very nature of the individual would have to be altered. In short, humans would be denied their full humanity--with all their virtues and their vices. In turn this would have undermined the great scheme of things. According to Mormonism’s new paradigm:

"As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.”

Immersion in humanity is the path to Divinity. Divinity is the outgrowth of human choice. To change the nature of humanity would be to undermine their potential for Divinity.


The Mormon Satan became the embodiment of what could be considered--in light of the Mormon scheme of thing--the ultimate evil: the destruction of human Free Agency or Free Will.

In the Temple drama, Satan lays out his mode of operation:

“I will take the treasure of the earth, and with gold and silver I will buy up armies and navies, false priests who and tyrant who destroy and tyrants who destroy, and reign with blood and horror on the earth!”

Especially in light of twentieth century world history as well as many of the forces at work in the world today, the ideas above can seem particularly frightening. Notice also that part of the Mormon Devil’s plan is the mixing of religious authority and power with governmental authority and power. The idea that government by the force of law (which is the use or threat of physical force) should attempt legislate ideals and values based on religious faith could be labeled “Satanic”--if one seriously considers what the Mormon Satan actually symbolizes. According to the Mormon Satan, individual freedom is seen as the enemy of universal salvation.

In older versions of the Temple drama, the Mormon Devil tries to undermine the Divine scheme by hiring a minister to teach false doctrines to the characters of Adam and Eve--who personify the average man and woman. Consider the following exchange between the character of Satan’s minister and Adam:

MINISTER: Do you believe in a God without body, parts, or passions; who sits on the top of a topless throne; whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere; who fills the universe, and yet is so small that he can dwell in your heart; who is surrounded by myriads of beings who have been saved by grace, not for any act of theirs, but by His good pleasure. Do you believe in such a great Being?

ADAM: I do not. I cannot comprehend such a being.

MINISTER: That is the beauty of it. Perhaps you do not believe in a devil, and in that great hell, the bottomless pit, where there is a lake of fire and brimstone into which the wicked are cast, and where they are continually burning, but never consumed?

ADAM: I do not believe in any such place.

MINISTER: My dear friend, I am sorry for you.

What is enlightening here is not the specifics of the doctrines being taught but the internal contradictions that make them unfathomable. When Adam comments that his can’t comprehend what is being taught, the Devil’s minister replies, “That is the beauty of it.”

By attacking human reason, the Mormon Devil attempts to overthrow human freedom. When Adam fails to see the beauty of incomprehensible doctrines, the Devil’s minister moves on to another strategy: fear of a burning Hell and eternal damnation in the afterlife, if one doesn’t do as one is told in this life.

(What is also enlightening in about the above dialogue is that, in the context of the Temple drama, the traditional doctrine of eternal damnation and a burning Hell were presented as false doctrines. It is interesting to note that today there a millions of LDS Mormons who originally participated in the above Temple ceremony and yet who, nevertheless, believe in the doctrines of Hell and eternal damnation.)


Reform Mormonism embraces the Mormon paradigm of eternity. Opposition in all things is simply a part of existence. Just as God is not needed to explain the existence of that which is good, neither is a Devil needed to explain the existence of that which is bad.

What is most important within Reform Mormonism is the Eternal Progression of the individual towards Godhood. It is Eternal Porgress--not salvation from hell or eternal damnation--that is the object of Reform Mormons. For one to progress, one must have complete freedom to explore and discover, to ask questions, to debate, to create, to try and fail, and to try again.

For this to occur, freedom is essential. The Mormon concept of Free Agency is fully embraced by Reform Mormons.

Consider these words--the lyrics of the very first hymn published in the very first Mormon hymnal in 1835:

Know this that every soul is free,
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is given,
That God will force no man to heaven.

He’ll call, persuade, direct him right;
Bless him with wisdom, love and light;
In nameless ways be good and kind;
But never force the human mind.

Freedom and reason make us men;
Take these away, what are we then?
Mere animals and just as well
The beasts should think of heaven and hell.

Discussion Questions

Has belief in the Devil played a role in my moral development? If so, what has been the end effect?

What are the potential problems of blaming the ills of life on a devil?

What are the pitfalls of using fear of Hell, eternal damnation and the Devil as motivators for moral behavior? How is the concept of Eternal Progression a better incentive for moral behavior?

How comfortable am I with the Mormon idea that “there must needs be opposition in all things?”

How do I view opposition? Do I tend to see opposition as an evil to be overcome or as a “fact of life” that allows me to progress and grow?

What role has the concept of Free Agency played in my moral development?


Freedom and reason make us human. Take these away, what are we?

To respond to some of the questions raised in this Gospel Doctrine session,
or to make a comment or ask a question, email:

Your comments may be posted here throughout the coming week or shared at the Reform Mormonism Discussion Group--which you are welcome to join. If you are a member there, you may post your comment directly to the discussion group at http://reformmormonismdisc@yahoogroups.com/.

References and Suggested Readings
Relating to this Gospel Doctrine Lesson

“The Book of Moses” Chapter 4:1-3 (The Pearl of Great Price)

“The King Follett Discourse.” Joseph Smith last and greatest sermon, explaining the Mormon creation myth--including the reason for Satan’s fall.

Sites explaining how the Isaiah passage concerning Lucifer has been misinterpreted as referring to the Devil:

“Lucifer Is Not An Old Testament Name for the Devil”

“Satan, Devil & Demons”

“Is Satan Lucifer?”

“Lucifer: Where did the Word Come From & What Is Its True Meaning”


“Mormonism’s New Paradigm”

“In The Beginning, or Let the Insanity Begin.” This essay explores in detail how Joseph Smith’s rejection of creationism positively affects philosophy and concepts of morality.

Reform Mormonism homepage