Human beings in other guise lived before the creation of our world. This belief is at once controversial and durable, pervading the history of Western thought and bearing analogues elsewhere.1 That gods, angels, or other celestial beings rebelled against their superiors or engaged in cosmic conflict prior to earth’s creation is a related concept, widespread in the ancient world. Depictions or allusions to such contests appear in the myths, lore, art, literature, and sacred texts of Babylon, Egypt, Israel, Persia, Greece, Rome, far-flung tribal religions, and elsewhere. In certain cases, the older traditions endure even to the present, as in Sufi (Muslim) expressions of Iblis’s rebellion against Allah.
No coherent account of a war in heaven has descended to us in the biblical record, though entwined imagery and hints from Genesis, Isaiah, Luke, 2 Peter, Jude, and the book of Revelation have sustained narrative, visual, musical, theatrical, and theological presentations across the centuries. In Christianity, these traditions achieved salience, transmitted by the early Christian fathers and medieval mystery plays, among other avenues. The literary tradition culminated in Milton, informed as much by Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil as by the Bible. Paradise Lost exerted colossal influence on subsequent generations, including those in the United States.
Ancient accounts of extraterrestrial battles variously pitted light against darkness, order against chaos, pride toward one’s betters, power against power, or good against evil (not necessarily in modern terms). The notion that heavenly war hinged on the proposed creation of earth and the prospect of a deepened agency granted to its future human inhabitants was untaught until Joseph Smith’s revelations in the antebellum United States recast the war from cosmic military engagement to a clash of ideas concerning “salvation.”2 In this framing, expanded in the minds of disciples from scant filaments of scripture, a pre-earthly Lucifer aspired to redeem an envisioned humankind without exception and to usurp the honor and power of God, who rejected Satan’s hubris. Satan rebelled, incited war, and, before and perhaps after being cast out, “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3), who was to be sent to earth to experience, to learn, to choose, to be tested, and to achieve his and her divine potential.3 In Joseph Smith’s panorama of what existence is about, not even love, grace, intelligence, or relationships eclipse agency as prime values; their very nature and meaning depend on it. To inhibit agency is demonic.
In what sense and by what means did Satan seek to extinguish this agency? This remains an open question; no response reigns official in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet examining assumptions and possibilities amounts to more than elaborating the unknown. The effort and the additional questions it spawns lay bare something of the nature of agency itself, along with threats to it. Whether to believers who take the War in Heaven as actual pre-earth trauma or to skeptics sensitive to the potency of mythos, exploring the story’s contours may affect our maps of historical, existential, and spiritual reality. Hence it may condition how we choose to live.
Before turning to theories of Satan’s methods in working to negate the agency of God’s children, we note that key phrasings in Latter-day Saint scripture concerning agency and even specifically the War in Heaven have histories preceding Joseph Smith’s restoration and are independent of that war. For example, “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3) and “to act . . . and not to be acted upon” (2 Ne. 2:26) were linguistic formulas embedded in the Arminian/Reformed debates of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Whether knowingly or unconsciously, the Prophet Joseph adopted certain phrases from Arminian critics who accused Calvinists of an exaggerated effort to protect the sovereignty of God, sacrificing human agency in the process. As New York’s prominent Calvinist (and Presbyterian) David Low Dodge characterized one such critique of his own position in 1808, “If we are totally depraved, I think it must destroy moral agency; from which it will follow, that we do not act, but are acted upon like machines.”4 The language of “acting” and “being acted upon” traces further back through John Locke and well beyond to the ancient Epicurean poet, Lucretius.5 In translating or crafting new revelation, Joseph Smith’s words resembled known but disparate vocabulary units, frequently of biblical but also Masonic, theological, and political origins. In many cases the Prophet would not likely have known their original meanings, but in any event he frequently transposed these phrasings from their original setting to a fresh context, weaving them into new and coherent forms, as a mother or father bird integrates vagrant twigs and debris into a new nest for their young. This was not plagiarism in any modern sense but rather was intrinsic to his prophetic mode.6
History of the Predominant Understanding
Whether or not readers were attuned to such processes in the formation of Restoration scripture, two theories eventually coalesced to dominate Latter-day Saint understanding of how Satan conspired to negate agency. Each of them possesses a history—they were not evident in Joseph Smith’s lifetime—a fact that lays grounds for noticing other possibilities latent in the tradition.
Orson Pratt planted the seeds of what became the prevailing theories as early as 1853. “If Satan had been permitted to carry out his plan,” wrote Pratt, “it would either have destroyed the agency of man, so that he could not commit sin; or it would have redeemed him in his sins and wickedness without any repentance or reformation of life. If the agency of man were destroyed, he would only act as he is acted upon, and consequently he would merely be a machine.”7 The alternatives Pratt discerned, then, would have obliterated agency or rendered it moot. However, neither he nor his contemporaries nor Joseph Smith before them proffered much in the way of a Satanic method for either possibility. What did it mean to say Satan intended to annihilate agency? How would he attempt it?
If Church members in the twenty-first century were polled to respond to the question, an outsized majority would probably explain that Satan hoped to coerce the human will. He would force human beings to be good. If a questioner were to wonder aloud why “a third part of the hosts of heaven” (D&C 29:36) would be lured to a scheme where morally good souls were imagined as the product of coercion, some Church members might refine their thought: perhaps Satan planned to force every person to obey his commandments. This too would seem to yield conformity rather than goodness, but the presumption in this model is that this was precisely why God rejected Satan’s plan. Because scripture and Joseph Smith are silent on the matter of Satan’s mode, however, tracing how the idea of Satanic coercion rose to dominance among the Saints seems useful.
From perhaps as early as the 1830–31 reception of the book of Moses, Joseph Smith and others were aware of a pre-earthly conflict in which Satan sought to suppress human agency.8 Similarly, leaders from the Church’s earliest days exuded a distaste for ideological, religious, or political coercion.9 Although the tether between these distinct ideas seems obvious and inevitable to many twenty-first-century disciples, it was not until 1882 that a Church leader, John Taylor, explicitly asserted that Satan’s premortal attempt to eliminate agency consisted of coercion.10 The context for this new linkage was the coercion leaders perceived in the increasingly harsh legal and public relations measures that federal authorities imposed upon the Saints, pressure intended to dismantle their practices of plural marriage and de facto theocracy. Said President Taylor, “Satan sought to rob man of his free agency, as many of his agents [congress, the courts, territorial marshals] are seeking to do today; and for this cause Satan was cast out of heaven.”11 Beyond the novelty of linking federal action with the cosmic origins of evil, one wonders if Taylor consciously or unconsciously implied that, as with the pre-earthly Satan, God could overthrow coercive politicians in this world. Subsequent leaders seem to allude more to the devil’s pervasive influence in human history rather than specifically to the pre-earth casting out of Satan or his this-worldly human counterparts.
Church rhetoric decrying the government’s heavy hand and linking it to the forces of evil (not yet Satan’s pre-earthly plan) had spiked before and during the Utah War of 1857–58 and rose anew after the Civil War, building through the 1870s. Once President Taylor publicly declared such compulsion akin to Satan’s rejected scheme in the pre-existent world, other Church leaders followed suit. Satan’s plan to destroy agency became his plan to destroy it by compulsion. Apostle Moses Thatcher, for one, spoke repeatedly of Lucifer’s “coercive, agency destroying plan” in the mid-1880s.12
This line of thought subsequently took a crucial though subtle turn amid a seismic shift in power relations between the United States and the Latter-day Saint Zion. The new détente was enabled in part by Church President Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 manifesto directing his followers against future plural marriages, an accommodation essential to Utah’s entrance to statehood in 1896. Three years later, soon-to-be Apostle James Talmage published The Articles of Faith, the first of his two books that during the twentieth century would attain quasi-canonical status among the tiny handful of nonscriptural works approved by Church leadership for use by full-time missionaries. Talmage wrote that, before creation, Lucifer’s “uncontrolled ambition prompted . . . [his] unjust proposition to redeem the human family by compulsion.”13 In this new era of attempted rapprochment with the United States in which Talmage wrote, his doctrinal work makes no mention of Satanic compulsion by the federal government. The effect of this absence was to etch Satan’s coercive pre-existent plan more deeply as theological tenet than as political joust.
Reiterated in his even more influential Jesus the Christ (1915)—published a decade after a second manifesto on plural marriage gave the teeth of enforcement to the first one—Talmage’s explanation of Satan’s agency-destroying mode gradually became axiomatic among widening circles of Latter-day Saints. The idea was proclaimed in general conference for the remainder of the century and into contemporary times and was reinforced in popular musical and theatrical productions.14 Similarly, whenever the issue of Satan’s premortal plan arises in the Church’s Primary, Sunday School, seminary, institute, Relief Society, and priesthood courses, the teaching manuals published in recent decades overwhelmingly assert the coercion theory. A manual for Primary children, ages 8–11, illustrates how this understanding might be instilled across generations. The manual invites teachers to help children imagine conditions under Lucifer’s plan by, for several minutes, doing exactly and only as the teacher instructs. For instance, they might be told to remain standing perfectly still, then told where to sit, apart from their friends. Then to sit erect, feet flat to the floor, looking straight ahead, neither moving or speaking, and to hold their positions. Upon their being released from this regimen, the manual suggests students discuss how they would feel if made to do exactly what they were told to do all day, every day. Teachers are prompted to express gratitude for the blessing of agency.15
Although coercion evolved more than a century ago into the dominant gene in the Latter-day Saint theological chromosome concerning Satan’s primordial threat to agency, an enduring recessive gene presented another theory bearing a history at least as long as the first. The coercion theory tended to imply too much law and control, but Brigham Young had concerns also about too little, which might lull errant minds to conclude they could be “saved in their sins.”16 Orson Pratt’s suppositions, noted earlier, had gestured to this concern back in 1853: If Satan’s designs did not “destroy the agency of man,” it would have “redeemed him in his sins and wickedness without any repentance or reformation of life.”17 Even earlier, in 1845, W. W. Phelps asserted that Lucifer lost his heavenly station “by offering to save men in their sins.”18 Alarm at this prospect derived at least in part from the Book of Mormon, which does not mention the War in Heaven but does portray the BC prophet Amulek contesting the sophistry of one Zeezrom. Against him, Amulek emphasizes that the Lord surely will come to redeem his people not in their sins but from them (Alma 11:34; Hel. 5:10). Lurking antinomianism was an ancient Christian concern, but expressed in just such phrases as these (“in sins,” “from sins”), it thrived in the centuries prior to Joseph Smith, who used similar language to render the Book of Mormon translation.19 Phelps, Young, Pratt, and others further demonized antinomianism of any era: to argue that one could be saved “in their sins” was akin to arguing Satan’s original preexistent cause.
The occasionally unpacked logic of this concern, when linked to the War in Heaven, is that from the pre-earth era when Lucifer became Satan, his stratagem has been to buffer actors from assuming responsibility for their actions. This theme has periodically found expression in general conference and other forums across the Church’s history and, like the coercion theory, has been called on to target diverse perceived maladies. In 1982, Elder Bruce R. McConkie offered a succinct summary of this line of thought:
When the Eternal Father announced his plan of salvation—a plan that called for a mortal probation for all his spirit children; a plan that required a Redeemer to ransom men from the coming fall; a plan that could only operate if mortal men had agency—when the Father announced his plan, when he chose Christ as the Redeemer and rejected Lucifer, then there was war in heaven. That war was a war of words; it was a conflict of ideologies; it was a rebellion against God and his laws. Lucifer sought to dethrone God, to sit himself on the divine throne, and to save all men without reference to their works. He sought to deny men their agency so they could not sin. He offered a mortal life of carnality and sensuality, of evil and crime and murder, following which all men would be saved. His offer was a philosophical impossibility. There must needs be an opposition in all things.20
Using analogous reasoning in his condemnation of intimate same-sex relations, Elder Dallin H. Oaks raised the ante from traditional judgments of error or sin to a charge of Satanic marketing: “Satan would like us to believe that we are not responsible in this life.” “That is the result he tried to achieve by his contest in the pre-existence. A person who insists that he is not responsible for the exercise of his free agency because he was ‘born that way’ is trying to ignore the outcome of the War in Heaven. We are responsible, and if we argue otherwise, our efforts become part of the propaganda effort of the Adversary.”21
The insistence on personal responsibility for one’s actions is historically ubiquitous in Latter-day Saint theology and practice, but the diluting or obscuring of responsibility as an explanation for Satan’s pre-earth plan for humanity remains a minority report among both leaders and followers. However, when scholars or popular writers from within the tradition have considered the matter at length, arguments against the illogic of the dominant coercion theory and for the virtues and scriptural basis of the recessive theory are not rare.22 Of these writers, the scholar best equipped to weigh his arguments amid Christian, literary, and Latter-day Saint intellectual history is Terryl Givens, who notes that there are manifestly more subtle and sophisticated ways to attempt to destroy agency than through force. Principal among these is “the simple tampering with the consequences of choice. If every choice a person made resulted in totally unforeseen and unpredictable consequences, one would be inhabiting a realm of chaos. Agency would be meaningless and freedom effectively nonexistent if no reliable principles existed by which to make choices that were attached to the particular ends desired. . . . By this logic, an undeserved punishment or an unqualified reward is an equal threat to the idea of moral agency.”23 For Givens, the lure behind this forfeiture of agency among the pre-earth heavenly hosts would have been escape from the high perils of mortality, a mortality that would require the discipline of suffering.
Comprehending that both of the predominant theories accounting for Satan’s assault on agency are reasoned and expanded from cryptic strands of scripture, as well as historical (shown to emerge and evolve over time), makes room for one to notice other possible explanations, historical or imagined, that have gained less public traction. Awareness of these alternate conceptions may in turn broaden how believing Latter-day Saints or their observers choose to conceive and protect their agency.
Might the core of the Satanic challenge to agency, for instance, lie in valuing security more than freedom, as with Dostoevsky’s famous Grand Inquisitor? Or might the challenge be grounded in fear, ignorance, deceit, or manipulation more than in force (Moses 4:4)? Might such deceit take the form not only of delusion about responsibility, but of confusion over sheer facts—a profound problem reflected in the modern world’s discounting of a free, independent, and competent press, for example, and of professional expertise generally? “What better way has history taught us to control the actions of men and women than to limit the information available to them so that the need to choose never enters their minds, or in the event that it does, [proceeds] so as to obscure all but the desired option?”24
Might well-meaning people in either secular or religious contexts be complicit in eroding agency when their efforts toward coordination devolve into micromanagement and censorship? Or when a culture spawns gratuitous complexity and an ongoing multiplication of rules and laws rather than, as Joseph Smith preferred, a people who govern themselves after embracing correct principles?25
Might the Satanic reach to destroy agency have included a design to preempt full evolutionary development of life on earth—thereby purchasing freedom from higher-order suffering, deliberate evil, and existential angst at the expense of constricting to prehuman levels the dimensions of intelligence, self-consciousness, reason, imagination, agency, and growth?
Or might Lucifer have agitated for a world where the “veil” over human consciousness and memory, to which Joseph Smith alluded, was rendered indefinitely transparent?26 Perhaps with God and the divine realm irrefutably before us, such a world would allow a constricted “agency” analogous merely to that of a teenager out on the town with friends and a date—with his or her parents in tow.27
This historicizing of the two dominant understandings of Satan’s attempt to destroy agency, coupled with a sampling of alternatives to them, suggests that a constellation of historical or potential strategies might be proposed as candidates for the erosion of human agency. This matters because the ways in which believers conceive the mode of Satanic opposition dictate the threats they envision for purposes of defense and prevention. The popular Latter-day Saint deductive models of Satan’s pre-existent plan often lack historical context, are scarcely aware of being speculative, and may bring unintended consequences. This is particularly true of the overwhelming focus on perceived coercion that intensified in Western countries and among Church members during the Second World War and the anticommunist rage that followed.28
In the twenty-first century, this legacy has evolved, prompting some citizen-Saints, especially in the American West, to equate communism with evil, to equate evil communism with socialism, and to construe any governmental initiative for the public good as socialism—therefore as coercive (Satanic). Many American Church members selectively retain this mindset even as they cash their social security checks or send their children to public schools. Resistance to some forms of compulsion may be reasonable, necessary, and even noble in certain circumstances. But exaggerating and demonizing one sort of threat (as did McCarthyism and the John Birch Society, to choose examples at a safe historical remove) risks transmogrifying right into wrong, while ignoring more immediate and plausible threats. As the embodiment of evil, a Satan imagined as obvious and hell-bent solely on tyranny presents a naïve and dangerous image. It is wise to understand one’s enemies.