David O. McKay performed his first exorcism when he was 25. It was, he wrote in his journal, a day “long to be remembered.” I have been collecting Mormon accounts of exorcism for some time as I have worked on a project comparing approaches to this phenomenon in different religious traditions. McKay’s account is very useful for a variety of reasons. In a subsequent post, I will offer my comments on the text. In this post, I am reproducing the materials and inviting your comments on it.
3 September 1898, Newarthill, Lanarkshire, Scotland:
Went to Newarthill to see the young girl [Charlotte] who is sick. Found her in a nervous or spasmodic fit. Brother Orr said she was possessed of evil spirits, and indeed it did appear that such was the case. She would laugh and talk [and] tell the priesthood to go home and not torment her, ask their name, etc. Sometimes she would try to rise out of bed and although she was but a lassie weighing less than 100 pounds, it was all I could do to hold her and put her again in a quiet position. She seemed to be entirely unconscious when in this state. Her eyes were closed, and when she spoke, the sound came from her throat–not a lip moved. Just before regaining consciousness, her body became rigid, her hands clenched so tightly that the nails penetrated the skin, and her whole body–every muscle it seemed–became stiff as a board. She would lie in this state and then awaken, weak and limp, entirely exhausted. These attacks came on every few minutes, each one lasting about five minutes or more. We administered to her and she obtained peace for about an hour and half, during which time she sat up and talked as intelligently as anyone. She had another spell before we left. (We were then fasting for her relief).
4 September 1898:
After meeting [in Airdrie] we walked five miles back to Newarthill where, after a forty-eight hour fast, we were going to rebuke the evil power–whatever it was–afflicting the girl. The fast meeting was held in Sister Major’s house. As we entered, Charlotte was suffering from another attack. She had walked from Brother Orr’s–about a quarter or half mile. As the meeting commenced, the attacks became more frequent. One elder had to hold her all the time. These spells continued until after she partook of the sacrament. She then had peace during the meeting until we were about to unite in prayer before administering to her. Just as we began to consecrate the oil, she went into one of these fits–or had another attack. This was a long one. I told the saints (the house was full) that we would all kneel around her and unite with the one who was mouth in prayer. Taking her in my arms, I took a seat in the center of the room. When she regained consciousness, I told her we were all going to pray for her and asked her to unite with us. She feebly answered that she would. Brother Leatham was mouth. At the conclusion she said ‘I can walk now.’
McKay reported several days later that the “fits” had not returned. But the story didn’t end. At the center of this drama is Brother Orr, the branch president at Newarthill who surfaces multiple times as a troublesome actor in McKay’s life and who was the first to suggest that Charlotte’s symptoms indicated demonic possession. on 21 September, McKay reports that Orr came to see him and to apologize for “refus[ing] to carry out [McKay’s] counsel in regard to taking Charlotte home after the administration.” McKay apparently told Orr to take Charlotte into his home, but Orr sent Charlotte to her sister’s instead where she was “again suffering from the attacks.” “I am afraid,” McKay wrote “Brother Orr is working the saints up to an apostate heat.”
Now it’s time for you to become textual critics. What does a close reading of this account yield in terms of an understanding of fin de siècle Mormonism? Does the text itself display internal tensions that may be enlightening? I’m looking for any reactions you might have.
[The quotes are drawn from Stan Larson and Patricia Larson, eds., What Ere Thou Art Act Well Thy Part, The Missionary Journals of David O. McKay (Salt Lake: Blue Ribbon Books, 1999)]