The Judicial Use of Mormon Cursing

December 16, 2006 | 12 comments
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I have posted before on the now largely forgotten Mormon tradition of cursing. As you would expect, I have found that Mormon cursing also has a legal angle. Between 1847 and the creation of the provisional State of Deseret in 1849, the Mormon colony in the Salt Lake Valley was governed by the stake High Council. The High Council promulgated a laws, prosecuted crimes, settled disputes, and meted out punishments.

One day a man complained to the High Council that his horse had been found killed, lying in his own hay stack. The consensus seems to have been that the killing was malicious but no one knew who had done the wicked deed. The High Council deliberated at some length about the problem, and President John Smith came up with a solution. The perpetrator of the crime should be cursed until he turned himself into the High Council. The Council then voted to sustain President Smith’s decision, and the unknown miscreant was duly cursed. (The record doesn’t record the specifics of what exactly the horse killer was cursed with. I like to think that his own oxen died.)

The minutes of the High Council don’t record the ultimate outcome of the case. Hence, we don’t know if the cursing worked, if the criminal turned himself in or if he simply suffered his curse in silence. Still, it strikes me as an eminently Mormon move: the power of God delegated to man used to solve the prosaic and practical problem of finding out who killed Brother so-and-so’s horse.

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12 Responses to The Judicial Use of Mormon Cursing

  1. Julie M. Smith on December 16, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    The record doesn’t record the specifics of what exactly the horse killer was cursed with. I like to think that his own oxen died.

    Dead oxen? You have no imagination. None.

  2. Jim F. on December 16, 2006 at 1:50 pm

    Indeed, I hope that Nate is in charge of deciding what vengeance will be wreaked on me for my foul deeds.

  3. Alison Moore Smith on December 16, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Dang, Nate, I thought you’d be writing about “flip,” “fetch,” and “oh, my heck.”

  4. Mark IV on December 16, 2006 at 2:37 pm

    We have a history of non-judicial cursing as well. It was common for elders to shake off the dust from their feet upon towns which rejected them. And some of the high council meetings in Nauvoo grew heated, with various brethren rising to damn each other to hell for their opinions.

  5. Nate Oman on December 16, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    I like to think that it is not a lack of imagination but rather a sense of proportionality. I’d rather be just than novel any day.

  6. Wacky Hermit on December 16, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    Forget “flip” and “fetch,” I thought this was a post about J. Golden Kimball!

    I love J. Golden. He gives me hope.

  7. Mr Geoff on December 16, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    Are you sure you got this \”story\” correct? Was it John Smith or Joseph Smith? It is quite a funny \”story\” though.

  8. J. Stapley on December 17, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    Mr. Geoff, John Smith was the first Stake President in Salt Lake City. He was Joseph Smith Jr.’s uncle and was released to be the Presiding Patriarch.

  9. Jeremiah J. on December 17, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    In a ward in my mission the story was told of a brother in the ward (who had allegedly been excommunicated and rebaptised I think three times) had a dispute with his neighbor over a fruit tree near the property line between his and his neighbor’s yards. The dispute was over who owned the fruit tree. The neighbor was not a member of the church, and the elder decided not to take the matter to the authorities, but rather to curse the tree with the power of the priesthood. The tree died.

    So, who needs the high council when you have the priesthood?

    Nate, I’m really loving your updates on your discoveries about Mormon law. One of the great things about law professors is that they are full of illustrative little anecdotes about right and the social order.

  10. smb on December 18, 2006 at 11:42 am

    Mormons were not alone in cursing. Whitney Cross, Burned-over District, 315 discusses other millennialist groups who liked to curse. Almost as if they were eagerly participating in the coming apocalypse by committing certain individuals to the common fate. once the scales are tipped, here comes the parousia. and i agree with others that cursing is usually not in the petty witchy-voodoo way of sour milk and tough meat, but had the sense of speeding the apocalypse. I’d rather deal with a fine than a curse, i have to say.

  11. Ben on December 18, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    There are Jewish examples of this kind of thing, around the NT period, I believe. I’ll see if I can dig up my notes.

  12. annegb on December 20, 2006 at 12:25 pm

    Julie’s right, but perhaps creative vengeance is a woman thing. No offense to any feminists. I like this idea. I’m going to give cursing others a try. Perhaps little dolls with pins or something.

    I always pray for my enemies, but sometimes I pray that God will strike them with lightning so they will repent and see the error of their ways. Cursing, what a concept.