Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » MHA: Guest Post: Of Gifts and Rods and “Things of Nature”

MHA: Guest Post: Of Gifts and Rods and “Things of Nature”

By: Clair Barrus - May 27, 2011

Due to internet connection problems, I have been unable to post these MHA teasers as expected in advance of the MHA annual meeting which gets into full swing today in St. George, Utah. This morning, enjoy a glimpse of one of the unusual topics that helps to explain why Mormon historians need a venue like MHA in which to present their interests. — AEP

On April 5th, 1829 Oliver Cowdery met Joseph Smith, and began recording dictations on April 7th as Joseph Smith translated the gold plates through his seerstone. Oliver had a rod in his possession through which he had been receiving revelations [D&C 8:6,12] and later that month, Joseph Smith received revelations through his seerstone related to Cowdery’s rod and his desire to become a translator.

Oliver’s “gift” is given several titles through the different versions of D&C 8: “the sprout” / “the rod” / “thing of nature” / “rod of Nature” / “the gift of Aaron.” A look at other uses of these titles from the 18th and early 19th centuries suggests these terms are related to divining rods.

Rod of Nature

One author describes “natural rod” as the physical rod owned by Moses which symbolizes spiritual aspects of the rod. “… the law of Moses is a spiritual rod, and the natural rod that he bore was an emblem or symbol of the law. Hence analogy, which measures both spirituals and temporals, and compares them together.”

Elsewhere, “Nature’s rod” is portrayed as an idolatrous treasure seeking rod as this 1812 Irish poem denotes.

See yonder woods their treasur’d vaults unfold!

Where cavern’d miners toil for tempting gold,

Who from the deep emit rich mineral ore,

And crown’d with plenty, labour still for more.

The world’s idolaters — tam’d Nature’s rod

Who cringe to Man, regardless of their God.

Who hunt out gold, as tigers hunt their prey

promise, to break, and flatter, to betray.

Thing of Nature

The title “thing of nature” could be related to the phrase “hidden things of nature” which was used to contrast unknown aspects of the natural world against the spiritual world, including divining rods. Lord Bacon said it is OK to explore “the hidden things of nature,” but don’t be fooled by “the divining rod, which they think is highly serviceable to religion”.

An authoritative Bible dictionary from the early 19th century defined “rod” as also meaning “wand.” Joseph Smith’s Uncle Jessee also equated “wand” to “rod” when condemning Joseph Smith Sr.’s use of a rod in 1829.” “Thing of nature” and “rod of nature” could be related to “wand of nature.” One author refers to a magician’s “wand of nature” in reference a nameless “apparition” from the land of spirits, which rises and descends due to a “spell-muttering crew. Treasure seeking with rods often included rituals to control spirits who guarded buried treasure.


That same bible dictionary defines “rod” as also meaning “sprout.” A 1693 book on the divining rod also equates a divining rod with the word “sprout.” “They take a long sprout of hazel … and when they pass over a water source, the rod turns and the arc twists toward the ground.

An 1826 convention 45 miles from Joseph Smith’s home published an expose of Royal Arch Masonry, which equates “sprout” with the Rod of Aaron. A High Priest takes “a bit of an apple tree sprout, a few inches long, with some withered buds upon it, or a stick of a similar length with some artificial buds upon it, which, after consulting with the King and Scribe, he pronounces Aaron’s rod.”

Rod of Aaron

“Rod of Aaron” has been used since at least the 1700s to describe divining rods. Stephen Davis (“The Old Rodsman”) lived in Palmyra, NY in 1813 a few years before the Smith family arrived. An account of his treasure seeking activities states:

From the earliest ages there has been an implicit belief in the powers and virtues of the Divining Rod — either for the discovery of water, mines, or hidden treasures. This belief, it would seem, has originated from the wonderful powers of the miraculous rod in the hands of Moses and Aaron, imparted to it by the Almighty.”The United States Democratic review, “A history of the Divining Rod; with the Adventures of an Old Rodsman,”

Gift of Aaron

The phrase “gift of Aaron” does not exist in common Old Testament translations based on Masoretic Hebrew texts. However the Septuagint uses the phrase when speaking of the anointing of Aaron to the priesthood, “Moreover the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, This is the gift of Aaron and his sons, which they shall offer to the Lord, on the day when thou shalt anoint him.” [Lev 6:19-20] Some evidence suggests Joseph Smith had access to the Septuagint.

It seems evident from 18th and 19th century historical use of the terms “rod,” “sprout,” “hidden things of nature,” “nature’s rod,” “natural rod” and “rod of Aaron” that the various titles of Oliver’s gift point to the divining rod commonly used in treasure seeking. Like the revelations’ discussion of Oliver’s gift, “hidden things of nature” implies a natural and spiritual component. D&C 6 and 8 caution Cowdery to use his gift properly. Perhaps instead of seeking for buried riches and treasure, he is instead to seek after spiritual riches and treasures. “Seek not for riches but for wisdom.” “[D]esire to lay up treasures for yourself in heaven.” [D&C 6:7, 27]

While “Rod of Aaron” is not used in the text of the revelation, a reasonable implication can be made that Oliver had a (or the) Rod of Aaron in that the various titles of his gift are tied to divining rods, that “Rod of Aaron” was also a title for divining rods, and that the final title of his gift is “gift of Aaron.” Note also that Oliver’s gift of the rod is the topic of these verses and that the final title’s use of “gift” is redundant. A variant reading could be that Oliver’s gift (rod) is “of Aaron.”



  1. Cool. I’ve mentioned on Juvenile Instructor that my father-in-law, an engineer, showed me how to dowse a number of years ago and I found the water lines under his property. I think we used an old coat hanger or something of that sort. I’ll have to remember to quiz him about the details when I’m visiting next month.

    And it’s too bad we didn’t know all these details about the history of dowsing in early Mormonism, or we could have performed a religious ceremony or said a poem over the dowsing rod before setting out to find the water. : )

    Thanks for the post, Clair. Best wishes with your presentation.

    Comment by Researcher — May 27, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  2. Thanks researcher.

    Comment by Clair — May 31, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

  3. My grandfather was a dowser, who used a forked willow rod to find water and even natural gas lines, as well as good places to dig for water. He preferred not to use coat hanger wire because, he said, sometimes it would bend down so far that it wouldn’t come back up.

    When we asked him, he would put his arms around his grandchildren and let us hold the willow rod. You could feel the forks twisting down and then coming back up as we walked over the ground together.

    As I recollect, he told us that neighbors in both Orem and Marysvale, where he grew up, asked him to dowse for them.

    Comment by Steve — June 1, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

  4. Very interesting. (I am not wearing a German WW2 helmet and peeking through bushes when I say this, like from laugh-in). This rod of nature thing and also the dowsing or water-witching as we called it, stirred up some memories.

    While my wife and I were serving inthe Church History Library as CSM’s, we were given research assigments to prepare responses to questions submitted by people. She got an assignment to research a question about “the rod of nature” used by Heber C. Kimball. I have a thick file of the material she dug up. From the file, it seems Kimball described the rod saying he used this rod “about three and a half feet in length given him by Joseph Smith.” Entry 25 Jan. 1845. The fle includes a 29 page article from BYU Studies written by Richard Lloyd Anderson titled: “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching.” Of the 200 (guess) researches we did, this file is only exceeded in size by the history of the Church in Oklahoma and a similar history of the Church in Spain.

    As to witching, I will never try it again. When the shallow well at the old home place in Idaho(wife’s family) became contaminated by a dairy up he street, we called in a driller to go down 100 feet to fresh water. The brothers-in-law got two welding rods, bent about four inches at right angles and walked around holding them with the long sections parallel in front. Nothing happened for any of them so they asked me to try it. Reluctantly, I walked all over the about half acre lot and as soon as I stepped a couple of feet, the rods almost twisted out of my hands, crossing in front of me. There was water everywhere. Now other members of the family want me to witch the lots they have purchased in that small (90 folks) town to locate their well sites. Sure, and if they get a dry hole, who is at fault.

    Comment by CurtA — June 1, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

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