From the Archives: Mormon Cursing

While reading Wilford Woodruff’s diaries recently, I discovered that I have been living in a cursed part of the country. What am I to make of this, and the more general phenomena of Mormon cursing?

In 1835, Wilfrod Woodruff and Abraham O. Smoot served as missionaries in the southern states. One of the places they visited was Arkansas, particularlly the Little Rock environs, where I happen to live. (Fear not Russell, I don’t think they made it up to Jonesboro.)

As anyone who has read Wilford’s diaries knows, the man was in love with streams. He is constantly fishing, wading, swimming, etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was quite enthusiastic about washing the dust off his feet as a testimony against those who rejected him. (See D&C 84:92). His diaries indicate that while he was in Arkansas he dusted his feet against Benton and Paris. (He also notes that in addition to dusting his feet, he bathed and washed, which was not required by revelation but was most refreshing!)

Now, I am in the Little Rock Ward, but as it happens we meet in the Benton building. So what significance, if any, should I attach to this ordinance from long ago?

On a more general level, we seem to have lost something of our cursing theology in Mormonism. For example, during the height of the anti-polygamy raids, Wilford Woodruff compiled a list of all of those who had persecuted the Saints. The Apostles met in either the partially completed Salt Lake Temple or the Endowment House (I forget which), placed the names upon the alter, and had a kind of reverse prayer circle, calling down the judgment of God upon the enemies of the Church. This is the flip side of the oft told story of how Wilford performed the temple work for the Founding Fathers and other “prominent men� (including, interestingly, Darwin’s Harvard critic Louis Agassiz).

I suppose that we can understand these sorts of ordinances in two ways. First, we can think of them as a kind of formal testimony bearing. The idea, I suppose, is that we are providing God with probative evidence in the judgment day. (Perhaps allowing particaption by aggrieved parties in the judgment process is a way of maintaing social order among the infinite concourses of eternal intelligences.) Second, we can think of them as a version of the sealing power, binding on earth what will be bound in heaven.

Reading Wilford, both elements are there, but the sealing element seems strongest. On the otherhand, he always seems to be sealing people up to the judgment of the Lord, which they were presumably were going to get any ways. So I am a bit puzzled by what to make of the whole thing. Perhaps Wilford wanted an excuse to take a break from preaching and scout out some fishing holes…

(Originally posted 12/19/2003)

20 comments for “From the Archives: Mormon Cursing

  1. Part of my dissertation examined the Mormon practice of cursing, which I found figured prominently in prayer circles of the 12 and 1st presidency until the early twentieth-century. On one occasion for example, Joseph F. Smith used the occasion of a prayer circle to ask that Judge Baskin be striken blind.

  2. “sticken with blindness” I should have written. Also, Nate, I assume that by “reverse prayer circle” you are referring to the fact that prayer circles today engage in apotropaic prayers rather than in prayers of vengeance. In the nineteenth century there was nothing unusual about vengeful elements being present in temple prayer circles.

  3. Costanza: Baskin is a main character in some of my academic research. Can you send me your source for this story?

    On prayer circles, my answer is: yes. There were lots of vengeful elements in prayer circles. I don’t know the sources well but I wonder if they made any distinction between prayers asking vengence and an ordinance of cursing. Washing one’s feet seems different than a simple prayer in the same way that a sealing ordinance is different than a prayer asking that a couple be kept together. One is a request, and the other is performative in some sense.

  4. I will send you the references. I think you are correct about the difference between the ordinance of washing of feet and the more supplicative approach taken in prayer. It is interesting that in 1889 G.Q. Cannon was concerned enough about the prevalence of cure-prayers in local and general prayer circles that he sasid “In our prayers we should not condemn our enemies but leave them in the hands of God; we should, however, pray for our own sins to be forgiven, and ask that the hearts of the nation’s rulers might be softened towards our people” (Abraham H. Cannon Journal, 22 December 1889)

  5. Nate, the reference to Baskin is in the Abraham Cannon journals as well. I don’t know if it made it into the edition published by Dennis Horne or not. Cannon recorded it as part of a meeting of the 12 and 1st Pres. on 23 December 1889. Here is the full quote:
    “We then kneeled down, and commencing with Bro. Wells, each of us prayed until Pres. Woodruff had his turn. Bro. Jos. F. was strongest in his prayer and urged that Baskin should be made blind, deaf and dumb unless he would repent of his wickedness. In this prayer we all kneeled with our faces in.”

  6. Costanza: Thanks! BTW, Baskin wasn’t a judge yet in 1889. He was just another sniveling, pettifogging, anti-Mormon lawyer ;->…

  7. Thanks for the tip on Baskin. You have mastered ninteenth-century newspaper lingo!

  8. Ahhh! Back when reading the Trib and the Deseret News was fun. I miss bare-fisted editorializing, although I suspect that it didn’t do much to make 19th century Utah into a pleasant place to live in.

  9. The apostle Paul seems to have gotten the truly spiritual sorta “Emily Post” of cursing down best? Viz., “May those who do (insert behavior) be acursed!” — with the behavior so defined just so happening to exactly match the morally egregious behavior being engaged in by the parties intended to be cursed?

  10. “The Apostles met in either the partially completed Salt Lake Temple or the Endowment House (I forget which), placed the names upon the alter, and had a kind of reverse prayer circle, calling down the judgment of God upon the enemies of the Church.”

    If we are talking about the same event–some time in the 1881-82 period–then the Franklin Richards journal has it differently. Richards says John Taylor put the names on the altar and prayed for them–prayed, that their hearts would be softened.

  11. I don’t know about the particular event Nate describes, but I found that frequently the different members of the prayer circle recorded the prayers with different emphasis. Putting them all together a picture emerged in which persons were prayed for (as Jed mentions) following which the pray-ers would say something like “but if they won’t be moved to soften their hearts then [insert bad thing here].” That pattern began with the first prayer circles held by the anointed quorum starting in 1842 and continued until around the turn of the century.

  12. I think sometimes we use religious ritual, particularly reenactments, as ways to work through our anger. Often the transgressors allow us to move some of the anger we feel toward God at a bad outcome or event in the direction of a demonized mortal. The Nauvoo temple was a place, after Joseph’s murder, for those kinds of bellicose prayers with hopes of the destruction of the enemies of the Gospel. As we discussed Passover and the Seder today in sunday school, I thought about the older scripts (haggadah) which were so vitriolic you could almost imagine people watching Faces of Death–Cairo Edition while they recounted the Egyptian slavehood and redemption. It remind me of those mid 19th century spiteful, angry pronouncements against the enemies of the church that Nate and others allude to above.

    There are a lot of emotions that unfold within the context of the Gospel, and I think it’s appropriate to recognize them and at times to embrace them, no matter how embarrassing they may prove in retrospect. I also remember the rather bold pronouncement to good ole Queen Vic that Britain (and the Continent for good measure) would be utterly destroyed within 50 years if they didn’t embrace the Gospel message. It’s a lot easier to yell at a human than God, and though we probably oughtn’t, it’s hard to deal with the rage if you’re not aware of it. Not entirely clear to me that God will listen to every prayer of that nature (he did spare Britain until 1940), but it’s probably okay for us to find that space in ourselves. I also vaguely recall a Christian apologist (perhaps Lewis) discussing the angrier Psalms in the “Davidic” corpus in tems similar to these.

  13. mh, I think you are correct. Ritual studies is a vast field of scholarship and a great deal of work has been done on the psychological element of ritual in lending powerful feelings to essentially powerless people.

  14. “mh” is my second Times & Season’s hero! After Nate, of course. (I’m slowly filling my quorum– )

  15. I also live in a cursed country. After Orson Hyde and the Mormons withdrew from Western Nevada in 1856, the Gentiles took over their property without paying for it. Two years later, Orson Hyde wrote a letter to the the culprits in which promised:

    “You shall be visited of the Lord of Hosts with thunder and with earthquake and with floods, with pestilence and with famine until your names are not known amongst men, for you have rejected the authority of God, trampled upon his laws and his ordinances, and given yourselves up to serve the god of this world; to rioting in debauchery, in abominations drunkenness and corruption . . . .”

    The curse has perhaps been fulfilled in our miserable climate and ugly suburban sprawl. The debauchery, drunkenness, and corruption continue unabated.

  16. “One of the places they visited was Arkansas, particularlly the Little Rock environs, where I happen to live.”

    Except that you profile on this page says you work in DC. Quite a commute. So you’re only cursed when at home, not at work?

  17. Jrl: This post is “from the archives” which means that the original version was published more than two years ago when I did live in Little Rock.

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