Section 129 is esoteric. It can only be understood by people with temple knowledge. It is also euphemistic. It’s no more about handshaking than “kicking the bucket” is about actually kicking a bucket.
In January 1838 Joseph received a revelation. It cursed the Saints who had become his enemies, said his work in Kirtland was done, and told him and the faithful Saints to gather to Zion in Missouri.1 That night Joseph counseled with Church leaders and concluded, “Well, brethren I do not recollect anything more; but one thing, brethren, is certain; I shall see you again, let what will happen; for I have a promise of life five years, and they cannot kill me until that time has expired.”2
No one could kill Joseph during that time. He had to get the fullness of temple blessings restored first. But people sure made his life miserable in the meantime. He escaped from his persecutors in spring 1839. As soon as he could, knowing that his days were numbered and he had none to spare, Joseph gathered several of the apostles on June 27, 1839, exactly five years before his violent death at the hands of a murderous mob, and taught the apostles what he had learned a decade earlier from Michael about “detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light” (D&C 128:20).
Wilford Woodruff drew tiny, symbolic keys in his journal, where he wrote what he learned about the “keys of the Kingdom of God Joseph presented … in order to detect the devel when he transforms himself nigh unto an angel of light.”3 In December 1840 Joseph taught these keys to William Clayton, a trusted convert recently arrived from England. In April 1842 Joseph introduced the principles in section 129 to the Relief Society, and in May he gave the Saints a temple preparation sermon, including the explanation that there are “certain signs & words by which false spirits & personages may be detected from true—which cannot be revealed to the Elders till the Temple is completed.”4 A few days later Joseph endowed a few Church leaders in a temporary temple in the attic story of his Nauvoo store. Heber Kimball was there and subsequently wrote to fellow apostle Parley Pratt, who remained in England to preside over the mission. “We have received some pressious things through the Prophet on the preasthood that would cause your soul to rejoice,” Heber wrote. “I can not give them to you on paper fore they are not to be riten. So you must come and get them for your Self.”5
Parley arrived in Nauvoo early in 1843, eager to be taught by Joseph. At a February 9 meeting, Joseph instructed him in the keys he had learned from Michael and had subsequently taught to Wilford, Heber, and a few others. The entry in Joseph’s journal for that day is the source for section 129.
Parley Pratt & other come in—Joseph explained the following. There are 3 administrater: Angels, Spirits, Devils one class in heaven. Angels the spirits of just men made perfect—innumerable co of angels and spirits of Just men made perfect. An angel appears to you how will you prove him. Ask him to shake hands. If he has flesh & bones he is an Angel “spirit hath not flesh and bones.” Spirit of a just man made perfect. Person in its tabernacle could hide its glory. If David Patten or the Devil come. How would you determine should you take hold of his hand you would not feel it. If it was a false administrator he would not do it. True spirit will not give his hand the Devil will. 3 keys.6
Clearly there was more said on this occasion than what got cryptically recorded.
In its polished form, section 129 is more clear but still vague. In heaven there are resurrected beings and spirits who are not yet resurrected. Either kind can be sent as messengers. Satan or his angels can counterfeit this kind of revelation. But there are keys to discern such imposters, as explained in verses 5–9. It is not safe to draw the conclusion that Satan does not know these keys. It seems more likely, as Joseph taught, that there are boundaries to Satan’s power to deceive.
Part of being endowed with God’s power is the ability to discern true from false messengers (D&C 128:20). As Joseph taught, if Satan could appear in the guise of an angel without our having any ability to know better, “we would not be free agents.”7
3. Wilford Woodruff, Journal, June 27, 1839, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
4. “Discourse, 1 May 1842, as Reported by Willard Richards,” 94, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020.
5. Heber Kimball to Parley Pratt, June 17, 1842, Pratt Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
6. “Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 1, 21 December 1842–10 March 1843,” , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020.
7. “Account of Meeting, circa 16 March 1841, as Reported by William P. McIntire,” , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020.
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
The material in Doctrine and Covenants 129 is drawn from notes detailing Joseph Smith’s instructions to Parley P. Pratt and several others on February 9, 1843. Similar instructions had been given earlier to the Twelve Apostles on June 27, 1839, but Elder Pratt was not in attendance because he was confined to jail in Richmond, Missouri.1 Shortly after his escape from jail, Elder Pratt traveled with the Twelve to England and remained there for a year and half longer than the other Apostles while he served as editor of the Millennial Star. When Elder Pratt returned to Nauvoo, he met with Joseph Smith, who shared with him the teachings that became Doctrine and Covenants 129.2
To fully understand Doctrine and Covenants 129, readers must be aware of its historical context. On April 28, 1842, Joseph Smith spoke to the Nauvoo Relief Society, telling them “that the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them, that they may be able to detect every thing false—as well as to the Elders.”3 On May 1, 1842, Joseph spoke to the general membership of the Church “on the keys of the kingdom.”4 In this discourse, Joseph explained, “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.”5 On May 4–5, 1842, the Prophet administered the full version of the temple endowment.6 From these two discourses given in 1842 and the timing of the first endowments, it seems clear that Joseph connected the doctrines contained in section 129 to the ordinances of the temple. The instructions recorded in this section must be included as part of the Prophet’s growing understanding of temple theology.
The discourse that informed section 129 was recorded by both Willard Richards and William Clayton. A copy of William Clayton’s record of the discourse was included in the manuscript history of the Church and was used when an excerpt from these teachings was included in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.7
1. Discourse, 27 June 1839, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff–B, p. 85, JSP.
2. Instruction, 9 February 1843 [D&C 129], as Reported by Willard Richards, p. 172, JSP.
3. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, p. 38, JSP.
4. Discourse, 1 May 1842, as Reported by Willard Richards, p. 94, JSP.
5. Discourse, 1 May 1842, as Reported by Willard Richards, p. 94, JSP.
6. JS History, vol. C-1, p. 1328, JSP.
7. Robert J. Woodford, Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants, 1974, 1704.