Stapley/Wright Discuss Healings by Mormon Women

Last October, I wrote a post titled, Mormon Women Blessing the Sick, as a follow up to my post on Women with Priesthood in Ancient Christianity.  Jonathon Stapley was the first to comment, saying

Equating early Mormon female healing with evidence of female priesthood is folly. Kris’ and my paper on female ritual healing is finally coming out in January (JMH). We treat most of your questions and clean up the historiography a bit.

In the interim here is our paper on the development of Mormon healing to 1847, including the role of women.

Well, I didn’t actually equate healing with female priesthood, but there is an interesting connection.  I am finally getting around to reviewing Jonathan and Kristine Wright’s (abbrev SW) paper which was published in the Journal of Mormon History in the summer of 2009.  The article dealt with healings of men and women, but I would like to focus just on the female healings, and see what the “folly” is all about.  SW discusses many instances where Mormon women blessed the sick with the laying on of hands.  From page 59,

The idea that all believers could have access to healing power is illustrated by an area of practice often misunderstood by modern observers-ritual healing by women.54 Though female healing was not formalized until the later Kirtland period, forms of the practice were exhibited earlier. Despite Smith’s early revelation that the elders be called to lay hands on the sick, when Joseph smith Sr. First gave patriarchal blessings publicly in 1835, he sometimes bestowed the ‘gift of healing’ or the ‘power to heal’ on women.55 One of the extraordinary accounts of healing during this period in Kirtland during this period in Kirtland was later recorded by Sarah Studevant Leavitt, decades after the fact. While her daughter lay critically ill, Sarah prayed fervently. In response, an angel appeared and instructed her ‘to call Louisa up and lay my hands upon her in the name of Jesus Christ and administer to her and she should recover.’56 This ritual formulation is precisely that contemporarily described by William McLellin and Orson Pratt.

What’s interesting to me is that healings performed by women was not rare, and I don’t understand why is has vanished from the church.  There is an interesting discussion when Stapley and Wright discuss healing in connection with the early Kirtland Temple worship.  As you may or may not remember, the Kirtland Temple did not practice the later Nauvoo (and LDS) Endowment, though there was something called an endowment, along with ritual washings and anointings that John Hamer and Barbara Walden discussed in my post Kirtland Temple History and Worship.  Stapley/Wright refer to this as a “proto-endowment” on pages 63-65:

As with the proto-endowment of June 1831, the administrationof the temple “endowment of power” of 1836 appears to have elevated Mormon energy and focus on ritual healing.  After the temple dedication in March, women participated in “blessing meetings,” where Church members gathered for communal outpourings of the Spirit and blessed each other in the name of the Lord.72 Joseph Smith Sr. continued to publicly bestow on women “power” to heal their family members, with the blessings becoming more and more explicit.73 In 1837 he specifically authorized one sister to “lay thy hands on thy children” when the elders were unavailable.74 In these early years, there is no question that Church leaders viewed with primacy the ritual administration of the elders of the Church, but female participation in ritual healing also became normative during this time.75

After the Smith family fled from Kirtland in 1838 for its brief stay in FarWest, Missouri, the Relief Society women in Utah later remembered that Lucy Mack Smith participated in the healing of one Mormon girl: “[She] was taken very ill, and her life despaired of, in fact it seemed impossible for her to get better. The mother of the Prophet, Mrs. Lucy Smith, came and blessed the child, and said she should live. This was something new in that age, for a woman to administer to the sick.”76 That same year while on a mission in Maine, Phoebe Woodruff administered to her apostle husband, Wilford, when he fell ill.77 The apostolic missions appear to have spread the practice of female ritual healing as British women were also anointing the sick by 1838.78

While anointing became more and more common after the Kirtland Temple rituals, there still remained a diversity among Mormon healing rituals. Individuals continued to lay their hands on the sick without anointing.79 Baptism and confirmation remained a frequent source of physical healing for converts and instances of simply commanding the sick to rise still occurred. There was also additional innovation in healing praxis. Perhaps, in a mixture of folk medical healing and Church ritual, the sick drank consecrated oil.80 Following the biblical precedent of the Apostle Paul (Acts 19:12), members of the Quorum of the Twelve sometimes touched or sent handkerchiefs to people in order to heal them.81 Joseph Smith Sr. issued the first extant instruction on such healing as part of Lorenzo Snow’s December1836 patriarchal blessing, where he declared that Lorenzo would have faith “like that of Peter thy shadow shall restore the sick— the diseased shall send to thee their handkerchiefs and aprons and by thy touch their owners shall be healed.”82 Such activities were quite rare compared to other means of healing; however they illustrate the degree to which the early Mormons sought to embody the power of the biblical apostles and modeled their healing practices on New Testament precedents.

In the development of their various healing practices, the most important concept to these Mormons was the idea that people had access to the power of God and the implicit authority to wield it. They do not appear to have been concerned with the theological constructions of grace, magic, and sacrament in relation to their healing activities.

Ok, so this last point is really interesting to me.  It seems to me that SW and Michael Quinn agree on “the idea that people had access to the power of God and the implicit authority to wield it.”  There does seem to be a bit of a semantic argument.  Stapley says it is “folly” to compare female healings to priesthood, but apparently Quinn disagrees.  I posted this quote from Quinn when I discussed Women and the Melchizedek Priesthood, and I would like to quote it again (formatting changed.)

The last major development in LDS priesthood is even less recognized today.  In 1843 Smith extended the Melchizedek priesthood to LDS women through an “endowment ceremony” rather than through ordination to church office.

  • For example, in 1843 Presiding Patriarch Hyrum Smith blessed Leonora Cannon Taylor:
  • “You shall be bless[ed] with your portion of the Priesthood which belongeth to you, that you may be set apart for your Anointing and your induement [endowment].”
  • Thirtyfive years later, Joseph Young (a patriarch and senior president of the Council of Seventy) blessed Brigham Young’s daughter:
  • “These blessings are yours, the blessings and power according to the Holy Melchi[z]edek Priesthood you received in your Endowments, and you shall have them.”

The decline in women’s awareness that the endowment ceremony gives them Melchizedek priesthood corresponds to the decline in women’s status in the LDS church during those same years.  In the process, twentieth-century Mormons–both male and female, conservative and liberal–have identified priesthood with male privilege and hierarchical administrative power.  Therefore, some recent writers regard as insignificant the concept that endowed Mormon women had (and continue to have) the Melchizedek priesthood without ordained office and hierarchical status.
I must say that I agree that  modern Mormons always associate priesthood with administration.  On the other hand, I can remember as a deacon, teacher, and priest, being told the priesthood is “the power to act in the name of God.”  So, even though women may not hold an administrative office, it is fascinating to me that Quinn uses a different definition to discuss women’s priesthood power “to act in the name of God.”  Isn’t this a more important use of priesthood power?

I would be interested to hear SW address Quinn’s point here, because on page 75 SW says,

just one week after receiving temple rituals with his wife, Mary Fielding, in 1843, Patriarch Hyrum Smith blessed one woman that she would “be endowed with power.”113  Joseph Smith intended all the Saints, both men and women, to be endowed with power, including the power to heal.

Stapley/Wright discuss healings that didn’t work, as well as healing of animals.  From page 67,

In early Mormonism, ineffectual healing rituals produced great tension. The remarkable healings of infants and even animals formed a puzzling contrast with individuals of great faith who remained afflicted. Wilford Woodruff remembered laboring as a missionary with David Patten, who when their mule fell incapacitated, laid his hands on and blessed it. The mule arose. At first Woodruff felt that such a blessing was sacrilegious but grew to see it as a gift from God.88 Ritual healings of animals were not regular events, sporadically occurring on the trek west and into the Utah period;89 however, they highlighted the power of the administrant over nature and the devil. Conversely,when Joseph Smith preached to the Twelve preparatory to the 1836 Kirtland endowment and informed them that they would be endowed with power to heal all manner of disease, he also cautioned them, “Let me tell you that you will not have power after the endowmentto heal those who have not faith, nor to benifit them.”90 Smith placed the burden of faith on all parties participating in ritual healings.91

SW further discusses healings in relation to the Relief Society.  From page 73,

The founding of the Relief Society, coupled with anticipation ofthe Nauvoo endowment, ushered in a further amplification of ritual healing.  Women sometimes administered to the sick in more formal settings in conjunction with their regular meetings. Minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo reveal how women felt empowered by greater access to healing rituals.  On April 19, 1842, “Mrs.Durfee bore testimony to the great blessing she received when administered to after the close of the last meeting by Prest. E[mma]. Smith & Councillors Cleveland and Whitney. She said she never realized more benefit thro’ any administration, that she was healed, and thought the sisters had more faith than the brethren.”107
Female ritual healing apparently caused some controversy; however, Joseph Smith rebuked the detractors on April 28, 1842, “according to revelation,” which he newly preached that day. In the context of Paul’s teachings to the Corinthians on spiritual gifts, he reiterated Christ’s teaching that the signs108 that follow true believers, “whether male or female,” included the healing of the sick. He stated that it was proper for women to administer to the sick by the laying on of hands and further asserted that, when the temple was complete, the “keys of the kingdom” would be given to them “as well as to the Elders.” 109

Official sanction to female healings is discussed on page 78:

With Smith’s revelation on female ritual healing, Mormon women engaged in Nauvoo’s healing activities. Church leaders specifically set apart women to administer to the sick130 and spoke favorably of women healing in general conference.131 Emmeline Wells remembered Relief Society women meeting sick immigrants and ministering to them with healing rituals.132 Church authorities facilitated healing rituals performed by women;133 and after the martyrdom, Patriarch John Smith continued the practice of blessing women to heal the sick.134 Highlighting this focused ritual energy, Bathsheba Smith wrote to her missionary husband in 1842 about their sick infant: “I took him to the fount and had him baptised and sinse then he has not had any feavor.  He is about well now. Looks a little pail. I anointed himwith oil a good many times.”135

Furthermore, on pages 81-82:

Female participation in healing and blessing during this time was normative.146 With the accessibility of the endowment of power, women administered to each other with greater frequency. Over 10 percent of the inhabitants at Winter Quarters were sick in December1846.147 Louisa Barnes Pratt wrote of her experience during this time, “The shaking ague fastened deathless fangs upon me, fromwhich there was no escape. . . . The sisters were moved with sympathy.  They assembled at my tent, prayed, annointed [sic] me with oil, andlaid their hands upon me.”148 The following spring, several sisters administered to a child in a manner that highlights continued Mormon willingness to combine healing rituals with frontier medicine. In Utah, a writer for the Woman’s Exponent, probably editor Emmeline B.Wells, remembered the healing of a sick child: “The little one had not seen or spoken for two days, its eyeballs were dried over, the sisters were called in to administer, Sister Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Sister Vilate, Sister Laura Pitkin and Presendia Kimball and one or two others.  They administered, anointing the child with oil, and bathing its eyes with milk and water, and it was restored to life and health miraculously, but the sisters gave God the glory.”149

Fathers and mothers participated jointly in healings as cited on pages 83-84:

An ethos of unity,150 which informed these activities, served to subvert the prevalent notion of “separate spheres”within the realm of healing administrations and contributed to a social order of non-hierarchical blessings and healings.151 George A. Smith reflected on the power of this union, when preaching at the temple: “We are now different from what we were before we entered into this quorum. . . . When a man and his wife are united in feeling, and act in union, I believe they can hold their children by prayer and faith and will not be obliged to give them up to death until they are fourscore years old.”152 Illustrative of this faith union, men and women administered to the sick together.153 For example, on March 17, 1847, Patty Sessions noted, “[Mary Pierce] was buried. I went to the funeral.  Brigham preached. I then visited the sick.Mr. Sessions and Iwent and laid hands on the widow Holmons ^step^ daughter. she was healed.”154

Healing ritual performance during the migration to the Great Basin guided Latter-day Saint practice for the remainder of the century.  While anointing the sick was the most common form of ritual healing, men continued to wash and anoint the sick during the Utahperiod.155 Similarly, baptism for health was the most commonly performed temple ritual for the living for many years.156 Men andwomen also continued to administer to the sick collaboratively. For example, Andrew and Elizabeth Ferguson in Scotland sought to unitedly heal their three-year-old son. Ferguson recorded: “Satterday little William is very ill.  had to wait upon him all night . . . I anointed himwith consecrated oil, & his mother & I laid hands upon him & Praid over him.”157<.sup>

Women also remained potent healers. Louisa Barnes Pratt, whowas anointed by women at Winter Quarters during her illness, later served as a missionary wife in the Pacific Islands and contributed to the spread of female administration throughout the world.  Her husband, Addison, recorded many ritual healings and baptized the native sick for their health,158 while Louisa carried out a similar ministry among the women and children:

The natives . . . have great faith in the ordinances of the Gospel such as baptism and the laying of hands of recovering the sick to health. I brought with me a bottle of consecreated [sic] oil which was blessed by brother Brigham Young and other of the authorities, previous to my leaving Salt Lake. The females had great faith in the oil, when I told them from whence I had brought it, and by whom it had been blessed. They would frequently bring their young children to mewhen they were sick to have me annoint [sic] them, give them oil inwardly, and lay my hands upon them in the name of the Lord.159

I think Stapley and Wright have laid out the fact that women have participated in ritual healing episodes dating to the earliest days in the church.  I don’t understand why this practice has changed.  Why do you think it is no longer acceptable for women to lay hands on the sick?


6 comments on “Stapley/Wright Discuss Healings by Mormon Women

  1. I think that as society moved in to the industrial age the structure of societu=y changed in a fundamental way. in pre-industraial society women and men worked side by side to care for thier families. With the demide of the fsamily farm and the development of the factory systems. Men became seen as the sole provider for the family and women became increasinginly marginilised. Prophets generally don’t change the structure of the church unless they as the right questions. eg blacks in the priesthood. So until the time comes that we get a prophet who will ask the question about women being able to exercise the authoriity they all ready have then thinng will stay the same.

    On a different point, when I mentioned this article to my wife she expressed that if confirmed what she all ready knew that women recieve the priesthood when they get thier endowment.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read this paper and engage it.

    Kristine’s and my recent paper on the entire history of female participation in the Mormon healing liturgy is available in the recent issue of JMH. It is also available digitally, here.

    Regarding the specific questions regarding priesthood, and Quinn’s comments, I can only speak for my own views and not Kristine’s. However, there is some significant engagement with this topic in the recent article. More specifically, I would refer you to a forthcoming article I wrote in the Summer issue of JMH. It is an article on adoptive sealing ritual and treats specifically the priesthood language and cosmology associated with the temple liturgy in Nauvoo and beyond. Specifically, there is no question that there is priesthood language associated with the temple (I have come to call it Smith’s cosmological priesthood, as it spans heaven and earth). However, there is really no question that church leaders into the twentieth century viewed the temple’s liturgical or priestly authority, healing authority and the priesthood of church operation and governance as being discrete from each other.

    Moreover, power, or the gifts of the spirit are incoherently conflated with priesthood. Now there is no question, as you note, that some have tried to say that priesthood is the power of God or the authority to act in God’s name; however, every day people pray in the name of Jesus that don’t hold the priesthood and no one seriously believes all spiritual gifts are constrained to priesthood office.

  3. Astral_LDS, following my Quinn post, I attended the temple with my wife. In the Celestial room, I asked a female temple worker if women held the priesthood, and she said “no.” My mission president had previously said in zone conference that women absolutely hold the Melchizedek Priesthood in order to officiate in the ordinances in the temple. I wonder why there seems to be a difference of opinion on this topic.

    Jonathan, Moreover, power, or the gifts of the spirit are incoherently conflated with priesthood.

    I guess it is this conflation that I find interesting. When I was in young men’s, we were frequently told that priesthood is the authority to act in the name of God. It is still what young men are told, and seem to be exclusively reserved for men only. Reading through this paper makes it seem that healings were done by women, and I can see no reason why this practice has stopped. Why do you think the church has conflated these things, and no longer allow women to participate in these gifts of the spirit?

  4. MH, I would point you to the paper I linked to in the previous comment for the history of female healing over time. I don’t believe that people in the church are currently taught that all spiritual gifts are only available to priesthood holders. Priesthood did grow over the twentieth century to be more and more associated with church liturgy and bureaucracy. The sort of linguistic shift you mention is symptomatic of that trend, but again, I know of know one who would ever say that women can not access the gifts of the spirit.

  5. I don’t know if it is on purpose, but every so often I get a huge influx of emails of old posts. Today I received something like 20, so you will probably never see my comment but…

    I always laugh a little when I read something that Stapley wrote, as we were mission companions at one time. I have a hard time seeing him as and different than we were back in the mission field.

    This post reminded me of an old story, possibly false, but one that I heard while growing up (or on my mission), who knows. In it, a general authority visited a ward somewhere in South America where he was shocked when the sacrament was blessed and passed by young women. The authority pulled the bishop aside, after the meeting, and told the bishop that this was incorrect and that the sacrament was to be blessed and passed by holders of the Aaronic priesthood. After correcting the bishop, and receiving assurances that this practice would be corrected, the general authority left but returned a few months later. He was surprised to see the same young women blessing and passing the sacrament. After the meeting the general authority talked to the bishop and said, “I thought I made it clear that the sacrament was supposed to be blessed by Aaronic priesthood holders”? the bishop quickly answered, “Yes, you did. And so we immediately gave each of those young women the priesthood.”

    Personally I think that the change is probably a combination of cultural issues, in and out of the church. I’ve been reading some history from the 1800s to early 1900s and one thing that has stood out to me was how often the husband didn’t live with his wife. It was extremely common for the man to ‘wander’ the countryside looking for work. For example, Emma Smith’s dad went from business venture to business venture (once even owned a ship if I remember correctly) and didn’t see his family for years at a time. As such, the wife had to be able to handle the home and kids without the ready availability of male support (i.e. priesthood). It was also a more ‘mystical’ time frame where many believed in god and spirits and …. thus I think that the belief and faith necessary for such actions was more prevalent. As more ‘modern’ times have moved upon us, the culture has changed. If the man was available, and there was a general belief of focus on priesthood preference, then why would the woman get involved as much. As the cultural belief in the supernatural waned, then a more formalized acceptance that healing was unusual grew as well, and thus an acceptance that something unusual had to occur (laying on of hands) as well to precipitate such healing but it could only occur by special people (priesthood holders). I have noticed that the priesthood holders often have difficulty believing in healing (and only go through the motions of healing but without the faith that it will actually occur).

    concurrent to all this change, the church started formalizing the teaching within the church (I believe that you posted something about correlation efforts related to this) that probably also sped up the process. I’m not old enough to remember, but I am told that until the 60s or 70s, it was not uncommon for temple prayer circles to be held in the home. I teach (and have been taught) that the full priesthood is only held by both the husband and wife working together. My mission president’s wife would go out of her way to teach the sisters (and at least some of us incoming elders) that the sisters had the right to call on the priesthood when necessary. She would share some stories but one stayed with me. In short, she was in a position where she felt needed help but couldn’t call on her husband. She raised her hand to the square and commanded the spirit, “by the priesthood authority that her husband held” to leave her. It did.

    Well, I’ve babbled long enough. One last thought on the issue, going back to the idea of correlation. I believe that you said that correlation has led to teaching ‘milk’ and not ‘meat’ because it is easier to handle in a large global church than deal with the meatier issues that might be inconsistent. Perhaps its the other way around, Perhaps the culture of the church has regressed in its belief in the powers of God available to man and so we’ve returned to the ‘milk’ because anything heavier would upset the collective church stomach. This might explain the change from women ritualistic healing.

  6. Thanks Alex. I enjoyed your perspective. Regarding women blessing and passing the sacrament, I think there is some truth to that, but it occurred in Germany, rather than South America. During WW2, some of the wards allowed women to administer the sacrament because so many men were at war. I learned about it in my post about Nazi Mormons although I didn’t blog about it at the time. After WW2 ended and LDS mission presidents returned to Germany, the practice was halted. I don’t believe the women were actually ordained to priesthood office though. Perhaps I should run a post on that topic.

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