The concept of a literal Satan or Devil plays a key role in Mormon theology. The first recognized miracle in the newly organized church was the casting out of a devil from one of the members at a meeting. This view of the devil as an adversary which tempts and tries members and which sometimes controls the actions of church adversaries is emphasized in scriptures and sermons.
However, the emphasis on the devil and the terms used to describe this being has changed significantly through the history of the movement. The usage of these “devil” terms in the Book of Mormon (both in terms of ratio and number of occurrences) closely parallels that of the New Testament. Earlier texts of Joseph Smith tend to favor the term “devil” whereas later texts use the term “Satan” the majority of the time. While terms related to the devil are largely absent from the Old Testament, these terms play a key role in all uniquely LDS scriptural texts.
When one categorizes LDS sacred texts by the year in which they were produced, it becomes apparent that the earlier texts followed the patterns of the New Testament and emphasized the term “devil”, whereas the later texts tended to emphasize the term “satan” which is more prevalent (on a percentage basis) in the old testament. This can be explained in part by the book of Abraham and the Endowment ceremony which tell the creation story of Genesis and which share some overlapping text. However, this does not explain the increase in the usage of the term “satan” in the Doctrine and Covenants. It appears that Joseph Smith went through a transition and favored the term “satan” more as he matured.
Perhaps coincidentally, the shift in the usage of these two terms is mirrored in the usage by church leadership between the 1850s and today. This shift may parallels the emphasis of LDS scripture over the Bible and may be viewed as a maturing of the movement and an acceptance of their unique culture and beliefs.
In General Conference, the usage of the term “devil” underwent a precipitous decline between the 1850s and 1890s before stabilizing in relative usage to other terms.
Between about 1900 and 1940, the total number of references to a satanic figured decreased significantly. This was a time of significant flux within the movement. Polygamy was officially abandoned in 1890, but the last polygamists who married with approval of the church leadership did not die until the 1950s. During this period of transition, the temple ceremonies and garments were modified and certain terms fell out of use for a time. References to the Doctrine and Covenants plummeted as did usage of the term “celestial marriage”. This period had an increased numbers of intellectuals among the apostles of the movement. When more conservative forces dominated leadership during the 1950s, usage and reference to “devil” related terms increased to reflect previous usage trends. The large peak in the 1970s may be in part a conservative response to the social liberalism of the 1960s.
The changes in General conference usage can be compared with general population usage to see if they are consistent. Below if a figure of term usage in books between the years 1800 and 2000.
This figure would indicate a decline in the usage of both “Satan” and “the devil” from 1850 to present, with a much higher usage of the term “devil” than “Satan”. Clearly the LDS conference usage does not follow these societal trends.
Looking at the term “Satan” in finer detail, one sees an increase between 1960 and today. This increase, again, is not reflected in the LDS conference data. We can therefor hypothesize that LDS usage trends of these words are not significantly impacted by larger societal trends.
LDS usage trends for “satan” and “devil” related terms appear to point to the following:
- A prominent role for this figure in LDS theology.
- A changing in terms used, both in the sacred texts and the usage by leadership to move from favoring the term “devil” to favoring the term “satan”.
- A uniquely prominent usage of the term “Lucifer” in the sacred temple texts.
- A close resemblance between the terms and how they are used in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. This may indicate that the Book of Mormon as a text more closely resembles the New Testament than the Old Testament or other LDS sacred texts.
- An increased usage of “devil” related terms in the 1970s, possibly to explain or condemn the perceived societal liberalization of the 1960s and 70s.