“What an Excellent Day for an Exorcism” Part 1

By July 11, 2008

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)]

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Awesome. What era are you collecting accounts from? This is obviously an area of interest.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 11, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  2. Very interesting. Sounds similar to the classic symptoms of epilepsy – fits/spells/attacks, tensing up, paralysis, uncontrolled behavior, etc. I’m not sure if that is the devil possession we read of in the scriptures, but then again, maybe epilepsy is a form of possession. I get the impression from the New Testament that some possessed individuals acted with much sanity and eloquence, even while possessed (Acts 19:13-15). I once wrote about parallel methodologies of exorcism among different religious traditions on my blog, if you’re interested.

    Comment by Bryce Haymond — July 11, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  3. Thanks Stapley. I’m actually collecting accounts from any and all eras in LDS history. If anyone has a story involving “demons” or any such things that they would like to contribute to my data pool, please email me:
    sttaysom AT gmail DOTCOM

    I welcome archival material that you have located as well as personal accounts. In either case, please include as much context as possible:
    Time
    Location
    source

    Because this isn’t a folklore project (Wilson already has the market cornered on that), I am most interested in first person accounts. Second-hand accounts are OK as long as the person recounting the story can provide sufficient historical context. Anything beyond that is probably not useful for my purposes here.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 11, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

  4. Bryce,
    You have zeroed in on some important elements in the account (more on those later!). Thanks for the link to your blog, I will take a look at your materials.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 11, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  5. Fascinating, SC; great stuff.

    Comment by Ben — July 11, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  6. I have a boatload, but haven’t organized them. It may be a while before I can get to that; however, shoot me an email.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 11, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

  7. Interesting, indeed. Does Taves deal with exorcism at all in Fits, Trances, and Visions? I don’t have my copy on me, and can’t remember. I’m sorry I don’t have anything more substantial to add, but I look forward to your follow-up post.

    Comment by Christopher — July 11, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  8. Taves does address the issue, but only briefly. I remember that she cites a case of possession that was linked with the Azuza street revival and two or three others.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 11, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

  9. Intersting stuff. As one who has grown up with stories and experiences dealing with evil spirits and exorcism, I’m always interested in how they are interpreted.

    Comment by Jared T — July 11, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

  10. I find McKay’s ambivalence about the identification interesting: “…possessed of evil spirits, and indeed it did appear that such was the case”; “…the evil power-–whatever it was”; “one of these fits–or had another attack.”

    With “appears” and “whatever it was” and the “fit”/”attack” distinction, He seems to leave room for a naturalistic explanation–without retreating from either the idea that nature could be “evil” or that priesthood was efficacious against it.

    All over the Western world at the end of the 19th century, demons were possessing smaller and smaller gaps, displaced by the ascendance of allopathic medicine. The Germ Theory and x-ray machines, among other advances, were leading many to adopt, slowly, a more mechanistic view of the body at the expense of a spiritualistic view. I think the cited episode indicates some of that tension.

    Also: I find it interesting that he asks the victim to join in prayer, shifting her away from pure victimhood to a combination agent/victim. Agency, naturalism, and spiritualism also played key roles in the Small Pox vaccination controversy in Utah at about this time. (See Bluth’s thesis thereon.)

    Comment by Edje — July 11, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  11. In 10 I mean “spiritualism” to mean “a worldview in which spirits are real and affect nature” and not necessarily to mean the religious tradition called “spiritualism.”

    Comment by Edje — July 11, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  12. the sound came from her throat–not a lip moved

    Anyone have a medical or psychological diagnosis for this?

    Comment by Howard — July 11, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  13. A few more comments like these and I won’t need to do a follow-up post. Keep ’em coming!

    Howard, this is a phenomenon known as “ventriloquism” that is extremely common in accounts of possession throughout history. In 1681, Joseph Glanville had this to say: “For Ventriloquy, or speaking from the bottom of the Belly, ’tis a thing I think as strange and difficult to be conceived as any thing in Witchcraft, nor can it, I believe, be performed in any distinctness of articulate sounds, without such assistance of the Spirits, that spoke out of the Daemoniacks.” (Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions)
    There are physiological explanations that plausibly explain such events (although I haven’t time to enumerate them right now).

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 11, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  14. #12 – ventriloquism?

    Comment by Bryce Haymond — July 11, 2008 @ 4:50 pm

  15. SC Taysom,
    I considered ventriloquism but dismissed it assuming it required a skilled and deliberate fake. Please share the plausible physiological explanations when you have time.

    Comment by Howard — July 11, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

  16. Howard,
    Just a couple of thoughts really quick. In the history of religion, ventriloquism is simply defined as a voice coming from someplace other than the mouth of the speaker–so even when everyone thought that a demon was actually speaking through someone, it was appropriate to use the ventriloquism label. In cases like the one McKay describes, the naturalistic explanations tend to follow one of several paths. One is that the “victim” is deliberately faking the experience by producing a voice. As you suggest, this would require a good bit of skill. Another approach would be to suggest that the “victim” was indeed producing sounds which the listeners thought was a voice but which were actually unintelligible. The group dynamic in situations like this one are very important to consider. Sometimes it was demonstrated that the “victim” had an accomplice hidden somewhere who produced the voice.

    Then again, maybe a demon really was talking.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 11, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

  17. So Charlotte was a classic epileptic (#2) ventriloquist? And David O. McKay went on to become the president of the church?

    Comment by Howard — July 11, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

  18. 1. Who knows?
    2. Yes

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 11, 2008 @ 9:12 pm

  19. I just happen to be reading Schmidt’s Hearing Things, which is some excellent context to the ventriloquism (at least it appears so, I just started it).

    Even though I don’t have my excorcism accounts organized, I did just remember that we cite a couple in our baptism for health paper that is forthcoming in the Fall JMH. Here is a portion that will likely be of interest:

    George Hill recorded the baptism of hundreds of Shoshonis in 1876. Many of these individuals also received baptism for health, and at least one woman was apparently healed from possession by an evil spirit. (71) As nineteenth-century Mormons often believed that sickness was caused by Satan’s influence, healing rituals had power in physical and spiritual spheres. (72) Several records attest to the use of baptism for health and anointing as a means of exorcism. (73)

    71) George W. Hill, Letter, October 1, 1876, Journal History, October 1, 1876, 2, in Selected Collections, 2:7. Compare to George W. Hill, “Cases of Miraculous Healing” in A String of Pearls: Second Book of the Faith-Promoting Series, 2d ed., edited by George Q. Cannon (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882), 90–92. See also Charles E. Dibble, “The Mormon Mission to the Shoshoni Indians,” Utah Humanities Review 1 (July 1947): 279–93.

    72) See for example Bush, Health and Medicine among the Mormons, 44–45; Paul Reeve “‘The Devil Was Determined to Kill the Babies’: Matters of Communal Health in a Nineteenth-Century Mormon Town,” paper presented at the Communal Studies Association Conference, St. George, Utah, September 25, 1999, photocopy in our possession.

    73) For examples of baptism for health exorcisms, see John Pulsipher, A Short Sketch of John Pulsipher (n.p., 1970), 62–63; Edmund F. Bird, Letter to President Wells, Southampton, August 31, 1864, Millennial Star 26 (September 24, 1864): 622. For examples of anointing exorcisms, see Jedediah M. Grant, March 11, 1855, Journal of Discourses, 2:276–77; Rachel Elizabeth Pyne Smart, Autobiography, 1870–1930, 4–5, microfilm of typescript, LDS Church Archives.

    This wasn’t the focus of our paper, so we only included a few accounts and didn’t discuss it that much. As it relates to healing, there are also many accounts that are not explicitly exorcistic, but acknowledge that the sickness was caused by the power of the devil.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 12, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

  20. Thanks for the snippet from your forthcoming essay. In my judgment, Schmidt’s book is one of the best to be published in the field of American religion in the last 10 years or so.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 12, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

  21. SC,
    I deal with several demonic possession experiences (first hand, not lore) in “‘As Ugly as Evil’ and ‘As Wicked as Hell’: Gadianton Robbers and the Legend Process among the Mormons,” JMH 27 (Fall 2001): 125-49 and in “Cattle, Cotton, and Conflict: The Possession and Dispossession of Hebron, Utah,” UHQ 67 (Spring 1999): 148-75 (the “possession and dispossession” in the title is a play on demonic possessions). You can mine the notes for references. I can get you sources that might not otherwise be available if you find any of interest.

    I let my stake RS Pres, a psychologist by trade, read the Ugly as Evil article before I submitted it. She diagnosed several of the possessed people with mental illnesses. I’m not convinced.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — July 14, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  22. Thanks Paul. I have read both articles, but before I was serious about the current project. I will revisit them. Oh, and that is interesting about your stake RS President’s judgment.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 14, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

  23. […] was reminded of this episode by SC Taysom’s post on exorcism last week. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Missionaries and Smallpox, 1900 — July 15, 2008 @ 9:21 am


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