Missionaries and Exorcisms

Missionaries and exorcismsMy mission experience, like most mission experiences, was memorable for a number of reasons. There were the usual spiritual experiences, friends made, people served, companions fought with, tracting despised, etc. More dramatic experiences include witnessing a gang-style assassination and trying to save the victim (I ended up covered in his blood and he died on the scene); being chased for several blocks by a large, terrifyingly athletic man screaming about the horrible things he was going to do to me (luckily I reached my bike in time before I could find out what that was like); contracting back-breaking dengue fever and ending up in a hospital exactly like what you might imagine a remote third world hospital might be like (several horrible things happened there but I just walked out in my hospital gown the second time a nurse bent a needle inside my arm). You know, the things you don’t write home to mom about.

I also “performed” three exorcisms on my mission. I say “perform” because I’m not entirely sure what to make of these experiences, what standard(s) of measurement to judge them by. Before my mission I had never thought in any serious way about “spirit possession.” Accounts of encounters with evil spirits among missionaries were, however, alive and well in my mission in Guatemala, and I would continue to occasionally hear about various similar stories after I returned home. 

I was a junior comp in my first area in a remote village in Guatemala called Jalapa. I had had a few months in the area at this point and my Spanish comprehension had finally kicked in, though speaking was still not without its difficulties.  One night I was on splits with a member while my companion was with the bishop, visiting another member. The bishop was pretty young, maybe 26, 27. We really liked him a lot. He was very assertive, dynamic, funny. At the end of our appointment we all met up again at the church. I was surprised to see my companion  was as white as a ghost. He looked genuinely ill. He said they were visiting with a semi-active woman and her children (she was maybe 32) and in the middle of the conversation she all of a sudden started laughing uncontrollably and screaming something in an incomprehensible language. The bishop then said we were going back the next day to “take care of the problem.”

We returned the next day. I didn’t know what we were going to do; the bishop had simply said he would do the talking and we should follow his lead. When we arrived we just chatted for about 20 minutes. Her husband had been in the States working  for 7 or 8 years and would return once a year. (Many men left their families to work in the US and few returned, in my experience). According to her kids, her strange behavior had begun a few months before and it was quite scary. Now it was happening almost daily. Then, precisely as my companion had described it, without warning she began laughing and crying uncontrollably. To that point it was the most frightening I had ever seen or heard (until later, when the sound of crying twin babies would easily replace it). I vividly remember her voice sounding unnaturally deep and echoing throughout the house, though she didn’t say anything in an incomprehensible language. The bishop then turned to my companion  and calmly asked him to say a prayer and invoke a blessing on her, her children, and the house. When he finished, the bishop instructed us to kneel on the ground and raise our arms to the square. I don’t remember his precise wording, though I did not get the impression he was not repeating some specific priesthood or religious rite. He said something like, “By the power of the holy Melchizedek priesthood and in the name of Jesus Christ we command you to leave her.” He had to repeat himself a few times because she didn’t stop. Finally she calmed down and started weeping, softly. She said she felt at peace for the first time in a long time. We left, my companion and I in a daze. The bishop didn’t seem fazed; he said he had encountered demonic possession a few times in his mission in western Guatemala and he “knew what to do.” A couple weeks later, however, we had a report of it happening again. So we went with the bishop again to her home and repeated the same process. Then the bishop told us to scour the house looking for “evil objects.” The only things we discovered were these strange paintings of topless women riding bears and tigers (a purchase of her husband years ago that she somehow kept on her walls without throwing away. I had the sense she was frightened of him even after years of little to no contact with him). The bishop told her we would be taking them and destroying them, which she agreed to. The three of us then returned to our apartment and built a large fire in a nearby field and threw them in. We stood there silently watching the paintings slowly curl up and burn to ash. The bishop confidently said that that should take care of that and he left.

For a couple weeks, our exorcisms were all we could talk about, though for some reason we were reluctant to discuss the experience with the other missionaries in our district and we did not inform the mission president. Gradually, though, it faded into the background of the usual work missionaries do.

Months later I had returned to the general area of Jalapa, though now I was assigned to a village called Monjas about 30 minutes away. One day my companion and I traveled to Jalapa in order to track down some birth records which we needed in order to help a couple marry so they could be baptized.  Walking through the village market I heard someone call my name. It was the bishop. He said he knew (somehow) I would be in town today, that the demon had returned, and he would need my assistance. Apparently I had a talent for demon-dispensing (though also apparent was that he and I were both not very good at it since this would be the third time with the same woman). So, the Guatemalan Mormon Exorcism Task Force was reactivated.

This time she had lost it in the middle of a ward activity and nearly frightened everyone to death. I found her in a Sunday School classroom and the bishop said he didn’t want my (junior) companion to see this because he “wasn’t prepared.” So this time it was just me and Señor Merrin. We performed it again, the same as before. After it was over and she had come to herself, he laid into her, berating her for  clearly having been doing something she shouldn’t and inviting the evil spirit to return. She tearfully admitted to taking her son, who had been sick, to see a witch doctor, and told us it had been her husband’s idea, who had returned briefly a few months before. This was also, we discovered, what had happened the first time. The bishop replied, no more witch doctors, and she fervently agreed. I transferred out of Monjas a short while later and haven’t spoke to anyone involved in it since.

At the time, I was bewildered and amazed, but mostly bewildered, I think, largely because it was as much a foreign experience culturally as religiously. I have no idea where the bishop had learned the “forms” of what he had done, though it seems apparent that other missionaries had taught him on his mission. I suspect it was ultimately a combination of Mormon priesthood performance/prayer and exotic Latin American Catholic sensibility. Latin American culture and religion is, after all, drenched in its own evolutionary Catholicism.  I don’t remember simply taking it as evidence of the power of the priesthood so much as unique mysterious contact with another world.

Naturally, in the modern world we would assume that she had psychological and/or neurological problems for which she should have sought medical help from professionals. As a modern myself, I’m inclined to think that even if it could be shown that she was possessed, professional medical attention would have also been necessary. Interestingly, as a missionary, it never even occurred to me to interpret her experience as some kind of a mental illness. I was in that world, a world of miracles, angels, and demons, where God’s influence and Satan’s influence were competing for souls. Now, as a scholar of philosophy and religion, I’m also sensitive to the paradigm of Enlightenment rationalism, which often has a tendency to subsume all discourses and forms of life into science, thereby making science the arbiter of all other discourses. For what it’s worth, I follow Ludwig Wittgenstein on this particular point, with his notion of a “language game,” which is that there is no normative meta-language (like science) that all other languages (including religion) must reduce to and be  translated into. Religion is a language of its own, with its own paradigms. Science as well. One does not reduce to the other. Nevertheless, languages do bump up against one another and overlap with each other, since most individuals live the forms of life inherent to multiple language games. It’s a complex tension, and appealing solely to science or solely to religious experience doesn’t seem to relax it any. I guess even today I don’t quite know what to think about these experiences.

(I should also note that a couple BCC folks are working on scholarship on Mormonism and exorcism as we speak and what they have so far is extremely fascinating).

Comments

  1. There was a post, amazingly over 7 years ago(!), that is in my pantheon of all-time great BCC threads:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2006/01/10/mormons-and-mental-illness-demonic-possession/

  2. I did this once on my mission. It was an interesting experience.

  3. Tim, hard to believe how old that post is!

  4. Kim, what was your experience?

  5. I have a degree in biology and am pretty skeptical of any claims of possession and other supernatural things. I met plenty of crazy people on my mission, and I attribute the vast majority of that craziness to mental illnesses. Mormon missionaries seem to be magnets for people with mental illnesses, or at least they were on my mission. However, there were a couple of exceptions, accompanied by a strong spiritual prompting of “get out of there now,” Of course, there were several instances where a blessing, or even just us being there, drove dark feelings from the room–but I never attributed those feelings to evil spirits, just to the total absence of the spirit.

    Speaking about the intersection of science and the supernatural, I was on an overnight field trip for one of my BYU biology classes, and some of the students were making jokes about water-witching over the campfire. The biology professor, not LDS, cut in and basically told us there was something to it. For some reason I have the impression that this underground acceptance of water-witching is common in the biology department at BYU. Perhaps, though, this was just an isolated incident of belief. I also heard that BYU had hired water-witchers to look for water sites at some of BYU’s property in Southern Utah, although I’m not sure if that was any more than rumors.

  6. There was a similar thread on this site a couple of months ago, and I won’t repeat myself on this thread. I have a pretty much knee-jerk skepticism about any fantastical claims I hear (particularly those that are supernatural in nature), so I don’t begrudge anyone who has the same reactions as I generally have. (I’m also the son of a clinical psychologist and not unfamiliar with the characteristics and manifestations of schizophrenia, hallucinations and other psychiatric disorders.) I have no doubt that what some have thought was evil spirits was indeed merely psychiatric in nature. And then there is the prolonged experience I and many others witnessed on my mission, which I nor anybody who witnessed the series of events, can explain away.

    However, when this member was finally relieved of what plagued her (and indirectly many others), I wouldn’t describe it as any kind of “exorcism.” It was ultimately a very peaceful and spiritually uplifting outcome that greatly strengthened my faith in Jesus Christ and his absolute power among those who have faith.

    As this thread gets going, all I hope for is that as people discuss the fact that there are plenty of false “negative spiritual experiences” out there, there is also the real kind. Jesus healed the sick AND he cast out devils, and I believe he knew when he was doing one or the other.

    That is all.

  7. I remember when I was a young teenager, they used to do firesides on backmasking, subliminal messages in advertising, and Satanic symbols which were everywhere. They played the records, showed us some grand dragon grand poobah who was lurking on the album cover on Hotel California, showed us skulls in ice in vodka advertisements. That stuff scared the snot out of me. I could hardly sleep for ages and had to listen to church music on my 8-track just to try to get to sleep. I would wake at night and think evil spirits were there. I remember my mother or father,–can’t remember which–explaining, that you raise your arm to the square and say “Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave this room.” I was also told that this procedure would work for exorcisms from people. That very process scared the bejeebers out of me because now I was addressing the dark one. I don’t think I was the only one who had that experience and I don’t think I was the only one who was taught by the nearest LDS adult how to cast out a devil. Fast forward to today, I can’t recall this ever being discussed in an EQ or HP meeting or anywhere else. I certainly don’t teach my kids about this stuff. Teaching a kid to fixate on this stuff is harmful, IMO. Having said that, oija boards and bloody mary games still get played at slumber parties, including with LDS kids, so perhaps we aren’t finished dabbling with occult stuff.

  8. I think that the scientific paradigm that we all live with and within (myself included) basically precludes any serious consideration demonic possession. And using the term “exorcism” is a cultural reference anyway, though Catholic in origin, I believe. So that the eradication spiritual plague of many kinds might be described as an exorcism rather than spiritual healing.

    Determining the “real” versus the “fake” is not necessarily straightforward and unproblematic,

  9. Mine comes from my mission experience in the far foreign land of Dallas, Texas. We’d been helping and teaching a pair of women who had multiple personality disorder, one of whom was a member. Her disorder had reportedly been caused by some satanic worship in the lds ward where she’d grown up (somewhere in the north plains, I think). In any case, it made for the ocasional very interesting discussion. At one pont, it was mentioned that they had been feeling a bad spirit in their home, and they had asked that we perform an excorsism and dedicate their home. My Elder Companion got permission and instruction from the Mission President. I assume that the form mostly comes from that used in the endowment ceremony film.

    Anyway, it was a, well, a singular experience.

  10. Similar experience as well. I’d love to know how common this is. Your post articulates really nicely the way I feel about it now but had not found a way to express. I had one or two really miraculous experiences with Priesthood blessings for people experiencing seizures or other physical manifestations of (what I understood to be) fragile mental well being. But the one experience I had that was more “exorcism” like was extremely different, and very similar in detail to yours (the individual had been attempting to contact the other side, etc). In our case the intervention didn’t quite work out, but we weren’t quite as polished as the bishop in your story. I was reading the story of Peter and Tabitha the other night and the spiritual language side of my brain actually wondered about my exorcism experience (it has been 15 years) and whether we would have had more success had we sent others out of the room, like Peter, before proceeding (we didn’t).

    At any rate, thanks for the post and would be very curious to see more scholarship on this topic.

  11. Here’s what fascinates me most about possession/exorcism in Mormonism;

    1) Mormons from the developed world most often have experiences with this—often firsthand, as in the OP—as missionaries. And that’s not just limited to witnessing the phenomenon among locals, either (although there definitely is a first-/third-world dimension to it). Part of it definitely is the encounter with what’s coded as underdeveloped or savage/premodern cultural spaces, but part of it is that it is as missionaries that we most directly and regularly encounter Satan. The discourse of missionary service is saturated with the belief that Satan more directly and relentlessly targets missionaries, that dark and light forces are vying to destroy/protect missionaries. So the encounter with demons is closely connected with folk beliefs about Satan’s control over water (which he evidently only uses to attack missionaries), and with ideas about companions as a form of protection. Outside of the mission field, I think the only real, regular contact Church members experience with dark forces is evident in the very common idea that if you’re planning on attending the temple you should not talk about it or else circumstances will somehow conspire to keep you from attending.

    2) We don’t just cast demons out from people. In fact, in my experience, we cast them from spaces (houses, apartments, rooms, etc) much more often. This spatial connection is, I think, related to the developed/undeveloped, civilized/savage dichotomy I alluded to above and that at least partly articulates with the Zion/The World or Zion/Mission Field binary in LDS discourse. It also connects exorcisms to the logic of dedicating/consecrating space, homes, and buildings.

    3) There are no formal or official performative guidelines for using the priesthood to cast out evil spirits (from persons or spaces). So we have developed a kind of folk liturgy that piggybacks on a) general forms of priesthood invocation, b) consecration/dedicatory prayers for buildings and homes, and c) the ceremonial drama of the temple.

  12. Hagoth, 10:28. That is one of the most fascinating comments I’ve read in some time.

  13. Yes, to all of Brad’s comment. We also see this in the early days of the Church in England where Heber C Kimball and others have a violent encounter with an evil spirit. And earlier, with Joseph Smith’s encounter with Satan in the grove (though satanic realities were prevalent throughout the country and especially in the back country during that time). It’s there from the very beginning of our narrative.

  14. (Not a follow-up to my above comment)

    I witnessed an incident in which psychiatric issues seemed to be the prevalent factor, but the missionaries ascribed it to evil spirits.

    Without getting into too many details, a couple of years ago I was on splits with the missionaries and showed up to the home of a single sister I (still) home teach while she was in the act of looking around the house for something to kill herself. I’d felt impressed to visit her at that time, and felt guided by the spirit in what to say and do during the visit. Based on what she told us, I was firmly convinced that she was suffering from both severe depression and schizophrenia. We talked a long time before I was convinced that she’d be okay that night and nobody needed to stay over to watch her. We gave her a blessing, I called the bishop immediately after I dropped off the elders at their apartment, and he was able to help her get psychiatric help and medication, and she’s been much better since then.

    To me, that had been just a great spiritual experience, knowing we’d been led to the right place at the right time and prevented a potential tragedy. It had been humbling and faith-affirming. To the elders, it was an entirely different experience.

    They had hardly spoken a word during our long conversation, despite both of them being natural talkers. They had seemed hesitant to touch her head when she had consented to a blessing. And on the car ride home, they talked about how freaked out and scared they had been. And after transfers, the new missionaries asked me about that experience. Apparently the story had spread among the missionaries, at minimum beyond the zone. It had been shared as an incredibly freaky experience in which they could hardly bear the sense of evil and dread in the home.

    Now, I hadn’t felt anything freaky during that experience — just deep concern for this sister (who today is practically family to my wife and me) and a rare and humbling experience in which I felt like I was almost literally being the Lord’s hands and voice on another’s behalf.

    I’m not certain, but open to the idea, that both I and the elders were experiencing different but authentic aspects of the same event. Her disability was real, and perhaps the elders were sensitized to evils influences that were trying to help her make the worst of her situation. I don’t know.

    I’m also open to the possibility that because of the inherent “freakiness” of the situation, the evil influences and feelings were largely self-generated by the missionaries.

    Who knows? I was there and I’m still not sure.

  15. Jacob, your mission was more exciting than mine was by at least an order of magnitude. Not that I’m complaining.

  16. While I was working in the mission office in Chile, I witnessed an event that taught me a life lesson. A visiting General Authority (GA)–who shall remain nameless–was asked by a pair of missionaries what he could do to assist a young lady they had brought with them to see him and who supposedly was “possessed” or “afflicted” by an evil spirit. I saw the GA look the young lady up and down once, he then requested a copy of the Book of Mormon, handed the book to the young lady, and said simply, “Here, read this book from start to finish.” And then he walked away.

    As I thought about that encounter afterward, I realized the GA’s reaction and proscription for the young lady was based on the simple yet profound principles that 1) Light and dark cannot and do not occupy the same space at the same time, 2) The darkness cannot abide the light and will always flee before the light, and 3) Light attracts light and darkness invites more darkness.

  17. Three quick notes;
    1-the whole exorcism thing may have a lot to do with culture, on my mission in Chile I only heard of 1 exorcism attempted in the two years I was there. So you may see it more often in some countries and less in others.

    2-I can say without a doubt though that the dark side exists. I had an experience on my mission that had nothing to do with an exorcism or even a person (thank goodness), but the dark side was visible. Thankfully I had many more pleasant experiences than I did unpleasant.

    3-As far as I know the LDS Church says we do not perform exorcisms. My mother-in-law asked her Bishop for one (she is Japanese and very superstitious) but her Bishop said the Church does not perform exorcisms. She does however get wellness blessings from her Home Teachers probably more often than anyone in the history of the Church. I actually feel bad for her Home Teachers.

    So I am very interested to see what you have in the works regarding the Church and their official stance on exorcisms.

    Thank you.

  18. Few in the developed world tarry near the veil today, We are far too distracted by activity and as Mormons being “active” in the church to actually be still long enough to know God. But if you do and the veil thins it will be darkness you experience before it dawns on you to choose the light. Mental illness sure that accounts for much of this kind of stuff but certainly not all. LDS spirituality often peaks during a mission, add a culture with primitive beliefs and it seems to stimulate more primitive encounters.

  19. Mephibosheth says:

    I feel like I have a lot to say on this topic because you don’t get too many chances to talk about it since in the church there is kind of a (wise, in my opinion) taboo about speaking too much about the devil because it invites him, but Brad’s comment jogged my memory of an experience I had in my last area serving as a missionary in England.

    The bishop got a call from a nonmember family that lived around the corner from our church. She said her house was possessed and could someone drop by and exorcise it please. The bishop punted to the missionaries, saying it might be a good missionary opportunity, LOL. I had no idea how to perform an exorcism; I had heard stories of people casting devils out of people by laying on hands and giving a blessing, and I had heard people say that the temple gives you instruction on how to cast out the devil, but only from missionaries and so I was skeptical of that interpretation (more on this later). So I decided I would just dedicate the house. I called her and arranged a time to come over, and she explained how doors and cupboards had been opening and closing by themselves, hearing a bell ringing or children’s laughter, etc. usual stuff. She said she called a vicar first because they were lapsed Anglicans and he came over but in the middle of his exorcism he stopped and ran out of the house without saying a word and wouldn’t return her calls. I had her call all the family in, asked them if anyone was playing with Ouija boards or doing anything that might invite a demonic presence and they said no. I dedicated the house and included a positive, upbeat blessing on the family and made a point of staying after chatting with the family to draw a distinction between our behavior and the vicar’s. But I went home about a week after that so I don’t know the rest of the story!

    Then in 2008 I was at a fireside in Louisville, KY with Elder Richard G. Scott. He had planned a presentation using this kind of overhead projector/whiteboard thingy but due to technical difficulties he abandoned this and just did a Q&A session for an hour. Someone asked him about casting out devils, and I forget the exact question, but the context was should we be worried about Satan’s power or something. Elder Scott said that the temple includes instruction on casting out devils, so there is your apostolic verification for that particular practice. He also said that he has spent a lot of time in parts of the world where the power of the adversary is a lot more active and has never had any problem, since an evil spirit without a body cannot have any power over a righteous spirit with a body, and he testified that the temple instruction works.

  20. Fascinating story, Jacob.

    My mission had a lot of stories–more rumors than anything–that floated around regarding similar occurrences. My very first transfer on Christmas Eve my companion and I both felt uneasy in our apartment all of a sudden, so our branch president came over and re-dedicated it for us, as we were both too freaked out by sounds, shadows, etc. to do much of anything in the moment. Later on I just tried harder to push those dark feelings and sensations away. Some places had it more than others, and a number of times as people (most of them Catholics) recounted their “spiritual” experiences, I would just listen and feel sick to my stomach.

    Lorin made some excellent points that maybe missionaries just experience things differently because of x, y, and z. Culture definitely plays into it. The mission really is a completely different part of life…

  21. John Harrison says:

    I stand by what I said in the comments section that Tim J linked to. I miss many of those commenters. :(

    In addition, I’ll add one more detail. I was taught exorcism at the conclusion of my patriarchal blessing. After the blessing the patriarch said something along the lines of, “I feel a strong impression to tell you one more thing that wouldn’t have been appropriate to include in the blessing. You have the power to command an evil spirit to leave a person. This is performed by holding your right hand to the square and commanding the spirit to leave in the name of Jesus Christ.”

    At the time I filed it away. I certainly never anticipated that a person claiming to be possessed would attempt to stab me, or that there would be an hours long altercation involved.

  22. Ask yourself this. How often do you, perhaps a few, perhaps many, years post mission go tromping into far flung parts of your local city talking to everyone you meet? How often do you deliberately go out seeking to connect with people of all different walks of life and enter into their homes and engage them in conversation about topics of faith? How diverse is your Ward, how diverse is your Stake, and how diverse are the people you interact with on a daily basis?

    I’m going to guess for most Mormons and for most people in general they do not branch too far beyond the norms they themselves inhabit. So is it any wonder that you’re not experiencing those same unusual possession encounters that you might find otherwise?

    I served in France – definitely not the third world. I had, from my recollection after recent exploration of my journals, 4 extensive encounters with worshipers of the occult (meaning I didn’t just talk to them for an hour in their home or on the street), 2 encounters with possessed people, and 3 interactions with possessed missionaries and one of them was me. Years after I returned from my mission I encountered what was clearly someone possessed and not in need of mental attention.

    None of these were crazy people, none of these were mentally ill. I had early interactions with mentally ill individuals as a boy and young man so I feel pretty comfortable in asserting that mental illness was not at play. I might be wrong but I doubt it. This wasn’t something I talked about as a missionary nor was it something I spent much time thinking about until I encountered it and we didn’t spend much time discussing it after it happened either. We never used the raised hand to the square when the spirit was cast out of the missionaries but instead laid hands on their heads and commanded the spirits to leave. Even in Catholic France there was never discussion of exorcism – I never heard the word used once.

    Our Ward we live in now is a fairly diverse congregation and previously as a Ward Mission Leader and now as a member of the Bishopric I have found myself on many visits with the missionaries. We encounter plenty of people with bipolar disorders, drug addictions, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric disorders. None of them resemble anything like the other encounters I previously described.

    I am a huge skeptic on these matters except for my personal experience tells me otherwise. Why is it impossible to believe in a modern world that Satan has a grasp on the world around him and that through various means is trying to influence, yes if invited, even possess those who are willing to open themselves up to him? I can appreciate why people would be skeptical and I’m very familiar with how missionary myths perpetuate. I later found out about a story that evolved from an experience a companion and I had in a cathedral in Reims that as told once passed through the whisper lines was entirely fabricated.

    When a man from Sudan looks at you and proceeds to tell you things he could not possibly know about you because no one on your mission even knows these things and you’ve not told him anything about yourself, especially after doing the exact same thing to the Sister missionaries who called you to come meet him because he freaked them out, you don’t doubt that the adversary has dark powers. And yet this man was interested in learning from these messengers God had sent to his door. The amusing thing was that when we left I felt compelled to leave a blessing upon his home and closed it by invoking the priesthood in that prayer. He called me back the next day and asked me to remove the prayer because he had felt compelled by that spirit I left in his home to listen more intently to what we had to say and he did not want to get baptized. If it were not for his unusual ability to “read people” I would have taken the whole thing for a hoax.

    Believe what you will, I know what I’ve experienced.

  23. Fascinating story. I grew up hearing similar accounts and assumed it was a universal part of the missionary experience. I was called to serve in England and much to my surprise at the time did not have a single remotely similar experience. I later came to the conclusion that those types of experiences are largely driven by culture and that aspect was mostly absent from contemporary English culture. Very interesting topic. Thank you.

  24. My companion and I once met a very engaging man on the street in Taiwan. We invited him to attend church with us. His response- “I’ll come to your meeting if you attend mine!” The church he belonged to was the “Zhen Jidu Jiao” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Jesus_Church).

    The meeting was just starting as we slipped in the back door with our friend and grabbed a back row seat. After a brief sermon, a congregational prayer was led by the minister/pastor. Accompanied by music, the congregation began to pray in unison until a few people broke off from reciting in unison and the glossolalia began. Soon, the entire congregation was speaking in tongues. At the time, it ‘felt’ dark and scary. We ended up leaving (abandoning the investigator who was also speaking in tongues) and called the mission president to tell him about it. He explained that while many of the people had probably been ‘faking it’, a few of the people could likely have been ‘possessed’. This was fascinating to me since I was ‘blessed’ with the ‘gift of tongues’ in learning Mandarin Chinese. Many times in fact- during my setting apart blessing to become a missionary, 5 (count ‘em!) ‘Apostolic blessings’ in the MTC, and in a blessing by my MTC companion when I struggled with the language.

    There were other instances in the mission where investigators who were involved with other Pentecostal Chinese churches were ‘possessed’ etc.. It was commonly taught among missionaries and by the mission president that glossolalia was ‘the devil’ mimicking the ‘true gift of tongues’ that we all *obviously* possessed so well and to feel free to square off and cast away.

    10 years late the irony of the claims on both sides is hilarious. We also sure weren’t doing much by way of building bridges with our fellow Christians.

  25. I have 2 stories that relate to this. One second hand, one first.
    Background: My mission was to Brazil’s northeastern backwoods, in a largely Yoruban-influenced religious culture. Normal, everyday religious affiliations of the people were (Google ‘em): Santaria-like Umbanda, Candomblé/Macumba, Vodum (like Haitian “voodoo”), and of course (in order of number and fervency), Charismatic Christian, Charismatic Catholic, and vanilla Catholic. I lived across the street from a Candomble house at one time, and another time an Umbanda terreiro/yard. Spirits, idols, blood sacrifice, possession by good or evil spirits was everyday.

    1st hand:
    In *EVERY* church (or worship service) –except ours and the vanilla Catholics– exorcisms were a common and nightly/weekly occurrence. One of our “selling points” as it were, was people telling us “you guys must really have God with you because none of your people get possessed by demons.” or it was a liability like “my pastor says you guys can’t cast out devils so people with devils come to our church to get healed.”

    I was knocking doors and we got in a house of someone who looked genuinely afraid of us. We spent time trying to talk him down and establish trust. I couldn’t figure out why he would invite us in if he seemed so afraid, we were normally happy to talk to people at their front gate. I had to use the restroom so I went to the back of the house, and passed a closed doorway which honestly, seriously, thoroughly sent waves of darkness, anguish, and fear through me– for no reason. It was a door. I decided I didn’t need to go to the restroom that bad so I went back to the front room. The guy had calmed down and said, “hey do you want to see my saints collection?” and we said OK, and he led us back to THE room, and opened the door. The room was filled with Vodum paraphernalia (idols, sacrificed animals etc) and Umbanda paraphernalia (which includes saints statues). I felt totally the same way upon seeing the room as I did before I saw the room. He then said “I know why you’ve really come. You’ve come to cast me out, and cast out my sister.”

    We excused ourselves and beat feet out of there. It was my opportunity to do some folk-exorcism stuff, and I decided that it was something I didn’t even want to try and figure out or confront.

    2n hand:
    On my mission, a fellow missionary told me a story that happened to him. He said that they were asked to come to a member’s relative’s house after church to give a young tween kid in the house a blessing. When they got there, the kid went went nuts with gnashing, shouting, glossolalia, etc. His comp decided to “cast out the evil one,” and tried to do so by the “standard means.” The kid laughed at him and told him “you can’t cast me out; you’re an unworthy servant. You did [X] with [Y] back home and haven’t told anyone about it.” His comp dropped and started to cry, and they both left and called the member’s bishop and the Mission President. My friend characterized it as “too scary for words” and “I’m never going back to that house or family for as long as I live.”

    I admit that I don’t think I really understand what is meant in the scriptures and by past church leaders when they talk about possession or evil spirits/what have you. I normally am willing to chalk it up to mental illness, charismatic expression of other spiritual needs, etc. It’s the handful of situations I have had, and know of from reliable witnesses, that make me ponder on some “real force” that can control us like meat puppets, however unlikely I find it.

  26. Once casting; once contact with and getting out as fast as possible.

    They were real and not caused by illness of any kind.

    That’s all I have to say about that.

  27. I think we would all be surprised to find out that many of the problems that exist with people today (and throughout history for that matter) are a result of dark entities, whether they possess people or just are attached to them. Spirits from the other side of the veil surround and affect us far more than we are willing to believe. However, because we believe we are more enlightened,and have modern medicine, psychology, etc., we tend to blame it on mental health or physical issues.

  28. Thank you Jacob for sharing your experiences. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, a skeptic and now a believer. I think it is an important topic as it leads to many questions, especially the question of what do I really believe?
    Although I did not experience an “exorcisom” while on my mission, I did experience evil spirits and see people who were possessed. I came to understand that although I “said” I believed that Satan existed and in the many stories in the scriptures which speak of evil spirits, I really had given it no thought, nor did I truly believe in them. After experiencing them, I knew they were real, no one, no matter how “educated” or logical can change what I experienced that evening. I had experienced evil from another realm.
    My degree in biology has also brought up many questions, but it has not changed the spiritual experiences that I have had. I have experienced love from another realm also, and I know God exists. God has answered and is answering those questions over time. I have discovered that I placed way too much faith in the philosophies of men, let alone those mingled with scripture.
    I agree with Howard at 11:51 am when he said:
    “Few in the developed world tarry near the veil today, We are far too distracted by activity and as Mormons being ‘active’ in the church to actually be still long enough to know God. ”
    So what do we believe? Did Christ really cast out devils and heal people? What is the connection between illness and evil spirits? Along the same lines, at least I believe it is very much related…how many of us have seen angels, miraculous healings, visions and other things we supposedly believe in our Mormon “faith”?

  29. I think often of these words Moroni quoted from his father in Moroni 7:
    35 And now, my beloved brethren, if this be the case that these things are true which I have spoken unto you, and God will show unto you, with power and great glory at the last day, that they are true, and if they are true has the day of miracles ceased?
    36 Or have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men? Or has he withheld the power of the Holy Ghost from them? Or will he, so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man upon the face thereof to be saved?
    37 Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain.

  30. I was called with my companion to cast out devils once on my mission in West Texas. The woman was thrashing on the bed, wailing, and she was surrounded by her huge Hispanic family who were reading Psalms and putting holy water on her. Nervously, we administered the blessing, but it did not seem to help. We asked a few questions of the family and they told us, “We took her to the hospital and they couldn’t find anything wrong with her! And they wouldn’t give her her medicine!” And we were like, “What medicine?” And they go, “Oh, she’s been taking methodone for about six months but she quit like a few days ago.”

    “Demons” come in many shapes, sizes, and dosages.

  31. That having been said, as a psychology grad student I tend to see “demon possessions” in the Bible as mental illnesses – and that actually makes them even more amazing to me. It makes sense that Jesus could tell evil spirits what to do… but if he could cure Schizophrenia, then that’s more miraculous than I could fathom.

  32. “It makes sense that Jesus could tell evil spirits what to do… but if he could cure Schizophrenia, then that’s more miraculous than I could fathom.”

    Amen.

  33. Wesley Craig says:

    As one of the few professional Mormon therapists who has dealt with evil spirits in a professional publication you might be interested in reading my article published in the AMCAP Journal many years back (I retired from BYU in 1987). Google: Wesley W Craig, LCSW, Ph.D., Evil Spirit

  34. I got chills on that story of N’s (the second hand one).

    I had no first hand experience with exorcism as a missionary, although we were teaching a woman with a severely disabled daughter who was 26 and confined to a crib. The daughter’s legs were completely atrophied, and she could only vocalize wailing sounds. She had upper body mobility, but no real control, and her limbs seemed frozen in contorted positions. Whenever we started to talk about the First Vision, she was become very upset, loudly wailing from the other room, even though she was not really sensible to what was going on. She couldn’t even see us from where she was. We started to get a little paranoid about the third time this happened. It seemed like a real coincidence.

    Aside from that, when I was 11 the Amityville Horror came out. It was filmed in the town we were living in, so my parents decided it would be a great family home evening activity. The movie was sold out, so the three of us had to sit separately. I watched the whole movie sitting next to total strangers. After the movie, my parents said another seat had freed up, so they got to sit together after all. I’m surprised they didn’t hear me screaming my head off through the whole movie. Later that year, I tried exorcism on our cat. I don’t recommend that.

  35. Hedgehog says:

    Matt Hughes 2:37pm
    I’m guessing you either only scratched the surface of English culture, or the number of mature priesthood-holders means missionaries don’t encounter things very often.
    I have a few tales.
    1.When I was 15 one of my school friends got into occult stuff, particularly tarot cards as I remember. One day a few of us were in an empty classroom and she was wanting to demonstrate her fortune telling, and started her preparation. The atmosphere in the room got quite horrible. I really didn’t like it, and was concerned for her, so I took my seminary scripture cards out and laid them on the desk to give me something to focus on whilst praying quietly to myself, which was the only thing I could think of apart from running. The horrible atmosphere left, much to the annoyance of my friend, who said that the atmosphere was a necessary part of the process. She went off in a huff.
    2. Also when I was a teen, my aunt contacted my father about happenings at the home of one of my cousins, requiring exorcism, and which was scaring the children. He contacted the bishop to arrange to have someone go with him. On the selected day, he had been fasting throughout. There must have been a youth activity at the chapel because I was there when he was a trifle consternated to find the Bishop wasn’t. However another HP (in my view a better choice all round) indicated to my father that he knew what they needed to do, and off they went. I presume it was successful since I didn’t hear anything else.
    3. When I was in a singles ward the then Bishop told of an exorcism of a person he had had to conduct at the church building, and how the evil spirit on leaving that individual (who had stumbled in off the street) had then attacked a member in the building, who had then also required exorcism.
    4. In my last ward, one sister told of an inactive lady she visit taught who was distressed by evil spirits in the home. The VTer prayed for spirits to leave, and they proceeded to accompany her home for a day or so.
    5. I also know a sister who told of her daughter’s council house being occupied by evil spirits, and her grandson experiencing many unpleasant things. She had priesthood holders go round a couple of times, but the spirits always returned – to which the PHer response was apparently that the daughter must want them there. The problem was solved when the daughter was able to transfer to a different house, but this sister felt guilty about the family who would be moving in next.

  36. That certainly is possible. The Church is very well established in England. I served mostly in strong, flourishing wards. In only one area did I serve in a branch. I did hear second hand about some unusual things happening with some spiritualist and pentecostal congregations in a couple of my areas, but like I said I never experienced anything of the nature described in the article first hand while on my mission.

  37. marginalizedmormon says:

    this sounds like a, mostly, young group–
    I had an experience with evil on my mission that I’m still not over, and it took place in the early 70s–

    I find it intriguing that so many “with degrees” don’t believe that evil exists or that it can threaten people who aren’t doing evil things–

    I haven’t ever spoken openly about several experiences I had when young, one right before my mission, but I have found people I trusted to whom I have spoken about my experience; another person had had a very similar experience, ‘out of the blue’–not invited by anything and certainly not by mental illness.

    For what it’s worth, person with a ‘biology degree’, I know people with multiple and terminal degrees who have had experiences with evil who were not mentally ill–

    I think that when people don’t believe in evil versus good–and I don’t think most Mormons believe there are evil forces–

    then they don’t have as much to worry about. Many Mormons that I know don’t believe either in evil or in good. They ‘hedge their bets’ (one prominent ward member used these very words) by remaining in the church, but they aren’t sure that Someone like Jesus Christ even exists–
    and that is very telling.
    Perhaps simpler people in simpler places really do believe in evil and good as opposing forces, and that might be why these happen in such places.
    I agree that the Book of Mormon is a good antidote–
    but I’m glad I’ve never told anyone (except my very closest family members) about the things that I experienced; I certainly wouldn’t want to be laughed at–

  38. marginalizedmormon says:

    I think that especially Mormons are insulated. American Mormons most especially–
    after all, America has a media that assures that everything is fine; the authorities are watching over us–
    both politically and religiously, we are constantly assured that someone is taking care of us–
    economically, most Mormons, especially those with enough education and enough resources to be on a blog like BCC–
    haven’t had the challenges that people in ‘third world’ countries have had–

    so . . . all is well in Zion, and it’s amusing to talk about those people who think there is evil in the world–
    a good way to pass the time.
    Go back to sleep–

  39. it's a series of tubes says:

    I don’t think most Mormons believe there are evil forces

    Many Mormons that I know don’t believe either in evil or in good

    Hmmm… the church you describe sounds very different than the one I am familiar with.

  40. Sharee Hughes says:

    The men’s dorms at BYU-Hawaii are built on an ancient Hawaiian heiau (burial ground) and most of those have curses placed on them. When I was a student there, the LTM (Language Training Mission) missionaries stayed in that part of the dorms. There were several instances of evil spirits and the dorm was exorcised, I believe. How that was done, I don’t know, but priesthood authoriity told those demons to leave and they did.

  41. Doug Hudson says:

    These accounts are fascinating. A large part of the reason I am an atheist is that I have never had any “supernatural” or “divine” experiences–the closest I have had was two occasions when I had sleep paralysis, but that is a well documented and natural phenomenon.

    And so when I read stories like this, I wonder, why do so many people have these experiences, yet I do not? Is there a difference in brain chemistry that prevents me from perceiving things as supernatural? Does my lack of belief itself color my perceptions?

    Overall, I’d rather live in the mundane world that I perceive rather than one where demons roam the earth…but sometimes I’m an little envious of those that get to glimpse other realities.

  42. “Hmmm… the church you describe sounds very different than the one I am familiar with.”

    Yup.

  43. I had an experience several weeks ago, but I’m not really sure if it could be called an exorcism or not. A bad spirit came into my home and was there for about a week. I was nervous all the time and very cold. I finally told a good friend (a member with a lot of experience with this sort of stuff) and she called two of her friends to come over. The two (non member wickens) did something and the spirit went away. I don’t know what they did because I left the house partially because they said it would be best and partially so I would not have to confess anything to my branch president. I had some priesthood holders bless my house as soon after as I could. I was afraid to tell anyone in my branch about what had happened because I have always felt that being aware in any way of spirits was very much frowned upon.

  44. As one that regularly casts out trolls, I think of my administrative tasks as an exorcism of sorts. Yes, I’m calling our commenters devils.

  45. Abu_Casey says:

    I remember hearing stories like N at 3:06′s ( “you can’t cast me out; you’re an unworthy servant. You did [X]“, where X was masturbation) on my mission (in Arizona). I don’t remember any of the other context, though.

    But I also was instructed by an older-temple worker member to visit his non-member friend’s house who had cancer, cast Satan out using the arm-raising procedure specified in the temple, and to then give her a blessing. I remember thinking that something had changed after casting out the spirit, but it wasn’t anything specific I noticed, either before or after. I never saw her or heard from her temple-worker friend, so I have no idea how the healing went.

  46. Once while tracting in Florida, a nice Pentacostal man let us in and we talked for a while. He and his wife then asked if they could pray with us, and he tried to cast the demons out of my companion and I. I thought it was quite nice of him.
    This post and discussion are quite interesting. As Mormons, are we negligent if we don’t see or acknowledge, or fight against the “evil spirits” with the same earnestness as we are supposed to seek the Holy Ghost and its gifts? I’ll readily confess that when I hear stories of possession, demons, occult, etc., I always attribute it to mental illness, drugs, or our amazing ability to convince ourselves of alternate realities. Am I missing out on something that is going to impede my spiritual progress? Am I more susceptible to demon-hauntings myself because I am so skeptical? Is my faith in God suspect because I don’t put much stock in all the fascinating stories shared here and elsewhere about adventures with the dark side? I really don’t know.

  47. I wish we approached garden-variety sin and temptation with the same alarm and loathing as we do the lurid possession stories that inhabit LDS folklore.

    If a person willingly acquiesces to the influence of the adversary, are they not possessed much as poor Legion? It’s just voluntary rather than involuntary.

  48. Interestingly, I think we collectively approach garden-variety sin (and plenty of non-sin) with more alarm and loathing than we do possession stories – to our collective shame.

  49. Wesley,
    Thanks for the tip about your publication.
    It’s got me rethinking “subjectivity” in new ways…how our psychosomatic space can be inhabited by multiple entities (independent spirits, ego-states)–it’s a kind of shared space-time continuum.
    Any further recommended reading?

  50. We are but your minions, Steve Evans.

  51. Ron Madson says:

    Jacob, I would like to have contact with the members of BCC that are working on the “Mormonism and Exorcism” project. They can contact me directly at my e-mail address which is part of my log in. thanks.

  52. When I worked at a public library in California years ago, I came across a book on multiple personality disorder by a non-LDS psychiatrist or psychologist. He had many years of experience dealing with clients with this diagnosis, and had written the book to show how different occurrences of this disorder could have different causes. There were about 15 to 20 chapters, each describing a different possible cause, with examples of some of his cases in that particular category.
    His last category was actual possession by evil spirits, because he’d had some clients whose disorders could not rationally be explained in any other way. Their problems were clearly not psychiatric or physiological.
    Sorry I don’t have a reference for this.

  53. Jacob are you still responding to this page? If so I need to talk to you privately man.

  54. Meldrum the Less says:

    Does this little bump in the road of our history add anything to the discussion?

    I’m surprized it hasn’t been brought up already (made it into Sunstone magazine) unless y’all are moderating it away.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pace_memorandum

  55. A friend of mine (nameless since he’s now a BYU professor) served in Pennsylvania, and had some pretty freaky experiences.

    I’ve shared my experience below with those at BCC doing research. I’ve anonymized this version.
    I arrived in France in early September of 1996. I was assigned to Elder *Smith*, one of the District Leaders there. The very first Sunday, likely my third or fourth day in country, we were in Priesthood meeting. I heard the phone ring in the hall. After a minute, someone came in and motioned for my companion, who disappeared for several minutes. He came back in.
    “What was that?”
    “We’ve got an appointment after Church. To do an exorcism.”
    “….Do we do that often?”
    “Nope.”
    After Church, he and I and a member got together. I assume it was the DMP, Dirigeant Missionaire de Paroisse, the Ward Mission Leader, but I can’t quite remember. The DMP had served a mission in California and spoke English well, but I don’t think it was an English speaker who came with us.

    We went to a typical French apartment complex, and were warily welcomed by a couple in their mid-30′s, with three children: a toddler, one maybe 5-6 and another maybe 8-10. They had not been in the apartment long, not more than a month or two or three. They proceeded to tell us how uncomfortable they’d been there. Nothing terribly strange had happened: keys and things gone missing whose location was certain, odd noises and bumps in the night, but mostly
    just a heavy sense of unpleasantness and darkness, which seemed to center on one of the children. After some time of this, they’d decided to do something about it. Like most French, they were nominally Catholic, and consequently had called their local priest. That conversation had gone something like this.

    French people- “Hi, we’re Catholic, and we need an exorcism.”
    Priest- “We don’t do that anymore. Call the Mormons.”
    Hence our phone call in the middle of Church meetings.

    We spent 2-3 hours with them talking. I couldn’t follow much, so my recollection is based largely on what little I could follow and the conversation afterwards with my comp. After listening to their problems and explaining who we were and what we could do, we eventually dedicated their home with some extra language about a more positive spirit being present, and gave the “afflicted” child a priesthood blessing. The other two children decided after that that THEY wanted blessings too. The parents refused all missionary overtures, including a Book of Mormon, which we found heavily ironic. We might come recommended by their priest to be able to exorcise demons, but that didn’t mean we had anything valid to say about theology or reality.
    Such was my first Sunday in France.

  56. cool story Ben!

  57. Church history has very specific reports of encounters with evil spirits, especially the one that happened the evening before the first baptisms in England. Joseph Smith recorded encounters with the Adversary, including just before the First Vision. He did not claim the evil men who persecuted him were possessed by evil spirits, though. People clearly can do plenty of evil all on their own. I do not recall any recorded incident in which Joseph exorcised an evil spirit, though he did leave us advice in the D&C about how to detect whether an apparent angel is really an evil spirit committing a fraud.

    My father told a story of casting out an evil spirit among hecklers at a street meeting in Japan. I have heard talks over the pulpit in a couple of Sacrament meetings and in priesthood testimony meetings recounting such experiences. My daughter experienced a scary, almost palpable presence in one bedroom of an apartment her family rented for a couple of months when her husband was attending an Air Force school in Mississippi.

    Even in the New Testament, the limited number of exorcisms during the ministry of Christ and the apostles suggests to me that these are relatively rare occurrences. They certainly are not frequent enough that it is part of the standard Missionary Training Center curriculum. (I was interested in the story about the exorcism of the Language Training Mission quarters in the top floor of one of the men’s dorms at what was then Church College of Hawaii. I was in the very first group that went through the LTM there, in February-April 1969, and don’t recall any experiences reported that resemble that.) I don’t recall any spiritual possessions described in the 1000 year history of the Book of Mormon or the Jaredites before that, though spiritual gifts are described and depicted at length.

    Since we subscribe to the belief that a third of our fellow spirit children in the premortal existence defected, and that their leader is the Adversary, who seeks to lead us “carefully down to hell”, I have to admit that I am committed to believe in the existence of such spirits, as real as my own, but (at least most of the time) without the power to control anyone who sincerely resists them. Nevertheless, they seem to mostly be condemned to be eternal voyeurs, without any ability to influence anyone without their cooperation, in which case their influence is largely redundant. Their immortal impotence must be hugely frustrating, a real hell on earth.

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