OSR: Clerics and Sunday School Miracles

The original D&D cleric was a hastily added class designed to fight a vampire PC. The cleric drew from 2 main sources of inspiration: Hammer horror films and the Bible. This seems like a heady mix. Here are my thoughts on the origins of the spells on the original Cleric spell list. If there's an obvious reference I've missed, let me know in the comments.

First Level Second Level Third Level Fourth Level Fifth Level
Cure Light Wounds Find Traps Remove Curse Neutralize Poison Dispell Evil
Purify Food and Water Hold Person Cure Disease Cure Serious Wounds Raise Dead
Detect Magic Bless Locate Object Protection/Evil, 10' Radius Commune
Detect Evil Speak with Animals Continual Light Turn Sticks to Snakes Quest

Speak with Plants Insect Plague

Create Water Create Food
Cleric, Rules Cylcopedia

Sunday School Miracles

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson weren't biblical scholars but as far as I can tell they both had religious upbringings by American Midwest standards. They had what I call "Sunday School" knowledge - a clear view of the major points, a few good stories, but no controversies or details or tangents about history and authorship.

Have you ever seen a Christmas pageant? No pageant that I've ever seen follows either of the 2 nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. What's presented is a cultural amalgam, the sort of idealized, smoothed-over version of the story. That's "Sunday School" knowledge for you. This doesn't mean it's wrong or irrelevant. In fact, for this application, it's more than relevant. If we are going to track down the origins of the Cleric spell list, we can't look too deep into the text. The authors definitely didn't sit down with a reference guide and flip to "M for Miracle". They just went with the stories they knew.

But because it's my blog I'm going to include interesting tangents and quotations anyway.

Cure Light Wounds
Cure Disease
Neutralize Poison
Cure Serious Wounds
Remove Curse

These are clearly spells drawn from Biblical sources. More specifically, they are drawn from the many stories of Christ healing people - the sick, the lame, the blind, etc. Prayer heals. It's that simple.

Tangent: One of my favorite healing stories in the Bible is found in Mark, 8:23-25.

He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, "Do you see anything?"

He looked up and said, "I see people; they look like trees walking around."

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
There are other healing stories in the Bible, but this one has always felt special to me because it mirrors, in a very prescient way, what really happens when people who are blind regain their sight. Just being able to see isn't enough;  you need to comprehend what you are seeing. And somehow, by adapting an old folk story (the spitting seems a bit out of genre) or a real event, the author of Mark realized that and wrote it into the story.

Dr. Van Helsing
Detect Magic
Detect Evil
Protection/Evil, 10' Radius
Dispell Evil
Find Traps

These spells are drawn from the playbook of Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing. He's a Doctor, so he Knows Things, like what stuff is magic, what stuff is evil, and, more importantly, how to protect yourself and destroy the evil. These spells don't feel like "Sunday School" spells, but they're absolutely in the Hammer Horror film repertoire.

Tangent: The reference to "magic" reminds me of Simon the Sorcerer and Phillip the Evangelist. Never was there a better example of "player character mentality when it comes to divine powers." Acts 8:5-25. I'll let Fred Clark explain.

Philip took his include-the-excluded commission very seriously, so the next time we hear from him he’s in Samaria. He’s at a sorceror’s house in Samaria. And he’s just baptizing everyone there all willy nilly.This is happening while most of the leaders of the first Christian community are all still huddled back in Jerusalem, still working through the reservations they have post-Pentecost about whether everybody means everybody.

“Everybody means everybody” is pretty much the theme of the book of Acts. “In all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The apostles seem to have taken that step-by-step, a bit haltingly. Philip didn’t. Pentecost hits and he just says, “Oh, wow, I get it!” and he races off to … let’s see, what’s the most despised and excluded place you can think of? Right, Samaria. And once there he starts passing out the baptisms like Oprah giving away cars.

This surprises the apostles back in Jerusalem, who were still at that point mostly going, “Now when Jesus said ‘all Judea’ did that really mean all Judea? …” Philip caught them off guard by skipping ahead to the “and Samaria” bit.

So Peter and John head to Samaria to see what Philip’s been up to, and to maybe assert a bit more control over his indiscriminate evangelism. They arrive and discover that some of Philip’s brand-new converts are still acting and thinking like brand-new converts. Simon (the Samaritan sorceror, not the apostle) greets them by saying, “This anointing of the Holy Spirit thing is awesome! How much?” So the apostles explain that God’s grace isn’t for sale, and they rebuke Simon, who apologizes. Then Peter and John turn to have a word with Philip, but he’s already gone.

Food Spells
Purify Food and Water
Create Food

There are two, apparently separate events where Jesus feeds many people by miraculously increasing the number of loaves and fishes. Most people consider this a sort of copy-paste issue, or at the very least an editorial problem. In any case, it doesn't matter. The Loaves and the Fishes is a proper Sunday School story. There's also the Manna from Heaven that appears in Exodus.

I can't find a specific biblical story where someone takes inedible or poisoned food and makes it edible, but the Bible, particularly Numbers and Leviticus, is full of references to purity and purification. The rules are very clear on what makes a thing unclean; they are less clear on how to purify an unclean thing, especially food or water. I'm going to chalk this one up to general background Biblical feel, with no specific reference in mind.

There are plenty of medieval stories of poisoned food being blessed to purify it, but I'm not sure the authors knew about them. It might be one of those vague cultural things - an idea common to all cultures that eat.

Hold Person
I can't figure out whether this spell is biblical, Hammer horror, or just game mechanics. Any ideas?
Mary and Jesus, Antonio da Correggio
Continual Light

By Sunday School theology, holiness = light. There's no specific story.

Again, there's no specific reference or story about blessings, but a thousand vague background-radiation references.

Create Water

This spell comes from the Sunday School version of Exodus. Moses strikes a rock; the rock brings forth water.

Tangent: The Exodus version of Exodus is fairly straightforward. The Numbers version is... much weirder. The article linked features a mobile biblical water fountain.

I'm not sure the authors had a specific story in mind for this spell. There are too many to choose from.

Tangent: Remember the time five women sued God and won? Probably not. But it's in the book.
Tangent 2: Remember the time Saul tries to talk to God directly, by the prophets, and by the interpreters, and got nowhere, so he found a pious necromancer? Probably not. But it's also in the book.

The Bible is full of bizarre quests and commands from above. I'm not sure which one the authors had in mind when they wrote this spell, but the story of Jonah is a strong candidate. The bit with the big fish is the Sunday School bit; the rest of the book rarely gets discussed. But it's a very good story anyway.
Saint Francis, Lambert de Hondt

Speak with Animals
Two options spring to mind. The first, and the most likely to appeal to Gygax's sense of humour in my opinion, is the story of Balaam's Ass. The second is St. Francis of Assisi's many animal stories, including taming wolves and speaking to birds.

Tangent: Balaam's Ass is the bit of the story everyone remembers, but the story itself is utterly bizarre, and really needs a scholarly interpretation like Paul Davidson's.

Speak with Plants
The only Sunday School reference I can think of is Jesus cursing the fig tree. I'm not sure if this spell was included to reference that story, or to maintain symmetry with "Speak with Animals", or just because it was a cool spell.

Locate Object
Either this spell was included to reference Saint Anthony's miraculous powers, or it was just good game mechanics.

Tangent: If you grew up in a Catholic family (or some Anglican families), chances are you've heard someone chant
Tony, Tony,
look around.
Something's lost
and can't be found!
while searching under the sofa or in the umbrella stand for a lost set of keys or something. It's not the most reverent ritual, but it's a charming one.
The Resurrection of Lazarus, Leon Bonnat
Raise Dead

The story of Lazarus is the main Sunday School source for this spell. Jesus raises a fair number of people from the dead, but Lazarus' story is the most likely candidate to stick in the minds of the authors. The specific references to days in the spell matches the story's details.

Tangent: To add to the confusion, there are two Lazuruses (Lazurii?) in the New Testament. The second Lazarus is part of a parable; the first is just a guy.

Turn Sticks to Snakes + Insect Plague

I'm going to cover these two spells at the same time because they come from the same Sunday School source; the story of Moses. They deserve their own section because the difference between the Sunday School story and the text is so different.

Here's the Sunday School version of the story of Moses, taken straight from this site.

When Moses was born the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. Pharaoh was afraid of them because he thought they might take over his country. He ordered that all Hebrew baby boys be killed at birth so that they would not grow up and fight against him. To save Moses his mother made a plan. She hid him in a basket by the side of the River Nile.

Moses' sister Miriam watched over him until Pharaoh's daughter came to the river to wash. She found Moses in his basket. Miriam told her she knew a woman who could be a nurse for the baby. It was his mother. Pharaoh's daughter took him back to live with her as though he were her son. Moses grew up as an Egyptian prince, but he never forgot he was a Hebrew. One day Moses lost his temper and killed an Egyptian who had beaten a Hebrew slave to death. He had to run away to another land. God spoke to him from a burning bush and told him he must go back and free the Hebrews from slavery.

Moses went to Pharaoh to ask him to set the Hebrews free. Pharaoh did not want to lose his slaves. He would not let them go, because they worked on his grand buildings. Awful things began to happen in Egypt. There were ten plagues. Before each one, Moses had warned Pharaoh what would happen. Moses told him the disasters had been sent by God. The last plague was the worst. The eldest son in every Egyptian family, including Pharaoh's, died. God had warned Moses to mark the doorposts of all Hebrew houses so that Hebrew boys would be safe. Pharaoh was so upset by losing his son that he said the Hebrews could leave Egypt.
But that's not really the full story. It's a very nice, simple, and tidy version of what's in the text. And the text is a real mess. Once again, Paul Davidson cuts through the confusion and explains the details.

If all you know is the Sunday School version (through the beautifully apocalyptic animated version), you might have forgotten that the text has Egypt's magicians repeating every plague, 1:1. That's right, these guys could also properly cast Turn Sticks to Snakes and Insect Plague, apparently. No smoke and mirrors required.
As an aside, one wonders how the magicians of Egypt managed to duplicate Aaron’s miracle of turning all the water of Egypt—even the water stored in pots—into blood. What water did they have left to work with? Of course, the entire story is mythical and hyperbolic. The “contest between magicians” was a popular folktale genre, and keeping that theme intact trumped the need for logical consistency.

An attentive reader will spot other examples of overkill as well—often verging on the comedic. In the second plague, for example, Aaron causes the land to be overrun with frogs; and then the Egyptian magicians do the same thing! One can only imagine how pleased Pharaoh was with their performance.


  1. Nicely done. I've always assumed that clerical Hold Person is a kind of 'struck senseless by the power of the Lord' deal - you're so overwhelmed by the presence of God that all you can do is stand there as if frozen. I can't recall a specific Biblical reference, but it's the sort of thing that really happens in Charismatic Christian services and similar. (When Whitefield preached in the 1700s, people used to fall over stiff as boards, and had to be carried out 'like dead men from the field'.)

    It's interesting to see how much weirder and more varied the Cleric spell list quickly became. By AD&D1 it included all kinds of other stuff, some of it Biblical (e.g. Tongues, which must be an allusion to the gift of Pentecost), but much of it apparently completely random. I have no idea why clerics are supposed to be able to conjure hammer-shaped force-fields to beat people up with, for example.

    1. Yeah, past a certain point it becomes difficult to reverse-engineer the intentions and sources of the authors. Clerics became their own "thing", not based on anyone or anything else.

  2. The time between posts makes me cross with impatience but then you go an pull off a post like this that's almost miraculous in itself and I feel ashamed at my own insolence.

    This is a great treatment of the subject that everyone ought to see.

  3. It's worth noting that OD&D Hold Person isn't the paralysis-inducing spell it became in later editions: in OD&D, it's basically Mass Charm Person (with a 9-turn duration rather than being permanent until dispelled). It's also one level lower for Clerics for whatever reason.

    I'm still unsure why they get it, though: it makes sense for the Magic-User (e.g. Saruman beguiling a crowd with his voice), but the Cleric? Maybe it's just a preaching thing, I dunno.

    1. There's just not enough info in the spell itself to figure out what the authors thought it was, or how it operated. Was it a magical speech or a glowing special effect or a ray of holy light or what?

  4. Moses cast purify food and water in Exodus 15:23-25: Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet.

    1. Thanks for the reference! I'll edit it in shortly.

  5. Part-time gamer/part-time theologian here and I absolutely loved this post. Very interesting and insightful.
    BTW, this is one of several videos in the Bible Project series. It's well done and has an interesting take on the miracles as answering the problems with the holiness laws (the people healed were considered ritually unclean): https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=l9vn5UvsHvM

  6. Re: hold person.

    A recent episode of the Tides of History podcast cited a saint who came upon a group of people carrying what he thought was an idol (it turned out to be a shrouded body) and performed a miracle to freeze them in place, and then make them dance around a bit. Can't remember the saint's name, I'm afraid.

    Also this post was outstanding. Well done.

    1. Yeah, there's just not enough information in the Hold Person spell to tell what the intent was. You'd have to see it in play, in the original format, to really figure out what miracle or event it resembled... especially since it seems like a Turn Undead (or Brandish Cross at Dracula) that applies to everyone, not just the Undead.

    2. It's probably worth noting that they only get Hold Person, and never get Hold Monster. So "all two-legged, generally mammalian figures near to or less than man-size, excluding all monsters in the "Undead" class".

      So no controlling undead for them, I guess. Or Dragons - you can't play at being Saint Martha, although it's pretty clear that they eventually read the legend of the Tarasque.

  7. As I recall, Gary was born and raised a Jehovah's Witness, and was actually very reverent (well, most of the time), so he was certainly familiar with whatever books are core to that denomination.

    Also, both Gary and Dave were really big on medieval wargaming, so they were certainly familiar with the major sources of the era, including Gregory of Tours "History of the Franks," and Bede's "Ecclesiastical History of the English People," not to mention Froissart's "Chronicles," and of course, all the Arthurian works.

    What is missed by many modern folks is that up through and into the Middle Ages, miracles still happened all. the. time. That's where all the ancient saints come from. And by legend, there are a ton of miracles worked by early saints, all the way up to and including raising the dead.

    And it wasn't just saints throwing around miracles; any goodly and worthy religious could call upon God to work miracles back in those days. Gregory mentions one lowly (i.e., commoner) monk who was able to "control weather," and was soundly rebuked by his abbot for doing so, because of course, by that time, miracles were reserved for the noble saints, not lowly peasant priests...

    There were also, of course, the chronicles of the day that dealt with the clergy, and their infighting and petty wars, and then the crusades, which is where the armored fighting cleric comes from (and other previous samples such as Bishop Odo; and IIRC, there were a pair of brother clerics mentioned by Gregory as "going about in the countryside in armor and beating people with their maces," or some such (which he sniffed at, as clergy were supposed to stay at home in their soft robes and take care of their cities and flock).

    So I would not doubt that there were plenty of other pseudo-religious or semi-religious works that Gary and Dave were familiar with that contributed to the original list and certainly contributed to later clerical spells. Gregory has an almost textbook example of augury described in his book...

    1. Funny story about the "History of the Franks." The text they would have read would have read the very dry and uninspiring (in my opinion) 1924 translation by Dalton. The 1974 translation by Thorpe came out after D&D was published. The telling sign there is that Bishop Carr, the original cleric, is a Bishop (this being before the rank progression system in Men and Magic, p.16). Even if the authors took nothing else from Gregory, Bishops = Powerful Divine Intercessors would have stuck... even if Gregory's miracles didn't really make it into the Cleric class (aside from possibly Hold Person and the healing/curse removal spells. In fact, most of Gregory's miracles seem like anti-cleric spells.)

      I can't speak to the source texts or emphasized texts of the Jehovah's Witnesses, but from some cursory examination, seems like all the stories listed would have been covered in more or less the format listed.

  8. Saw a comment with a reference for purifying water; I've got one for food:

    2 Kings 4:28-41 (NRSV) - "When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the company of prophets was sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Put the large pot on, and make some stew for the company of prophets.” One of them went out into the field to gather herbs; he found a wild vine and gathered from it a lapful of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. They served some for the men to eat. But while they were eating the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” They could not eat it. He said, “Then bring some flour.” He threw it into the pot, and said, “Serve the people and let them eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot."

    1. Thanks! It seems like Elisha (and Kings in general) gets a bit more Sunday School time in the Jehovah's Witnesses than I'd usually expect, so it's possible this is exactly the story the spell references.

  9. This is absolutely amazing. My favourite has got the be story of the devout and hospitable necromancer, I feel inspired for my own games. The five sisters that sued god is a close second.

  10. I forgot it!!!
    If you want to read this post tranlated to spanish:


  11. As for the poison, there is the story of Paul shaking off the snake, but that would be immunity to poison, not a spell.

  12. Ah, so Anglo-Saxons coax st. Anthony with rhymes? My Slavic wife just yells at him and calls him names. With considerable results.