Thomas O’Dea, John A. Widtsoe, and the De-Horning Room

By February 10, 2008

In the summer of 1950, a young Harvard graduate student named Thomas F. O’Dea traveled to Salt Lake City and met with a veritable who’s who of Mormon intellectuals and church leaders. O’Dea was preparing for a trip to a Mormon community in New Mexico as part of Harvard’s “Comparative Study of Values in Five Cultures Project.” O’Dea’s papers contain meticulous notes of these meetings,and I am currently writing an article about the influences of the personalities he met during this trip on his 1957 book The Mormons. One of the most interesting moments recorded by O’Dea involved a visit to the home of Elder John A. Widtsoe. Widstoe told O’Dea and his wife that

if we were very well behaved he would show us the Mormon wonder of wonders, which very few Gentiles got to see. We both expressed immediate interest. He said it was the “De-horning Room,’ suggesting that we realized that Mormons were born with horns and had too have them removed at an early age. [1]

O’Dea’s tone, and the fact that Widtsoe had to explain himself, suggests that Widtsoe’s joke fell flat, at least in part because O’Dea had never heard the myth about Mormons having horns. I wonder the degree to which this stereotype was widely circulated. It clearly draws on anti-semitic imagery from the Middle Ages in which Jews were portrayed as semi-human creatures with horns and tails. I have heard it told only by Mormons as evidence of the stupidity of anti-Mormons. How about you? Have you heard the one about Mormons having horns? If so, in what context?

[1] “Meeting with Apostle John A. Widtsoe at His Home, 1425 Sigsbee AVE, SLC, 29 July 1950.” Thomas F. O’Dea Papers, MSS 1417, Box 5, fd 7, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. When I first heard the bit about Mormons supposedly having horns, I bought myself a set at the next Renaissance Faire so I could tell people I kept them in my closet. Alas, no one ever asked.

    In the book “Papa Married A Mormon,” (a semi-autobiographical book by the man who wrote “The Great Brain” books) the maiden, Catholic aunt of the family comes west to see to the religious education of her poor, benighted nieces and nephews. The kids read (or hear, I forget which) the frankly appalling letter this aunt sends to announce her intentions. The Great Brain thinks this is both insulting and hysterical and when the aunt arrives, the kids have scrounged horns from somewhere and run out to greet her with the horns tied to their heads. The aunt faints.

    The events in these books took place somewhere around the turn of the last century.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — February 10, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  2. I grew up listening to stories from my father’s mission in Ireland, including one about the Catholic priest in the town he was serving in telling all of his parishioners that the reason the Mormon elders wore hats was not because of the damp and rainy Irish weather, but rather to cover their horns.

    I also seem to remember a J. Golden Kimball story about this myth circulating in the southern States.

    Like you, I don’t think that I’ve ever heard it from anyone except Mormons in an effort to demonstrate the idiocy of anti-Mormons.

    Comment by Christopher — February 10, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

  3. I did succeed recently in getting a rather gullible mother of a friend to feel my head for horns. She was of the ‘Leap before Looking’ type though, so she’s only representative of hyperactive Midwestern mothers LOL.

    Comment by angrymormonliberal — February 10, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  4. PDoE: Thanks for the reference to the Fitzgerald book. I had forgotten about that.

    Christopher: I wonder about a European connection to the horn thing. Widtsoe’s roots as well as your father’s experience in Ireland may suggest that it was a more popular myth in Europe than in the U.S. I will have to see if I can find a J. Golden story about it. A little research revealed that Kimball did tell some stories about Mormons with horns. I also found an article by Karl Young called “Why Mormons Were Said to Have Horns,” from 1974.

    angrymormonliberal: That’s funny. But you didn’t say if she found anything!

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 10, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  5. My grandfather, on his mission to England, 1920-1923, claimed to have been asked about his horns. At least, that’s the story that passed from him to my grandmother to my mother to me.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 10, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

  6. On at least a few occasions over the past 40 years, I’ve had non-LDS friends/acquaintances joke about it — with them initiating the joke — which suggest the meme itself is in circulation in the general (US) population.

    In my mission in Central America, the people just thought we were working for the CIA. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — February 10, 2008 @ 11:13 pm

  7. Sadly I did meet people in the south who believed this. They also tended to be the folks who thought Mormons were gullible and a cult led by believing everything their leaders said. I always laughed at the irony of that.

    Comment by Clark — February 10, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

  8. Paul and I have been exchanging sources about this, i think on his T&S thread from a few weeks back.
    There’s a BYUS paper that refers it to stories about cuckolds, probably erroneously, and a variety of early sources that suggest Mormons understood critics to be referring to it as moral physiognomy/demonic possession. it’s not just Mormon caricature of anti-Mormons, I think it’s part of moral physiognomy, and I think Paul would characterize it as an extreme racialization.

    Comment by smb — February 10, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

  9. Decades(!) ago when I was a missionary in New England, I was asked a few times about horns. One lady came out on her porch, yelling at us, warning the neighbors about the horns and possible damage we could do with them (and asking how many wives we had – I yelled back “6 – just getting started”). I was on a post-doc in Texas years ago and I think the notion surfaced there among some of my students, particularly with a “Campbellite” who was trying to help me get over my devil-worshipping tendencies. We stayed in the South for about 10 years and I know I heard about the horns more than once. The horns were suppose to be, I am sure, a sign of the beast within. I think Warren Foote’s autobio has some reference to an accusation about horns? Governor Ford said he had heard Mormons had horns.

    Comment by WVS — February 11, 2008 @ 12:21 am

  10. My MTC missionary companion, from Columbus Ohio, told me that someone in his high school wanted to feel his head to check for horns. We were in the MTC in 1988, so this would have happened in the 1983-1987 time frame. He said that his acquaintance did not really believe what his pastor was teaching but wanted to verify. He said his acquaintance was somewhat embarrassed after having felt his head and realized that my companion was a human being.

    Comment by plvmetz — February 11, 2008 @ 2:01 am

  11. Oops, I meant Columbus INDIANA. My apologies to you good people of Ohio.

    Comment by plvmetz — February 11, 2008 @ 2:02 am

  12. smb, I obviously agree that the horns stories were not solely caricature of anti-Mormons, but they clearly function that way in the folklore. In other words, there are at least two levels on which these stories can be analyzed: as actual statements of belief from non-Mormons and as the re-narrating of those beliefs by Mormons. Each type would perform different cultural work. I would be interested in reading Paul’s argument about racialization. It seems to me that such a case, in order to be convincing, would have to depend on accounts by non-Mormons themselves about why Mormons had horns.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 11, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  13. Agreed, they do play different roles for different groups, and the renarrations are often much more interesting than the original. The trick is finding these claims in print culture because the people who tend to believe that other humans have horns do not tend to be the literary elite, and I would think that this belief pattern would not often be committed to type (even if it made it into a stray diary).

    I’d look at that BYUS article (I think it’s ca. 1994) and see whether it has any useful primary sources. I’d have to look in my files, but I think almost all the sources, even the fairly credible sounding ones, are renarrations of some sort or another.

    Comment by smb — February 11, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  14. My grandmother grew up in Salt Lake City, and while a Mormon, she wasn’t active and was actually quite ostracized by the other Mormon kids. She has never really been active in the church since.

    As a teen, she worked at the Union Pacific rail station. She told me a story of a man who got off the train and asked her where he might find a Mormon. He explained that he wanted to see if they really had horns. She volunteered that SHE was a Mormon and that they certainly didn’t have horns.

    Her account certainly follows the pattern you’ve noticed in other tellings of the story, even though my grandmother is somewhat distant from Mormonism as an active faith.

    Comment by Bradley Ross — February 11, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  15. Bitton and Bunker’s work on the Mormon graphic image features some great cartoons showing Brigham Young and other Mormons with horns.

    Comment by Justin — February 12, 2008 @ 10:52 am

  16. The Bitton and Bunker book is an under-appreciated gem, imo.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 12, 2008 @ 11:57 am

  17. The Bitton and Bunker book is an under-appreciated gem, imo.


    Comment by Christopher — February 12, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  18. Warren Foote entry for June 17 1846 records an experience while he was looking for a mill to grind his grain. He and his companions stopped and asked for directions. The man Foote talked to inquired if they were Mormons: “He halloed [sic] to the boys to come and see some ?Mormons.? They all came up to the wagon, although the boys were very shy. After looking at us he said to the boys ?They haven?t got any horns have they? ?and they look like other folks don?t they.? This he said laughing as he told us that the boys had thought that the ?Mormons? were terrible looking creatures.”

    Joseph Smith has an experience recorded in 1842 wherein he claims that General Wilson Law said, “Well, from reports, we had reason to think the Mormons were a peculiar people, different from other people, having horns or something of the kind; but I find they look like other people: indeed, I think Mr. Smith a very good-looking man.” HC 5:214

    I agree with SCT’s assertion that accounts of Mormons with horns need to be treated with caution. Even still, while these two references are both from Mormons, they are much more immediate than the hearsay of folklore and therefore, I think, deserve more credence. As has already been mentioned, the Bitton and Bunker book offer visual evidence that outsiders associated horns with Mormons. That said, I’ve not yet found a reference in writing from an outside source talking about Mormons with horns.

    And there was a few General Conferences ago the story Elder Packer told about being in an academic setting and being asked about his horns.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 12, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  19. Thanks Paul. I have to say that I am surprised to see a source so very early and immediate as the one from 1842. I assume that this is the earliest one about which you have any knowledge? I, too, remember the Packer talk, but I haven’t looked it up yet.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 12, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  20. Yes, it is the earliest that I’ve found. Incidentally Givens mentions both in Viper on the Hearth.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 12, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  21. Now you boys got me looking in my files.
    How’s this?

    Methodist minister Samuel Prior describes his neighbors as the kind of people ?who look upon a Mormon as a being of quite another race, from the rest of mankind, and holding no affinity to the human family.? He reports being ?disappointed, when, instead of the heads and horns of the beast? he beheld Joseph Smith, a ?common man.?
    Samuel Prior, ?A Visit to Nauvoo,? Times and Seasons 4, no. 13 (May 15, 1843): 197.

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

  22. also two 1844 examples that are more of Mormon construction but fairly early

    hyrum smith at the 1844 general conf

    ?as they saw that the Mormons had not got horns.?
    ?Conference Minutes,? Times and Seasons 5, no. 14 (August 1, 1844): 597.

    Wm Smith in late 1844 writing from NJ:
    Says people characterize Nauvoo as ?a barbarian?ugly, formal with heads and horns, and stuck into the nethermost corner of the universe, where none but Indians, Hottentots, Arabs, Turks, Wolverines and Mormons dwell.? ?Correspondence,? Times and Seasons 5, no. 24 (January 1, 1845): 756.

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

  23. I sent Spencer Fluhman the link to this post and asked if he had come across any references to Mormons having horns in his research. He responded that he hasn’t come across any “horn” talk in the sources that he’s reading.

    Comment by David G. — February 12, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  24. Paul, it’s been so long since I’ve read Viper on the Hearth, that I’m not surprised I forgot about those mentions. Thanks for the reminder.

    smb, thanks for the other early citations. It seems pretty clear that this is something that was in wide circulation by the 1840s.

    David, thanks for alerting Spencer to the thread.

    And thanks to everyone who has contributed anecdotes.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 12, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

  25. I did a quick search of my hard drive and found these:

    [T]here has been a great deal of bickering abt. the Messrs Laws Steam Mill – it has been a great benefit to this City – it has advanced the benefit of the City – it has brough in thousands who would not have come here but as they saw that the Mormons had no horns they have got a good by it (Hyrum Smith, Discourse, 7 April 1844, Thomas Bullock Report, LDS Church Archives)

    There is also a decent showing in google books (see here or here). Even some recent scholarship in the context of race.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 12, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

  26. There’s another reference in the September 1836 M&A.

    Comment by Justin — February 12, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  27. Ah, that Hyrum Smith quote is also available in T&S, 5:597.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 12, 2008 @ 6:04 pm

  28. Interesting stuff Stapley

    Justin, it keeps getting earlier and earlier!

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 12, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

  29. stapley, you got scooped there, brother.

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  30. Sweet of you to point that out smb!

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 12, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

  31. anytime a wee bit of pettiness is required (among friends), i’m happy to deliver. (j is a great guy, a great researcher, and fun to tease.)

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  32. Yes, yes. If it was just some rabble off the street it might sting a bit, but with this crew it is pure delight.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 12, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

  33. Paul gave a very nice introduction to his current work on racialization at the University of Utah Tanner Center today. The good work just keeps coming from the new generation (no offense to the old).

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

  34. smb, thanks for coming to the talk. I hope you didn’t leave a patient on the o.r. table to do so. Great answer to the Anglo-Saxon question btw. And I liked how you characterized the Nauvoo Native American interaction. I’d like to talk more about that at some point.

    As for the horns, a member of the U history faculty described it as a classic medieval Christian construction of Jews. I need to talk to her more about it.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 12, 2008 @ 10:57 pm

  35. Or SCT, you also note the Jewish connection. Is there an journal article or book that I should look at?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 12, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

  36. Glad I could make it (though the cupcake manufacturer needs to repent).
    I think the claim of the Jewish connection is overstated (something like Nibleyan parallelomania). the physiological claims (sallow, etc) are what I would term medical providential determinism: health states reflect God’s approval (or lack thereof).
    as for horns, bestializing your (perceived) enemies, particularly with the diabolical overtones, is pretty generic. I just don’t see any clear evidence of anti-Semitism as a model for anti-Mormonism at least in the period I study. Laurence Moore on Jews in his Outsiders book may be useful. Shalom Goldman writes about early American Judaism and its interactions with Protestants (he has an insightful essay about Joshua/James Seixas that he’s published twice on the topic).

    looking forward to the book project. you may want to describe it ever-so-briefly for the JI crew. Catchy title, by the way.

    My chapter 4 is about Smith appropriating Indian graves and ancestors. i’ll have to revise it again and see what you think of it.

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2008 @ 11:39 pm

  37. Someone should check out:
    Karl E. Young, “Why Mormons Were Said to Wear Horns,” in Lore of Faith and Folly, ed.
    Thomas E. Cheney (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1971)

    trying to search my old files to find that BYUS article. I think the argument isn’t quite correct, but the data may be useful.

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

  38. smb, if Stapley were here, he might say that you got scooped! See comment #4 🙂

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 13, 2008 @ 7:37 am

  39. [t]ouch[e]. did you get my email about AAR?

    Comment by smb — February 13, 2008 @ 8:28 am

  40. “I think the claim of the Jewish connection is overstated (something like Nibleyan parallelomania).”

    I agree. It simply does not show up in the sources that I’ve looked at. Jews may have been described in similar terms to Mormons, but I’d have a hard time crafting a Jewish-Mormon body out of that. I was most interested in the horn connection to medieval Europe, not in taking it any farther than that.

    “you may want to describe it ever-so-briefly for the JI crew. Catchy title, by the way.”

    I gave my Tanner Humanities fellow talk yesterday titled, “Red, White, and Mormon: Race and the Making of a Mormon-Indian Body” It argues that Mormons were constructed and racialized as Indians in three basic ways, charges of Mormon Indian conspiracies, the construction of a Mormon-Indian body, and they were simply treated like Indians (extermination order, nits make lice, treaties of removal, expulsions, undesirable and diminishing land base).

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 13, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

  41. Thanks for the summary Paul. If I had known about the lecture I would have made an effort to go 😉

    Comment by David G. — February 13, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

  42. I echo David’s sentiments. Sounds fascinating.

    Comment by Ben — February 13, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

  43. In the original post, my remark about Jews and Mormons was simply meant to suggest that the same descriptions were used and that the idea of Jews having horns was widespread, if not widely believed. Beyond that, I have no idea what if any connection there might be. Paul, thanks for the summary of your presentation. I am heartened to see more of us working on theoretically informed projects. If your experience is like mine, you may have met with some resistance to such an approach from certain quarters of the Mormon Studies “old guard.” I hope not though.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 13, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

  44. David and Ben, sorry. I should have sent notice your way. I figured the vast distance from BYU to the U would be a deterrent.

    SC, a faculty member at the U brought up the Jewish horn connection at the talk in a way similar to your original post. She went on to ask if there was evidence of a Jewish-Mormon body constructed in the 19th century. That is the context for the exchange between smb and me. All of which made me wonder if there are some sources that I should look at on the Jews and horns? Do you know of any? It won?t be a significant part of my project, but I do plan to at least address the Mormons and horns issue and I thought I should know the broader context. (And if this is something you are working on I certainly don?t want to step on your toes. I?ll move in a different direction).

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2008 @ 12:16 am

  45. “If your experience is like mine, you may have met with some resistance to such an approach from certain quarters of the Mormon Studies ?old guard.? I hope not though.”

    SC I’m intrigued by this. You should do a post on it which elaborates and maybe takes a pulse of the field.

    I don’t think anyone knows about this project yet,so I haven’t had much of any feedback.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2008 @ 12:22 am

  46. I will think about a post on the subject Paul. I’m not working on anything having to do with the horns issue, I just came across the Widtsoe story while working on another project and thought it was worth sharing. I recently came across something about the medieval Jewish horns subject, but I can’t remember where I read it. When I get to the office I will look it up and let you know.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 14, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  47. One classic source: Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews.

    Comment by Justin — February 14, 2008 @ 10:46 am

  48. Thanks Justin!

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  49. In addition to Trachtenberg, you might also take a look at these two that I have noted in my files: Ruth Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought (Berkeley 1970); Debra H. Strickland, Saracens, Demons & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton 2003). The Strickland book has lots of bibliographic material.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 14, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  50. Great, thanks!

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 14, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  51. […] Horn-y […]

    Pingback by By Common Consent » BCC Zeitcast for February 18 — February 18, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

  52. #10 & #11 – My oldest son was asked by a friend in high school just three years ago if Mormons really had horns at birth. Her mother had told her it was true, because she had heard it directly from her minister. This was in the Cincinnati, Ohio area.

    Comment by Ray — February 18, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

  53. Mission story time!

    Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, 1999:

    My 2nd companion, Elder Argyle told me a story about when he and his trainer (I can’t remember his name) were tracking and a woman came to the door.

    After a short (unproductive) discussion at the door, she hesitantly asked: “Do you really have horns?”

    Elder Argyle’s trainer without hesitation replied: “We sure do! Would you like to feel them?”

    She admitted that she would, and the Elder bent over to let her run her hands through his hair. “Do you feel them, Do you feel them?” he asked.

    “No” she replied.

    “Now don’t you feel stupid?” asked Elder Argyle’s trainer as he stood up.

    The woman of course slammed her door on the pair of Elders.

    Did I mention the Elder Argyle’s trainer had a reputation for Bible Bashing and offending people without even trying?

    Comment by Cicero — February 20, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

  54. Cicero: Thats funny you should share that story, because that is one of the new classics of Mormon folklore. I have found dozens of those stories in the BYU folklore collection, and most of them coming from the last couple decades.

    Comment by Ben — February 21, 2008 @ 2:17 am

  55. […] that we did not wear horns, or any other monstrous thing, to distinguish ourselves from others? (ht: Justin, SC Taysom, et alia). [1] Joseph, Hyrum, and William Smith also used or recorded conversations involving horns or horn […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Horns 1/7: A Selected Chronology — February 1, 2010 @ 3:01 am


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