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What Did It Mean to “Shake Off the Dust of Thy Feet”?

The basic idea of the ritual was to invoke a curse on individuals who rejected the message or messengers of the restored gospel.

The Prophet Joseph Smith revealed a form of ritual cursing similar to the New Testament practice of shaking off the dust of one’s feet. It was primarily practiced by missionaries in the wake of rejection and persecution. The ritual was rarely reported to have resulted in immediate effect, and it was commonly seen as a designation of destruction at the Second Coming. In this interview, author Samuel Weber says that the practice was basically extinct by the early 1900s.


Read Samuel R. Weber’s full article in Signature Books’ Continuing Revelation: Essays on Doctrine.


What did ‘shake the dust from your feet’ mean in early Latter-day Saint history?

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.

They learned that the mayor’s toes and fingers rotted off…

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.


Where did Joseph Smith first learn about ritual cursing?

Joseph Smith likely learned about ritual cursing by reading the New Testament. In Mark 6:11, Jesus instructed the disciples:

And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.

Christ’s words here are repeated in Matthew 10:14 and Luke 9:5, and similar instruction is given in His commission to seventy others in Luke 10:10-12.

Some apostles performed the shaking of dust later in the New Testament. After enemies “raised persecution against Paul and Barnabus, and expelled them out of their coasts,” the apostles “shook off the dust of their feet against them” (Acts 13:50-51).

Five biblical passages referencing this practice seemed to provide ample material for Joseph Smith to draw inspiration from. By comparison, baptism for the dead had just a single New Testament verse as precedent!

You might wonder whether Joseph Smith received this revelation as part of his project to retranslate the New Testament. However, Joseph’s first recorded revelation on the subject dates to July 1830 (now canonized in D&C 24:15), but he did not start translating the New Testament until March 1831.

Joseph went on to produce four additional revelations pertaining to ritual cursing, all dating between 1830–1832 (D&C 60:15; 75:20-22; 84:92-95; 99:4). These revelations echoed Jesus’ words that divine punishment awaited those who spurned God’s servants.


What is a curse in theological terms?

I would say that a curse is an act of formally calling down God’s wrath upon others. To ritually curse means that there is a specific ceremony—or set of actions—intended to make that curse effective.

To draw an analogy, baptism is a ritual involving both behavior and meaning. The behavior is the specific words used in the baptismal prayer, the person baptizing raising their arm to the square, and the actual submersion of the baptism recipient’s body under water. The meaning is the promise to take upon oneself the name of Christ and receive a remission of sins.

Ritual cursing was basically extinct by the early 1900s.

In a similar way, ritual cursing’s behavior involved physically shaking or washing dust off one’s feet, and its meaning was the request for God to punish someone.


Are there any ancient roots to early Latter-day Saint ritual curses?

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.


How prominent was ritual cursing in pioneer times?

Although it is difficult to quantify, the most frequent use of the ritual appears to have been during Joseph Smith’s lifetime prior to the westward migration to Utah. This was a time in which Joseph was regularly introducing new rituals and ordinances, and his followers were eager to practice them all!

This was also a time in which church members sought to proselytize others and were frequent recipients of persecution, the combination of which provided regular opportunities to exercise the cursing ritual.


Which Latter-day Saint demographic most often practiced ritual cursing?

Latter-day Saint missionaries were by far the most common practitioners of ritual cursing. The missionaries were the ones out trying to deliver the gospel message, which meant they also had the most opportunities to be rejected by an unbelieving public. In line with Joseph Smith’s revelations, cursing was often the missionaries’ response to rejection.

In June 1830, Samuel Smith (Joseph’s brother) performed the first recorded instance of modern ritual cursing. He performed it against an innkeeper who rejected the Book of Mormon and denied Samuel room and board during his missionary service.

Most often missionaries pronounced curses against individuals or small groups, but there is also record of entire cities being cursed.

These include:

  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Sinclairville, New York
  • Paris, Arkansas
  • Beach Hill, Connecticut
  • Collinsville, Connecticut
  • Fox Islands, Maine.

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.


What are common misunderstandings about early Latter-day Saint ritual curses?

People seem to love telling stories about curses that result in immediate, dramatic consequences for the wicked. A well known example is a bit of modern-day folklore that has circulated through many missions, including where I served in Germany. In the story, two missionaries leave their garments at a laundromat for cleaning. The laundromat owner steals the garments and hangs them up for public ridicule. In response, the elders shake the dust off their feet, which results in the laundromat burning to the ground.

However, there are few examples from the historical record in which ritual cursing produced (or was expected to produce) such immediate results.

More common was the belief that by cursing individuals, they were being designated for destruction at Christ’s second coming. Jesus taught that the righteous must be separated from the wicked similar to separating wheat from tares. Early missionaries viewed themselves as participating in this separation of good from evil.

This is apparent in the language of some who performed curses, such as when Orson Hyde wrote in his journal that he shook the dust off his feet and “sealed many over to the day when the wrath of God shall be poured out.” In other words, many who performed curses understood that the divine punishment was intended for the future, not the present.


What were the mechanics of shaking off the dust of one’s feet?

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.


What are some examples of early Latter-day Saint ritual cursing?

A curse on an unknown person

A rather curious story involves a curse being pronounced on an unknown person. In 1847, a man in Salt Lake City named Albert Carrington had a cow that was killed. Although the cow killer was not identified, the Salt Lake Stake presidency and high council still met to discuss what should be done. They decided that pronouncing a curse was the most reasonable consequence.

Thus, “Pres. John Smith sealed a curse upon the person or persons who killed Carrington’s cow until they came forward and made restitution. The curse was sanctioned unanimously by the council.”

Even though they did not know who the wrongdoer was, they believed God certainly did.1

“He soon died with the rot and scabs.”

One of the rare instances of a curse producing immediate (and gruesome!) results took place in the West Indies in 1853. The story goes that missionaries cursed Mayor Hector Mitchell who had apparently been neglectful in his responsibility to protect them and their position as ministers.

After performing the curse, “they learned that the mayor’s toes and fingers rotted off and that he soon died with the rot and scabs.”2


Were any individuals ever repeatedly cursed?

There is the interesting case of a Methodist priest by the name of Mr. Douglass.

Douglass was cursed multiple times by Wilford Woodruff during Woodruff’s missionary travels. The first of these took place in September 1837 “for rejecting the Book of Mormon & our testimony,” then in February 1838 for “rejecting our testimony & offending our little ones.”

Wilford Woodruff performed several ritual curses as a missionary. This video provides an account of Woodruff’s missionary service in England when he met John Benbow and baptized nearly 2,000 individuals.

Woodruff noted in his journal that the 1838 curse was “the third witness borne to heaven against that man.” This is the only example I know of an individual being cursed repeatedly.


Does the historical record say when and why the practice stopped?

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.


Does the historical record indicate whether priesthood authority was required to shake the dust off one’s feet?

No, if there was any priesthood requirement for performing curses it was never specified.

Missionary Joseph Fielding asked Parley P. Pratt in 1840 about “Elders and Priests” performing curses by washing their feet. It seems likely that his mention of “Elders and Priests” was not because of a required priesthood office, but because they were the ones proselytizing.

Joseph Smith’s revelations on cursing were directed chiefly to missionaries, and they were the ones who most often performed it.


How has the missionary mindset about blessing and cursing changed over time?

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.


What do contemporary instruction manuals say about shaking off the dust of one’s feet?

The most recent mention of cursing in a church handbook comes from the 1946 edition of The Missionary’s Hand Book, which included as one of forty-two rules, “Bless, but do not curse.” No current handbook or manual lists cursing as an official ordinance.


What can be inferred from an institutional practice away from cursing and toward blessing?

Although Latter-day Saint ritual cursing had flourished in the 1800s, in the 1900s its practice was eliminated. The modern church no longer consists of a small group of violently mistreated social outcasts as it once did.

As the church has become more stable and prosperous, its goals seem to be geared toward integration and contribution to the surrounding community rather than separation from and condemnation of unbelieving Gentiles.

The church has experienced a paradigm shift to a more blessing-focused theology. I love the words of Joseph F. Smith from a 1904 general conference that reflect on the practice of cursing while simultaneously looking toward a future of love and redemption:

[I]f they cursed, in the spirit of righteousness and meekness before God, God would confirm that curse; but men are not called upon to curse mankind; that is not our mission; it is our mission to preach righteousness unto them. It is our business to love and to bless them, and to redeem them from the fall and from the wickedness of the world… We are perfectly willing to leave vengeance in the hands of God and let him judge between us and our enemies, and let him reward them according to his own wisdom and mercy.

Conference Report, October 1904, 5.

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Further reading

Shake off the dust from your feet resources

Sources

  1. Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (chronological scrapbook of typed entries and newspaper clippings, 1830-present), December 18, 1847.
  2. Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (chronological scrapbook of typed entries and newspaper clippings, 1830-present), February 11, 1853.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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