Learning to Love
Doctrine and Covenants

Section 129: Discernment of False Spirits By Michael J. Preece

Section 129: Discernment of False Spirits

In our tour through the Doctrine and Covenants, we have encountered different types of revelation. For example, we have studied revelations that are descriptions of visions (sections 76, 110, 137), prayers (sections 65, 109), letters (sections 121, 122, 123, 127, 128), a translation of an ancient parchment (section 7), inspired helps in interpreting the scriptures (sections 74, 77, 113), and even the minutes of a meeting (section 102). We now encounter yet another type of revelation. Sections 129, 130 and 131 might appropriately be termed “inspired instructions.” They resulted from Joseph’s instructing either individuals or groups on significant points of doctrine. On each of these occasions, Joseph’s scribe, William Clayton, was present and recorded the instructions. Be assured, however, that these sections are indeed, in the strictest sense, revelations. All three were preserved in the History of the Church, Joseph’s official history, and in 1876 Orson Pratt included them in the new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Section 129 is actually the scribe’s transcription of instructions given to Parley P. Pratt and others on February 9, 1843. Just two days earlier, Parley had returned from his mission in Great Britain. He had remained over a year and one-half longer than the rest of the Twelve to preside over the Church there and to serve as editor of the Millennial Star. Among other things, Parley was eager to learn more about how he might discern angels. Specifically, he wished to know how to distinguish divinely dispatched messengers from those on Satan’s errand.

You will recall that in D&C 128:20 we read a mere mention of an experience Joseph had with Adam. The year must have been 1829 since Joseph never returned to the Susquehanna River after that year. The devil appeared to Joseph as an angel of light and would have deceived Joseph into thinking he was sent by the Lord, except that Adam intervened and helped Joseph to identify Satan. It seems likely that Joseph began at that time to learn more about discerning heavenly messengers from evil ones. Joseph taught the “grand keys” of discerning false spirits earlier, but they were not formally written down until February 9, 1843. For example, Wilford Woodruff, in his journal (volume 1:341), reported that Joseph taught the “grand keys” to the Twelve prior to their departing for their mission to England in the spring of 1839. Another version of this information was recorded by Willard Richards in his “Pocket Companion,” sometime before August 8, 1839, when he likely heard it from others of the Twelve who had arrived in England. In December 1840, William Clayton copied an extract of it in his Private Book. An anonymous pamphlet published in Nauvoo in 1841 entitled Revelations also contained a version of section 129, which appears to be a copy of William Clayton’s December 1840 extract. Thus, the information recorded in section 129 had been revealed to the Prophet long before February 9, 1843, the date assigned to it in the headnote of section 129. Section 129 is simply another, somewhat abbreviated version, of the revelation of this same material which appeared in Joseph Smith’s diary in the handwriting of Willard Richards under the date February 9, 1843, when Joseph again revealed this information to Parley P. Pratt and also to others who had not been present to hear it earlier. On this last occasion, February 9, 1843, William Clayton was also present and, as Joseph’s scribe, wrote in his journal the substance of Joseph’s teachings to Parley and the others. That copy by William Clayton, which was later incorporated into the draft “Manuscript History of the Church,” provided the official text of section 129, which was first included in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants under the direction of President Brigham Young.

Beyond these several written versions, in remarks made to the Relief Society on April 28, 1842 and to the general membership of the Church three days later, May 1, 1842, Joseph also made allusions to the doctrine of detecting false spirits. From these public remarks, it seems clear that the prophet Joseph connected the substance of section 129 with the ordinances of the temple and believed that the information in this revelation held increased significance for those who had been endowed. Concerning his May 1, 1842 sermon, Joseph recorded in the History of the Church: “I preached in the grove, on the keys of the kingdom, charity, &c. The keys are certain signs and words by which false spirits and personages may be detected from true, which cannot be revealed to the Elders till the Temple is completed” (HC, 4:608).

Scripture Mastery

D&C 129 Discernment of False Spirits

D&C 129:4-8 When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God.

1 There are two kinds of beings in heaven, namely: Angels, who are resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bones—

verse 1 “two kinds of beings in heaven” It would seem that Joseph is using the term “beings” here to mean human beings, because there are a number of other beings near the throne of God (D&C 77:1-2; Revelation 4:6-9; 5:13; HC, 5:324). Moreover, the term “heaven” seems to be used here broadly as equivalent to “the other side of the veil,” because such translated beings as Enoch, John the Beloved, or the three Nephites, who have not yet passed through the veil of resurrection but might otherwise be considered angels, are not included here.

“Angels” What is an “angel?” The Hebrew word malak and the Greek word angelos, which are both translated as “angel” in the Bible, mean “a messenger.” A satisfactory definition seems to be: a messenger sent by God or Satan to minister or teach. Actually there are three types of angels who can appear “in light” or “in glory.” They are:

  1. Resurrected beings having bodies of flesh and bone. They have celestial bodies and have come forth in the “first resurrection,” since that is the only resurrection that has already commenced. They therefore have earned and received their “celestial glory,” and the only way they can appear is in glory. Because none of the angels described in scripture before the resurrection of Jesus Christ can possibly have been resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23), it is clear that Joseph is defining his terms here from a post-resurrection perspective.

  2. The “spirits of just men made perfect.” These are righteous men who have died but have not yet been resurrected. They have been judged worthy of being assigned the state called “paradise” in the spirit world. They have been assured that they will inherit the celestial degree of glory—they have had their “calling and election made sure.” Because of their righteousness, they are allowed to appear in the glory they will possess when they are resurrected.

  3. An angel of Satan or Satan himself. He knows how to fake the “light” or the glory of God.

These verses do not actually tell us how many different types of angels there are, but only how many can appear in “light.” There are other types of angels. For example, there are also translated beings and pre-existent spirits who may be assigned to appear on earth as angels.

The important point here is that God might send as messengers either physical beings or spirits. In either case, it is important for us to know how to be sure that they are truly from God.

2 For instance, Jesus said: Handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

verse 2 See Luke 24:36-39.

3 Secondly: the spirits of just men made perfect, they who are not resurrected, but inherit the same glory.

verse 3 “Secondly” In verses 1 and 2, Joseph has just described the physical character of angels who are resurrected beings. We would presume that translated beings would share in those same physical characteristics.

“the spirits of just men made perfect” See the commentary for verse 1.

verses 4-8 These are the grand keys by which the nature of ministering angels might be distinguished:

We are instructed to offer to shake hands with the messenger. If he is a resurrected being, he will shake hands, we will feel his hand (Luke 24:39), and then he will deliver his message. If he is the spirit of a just man made perfect, then he will not offer to shake hands, but he will deliver his message. Exactly why he will not offer to shake hands is not perfectly clear. Apparently the reason centers around the fact that spirit is intangible to human flesh. Is it? Are we sure? I suppose it is, but there is an interesting example in the scripture of a spirit personage interacting in a physical way with a mortal. Consider, for example, the fact that Adam was baptized by the Holy Ghost (Moses 6:64). Anyway, back to the question at hand. If spirit is intangible to mortal flesh, then it would be deceptive and upsetting for a spirit personage to offer to shake hands with someone who does not feel the spirit’s hand. Since it is “contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive,” he will not offer to shake hands. Finally, if the messenger is of the devil, then he will offer to shake hands, and the person receiving the vision will fan the air.

Now, there is an obvious question that you might be wondering about. Satan is a bright, intelligent individual who certainly knows the scriptures. Why is he foolish enough to stick his hand out, if his intent is to make the mortal believe that he is divine? We don’t know the answer to this. Perhaps it is simply contrary to the order of things for him not to offer to shake hands—perhaps he is bound by law. Or, perhaps he cannot help himself. He knows better, but he cannot pass up the opportunity to shock and deceive the man. Perhaps the look on the man’s face is worth being detected.

In another account of the “grand keys” published by Joseph in Nauvoo, he added another dimension:

The devil may appear as an angel of light; ask God to reveal it; if it be of the devil he will flee from you, if of God he will manifest himself or make it manifest.

If an angel or spirit appears [we would presume Joseph here speaks of an angel of light], offer him your hand; if he is a spirit from God he will stand still and not offer you his hand; if from the devil, he will either shrink back from you or offer his hand, which if he does you will feel nothing, but be deceived (Revelations [Nauvoo, Illinois, 1841], 7-8, emphasis added)

Since the temple ceremony gives other methods by which evil spirits can be detected, some have suggested that the “grand keys” are now out of date.

Joseph was oft visited by ministering angels, and was thus thoroughly familiar with their appearance. On one occasion, a sister from New York reported a vision of a glorious personage who appeared to her dressed in white with sandy-colored hair. Joseph pointed out that it was not an angel of God. For one thing, he had the wrong color hair (Times and Seasons, [April 1, 1842] 3:747).

In these same instructions given to Parley on February 9, 1843, but not included in section 129, Joseph related, “A man came to me in Kirtland and told me he had seen an angel and described his dress. I told him he had seen no angel, and that there was no such dress in heaven” (HC, 5:267).

4 When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.

5 If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.

6 If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—

verse 6 “for that is the only way he can appear” Apparently the spirit of a just man made perfect (see the commentary for verse 1) cannot hide his glory from the one to whom he appears. It would seem that hiding one’s glory is only a prerogative of resurrected beings (Luke 24:15-16, 31; John 20:14-15; 21:4). Translated beings also appear without surrounding glory, but this is because they have not yet been granted celestial glory.

7 Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.

verse 7 “he will not move” The version of these instructions from Joseph written in William Clayton’s “Private Book” in December 1840 specified that a spirit from God would not move either to shake your hand or to shrink back to avoid being touched, whereas an evil spirit would move in either of these ways.

8 If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.

verse 8 “the devil as an angel of light” Satan does have the power to deceive the unwary (2 Thessalonians 2:4). The prophet Joseph taught:

It would seem also, that wicked spirits have their bounds, limits, and laws by which they are governed or controlled, and know their future destiny, hence, those that were in the maniac said to our Savior, ‘Art thou come to torment us before the time,’ and when Satan presented himself before the Lord, among the sons of God, he said that he came ‘from going to and fro in the earth, and from wandering up and down in it;’ and he is emphatically called the prince of the power of the air; and, it is very evident that they possess a power that none but those who have the Priesthood can control (HC, 4:576).

9 These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God.

verse 9 “three grand keys” These are composed of the test proposed in verse 4, shaking hands, and the three possible outcomes that will occur, depending on whether the messenger is (1) a resurrected being or a translated being from God, (2) the spirit of a just man made perfect or a premortal spirit, also from God, or (3) a deceiving spirit of the devil.

- Michael J. Preece