Does membership in the Church limit agency?
At a youth conference not long ago, a young sister shared with her peers her feelings about agency. Many of her nonmember friends had asked why she would join a church with, as they saw it, a restrictive life-style. Her reply was profound, yet simple. “It makes me feel better and freer when I do what God wants me to do. I still maintain my agency to make choices, but I know what choices will make me happiest.” , president of the McLean Virginia Stake.
Our right to choose for ourselves is basic to our beliefs as Latter-day Saints, and the principle of agency is intrinsic to the plan of salvation. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “[Men and women] all have the privilege of thinking for themselves upon all matters relative to conscience. … We are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive any one of exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.” (The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, p. 49.)
God will not deprive us of our agency. But, with our opportunity to make good and bad choices, we each become accountable for our thoughts and actions in mortality. As the scriptures say, “Every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” (D&C 101:78.)
During his earthly ministry, the Lord also taught about agency and the freedom it gave mankind when he said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
His disciples replied: “We … were never in bondage to any man; how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?
“Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.
“And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever.
“If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” (John 8:31–36.)
When we exercise our agency to choose paths our Redeemer has warned us against, we do not choose the path to freedom, but the path to captivity in sin. Only by obedience to the Savior’s words do we become free to achieve our ultimate goal of becoming like him and inheriting eternal life.
The Church is the Lord’s mechanism by which we can learn his ways and learn to live as he would have us live, in order to become more like him. Through compassionate service and fellowship, missionary work, and temple and family history work, we learn to love God and our fellow beings. In doing these things, we follow the path of everlasting freedom promised by him who bought it for us at the price of his own life. For ultimately, our freedom to choose the right would mean nothing without the loving intercession of Christ to rescue us from the results of our unwise choices. (See 2 Ne. 25:23.)
As the young woman who had recently joined the Church said, membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not limit agency. Instead, it enhances that agency, permitting us to rise to a higher joy in mortality and, if we prove worthy of it, to a celestial realm in the eternities.
Is there any truth to the idea that we have guardian angels who watch over and protect us?
The topical guide and , associate professor of Church history and doctrine, Brigham Young University. Bible dictionary in the LDS edition of the Bible both contain numerous references to “Angels,” and the topical guide also lists references to “Ministering Angels.” However, the term “guardian angel” is not used in the scriptures. The closest the scriptures come to the concept is in expressions such as “I have given the heavenly hosts and mine angels charge concerning you” (D&C 84:42; see also D&C 109:22), and “Mine angels shall go up before you” (D&C 103:20).
The scriptures are clear about the role of “ministering angels,” as Mormon testified:
“It is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief.” (Moro. 7:37.)
Just what do angels do when they “appear and minister unto men?” The scriptures show that they:
Who are these angels? The Lord has revealed that “there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it.” (D&C 130:5.) Such personages may be spirits—who have not yet been born into mortality or have lived on the earth but who have not yet been resurrected—or beings with tangible bodies who have been either resurrected or translated. (D&C 129:1–9 gives one of the meanings of the term angels as “resurrected personages” and distinguishes between them and “spirits,” acknowledging that either may appear. Many additional scriptures illustrate that the term angels may refer both to spirits and to resurrected or translated beings.)
President Joseph F. Smith gave us some insight about angels who minister to those on the earth:
“When messengers are sent to minister to the inhabitants of this earth, they are not strangers, but from the ranks of our kindred, friends, and fellow-beings and fellow-servants. The ancient prophets who died were those who came to visit their fellow creatures upon the earth. They came to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; it was such beings—holy beings if you please—who waited upon the Savior and administered to him on the Mount. The angel that visited John, when an exile, and unfolded to his vision future events in the history of man upon the earth, was one who had been here, who had toiled and suffered in common with the people of God. … In like manner our fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters and friends who have passed away from this earth, having been faithful, and worthy to enjoy these rights and privileges, may have a mission given them to visit their relatives and friends upon the earth again, bringing from the divine Presence messages of love, of warning, or reproof and instruction, to those whom they had learned to love in the flesh.” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1970, pp. 435–36.)
But do we each have a particular “guardian angel” to accompany us through mortality?
Guardian angels are referred to in various Church leaders’ recorded blessings, experiences, and sermons. In a blessing he pronounced upon Newel K. Whitney in October 1835, the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Angels shall guard [his] house and shall guard the lives of his posterity.” (The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984, p. 62.) In June 1844, in a meeting in the Seventies Hall in Nauvoo, the Prophet related a dream he had had, in which, he said, “I thought I was riding out in my carriage, and my guardian angel was along with me.” (History of the Church, 6:461.) In July 1854, Elder Orson Hyde spoke of Moroni as “the guardian angel of America.” (Journal of Discourses, 6:369.)
Since the early days of the Church, angels have continued to minister to the Lord’s faithful servants. In a priesthood session of general conference in 1968, President David O. McKay shared an experience from his mission in Scotland:
“Following a series of meetings at the conference held in Glasgow, Scotland, was a most remarkable priesthood meeting. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the intensity of the inspiration of that occasion. Everybody felt the rich outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord. …
“During the progress of the meeting, an elder on his own initiative arose and said, ‘Brethren, there are angels in this room. …’
“President James L. McMurrin, president of the European Mission, arose and confirmed that statement by pointing to one brother sitting just in front of me and saying, ‘Yes, brethren, there are angels in this room, and one of them is the guardian angel of that young man sitting there,’ and he designated one who afterward became a patriarch. …
“Pointing to another elder, he said, ‘And one is the guardian angel of that young man there. …’ Tears were rolling down the cheeks of both of these missionaries—not in sorrow or grief, but as an expression of the overflowing Spirit. Indeed, we were all weeping.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1968, p. 86.)
In a general conference in 1973, President Harold B. Lee told of receiving blessings from an unseen heavenly messenger:
“I was suffering from an ulcer condition that was becoming worse and worse. We had been touring a mission; my wife, Joan, and I were impressed the next morning that we should get home as quickly as possible. …
“On the way across the country, we were sitting in the forward section of the airplane. Some of our Church members were in the next section. As we approached a certain point en route, someone laid his hand upon my head. I looked up; I could see no one. That happened again before we arrived home, again with the same experience. Who it was, by what means or what medium, I may never know, except I knew that I was receiving a blessing that I came a few hours later to know I needed most desperately.
“As soon as we arrived home, my wife very anxiously called the doctor. … He called me to come to the telephone, and he asked me how I was; and I said, ‘Well, I am very tired. I think I will be all right.’ But shortly thereafter, there came massive hemorrhages which, had they occurred while we were in flight, I wouldn’t be here today talking about it.” (Ensign, July 1973, p. 23.)
President Lee also promised the youth of the Church the help of “a guardian angel of God”:
“You youth of today, we voyage together. … It may be a storm where Nature’s fury is unleashed or it may be a mental or an emotional storm that threatens shipwreck. Whatever the occasion or the cause, you may by faith, intensified by fasting or ‘after long abstinence’ like Paul, have standing by your side during ‘that night’ of turmoil a ‘guardian angel’ of God ‘whose you are and whom you serve.’” (Decisions for Successful Living, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973, pp. 79–80.)
How are we to interpret such references? Many years ago, Elder John A. Widtsoe addressed the question of whether or not each individual has a “guardian angel”:
“Undoubtedly angels often guard us from accidents and harm, from temptation and sin. They may properly be spoken of as guardian angels. Many people have borne and may bear testimony to the guidance and protection that they have received from sources beyond their natural vision. Without the help that we receive from the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, and from possible holy angels, the difficulties of life would be greatly multiplied.
“The common belief, however, that to every person born into the world is assigned a guardian angel to be with that person constantly, is not supported by available evidence. … An angel may be a guardian angel though he come only as assigned to give us special help. In fact, the constant presence of the Holy Spirit would seem to make such a constant, angelic companionship unnecessary.
“So, until further knowledge is obtained, we may say that angels may be sent to guard us according to our need; but we cannot say with certainty that there is a special guardian angel, to be with every person constantly.” (Improvement Era, April 1944, p. 225.)
In our own day, President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie both acknowledged that help may come from ministering angels at critical times in our lives, but that the true “guardian angel” for each individual on the earth is the power and direction available through the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost. (See Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954, 1:54; and Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, pp. 341–42.)
Hence, the available evidence seems to show that:
(1) We each have constant access to a type of guardian influence through the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost.
(2) Ministering angels are sometimes sent to guide, comfort, protect, and instruct the Lord’s servants and other faithful individuals in times of need.
(3) Angels who minister in our behalf—whether seen or unseen—may include departed loved ones who are aware of our circumstances and are concerned about our welfare.
(4) Faith is a critical element in the ministry of angels.