Awareness of racism eased Mormon folk tales regarding Cain, Big
As Abel’s murderer, Cain was commanded to wander the earth in punishment, a tradition arose that this punishment was to be forever, in a similar manner to the (much later) legends of the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew.
Here’s the best-known LDS folklore regarding Cain as a monstrous figure roaming the earth. In 1835, LDS apostle David Patten was riding a mule in Tennessee. “I met with a very remarkable personage who had represented himself as being Cain … I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me … for about two hours. … He wore no clothing but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. … I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence and he immediately departed out of my sight.”
Patten was killed a few years later fighting anti-Mormons. This account is secondhand, from LDS apostle Abraham O. Smoot. Nevertheless, it is accepted Mormon lore, included in the late Prophet Spencer W. Kimball’s still-published book, “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” That lends it credibility in LDS circles. I recall hearing it often on Sundays as a child. In fact, those outside the LDS Church don’t know that Cain plays a bigger, more malevolent role in the LDS scripture “Pearl of Great Price.”
I read a fascinating essay, “A Mormon Bigfoot: David Patten’s Cain and the Conception of Evil in Mormon Folklore,” by Matthew Bowman in the Signature Books’ anthology “Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader.” Patten’s account is not the only instance of Cain appearing in Mormon folklore. Another incident, as late as 1921, E. Wesley Smith, president of the Hawaii temple, told future church Prophet, apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, “A man came through the door. He was tall enough to have to stoop to enter. His eyes were very protruding and rather wild-looking, his fingernails were thick and long. He … wore no clothing … (I) commanded the person in the name of Jesus Christ to depart. … on being commanded to leave, he backed out the door.” Fielding Smith told Wesley Smith that it was Cain who visited him.
Also, in the 1920s, missionaries in Mexico encountered a large, dark, hairy creature who said he was Cain. Later in the 20th century, missionaries in Georgia were attacked by “a huge black negro,” who chased them away. They were told by their mission president it was Cain.
As Bowman writes, “It is true that the single most frequent use of the word Cain in the legends and folk doctrine has been in association with the concept of a “curse” of dark skin, a mark of spiritual inferiority, and until 1978 the inability to hold the priesthood.” This begs the question, are the accounts of Cain apparitions an extension of the priesthood-banning prejudice against black skin? Bowman includes a poem that Mormon poet Eliza Snow wrote in 1884: “As seen by David Patten, he was dark – When pointing at his face of glossy jet – Cain said, ‘You see the curse in on me yet’ – The first of murderers, now he fills his post – And reigns as king o’er all the murd’rous host.” In the 19th century, some Mormons believed that the skin of apostates darkened when they renounced the church.
As Bowman explains, a walking “Wandering Jew” type of Cain would seem natural to 19th century Mormons, who saw evil as tangible, walking the earth and combating the Saints. An example cited by Bowman is the discourses of early LDS leader, Heber Kimball, who described his battles in England with “legions of wicked spirits,” with accounts that rival scenes in modern films, such as “The Exorcist.” Kimball added that Joseph Smith told him of Sidney Rigdon being “pulled out of bed three times in one night” by Lucifer.
This yen for the supernatural has not left the culture of the LDS Church. Talk to a dozen long-time, temple-attending members and at least half, if not more, will confidentially, or publicly recount an instance of a spiritual vision or feeling — usually positive, but still occasionally a battle with evil. (I must confess that I am not immune from claiming a positive experience).
However, as Bowman notes, in the past generation-plus there has a move away from a dark Cain and the emergence of film footage of a creature called Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, who replaced the “huge black man” as Cain in many LDS circles. It’s reasonable to assume that the end of policy-driven LDS priesthood and membership prejudice against blacks have soured the previous concept of Cain among many Mormons.
As Bowman recounts, one of the first “Bigfoot” visions occurred in the Top of Utah in 1980, when a South Weber teen and her cousin both reported seeing a large black “creature” or “figure” in the fields. Huge prints were discovered in the snow. The story was pursued by the Standard-Examiner. At that time, Cain was not associated with the sightings, but within 10 years, South Weber residents “had begun associating these local sightings of Bigfoot with Cain.” A 1997 story tells of Boy Scouts in Utah who claimed they were chased by a big hairy man they called Cain who yelped in pain when he climbed through a lit chimney. Another, 1998 story, tells of an animal-like “Cain-beast” who chased two Mormon elders to a car.
Bowman writes that besides the disappearance of being dark or a negro, “Cain’s new activities of stalking barns and running through fields seems far less satanically malicious than Elder Patten’s Cain or the gigantic demon that stalked Wesley Smith. … Cain, rather than a supernatural fiend, is more the stock monster of a campfire tale. He is less a damned soul and more Bigfoot.”
As racism seeped out of the Latter-day Saints’ Cain legend, so did much of the malice. Indeed, the idea that Cain wanders the earth is a 19th century one. However, the appeal of adversaries who defy us on the earth has not departed from many Latter-day Saints so long as Bigfoot remains to personify Cain.
This column was previously published as a StandardNET blog.