To date, no one has adequately explored spittle and spitting in the Mormon experience. This blog post is intended as an introduction to this studiously neglected topic and an invitation to the further exploration of it.
Turning to the scriptures is a time-honored first step in understanding many LDS concepts. One of the earliest mentions of spittle in sacred writ is Deuteronomy 25: 9-10, dealing with the penalty for failing to live up to your levirate marriage obligations. And what were those obligations? If your brother died without offspring your obligation was to father children with his widow to continue his line. And if you refused? From the Jewish Study Bible translation:
“9 his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: ‘Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house!’
10 And he shall go in Israel by the name of ‘the family of the unsandaled one.’”
Why polygamy was a part of Joseph Smith’s restoration of all things and levirate marriage was left out remains a mystery. However, although I have no direct evidence for this, I suspect that something like the spitting and unsandaling rite of levirate marriage was a frequent element of Mormon polygamous practice. Researchers should scour early LDS diaries and other documentary evidence to study more closely situations when the first wife was initially approached by her husband with his proposal to take another wife. No doubt spitting, accompanied by the removal of a shoe that was then hurtled toward the husband was a part of this process on numerous occasions, possibly rising to the level of Latter-day Saint praxis. I also have a modest suggestion for how this ancient ordinance could easily be updated and brought out of retirement. It would work like this. Say you get a calling at church you don’t like. The new rule would be that you could finally refuse this calling in good conscience, but you must then stand at the podium next to the Bishop as he gets to spit in your face and remove one of your shoes.
The next significant spitting incident reported in Mormon scriptures is found in 1 Samuel 21:13 where David fakes insanity in order to get expelled from Philistine territory safely. From the KJV:
“13 And [David] changed his behavior before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard.”
There is at least one incident where an early LDS leader did something akin to this. B.H. Roberts, assistant president of the Southern States Mission, once disguised himself in old mismatched clothes and chewed and spit tobacco on his chin and clothing in order to be unrecognized as he entered the hostile community of Cane Creek, Tennessee, so as to retrieve the bodies of certain missionaries who had been murdered there.1 For modern Latter-day Saints, this “spittle on the beard” practice has several, but as-of-yet-unexplored, possibilities. At first glance you might think, as a corollary to the “calling refusal/spitting/unsandaling” ordinance I’ve suggested above, that the church might consider initiating a “spittle on the beard” policy to enable nursery or Sunday school instructors to escape from their callings, or a least from an unruly classroom. Unfortunately, it’s not currently a workable option. The problem here is twofold: (i) modern Mormon cultural ideals discourage facial hair, although a false ritual beard like that used by ancient Egyptians might be appropriated for the rite for both men and women and (ii) scrabbling strange marks on a chalk board while otherwise appearing crazy would already make 95% of all Latter-day Saint church instructors eligible for thusly escaping their callings.
In later OT periods, it appears that, at least in some circles, spitting had become a very secret, if not sacred, act. A more private observance if you will. For instance, in Job 7:19, Job avoided not only the very appearance of spitting, but it looks like he actually waited until his companions weren’t looking before even swallowing his own spittle. From the KJV:
“How long wilt thou not depart from me, nor let me alone till I swallow down my spittle?”
After sitting through my last dental appointment with a faulty suction tube, I think this information about Job raises my appreciation for his proverbial patience to a superhuman level. Upon further thought, I wonder whether Job in fact had lived under a higher law–like the law of consecration–that is, a commandment once implemented but later removed due to human frailty, an ideal state of being that we will not be able to fully live up to until the Millennium.
Moving ahead chronologically, readers will no doubt recall that spittle was used in several healings in the NT (see Mark 7:33, 8:23; and John 9:6)), but this practice too has yet to be restored. At least officially, that is. While LDS intellectuals and feminists have lamented the passing of women’s participation in Mormon healing ordinances in the last 100 years, I think they have overlooked the fact that when confronted with the frequently afflicted and diseased hairstyles of their own children, Mothers in Zion have long used and continue to use saliva to treat them.
I trust that this brief introduction has been useful. I hope it has at least demonstrated that spitting is not just a mere shaming mechanism or anger management tool and may very well play a more prominent role in LDS theology and practice in the future. That it might create further dialogue and lead us to raise our expectorations of one another is my sincerest desire.
1 Actually, I learned last night that BH did not chew tobacco on this occasion or even spit on his chin. In fact, he didn’t even have a beard since he shaved it to complete his new look for this secret mission. According to his biographer, Truman Madsen, BH merely rubbed soot grease from the smokehouse walls over his face. For some inexplicable reason I added the erroneous tobacco spittle detail to this story over the years in my numerous retellings and I repeated it so often I came to believe it was the truth. To those of you who may have used tobacco instead of soot grease on your face while traveling in disguise because of my careless historiographical practices, my sincerest apologies, especially if you became addicted to the practice or faced disciplinary action in a church court. Let me reiterate that tobacco use is prohibited by D&C 89 with the sole exception as “an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill” and that I support this teaching. If, however, any of you noticed that after smearing your face with tobacco your complexion cleared or the dark circles under your eyes disappeared, I urge you to contribute your story and experiences to the Word Of Wisdom Exceptions Evidences Project (aka, the WOWEE Project) funded by a generous grant from Nu Skin Enterprises.