Apostates and Witches

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 generally implied, not stated, but it is indeed implied when 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.


Apostates and Witches — 3 Comments

  1. This is a really interesting connection, Dave. I like your conclusion that sometimes people just disagree, and that it’s too convenient to decide that anyone who disagrees must be deceived by Satan.

  2. You jumped right over part of Korihor’s story:

    “And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms.”

    If your labeling of Korihor as a witch is correct, if he had “actual intercourse with evil spirits,” that does not apply to his followers who did not interact with evil spirits directly, but were instead deceived by Korihor’s false teachings.

    I would be greatly astonished to learn that anybody I know believes that dissenters or apostates have been engaging in “actual intercourse with evil spirits.” For myself, I reject the accusation that I see those with whom I disagree religiously as witches by any definition, including what you outline here. Rather, I’m inclined to believe that those with whom I disagree are poorly informed, or misunderstand, or have been deceived, like Korihor’s followers, by listening to false voices, some of whom may be entirely sincere or logical, but still false. Because I believe that Satan is ultimately the source of false ideas, I suppose that means I do believe that those who are religiously wrong *are* deceived by Satan — but at five or ten or a hundred steps removed, not because they have been directly communing with devils. That distance makes a huge difference, and you have entirely overlooked it in order to champion dissent.

    I disagree with you, but I don’t think you are a witch.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Ardis.

    I believe that religious questions of faith and belief are ones that reasonable men and women can disagree on. [That seems empirically evident from the fact that the world is full of reasonable men and women who hold a wide variety of religious opinions and beliefs.] I would like to think that you agree with that proposition as well, and your last sentence suggests you want to agree with that proposition.

    But here is the problem. You explain: “Because I believe that Satan is ultimately the source of false ideas, I suppose that means I do believe that those who are religiously wrong *are* deceived by Satan ….”

    I am not aiming any argument at you personally (I certainly didn’t accuse you of anything) but your comment does seem to reflect the split thinking many Mormons bring to this issue. On the one hand Mormons endorse religious freedom and free agency and the idea that there are many good people in other denominations and other religions. But five minutes later they can be found talking about Satan being abroad in the land, spreading false ideas, deceiving even the elect, and explaining that those who exit the Church or who hold different religious ideas or different views of LDS doctrine and practice are, as you phrase it, “deceived by Satan.” You can’t really have it both ways.