On the night of September 21, 1823, the angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith in response to a prayer seeking “forgiveness of . . . sins and follies” (JSH 1:29). The Prophet was shockingly honest in admitting that it was fear of condemnation that brought him to his knees that night. Although letters published in the Messenger and Advocate by Oliver Cowdery reveal that an overall thirty texts from both the Old and New Testaments were part of Moroni’s instructions to the Prophet that night (Messenger and Advocate, 1:79-80), the Joseph Smith History recites just five of them.
One of the passages recited is Malachi 4:1 which reads in the King James Version (KJV): “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts.” There is an interesting discrepancy between the KJV and the version Moroni quoted that night: “For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble; for they that come shall burn them, saith the Lord of Hosts” (JSH 1:37).
The KJV harmonizes with 3 Nephi 25:1 and also in the James Mulholland manuscript, the earliest source for Joseph’s work. Mulholland was the prophet’s scribe during the period when he dictated this portion of his history. The manuscript was later revised, some of it after the Prophet’s death, and became the source for the History of the Church and the material now found in the Pearl of Great Price. This “revised” material includes the phrase “they that come shall burn them.” As far as I know, we are not sure if Joseph Smith or a later editor made this change.
However, the change seems to fit quite nicely into other revelations dealing with the destruction of the wicked in the last days. In Revelation 7:1, John sees “four destroying angels holding power over the four corners of the earth” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.321), who are “sent forth from God, to whom is given power over the four parts of the earth, to save life and to destroy; these are they who have the everlasting gospel to commit to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people; having power to shut up the heavens, to seal up unto life, or to cast down to the regions of darkness” (D&C 77:8).
In other words, these are the angels of heaven who Christ taught were to come in the authority of the Lord to separate the wheat from the tares and then burn the latter (Matt 13:39-41). These “angels are waiting the great command to reap down the earth, to gather the tares that they may be burned” (D&C 38:12). Indeed, “at that hour cometh an entire separation of the righteous and the wicked; and in that day will I send mine angels to pluck out the wicked and cast them into unquenchable fire” (D&C 63:54). “Behold, verily I say unto you, the angels are crying unto the Lord day and night, who are ready and waiting to be sent forth to reap down the fields” (D&C 86:5).
In 1879, Wilford Woodruff spoke concerning these angels:
“Wickedness and abominations of every kind have increased a hundredfold within the last few years, until the whole earth is filled with murders, whoredoms, blasphemies and every crime in the Black Catalogue that was manifest in the antediluvian world or Sodom and Gomorrah . . . the heavens weep and all eternity is pained and the angels are waiting the great command to go forth and reap down the earth. This testimony I bare to all nations under heaven and I know it is true by the inspirations of the Almighty God.” (Epistle of Wilford Woodruff, Millennial Star, April 21, 1879) (emphasis added).
Fifteen years later, after referring to D&C 86:5, he spoke these somber words:
“God has held the angels of destruction for many years, lest they should reap down the wheat with the tares. But I want to tell you now that those angels have left the portals of heaven and they stand over this people and this nation now . . . . And from this very day shall they be poured out.” (President Wilford Woodfruff, Temple Workers Excursion Salt Lake City Tabernacle Sunday, June 24 1894).
While we cannot be sure if the slight alteration to the text of Malachi 4:1 was intentional or not, it clearly agrees with ancient and modern revelation. All the same, whether it is the day that comes or the four destroying angels that come, the wicked will nonetheless eventually be burned.