At certain sacred times, God has sent his holy angels to instruct and minister to his children. Think of the angel who first taught Adam about the Atonement; the angel who announced to Mary that she would bear the child Jesus; the angels who sang glories to God the night of Christ’s birth; the angel who comforted the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane; and the angels who brought the keys of the Restoration to Joseph Smith.
No wonder the angels came at such times. These were history’s crowning events. But angels have also come at times that were significant mostly because of their personal, spiritual meaning in the lives of ordinary but faithful men and women.
Some of these personal visits were dramatic and powerful. Think of the angels who ministered to the Nephite children in the account of 3 Nephi 17 [3 Ne. 17], or the angel who chastised Alma and Mosiah’s sons in answer to a father’s prayer. (See Mosiah 27.)
Other personal manifestations have been so quiet that those who received them were unaware of the angelic presence. The ministry of these unseen angels is among the most sublime forms of interaction between heaven and earth, powerfully expressing God’s concern for us and bestowing tangible assurance and spiritual sustenance upon those in great need.
Think of the angel who came to comfort the sleeping Elijah when he was in such despair that he wished to live no longer. (See 1 Kgs. 19:4–8.) Or recall when Joseph Smith “saw the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb, … in foreign lands, standing together in a circle, much fatigued, with their clothes tattered and feet swollen, with their eyes cast downward, and Jesus standing in their midst, and they did not behold Him. The Savior looked upon them and wept.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 2:381; italics added.) The Prophet also “saw Elder Brigham Young in a strange land, … in a desert place, upon a rock in the midst of about a dozen [hostile] men. He was preaching to them in their own tongue, and the angel of God standing above his head, with a drawn sword in his hand, protecting him, but he did not see it.” (Ibid.; italics added.)
For an unforgettable picture of unseen angelic armies, think of Elisha’s young servant, who cried when he was surrounded by an ominous army, “Alas, my master! how shall we do?” Answered Elisha, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” Then Elisha said, “Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” (See 2 Kgs. 6:15–17.)
President J. Reuben Clark eloquently captured the blessing of unseen angels in the lives of ordinary, devoted people in his masterful sermon, “To Them of the Last Wagon.” President Clark recognized the “mighty men” who led the early Saints, but he reserved his most reverent tribute for “the meekest and lowliest” found in “the last wagon in each of the long wagon trains.” Out in front of these toiling caravans were “the Brethren,” for whom “the air was clear and clean and … they had unbroken vision of the blue vault of heaven.” But, in contrast, “back in the last wagon, … the blue heaven was often shut out from their sight by heavy, dense clouds of the dust of the earth … [which made] the glories of a celestial world [seem] so far away.”
Even though some of the early brethren had seen “in a vision, the armies of heaven protecting the Saints in their return to Zion” (History of the Church, 2:381), President Clark mentioned angels only once. After describing the grinding frustrations of lame oxen, broken hubs, and sick children in the last wagon, he spoke of a pregnant mother trying to breathe through heavy, choking dust. “Then the morning came when from out that last wagon floated the la-la of the newborn babe, and mother love made a shrine, and Father bowed in reverence before it. But the train must move on. So out into the dust and dirt the last wagon moved again, swaying and jolting, while Mother eased as best she could each pain-giving jolt so no harm might be done her, that she might be strong to feed the little one, bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh. Who will dare to say that angels did not cluster round and guard her and ease her rude bed, for she had given another choice spirit its mortal body that it might work out its God-given destiny?” (New Era, July 1975, p. 8; italics added.)
The veil between heaven and earth usually hides the angels from our sight. Yet often in the early stages of our spiritual development, we may experience unmistakable contact with the angels of the unseen world. These experiences may move our sense of belief to a sure sense of knowledge, as we exclaim with Alma, “O then, is not this real?” And Alma replies to us, “Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible.” (Alma 32:35; italics added.)
Yet our discerning this light does not yield perfect knowledge. We must nourish the tree of faith to “get root” against the day “when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it.” (See Alma 32:37–38.) As we wait for additional flashes of spiritual light, our days of nourishment and testing can last many years.
The early manifestations of “discernible” angelic contact in our spiritual development frequently occur in youthful conversion experiences, missionary service, or times while we are attending college. These crucial, formative periods of spiritual breakthrough in a young person’s life may be compared with the Kirtland period in Church history; and the years that follow may be compared with the period of Nauvoo and beyond.
The early years of Kirtland were an unusually happy time for Joseph Smith and the Saints. What wonderful events had blessed them in only a few years: the Vision in the grove, the publication of the Book of Mormon, the formal organization of the Church, the optimistic launching of missionary work, the school of the prophets, and mighty revelations outlining a glorious future. It was a youthful, buoyant time. The Saints had no inkling of what waited for them, coiled like a deadly snake barely around the corner of history: mobs, persecution, apostasy, and martyrdom.
But first the angels came. Indeed, the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in March of 1836 represented the greatest spiritual outpouring in modern Church history. Joseph wrote that, shortly after the dedicatory prayer was offered, “Frederick G. Williams arose and testified that [during the prayer] an angel entered the window and took his seat between Father Smith and himself. David Whitmer also saw angels in the house.”
Later, “Brother George A. Smith arose and began to prophesy, when a noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind, which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose, being moved upon by an invisible power; many began to speak in tongues and prophesy; … and I beheld that the Temple was filled with angels. … The people of the neighborhood came running together (hearing an unusual sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple,) and were astonished at what was taking place.”
Of one of the concluding meetings, Joseph wrote, “The Savior made his appearance to some, while angels ministered to others, and it was a Pentecost and an endowment indeed, long to be remembered, for the sound shall go forth from this place into all the world, and occurrences of this day shall be handed down upon the pages of sacred history, to all generations.” (History of the Church, 2:427–33.)
Now contrast those glorious experiences with the dreadful conditions under which the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated less than ten years later. Joseph and Hyrum had been slain. The Church was racked with dissension and apostasy, and the dark spirit of the martyrdom hovered over Nauvoo like the destroying angel of death. The Saints knew they could not stay. They worked frantically to finish the temple, even as they also hurried to gather provisions and prepare wagons for their plunge into the great unknown trek westward.
Part of the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated in October 1845, even before it was finished, and in December Brigham Young began to administer the temple ordinances day and night. Within two months, the first company of wagons crossed the frozen Mississippi, never to return.
The story is told of a blind convert named Brother Williams who came from Massachusetts to Nauvoo in time to help complete the temple. Brother Williams had heard the stories of Kirtland, and he believed fervently that when the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated, the Savior and even the resurrected Joseph would return. He anticipated great spiritual manifestations that would heal his blindness. He believed that each stone they were laying brought him one step closer to the Savior’s healing hand.
But the Nauvoo Temple dedication was no Kirtland. As far as we know, there were no visible manifestations, no angelic ministries, no Pentecost.
Our youthful years as missionaries and students are, despite their typical growing pains, frequently a kind of Kirtland for us: a simple and beautiful time, filled with intellectual breakthroughs, private spiritual moments, and emerging idealistic convictions. Those years may lift us for a time above the noise and smoke and confusion of worldly valleys to a high mountain peak, where we develop a growing closeness to the Infinite.
But the day always seems to come when we must leave our Kirtlands. When we do, sooner or later, we may have our own kind of Nauvoo, perhaps more than once. We will have our own frozen rivers and parched deserts to cross, a moral or financial or intellectual wilderness to tame. It will not always be fun. Perhaps we will feel bewildered and disappointed, and we may look back longingly to those youthful years, wondering why we cannot recapture the way things were in our days of Kirtland.
When our Nauvoo comes, we may find ourselves living in a culture that offers little reinforcement for our belief in the ideals of family life. The surrounding environment may even discourage and attack our devotion to marriage and children. Some of us may begin to feel a growing sense of distance in our marriages, as those around us take for granted that modern men and women should not feel bound by unconditional family commitments. But we will know better, for we lived once in Kirtland, where the Spirit whispered to us that the doctrine is true: marriage is sacred and love is forever.
After leaving our Kirtland, some may feel the waning of their sense of spiritual wonder, as the accumulating pressures and pollutions of life seem to cast doubt on the reality of inspiration or the worth of the institutional Church or the value of giving ourselves unselfishly to others. Especially in that kind of Nauvoo, some of us may turn away bitterly and say that the stories of Kirtland were not really true.
“How could they be true?” some will ask. “We see no angels here, not now, when we need them most. What happened at Kirtland must have been the foolish imagination of our youth.” We will feel pressure to see things this way, for we may be surrounded by unbelievers who whisper tauntingly in our ears as did the enemy in Nauvoo: “Your Prophet is dead. Wake up—it was all a childhood dream.”
When our Nauvoo comes, it will neither surprise us nor throw us off course if we have kept the image of Kirtland burning brightly in our memories. “It is all right,” we will say. “We understand. We receive our full witness only after the trial of our faith. After much tribulation come the blessings.” And we will pick up our wagons and our families and head west.
As we do, we will sense that Kirtland was given to us as a first witness, to be told to our children and their children’s children, that they may know that God is the Lord. He slumbers not nor sleepeth. We will know that, always, for we were there, that season in the Mormon village of Kirtland.
I still think of Brother Williams, his blind eyes glistening with hope, waiting for Jesus and his angels to come to the Nauvoo Temple. I don’t know what happened to him after Nauvoo. Did he find the healing he hungered for? Did he find his Savior and see the face of Brother Joseph? I suppose that he and the other faithful ones of Nauvoo did find the enlightenment and the peace they sought—but later, perhaps within the last wagon along some dreary prairie trail, or in struggling to build a new life, far away in the West.
I suppose that Brother Williams made the same discovery as did the Saints in the Martin and Willie handcart companies, which were trapped by heavy, early snows on their way across the plains. In a conference address, Elder James E. Faust shared the feeling of one company member:
“‘Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.
“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have gone on [to some point I thought I could never reach, only to feel that] the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 53.)
Such unseen angelic manifestations in the “extremities” of our lives may, over time, have more profound meaning than the more visible outpouring of Kirtland. The Lord has promised that if you are true and faithful, the Lord himself may be “in your midst and ye cannot see me.” (D&C 38:7.) Even if you do not see him, he can “be on your right hand and on your left, and [his] Spirit shall be in your hearts,” and the angels who came to Kirtland will be “round about you, to bear you up.” (D&C 84:88.)
Moreover, our memories of Kirtland can be enriched by our later, perhaps more turbulent, experience. The very meaning of earlier witnesses may well grow richer with the perspective of time. It is because of what we saw in Kirtland that we ventured to Nauvoo. That we have once seen so clearly is our witness that we can again see clearly, with greater depth, even in the very midst of our afflictions.
When do the angels come? If we seek to be worthy, they are near us when we need them most. The mountain might even be full with the horsemen of Israel and their chariots of fire.