Have you ever performed a ritual shaking of the dust from your feet? I never have (in fact, I’m pretty sure I was specifically instructed to not do that as a missionary), though as a 20-year old, I was somewhat tempted while serving a full-time mission on a few occasions. In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Samuel Weber discussed some of the intentions behind the ritual in the first place and also why it is no longer performed in the Church today. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
In the interview, Samuel Weber explained the ritual of shaking dust from feet. As he put it:
Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a ritual practice common in the early Latter-day Saint movement. The basic idea of the ritual was to invoke a curse on individuals who rejected the message or messengers of the restored gospel.
Similar to other Latter-day Saint rituals and ordinances, it was a practice intended to call down God’s power on behalf of His servants. Although no longer practiced today, ritual cursing is found in scripture and church history, making it a topic of continued interest for Latter-day Saints.
So, the ritual was one of cursing against those who rejected the Gospel or missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As mentioned by Weber above, ritual cursing is found in scripture. He explained that “Joseph Smith likely learned about ritual cursing by reading the New Testament” and added that:
Bible scholar T. J. Rogers pointed out that the biblical practice of shaking the dust off the feet is best contextualized within ancient hospitality customs.
For Middle Easterners alive at the time of Jesus, it was common for hosts to provide their guests with water to wash their feet. This act symbolized a transition from stranger to guest in the home of the host.
To leave with one’s feet still covered in dust indicated that hospitality was not offered to the stranger. For the apostles, to shake the dust from their feet would have been evidence that hospitality was refused to servants of God. It was implied that God would take notice and punish those who rejected His servants.
There were specific cultural beliefs that shaped the custom in Classical Antiquity, long before Joseph Smith introduced the ritual to Latter Day Saints.
As for the mechanics of the process as performed by Latter Day Saints, Weber explained that:
There doesn’t appear to be just one way that this ritual was performed. Typically the individual performing the ritual would say a prayer to “bear testimony” designating the wicked who had rejected them.
Then came the actual removal of dust. This could be done by shaking the feet. It could also be done with water or even alcohol by washing the feet or, occasionally, the entire body.
There are even recorded instances in which the feet apparently weren’t involved at all, but rather articles of clothing were removed and shaken instead. This latter practice also had some New Testament precedent, as in Acts 18:6 Paul shook his raiment against blasphemers who rejected his message.
Apparently it was never codified in a handbook of instructions, so people did what made sense for the time and place.
The actual extent of the ritual being performed seems somewhat limited. Samuel Weber explained that: “Latter-day Saint missionaries were by far the most common practitioners of ritual cursing” and “the most frequent use of the ritual appears to have been during Joseph Smith’s lifetime prior to the westward migration to Utah.” Among other reasons for the ritual: “The missionaries seemed to sense an urgency to their work, and when they faced overwhelming rejection, they sometimes dusted their feet against the entire community and moved on.” With those factors in mind, Weber explained why the ritual is not practiced these days:
The historical record demonstrates a pattern: when persecution was high against Latter-day Saints, cursing was more prevalent. When persecution was low, cursing practices subsided.
After the move to Utah and eventual renunciation of polygamy, the church’s enemies became fewer, lessening the incentive to curse. This coincided with a shift in tone in church discourse away from commanding cursing to exercising caution prior to passing judgment.
Additionally, the spirit of liturgical innovation that permeated the early Latter-day Saint movement waned over time as ordinances became more systematized. This led to some rituals being “retired,” such as healing blessings performed by women and baptism for health.
All of these factors contributed to cursing falling into disuse. Ritual cursing was basically extinct by the early 1900s. …
Most early Latter-day Saints believed that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent, lending an urgency to their missionary endeavors. As I previously mentioned, missionaries believed they were separating the righteous from the wicked in preparation for the millennium. With the passage of time, the sense of Christ’s impending return began to lessen.
By the 1900s, when missionaries were rejected, most no longer felt that the disbelieving parties had lost their one chance for salvation.
The missionary mindset shifted from one of binding wheat and tares up to the day of destruction to one of returning to homes again and again to give people multiple chances to accept the gospel.
As the Latter-day Saint worldview became less apocalyptic and less attacked by outsiders, the desire and need for shaking the dust off of feet waned, leading to the current dearth in practice of the ritual.
For more on the ritual of shaking the dust off of feet by Latter-day Saints, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, read the interview with Samuel Weber. There are some pretty interesting examples of the ritual being performed and the perceived results of doing so.