According to legend, the ancient Syracusan tyrant Dionysius II had a flatterer named Damocles. One day Damocles praised the king’s luxurious lifestyle. The king asked, “So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?” Damocles eagerly accepted. So Dionysius placed Damocles on a golden couch, surrounded by delicious food and beautiful servants.
But when Damocles looked up, he found a sword suspended above his head, dangling from its pommel by a single horse hair. Poor Damocles found it impossible to enjoy his good fortune and begged to return to the life of a humble flatterer. Dionysius’s point—pun intended—was that kingship is dangerous and stressful business.
A Greek Myth in the Book of Mormon
I’ve long been intrigued by apparent allusions to this myth in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s revelations. The earliest example comes from a revelation dated March 1829, which warns “this generation” that “the sword of justice hangeth over their heads, and if they persist in the hardness of their hearts, the time cometh that it must fall upon them.”
Seven more examples appear in the Book of Mormon. Alma 60:29, for instance, says that “the sword of justice doth hang over you; yea, and it shall fall upon you and visit you even to your utter destruction.” And in 3 Nephi 20:20 we read that “the sword of my justice shall hang over” the Gentile nations in the last days, “and except they repent it shall fall upon them.” This passive construction also appears in three more revelations, dated 1830–1833. It is not, by the way, found in the King James Bible.
These passages may have sparked the vision that Martin Harris saw in September 1829. According to Stephen Harding, Harris “was standing alone one night, and saw a fiery sword let down out of heaven, and pointing to the east, west, north, and south, then to the hill Cumorah, where the plates of Nephi were found.”
The revelations’ imagery of a hanging sword is not necessarily a deliberate allusion to the myth of Damocles. For instance, Joseph Smith may have borrowed this language from somewhere without understanding the allusion. One Protestant theologian had written that “the sword of justice hangs over thy head by the hair of a long-tired patience.” Another had warned that “The sword of God’s justice hangeth over our souls.”
It’s possible, however, that Joseph Smith actually knew of the myth of Damocles and deliberately alluded to it. The “Palmyra Classical School for Young Ladies & Gentlemen” was in session during March 1829 when Smith first used the imagery of a hanging sword. He may have attended the school or had friends who did. A classical school would have been a likely context for the myth to be discussed. Alternatively, Smith could have read about the myth in books or heard about it in sermons. It was certainly known in early nineteenth-century literary circles.
Wielding the Apocalyptic Sword
Whatever the source of the hanging sword imagery, it’s significant for its passivity. Only once in the Book of Mormon is the Lord said to actively wield the apocalyptic sword of justice as opposed to the sword “hanging” and “falling” of its own accord. “The sword of his justice is in his right hand,” warns 3 Nephi 29:4. The early revelations predict that the wicked will destroy each other with swords in the last days, but rarely speak of Christ or his church actively wielding the apocalyptic sword.
One sword that does get actively wielded in the Book of Mormon is the sword of Laban. Nephi uses it to decapitate Laban, and the Nephite kings wield it as a symbol of royal power. Laban’s sword represents justice, but it’s the daily justice meted out by kings and judges rather than the final justice threatened by the Lord’s hanging apocalyptic sword.
A crucial shift in Mormon discourse occurred as the passive imagery of the Damocles myth fell out of the discourse and was increasingly replaced by the active imagery associated with Laban’s sword.
In an early precursor to this shift, Ohio Mormon converts ecstatically acted out the apocalypse during worship services in early 1831. “Some would fancy to themselves that they had the sword of Laban and would wield it as expert as a light dragoon,” Church historian John Whitmer reported. This, so far as I can tell, was the sword of Laban’s debut as an apocalyptic symbol. For the time being Joseph Smith repudiated such performances (D&C 46:27).
Smith’s own rhetoric began to shift after the expulsion of Mormon settlers from their Jackson County “Zion” in July 1833. As he reorganized the Church on military principles and began to envision a role for Mormon soldiers in the coming apocalypse, Smith’s talk of swords acquired a more active aspect. In an August 1833 revelation the Lord swore to redeem and avenge Zion and to make her “very great, and very terrible.” But the promise was conditional. If Zion proved unfaithful, the Lord would “visit her according to all her works,” with fire, plague, and “sword” (D&C 97:26).
Such rhetoric reached new heights during the 1838 Mormon War. In the summer of 1838, former apostle Thomas B. Marsh heard Joseph Smith say “that he should yet tread down his enemies & walk over their dead bodies. That if he was not let alone he would be a second Mahomet to this generation, & that he would make it one gore of blood from the Rocky mountains to the Atlantic ocean. That like Mahomet, whose motto, in treating for peace was the Alcoran, or the sword, so should it eventually be with us, Jo Smith or the sword.”
During a military council at Adam-ondi-Ahman, probably on October 17, 1838, George M. Hinkle heard Lyman Wight say “that the sword had now been drawn, and should not be sheathed until he marched to DeWitt, in Carroll county, into Jackson county, and into many other places in the State, and swore that he was able to accomplish it.” Wight almost certainly got this phrasing from Smith, since Smith had spoken metaphorically of the “sword of justice” being “unsheathed” as early as April. Metaphor became reality as the Mormons looted and burned Gentile towns in Daviess County.
On October 28, a few days before the Mormon surrender at Far West, Joseph Smith preached a militant sermon. According to Burr Riggs, the prophet declared “that the sword was now unsheathed, and should not again be sheathed until he could go through these United States, and live in any county he pleased, peaceably.” Albert Perry Rockwood wrote in his journal, “the Prophet goes out to the battle as in days of old. he has the sword that Nephi took from Laban. is not this marvellous? . . . The Prophet has unsheathed his sword and in the name of Jesus declares that it shall not be sheathed again untill he can go unto any County or state in safety and in peace.”
Here was the apotheosis of the sword of Laban. Increasingly Smith equated the Church’s earthly power with the divine sword of justice. No longer did the sword merely hang in the heavens awaiting its moment to fall. Now it hummed in the hands of a vengeful Lord and his earthly servants. After the Mormon surrender, as Smith awaited trial in Liberty Jail, he penned a prayer: “Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs” (D&C 121).
 Book of Commandments 4:6. This verse was deleted from later printings of the revelation, which is now Doctrine and Covenants 5. According to historian Dan Vogel, only the lost Book of Lehi and a few chapters of Mosiah were translated by March 1829, meaning this revelation predates most of the extant text of the Book of Mormon. Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), 166.
 Alma 26:19, 60:29, 54:6; Helaman 13:5; 3 Nephi 2:19, 20:20; and Ether 8:23.
 Doctrine and Covenants 1:13 (November 1831), 35:14 (December 1830), 101:10 (December 1833).
 Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 3:159–60.
 Thomas Brown, An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, with Respect to Faith and Practice, upon the Plan of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, 3 vols. (Berwick: W. Gracie and J. Rennison, 1804), 2:194.
 W. Jos. Walter, ed., The Prose Works of Robert Southwell; Containing Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears, the Triumphs over Death, and an Epistle of Comfort, &c. &c. (London: Keating, Brown, 1828), 140.
 Advertisement, The Wayne Sentinel (Palmyra, N.Y.) 6, no. 23: 3.
 Doctrine and Covenants 45:33, 87:6.
 1 Nephi 4:18; Jacob 1:10; 2 Nephi 5:14; Words of Mormon 1:13; Mosiah 1:16.
 Bruce N. Westergren, ed., From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 57. This entry in Whitmer’s narrative history was probably penned in June 1831.
 “Affidavit of Thomas B. March [Marsh],” October 24, 1838, in Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &c. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; and the Evidence Given before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Court of the State of Missouri, at the Court-House in Richmond, in a Criminal Court of Inquiry, Begun November 12, 1838, on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and Others, for High Treason and Other Crimes against the State (Fayette, Mo., 1841), 57–59.
 Testimony of George M. Hinkle, in Document, 125–29.
 Joseph Smith Journal, April 28, 1838, in An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott H. Faulring (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 17.
 Testimony of Burr Riggs, in Document, 134–36. See also Solomon Wixom, “Journal and Daybook,” quoted in Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 126.
 Albert Perry Rockwood, Letter, October 28, 1838, in “The Last Months of Mormonism in Missouri: The Albert Perry Rockwood Journal,” edited by Dean C. Jessee and David J. Whittaker, BYU Studies 28 (Winter 1988): 25.