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Witchcraft

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 27, 2010

From Joseph F. Smith –

The reason for these words of admonition and counsel to the Saints will appear from the following extract taken from a letter of one of the stake presidents, dated August 9th, 1902:

“In the —– Ward of this stake there was a sister who has been confined to her bed in sickness for nearly six years, and recently her father, who is a prominent and a very good man in that community, was persuaded to believe that his daughter was bewitched, and through the persuasions of friends in Logan and Salt Lake consulted a woman in Salt Lake City, who informed him that his daughter was bewitched, and assumed to describe the persons who had placed the spell upon her. The description seemed to agree exactly with that of a brother and sister residing in the ward, both of whom are considered among the best people of the Church in that community. This brother seemed to doubt the statements of the woman, and in order to satisfy him perfectly she proposed to show him their faces in her ‘glass’ or ‘peep stone,’ which she did with the desired result. He was convinced, and on returning home explained matters in detail to his family and friends, and the sensation spread steadily until now the ward is greatly agitated and the story is being told and to some extent believed in other wards in this stake as well as in —–.

“The persons accused of this dreadful thing object to the stigma and have entered a complaint in the Bishop’s court against the father of the sick lady. I made them a visit recently, heard the matter fully, and strongly advised all parties concerned against believing in such a false theory as that known as witchcraft, but the matter seemed to have gained such a stronghold upon many that it appears difficult to root it out; and yesterday another lady came from the same ward to see me about her husband, who has been sick for about a year, and she says the people tell her he is bewitched.”

After all the horrors, persecutions, and cruelties that have been brought about by the senseless belief in witchcraft, it seems strange in this age of enlightenment that men or women, especially those who have received the Gospel, can be found anywhere who believe in such a pernicious superstition. The Bible and history alike conclusively brand the superstition as a child of evil. In ancient times God required the Israelites to drive the Canaanites from their land, and witchcraft was one of the crimes which He laid at the door of the Canaanites, and for which they were adjudged unworthy of the land that they possessed. Reference to this effect will be found in the 18th chapter of Deuteronomy, verses 9-14 inclusive. They read as follows:

“When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee. Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God. For these nations which thou shalt possess hearken unto observers of times, and unto diviners; but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.”

Witchcraft has not infrequently been the last resort of the evil doer. Men bereft of the Spirit of God, when the voice of the Lord has ceased to warn them have frequently resorted to witchcraft, in the endeavor to learn that which heaven withheld, and the people of God from very early days to the present have been troubled with superstitious and evil-minded persons who have resorted to divination and kindred devices for selfish purposes, and scheming designs. In the middle ages it rested like a nightmare upon all Christendom. Even such a man as John Wesley, the great reformer, in 1768, wrote: “The giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible.” There are many now who undertake to predicate their practice of this superstition upon the authority of the Bible, and use Saul and Baalam as examples.

The spirit of witchcraft is destructive of the spirit of enlightenment, and no men or women who indulge in it can enjoy the Spirit of God. It is not only the enemy of religion, but it is the enemy of civil liberty.

This country in the years 1691-2 had a taste of its destructive influence in the Salem witchcraft epidemic. According to the laws of the Church and the laws of the land, men and women are entitled to meet their accusers, and before aught can be proved against them, trustworthy witnesses must be produced. The Gospel and the laws of the land alike guard men and women against accusations of secret origin and from the superstitious practices of witchcraft or necromancy. Church discipline will not tolerate that men or women accuse their brethren upon no higher authority than the superstitious cunning of a man or woman who practices the occult art of witchcraft.

There are doubtless some in our larger cities who would gladly play upon the superstitions and ignorance of those of our brethren and sisters who are weak-minded enough to consult those who deal in magic. The sooner our people cease the practice of consulting these pretended magicians, either to have their fortunes told, or to get information from an unknown world, by which to accuse their brethren and sisters of bewitching people, the better it will be for the peace of those communities afflicted by such superstition and ignorance. A believer in witchcraft and a few credulous followers in a community can make no end of trouble.

If belief in witchcraft ever did one particle of good in the world, there might be a little plausible excuse for its existence. From the beginning it has been destructive of human happiness and human progress, and the Saints must not permit its baneful influence to sap the foundations of their belief in God and in the authority of His Priesthood.

Let it not be forgotten that the evil one has great power in the earth, and that by every possible means he seeks to darken the minds of men and then offers them falsehood and deception in the guise of truth. Satan is a skillful imitator, and as genuine gospel truth is given the world in ever-increasing abundance, so he spreads the counterfeit coin of false doctrine. Beware of his spurious currency, it will purchase for you nothing but disappointment, misery and spiritual death. The “father of lies” he has been called, and such an adept has he become through the ages of practice in his nefarious work, that were it possible he would deceive the very elect.

Men and women, so-called wizards and witches, fortune-tellers, clairvoyants and necromancers, who have become subject to the powers of the devil and are leagued with him in the work of deception among their fellows, do possess a power, which, gauged by the more common of natural laws, appears supernatural. The weak and doubting ones are dazzled by these manifestations of super-human agencies, and are readily made to believe that such are of divine origin.

One of our people, a man of scientific thought and training, recently made an examination of some of the “peep stones” employed by necromancers in this community, including the stones used by the woman referred to in the foregoing communication. He found some of these marvelous stones to be ordinary quartz crystals, while one was an irregular lump of common glass. He questioned the users of the “peep stones” and investigated their methods of procedure, and demonstrated to his own complete satisfaction, as well as that of others, who were present, as also to the discomfiture of the “mediums,” the deception that was being practiced and the evil power there manifest.

Those who turn to soothsayers and wizards for their information are invariably weakening in their faith. When men began to forget the God of their fathers who had declared Himself in Eden and subsequently to the later patriarchs, they accepted the devil’s substitute and made for themselves gods of wood and stone. It was thus that the abominations of idolatry had their origin.

The gifts of the Spirit and the powers of the holy Priesthood are of God, they are given for the blessing of the people, for their encouragement and for the strengthening of their faith. This Satan knows full well, therefore he seeks by imitation-miracles to blind and deceive the children of God. Remember what the magicians of Egypt accomplished in their efforts to deceive Pharaoh as to the divinity of the mission of Moses and Aaron. John the Revelator saw in vision the miracle-working power of the evil one. Note his words: “And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; * * * and he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles,” etc. (Rev. 13:11-14). Further John saw three unclean spirits whom he describes as “the spirits of devils working miracles.” (Rev. 16:13-14).

That the power to work wonders may come from an evil source is declared by Christ in His prophecy regarding the great judgment: “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me ye that work iniquity.” (Matt. 7;22-23).

The danger and power for evil in witchcraft is not so much in the witchcraft itself as in the foolish credulence that superstitious people give to the claims made in its behalf. It is outrageous to believe that the devil can hurt or injure an innocent man or woman, especially if they are members of the Church of Christ – without that man or woman has faith that he or she can be harmed by such an influence and by such means. If they entertain such an idea, then, they are liable to succumb to their own superstitions.

There is no power in witchcraft itself only as it is believed in and accepted.



18 Comments »

  1. belief in occult stuff was big back then. I guess Joseph F Smith would never have watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, eh?

    Comment by Dan — August 27, 2010 @ 7:34 am

  2. There is no power in witchcraft itself only as it is believed in and accepted.

    I agree, generally speaking, but I wonder about other applications of this principle. There are many verses in our canon that say the same basic thing about faith and the Priesthood.

    Comment by Ray — August 27, 2010 @ 8:29 am

  3. I liked how Joseph F. Smith appealed to scripture, reason, science, history and faith in this essay. What an interesting man — with one foot in the 19th-century and one foot in modernity. The more I learn about him and his times, the more I respect him.

    Anyhow, good advice here for us today. Superstition is still rampant, in my experience.

    Comment by David Y. — August 27, 2010 @ 8:37 am

  4. This is extraordinary on many, many levels. A goldmine really. Thanks for posting it Ardis. It represents a tremendous shift in Mormon relations to science and magic. I wonder if the scientist took a look at the seerstones?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 27, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  5. As I read the New Testament accounts of the many “afflicted with devils,” and the still-practiced ordinance of casting them out, I can see how, perhaps, the father of the sick girl came to believe supernatural powers were at play.

    With this as background, I find it interesting that JFS is so clear that there is no power in witchcraft.

    Comment by Clark — August 27, 2010 @ 10:29 am

  6. So can I use this to back my assertion that my fellow ward members who banned the Harry Potter books were a little overboard?

    Comment by Clark — August 27, 2010 @ 10:29 am

  7. Very interesting piece, Ardis. As I read it, I thought of Eugene England’s essay “Spectral Evidence”, which is only partly relevant to this topic, but does seem hugely relevant when I think about our political dialogue these days.

    I like Pres. Smith’s explanation that Lucifer has no power over us except what we grant him. Good advice for any time.

    Comment by kevinf — August 27, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  8. Also was wondering if the timing of this post had any connection to the nationwide opening of the new movie, “The Last Exorcism”?

    Comment by kevinf — August 27, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  9. No, kevinf, I’m not plugged in enough to know about the opening of any film with that title. Fun to know, though, that I can be accidentally timely!

    I just liked this piece, partly because it shocked me that any Mormon ward could have believed in classic witchcraft at the turn of the last century, and partly because JFS appealed to so many types of evidence, as David Y. said, to make his case. I was also impressed that he gave not a hint that witchcraft was a female thing, either as believers or practitioners — his opening example may have been a woman, but there’s no whiff of making the issue one of controlling or objecting to women’s behavior, when modern proponents of the occult frequently claim that suppression of witchcraft is a feminist issue.

    Thank you for your comments, funny and serious. The breadth of topics that fall into Mormon history is amazing, isn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  10. Very nice find, Ardis. It’s interesting how “science” is used as a test or standard to evaluate and debunk witchcraft, and obviously science is not going to affirm practitioners are employing actual supernatural powers. President Smith says the power of witches, etc., “appears supernatural,” implying it isn’t really supernatural.

    But then he also says that practitioners “do possess a power” and are “leagued with [the devil] in the work of deception among their fellows.” So it is just a little unclear what his position on witchcraft is: Did he think the the couple in the ward was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft because witches, etc., are all simple deceivers and employ no supernatural power? Or did he think they were wrongly accused because they weren’t, as a matter of simple fact, witches (but someone else could have been)?

    Comment by Dave — August 27, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  11. I would have to believe that JFS was exposed to indigenous magic in Hawaii and I’ve read FP letters in the 1890s that delt fairly harshly with the lingering village seers from the earlier era.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 27, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  12. Dave, I think he meant that witches have no objective power (i.e., can’t “bewitch” someone by, say, commanding an evil spirit to possess him or by concocting a potion or casting a spell that could secretly bring a victim into the witch’s power), but that through deception (a devilish characteristic) so-called witches gain a kind of second-hand power because gullible victims submit themselves to the will of witches who would be otherwise powerless.

    I think his position is pretty clear.

    Hadn’t thought about his exposure to magical practices in Hawaii, J. — I’ll bet you’re right.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

  13. My dad had some exposure, and that was in the 1950s!

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 27, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

  14. I’m not that surprised. Just a generation before JFS, belief in magic was widespread among the very people who became members of the church. If you believe in the power of the priesthood, why not the counterfeit? I can almost see the logic. Particularly when the evidence of someone “under its influence” is right infront of you. People under duress will start to believe the oddest things.

    As a teenager I knew devote LDS adults who feared for the “very real” power of witchcraft that was leading their children away from them.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 27, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

  15. I admit that’s how many people view witchcraft and associated practices, Ardis, but I’m not sure that President Smith can go that far. If those who “have become subject to the powers of the devil and are leagued with him in the work of deception among their fellows” have no actual supernatural power other than deception, one is almost arguing that Satan has no supernatural power other than deception. But deception is not really a supernatural power, not does it even require an external agent — people deceive and confuse themselves all the time.

    So I think President Smith (and Mormons in general) are stuck on the unhappy middle ground of being unwilling to affirm the rampant exercise of supernatural power unaffiliated with the priesthood (withcraft, etc., whether formally linked to Satanic origin or not), but also unable to deny that Satan exists and exercises supernatural power.

    Comment by Dave — August 28, 2010 @ 9:46 am

  16. Your mileage varies.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 28, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  17. That reply was too flip. I’m sorry.

    I don’t doubt that JFS believed that Satan exists and exercises power (“the evil one has great power on the earth”), whether through a supernatural imitation of priesthood or through cunning and deception makes little difference.

    I think it’s saying too much to call it a “rampant exercise of supernatural power” and I think it’s reading too much into this particular article to see it as an in-depth theological analysis of the powers of evil. It seems to me to be a warning against belief in the kind of superstitious folk magic that was being practiced in “—–,” wherever that was, more than a warning against submitting to Satan to receive whatever power he might have to share. That is, I don’t see that JFS claims that the “witch of —–” has received genuine supernatural evil power from Satan — rather, he rebukes her and her gullible victims as fools who are toying with something that can lead to no good and has in the past led to great harm — in this case, the damage is to good people’s reputation rather than the fear and mayhem of his historical examples, but it’s a matter of degree rather than kind.

    I think you are unwisely trying to collapse the degree. The “unhappiness” of the middle ground disappears if you acknowledge a sliding scale of superstition based on gullibility and deception at one end and whatever real supernatural power Satan may grant to one aspiring to be Master Mahan at the other.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 28, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  18. fascinating, ardis.

    Comment by g.wesley — August 29, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

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