Borrowing the title from my good friends at BCC, let’s talk about sorcery, another interesting topic that is discussed in the April 2017 Ensign article “The War Goes On.” The central claim of the article is that gay marriage is Satan’s counterfeit version of “marriage between a man and a woman” that is “ordained of God,” because gay marriage “brings neither posterity nor exaltation.” But the article also addresses counterfeit faith, counterfeit love, counterfeit priesthood, and counterfeit miracles:
One of Satan’s counterfeits for faith is superstition. His counterfeit for love is lust. He counterfeits the priesthood by introducing priestcraft, and he imitates God’s miracles by means of sorcery.
Perhaps in referring to sorcery the author was thinking of the encounter between Moses and the magicians at Pharaoh’s court, where the magicians duplicated Aaron’s feat of turning a staff into a serpent. So Aaron was performing a miracle because he was using the priesthood but the other guys were doing sorcery because they were practicing priestcraft. But this isn’t an article on the Old Testment, it’s about the world of 2017. A world that is apparently full of sorcery (as it is full of gay marriage, superstition, and lust, other topics addressed in the same set of paragraphs). So what the article is talking about is modern sorcery. What is it and why it is suddenly a topic of discussion by LDS leaders?
Let’s first look at the Book of Mormon references to sorcery. Here is Mormon 1:19: “And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land ….” More interesting is Alma 1:19, relating to the early days of the Nephite Church and describing those who did not belong to it:
For those who did not belong to their church did indulge themselves in sorceries, and in idolatry or idleness, and in babblings, and in envyings and strife; wearing costly apparel; being lifted up in the pride of their own eyes; persecuting, lying, thieving, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering, and all manner of wickedness ….
This sounds like an exercise projecting every negative trait or behavior onto those other people in that other church, as if no one in our Nephite Church ever does anything like envyings or strife or lying or thieving. In particular, people in our church do miracles; other people in other churches do “sorceries.”
In the modern world, the miracles we pray for or for which we invoke the power of the priesthood are generally healing from serious illness or accident. So in light of this scriptural example in Alma 1:19, is the April 2017 Ensign suggesting that an LDS priesthood healing is a bona fide miracle, whereas a healing resulting from prayer or priestly administration in any other church is sorcery, a counterfeit miracle? I’m not sure where else you would draw the line between miracle and sorcery if the relevant distinction, as stated in the article, is between “priesthood” (meaning LDS priesthood) and “priestcraft” or counterfeit priesthood (meaning anyone else’s priesthood or ministry). What an ugly thing to say. That seems totally contrary to the sincere and positive interfaith outreach and dialogue that other LDS leaders and scholars have energetically pursued in recent years.
There are a few other recent LDS statements on sorcery. President Faust, January 2007: “The mischief of devil worship, sorcery, witchcraft, voodooism, casting spells, black magic, and all other forms of demonism should always be avoided.” Then there is Elder McConkie’s rather reasonable view of witchcraft, as expressed in Mormon Doctrine:
It should be noted that the trying, convicting, and executing of so-called witches during the middle ages and in early American history was a wholly apostate and unwarranted practice. It is probable that none, or almost none, of those unhappily dealt with as supposed witches were persons in actual communion with evil spirits.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, there’s a big difference between none and almost none. Nevertheless, calling it “mischief” and suggesting that almost all cases of alleged witchcraft or sorcery were false accusations of one sort or another works to minimize the presence and impact of sorcery and witchcraft in the lives of present-day Mormons. In contrast, the April 2017 Ensign reference appears to highlight the role of sorcery and suggest it is widespread.
I suspect this view is part of the new trend of embracing and emphasizing the supernatural element in Mormonism and Mormon history. Another example is the October 2015 Ensign article publishing a photo of one of Joseph’s seer stones in the Church’s possession and acknowledging Joseph’s use of it. This new trend goes hand-in-hand with Mormon fideism, the claim that faith alone is sufficient and that appeals to reason or to objective evidence are not required or even desirable. (See this excellent discussion of Mormon fideism.) But fideism versus rationalism is a discussion for another post.
The narrower question we’re looking at here is naturalism versus supernaturalism, the view that God works though natural processes versus the view that God frequently intervenes in the world and freely contravenes natural processes. In particular, we’re looking at the version of religious supernaturalism that grants considerable power and autonomy to evil forces and attributes many events in the day-to-day life of every listener to those evil powers. Call it Mormon demonology. It’s not a simple either-or choice, of course: There is a full spectrum of theological opinion on that issue, even within the Church. Personally, I’m a minimalist — like Elder McConkie, who thought none, or almost none, of the historical cases of alleged sorcery or witchcraft were cases of “actual communion with evil spirits.” But if you embrace supernaturalism, you get the dark as well as the light, sorcery as well as miracles. In 2017, the official LDS view is once again that sorcery is abroad upon all the face of the land.