Have you ever performed a ritual shaking of the dust from your feet? I never have (in fact, I’m pretty sure I was specifically instructed to not do that as a missionary), though as a 20-year old, I was somewhat tempted while serving a full-time mission on a few occasions. In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Samuel Weber discussed some of the intentions behind the ritual in the first place and also why it is no longer performed in the Church today. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
In the interview, Samuel Weber explained the ritual of shaking dust from feet. As he put it:
Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a ritual practice common in the early Latter-day Saint movement. The basic idea of the ritual was to invoke a curse on individuals who rejected the message or messengers of the restored gospel.
Similar to other Latter-day Saint rituals and ordinances, it was a practice intended to call down God’s power on behalf of His servants. Although no longer practiced today, ritual cursing is found in scripture and church history, making it a topic of continued interest for Latter-day Saints.
So, the ritual was one of cursing against those who rejected the Gospel or missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As mentioned by Weber above, ritual cursing is found in scripture. He explained that “Joseph Smith likely learned about ritual cursing by reading the New Testament” and added that:
Bible scholar T. J. Rogers pointed out that the biblical practice of shaking the dust off the feet is best contextualized within ancient hospitality customs.
For Middle Easterners alive at the time of Jesus, it was common for hosts to provide their guests with water to wash their feet. This act symbolized a transition from stranger to guest in the home of the host.
To leave with one’s feet still covered in dust indicated that hospitality was not offered to the stranger. For the apostles, to shake the dust from their feet would have been evidence that hospitality was refused to servants of God. It was implied that God would take notice and punish those who rejected His servants.
There were specific cultural beliefs that shaped the custom in Classical Antiquity, long before Joseph Smith introduced the ritual to Latter Day Saints.
As for the mechanics of the process as performed by Latter Day Saints, Weber explained that:
There doesn’t appear to be just one way that this ritual was performed. Typically the individual performing the ritual would say a prayer to “bear testimony” designating the wicked who had rejected them.
Then came the actual removal of dust. This could be done by shaking the feet. It could also be done with water or even alcohol by washing the feet or, occasionally, the entire body.
There are even recorded instances in which the feet apparently weren’t involved at all, but rather articles of clothing were removed and shaken instead. This latter practice also had some New Testament precedent, as in Acts 18:6 Paul shook his raiment against blasphemers who rejected his message.
Apparently it was never codified in a handbook of instructions, so people did what made sense for the time and place.
The actual extent of the ritual being performed seems somewhat limited. Samuel Weber explained that: “Latter-day Saint missionaries were by far the most common practitioners of ritual cursing” and “the most frequent use of the ritual appears to have been during Joseph Smith’s lifetime prior to the westward migration to Utah.” Among other reasons for the ritual: “The missionaries seemed to sense an urgency to their work, and when they faced overwhelming rejection, they sometimes dusted their feet against the entire community and moved on.” With those factors in mind, Weber explained why the ritual is not practiced these days:
The historical record demonstrates a pattern: when persecution was high against Latter-day Saints, cursing was more prevalent. When persecution was low, cursing practices subsided.
After the move to Utah and eventual renunciation of polygamy, the church’s enemies became fewer, lessening the incentive to curse. This coincided with a shift in tone in church discourse away from commanding cursing to exercising caution prior to passing judgment.
Additionally, the spirit of liturgical innovation that permeated the early Latter-day Saint movement waned over time as ordinances became more systematized. This led to some rituals being “retired,” such as healing blessings performed by women and baptism for health.
All of these factors contributed to cursing falling into disuse. Ritual cursing was basically extinct by the early 1900s. …
Most early Latter-day Saints believed that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent, lending an urgency to their missionary endeavors. As I previously mentioned, missionaries believed they were separating the righteous from the wicked in preparation for the millennium. With the passage of time, the sense of Christ’s impending return began to lessen.
By the 1900s, when missionaries were rejected, most no longer felt that the disbelieving parties had lost their one chance for salvation.
The missionary mindset shifted from one of binding wheat and tares up to the day of destruction to one of returning to homes again and again to give people multiple chances to accept the gospel.
As the Latter-day Saint worldview became less apocalyptic and less attacked by outsiders, the desire and need for shaking the dust off of feet waned, leading to the current dearth in practice of the ritual.
For more on the ritual of shaking the dust off of feet by Latter-day Saints, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, read the interview with Samuel Weber. There are some pretty interesting examples of the ritual being performed and the perceived results of doing so.
In other parts of the Middle east, shaking the dust off your feet (upon entering/leaving a temple) represents closure and being sure that you take nothing and leave nothing, that you are not in debt to the other person or place, you haven’t taken anything from them, not even a spec of dust, nor do they owe you anything. It’s a squaring up ceremony and a cleansing pause to the relationship.
With our history of persecution, I can see why such a ritual would be psychologically healthy, if it were approached as a “closure” ceremony and “goodbye”’as opposed to a curse. The early saints were familiar with Christian brotherhood, turning the other cheek, and goodwill, etc. and if this PH act was invoked in a Godly way, it would have been (IMHO) a closure and resting ceremony rather than a curse. (Dusting the feet was never meant to be eternally damning, but temporary. There are examples of GAs re-opening mission areas and removing/reversing these actions.)
I know many examples of this practice being used unrighteously, (by gung-ho missionaries, persecuted early saints, etc.). We know that a PH action taken with malice is null and void. If anyone is going around angrily “cursing” others, they are likely kicking against the pricks and ruminating in their own anger. So, if done incorrectly, it sorta backfires against you. The trick would be to do it would a broken and humble heart, realizing the loss between the parties, and making sure the other isn’t being robbed as you leave to protect both parties from acting poorly.
I wonder if the physical action of shaking off dust (inspired by the NT), was also inspired by the contemporary Shaker community, who danced and physically shook off sins. (In the song “Simple Gifts” you’ll recall they sang and danced to lyrics like “turn, turn, will be our delight, till in turning, turning we come round right.” Perhaps the shaking off the dust curse was a 19th c equivalent to Taylor Swift’s song “shake it off” where she sings that “haters gonna hate, hate, hate…players gonna play, play, play… heartbreakers gonna break, break break, …baby I’m gonna shake shake shake, shake it off”. (You’re welcome for the ear worm.)
Once while teaching Doctrine & Covenants in Sunday School in the the late 1990s, I asked, rhetorically, if anyone had ever dusted their feet, expecting that the discussion would then move on to what we could nevertheless learn from that section today. Except one elderly member actually had. He provided no further detail, but he was of such an age and experience that I have no doubts about his claim, and of such character that I don’t expect it was undertaken lightly, or without effect.
A fun little urban legend/ piece of folklore I heard on my mission was that the shaking of dust off the feet was a very serious ritual to be reserved for the worst of the worst, and that a friend of a friend (of course) on his mission had requested permission and had been walked through the steps by some authority figure or another. Kind of like “Bloody Mary,” part of the charm of the urban legend was the secret nature of the ritualistic incantations. (To any non-mos reading; no, there isn’t a secret Mormon ritual for shaking dust off of feet).
As a missionary in France/Belgium/Luxembourg in 1982 I dusted my feet off at a door.
It was a split day, and I was with an AP and we were in Strasbourg door contacting people in ZUPs (rent-to-income housing apt buildings) and one fellow, upon seeing us, called his pal in the other room to “Va chercher le vingt!”
No knowing what a “20” was, I stood there like an idiot while he shoved the rifle in my stomach and not-so-politely asked us to leave.
He slammed the door, I dusted my feet with my hand, raised my arm to the square and pronounced a malediction on this fellow
Think I scared the Holy Ghost out of the suddenly quiet AP
Never heard from the Mission President, so I guess nothing was said to him
It seemed right at the time, and much older me wonders how I would react today
The most hilarious part of the “Under the Banner of Heaven” show was when the unnamed general authority dusted off his feet as he was walking away from the main detective (with ominous music, the constipated acting of Andrew Garfield and a melodramatic reading of D&C to increase the “tension”). It looked like he was doing the hokey pokey. That scene was a great summary of the entire show: a dumpster fire.
Humm..I must live in a closet on this. I’ve never heard of such. Interesting.
Rob, what were you referring to? Shaking the dust off or the stupid anti-Mormon movie from the ‘80’s? The movie is truly anti-Mormon, a mix of truth, lies and exaggerations set to ominous music. For what it’s worth, I knew of person who converted to the church when a local “Christian” church played it for the congregation. (As was a popular thing for some denominations to do back in then.) My friend knew the movie was biased, and her curiosity was piqued. After researching the fact from fiction- she got baptized.
Back in my missionary days in Australia we were informally told not to do it, “Because it works.” It seems like somewhat before my time, a pair of Elders did it to an obnoxious community shortly followed by serious flooding there in Bathurst and or Lithgow if I remember correctly.
Now being the changer of subjects that I am, how about some stories about snake handling?