Let’s Talk about Sorcery

Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D.

In the days since a Church Handbook update offered a new point of caution against “seeking miraculous or supernatural healing” from those who claim to have “special methods for accessing healing power” (outside of prayer and God’s priesthood power), some members have taken the opportunity to publish their additional concerns on these matters publicly. Here, one man shared his own feeling that the whole of energy healing was inextricably tied into spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, conspiracy, and “going beyond the mark.” 

This brother went on to reference an instance of “sorcery” in the Bible to encapsulate what he saw embodied in energy healing. I’d like to go deeper on this argument – as a way to gently push back on this thoughtful and faithful brother (who is voicing honest thoughts many other members have) – while also raising some of the honest questions about this point of view held by many other members, myself included.

For the sake of brevity, I will only focus on his reference to sorcery– which is a good stand-in for all the other words he cited in his commentary, and a good entree into the discussion as a whole. My essential argument is that this good man is stepping beyond the text of the handbook in an important way – and extrapolating beyond the spirit of the counsel given, which some of us see as more bounded than many members seem to presume. 

The words SORCERER, SORCERERS, SORCERIES, and SORCERY are used 15 times in the Bible (7 times in the Old Testament and 8 times in the New Testament – with four in the Book of Revelation alone). Most of the biblical references to these words (including the specific Old Testament story this man cites) refer to either the Greek word Mag-os (meaning Magician, wise man, or sorcerer) – or the Hebrew word Kashaph (meaning to whisper a spell, practice magic, sorcery, witchcraft). 

But in the Book of Revelation, the words SORCER, SORCERIES, SORCERERS mean something more, with root word being the Greek Pharmakeia, in reference to the use of drugs, and medication by one positioning himself or herself as a healer, but who operates, essentially, as a “druggist, poisoner, and sorcerer.” That applies to the following references, among others:

  • “Neither repented they of their … sorceries.” (Rev. 9:21).
  • “Thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.” (Rev. 18:23).

Clearly, both this man and the Church we are glad to be a part of, are right to caution us against putting our trust in sorcery to heal us.  The Book of Mormon itself prophesies that Christ will “cut off witchcrafts out of thy land” (3 Nephi 21:16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and “the magic art” are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1:32Mormon 2:10). “Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics” are also attributed to “the power of the evil one” (Mormon 1:19), with sorcerers referenced in the Doctrine and Covenants as among those who are “cast down to hell” (DC 76:103,106), and who “shall have their part in . . . the second death” (DC 63:17). The Apostle John himself warns in the Book of Revelation:

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Rev. 21:8)

It’s hard to imagine more serious warnings, so it seems pretty important to get right what “sorcery” is referring to (and to not get it wrong either). 

As reflected above, there are important distinctions in the scriptural texts themselves worth considering. Yet the impulse among many Latter-day Saints seems much simpler: (1) Anyone who has the credentials to be a “competent” and “licensed” medical professional is worthy of our trust to help us find healing and (2) Anything that seems out of that norm (be it with a label of “energy healing” or “alternative” or “holistic” or “chiropractor” or “natural healing”) must be held in suspicion – as kooky and ineffective at best, and spiritually dangerous (and physically reckless) at worst.  

That’s essentially how I suspect many are reading and interpreting the latest handbook instruction. In what follows, I make the case for another interpretation. 

1.Two kinds of “competent medical professionals.”  Like many members, I have interacted with competent, mainstream medical professionals that are consecrated and dedicated servants – wanting to help assist healing. Yet I have also witnessed many otherwise “competent” medical professionals (with all the appropriate licenses) do great harm – and with all the best of intentions. After all, it’s not the drug companies alone who gave us the opioid epidemic; this would not have happened without many allopathic doctors who took for granted what they were being told by drug representatives to be “evidence-based,” “best practice” and “scientific.”  

In my experience, the medical professionals who do the most harm are those who sound a whole lot like what the Handbook warns of – promising near “miraculous” relief or healing from the “special methods” of healing they call Prozac, Xanax, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Adderall, etc., etc. etc. In story after story, I’ve heard of people grappling with terrifying pain get advised by a respected, allopathic doctor that (a) a particular drug offers their best hope for relief (b) that drug will most likely be taken for the rest of their life (c) no other changes are needed in their life to pursue healing and (d) even with their best efforts to be “compliant” in taking these drugs, it’s likely they will still be dealing with this health problem for the rest of their life.   

Does that sound like something in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

And by the way: As I argued with colleagues in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed, the concerning patterns witnessed with opioids are not reserved to that branch of medicine alone, with abundant evidence of the same thing happening across medicine, including in my line of research with antidepressants. 

2. Two kinds of “energy healers.” I’ve also experienced a similar distinction in the practice of those who go by the name of “energy medicine” (or “holistic” or “natural healing”). As I’ve remarked to many over the years, some speak of herbs and supplements with the same dramatic claims (of “miraculous” healing) that we hear during the 5 o’clock news in regards to synthetic, pharmaceutical compounds. Neither seem believable, although at least “plants and roots” themselves have positive referents in scripture (Alma 46:40). 

It’s also the case that some who go by the name of energy healers do make dramatic claims of what they can do – and do charge larger sums of money (both of which, of course, apply to allopathic doctors as well, who have drained many a pocketbook). By and large, however, my experience with practitioners of energy medicine are they are less concerned with money. (Indeed, I’ve never met a practitioner of energy medicine who lives in a mansion or who drives a beamer). 

Most energy healers I know (including my own dear, faithful wife and aunt) are also deeply reverential in acknowledging God’s healing power as the source of what they offer – and nothing more. They are humble in looking to Father – and only want to do His will. Which brings us back to the text of the warning itself – which cautions against those claiming to have “have special methods for accessing healing power outside of prayer and properly performed priesthood blessings.”

As with many mainstream doctors, I know energy healers who claim “special methods” quite removed from – and with little seeming interest in or acknowledgment of God’s power.  Likewise, I know both mainstream doctors and energy healers who look to God as the great healer – and offer their healing arts only as a consecrated offering to help people find His power.

That difference matters to me; in fact, I think it’s the essential difference that should matter to us all, across these different philosophies of healing. In my view and experience, there are qualified and competent healers across the many branches of medicine – including and far beyond the mainstream of medicine.  

My concern is that we are confounding these different kinds of practitioners – lumping all mainstream medical professionals into one category (trustworthy) and all alternative practitioners into another “untrustworthy” category. To those who insist on this categorization as reflecting God’s will, I would close with some honest questions:

1. Do you believe that the “secret combinations” and “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last daysonly refer to obvious examples such as tobacco companies or organized crime? 

My answer:  After a decade of studying pharmaceutical companies, I can assure you that they have followed the playbook of Big Tobacco to a T, as have most large industries today (There’s about a hundred things that could be added here, but suffice it to say, it’s not the cute old lady down the street offering Reiki or foot-zoning that have succeeded in sharing something by which “all nations [were] deceived”).

2. Do you believe that “further light and knowledge” in the domain of health is limited only to those with widespread acceptance today as mainstream medical professionals – or “what the FDA approves” or “what the CDC acknowledges”? 

My answer:  No, no, no.  The corruption in mainstream medicine is rampant and troubling.  At the same time, enormously beautiful and edifying examples of practices that support deeper healing continue to emerge in our day far outside of the “officially approved” government channels. 

3.  Is it possible that new healing arts and practices can be revealed (indeed, even “special” ones) that draw on God’s power – rather than compete with it? 

My answer:  Yes, yes, yes.  Some of these have taken on growing prominence, including mindfulness meditation, yoga, and EMDR trauma therapy – all of which are profound departures from mainstream practice, and started off facing enormous ridicule and scorn.  (Each of these practices also work directly with energy, spirit and awareness). Likewise, I have found there are many other practices which have less prominence, less respect – and are sometimes seen as “kooky” but which are being explored in research and experimented with by humble practitioners. Like them, I would differentiate these as “Christ-centered energy healing” – and propose that as fundamentally different than the priest-craft variety.     

4. How can we best discern which healing practices are in line with the gospel of Christ?

My answer: How about what leads us to real healing? And what invites us to exercise faith and make real changes in our lives? Whereas some allopathic and naturopathic and energy practitioners promise marvelous and miraculous results with little to no change (repentance) or trust in God, I’ve witnessed practitioners with all these labels offer their healing support, while inviting my family to make profound changes in how we live, and while encouraging us to put our trust in God, moment by moment, to guide our healing. [That’s why my own definition of “sorcery” has come to be any practitioner – whatever label and credentials they may have – who vaunts their own preferred “potions” (be they herbs, oils, supplements or drugs) as The Salvation for someone’s condition, especially if they discount faith and minimize or overlook personal changes that are essential to true and lasting healing)].

5. Should Latter-day Saints limit their search for healing only to those practitioners with widespread respect and prominence in American culture? 

My answer:  Not if you want to find deep and lasting healing! Indeed, those who I have witnessed finding enduring healing from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even schizophrenia, virtually ALL have been willing to look beyond the boundaries of what is available mainstream medicine. 

In the end, perhaps this is the most important question of all. To put it plainly, have you (and those you love) found real, lasting healing from conditions you face? If not, why? Who have you put your trust in to help you find it? And how would God have us seek that healing in our all of our lives? 

In the New Testament, we glimpse the powerful and poignant story of a woman who “had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse.” After spending much of her life trusting the physicians held up with respect in her society, she decided to look somewhere else.

To Christ Himself. And that’s when she found healing.

Like this woman, on all these crucial questions of healing, members of the Church of Jesus Christ will rightfully look to those who represent the Lord and seek to guide the Church. In doing so, my prayer is that we won’t interpret their guidance more narrowly than our God of beautiful healing and liberal truth would have us. 

Jacob Hess received his PhD from the University of Illinois studying Prozac and healing narratives of depression. Since that time, he has conducted research into mindfulness-based approaches to depression and anxiety, and taught the class Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction to hundreds of adults an teens. Jacob has also helped create online education and digital tools to support those seeking deeper healing from depression, anxiety and pornography addiction. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson, and Ty Mansfield, he recently published, The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.

13 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about Sorcery

  1. Church News Room: An updated section on medical and health care notes that “seeking competent medical help, exercising faith, and receiving priesthood blessings work together for healing, according to the will of the Lord.” Latter-day Saints “are discouraged from seeking miraculous or supernatural healing from an individual or group that claims to have special methods for accessing healing power outside of prayer and properly performed priesthood blessings. These practices are often referred to as ‘energy healing.’ Other names are also used. Such promises for healing are often given in exchange for money.”

    Note some points here: “often given in exchange for money” (but not always). “special methods for accessing healing power”, “discouraged from seeking miraculous or supernatural healing.”

    Jacob, it seems to me that you are conflating things here in your post. By using bad doctors as a scapegoat, you create a straw man to justify your wife and others as energy healers. I don’t recall there being exceptions being placed in the Handbook, do you? BTW, this guidance did not include chiropractic and some other actual medical areas – nice of you to conflate them with energy healing…

    Are there sincere people that believe they are working through God’s power? Sure. But so did the sons of Sceva the high priest, who tried to cast out demons in Jesus’ name (Acts 19)? They seemed to have been sincere, also. However, they did not possess the actual power of God, but were dealing with other power (not necessarily of Satan, but earthly powers that have little or nothing to do with God).

    A false priesthood with good intentions is still a false priesthood, no matter how smooth it sounds coming from your capable writing hands.

    I think we learn more about this from something Jesus taught:

    “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23 NKJV).

    When we replace or supplement God’s power with our own version, we instill lawlessness. God seeks to create order out of chaos. The natural man seeks a return to chaos, by introducing his/her own methods outside of the pattern the Lord has established.

    Energy healing is not on the same par as professional medicine nor priesthood. Yes, there are bad doctors and bad priesthood holders. However, the vast majority are sincere in seeking to help and bless. Medical doctors heal millions of people annually of diseases from pneumonia, to cancer, to heart disease. I’ve seen the priesthood power heal a woman of an incurable disease.

    There are sincere energy healers. However, it is clearly not an approved method of the Church, no matter how much energy healers seek to spin this.

    Energy healers may do many mighty works, and even do them in God’s name. However, that does not mean they are doing God’s will. The Handbook specifies “energy healing” as something to avoid. Any effort to justify it is to ignore this counsel and teaching from the Brethren.

    So, yes, it IS a form of sorcery. It is condemned in ancient scripture and we are now warned about it by modern prophets. There is no middle ground on this. There is just spin.

  2. Jacob and Gerald, I think you both bring up good points. I am glad to see you having this discussion in a rational manner. Last time I went to the doctor for a checkup, he spent most of the appointment trying to push unnecessary pharmaceuticals on me for minor problems. I said no but I imagine most people would have said yes. So, I have very little reverence for government credentials as a way of choosing a health care professional. At the same time, I know people who have had bad experiences with quack energy healers. Now having said that, my wife had a serious health problem that was not diagnosed until she went to a non traditional healer. She had seen nearly a dozen traditional MDs for years and the problem never went away until a nontraditional healer was able to diagnose her problem correctly. I imagine many readers have similar stories they could tell.

  3. Who looks to their church’s handbook for permission about such things? The answer is telling.

    If a treatment *needs* the Church to back it up, it’s probably operating off of placebo principles. If something works independent of the placebo effect, it really doesn’t need the Church’s approval seal.

    Having said that, people generally misuse their knowledge of the placebo effect. There is a feeling that being susceptible to the placebo effect is a sign of gullibility/stupidity, which I think deters people from accessing the potential personal and real benefits of psychological openness/cooperation for alleviation of physiological ailment. Working that out should make it possible for people to outsmart the skepticism that cuts them off from real benefits regardless of church approval.

  4. Elder Uchtdorf gave a conference talk about us “not living up to our privileges” in terms of access to the divine and miraculous.


    We are not to _require_ miracles, as per the D&C, but we may petition with the standard preface “if it be Thy will.”

    We are not to _boast_ of miracles, but we are to testify and “make known the deeds of the Lord”, Isa 12:4, and Psalms 105:1. Conference speakers over the years have said that very sacred things must only be spoken with approval/clearance of the Spirit.

    And, given to us as an example is Ammon, who, in Alma 26:12 and later on, said he would boast of God.

    So miracles and talk of miracles are not forbidden, but there are guidelines and proper channels:

    That said, I also believe that the Lord sometimes works miracles for those not in the Restored Church, but who seek Him righteously and with faith. Perhaps this is like the gentile woman who sought a miracle/blessing using the analogy of dogs eating crumbs at the family table — wherein her faith was the key to the exception, and her supplication was granted.

    Using the same analogy, the children of the Kingdom should seek blessings/food from the top of the table, not off the floor.

    I think that there are some things that can’t be openly said at General Conference, or must be spoken in code, because it is now broadcast to the world. But those things can at times be said openly in families, in firesides, and local Sunday meetings under direction or approval of the Spirit.

  5. I think it is wholly appropriate for church leaders to warn members in matters such as this. Apparently, there is a need for warning from what I read about wacko Latter-day Saints in Idaho and so forth. So I accept the warning as a warning. I will not quibble with the exact wording used in the handbook, nor argue for a narrow or broad interpretation on particulars — I accept and appreciate the warning.

  6. One cannot turn around in my area of the Wasatch Front without bumping into an energy healer, radical herbalist, or other variety of quack. Quackery and distrust of the scientific/medical establishment is “in” and has been popular since the early 1970’s.

    I suggest that one reason is people’s struggling with the coldness of modernity. The “establishment” has been perceived as impersonal and rather crass. Data-driven decision making frequently lacks soul. It should not surprise us that when human emotional and spiritual needs remain unfulfilled, people look for alternatives, even if it often is to their own detriment. Admit it, would not we all like to control and channel some form of righteous energy which heals others? It is a “Romantic” notion philosophically. And like the Romantics of the 19th century, a part of us looks on science as that Frankenstein monster… for it is unsafe to treat so callously on the mysteries of life and death as those in the establishment do. It isn’t wise to mess with Mother Nature, eh?

    So yes, I believe these “quacks” are sincere, sincerely looking for something that modern life is often missing. And most would deny they are capitalizing on the sincere search of others as they sincerely relieve them of their money.

  7. Jacob, I appreciate the thoughtful article. I work in the healthcare industry. I grew up in a time and place where energy healing was very popular. I have mixed feelings about the Church’s new handbook statements. Obviously, traditional medicine has made countless lives better. Our life expectancy is the longest it’s been in recorded history, for several decades now. The discovery and development of antibiotics, modern anesthesia and surgical techniques are some of the greatest achievements in human history. Infant mortality is at historically low levels. For most of human history every parent knew what it was like to lose a child, usually more than one. Now it is uncommon for a parent to lose a child in early childhood. There is no disputing the benefits of scientifically based modern medicine. However, modern medicine is not good at fixing every kind of problem. Mood disorders, drug addictions and auto-immune diseases come readily to mind as diseases that modern medicine isn’t good at curing. We can suppress symptoms and help individuals to lead somewhat of a normal life, but we aren’t good and curing or healing these diseases. I don’t feel that church members should be discouraged from seeking other sources of healing for these illnesses.
    I also note with some irony that prayer and anointing with sacred olive oil, as recommended in the handbook, would be indistinguishable from Christ-centered energy healing to any outsider; and would be viewed as ineffective by the very same modern licensed physicians that Church leaders are supporting in this handbook entry.
    I feel that in recent years the energy healing industry has developed a culture all of its own that threatens to cause a schism within the Church. I think that is the danger that church leaders are warning against.

  8. I tend to see this similarly to Old Man. Energy healing is really a spiritual practice that competes with the practices and authority of the Church. I’m a physician and I know that when people are in distress, they often crave spiritual help as much as evidence based medical help. The question in my mind is, why are church members not finding this spiritual help in the church? Why are they seeking it from “energy healers”? To me that’s the question that we as active, believing, church members should be asking. What can we do to truly minister to those in our care so they don’t feel the need to look elsewhere for their spiritual needs to be met?

  9. Dr E:

    ‘The question in my mind is, why are church members not finding this spiritual help in the church? Why are they seeking it from “energy healers”? To me that’s the question that we as active, believing, church members should be asking. What can we do to truly minister to those in our care so they don’t feel the need to look elsewhere for their spiritual needs to be met?’

    I think Elder Uchtdorf addresed that, at least partly, in his April 2011 talk, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2011/04/your-potential-your-privilege

  10. A good parallel conference talk, to Elder Uchtdorf’s, is this one from Elder McConkie, in all his characteristic directness, from 1977:

    Comparing that to Elder Uchtdorf’s, one might see why I call more recent General Conference talks “spoken in code.” No one seems to get that direct and blunt anymore.

    I don’t know if the church satellite system was in place in 1977. That talk has just the audio recording online, not the video as far as I can tell.

    Here is the quote that made that talk stand out in my memory ( I was not a member in 1977, but heard or read it later):

    “We are a kingdom of brethren, a congregation of equals, all of whom are entitled to receive all of the blessings of the priesthood. There are no blessings reserved for apostles that are not freely available to all the elders of the kingdom; blessings come because of obedience and personal righteousness, not because of administrative positions.”

    One of the 10 blessings specifically mentioned the “gifts of the Spirit”. And those include miraculous healing.

    So, in hindsight, I think Elder Uchtdorf’s talk needs to be understood (or “decoded” if you will) in light of what Elder McConkie said back before General Conferences were broadcast to “the world.”

    Net: If one is looking to experience one or more of those _gifts of the Spirit_, they should not have to go looking outside the church. And I suppose they should not have to go looking outside of their local ward.

  11. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I resonated with Stewart’s attempt to see good across disciplines, and Geoff your personal experiences. I believe that there are many important issues about which thoughtful, faithful members of the Church can disagree – matters of health, perhaps, most prominent.

    And I would concede that Gerald, Ji & Old Man’s perspectives represents what most Church members will take away from this particular handbook update – a wholesale condemnation of anything and anyone connected with energy healing. It was to gently counter this least generous of interpretations that I wrote.

    I stand by everything I’ve said, and would suggest that, in essence, what I’m arguing shouldn’t be all that controversial – namely, that there are forms of energy healing and practitioners that are following further light and knowledge, seeking legitimately the Lord’s will and power, and not working through “demons.” Should that be all that hard to imagine?

    For a tradition founded on the premise that we are to “seek truth no matter where it comes from,” I would ask again – does that apply to matters of health as well?

    I find Stewart’s analysis compelling – particularly his argument that the handbook update represents an understandable corrective against priestcraft, as he puts it: “the energy healing industry has developed a culture all of its own that threatens to cause a schism within the Church. I think that is the danger that church leaders are warning against.”

    I find your own words, Gerald, so pointedly condemning of people and practices I have known for years to be good that I have a hard time stomaching your commentary. I believe you are wrong – especially in pretending to give voice to the full picture of what the prophets REALLY are saying. In my own worship and communion with our gentle master, I have felt otherwise. One final point – most chiropractors I know practice some form of energy medicine – as do most naturopaths, yogi’s and meditators. To acknowledge these linkages is not conflating; it’s factual. To wholly condemn energy healing, you partly condemn the rest.

  12. I’ve long viewed this whole concept much the same way I view Astrology. Is there something to astrology? Maybe. Countless people trying to track lives and events therein over centuries may well find patterns. It’s a lot of data to crunch, and God is a god of order, after all, and trying to see the patterns of existence and God’s creation isn’t itself a bad thing. And every once in a while, astrologers might come up with a good idea. But to let your focus stray from God and His will, favoring astrological charts or newspaper horoscopes over prayer and scripture, is to fall ultimately into a Satanic trap. We can be alert to truth everywhere, and learn good lessons everywhere. The important thing is to not fool ourselves into thinking we’ve “discovered” some new thing that allows us to end-run God or that somehow elevates us above our fellows in the church.

    Medicine seems to run in roughly the same way. It wasn’t all that long ago that people thought demons made people sick and washing didn’t matter. Wash away germs? Get outta here with that “natural remedy” garbage. Penicillin came from bread mold–I suspect plenty of people thought that was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard of at the time. Eat bread mold to cure disease? Get outta here with that “natural remedy” garbage. We can be alert to truth everywhere, and learn good lessons everywhere. The important thing is to not fool ourselves into thinking we’ve “discovered” some new thing that allows us to end-run God or that somehow elevates us above our fellows in the church.

    So thanks, Jacob, for a great read. 🙂

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