Friday, December 25, 2009

Hieros Gamos

The Problem of Virginal Conception[1]

In reaction to dogmatic online criticisms I've read against the LDS Church this week, I decided to post this short paper (with revisions) that I wrote several years ago.

[S]ince Celsus has introduced the Jew disputing with Jesus, and tearing in pieces, as he imagines, the fiction of His birth from a virgin, comparing the Greek fables about Danae, and Melanippe, and Auge, and Antiope, our answer is, that such language becomes a buffoon, and not one who is writing in serious tone.[2]
Many early Christians rejected the parallels non-believers drew between the Christian Nativity and paganism. While defending the event as unique and true, believers (like Origen quoted above) at times attacked the critics personally, declaring them unintelligent or insincere. Other Christians admitted that parallels indeed existed, but then asserted that the pagan similarities were the mere work of the devil. Justin the Martyr wrote, “when I hear… that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this.”[3]

Although today’s Christian scholars may not assert that pagan similarities came by way of demonic influence, most (it would seem) maintain that their Gospel is unique and distinct from paganism. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown argues that one should not draw parallels between the virginal conception and pagan myths (whether Egyptian, Greek, or Roman), since unlike the conception of Jesus, sexual intercourse is presupposed in pagan mythology. “These ‘parallels’ consistently involve a type of hieros gamos where a divine male, in human or other form, impregnates a woman, either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration,” says Brown. “[T]here is no clear example of virginal conception in the world of pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus.”[4] Thomas Boslooper likewise insists that the “The Christian formula is unique. The idea which it contains—divine conception and human birth without anthropomorphism, sensuality, or suggestion of any moral irregularity—is to be found nowhere in the literature in the world outside the canonical biblical narratives.”[5] “The story is not depicted as pagan stories,” agrees Ben Witherington III, “where a god mates with a human woman, for there is no mating involved. Jesus is a gift given to Mary through a miracle [virginal conception].”[6]

The apologetic that Christian scholars like Brown, Boslooper, and Witherington make to disassociate Christianity from paganism, is grounded upon the same un-established premise. At risk of being called insincere, a buffoon, or an agent of Satan, I argue that it is not an established fact that the New Testament teaches virginal conception.[7]

Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke give an account of the conception and birth of Jesus. Matthew begins with angel Gabriel appearing to Joseph in a dream, after he had discovered that Mary (to whom he was betrothed) was pregnant. The angel tells Joseph, “[D]o not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”[8] The author of Matthew then explains, quoting LXX (Greek Septuagint) Isaiah 7:14, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us.’”[9]

Some scholars have argued that the idea of virginal conception came about due to this Septuagint [mis]translation of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew word almah, which simply refers to a “young woman of marriageable age,” is translated into the Greek as parthenos. And since (so it is assumed) parthenos, unlike the Hebrew almah, specifically refers to virginity, it is concluded that Greek-speaking Christians must’ve derived the concept of virginal conception from this inaccurate translation. This assertion, however, is problematic for two reasons. 1) If the Greek rendering of Isaiah 7:14 indeed spoke of virginity, then we should expect to find the interpretation among Greek-speaking Jews. Such an interpretation of this passage, however, cannot be found. Raymond Brown makes this point forcefully:

Many scholars, although they know that Isaiah did not speak of a virginal conception, think that his prophecy was thus interpreted by Greek-speaking Jews (LXX of Isa 7:14) and that this explains why Hellenistic Jewish Christians phrased their ideas about the origins of God’s Son in terms of a virginal conception. But… there is no reason to believe that the LXX of Isa 7:14 either referred to a virginal conception or was so interpreted by Jews.[10]
2) Parthenos does not exclusively refer to virgins, but rather is a term even applied to rape victims. We read in LXX Genesis 34:1-4 of Shechem raping Dinah, who later told his father that he wanted the parthenos for his wife. Biblical scholar Charles D. Isbell explains, “there is simply no single word [whether almah, bethulah, neanis, or parthenos] in the language of the ancient Near East which carries in and of itself the idea of virgo intacta.”[11] There is, however, a phrase that can carry the idea. This leads us to considering the Nativity as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke.

The young woman (parthenos) Mary is informed by the angel Gabriel, “[T]hou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.”[12] Mary, seemingly confused by the news, responds, “How can this be, seeing I know not a man?”[13] This phrase indicates virginity, since “know” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.[14] Mary’s response, “I know not a man,” therefore is “the exact semantic equivalent to our English word ‘virgin.’”[15] Charles Isbell believes that Luke uses this phrase specifically to present virginal conception. “Luke is at pains to present a virgin birth doctrine,” says Isbell. “Luke relies upon specific, technical legal terminology which no one could misunderstand and which writers in the ancient world had been using in the same way for hundreds of years before this time.”[16]

Here is where Isbell and I may slightly disagree. Although I concur that Luke intends to present Mary as a virgin prior to the conception, the narrative does not say whether she remained one during and after the conception. Mary’s virginal declaration (that she had not known a man) was made prior to the event ever taking place.

There is an alternative way for translating this passage, which may shed further light on Mary’s question. Biblical scholar Jane Schaberg has translated it as, “How will [estai] this be, since I have not had sexual relations with my husband [andra]?”[17] Shcaberg prefers this translation because “it does not prejudice the reader to think immediately of an event that is considered physically impossible.” She further translates andra to “husband” (instead of “any man”) to alert the reader “to the possibility that the conception will be by someone other than Mary’s husband.”[18] Although Schaberg contends that the conception occurred through rape or seduction by another (mortal) man, the translation she gives could likewise be used to substantiate the possible scenario of Mary being impregnated sexually by deity (hieros gamos).

The angel responds to Mary’s question, saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”[19] Raymond Brown believes this passage—and others like it in Matthew—compellingly present virginal conception. “[T]he human difficulty of the virginity of Mary must be overcome by divine power in the conception of Jesus. It was creatively overcome without loss of virginity through the intervention of the Holy Spirit.”[20] “The Holy Spirit,” he says, “is the agency of God’s creative power, not a male partner in a marriage between a deity and a woman (hieros gamos).”[21] Brown remarks again, “[T]he begetting is not quasi-sexual as if God takes the place of a male principle in mating with Mary.”[22]

With these statements Brown undermines a minority view held by some, that the angel’s declaration (the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and that she’d be overshadowed by the power of the Most High[23]) carries sexual connotation.[24] Such a view was promoted by the Spanish Post-Reformation Cardinal Toletus, and the modern scholar D. Daube, who believed the phrases allude to “a rabbinic debate over Ruth 3:9 where Ruth presents herself at night to Boaz as his handmaid (cf. Luke 1:38) and asks him to spread (periballein) his mantle over her.”[25] But even if Brown is indeed correct in his judgment for rejecting this minority view (which I am convinced remains unsettled),[26] his contention that the mere involvement of the Holy Spirit indicates non-sexual conception is weak. David T. Landry explains:

The angel’s response to Mary’s objection does not provide clear guidance in this matter [of virginity], since it contains its own ambiguity…. Thus the angel’s words mention divine agency, but certainly they do not rule out the possibility that Mary will subsequently conceive a child in the normal human fashion (i.e. with a male partner [or even God himself]) with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The combination of the oddity of Mary’s words and ambiguity of the angel’s response seem to place the virginal conception in some jeopardy.[27]
The doctrine of virginal conception remains an open question in the New Testament. Since the narratives do not rule out the possibility for sexual conception, there is little (or no) scriptural basis for distinguishing the Nativity from pagan mythology.[28]


[1] Virgin birth is a phrase that is often used by Catholics and Protestants in different ways. While most Protestants use it in reference to Mary’s virginal status from the conception of Jesus to his birth, Catholics additionally use it to include their belief of Mary’s perpetual virginity after birth. I am instead using the phrase virginal conception to only refer to the common Christian view that Jesus was conceived through non-sexual and entirely supernatural means.
[2] Origen Against Celsus, Ch 37; as found in software The Complete Christian Collection (Packard Technologies, 1999).
[3] Dialogue of Justin, ch. 70; as found in software The Complete Christian Collection.
[4] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1979), 523 fn 17.
[5] Thomas Boslooper, “Jesus’ Virgin Birth and Non-Christian ‘Parallels,’” Religion and Life (Winter, 1956-57) Vol. XXVI:1, p. 96.
[6] Ben Witherington III, The New Testament Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 189.
[7] Much like Origen’s insult to Celsus, Boslooper gives the jabbing remark: “None of these ideas are at all comparable to the biblical formula. No one who is interested in scientific objectivity would call them similar.” Thomas Boslooper, 95.
[8] Matt 1:21.
[9] v. 22-23.
[10] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of The Messiah, 523-24; See also 145-49. Justin the Martyr makes note of the seemingly common Jewish interpretation of the passage, “But you [Jews] and our teachers venture to claim that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, ‘Behold, the virgin will conceive,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman will conceive, and bear a son.’” Ireneas similarly records, “The Lord Himself did save us, giving us the token of the virgin. But this was not as some allege—who presume to expound the Scripture as: ‘Behold, a young woman will conceive, and bring forth a son.’ For this as Theodotion the Ephesian has translated it, and Aquila of Pontus—both of whom are Jewish proselytes.” Tertullian notes the same: “You [the Jews] have the audacity to lie, as if the Scriptures actually said ‘a young female’ was to conceive and bring forth, rather than ‘a virgin.’”
[11] Charles D. Isbell, “Does the Gospel of Matthew Proclaim Mary’s Virginity?” Biblical Archeological Review (1977), 3:2.
[12] Luke 1:31-32.
[13] Luke 1:34.
[14] We likewise read in Matt 1:25 that Joseph “knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.” Such a statement, however, is not a denial that deity “knew her.”
[15] Charles Isbell, 30:2.
[16] Ibid.
[17] David T. Landry, Narrative Logic in the Annunciation of Mary (Luke 1:26-38), (accessed 25 December 2009).
[18] Ibid.
[19] Luke 1:35.
[20] Raymond Brown, 301.
[21] Ibid., 137.
[22] Ibid, 314.
[23] As well as Mary’s statement that the Lord had “done great things unto [her].” Luke 1:49.
[24] Barbara G. Walker writes, “Mary’s impregnation was similar to Persephone’s. In her Virgin guise, Persephone sat in a holy cave and began to weave the great tapestry of the universe, when Zeus appeared as a phallic serpent, to beget the savior Dionsus on her. Mary sat in the temple and began to spin a blood-red thread, representing Life in the tapestry of fate, when the angel Gabriel ‘came in unto her’ (Luke 1:28), the biblical phrase for sexual intercourse. Gabriel’s name means literally ‘divine husband.’” Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 1049.
[25] Raymond Brown, 290 fn 35.
[26] Joseph Fitzmyer uses rather strong language, supporting the view that both he and Brown share: “There is not the slightest evidence that either of the verbs involved has ever been used in relation to sexual activity or even more broadly in connection with the conception of a child.” As quoted by David T. Landry.
[27] Ibid. Bracketed words added by me.
[28] Bart D. Ehrman wrote, “It may be that he [Luke in particular] has modeled his portrayal of Jesus for these converts from other Greco-Roman religions. He presents the story of Jesus’ birth in a way that would make sense to a pagan reader who was conversant with tales of other divine beings who walked the face of the earth, other heroes and demigods who were born of the union of a mortal with a god.” A Brief Introduction to the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 104.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Xmas--'Tis the season to take offence?

Christmas card from David O. McKay to President Joseph F. Smith’s family, wishing them a “Merry Xmas.”

Among the several responses my recent blog post received (most of which appeared on message boards) was the following remark coming from an active Latter-day Saint: “The one thing that bugs me is people writing Xmas instead of Christmas. To me that takes Christ out of Christmas."

Sadly, the assertion echoes an attitude not all that uncommon in the LDS Church; thanks in part to the influence of Apostle Boyd K. Packer, who had expressed the same offense in a speech delivered to Brigham Young University students: “I shudder when I see the sign that says 'Merry Xmas.' It is symbolic, I suppose, of what has been done in an effort to cross Christ out of Christmas.” BYU Speeches of the Year, 1962 (delivered 19 December 1962), p. 4.

Although such claims have been debunked time and time again, every year the controversy still manages to rear its ignoramus head.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Happy Holy Days--‘Tis the season to take offence?

Last week I made the “mistake” of telling an elderly woman leaving my place of employment, “Thanks for coming in. Happy Holidays.”

She quickly shot back, “No, it is Merry Christmas!

“Yes mam. Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year,” I replied, hoping she would understand that I wasn’t excluding Christmas with the phrase, but rather was including other holidays along with it.

She reacted more frustrated than ever, shaking her head and finger (in unison, in fact), “This is about religious freedom... This is about freedom of speech... your employer has no right to tell you what to say,” yadda, yadda, yadda.

I thought, “Religion? I am agnostic. Freedom of speech? That’s ironic. Isn’t it YOU who is telling me what to say?”

But I bit my tongue.

“I’m sorry, mam. No... They didn’t tell me what to say. Merry Christmas.”

The woman’s friend (obviously embarrassed by the scene she was making) gave a disapproving nudge, and they finally made their way to the door. Just before their exit, the lady (who had previously taken offence) turned around, smiled and said, “Thank you for saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”

She left satisfied--at the expense of me feeling bullied and anything but the Christmas spirit.

Later I realized that my company’s policy actually is for their employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”


To avoid future confrontation at my place of work, I will therefore opt to say neither. For the rest of the year I will instead be telling people, “Have a great day/good night” or “Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

Are we all happy now?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brigham Young's Masonic Cipher

The following[1] entry is given in Brigham Young's diary, dated January 6th, 1842:
The characters Brigham Young used in his encrypted text are similar to this[2] Royal Arch cipher recorded in Oliver Huntington’s journal two years later, January 21, 1844:

Ciphers like this were published and circulated widely in anti-Masonic exposes in Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s day. The possible relationship between Brigham Young’s cipher and Royal Arch freemasonry is of particular interest, as it provides additional evidence to confirm that the Saints indeed had access to secrets of Royal Arch freemasonry before Joseph Smith was formally initiated (on March 15, 1842), and before the Nauvoo endowment was introduced shortly thereafter (May 4, 1842).[3]

I mentioned Brigham Young’s encrypted journal entry online recently, identifying the cipher with Royal Arch freemasonry. But to my surprise, one LDS apologist (writing under an anonymous pseudonym and claiming to be Mason) denied that the cipher Young employed was even a Royal Arch cipher at all:

Folks, this is NOT the Royal Arch cipher--no matter who says it is. There are no closed triangles in the Royal Arch cipher used all over America and most of England (only one Chapter in England of which I am aware ever used closed triangles, and that was Friendship Chapter, R.A.M., in 1769, but even these differed from what is in the above scan of the journal), nor are there intersected characters such as like a ┴ symbol therein in the Royal Arch cipher. It may be based upon a Royal Arch cipher but it is more likely based upon a similar form of cipher upon which Royal Arch cipher is derived, having a common but divergent source. Even the Royal Arch cipher is said to be based upon a previously existing cipher scheme. [4]
I asked the apologist to substantiate his claim that the cipher was “more likely based upon a similar form of cipher upon which Royal Arch cipher is derived, having a common but divergent source.” He then quoted historian Arturo de Hoyos:

The Royal Arch cipher used in the United States is actually a variation of a Hebrew Qabalistic cipher known as aiq beker or "the Qabalah of Nine Chambers." {24}


{fn. 24} Compare Francis Barrett, The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer (London: Lackington, Allen and Co., 1801), 2:65 (illus. fac. p. 66); E.A.W. Budge, Amulets and Superstitions (London: Oxford University Press, 1930), pp. 402-405; S.L. MacGregor Mathers, The Kabbalah Unvailed (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1926), p. 10. As an amusing side-note, I add that while writing the first version of this paper (1992) my then nine-year-old son presented me a message in the R.A. cipher which he hoped would confound me. When I asked him for the source he retrieved A Big Color Activity Book: Nintendo Super Mario Bros. (Racine, Wisconsin: Western Publishing Co., 1989), p. 42. So much for Masonic secrecy! [5]

As will later be seen, the apologist’s use of Arturo de Hoyos as an authority on the matter ended up biting him in the end.

He additionally posted an image of a source that Arturo de Hoyos had cited—a page found in
Francis Barrett’s The Magus (1801):
He neglected to explain, however, exactly how Arturo de Hoyos’s commentary (which said nothing about Brigham Young, or his journal entry) confirmed that the cipher Young employed was “more likely based upon a similar form of cipher upon which Royal Arch cipher is derived, having a common but divergent source.” He remained convinced that the ┴ illustrated on Barrett’s page was beyond coincidence (although triangles were entirely missing in the illustration). “The ┴ character most certainly came from the Qabalistic cipher,” insisted the apologist.

Being intreagued by this apologetic, I decided to further research Brigham Young’s cipher. As luck would have it, Arturo de Hoyos was the first scholar to have translated Young’s journal entry. De Hoyos decoded the entry as follows:


J SMITH W[eded]A[nd]S[ealed] AGNESS[6]

I spent about an hour, toying around with the entry and translation. My hypotheses being: 1) the inverted "T" figures were just that—inverted T's; 2) the triangles were actually the V-shaped characters (having the third line drawn to make them complete triangles). I then drew the template for the Royal Arch cipher key, and compared Arturo de Hoyos' translation to the characters in Brigham Young's journal entry, to see where they fell (plugging in my results, later filling in missing letters not found in the journal entry). My hoped for result: that the letters would appear on the grid in an alphabetical order, and therefore show (at least) a dependence on the Royal Arch cipher.

The results[7] of my experiment:

As one can see, the cipher characters for letters A-R are identical to the Royal Arch cipher transcribed by Oliver Huntington two years later

The S-Z portion of the key:

1) letter "T" was removed from the sequence and simply inverted
2) the V-shaped characters are completed as triangles
3) the triangles were reversed (pointing in opposite directions)

It is also notable that Brigham Young made a few careless errors while encrypting his journal entry: He correctly encrypted the "H" when writing "SMITH", but messed up when writing "THE". He correctly encrypted the "S" when writing "SMITH", "WAS", and "WAS" (a second time as an acronym for "WEDDED AND SEALED"), but then messed up when writing "AGNESS". He messed up both of the times that he encrypted "O"; when writing "INTO" and "LODGE".

The journal entry had five errors out of thirty-six characters—92.8% correct. This percentage is comparable to an encrypted text found on this[8] Royal Arch medal:

Five errors out of forty-one characters—only 91.8% correct. Adding or omitting dots in the characters, or reversing the their orientation, were very common errors to make. Brigham Young was of no exception.

One can see that this Royal Arch cipher key above is slightly different than the one Oliver Huntington recorded in his diary. As it turns out, several (if not countless) versions of the Royal Arch cipher exist—a fact that severely undermines the apologist’s argument, which assumed that Brigham Young’s cipher wasn’t a “Royal Arch” cipher at all, simply because it was different from the one he (the apologist) was most familiar with.

Although other forms of the Royal Arch cipher can be listed here, I will instead share an email[9] that I received from Arturo de Hoyos, the historian that the apologist relied upon to challenge my initial claim (posted with permission):


Yes, I am the person who first decoded Brigham Young's January 6, 1842 journal entry. It was indeed written in a form of the Royal Arch cipher. However, there are many permutations of this substitution cipher. The letters may be placed in almost order in order to make it more secure. I believe that Brigham rearranged the letters for this very reason.

The Masonic exposures of the Morgan episode merely revealed the *simplest* and *most common* forms. You note that you have been unable to find a form with all the symbols used. Subsequent to decoding the diary entry I have seen manuscripts which employ all the symbols Brigham used. It is, in essence, quite unsophisticated.

I'm happy that you've enjoyed "
Committed to the Flames." It was a fun project.


Arturo de Hoyos, 33°, Grand Cross, KYCH
Grand Archivist and Grand Historian
Supreme Council, 33°, Southern Jurisdiction, U.S.A.

Oddly enough... even after I presented this information, the apologist continues to insist that he is right. Go figure.


[1] Image from
[2] Ibid.
[3] Royal Arch freemasonry contains important masonic parallels to the LDS temple endowment, and therefore appears to be a probable source from which Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (who, with the help of Wilford Woodruff and others, revised the endowment after Smith’s death) drew their inspiration.
[6] Arturo De Hoyos decoded this entry on May 21, 1991; as cited in Tim Rathbone's article, Brigham Young's Masonic Connection and Nauvoo Plural Marriages, fn 32.
[7] Three images created by author.
[9] Arturo de Hoyos, email to author, 30 October 2009.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009

From the Finger of Jehovah to Consecrated Enemas

Healing Canes

Since my last blog post on Joseph Smith’s cane and folk-magic, the following statement from Brigham Young’s 2nd Counselor in the First Presidency, Apostle Heber C. Kimball (1857), was brought to my attention:

How much would you give for even a cane that Father Abraham had used? or a coat or ring that the Saviour had worn? The rough oak boxes in which the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were brought from Carthage, were made into canes and other articles. I have a cane made from the plank of one of those boxes, so as brother Brigham and a great many others, and we prize them highly, and esteem them a great blessing. I want to carefully preserve my cane, and when I am done with it here, I shall hand it down to my heir, with instructions to him to do the same. And the day will come when there will be multitudes who will be healed and blessed through the instrumentality of those canes, and the devil cannot overcome those who have them, in consequence of their faith and confidence in the virtues connected with them.[1]

Quinn’s Commentary

Historian D. Michael Quinn astutely observes a relationship between healing objects (such as the canes mentioned above) and the LDS practice of anointing the sick that has continued into the 21st century:
Healing objects such as handkerchiefs, canes, and cloaks probably had limited use among Mormons. Compared to the many accounts of seer-stone divination, there are relatively few references to LDS healing relics. Nevertheless, Mormons throughout the world still use consecrated olive oil to heal in connection with the priesthood ordinance of administering to the sick. If asked about this now, most Mormons would answer that applying special oil to the head during a religious ordinance is purely symbolic.

That definition falters in view of the nineteenth-century Mormon practice of applying the oil directly to the part of the body to be healed. Until the twentieth-century, even LDS apostles drank consecrated oil for internal maladies.

Modern church authorities have specifically instructed that “taking consecrated oil internally, or using it for anointing or rubbing afflicted parts of the body, is not part of the ordinance of administering to the sick.” This seems to recognize the folk-magic dimensions in early Mormon use of consecrated oil.[2]
Rather than challenge one of Quinn’s claims, as I did in my last post, this blog entry will instead support and substantiate Quinn’s comments pertaining to the perception of consecrated oil in early Mormon culture.

Finger of Jehovah

Orson Pratt (1879) explained that Latter-day Saints understood the consecrated oil to have been touched by the finger of God, and that this contact was the means by which the oil became charged with supernatural power. Pratt compared the Brother of Jared story (found in the Book of Mormon) to the LDS ritual of consecrating olive oil:

The brother of Jared had gone up into the mountain, and had moulten out of a rock sixteen small stones, which he carried up into the top of the mount. He went there with an object in view; the object was to get the Lord to touch the stones that they might shine forth in darkness in the eight vessels, (which had been built to convey him and his brother across the great waters) one to be placed at each end of each of the vessels. It would naturally increase the faith of the brother of Jared, to believe it possible that he might see the finger of the Lord. He was going to pray that God would touch the stones, the same as we pray for the Lord to put forth his finger and touch the particles of oil, when we dedicate it, for sacred purposes. If we pray in faith, we must suppose that the finger touches the oil. And Jared prayed in faith, He did not know but what it might be his privilege to see his finger. He did see it; it appeared to him like he finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood.[3]
Latter-day Saints previously reported seeing the finger of God touching the oil as they had consecrated it. “[W]hile consecrating a bottle of oil,” wrote Zebede Coltrin in his diary (1870), “we saw visibly the finger of God enter the mouth of the bottle.”[4]

Application of Consecrated Oil

Believing that consecrated oil was charged with supernatural healing powers, Latter-day Saints (as explained by Quinn) applied the oil to various parts of the body, even taking the oil internally by drinking it, in hopes to cure an unlimited number of ailments. Elder Abel Evans (1813-1866) applied consecrated oil to the face of a Welch woman allegedly afflicted by cancer,[5] and for a cold remedy, both Caroline Crosby and Louisa Pratt applied consecrated oil to Johnny Tait’s “throat and stomach, and more of the same taken internally with a dose of molasses.”[6] William Clayton recorded in his journal (January 18, 1840) how he, Hiram Clark, Wilford Woodruff, and Theodore Turley had administered to a sister that they had found to be “quite insensible.” As these brethren administered to her, they “anointed her head and gave her some oil inwardly.”[7] Benjamin Brown recounted a story (pre-1845) about a poisoned woman who had become blind and nearly dead. According to Brown, she regained her strength after taking the oil internally, but remained blind. Brown then anointed her eyes that “she should see the light of day.”[8] Hezekiah Mitchell reported (1847) that he had administered consecrated oil “internally” to a girl allegedly suffering from typhus fever.[9] Eliza Jane Merrick asserted (1849) that she had administered to her sister by anointing “her chest with the oil” and “gave her some inwardly.”[10] The consecrated oil was also used to heal the Saints from spiritual ailments. Brigham Young, for example, instructed (1860) those who were struggling to discern the will of God, saying, “A great many do not discern this, because they have not eyes to see, nor ears to hear.” His solution: “Anoint your eyes and pour oil in your ears, and pray that your hearts may be softened and your minds quickened to understand.”[11] While still residing in Nauvoo, Brigham Young administered to himself, taking the consecrated oil internally. Not only did he drink consecrated olive oil, but he also injected himself with consecrated enemas.
Bro[ther] Howard Egan called upon me in relation to Bro[ther] H. S. Sherman discontinuing his services on the western line with him. I told him Bro[ther] Shermans state of health required him to discontinue traveling that he might bestow more attention upon himself and use remedies to entirely cure himself of the piles and tumor he was afflicted with. Howard then left. I told Bro[ther] S. & S. Sherman yesterday that I had been obliged to use a syringe since my sickness in Nauvoo, and now I could not live months without using it; I believe the the [sic] frequent use of it has considerably benefitted my health as I am much better now than I have been for years. I enjoy my food much better that [sic] I used years ago. The use of the syringe strengthens my bowels I am persuaded that in nine cases out of ten the bowels become deranged before the stomach does, and the bowels being deranged soon affect the stomach. I charge the syringe frequently with composition sometimes I mix consecrated oil with it.[12]
By the 1890s, there arose a disagreement among the saints over “using consecrated oil for such common purposes as burns, warts, or for enemas in cases of pinworms or other internal disorders.” Some saints believed the head was the only appropriate place on the body to be anointed during the administration. To this assertion, one LDS author replied,
Well, if the oil is meant only to be used on the head I have never found it out. If a wart is not a sickness it certainly is an evidence of unhealthy secretions in the blood, and what is sickness but a departure from health? If we could only put the faith in the oil that we do in the worm lozenges or in the rabbit’s foot, the cure would be on quite as natural principles and would moreover be in accordance with our revealed religion.[13]
Olive oil continued to be “the most used medicine of my community,” said a Mormon woman about her upbringing in Clarkston Utah during the first half of the 20th century.

It was consecrated by the elders of the church for the healing of the sick and was found in every home. People used it in spiritual therapy. The patient was anointed with it and then administered to by the elders. It was taken as a cure for appendicitis. Mixed with grains of sugar, it was given for coughs and croup. Combined with a few drops of camphor, it followed the stinging mustard plaster. It relieved sunburn and scratches, was applied to the scalp for dandruff, and was mixed with soda into paste for severe burns.

Bishop Ravsten said at the bedside of one sick patient, “I feel prompted to oil the bowels.” An olive oil enema was given. The one result I remember was that the syringe was ruined.”[14]

Second counselor in the First Presidency (and soon to be president) argued in favor of taking the oil internally, and anointing various parts of the body.
Pres J.[oseph] F.[ielding] Smith [senior] spoke to us on the principles of Faith and Prayer. Said it was absurd for men to pour a drop of oil on the top of the head and pray that it might permeate the whole being. We should annoint the sick all over and give them oil inwardly. Pres. Cannon also spoke on the same subject.[15]
By the 1950s, however, church authorities restricted the administration of oil to the head only. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles compiled and published statements from John A. Widtsoe that they believed (as the compilation’s title indicates) provided propper guidelines for the Priesthood and Church Government in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One of those statements compiled prohibited internal anointings, “Giving consecrated oil internally is not a part of the administration and should not be done.”[16]

Propper protocol for administering to the sick was further defined by apostle (and later Prophet) Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. (son of Joseph F. Smith senior previously cited), discouraging internal anointings, and restricting the "crown of the head" as the only appropriate area to apply the oil:
“It it proper to anoint the afflicted parts of the body?”

No. The anointing should be on the crown of the head. (It could be a matter of impropriety to anoint afflicted parts of the body.)

“Is it permissible to administer the oil internally?”

No. Taking the oil internally is not part of the administration. If persons who are ill wish to take oil internally, they are not forbidden, but many sicknesses will not be improved by oil in the stomach.[17]
Bruce R. McConkie (of the quorum of the Seventy, and later Apostle) reaffirmed this protocol: “Taking consecrated oil internally, or using it for anointing or rubbing afflicted parts of the body, is not part of the ordinance of administering to the sick.”[18]

The policy is now stated explicitly in the Church Handbook of Instructions: “Members should not take consecrated oil internally or apply it on afflicted parts of the body.”[19]


[1] Journal of Discourses, 4:294.
[2] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 317.
[3] Journal of Discourses, 21:198-99
[4] Remarks of Zebedee Coltrin on Kirtland, Ohio History of the Church (source: Minutes of High Priest Meeting, Spanish Fork, Utah, February 5, 1870), (accessed 11 October 2009).
[5] George Q. Cannon, Early Scenes in Church History: Eighth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series (Salt Lake City, 1882), 38, In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library. CD-ROM. Smith Research Associates, 1998.
[6] Edward Leo Lyman, San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of a California Community (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 309, In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library.
[7] George D. Smith, An Intimate Chronicle; The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 6.
[8] George Q. Cannon, Gems for the Young Folks: Fourth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series (Salt Lake City, 1881), 71, In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library.
[9] Orson Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon (Liverpool, England, 1850-51), 75, In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library.
[10] Merrick 1849, 205; as cited in Linda King Newell, “LDS Women and Priesthood: The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 18, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 23.
[11] Journal of Discourses 8:31.
[12] Brigham Young Office Journals—Exceprts (1853-62), In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library.
[13] The Deseret Weekly (11 March 1893) vol. 46 p. 370, (accessed 11 October 2009).
[14] Ann Hansen, “Utah State University Folklore Collection: Folk Medicine from Clarkston, Utah,” Western Folklore, vol. 18, no. 2 (April 1959): 111.
[15] Ruth May Fox, Diary 1894-1939, typescript, MS 5469, June 3, 1900, LDS Church Archives; as cited by J. Stapley, “Consecrated Oil as Medical Therapy,” By Common Consent (blog, 17 April 2007), (accessed 11 October 2009).
[16] John A. Widstoe (“compiled under the direction of the Council of the Twelve”), Priesthood and Church Government in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1950), 356-57, (accessed 11 October 2009).
[17] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book co., 1957), 1:148.
[18] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 22.
[19] Church Handbook of Instructions (1999 edition), 30.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Joseph Smith Jr’s Cane: A “Thing of Nature”?

To begin this post, perhaps a quick note is appropriate: It is my position that no clear cut line between magic and religion exists. The two categories overlap in many ways. A minority group of scholars argue that this overlap, coupled with the fact that the word has been tinged by polemic use, is justification enough to abandon the word magic altogether. I, however, side with the majority of scholars who remain convinced that both terms can be useful in academic discourse. The word magic should not be thrown away any more than the word religion should be. But with that being said, I do share the concern that the word has been tinged by a polemic past. For this reason, I have favored the more nuanced appellation folk-magic when discussing the magical practices of early Mormons.


A walking cane that Joseph Smith Jr. used when attending formal occasions in Nauvoo, has been an object of controversy in Mormon scholarship over the past two decades. The cane is carved in the shape of a serpent, having (among other things) a shield with Joseph Smith’s initials (“J S”) engraved into it.

Historian D. Michael Quinn, in his ground breaking book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, argues that this symbolism on the cane reveals Joseph Smith’s belief and involvement in astrology and talismanic magic. Quinn brings his reader’s attention to an “x” on the crown found directly above the shield, and says that although some may think this is Saint Andrew’s cross, there are no other Christian symbols on the cane—unless you interpret the serpent as a symbol of the devil (which he thinks unlikely)—and so it is more probable that the “x” is instead the magic sigil of Jupiter.[1]

Although I agree with Quinn that Smith’s cane was probably (at least partially) related to his involvement in folk-magic, I respectfully disagree with his interpretation of the symbolism illustrated thereon. Contrary to what he implies, the serpent is not exclusively a motif for Satan in Christianity. The serpent has also been a symbol for Christ, at times alluding to the bronze serpent Moses lifted, which had the power to heal those who had been bitten by the poisonous vipers, if only they would look to it and live.[2] The New Testament comments on this symbolism, saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”[3] The Book of Mormon remarks further:

[A]s he [Moses] lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.[4]

Several Masons promoted this imagery, illustrating in their artwork the serpent on the staff (or cross). But perhaps most significantly and most relevant to Smith’s cane, Freemasons additionally used the imagery of the “rod of Aaron” in their rituals, which, according to the Old Testament, had turned into a serpent to devour the serpent-rods owned by the Pharaoh’s magicians.[5]

Historian Mark C. Carnes explains that Royal Arch Masons lowered initiates through a secret passageway, into a vault where they would find “a chest ‘having on its top several mysterious characters.’ Inside were a pot of manna, Aaron’s rod, and the ‘long lost book of the law.’”[6] Since the Old Testament says the rod “was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds,” Royal Arch Freemasons therefore designed their Masonic prop with artificial (or real) buds.

Interestingly, this description of the rod (bringing forth buds) seemed a possible explanation for the curious circular protrusion shown on the cane in one of Quinn’s photos, just below the shield. But Quinn’s photos, as helpful as they may have been, did not allow me to view the rest of the object. Had more of these protrusions existed on Smith’s cane, I might be on to something. During my trip to SLC this summer, I finally had the chance to view the entire cane for myself at the Museum of Church History and Art. As can be seen in this photograph that I took during my tour of the museum, the cane (from the shield down) is absolutely covered with these “buds”.

Now back to the “x” on the crown: Would this symbol be appropriate for a cane representing the rod of Aaron? And if the answer is “yes,” would such symbolism be of particular interest to Masons and Joseph Smith Jr? Masons believed that when Aaron was appointed High Priest, Moses marked his forehead with either a + or x shaped cross. “[I]n the ancient Hebrew,” wrote Freemason Albert Mackey, the figure of the tau “x, or +, was that of the cross.”

This tau, tau cross, or tau mark, was of very universal use as a sacred symbol among the ancients… [I]t is a sign of salvation; according to Talmudists, the symbol was much older than the time of Ezekiel, for they say that when Moses anointed Aaron as the high priest, he marked his forehead with this sign.[7]

When a Mason was initiated into “the order of High Priesthood as practiced in America,” explains Mackey, “oil was poured on the head in the form of a crown, that is, in a circle around the head; while in the ointment of the priest it was poured in the form of the Greek letter X, that is, on the top of the head, in the shape of a St. Andrew’s cross.”[8]

Another cross—one which seems to have been overlooked by all scholars thus far—is also found on Smith’s serpent cane: a large inverted cross fills the shield.

This almost certainly is the cross of Peter; an intriguing addition to the symbolic context of the cane, testifying further (it seems) of Joseph Smith’s ecclesiastical authority. The serpent-rod of Aaron and the “x” on the crown speak to the idea that Smith was a great high priest after the order of Aaron, and the inverted cross, a testimonial that Smith had also received priesthood keys from Peter in order to properly preside over Christ’s Church.

Granted, this interpretation hardly negates Quinn’s suggestion that Smith’s cane was designed with aspects of folk-magic in mind. Historians know that some Masons in Joseph Smith’s day were very willing to incorporate folk-magic into their orders. “One [Masonic] official observed,” reports Mark C. Carnes, that younger Masons “were ‘so in love with mysteries’ that they did not care where they came from.”[9] And it is quite telling that Ebenezer Sibley even dedicated his occult manual to "the Ancient and Honourable fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons."[10]

Scholar Clyde R. Frosberg Jr. argues in favor of an interpretation that views Smith’s cane through the bifocal-lens of freemasonry and folk-magic. Not only does the cane depict what appears to be a Masonic insignia on it, he says, but the it also “resembles a Masonic divining rod, or ‘pedum.’”[11]

Also worth noting is how common it was for practitioners of American folk-magic to identify their divining rods with the “rod of Aaron.” As explained in an article (1850) entitled, “A History of the Divining Rod; With the Adventures of an Old Rodsman”:

With a large portion of the simple-hearted people in the agricultural districts of the country, 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. Their rod was made from a simply twig of the almond tree; with this, water was discovered and brought forth from the flinty rock.[12]

The Book of Commandments (1833) reported that Oliver Cowdery had the ability to use the magic rod: “Now this is not all, for you [Oliver Cowdery] have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God.”[13] The passage was later modified in Doctrine and Covenants, changing the phrase “rod of nature” to “gift of Aaron”:

Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.[14]

The recent publication of the Joseph Smith Papers volume (Revelations and Translations—Manuscript Revelation Books)[15] has renewed interest in this specific passage. Scholars discovered that an early transcription of the verse initially identified the divining instrument as a “sprout” and a “thing of Nature”.

The passage evolves in the following sequence:

“which is the gift of working with the sprout” --> “which
is the gift of working with the rod” --> “which is the gift of Aaron”

“thing of nature” --> “rod of nature” --> “gift of Aaron”

The editing of this passage removed wording that would have otherwise helped readers to understand that Oliver Cowdery was actually using a divining-rod during the translation process. Consequently many Mormons now assume that the “gift” was merely the Aaronic Priesthood, and nothing more—an interpretation that would (although inaccurate) certainly be more consistent with currant Mormon orthopraxy. Needless to say, the editing of this passage was likely motivated by an increased desire to disassociate Mormonism from its past involvement in folk-magic.

What a fascinating example this is, showing the evolution of Mormon thought and culture!


[1]. See Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1998), 90-91.
[2]. Numbers 21:6-9, KJV. An article (on the duality of serpent symbolism in scripture) that may be of interest to readers (particularly to those who are believing Latter-day Saints), would be Andrew C. Skinner’s “Savior, Satan, and Serpent: The Duality of a Symbol in the Scriptures,” The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World, in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo: FARMS, 2000), 359-384.
[3]. John 3:14-15, KJV.
[4]. Helaman 8:15.
[5]. Exodus 7:9-12, KJV.
[6]. Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (Yale University Press, 1989), 44.
[7]. Albert G. Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, 791 (Philadelphia: Moss & Company, 1879), (accessed November 7, 2008).
[8]. Ibid., 72.
[9]. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood, 6. This eclecticism fits the prophet Joseph Smith like a glove. The prophet taught, “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Joseph Smith (July 9, 1843), History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5: 499.
[10]. Allen G. Debus, “Scientific Truth and Occult Tradition: The Medical World of Ebenezer Sibley (1751-1799),” Medical History 26 (1982): 261. A French anti-Mason reports, “To captivate their [Ginii’s/angels] favor, the Cabalistic Mason is to study what we should call the Conjuring-book. He must be well versed in the names and signs of the planets and constellations; he must also know whether it be a good or evil Genius which presides over it, and which are the numbers that represent them… [T]he Cabalistic Mason will be favoured by these good and evil Gennii, in proportion to the confidence he has in their power; they will appear to him, and they will explain more to him in the magic table, than the human understanding can conceive.” Abbe Baurrl, Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism: A Translation from the French of The Abbe Barruel 2 (New York, 1799): 182-83, (accessed November 16, 2008).
[11]. Clyde R. Frosberg Jr., Equal Rights: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 47. Frosberg also overlooks the inverted cross.
[12]. “A History of the Divining Rod; With the Adventures of an Old Rodsman,” The United States Democratic Review 26, no. 141 (March 1850): 218, (accessed March 27, 2009); as also quoted in Seth L. Bryant, “Latter-Day Anguish and the Epic of greater Mormonism,” (master’s thesis, University of Florida, December 2008), 91. For more information on divining rods and Joseph Smith’s activities in treasure hunting, see Ronald W. Walker, “The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,” BYU Studies 24, no. 3 (Fall 1984): 429-59.
[13]. Book of Commandments 7:3.
[14]. Doctrine and Covenants 8:6-8.
[15]. The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 16-17.


Images (in order as presented in this post):

Joseph Smith’s serpent walking cane, from Clyde R. Forsberg Jr.’s Equal Rights: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture, 48. Photograph taken by D. Michael Quinn.

Masonic Mark Jewel (1812), from Masonic Symbols in American Decorative Arts, fig 27.

Photo taken by author of Joseph Smith's serpent walking cane, on display at the Museum of Church History and Art.

Close up photo taken by author of the shield on Joseph Smith's cane.

Scan of an image provided in Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books (Facsimile Edition), 16.

2 July 2010 Edit--Removed Misinterpreted BoM Quote.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cross: LDS Contempt for the Christian Symbol

As some of my readers already know, I have received media attention lately in the Salt Lake Tribune and Mormon Times (published in the Deseret News). Although both stories covered research that I did for my MA thesis, the second article specifically reacts to the presentation I delivered at last month's SLC Sunstone Symposium.

Overall, I am quite happy with these articles. A couple issues that I have are as follows: The Salt Lake Tribune piece mentions how I (as a teenage kid) stole a cross necklace and wore it to church; but then the article gives the false impression that my mother knew about my theft, and was more concerned about me hiding the necklace than returning it. No. My mother never knew that I stole it (until recently, that is).

The Mormon Times piece is also good, but seems to have been overly concerned about Church PR. I understand and empathize with Latter-day Saints who may not like the words taboo / opposition / contempt / aversion. However, I remain convinced that these labels apply (in one way or another) to the general attitude Mormons have had toward the cross. "General" is the key-word here, since I fully understand that some Mormons embrace the symbol--but these people (as I see it) are hardly representative of the Mormon mainstream. The good news, though, is that the Mormon minority seems to be growing, and that the aversion still existing among most Latter-day Saints is softening. Will the Mormon mainstream ever drop their negative perception of the symbol? I suppose only time will tell. For the moment, the Church seems to be moving in that direction.

Image: Amelia Folsom Young (Briaham Young's polygamous wife). Photograph from Utah State Historical Society Classified Photo Collection, no. 14195.


Edit to add:

I am scheduled to appear as a guest for John Larson's Mormon Expressions podcast. The interview should be available September 22nd at the following link:

Also... here is a newspaper article that may be of interest to readers, which I think compliments my research (about Mormon/Catholic relations) quite nicely:

"Catholic-LDS relations through the years - warming trend follows a cold war," Salt Lake Tribune

Thanks to Seth Bryant for bringing this article to my attention.