Korihor the Witch

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Ex. 22:18)

I recently read Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History (Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997). How could a bunch of dedicated Christians become convinced that their neighbors, some of whom were acknowledged to be fine citizens and exemplary Christians, were actually in active league with the devil to inflict harm on others? How could trials conducted by leading men of the colony solemnly conclude that dozens of men and women were in fact witches, then haul them a mile or two out of town and hang them? Right here in America? These remain troubling yet fascinating questions for most Americans, with new books on the topic coming out every year. Mormons in particular can learn something from Salem.

Do Mormons Believe in Witches?

Most modern readers are appalled at the Salem episode because they deny the existence of witches. For such a modern reader, the most reasonable defense to an accusation of being a witch (a capital crime, mind you) should have been: “How could I be a witch? I’m sorry Goodwife Johnson’s cow died last year, but I couldn’t have cursed it to death because that just doesn’t happen. There are no witches.” But Mormons believe in the devil and a host of allied evil spirits who apparently roam the earth, silent and unseen, somehow influencing humans to do or think evil. Furthermore, the traditional Mormon view goes, some individuals form a pact or alliance with these evil spirits. In Mormon Doctrine, Elder McConkie quoted Old Testament passages (Deut. 18:9-14 and Ex. 22:18) to affirm the existence of witchcraft, described as “actual intercourse with evil spirits.” At the same time, he ridiculed modern stereotypes of witches as “old hags flying on broomsticks.” He specifically but not unequivocally disclaimed the idea that those convicted of being witches in modern times, including those at Salem, were actual witches:

It should be noted that the trying, convicting, and executing of so-called witches during the middle ages and in early American history was a wholly apostate and unwarranted practice. It is probable that none, or almost none, of those unhappily dealt with as supposed witches were persons in actual communion with evil spirits. Their deaths illustrate the deadly extremes to which the principles of true religion can be put when administered by uninspired persons.

None, or almost none. Big difference. It appears that the Mormon view affirms the existence of evil spirits and affirms the reality of witches in the contemporary world, while at the same time suggesting that many particular individuals who have been accused of being witches in modern times were falsely accused. Many, but not all. The bottom line is yes, Mormons believe in witches, “persons in actual communion with evil spirits.”

Korihor the Witch

You probably think of Korihor, featured in Alma 30 in the Book of Mormon, as a heretic or apostate, given that he preached doctrines and ideas not in harmony with the Nephite Church of his day. But in the narrative he is clearly depicted as a witch: “But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words.” Korihor clearly fits Elder McConkie’s definition of a witch, a person “in actual communion with evil spirits.” The category of witch is not gender specific. For example, of the 19 persons executed as witches in Salem, five were men, and that is not counting Giles Corey, crushed to death by stones for failing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court to try his case. One of those convicted and executed was George Burroughs, who ten years earlier had been the minister in Salem Village. He was accused and convicted of being a witch, then hanged on August 19, 1692. Korihor was not executed by Alma the Younger, merely cursed with muteness and publicly labelled an outcast (“the knowledge of what had happened unto Korihor was immediately published throughout all the land; yea, the proclamation was sent forth by the chief judge to all the people in the land”). The actual execution was left to the Zoramites, who soon thereafter trampled him to death.

Korihor acts as something of a pivot between the classical witch and the modern Mormon witch. Both are witches by virtue of being in supernatural communion with evil spirits. But classical witches worked supernatural harm on victims, whereas the modern Mormon witch works only ideological harm on victims. Korihor (labelled an Anti-Christ in the narrative) preached a naturalistic worldview. He states, at various points in the narrative, that “no man can know of anything which is to come,” that belief in a Christ to come and in remission of sins is “the effect of a frenzied mind,” and that Nephite religious traditions led the people “into a belief of things which are not so.” The narrative then summarizes his philosophy as follows: “And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.” Man is the measure of all things: Korihor was a Nephite Protagoras. And a witch. He was, in the modern Mormon way of looking at things, an ideological witch, one who works evil with words alone.

In that sense, the Mormon belief in witches is alive and well: we call them dissenters or apostates but we describe them as witches. Some Mormons employ a mild form of the witch explanation quite openly, replying to someone who raises troubling facts or ideas, “you have been listening to the wrong Spirit.” Others are less direct, as when a local leader who gets wind of a member’s faith issues starts asking, “Do you read your scriptures every day? Do you pray and fast and attend all your meetings? Did you watch all the sessions of the last General Conference? How about the one before that? Well no wonder Satan has influenced you to consider information and ideas counter to the views and doctrines of the Church.” That last sentence is sometimes states, sometimes implied, but that is the likely conclusion once a Mormon starts administering the obedience quiz.

Rejecting the Witch Explanation

Obviously, I am opposed to this way of framing and responding to religious disagreement. It is simply wrong to suggest or imply that one who disagrees with LDS views and doctrines, or with your particular perspective on LDS views and doctrines, holds those differing views because they are in league with or influenced by Satan or one of his agents. People who are not LDS disagree with LDS views and doctrines because … they just disagree. They hold different religious or philosophical or political views, but generally have good reasons for their differing views. Likewise, one who is LDS but who nevertheless develops issues with items of LDS doctrine or history can do so sincerely. The Korihor explanation and the LDS belief in ideological witches is just too convenient. That stereotypical modern reader referred to above, who is disgusted by the Salem episode because there are no witches, would also reject the idea that Korihor was a witch. A modern reading is that Korihor was simply a religious dissenter who became a threat to religious and political authorities and was therefore targeted by them, cursed and publicly ostracized, leading to his lynching. What a terrible frame to use for understanding LDS religious disagreement or for guiding the LDS response to questions, dissent, or criticism.


This was previously posted at Worlds Without End.

41 comments for “Korihor the Witch

  1. Korihor wasn’t publicly executed. Nehor was – and that was because he murdered Gideon during a religious debate.

    Korihor was blinded by God and not punished by the Nephites at all. He went begging among the apostate Zoramites and was trampled to death in a crowd. Killed by the very people who you’d think would be most sympathetic to his ideas.

    And Korihor’s teachings were not simply at odds with the conventional wisdom of the day, they were deeply destructive to the human condition. And it was even worse because he packaged them in an attractive smiling “nice guy” package.

  2. Despite a few factual trips, the piece is actually very smart. I don’t know why I was chuckling through it. Might have something to do with the images from Monty Python that I couldn’t get out of my head.

    Having said that, I have heard fellow members discuss people who leave the church as being influenced by Satan. In due respect, I can say it has been a while since I’ve heard this kind of rhetoric. Anyway, framing people’s disillusionment in this way is very problematic. People in the church end up thinking they are on God’s side while people outside or who leave are lumped with broad brushes—from good but ignorant to bad and uninspired.

    What’s the old saying? “You worship God in your way. I’ll worship God in His.”

    Much delusion follows this kind of classification, not the least of which is membership in the Mormon church is not a guarantee of anything. There are plenty of Mormons who will go to Hell, whether they are serving a temple service mission or not. And so it goes….

  3. “the Mormon belief in witches is alive and well: we call them dissenters or apostates but we describe them as witches.”

    I don’t think that really is witchcraft. I don’t think Korihor as described is a witch either for various reasons. He’s never presented as having abilities although clearly he presents himself as deceived by supernatural powers but that’s not really being a witch as I understand the term.

    Some Mormons employ a mild form of the witch explanation quite openly, replying to someone who raises troubling facts or ideas, “you have been listening to the wrong Spirit.” Others are less direct, as when a local leader who gets wind of a member’s faith issues starts asking, “Do you read your scriptures every day? Do you pray and fast and attend all your meetings? Did you watch all the sessions of the last General Conference? How about the one before that? Well no wonder Satan has influenced you to consider information and ideas counter to the views and doctrines of the Church.”

    Again though one can believe in real sons of perdition who in some way are able to subtly communicate with us in unclear ways without thinking that people are witches. I think the reason Mormons bring these things up is more due to the fact many believe they’ve had similar experiences. That is they (we) believe that you can lose the spirit quite easily. Further that when is in a state of not having the spirit strongly one is more susceptible to temptations in a way one isn’t when in the spirit. That is this isn’t applying a witchcraft narrative but rather something arising out of personal experience. Further I think most would see these effects as subtle and not obvious unless you’re looking for them.

    The alternative is to assume that God only acts occasionally and that our theology of the spirit just is false. Which I recognize some might believe (not you — just more naturalist critics in our out of the church). I think though many, myself included, think the spirit, its counterfeits and so forth are common and constantly in play.

    Once you buy that as a real phenomena then how we analyze these other situations will be wrapped up with the spirit. The issue becomes not why one would rationally move away or reinterpret but rather what causes the underlying phenomena of the spirit as evidence to disappear. It’s a fairly rational type of questioning. If we discount the spirit as a real objective experience from discussion then of course the very way we discuss it radically changes.

  4. John (2) I think approaching this is counterproductive. You’re not going to persuade many people by telling them they’re listening to the wrong spirit. Even people who leave because they think they’ve had spiritual experiences leading them that way. Spiritual experience is so personal that it’s hard to appeal to it. Sometimes even in a shared experience. (Many of us havel been in rooms where many felt the spirit was extremely strong and others felt nothing — the Kirtland Temple pentacost experience is a good example)

    That said though I think any attempt to help with people leaving has to include the nature of the spirit which ultimately is all that can given a testimony or true conversion. Bringing the spirit into people’s lives is key for conversion. Everything else is just setting up a situation where the spirit can teach. At best our other actions are catalysts for God’s work.

    Why I’m uncomfortable with Dave’s critique here is that I think he’s effectively removing that aspect of the spirit or its counterfeits (here thinking of the non-psychological counterfeits). I just think that once we make that move then you’ve already lost the battle. Further effectively whether intended or not you’ve dismissed a pretty key and essential doctrine from the gospel.

  5. A lot of what McConkie said WAS pretty authoritative.

    It would be pretty hard to be wrong all the time. Or even most of the time.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Owen (#5), McConkie is authoritative in the sense that he became an apostle (and the official Church tends to grant prior statements of LDS leaders retroactive authority), in the sense that he is (or was, for a long time) often quoted in LDS manuals, and in the sense that many Latter-day Saints view his statements as authoritative. Certainly not “official” in the same way that True to the Faith (a doctrinal booklet published by the Church) is official.

  7. Clark (4). I cannot disagree with anything you wrote. The spirit is the key to conversion. Problematically, people’s experience with the spirit and their interpretation of that experience are, as you say, incredibly personal and individualistic.

    Problems arise when people project their experience with the spirit onto all others, turning the template of spiritual conversion into an image of the self. From this ego-image people judge others in and out of the church.

    To Dave Barnack’s point, some Mormons project the self using wholly supernatural rhetoric, ascribing other’s actions as good or evil, linked with angels or demons. This kind of rhetoric also takes on many forms, where the words angels and demons are not used, but implied. I think Dave was exploring how sometimes this could be linked to a sort of superstitious modality.

    It can be.

    In the end, though, without the supernatural then the arguments of our religion fail on every front. The Spirit of God is necessary or none of it works. Again, sometimes bad things are done in the name of the spirit by well intentioned people who are only projecting themselves. I have seen Bishops do this with terrible consequences.

    I have also seen the influence and miracle of the spirit at work within the church. And that says something too.

  8. Good catch, Dave. I can attest to the fact that “the Mormon belief in witches is alive and well,” as you say. When my older brother left the church, my mom thought that he had an evil spirit in him and needed a special blessing to cast it out.

  9. Good post. Re: the conversation about the spirit, conversion and folks leaving. Just in my personal experience, most of the members I know seem to veer more into what I would call superstition rather than religion. It’s a fine line, I know, but I DO hear a lot of talk about Satan tempting us to do this and that, and a lot of (IMHO) fear-mongering about true vs. false spirits, etc. The paradox of the Mormon concept of the spirit, of course, is that on the one hand, experiencing it is an extremely subjective thing and on the other hand, it’s supposed to testify of eternal truths, meaning that many folks assume each person’s subjective spiritual witness will manifest objective truth. That’s not generally the case, at least in my experience. I don’t think we do enough in the church to really teach about spiritual discernment and how to tell the difference (if one even can) between powerful emotions and the spirit. Maybe if we had fewer lessons on the family and more on how to actually magnify our spiritual capacities? It’s all a bit muddled, it seems to me, which leads to the different situations that John Lundwall describes, which is too bad.

  10. John (8) Problems arise when people project their experience with the spirit onto all others, turning the template of spiritual conversion into an image of the self. From this ego-image people judge others in and out of the church.

    Yes, I’d agree with that. I think assuming we all have the same experiences is the main problem. And I think we sometimes judge too swiftly by thinking the other person had the same history as we did up to the point of that action. Almost certainly they didn’t. We need a little charity.

    That said I also worry that we throw the baby out with the bathwater and simply discount the role of the spirit in falling away.

    While some might project a fully or majorly spiritual view of deconversion, my sense is that it’s not as common as portrayed. I think sometimes people might take comments such as I made in (3) and then assume everyone is judging only in terms of these things. Looking at my friends who have left the church I don’t think anything is that simple. Yet I also think that the first step in the process wasn’t doubt but acting such that they loss the ability to feel and recognize the spirit. That then changes how they experience and judge things.

    Brother Sky (10) I also worry with you that many members veer into superstition. There are lots of varying folk traditions out there that go well beyond church doctrine. Often in incompatible ways with each other. Like you I wish we had more lessons on discerning the spirit and distinguishing it from counterfeits. It appears though that the brethren are primarily concerned with people just trying to get the spirit rather than adding in complexities for people who won’t even try.

  11. I’m an ex-Mormon. I enjoy the missionaries when they come to my door. I haven’t found any I dislike. However, I don’t think they are prepared for the hard questions. I had one missionary admit to me that he didn’t “know” there was a god, even though he bares his testimony that he “knows” there is one.

    The subject of the Spirit came up (they read a passage from the Book of Mormon to convince me that if I prayed with good intent, I would know that the Book of Mormon is true). I asked the two missionaries how they knew that the “feeling” they were getting was actually from the Holy Ghost. He couldn’t give me a satisfactory answer, so I asked him if he actually had conversations in his head with the Holy Ghost, and he said that the Holy Ghost literally talked to him in conversations. I feel bad about it because of the way I came off, but I kind of blurted out spontaneously, “Are you schizophrenic?” However, the conversation went no further and I didn’t get an answer because the missionaries abruptly ended the conversation without giving me an answer. After I closed the door, they were stomping the ground with their feet (I don’t remember for sure, but I believe “stomping the dirt off your shoes” is possibly a priesthood ordinance to curse the person). I could be wrong about what their purpose was for stomping the ground, so maybe that isn’t what they meant. At least, I’m pretty sure I haven’t been cursed since becoming an ex-Mormon in about the year 2000 (this incident occurred around 2010).

    It is my opinion that there is no such thing as spirits, devils, supernatural witches, and demons, etc. They are probably based mostly on confirmation bias.

  12. Clark (11). Again I think we are on the same page, though I’m reading from the top and you the bottom. Or you the top and I the bottom. You pick. I don’t care.

    Look, the baby is always in the bathwater, and when the bathwater is dirty we don’t want to get rid of the baby. We all agree on that. The only question is, when do we drain the tub and how do we refill it? There are some people who do not want to drain the tub, and others only want to pour in bleach. Others want to get rid of the baby. The baby and this bathwater has never been an easy scenario.

    My observations are that the problems I see arise in my culture are very often a product of cultural assumptions–Spirit be damned. Actually, the spirit is made to serve the cultural assumptions (that is, warm fuzzies are pasted onto those assumptions and this is called the spirit).

    Clark. I cannot argue the spirit. I cannot tell someone they are not feeling the spirit, or they do not have the spirit. I cannot convince someone that I have or feel the spirit. The spirit must do its own convincing. It’s all good, because it turns out that is the Spirit’s job. All I can do is judge people on what they do. I don’t care what they say. I don’t care what they believe. I only care what they do.

    Case in point: a few years ago a bishop I knew attended a court sentencing of a sexual molester on behalf of the family of said molester. Problem was the victim of the molester was there in tears that the bishop (who she knew) was even there supporting anyone on that side. Now, the Bishop should not have been there at all via policy. But there he was. Why? Because he felt the spirit and wanted to support the family that was in his ward. Problem? Well the victim never wanted to go back to church again, because she saw the presence of the Bishop as one of the most insulting non-spiritual acts in the whole process.

    So here is a Bishop who feels impressed that he should go help this family by attending court, without thinking once of what that would do to the people on the other side of the court. And this is how it goes. People who feel compassion for those around them think this is the spirit. No, it is compassion. The spirit considers all sides. The presence of the Bishop in that courtroom was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And he was utterly clueless as to what he was doing. There he was, signing praises to Jesus, hail the spirit, and crushing another girl’s psyche and testimony.

    I have personal knowledge of the above scenario and two others just like it. It’s not that Mormons believe in witches, its that they believe in angels, and follow those angels through the sky while dropping cauldrons onto people’s heads. The baby’s aren’t being thrown out with the bathwater as much as the tubs are being catapulted into people’s living rooms.

    These are, at least I hope, isolated incidents. But that certainly doesn’t matter to the people who have to endure them. I often think of this episode and I hear what others say around me when they talk about people leaving the church always in apostate terms. I can tell you that girl who left the church wasn’t an apostate. She was the saint. Everyone else around her was just playing at religion, the Bishops included.

    So this kind of rhetoric–that is very common–is wrong. Now I believe in the spirit. I believe in compassion. I believe that bishops are doing their best. And I believe we are all screwed up, the brethren included, and we must give wide berth to allow for mistakes not just of the leaders, but for the victims of the leaders. Which means, use the word “apostate” very carefully. Very carefully.

    As for me, when you put the church or the “spirit” in front of the child—which is what that Bishop did—that is apostasy. And this is how the Kingdom is lost.

    I tell people that in heaven, there will be more prostitutes than priests. Why? Because, for the most part, people cannot differentiate between the baby and the bathwater.

  13. I must be living in an alternate LDS reality. During my lifetime I have known a great many people to go inactive from the Church. I have never heard anyone saying that those people were in league with the devil. Some of them left because of disagreements with doctrinal questions or policies. The greatest majority of the ones that I know left mainly because they had not obtained a testimony of the gospel and started attending less and less frequently until they disappeared. There were a few that went out because of pretty major moral transgressions.

    Maybe things are different in the areas where the LDS population is in the majority. I don’t know. But I do believe that Brother Dave has erected a strawman that he has knocked down.


  14. I’m not aware of any policy that prohibits a church member, including a bishop, from attending a sentencing hearing for a member of his or her ward. If I was a criminal and repentant sinner about to face the state’s justice, I think it would be nice for someone to be kind to me. The Savior said something about visiting those in prison, didn’t he?

    On the original posting, I’m with Glenn — I have never heard, not even once, a suggestion that someone left the Church because he or she was in league with the devil.

  15. I bear my testimony that there are no witches, and there have never been any witches. Elder McConkie is wrong on this issue. And my comment is authoritative.

  16. ji (15) What a terrible and wrong headed idea. You visit them in jail. Not in court in front of the victims. Ever.

    And so here it is. ji isn’t bad; he thinks he is doing the right and compassionate thing. No witchcraft here. Just a blundering faith.

  17. John, I suspect most of us here would agree with the rights and wrongs of particular actions. I’m more concerned with the model for why we explain some reactions are wrong.

    The danger in following the spirit is of course that we misinterpret things and end up not following the spirit. As I said I think that’s fairly common. While it is discussed occasionally in church – most often in the context of judging leadership – it gets focused on quite rarely relative to trying to get people to follow the spirit. I assume that means the brethren feel so few are trying to live by the spirit that increasing false positives are worth the greater number of positives. Yet I suspect most of us can think of lots of examples where false positives from attempting to follow spirit brought hardship or worse.

  18. I should also note I fully agree with the points you brought up. Unfortunately “the spirit said” acts as a trump in discussion cutting off discussion. How do we know what the spirit told someone? We may have our guesses that they are being misled but it’s quite difficult to tell people that. The hierarchy of stewardship helps a little. i.e. a bishop can receive revelation for a member. But then, assuming they actually have an explicit inspiration or revelation, it’s not always persuasive. (And can itself be wrong of course)

    How to adjudicate disagreements in these cases is anything but simple. In general I think most people keep their spiritual views to themselves and only express them (except in generalities) in narrow contexts when they feel safe. This then has the effect of appearing like people don’t have spiritual gifts or outpourings even though they are far more common than it would seem. Which is a whole other conversation.

  19. I can’t recall a time when I heard someone suggest a particular person left the church because of evil spirits. However, I have witnessed more Sunday School discussions than I could count on two hands about how to tell the difference between a visitation from an angel and a devil. Considering I don’t know a single person who has ever had a visitation from either, it seems odd that we would discuss it so much. Also, I had a mission companion who, when confronting a man who was antagonistic toward the church, exclaimed, “by the power of Jesus Christ I command the evil spirits to depart from this man!” That was probably one of my favorite mission experiences. :)

  20. My Zone Leaders tracted out a witch who answered the door with a tattoo of an upside down cross on her forehead. Does that count?

  21. She oddly wasn’t interested in converting to Mormonism but was quite content with Satan. LOL.

    More seriously I don’t know. I know when they told us about it later that day (I was the district leader in the area next to them covering LSU in Baton Rouge) they were pretty scared. They said the sun was behind them but that oddly no light went past the entrance to light up the hallway she was standing in. No idea how much of that was exaggeration since I wasn’t there. There was lots of craziness there that year. That was also the year Geraldo Riveria did his expose of satan worship on TV. This was also around the beginning of the recovered memory syndrome things and hysteria over that and devil worship. As you might imagine in a place like Lousiana with fundamentalist Catholics, fundamentalist Evangelicals and then a lot of voodoo, witchcraft and other superstition (often just iconoclasts going off to use lots of drugs and have lots of sex), it made for an interesting time. I had one investigator we were teacher who claimed to have been part of one cult and was terrified that they were coming to get him. He just disappeared one day. At the time we were convinced he’d been killed but honestly we had no idea what had happened.

    Which is a long way of saying Louisiana is a very weird place. I used to joke that if you saw movies you’d assume they were exaggerating whereas the reality often seemed far odder.

  22. I should add that my favorite mission tale (which I assume is a myth but who knows) was about the missionaries who moved into an area only to find their apartment was in a haunted house. They try casting out and cleansing the house but nothing works. So one companion gets the idea to start teaching the discussions. All the bad feelings go away. They get the feeling the ghosts were interested. So they track down the origin of the haunting which was some murder of a family and then get the temple work done for everyone. Once the temple work is done all the haunting ceases.

    Great story but almost certainly the kind of folk tale common in missions. Although again, it being Louisiana who knows?

    I had a senior companionship in one of my districts that was a bit of a challenge. He’s served in Lousiana back in the 20’s. In those days apparently companionships could still dust their feet. He told the tale (again no firsthand knowledge so a certain degree of skepticism is always in order) that they’d been chased out of three towns in a row by the townfolk. (These were in the lynching days so violence in Lousiana was still extremely common – heck it was still extremely common in the 60’s) He said they dusted their feet and a few hours later a tornado came and struck all three towns.

    Interesting relative to the original topic, his wife was sadly coming down with dementia. Which caused a lot of problem since she was yell out to anyone not married in the temple that they weren’t really married and were going to hell if they didn’t go to the temple. Bad enough with members but really bad with investigators.

  23. John (17),

    I wish you wouldn’t mischaracterize my faith. We disagree on whether a Saint (including a bishop) can be nice to someone who is facing a judge — I say yes, you say no. Let’s leave it at that.

  24. Dave, great article. Thank you.

    I’ve left the LDS faith completely. My reason was simply that the faith’s truth claims deviated too far from my own experience with reality. I don’t want to offend, but I’m persuaded that I can live happier outside the faith than within, and I certainly feel now that my life is more consistent with my own moral compass. Again, I offer no judgment on another’s experience.

    The people in my old ward are the kindest most generous people on earth. I’ve been fortunate to maintain many friendships.

    Obviously, the faith doesn’t have a witch narrative for those who leave. Dave was just drawing a useful historical example to illustrate his point. The LDS faith has an “apostate” narrative and it’s not a happy story.

    Sigh. It is a painful narrative for those of us with spouses and children who remain in the faith. I’ve had numerous conversations with my young children after they come home from church about how I’m not lazy, sinning, or offended. The reason I’m not LDS is simply that I do not share LDS beliefs.

    Full stop.

    I simply do not believe LDS truth claims. There should be no reason to build a narrative about those who leave. They simply do not share your beliefs.

    Dave, again, thank you for taking the time to write this article.

  25. ji (25) I am sorry ji. But you cannot hold this position and be morally consistent, or even morally sensible. You can be nice to a convicted felon. You just can’t be in the courtroom as an ecclesiastical leader (or a neighbor who just so happens to be an ecclesiastical leader) in front of the victims. This cannot happen. And the Church does not seem to understand the consequences of such actions.

    Your sympathy and compassion for the felon turns out to be the crushing blow to the victim. And that is why your stance is not the religion of Christ, but the religion of the millstone.

    Not only should the Bishop not be in that courtroom, but if he goes he should be immediately released as Bishop. Period. That is the zero tolerance kind of policy the church should have. A bishop may visit the felon in prison. He may visit the felon in private. But never in a supporting role in front of the victim. Ever.


  26. John,

    You err in imposing your moral sensibilities on other people. Maybe you, with your baggage, could not do it, and that’s fine, but others with the choice could honorably do it while being morally consistent and morally sensible. Your attitude — your uncharitable imposition of your baggage onto other people — is the sort of judgmental attitude that contributed to the Salem witch trials.

    To me, it is easy to imagine a LDS penitent seeking solace from his bishop, and asking the bishop to attend the upcoming sentencing hearing, and the bishop agreeing. This doesn’t mean that the bishop condones the crime, or that he is insensitive or unkind towards the victim who is a member of another ward. In the old days of public executions, a clergyman attended the penitent on the scaffold, even if the victim was present in the crowd and no matter how repulsive the crime. Some clergymen with certain scruples might have chosen not to do so in certain cases, as you apparently would, but I think those clergymen who did attend the penitent did them a kindness which was appreciated by their God.

    Stop hating that bishop. Forgive him of what you perceive to be his sin.

  27. Joshua, I think what some of us are suggesting is that there isn’t a single “leave the faith” narrative. The reasons are complex and I think most members know enough people such that they realize the complexity. Even a narrative of losing the spirit isn’t sufficient since most people lose the spirit at various times in their life. Only a few leave the church. So clearly more is going on. Likewise there are plenty of members with weak testimonies but who remain for various reasons. It’s always complex.

  28. Clark, I’m curious if you have a way to discuss the issue without using terms like “losing the spirit” and “members” and “weak testimony” and “strong testimony” and “losing testimony.”

    I don’t mean this in any disparaging way. Hypothetically, how would you describe someone who left another faith like Scientology or Jehovah Witnesses? Did you teach anyone on your mission who left another faith to become Mormon? What language did you use to talk about that experience?

  29. Joshua, what you’re basically asking for is a neutral terminology that doesn’t assume any of the premises Mormons typically hold. Certainly we can and frequently do use such terminology. However if one is writing in terms of those premises then that seems inappropriate. However when I’m writing more about say demographics or broader issues I tend not to use such terminology. It seems to depend upon the discussion in question.

    Fundamentally the reason I use the language I do is because of the phenomena in question. Now where things get trickier is when you talk about religion shifting between groups who share those premises. (Say Mormonism and a splinter group from the main body) So if I were to talk about those who joined and maintained their connection with Denver Snuffer the discussion might be a little trickier. But even then, if I’m writing from a Mormon theological perspective about the theology of such matters I’d be hard pressed not to question the spiritual realities behind such experiences.

    By and large given the huge place the spirit plays in Mormon perceptions of conversion, how could deconversion be any different?

  30. Clark,

    The term used in the original post was “witch.” Dave was illustrating that there is a certain response to that term in LDS minds. From reading the comments above, it sounds like there are various ways LDS people think about “witch.”

    Dave then pivots. Given how “witch” was understood in the past, can LDS believers think about how they use terms like “apostates” and “dissenters.” “Inactives,” “non-members,” “lost testimonies,” “losing the spirit.” We could go on.

    The main point of the post, as I see it, is to ask whether there can be a new narrative for those who leave the faith, or whether LDS families can craft new narratives.

    Clark, it sounds like you’re in the camp that insists on using the narrative as it is … “Witch 2.0.”

    But I’ll ask again, let’s say you’re sitting in a class of 11-year olds and a sweet little girl raises her hand and says, “My Dad was Mormon but he does not believe and removed his name from the records of the church.”

    Do you have language to frame this in a light other than the dominant LDS narrative, or are you going to tell the little girl that her dad “lost the spirit” and “lost his testimony”? Can you explain how someone would leave without invoking the “witch” label?

  31. I was a victim. My bishop and my ex’s bishop did him the kindness of letting him exercise priesthood authority when he had barely paid up his child support (he stopped the week after) and was entirely unrepentant for the things he had done to me and was doing to his children.

    Giving the perpetrator access to deathbed confession is not the same as supporting his attempts to avoid answering for them. If the perpetrator is confessing before the judge and asking for the chance to make restitution to the victim, that is one thing for the bishop to be there. If the perp is trying to defend himself, that is another.

    I can’t describe what it has done to my testimony to know that allowing an abuser to exercise his priesthood in front of the world is a greater priority to the leadership of the church than to guide him to true repentance.

    I go every week. I love the Church, still. But my testimony is like the walnut tree in my grandparent’s house. It bore the most amazing black walnuts, but its heartwood was rotten and hollow. It carried on for years until it became too much and had to be removed.

    That is the price.

  32. Josh, I’m definitely in the camp that in an LDS context one can’t separate questions of the spirit from questions of conversion, testimony or deconversion. It’s essential to the LDS understanding of what conversion even means.

    As for talking to the little girl, I’d hope I’d go by the spirit. Barring that I’d say people believe different things but then I’d shift the discussion to why it’s important to discover things for ourselves and not believe or disbelieve because someone else does.

  33. Clark,

    Honestly, I have no interest in persuading you of anything. For my own personal interest, I’d like to see a more nuanced LDS understanding and language for those who disbelieve.

    But, it’s not something I’m going to lose sleep over. “The World” has a rich understanding of differing beliefs and I’m perfectly confident to use that language and those metaphors in my home and with my friends.

    Best of luck.

  34. I am surprised I have not seen a mention of the Joseph Smith translation, which radically changes the meaning of this verse. Instead of witches, it is talking about murderers. Did I just miss it?

  35. I think that when we’re in broader conversation we should use a more common way of discussing it, simply because most people don’t think the spirit is a real phenomena. So there’s no common ground out of which to speak. It’s within that LDS context I think we have to include it.

  36. Joshua Smith, FWIW, I’m “active” LDS but agree that we as LDS people need a more nuanced understanding around those who have left (including more willingness to take some accountability) and also better ways to describe it. I personally think that some of your phrases are what we need to use, i.e. something along the lines of “believes differently” or “does not accept Mormonism’s fundamental truth claims”. The old and tired lazy/offended/sinful/wants to sin/apostate/lost the Spirit/witch syndrome is problematic.

    My answer to the classroom full of 11 yr olds in your hypothetical above would probably be something like this: “Your Dad has different beliefs but I know him and he’s a good man. Each of you are really at the beginning to being “grown ups” and part of that is deciding what you do and don’t believe.” The rest of the answer would probably depend on the context in which this came up.

    Christianity as a whole (including Mormonism) probably needs to focus less on what one believes (Peter Enns “The Sin of Certainty” is on my “to read” list), but that’s a longer topic for another day.

  37. Thanks David Day. I’m sure we could share a beverage and enjoy each other’s company. I’ve met many people with your view and it warms my soul. Thank you.

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