“Angels and Seerstones” and Latter-day Saint Folklore

Midjourney: Mormon missionaries and a dark spirit, in the style of Greg Olsen. (Because why not.)

My memories of childhood “I swear my uncle heard that…” fantastic stories are still fresh enough in my memory for me to associate folklore and urban legends with a sort of enchanting nostalgia of a more magical time before devices where we’d gather around the campfire to share stories. Where my friend said it happened to his uncle, and my friend wouldn’t lie, so ipso facto of course Bloody Mary is going to crawl out of the mirror to try to rip out my eyes.

While I’m uncomfortable with people conflating Mormon cultural tidbits with the gospel of Jesus Christ, at the end of the day it is my culture, and missions in particular seem like a perfect little laboratory for folklore development. Like Darwin’s finches, each variation of an urban legend becomes quasi-isolated within the mission boundaries and adds local flavor and variation.

Mormon folklorist is one of (many) things I would absolutely love to do full-time in a parallel life if I didn’t have a large family and had to buy an awful lot of cheddar, and the chances of obtaining an R1 TT anthropology position wasn’t akin to being drafted into the NFL (if you think through the numbers involved you’ll find I’m not exaggerating).

Still, BYU faculty couple Christine and Christopher Blythe have pulled it off, and have started a very addictive podcast on Mormon folklore called “Angels and Seerstones.” This is especially impressive since “Mormon folklore podcast host” isn’t typically something that goes in a tenure file, so this is a labor of love. So far they have episodes on:

  • Missionaries and supernatural assault

  • Joseph Smith’s martyrdom canes

  • Prayer circles outside the temple

  • Spirit children

  • Ted Bundy Lore

  • Sleep paralysis

  • Angelic music

  • Moroni lore

  • Wayward missionaries

A few asides from me:

  • I consider myself somewhat familiar with the interesting odds and ends of Church history, so I’m surprised I had never heard of the “martyrdom canes” before. The parallels with other religious traditions that have relics attached to saint-like figures is obvious.

  • I heard the “quorum of the 12 apostates” thing in my visa-waiting mission in Las Vegas. Of course, I had no idea that that was a common trope across missions.

  • Same thing with the “many moons ago half the mission went on a sex trip to Thailand and were excommunicated” type stories. I had heard this one so often I just thought that a lot of missions in the 80s were apostate.

  • If I’m remembering correctly, my mother did know or was acquainted with either a Ted Bundy victim or somebody who escaped, but she actually did attend Bountiful or Viewmont High around the time when he kidnapped one of the students there, so my personal experience of “Ted Bundy folklore” might be more based in fact.

  • W. Paul Reeve and Michael Van Wagenen’s Between Pulpit and Pew is a highly recommended book on Mormon folklore.

  • Evidently there’s a Mormon folklore archives at BYU that collects these sorts of stories. Given our penchant as a record-keeping people there is clearly another book or series of books on the subject that is waiting to be written. Errant missionary folklore alone could easily be a monograph.

  • It is worth noting that just because something is “folklore,” doesn’t mean it isn’t fact-based. Academically speaking “folklore” covers actual practices and items of material culture, not just urban legends.

  • Finally, a list of other potential Mormon folklore topics. I’m not telling the Blythes what to do, I’m sure they get suggestions all the time and don’t have the bandwidth to address them all, but FWIW these are a few of mine:

Finally, this is less directly related with Mormon folklore per se, but it’s a fun story so I’m going to exercise OP privilege. I suspect that because the “Mormon Corridor” region tends to be fairly efficient and high functioning in terms of service provisioning we don’t really have a lot of abandoned buildings or, say, overgrown cemeteries with crooked tombstones that look like the cemeteries in Disney Halloween cartoons. This is great for lower street crime and the like but not so great for homegrown folklore. (In contrast, I currently live close to an abandoned asylum, which makes for some great shots–also, Utah’s general lack of fog doesn’t help).

The only abandoned building I can recall growing up was on a corner across the street from Harmons in Orem. It was a dilapidated haunted-house looking manor, and there were rumors that it was used for animal sacrifices. It had been boarded up, but some friends found out that there was a small opening in one of the doors, so sometime during high school we got a group together and crawled in with flashlights at night. It was almost like a parody of a horror movie, with the different nervously giggling subgroups getting separated and losing each other, but we eventually made our way to the upper floor (nobody dared go into the basement), where our flashlights revealed a large room with 666s and “welcome to my nightmare” graffitied all over the walls and ceiling. At this point the tension got a little too much and we hurriedly made our way out. Our heart rates had just started coming down when I heard “Stephen, your calf is covered in blood!” And sure enough my sock was soaked crimson. (Apparently I had cut myself while crawling through the hole, for one last jump of the night.) Later we told some other kids from the Teacher’s Quorum about it, and they tried to do the same thing but were spotted and cops were waiting for them when they came out.

32 comments for ““Angels and Seerstones” and Latter-day Saint Folklore

  1. Just going to note that Between Pulpit and Pew is an anthology and Matthew Bowman has one chapter in it on Cain/Bigfoot. The volume editors are W. Paul Reeve and Michael Van Wagenen.

  2. Jonathan: Of course, I forgot about the Provo Academy building! That was sitting derelict for quite a while.

    Orsonite: Thanks for the catch! I corrected it.

  3. I’ve loved Mormon folklore since before my mission and have learned alot of it over the years. My parents are converts, and I grew up being the first to embrace Mormon legends and folklore
    I am also glad I grabbed a copy of Saints of Sage and Saddle: Folklore among the Mormons, one of the seminal original works in the field by Austin and Alta Fife.
    Exposed me to a lot issues in Church history before those were blown up in the last twenty years. Helped me understand things and keep me steadfast. I think if more people had such expourse from a young age we wouldn’t have as many fall away. Those thoughts for a different day.

  4. I recall an urban legend about missionaries where a pair of elders marries a pair of sisters and then keep proselyting as couple missionaries until the MP finds out and sends them home.

    I heard this one so many times from so many missionaries from so many different missions (and it was always two or three MPs back), I decided it was clearly a myth, because there was no way it was THAT widespread.

    So, one missionary starts repeating the story, and I say it’s a legend and likely didn’t happen, or at least not in our mission that recently.

    I really pissed him off. He made it his secondary mission to prove it happened, and every time I would see him after that, he’d be all “I talked to [X number of people] who swore it happened!” and I would be “do we have names? Any of these people first hand witnesses? Is this ‘friend of a friend’?”

    It would just make him angrier. I couldn’t figure out why he cared so much about if the story was true,

    Of course, I was young and dumb then. Nowadays, I’d just nod my head and be all “interesting” and leave it at that, just to avoid any contention over it. People get really attached to their legends.

  5. Also, LDS author Larry Correia has the Bear Lake monster in one of his “Monster Hunter International” short stories – “Blood on the Water.” (Wilford Woodruff hires Bubba Shackelford’s Professional Monster Hunters to deal with it). He co-wrote that particular story with his daughter.

  6. As I recall, Parley P. Pratt lists the horrible deaths of Joseph Smith’s murderers in some detail in his autobiography. My impression is that little or none of it is accurate, but I presume he didn’t just make it up so it would be very interesting to hear how those stories got started so quickly.

    Another one: the three teens who died after carrying members of the Martin Handcart Company across the half-frozen Sweetwater River. (Narrator voice: They didn’t.)

  7. Speaking of the old Provo Academy Building, I have some history with it. For starters, I lived in the old women’s gym with 139 other missionaries for a few days when they kicked us out of Heritage Halls. This was before the MTC was built, and they needed space. Imagine 140 missionaries sleeping in the old gymnasium with two toilets, two sinks, and a handful of shower heads, half of which didn’t work. Then, when I was a student, I lived across 100 East from the Academy for a couple of years. I used to go over at night and visit the big guard dogs that roamed the property. They loved to get their ears scratched through the chainlink. I don’t think they would have been so friendly if I’d tried climbing over the fence, though.

  8. On my mission (in Italy) a number of people shared that a plane had crashed and all the people died and were burned beyond recognition. However, two people were able to be identified because their garments were not burned and kept their bodies, underneath the garments, safe.

    I never understood the logic of this folktale. God asks us to wear garments to protect us, but these people still died, their arms, legs (below the knees) and heads were all burnt up, but the torso was untouched. How is that protecting them? It would make more sense that the garments burned along with the bodies to keep them unseen and sacred. It just goes to show that logic can go out the door with good folklore.

  9. I love folklore. Utah State University has its own folklore archive for Latter-day Saint stuff that I spent way too much of my free time in college exploring. I’ve thought about sharing some of the folklore I’ve come across in posts.

    We had the quorum of the twelve apostates story in my mission too, which (in the stories) had been dismantled by the previous mission president. What made me laugh was that a member in my last area had served a mission in the same mission as me during that mission president’s time told us the same story, but of course with it being the mission president before his time. That being said, one of my less reputable companions did claim to be involved in some sort of reconstituted quorum of apostates. I never knew if I should believe him, but it would be an interesting case of lore creating reality.

  10. What?! No Three Nephites?

    There was a book written on the deaths of Joseph’s Smith’s that was largely apocryphal. It was still being cited in Adult Sunday School classes years after it was published. The title: “The Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith”, by N. B. Lundwall.

  11. @ Once more into the breach: I forgot about “Saints of Sage and Saddle,” but that’s an excellent work as well.

    @Ivan: The married sisters and elders one is actually completely new to me; I’ll have to tell the missionaries in our ward to get it going again;)

    @RLD: I heard that they died *later on in life* of their physical ailments from the rescue; is that true?

    @ Tom: Fascinating!

    @Gilgamesh: Never heard that one before, but that sounds like the “they were burned around the garment but survived” stories, to which I should say I’m not theologically opposed to some of them being factual, but I’m also open to a lot of them being urban legends.

    @Chad Nielsen: The “Quorum of the 12 apostates” would be easy enough for some missionaries to actually adopt, so I could see that happening like the rock bands putting messages into their music played backwards after the urban legends came out about it. FWIW, I heard it directly from someone who knew them (of course, to you readers this is a classic “friend of a friend”). The secret societies with beads sewn into their garments thing is a bit of a stretch, but sure, you could get a couple of disobedient missionaries who get referred to as the Quorum of the 12 apostates.

  12. @Old Man: Thanks for the heads up about the book. Of course, like the Mummy’s Curse, I’m sure that many of the killers did meet gruesome fates, but a lot of that is because in the 19th century just about everybody met a painful death from kidney stones or whatever.

  13. “The evidence indicates that more than three rescuers braved the icy water that day. Of those positively identified as being involved in the Sweetwater crossing, none were exactly eighteen. Although these rescuers helped a great many of the handcart pioneers across the river, they carried only a portion of the company across. While some of these rescuers complained of health problems that resulted from the experience, most lived long and active lives that terminated in deaths that cannot be definitively attributed to their exposure to the icy water that day.”

    Chad Orton, https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/the-martin-handcart-company-at-the-sweetwater-another-look/

  14. Like “old man” mentioned, seems like every family in early church history had a “3 nephites” story, including my own family. It was like a right of passage or “we must be favored in God’s eyes” type of thing. You were on track if the nephites knocked on your door.

    The crazy one I recall from my mission was about an Elder that was allegedly found levitating above his bed (devils grasp) and things like “he was alone too long in the room” or “he didn’t pray over his breakfast burrito” or some other really random simple act caused the missionary to become the devils play toy. Obviously meant to keep the listener in the exact obedience camp. Missionaries ate this stuff up!

    One of my sons had one on his mission that was going around…that Adam was in fact The Holy Ghost. (at least I think that’s what it was)

    Not “Church-wide” folklore but all I got.

  15. I received a mission call in 1999 to the China Hong Kong Mission (previously the Hong Kong mission but the name was changed after the turnover in 1997).

    Every time I went mission shopping in the Salt Lake Valley and people would ask me where I was called, they would tell a story about how they knew someone who opened their mission call only to find a phone number. Said phone number connected them to President Hinckley who told them they were going to China on a service mission. I’m not aware this service mission actually existed.

    I also had to endure a number of companions who were positive that China would open during our stint of service due to some vaguery in their patriarchal blessing. Fast forward 22 years, and here we are.

    Our faith tradition has strong connections to mysticism so the folklore isn’t surprising.

  16. Stephen, if you’re talking about the old Stratton mansion that was located at the corner of 800N and 800E in Orem — across from the Harmons — I lived there from 93 to 97. It was an awesome structure–nothing spooky about it–that is, while people were living there.

    How about “prophet in the elevator” stories?

  17. Stephen, thanks so much for your support. This was such a cool surprise to read this post. Plus, your suggestions are great – I really like the idea of looking at claims that patriarchal blessings predict people will be church presidents… !

  18. I have two to add:
    1) Before my mission lots of “friends of a friend” were getting patriarchal blessings saying they would not have a chance to serve a mission due to military service or some sort of apocalyptic event.

    2) on my mission I heard a story of a set of elders who had their laundry done. When they returned to pick it up, their garments were hung up for display. They told their mission president who went to the site, “ shook the dust off his feet “ and the place burned to the ground within a week.

    I love these stories. They always make me laugh.

  19. Chad and RLD: Thanks!

    Rec911:That seems like a weird derivative of Adam-God theory; interesting.

    Chadwick: Ah yes, the China-is-opening-up, secret mission calls legend is a whole corpus of folklore in itself.

    Jack: I think we’re talking about the same building–the one on the northeast corner? (Since if my memory of 1990s Orem geography serves me–not a sure thing–the other corner was their store, the other corner was orchards/Harmons, and the other corner was the small house where the hired help lived). I could see how it could be a charming house before it fell into disrepair, but yes, it was plenty scary afterwards.

    Never heard of the “prophet in the elevator,” is that somebody just bumping into the prophet in an elevator at their local library or something?

    Christopher Blythe: Of course!

    Dr. Cocoa: It seems like the off-kilter patriarchal blessing is another common genre. I know that at least a while ago that stake presidents were assigned to read patriarchal blessings as a check on the patriarch to make sure they weren’t off. With the thousand of patriarchs in the Church I’m sure there have been some actual doozies.

    Ditto with the “shaking off dust off the feet,” There is some early history to this if I recall, but it’s kind of like speaking in tongues, and was never formalized into an formal ordinance, which is what is implied in the urban legends.

  20. The “prophet in the elevator” story I’m familiar with is person just happens to be in the Church Office Building, person happens to share an elevator with the prophet, prophet warns them to be sure to get their food storage. Another entry in the “private warning of the coming apocalypse (now made public)” genre.

  21. I don’t know if this has been listed, but I found out recently that the angel with the sword threatening to destroy Joseph if he didn’t start polygamy is more of a folklore legend than a verified and recorded event.

  22. Another common mission folk tale could be called “missionaries go on a long trip, get in trouble”. In my mission, supposedly the mission president and his wife visit Bariloche, a ski resort in the Argentine Andes, and run across two missionaries assigned to Buenos Aires who are there on unauthorized sightseeing trip. I had a roommate at BYU who told me about two elders and two sisters from his mission (Switzerland) who rent a car and go on a multi-country joy ride. The car breaks down in Cairo and they have to call for help. Another variant is the mission president is watching a New Year’s Day bowl game and the camera pans to two of his missionaries, from out of area, in the stands watching the game.

  23. Stephen C,

    Yep–that’s the building.


    That’s the story that I’m familiar with–only the people in the elevator are a newly married couple and the prophet counsels them to take the money they’ve saved for their honeymoon and use it to start their food storage instead.

  24. 1) Prophet in elevator–many many years ago (early 1980s?) when Ezra Taft Benson was Church president, a story made the rounds (I heard it in Ohio) that he visited BYU in November or December. While chatting to a random student (figure the odds!), she excitedly told him that she was on her way to buy Christmas presents for her family. He rebuked her and said she should spend the money on food storage. This was told to us in all seriousness as to why we needed to immediately focus on preparing for the horrible things to come.
    2) Unauthorized missionary travel–way back in the time before General Conference was broadcast outside of Utah (late 1960s? early 1970s?) the story was that two missionaries decided to leave their area (probably in New York state, where my family lived) and go to Salt Lake City for GC. Everything went well until the Ensign magazine featuring that GC came out–and there they clearly were, easily identified, in a crowd photo! The mission president was not happy.

  25. See Saints of Sage and Saddle by Austin Fife… most of these stories we covered in the Mormon Folklore class at BYU back in the ancient days (mid 1980s)

  26. Chris and Christine Blythe are old friends. Nice to see them get some recognition here (and elsewhere). They’re good people.

    I also have a connection to the victim of Ted Bundy mentioned in the Viewmont High School Wikipedia article referenced. Debra Kent was a second cousin of mine and the firstborn great-grandchild on that (Heninger) side of the family (our paternal grandmothers were sisters). My parents were married the same month as the incident (November 1974), so it happened before I was born. I’ve never really heard other family members talk about the incident, although it seems like my parents may have taken a little more notice when Bundy was executed. I didn’t know the Kent family well, and hadn’t yet learned her story when I attended her grandmother’s funeral in 2001 (who, interestingly to me, would have only been 38 when her granddaughter was born). I only found out about the story and my connection to it from the internet. I note on FamilySearch that her mother passed away in June (2023) (https://www.familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/fanchart/LTZZ-SM7), so now all of her parents and grandparents have also passed on. The last two surviving sisters of our grandmothers also passed on this year.

    Another connection–around 2005, when I was living in Salt Lake and attending the University 6th Ward, a speaker once talked about some interesting records they had found there. Ted Bundy was listed as having been a Sunday School Teacher in that ward and sometime earlier, Elder Neal A. Maxwell had served as a bishop there. So interestingly, that ward had had members from the worst and the best of human society.

  27. The Ted Bundy victim actually isn’t folklore. My mother went to school with her at Viewmont and lived in the girl’s stake. The girl’s name was Debbie Kent.

  28. Yes, and they point that out in the episode. Ted Bundy was indeed active in Utah during that time and murdered Debbie Kent while in Utah. The folklore comes from all the people in Utah who claim to know a member who got away, which is probably a lot more than the actual number.

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