The following comments are excerpted from a longer paper I read at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association. The purpose of the paper is not to defend or deride any political positions, but to look at ways the War in Heaven narrative has been used in Mormon thought. I find it fascinating that we often cite scripture in political debates in a way that assumes we have made the ultimate authoritative point; however, scripture can and often is used by different people to support a very different agenda.
Earlier this year, Glenn Beck, as he put it, went “all Jesus Freak” on his radio show by linking the Progressive agenda with Satan’s plan in the pre-mortal world: “If you believe in the War in Heaven where a third of the angels were cast out and all of that stuff, it was about man’s choice . . . and Satan’s plan was ‘hey I’ll save everybody; give me the credit . . . I’ll make sure everybody returns home it’s going to be fantastic, you just take away their choice and give me the credit.’ Well gee, I think that plan was rejected because God knew that failure was important for growth.” Whether Beck was aware of the fact that he was describing a uniquely Mormon version of this story or was instead attempting to subliminally convert his radio audience to Mormon theology is not clear. What is clear is that Beck follows a long tradition of employing this Mormon narrative of premortal ideological confrontation as a tool for earthly, political debate. Beck was, however, likely unaware that this narrative can be and has been used in radically different ways to support radically different agendas.
Like Beck, we often assume, especially when it comes to scripture, that a text means “just what it says.” But texts, sacred or otherwise, must be interpreted; they require a reader to draw out their meaning. Add to that the fact that sacred texts are not just read but lived by communities—faithful adherents of scripture look to sacred texts for a pathway to God and to bring structure and meaning to their lives. This inevitably means that those adherents will read as much into the scriptural texts as they read out of them. In other words, interpreting sacred texts inevitably and unavoidably involves both exegesis and eisegesis. Such is certainly the case for the verses in Mormon scripture that speak of a War in Heaven.
The first use of the War in Heaven in an allegorical function is from the succession crisis of 1844. Wilford Woodruff used the narrative to urge members to follow Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve rather than Sidney Rigdon, the sole surviving member of the First Presidency. In an impassioned letter published in the LDS Times and Seasons on 1 November 1844, Woodruff compared Rigdon to Lucifer “who made war in heaven.” By threatening to “turn traitor, publish against the church in public journals, intimating that he would bring a mob upon the church, stir up the world against the saints and bring distress upon them,” Rigdon had, according to Woodruff, proven his treachery and could not be trusted.
In 1862, Brigham Young saw the narrative as warning against the type of political factions that had created the Civil War. Citing the division that existed in the War in Heaven, Young concluded, “Where such disunion exists in any government, it ultimately becomes the means of the utter overthrow of that government or people, unless a timely remedy is applied. Party spirit once made its appearance in heaven, but was promptly checked.” Young continued, “if our Government had cast out the Seceders, the war would soon have been ended.” While Young’s position was that the Mormons were witnessing the judgments of God against the United States for their treatment of the Mormons, fifty years later B.H. Roberts would defend the United States’ entry into World War I by suggesting that the War in Heaven proves that God does take sides in war, and surely He is on the side of the allies.
On another occasion Roberts suggested that patriots of the American Revolution were part of the ongoing fight for freedom that began when Satan was cast out of heaven. Likewise, Charles W. Nibley saw the Great War as a continuation of the struggle for freedom begun in the War in Heaven and encompassing Henry the Eighth’s break with the Pope, Cromwell’s rupture with the Stuarts, George Washington’s clash with George the III, and Abraham Lincoln’s opposition with the South. And Melvin J. Ballard suggested that the German Kaiser was leading the forces of evil in a continuation of the War in Heaven.
One of the most esoteric works on the War in Heaven is a book published in 1941 by N.L. Nelson entitled The Second War in Heaven As Now Being Waged by Lucifer through Hitler as a Dummy. Nelson, who taught English, Philosophy, Public Speaking and Religion at BYU, combines a sort of new-agey philosophy with political commentary to stress that the totalitarian regimes of Stalin, Mussolini, and, in particular, Hitler are “trying to destroy” what he calls the “I am principle in man,” that they oppose the “psychic evolution” of “pre-existence, earth-life, and after-earth life.”
The narrative gained even greater traction as an allegory for the proper role of government as concerns about communism began to spread. One of the first references came from Rulon S. Wells in the April 1930 General Conference. Wells stated that “the war begun in heaven is continued here on earth. To follow the enemies of God means to follow them into slavery, but to serve God means freedom.” Wells continued, “Think of poor afflicted Russia now under Soviet rule.” Wells stressed that Russia had suffered under the Czars and had “good reason to rise up against such conditions,” but had “no sooner liberated themselves” than the “Soviet seeks to plunge them into the still more deadly slavery of atheism.”
The War in Heaven continued to be employed against the spread of communism, but also against liberalism in general. Jerreld Newquist’s 1964 book Prophets, Principles and National Survival made the claim that any “collectivist philosophy” is related to the plan proposed by Lucifer prior to the War in Heaven, and Hyrum Andrus’s 1965 publication Liberalism, Conservatism, Mormonism branded “liberalism, like the plan proposed by Lucifer and his hosts in the war in heaven,” as “deficient and perverse.” The War in Heaven was also used to justify a more moderate stance. For example, one letter to the editor of Dialogue suggested that by ignoring the rights of other nations to self-determination—to impose our ways on them despite the fact that their people have duly elected a communist government—the United States was “getting close to” supporting Lucifer’s plan. And Hugh Nibley suggested that “Satan wasn’t cast out of heaven for voting the wrong way . . . [but] for refus[ing] to accept the verdict . . . Satan was cast out for refusing to accept the popular vote.” Voices of moderation were able to make their case by appealing to the same motif of the War in Heaven.
More recently, during the 2008 debate over California’s over Proposition 8 to repeal gay marriage, LDS pollster and author Gary Lawrence published an article in the online publication Meridian Magazine that maintained that “the new battlefield” of the War in Heaven is now California, arguing that Lucifer employed arguments of equality and sympathy to win over converts. Lawrence wrote, “if the arguments used in the war in heaven were persuasive enough to draw billions of God’s spirit children away from him, why should we not expect them to be used on the present battlefield? The same minions cast out from the Father’s presence still remember what worked up there.”
Interestingly, when the argument is about economic issues or political tyranny, LDS authors have tended to emphasize the idea that the War in Heaven was about taking away agency; however, when the debate is about sexuality, the emphasis gets switched to Satan’s rhetorical power. The War in Heaven is used to defend libertarian policies concerning governmental regulation and free-market economics. However, it is also used, with different emphasis, to argue against issues gay marriage.
Perhaps, however, LDS discourse has conflated the issues of freedom and agency. In 1966, Garth Mangum made this point in a short but insightful essay in Dialogue. Citing 2 Ne. 2:16-27, Mangum emphasizes that “Free agency was ‘given unto man’ and he is ‘free forever’ to act for himself and take the consequences. In that sense, the War in Heaven was definitive.” The point, Mangum emphasizes is that “regardless of what happens to freedom, free agency is not in danger.” As Victor Frankle put it in his powerful memoir of surviving the German concentration camps, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”