Since March is Women’s History month, I decided to follow up to my previous article discussing female priesthood holders in Ancient Christianity, I thought it would be interesting to discuss a now discontinued practice of Mormon women anointing and blessing the sick. Did you know that Mormon women used to wash, anoint with oil, and lay hands on the sick until 1946? Linda King Newell outlines the history of this practice in a Sunstone article called “A Gift Given: a Gift Taken”. When questioned about the propriety of women laying hands on the sick to heal, what do you think Joseph Smith’s response was?
“someone apparently reported to Joseph that the women were laying their hands on the sick and blessing them. His reply to the question of the propriety of such acts was simple. He told the women in the next meeting “there could be no evil in it, if God gave his sanction by healing.., there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water.” He also indicated that there were sisters who were ordained to heal the sick and it was their privilege to do so. “If the sisters should have faith to heal,” he said, “let all hold their tongues.”6
But that’s not all. Let’s look at subsequent prophets discussing the practice. Brigham Young said to mothers,
“It is the privilege of a mother to have faith and to administer to her child; this she can do herself, as well as sending for the Elders to have the benefit of their faith.”8
So, do Mormon women hold the priesthood?
On 8 August 1880, John Taylor’s address on “The Order and Duties of the Priesthood” reaffirmed that women “hold the Priesthood, only in connection with their husbands, they being one with their husbands.”12
In October of that year, Taylor sent a letter reaffirming a woman’s right to lay hands on the sick.
It is the privilege of all faithful women and lay members of the Church, who believe in Christ, to administer to all the sick or afflicted in their respective families, either by the laying on of hands, or by the anointing with oil in the name of the Lord: but they should administer in these sacred ordinances, not by virtue and authority of the priesthood, but by virtue of their faith in Christ, and the promises made to believers: and thus they should do in all their ministrations.13
President Wilford Woodruff said,
There is no impropriety in sisters washing and anointing their sisters in this way, under the circumstances you describe [washing and anointing women prior to labor and delivery]; but it should be understood that they do this, not as members of the priesthood, but as members of the Church, exercising faith for, and asking the blessings of the Lord upon, their sisters, just asking the blessings of the Lord upon their sisters, just as they and every member of the Church, might do in behalf of the members of their families.16
President Joseph signed a letter on 17 December 1909 with the rest of the First Presidency, saying that non-endowed sisters could also participate in blessing the sick:
sisters need not necessarily be only those who had received their endowments, for it was not always possible for women to have that privilege and women of faith might do so [give blessings].27
In 1914, Joseph F. Smith reaffirmed that women could bless. However, in 1921, Elder Charles Penrose indicated in General Conference that only elders could seal blessings.
Occasions when perhaps it would be wise for a woman to lay her hands upon a child, or upon one another sometimes, and there have been appointments made for our sisters, some good women, to anoint and bless others of their sex who expect to go through times of great personal trial, travail and ’labor;’ so that is all right, so far as it goes. But ’when women go around and declare that they have been set apart to administer to the sick and take the place that is given to the elders of the Church by revelation as declared through James of old, and through the Prophet Joseph in modern times, that is an assumption of authority and contrary to scripture, which is that when people are sick they shall call for the elders of the Church and they shall pray over them and officially lay hands on them.34“
King goes on to say that Penrose was wrong on one point.
Even though he cited the authority of Joseph Smith and even though Joseph Smith certainly taught the propriety and authority of elders to heal the sick, Elder Penrose also contradicted the extension of healing privileges to women by Joseph Smith. In fact, Joseph Smith had cited that same scripture in the 12 April 1842 Relief Society meeting but, ironically, had made a far different commentary: “These signs.., should follow all that believe whether male or female.’’35
Further restrictions appeared under President Heber J. Grant. He
defended the priesthood against “complaint… about the domination of the people by those who preside over them.” He quoted the description of the ideal way in which priesthood authority is to function, found in Doctrine and Covenants 121, then asked, somewhat rhetorically, “Is it a terrible thing to exercise the priesthood of the living God in the way that the Lord prescribes: ’By kindness and gentleness’ “?37 The pattern had now been established, clarified, and validated.
King cites further discomfort with female blessings.
The next year brought the official death knell of this particular spiritual gift. On 29 July 1946 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve wrote to Belle S. Spafford, the Relief Society General President, and her counselors, Marianne C. Sharp and Gertrude R. Garff. While the authorities of the Church have ruled that it is permissible, under certain conditions and with the approval of the priesthood, for sisters to wash and anoint other sisters, yet they feel that it is far better for us to follow the plan the Lord has given us and send for the Elders of the Church to come and administer to the sick and afflicted.41
I encourage you to read the full PDF version of the article that I linked about. I am certainly leaving out plenty of items. Why do you think there is so much discomfort with women blessing and anointing the sick? Do you see this practice ever returning? What would happen if a women laid her hands to bless a sick person today?
Lest anyone think I am espousing that women already hold the priesthood, I promise to follow up with a post about the folly of believing such a thing.