Sounds like a rock band. Paul Revere and the Raiders. Rod Stewart and the Faces. Huey Lewis and the News. But no, in Mormon folklore the Three Nephites are long-lived persons who roam the land doing good deeds and covertly supporting God’s Kingdom here on Earth. John the Apostle, the model for the Three Nephites, apparently has the same power and duty, but doesn’t get the same sort of attention in Mormon folklore as his fellow
bandmates apostles. Folklore? Doctrine? Superstition? Magic? Let’s discuss these related terms in their LDS context.
Another musician defined superstition as “when you believe in things that you don’t understand.” Let’s refine that a bit. Superstition is when you half understand something, to the extent that you are convinced that if you avoid doing this or that act (stepping on a chalk line, breaking a mirror, avoiding the number 13 or 666) you also avoid some mystically associated bad consequences. Magic involves half understanding how to control those mystic forces or spirits in such a way as to make good or bad events happen to others or to oneself. Superstition and magic, fairly ubiquitous in human history, naturally get carried over into religion. And one of the rules in religion is you never call religious superstition “superstition,” and you never call religious magical practices “magic.” Their odd beliefs are superstition; ours are doctrine. Their powers are magical; our powers are divine, delegated from God Himself. That’s how religious people (all of them, not just LDS) think. Let’s dig a little deeper.
There was this thing called the Enlightenment. There are hundreds, nay thousands, of books on the Enlightenment, and the term has bloated to include just about everything that happened over the course of the 18th century. There is one Enlightenment topic of particular interest for us: a dramatic decline in general belief in witchcraft and similar superstitions. Belief in witches, of course, was previously a fixed and potent fear that led to persecution of suspected witches. (I’m inclined to believe there were many suspected witches but no actual witches, as commonly defined.) During times of panic this could lead to the torture and execution of dozens or hundreds of suspected witches. Americans tend to think of the Salem Witch Trials (1692) and attendant executions (about 20), but that sort of thing was much more widespread in Europe for two or three centuries. If you were accused of being a witch, you were in deep, deep trouble.
The conviction that some humans can injure or destroy people, livestock and crops by spells, the evil eye or the assistance of supernatural beings is found in most cultures and was endemic in European popular belief. … In the later Middle Ages, however, the Church exerted its authority against heretics, declaring them to be in league with the Devil. The image of the heretic became conflated with that of the witch. … All sides of the Reformation found convenient scapegoats in witches and Jews.The Enlightenment, Ritchie Robertson, HarperCollins (2021), p. 14-15.
By the end of the Enlightenment, such a belief was regarded as almost silly. Even at the beginning of the 18th century, belief in witchcraft was already in decline. “The Enlightenment did not cause the diminution of witch-beliefs; rather, that diminution was among the preconditions which enabled the Enlightenment to emerge” (Robertson, p. 14). Diminution, yes, but not elimination. Belief in superstitions, both secular and religious, continues right into our own 21st century. For evidence, just read the headlines in your local newspaper, then go check out the astrology column (almost every paper has one).
In my lighter moments, I have been known to claim that yes, the Enlightenment made it to America, but it stopped at Chicago. The Enlightenment never made it to Utah (I know the timing is a little off …). My claim, in other words, is that the Mormon mindset and worldview is still, in many ways, rooted in the 16th century: pre-Enlightenment (the 18th century) and even pre-scientific (the 17th century, the period of the Scientific Revolution). You might feel differently, and certainly the strong science programs at BYU, including evolution courses and research, are a counter-argument. But then there is the Religion Department, a strange array of enlightened teaching mingled with religious superstition and folklore.
Well, I could go on and on about the Enlightenment in general, the strange staying power of superstition and evidence-free beliefs right up to our day, and religious superstition in particular. But let me offer a bullet list of just a few LDS superstitions (folklore? beliefs? doctrines?) and then wind up with some questions for our studio audience.
- The Three Nephites. Do you believe they are abroad in the land, doing good deeds like rescuing cars stranded off the road in the snow? Do other Mormons in your neighborhood believe it? You don’t hear Three Nephite stories in General Conference anymore, but this might be a belief that has gone underground rather than one that has been quietly rejected by LDS leaders.
- Possession and Exorcism. Do you believe there are millions of spirits zooming around Planet Earth, eager to possess the bodies of susceptible humans, particularly Mormon humans? Do other Mormons believe this? My sense is Mormons believe this in theory, but not in practice. I just can’t see any LDS bishop, even the most orthodox zealot, telling a concerned member that they (or a troubled family member) are likely possessed and in need of an LDS priesthood exorcism. It’s an odd combination of belief (in spirits and possession) and denial (that it actually happens or ever merits an exorcism).
- God Sent the Seagulls. This is a Utah thing, I think. Some birds eat insects, and when there are a whole host of crickets near a lake with seagulls, the seagulls go feasting. That’s just how the world works. But try explaining that to a Utah Mormon who was raised on The Miracle of the Seagulls. It even has a Wikipedia entry. And there’s a Seagull Monument on Temple Square (again, with its own Wikipedia entry).
- Patriarchal Blessings. It’s easy to reject the advice in your local newspaper’s astrology column, supposedly based on your astrological sign and the insight of a particular astrologer. Active LDS are encouraged, almost required, to get advice through a patriarchal blessing, which is based on their tribal affiliation and the insight of a particular LDS patriarch. Some LDS find them very meaningful and helpful. And some people find astrological advice meaningful and helpful.
I’m sure readers can add other examples. I’ll ask that you not bring LDS temple practices or garments into the conversation. There are plenty of other examples to work with and other forums to pursue that particular conversation if you just have to have it.
So what gives? Why is the LDS community so open to religious superstition? (Or you may think differently, holding that the LDS community is *less* open to religious superstition than other religious denominations.) I haven’t even touched on seer stones or a dozen Jaredite submersible barges crossing the ocean or Zelph the Warrior or Korihor the witch-heretic (a constant reference point for LDS discussions). If one rejects the grab bag of LDS superstitions, does one also reject the Church (or get rejected by the Church)? In theory, senior LDS leaders try to separate key or essential doctrines of the gospel and Church from folklore and superstition. In practice, some local leaders can’t tell the difference.