Urban legends have always existed. The Internet has multiplied and accelerated them, but human beings have always been susceptible to falling for the oft-told tale that’s too fantastic not to believe.
Among the Saints we have our regulars: The Three Nephites picked up as hitch-hikers. Comedian and actor Steven Martin seen wearing a CTR ring. A prophecy of the Restoration by an 18th-century Catholic priest.
Perhaps the best-known of these has the imprimatur of a modern apostle: The idea that Cain, son of Adam and Eve and the first murderer, still walks the earth today.
Now, nowhere in scripture, ancient or modern, is it declared that Cain would or did live beyond his mortal years. No mention is made of his death, but we do read of Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great-grandson, who made the same covenant with Satan that Cain did. This covenant is described as being had “from [or since] the days of Cain,” which seems to indicate that Cain was dead by this time. (See Moses 5:51.)
In any case, the scripture is ambiguous, and so the door is left open for all kinds of speculation about what happened to the man from the land of Nod. And hence began a Mormon urban legend.
The notion that Cain somehow lived on, survived the Flood, and roams the earth today, is based on a single claim of David W. Patten supposedly meeting “a very strange personage,” dark and hairy, who “was a wanderer in the earth and and traveled to and fro.” (Thus managing to tie Cain to another popular urban legend: Bigfoot.)
This account was published in a biography of Patten written by Lycurgus Wilson in 1900. Wilson had a letter from Abraham Smoot giving his recollection of what Patten said. In historical parlance this is what is called a late, third-hand account—the sort of thing most historians would dismiss. This kind of testimony is simply unreliable, tainted by the passage of time and the fog of memory.
The story probably would have been forgotten if then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball hadn’t included it on pages 127–28 of The Miracle of Forgiveness. Kimball’s book has become a staple of Mormon reading, the book that many bishops give to members struggling with sin and many mission presidents assign their missionaries to read.
The passage where Kimball quotes Wilson is really unnecessary to the chapter itself, which is about unforgivable sins, including murder. He cites several examples of murderers in the scriptures, beginning with Cain. He then throws in, almost as a passing idea, “an interesting story” about Cain.
And so, quite innocently, Spencer W. Kimball perpetuated a Mormon myth that could (and should) have died out long ago.