Women and Authority
Edited by Maxine Hanks

Chapter 19
Women as Healers in the Modern Church
Betina Lindsey

A friend told me about an experience she had in 1987:

My son woke up one morning coughing. Within about five minutes he couldn’t breathe. I ran into the bathroom with him, turning on the shower to create steam, but he was turning blue and couldn’t get any air. Meanwhile someone had called the ambulance. Suddenly in an natural instantaneous response I lay my hands on his head and said, “As [your] mother I call on the power of [the] Melchizedek priesthood” and I blessed him. Even while my hands were on his head he relaxed, began breathing evenly, and fell asleep. By the time we arrived at the hospital, they questioned why we’d brought him at all. I’ve given blessings before with women, to other women, for infertility, alcoholism, and depression, but I’ve never quoted priesthood authority until that morning with my son.1

I consider this woman to be a pioneer. She is rediscovering a vast landscape that was once the domain of Mormon women as healers—a territory from which for three generations Mormon women have been exiled.

Evidence from Mormon women’s journals, diaries, and meeting minutes tells us that from the 1830s until as recently as the 1930s, LDS women routinely performed blessings and healings for their families, each other, and the community—often through their capacity as members of the Relief Society. Although the monthly ward fast and the temple prayer circle symbolize the union of male and female [440] members of our spiritual community, in this century the church has gradually restricted and defined giving blessings as a function of male priesthood office. As a result the modern church suffers from the loss of women’s full potential as healers.

For example, in 1990 a sister told me that her “husband is hesitant to administer when our children are sick.” She was very concerned about her son who needed an operation, but her husband said, “Let’s just wait and see how it goes.” “I would have felt better if my son had been given a blessing beforehand, but my husband wouldn’t and I couldn’t.”2

Despite official restrictions, the practice of giving blessings has persisted among Mormon women to the present. Especially in the last decade or so, there has been a resurgence of women discreetly exercising the gift of healing and blessing others.

This essay makes these points: (1) There is clear historical and scriptural precedent for women as healers. (2) The process and gift of healing are ungendered. (3) The ritual of blessing and healing ordinances grant women an important source of direct spiritual empowerment. (4) The LDS church would benefit from and increase its spirituality by recognizing its own resource of women healers.

Historical Precedent

Since the founding of Mormonism, women have been a tremendous resource in the church for exercising the gifts of the spirit, including prophesying, blessing, and healing. Several important articles and books by LDS scholars trace the tradition of Relief Society sisters exercising gifts of the spirit.3 Our nineteenth-century foremothers gave Mormon women an unparalleled heritage of spiritual activism—a sacred tradition still awaiting rediscovery.4

A few examples will illustrate. Between 1833 and 1837 when the church was headquartered in Kirtland, Ohio, Sarah Leavitt healed her daughter of illness, and church patriarch, Joseph Smith, Sr., told Eda Rogers that when her husband was absent, she could “lay hands” on her family, and “Sickness shall stand back.”5 In 1838 Amanda Smith and Louisa Pratt individually reported administering to and healing their children from sickness. Also Abigail Leonard told of healing a woman from near death, recalling that when she [441] and the sisters arrived at her bedside, the woman was cold and her eyes set, but before the sisters finished their administration, “the blood went coursing through her system … and she was sensibly better … [B]efore night her appetite returned … and in 3 days she sat up.”6

In Nauvoo, Illinois, the women of the Relief Society frequently pronounced blessings upon each other. Sister Durfee and Abigail Leonard tell of receiving blessings of health from Emma Smith and her counselors.7 Joseph Smith said, “Who are better qualified to administer than our faithful and zealous sisters whose hearts are full of faith, tenderness, sympathy, and compassion. No one.”8 Elizabeth Ann Whitney received her authority to bless through ordination. “I was … ordained and set apart under the hand of Joseph Smith the Prophet to administer to the sick and comfort the sorrowful. Several other sisters were also ordained and set apart to administer in these holy ordinances.”9

In 1853 Patriarch John Smith sealed upon Caroline Cottam “the blessings and Priesthood which Abraham sealed upon his daughters, with power to heal the sick in your house …” In a patriarchal blessing to Elizabeth Bean, John Smith said that the priesthood gave “you the power to heal the sick and to understand all the principles of the priesthood, and mysteries that have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world.”10

Eliza R. Snow’s emigration diary contains this entry, “I am quite ill—Sis. Chase Administers to me—we are blest.” She also describes Sisters Snow, Smoot, and Sessions administering to a sick girl.11

In 1852 Apostle Ezra T. Benson said that Mormon women had “power to heal the sick, by the laying on of hands.”12 Later in 1868 he called on all women in Cache Valley who had been “ordained” to come forward and “wash and anoint” and “rebuke” a local epidemic.13 In an 1869 tabernacle speech, President Brigham Young said that any righteous mother had the right “to administer to her child; this she can do herself, as well as sending for the Elders to have the benefit of their faith.”14

The April 1893 Young Woman’s Journal describes the healing gift of Lucy Bigelow Young, a plural wife of Brigham Young. Lucy, also a temple worker, was known throughout St. George and Utah territory as having a remarkable gift of healing:

[442] How many times the sick and suffering have come upon beds to that temple, and at once Sister Young would be called to take the afflicted one under immediate charge, as all knew the mighty power she had gained through long years of fastings and prayers in the exercise of her special gift. When her hands are upon the head of another in blessing, the words of inspiration and personal prophecy that flow from her lips are like a stream of living fire. One sister who had not walked for twelve years was brought, and under the cheering faith of Sister Young she went through the day’s ordinance and was perfectly healed of her affliction.15

In April 1896 Apostle Franklin D. Richards reaffirmed the independent source of women’s authority to perform healing ordinances. As an apostle and Church Historian, he instructed LDS women that they have “the right” to say these words in administering to the sick: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ & by virtue of the Holy Anointing which I have received.”16

These women did not consider themselves radical innovators. They functioned according to the promises and authority given to them as members of the church. Unfortunately, in this century the church gradually revoked women’s exercise of those promised gifts and authority to bless until they were no longer known or known only in secret. Yet the exercise of these gifts is promised in abundant measure—and promised through faith regardless of gender.

In determining whether or not women can serve as healers in the modern church, we must ask: What are the sources of spiritual healing and is ritual important?

Spiritual Authority to Heal

The promise of healing power came directly from Jesus Christ to anyone born of the Spirit: “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name they shall cast out devils, they shall speak with new tongues. They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17-18). The Book of Mormon prophet Moroni also tells us that “all these gifts come by the spirit of Christ; and they come unto every man [or woman] severally, according as he [or she] will” (Moro. 10:17).

Church leader Bruce R. McConkie explained the gifts of the [443] spirit in Mormon Doctrine: “Faithful persons are expected to seek the gifts of the Spirit with all their hearts. They are to ‘covet earnestly the best gifts’ (1 Cor. 12:31; D&C 46:8), to ‘desire spiritual gifts’ (1 Cor. 14:1), to ask of God, who giveth liberally, (D&C 46:7; Matt. 7:7-8). To some will be given one gift; to others, another.”17 In explaining the gifts of the spirit, Joseph Smith included the gift of healing: “And again, to some it is given to have faith to be healed; and to others it is given to have faith to heal” (D&C 46:19-20). Women are clearly included in these admonitions to “seek the gifts of the Spirit with all their hearts.”

From Elizabeth Ann Whitney and other accounts, we know that women in the early church were ordained, set apart, and given authority to give blessings and perform healings. They anointed with oil, sealed the blessing, used the laying on of hands and uttered the blessing prayer. Linda Newell has pointed out that Mormon women’s exclusion from these gifts today does not reflect our theology but rather is a matter of evolving church policy.18 Since the 1960s the church priesthood correlation program has reorganized and defined all aspects of the church under direction of (male) priesthood holders. I believe this was an effort to get men to take church responsibility more seriously. This correlation automatically excluded women from any areas of church participation perceived as connected to priesthood functions.

Healing by laying on of hands brings together three sources of power: (1) we draw upon God’s power (or priesthood) transmitted through our action; (2) faith must be exercised both by those petitioning the Lord as well as the individual receiving the blessing; and (3) the healing power of the healer is a gift which is apparently an act of free grace from God to certain individuals who may exercise or withhold it. All three sources of power are available in degrees to each of us.

Mormon priesthood office does not correspond to healing power. Rather priesthood is an avenue of church approval for exercising God’s power. Ascertaining which priesthood holders also have the gift of healing would be difficult. It seems that any worthy priesthood holder can serve as a conduit for God’s power. It also seems that if a priesthood holder is not worthy to channel God’s power, a blessing pronounced on a faithful member of the church [444] is often still heard and answered because of the faith of the individual being healed or their loved ones. Healing power is a cooperative act between God and the individuals participating in the healing. Thus the statement commonly heard at the close of most priesthood blessings: if it be the Lord’s will.

Restricting blessings and healings to Melchizedek priesthood holders limits women’s spirituality. One Mormon husband observed, “If one of the kids has a sore throat, I don’t think it’s time for a blessing. If they were in the hospital with a serious illness, then it would be different.” However, his wife felt differently, “I think a blessing can be a preventative to worse things to come. He says I worry too much; but I feel helpless sometimes because he’s the one with the priesthood. I’m put in the position of nagging him into giving a blessing he doesn’t feel is necessary.”19

Another woman expressed dismay at the “routine” nature of priesthood blessing:

A woman in my ward was seriously ill and my husband was called to administer to her. Afterward and for the next weeks, I and the other Relief Society sisters went into her home and nursed and took care of her and her children. She did get well, and later when I told my husband, he gave me a blank look because he didn’t even remember the sister’s name or administering to her. I think it was the prayers and nursing by the sisters in the ward that healed her.20

To my knowledge no scripture or talk by a general authority maintains that women’s faith is not sufficient to participate individually or collectively in healing or that a woman’s prayer for healing herself or another is inappropriate. In these ways contemporary Mormon women are not officially forbidden to heal. Rather they are forbidden to engage in the rituals of healing.21

One example of church leaders’ uneasiness with the gift of healing in women was this experience of a returned missionary during his 1972 mission to France, which he reported during a question and answer session at a Mormon Women’s Forum lecture in 1989: “A woman I was teaching had the gift of healing. The gift first manifested when she was a child and she had laid her hands on a pet and it was healed. We gave her all the literature about the church and she read everything and joined, becoming a faithful member. The mission president visited her in regard to her gift of [445] healing, and though he recognized her ability to heal as a spiritual gift from God rather than [from] Satan, he requested she not use or demonstrate the gift for now.”22 I wonder how this woman dealt with the limitation imposed upon her and whether she is still an active member of the church.

Another woman I interviewed stated that she had been promised “the gift of healing in your hands” in her patriarchal blessing. She said, “I use the gift mainly for my own children and family, drawing out the pain with my hands. Afterwards I sometimes feel drained. I haven’t used the gift outside of my family, though I find when I visit the sick I can talk with them and my voice in some part soothes and helps them.” Can we imagine what benefit this woman might be to her ward or community if not prevented from exercising this gift from God?

Much emphasis in the church is placed upon “spirituality” and “worthiness” in calling upon the gifts of the spirit. But for Mormon women this often becomes a double-bind because the symbol and avenue for spiritual manifestations in the church is male priesthood. In essence Mormon women become spiritually dependent on male priesthood holders for blessing and healing ordinances, even though Mormon theology gives them equal access to God’s power. This appears even more ironic when church leaders laud the spiritual superiority of women while withholding church avenues from women to exercise that spirituality.

Ritual as Empowerment

Ritual attunes an individual with a divine source in order to act as a channel for healing or other spiritual power. Ritual use of language and religious symbols/objects are central in religious rituals such as blessings and healings, because symbolism both represents and objectifies God’s power.23 Within Mormonism the ritual language used in sacred ordinances and the consecrated oil symbolize and make tangible the spiritual power of the blessing. The language or prayer and the oil also awaken faith and enhance the sense of transmission of God’s power to individuals.

Mormon blessing prayers do not have a rigid form, although healings must contain important ritual elements: (1) the oil is [446] consecrated; (2) the individual is anointed with oil; (3) the anointing is sealed and an inspired prayer or blessing is uttered.24 Within Mormonism the effect of using set prayers or ritual language in ordinances is empowerment. The person who speaks words which have been spoken many times in similar settings is put in touch with the power operating in those previous settings. The priesthood also mediates power from God to humans by distinguishing key symbols and moving them into a proper relationship so that power flows through them. In other words an ordinance creates order. In healing, the priesthood power to establish order through ritual lies at the root of the healing process.25

Ordinance or ritual words, actions, and objects are not empty symbols but allow believers to tap spiritual power, even when they are distant from the source. A scriptural example of a “portable charisma” was the brazen serpent on a pole, which Moses was commanded by God to raise during the plague of serpents. Anyone who was bitten was told to look at the pole to live (Num. 21:8-9).26 A Mormon example of portable charisma occurred in July 1839 near Nauvoo during a malaria epidemic. Joseph had been healing the sick in Montrose and was returning home when a man asked him to heal his three-month-old twins. According to one account,

Joseph told the man he could not go, but he would send someone to heal them. He told Elder Woodruff to go with the man and heal his children. At the same time he took from his pocket a silk bandana handkerchief and gave it to Brother Woodruff, telling him to wipe the faces of the children with it, and they should be healed; and remarked at the same time: “As long as you keep that handkerchief it shall remain a league between you and me.”27

Other examples of healing handkerchiefs were those of Lorenzo Snow, Newel Knight, and Caroline Butler. Joseph Smith even consecrated the cape of Caroline Butler’s husband “for healing purposes, and several generations of the Butler family regarded the cape as having power in itself to heal.”28

Consecrated oil is the only ritual object currently involved in Mormon healings. Some Mormon men carry consecrated oil in tiny vials on a chain or in a pocket. When women lost the privilege of giving blessings, they were barred from using oil and have been distanced from the close proximity that some men retain to this holy [447] object. Women (and men) still use consecrated oil in the temple washing and anointing, but the silence around temple ordinances has kept consecrated oil a mystery to women rather than making it more familiar.

Laying on of hands is intuitive and instinctive; we do it without thinking. Holding a bruised thumb with the unbruised hand, putting a palm over a feverish forehead, stroking a hurt—all are examples of laying on of hands.29 Laying on of hands is an important part of the healing ritual and is central to other rituals including confirmations, ordinations, and settings apart.

Some women I talked to expressed hesitancy about laying hands on someone’s head because they were afraid of assuming a “priesthood posture” which would be seen as inappropriate. Some of them avoid that problem by establishing physical contact in other ways during the pronouncing of a blessing: hands on shoulders, holding hands in a circle, and so on.

A rare twentieth-century document for Mormon women is the written form of the blessing to be pronounced in a washing, anointing, and sealing before childbirth. It was recorded in the minutes of the Oakley (Idaho) Second Ward Relief Society between 1901 and 1910. In this excerpt we find the combination of consecrated oil (ritual object), prayer (ritual language), and the laying on of hands:

We anoint your back, your spinal column that you might be strong and healthy no disease fasten upon it no accident belaff [befall] you, Your kidneys that they might be active and healthy and perform their proper functions, your bladder that it might be strong and protected from accident, your Hips that your system might relax and give way for the birth of your child, your sides that your liver, your lungs, and spleen that they might be strong and preform their proper functions, … your breasts that your milk may come freely and you need not be afflicted with sore nipples as many are, your heart that it might be comforted.30

The blessing continues in what could be a revelatory tradition for Mormon women in modern times. It is sealed with ritual language and the united laying on of hands by the women. Nineteenth-century blessings concentrated on anointing and blessing of the body, a depth of ritual that now exists only in the temple. I believe that as church policy gradually narrowed the scope of healing [448] administrations to Melchizedek priesthood holders, the ritual lost some depth. Perhaps for sake of propriety, the hands are now placed solely on the head rather than on the afflicted parts of the body.31 But even in an age of wonder drugs (some of which aren’t so wonderful) and modern medical technology, we should not discount our God-given power of touch.

Modern Mormon Women as Healers

What benefits could result for the church if women served in the rituals of healings and blessings? One result would be to strengthen the church at large by increasing the spiritual authority of more than half its members. A single woman expressed frustration at the unavailability of priesthood and blessings:

I’ve lived in my ward for about five years and I’ve never had home teachers because there are only about twenty priesthood holders to 180 families which are mostly single women. Because of the lack of priesthood, the ward has received permission for the Relief Society visiting teachers to fill in … though they can’t give blessings … [I]f you’re sick it better be on a Wednesday night because you can only catch the Bishop on Wednesdays.32

Another result would be an increase of faith because women would be released from the crippling fear of “doing something wrong.” Due to church policy, women’s lack of experience with ordinance ritual, and the intricacy of doctrine regarding priesthood and authority, women lack access to blessing empowerment. In the following two examples, even though women experienced the unquestioned outpouring of the Holy Ghost, they still drew back fearfully:

When I was twelve years old my father was rapidly deteriorating from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He slept downstairs and one night I felt prompted by an inner voice to go downstairs. I didn’t but the next morning my mother called me awake … and told me he had quit breathing and was dying. I ran down to sit with him while she called the family and Bishop. Somehow I felt I could do something about it. I held his hand in mine and sincerely prayed as best as a twelve-year-old can. After a moment his eyes opened and he looked at me and asked, “What did you do? My lungs lifted and I could breathe again.” He said he’d been fighting to live all night and felt like he should give [449] up. It was a very humbling thing and we both knew that the spirit has worked through me. A few months later he did die, but we were all better prepared for it by then. I hadn’t labelled it as a healing blessing until years later when I was listening to a lecture about experiences like this in the church. I’ve always felt a need to heal the hurts of others. I would like to have the option to use that power, but I’m not sure what makes it OK to call on it. It seems the natural thing to do. I would like to have that permission.33

In the second example a Relief Society president concerned about sisters in the ward with serious problems asked if they would like some of the sisters to come and pray with them:

They all thankfully agreed. I called sisters in the ward who were close to them—friends and visiting teachers—and arranged for baby-sitting for a half hour or so. The sisters made every effort to be there. Some left work. We knelt in a circle, and I said the prayer. It was a deeply spiritual experience for everyone involved, and I would have liked to have put my hand on their heads as I prayed, but I felt we were on the edge as it was with no priesthood [holder] present.34

Whether by nature or indoctrination, these women were apprehensive about expressing their spiritual gifts. It is interesting to contrast the last example with one from sixty years ago. A woman told me about a Relief Society healing circle during the 1920s in Springville, Utah. Her grandmother told her many stories about belonging to a group of women, who met on a weekly basis to bless those in need. They would gather at one of the women’s homes to determine who was in need and what was needed and then travel together to the home of the person in need of the blessing. This way they unitedly blessed many individuals in the privacy of their homes when the need was greatest. She spoke of many miracles and wonderful experiences which happened through these administrations and continued over a period of several years.35

A woman told me that when she was a child in the early 1950s, she remembered “standing in the bathroom doorway” as her “mother and another woman washed and anointed and blessed a pregnant woman in the bathtub” at the onset of labor before birth. Lydia, an older woman, recalls an experience in April 1929 when she was expecting her first child due in November. A man visited the home and noticed that she was [450] troubled. He explained to her

that if I would have the Relief Society teachers wash and anoint me like they did in the temple, that I would have nothing to worry about. The Dr. had told me that this baby would have to be born caesarian section. I had been doing a lot of praying, praying constantly it seemed, that I would be able to have this baby naturally. I know that he [the man] was someone sent by Heavenly Father to tell me what to do. That was in the Spring. Then in October these pains started. The doctor came down and he said I should be on my way to Salt Lake. My sister called Sadie the Relief Society president to come and administer as this man had told me. She said “Oh, we don’t do that anymore; we haven’t done that for years.” My sister explained what the man had told me, so Sadie didn’t hesitate and called the sisters to come over. In the kitchen they washed and anointed me. The washing and anointing was just like it is in the temple. My sister helped; President Sadie Smith and sister Baker were in their 60s and evidently they had done this before. And soon after that they took us to Salt Lake. The next morning at 1:20 we had a lovely baby daughter, no trouble at all. I talked to Sadie years later about this and she said, “Lydia never in all my life have I felt the spirit of the Lord like I did that day in your sister’s kitchen.”36

Today how do Mormon women exercise the gift of healing in the modern church? “Discreetly,” was one emphatic response I received from a woman I interviewed. In many cases caution and the need for trust between the participants was a prime concern. “It might be the twentieth century,” said another woman, “but sometimes I wouldn’t put it past people to burn me at the stake. Growing up I was taught that it [healing] was either from God by priesthood or from the devil. So where does that leave me?” Another woman voiced, “I would never utter a word of it to my neighbors or people in the ward. You learn to live closeted for your own protection and for your children’s protection.”

A growing and more accepted form of women’s blessing has been the development of the category of a “mother’s blessing.” One woman, a single parent to whom the idea of women holding priesthood seemed “spooky,” admitted giving her son a mother’s blessing. A guest speaker at a Young Woman’s values night in my ward said, “My husband travels a lot on business; and sometimes when he’s gone, if a child is sick, I give a mother’s blessing.” She [451] quickly added, “It isn’t like a priesthood blessing.” One mother gave her daughter a missionary blessing because the daughter felt she needed a blessing from her mother prior to departing for her mission. Her father gave her a separate blessing later.

Related to the concept of a mother’s blessing is the inclusion of the mother in the blessing circle for naming a new baby. During the latter half of the 1980s, many women in the church were feeling the need to experience this blessing ritual and requested participation:

Along with many other women in the church, I felt very strongly about participating in the blessing of my baby … I had previously agreed with my bishop that I would participate and that the blessing would take place in our home … [H]e had since received stronger instruction from church headquarters … [T]he church would not allow him to allow me to participate, and he realized I was going to do it anyway … [It] was discussed in detail in bishopric and stake presidency meetings … I don’t think they realized that I wasn’t asking permission … The first counselor in our bishopric … talked and talked and talked about church policy and the appropriate way of doing things … I tried to be non-confrontational and to maintain a spirit of peace and love, but I also refused to submit to the pressure …

When we were finally at a total impasse, my husband found a compromise we could all live with: my husband would take the baby individually and, by the authority of the office [emphasis added] of his priesthood, give her a name for the records of the church. Then, my husband, our dear friends … and I would take her and give her a blessing. We would do this at home with our family and friends, and a member of the bishopric was invited to attend. It was a wonderful experience. When my husband was finished giving her a name, the other three of us joined in holding her in a circle and each one of us had a voice in the blessing—we took turns around the circle speaking as the spirit prompted us. It was a blessing as it should be, and … My only regret was that I did not have the knowledge or the courage to do this same thing when my other children were blessed years ago. Good reports were taken back to my local authorities, and everyone was happy.37

In 1990 the official church policy was redefined to exclude inactive fathers, nonmembers, and women from standing in the blessing circle.38 Still many mothers participate through home blessing circles.

[452] Another alternative is for women to quote the priesthood of their husbands or fathers, a practice becoming more common today. A friend of mine, a gifted healer, said, “I’ve given my husband a blessing; I lay my hands upon him and cite his priesthood authority which I share.” It is readily accepted that women can heal by faith and that women share their husband’s priesthood authority, but under scrutiny some women still feel uncomfortable in the ritual formality of laying on hands and quoting the priesthood authority held by their husbands. The first woman I quoted, who blessed her croupy son, invoked the Melchizedek priesthood without specifying who held it.

In 1968 a man, who served as a stake patriarch, wrote about having a history of severe prostate gland trouble and surgery and how his wife’s blessings healed him.

I asked “Mary” to anoint my head with oil and pray very earnestly that I could be relieved. Our Father in heaven truly heard her prayer and had respect to our faith and this anointing, for my pain began easing up immediately … Today my pain is all gone, for this blessing we are very very thankful, indeed. “Mary” has great faith—even the gift of faith when she anoints and prays over members of her family. I think I recorded in my journal that she was promised this blessing by the patriarch … It truly has come to pass. My gland was very painful until she anointed my head and prayed over me, pleading with the Lord to heal me. My pain began easing at once until it ceased entirely. And it is completely gone at this writing, for which we are very thankful. No one but those who have had prostate gland trouble can understand … I am very thankful that Mary has this gift.39

Some women who have been through the temple have blessed others by invoking “the authority with which we were endowed in the temple” or “by the power and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In one example a sister missionary felt she had the authority to bless:

While serving as a missionary in 1978, I had to defer requests for blessings, baptisms, or confirmations to the elders. This always bothered me because I felt I had the spiritual authority of God to do His work. One afternoon a woman who we were teaching came to us and was frantic for advice or help. Her husband was prone to fits of violence. She asked me if I could ask God what she should do or give [453] her some kind of blessing. I thought, “This is one time I’m not deferring to the Elders.” We laid our hands on her head and asked God to give us direction. We all felt the presence of the Spirit. I told her that she needed to be true to her own feelings; and that her husband was experiencing anger because he was feeling bad about himself. I told her that he needed to overcome self-hatred, but that until then she should protect her daughter and herself because his moods were more dangerous than she realized. She cried and thanked us for describing the problem accurately and giving her the strength to know what to do. She made arrangements to live temporarily with her sister and we helped her move her things.40

Still other women dare to learn about blessing rituals and exercise authority to perform blessing ordinances in all their formality. From Provo in 1990 comes this experience:

I had fears and concerns about my pregnancy; I had had some difficult pain and complications in two previous pregnancies. I also had some personal struggles about having a son: I don’t like what society does to men and this was during the war in the Persian Gulf, so I was concerned about my son’s future.

I decided that I wanted a sisters’ blessing and asked my sister B— to give me one. She asked, “Do you want me to give the blessing that was given by Relief Society sisters, or use my own words?” I told her it was her decision. She used the blessing given by Relief Society sisters to women who were pregnant, but adapted the blessing to my needs and developed her own version of it. We had never done this before, we just knew it was something important to us. I talked to my family members, their spouses and a friend of mine and invited them all to attend, explaining that everyone in the family could participate in it by being in the circle. I told them that the blessing was going to be given by B—. I wanted the men as well as the women in the room to contribute their thoughts and feelings, but only the women to be involved in the blessing or the touching part of the ordinance itself.

We did not know for sure if any of the other women would stand with B— to do the blessing; my mother was still trying to decide how she felt about it. Everyone gathered in the living room; B— explained her preparations and feelings and I shared my feelings about my pregnancy and this blessing. B— stood behind me and laid her hands on my head; my mother and a friend of mine came and stood on either side of B— and placed their hands on my shoulders. At first I could tell that there was some discomfort, a feeling of “now, what do we [454] do?”, but then B— started to speak and everyone relaxed. The feeling was so strong. It felt like warm water was just washing over me and I could feel the others feel it too; I could feel it in their hands. Afterward, we each shared our feelings. It was such a powerful experience.

These types of experiences are both a challenge and an opportunity for us as women. We are discovering what should be natural to us as part of the gospel and we have the advantage of being free to pursue our own feelings about what is right instead of being automatically bound to standard procedure or custom. Women need to be aware that they can have these experiences in this life.41

How can we encourage women to cross the borders of timidity and comfortably exercise these spiritual gifts in the service of others without fear of ostracism? While the ordination of women to priesthood office would remove objections to women performing ordinances and overcome the hesitancy many Mormon women feel about practicing healing, ordination is not an event they can control or bring about.

Rather than wait for women’s ordination, I think it is wiser to concentrate on what women themselves can do now. Some possibilities might be: to set women apart as healers as was done in the early church; for men and women within the church to hold common prayer circles together for healing; to read about early church sisters such as Lucy B. Young who were healers would be empowering. Most importantly I would hope that women who feel drawn to blessings and healings would “earnestly seek” this gift and prayerfully exercise it, uniting with those who have the gift of faith to heal or be healed.

I also hope more women will break the silence of the last three generations about the exercise of this gift and share their experiences with each other. Some women fear that sharing their experiences might make them public in the ward or stake and make them seem like a “publicity stunt.” I have talked with dozens of women about blessings and many—not all—feel disappointed at their exclusion from the church’s official healing rituals, but none are angry at the church or inclined to use blessing to try to embarrass or pressure the church. Their motivation is spiritual.

Book of Mormon prophet Moroni promised: “all these gifts of which I have spoken, which are spiritual, never will be done away, [455] even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the children of men … [W]herefore, there must be faith; and if there must be faith there must also be hope; and if there must be hope there must be charity” (Moro. 10:19).

Unbelief is not the reason women give for no longer openly practicing the gift of healing. My interviews with Mormon women point to the opposite conclusion: that there exists much faith but no legitimate avenue to exercise this faith. Even though the Relief Society motto is “Charity Never Faileth,” the church has distanced women from giving blessings and diminished Moroni’s vision of faith, hope, and charity to baking casseroles and cookies. Women serve through much private charity work, while men’s service through priesthood power is often more public. This disconnection of charity from power creates female charity that lacks power and male power that lacks charity. Exercising the gifts of the spirit openly in the church includes using the avenue of symbolic ritual via priesthood ordinances.

Doctrine and Covenants 46:7-9 contain important cautions about seeking spiritual gifts, warning us about sign-seeking, self aggrandizement, and deception “by evil spirits or doctrines or devils or the commandments of men.” These cautions about self-deception and temptation are important, perhaps as well as the warning about “commandments of men” which may unnecessarily limit and restrict us. The remainder of section 46 is a celebration, a promise, and encouragement to exercise spiritual gifts:

But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, who giveth liberally; and that which the Spirit testifies unto you even so I would that ye should do in all holiness of heart, walking uprightly before me … And that ye may not be deceived, seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given; For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments; and [her] that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefit that seek or that ask of me.

Notes:

Betina Lindsey is a free-lance writer and novelist. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.A. in English literature. She co-parents five children with her husband. An earlier version of “Women as Healers in the Modern Church” was printed in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (1990), and in John Sillito, ed., The Wilderness of Faith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991).

1. This story came from a woman in the East. I collected these accounts from women (and a couple of men) who were directly involved in the experience. Because healings and blessings are assigned to be performed by men who hold the Melchizedek priesthood and because many Mormon men disapprove of autonomous action by Mormon women, many women feel vulnerable in speaking openly of giving and receiving blessings from women. To preserve their anonymity and to respect their privacy, I do not use names or else use pseudonyms in most of these accounts.

2. A sister in Utah, 1990.

3. Linda King Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Woman’s Share”, in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, eds. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Carol Lynn Pearson, “Daughters of Light and The Flight and The Nest”; Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple: Toward a New Understanding,” in Sisters in the Spirit; Claudia Lauper Bushman, ed., Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah (Salt Lake City: Olympus Publishing Co., 1976), esp. “Mystics and Healers”; Linda King Newell, “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6 (Sept.-Oct. 1981): 16-22; Vella Evans, “Woman’s Image in Authoritative Mormon Discourse,” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1985.

4. Evans, 127: “Possibly no other American church of its size had a comparable number of women who either participated in, or were aware of these [healing] practices.”

5. Ibid., 128.

6. Ibid., 128-29.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit,” 115.

10. D. Michael Quinn, “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843,” in this compilation. He also notes that “It is essential to recognize that nineteenth-century Mormon women performed healing ordinances by virtue of the priesthood these women held, not simply as an act of faith.”

11. Evans, 130.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 133.

14. Ibid.

15. Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit,” 124.

16. See Quinn, 380.

17. Bruce R. McConckie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 314.

18. Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit,” 111-50.

19. Ward members in Utah, late 1980s.

20. Salt Lake woman, K. C., 1980s.

21. This exclusion does not specifically forbid women’s participation. Rather women are silently excluded by the instructions of who may particpate and how. The current policy on blessings of healing and blessings of comfort and counsel appears in the General Handbook of Instructions (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, Mar. 1989), 5-4, 5-5:

 Normally two Melchizedek Priesthood holders administer to the sick. A father who holds the Melchizedek Prieshood should administer to sick members of his family. He may ask another Melchizedek Priesthood bearer to assist.

If no one is available to help, a Melchizedek Priesthood holder has full authority to both anoint and seal the anointing. If he has no oil, he may give blessing by the authority of the priesthood.

The ordinance of administering to the sick should be performed at the request of the sick person or someone who is vitally concerned, so the blessing will be according to their faith (see D&C 24:13-14) …

A person need not be anointed with oil frequently for the same illness. If a priesthood holder is asked to give a repeat blessing for the same illness, he usually does not need to anoint with oil after the first blessing, but he may give a blessing by the laying on of hands, and by the authority of the priesthood.

The ordinance of administering to the sick is performed in two parts as outlined in the Melchizedek Priesthood Leadership Handbook. That handbook also contains specific instruction on other ordinances, including conferring the priesthood and ordaining to a priesthood office, setting a member apart in a calling, dedicating graves, and dedicating homes.

Father’s Blessing and Other Blessing of Comfort and Counsel:

Fathers (for their families) and others who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood may give blessings of comfort and counsel. Fathers may give their children blessings on special occasions, such as when the children go on missions, enter military service, or leave home to go to school. A family may record a father’s blessing for family records, but it is not preserved in Church records. A father’s blessing is given the same as any blessing of comfort and counsel.

To give a blessing of this kind, the usual pattern is to

1. Place your hands on the head of the person to be blessed.
2. Call the person by his full name.
3. State the authority (the Melchizedek Priesthood) by which the blessing is performed.
4. Give such thanks, counsel, exhortation, and promises as the Spirit dictates.
5. Close in the name of Jesus Christ.

22. David Miles Oman recounted this incident, that occurred on his mission, at Mormon Women’s Forum, 8 June 1989.

23. Meridith B. McGuire, Ritual Healing in Suburban America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), 227.

24. These instructions for healing, blessings, and prayers do not have rigid form: they do not give exact wording or prayer but have important ritual steps that must be taken. The first step is consecrating the oil:

Olive oil should be consecrated before it is used to anoint the sick. A good grade of olive oil should be used. No other kind of oil should be used. Those holding the Melchizedek Priesthood should consecrate it and set it apart for its holy purposes. One man alone can do this.

—Hold the open container of olive oil.
—Address our heavenly Father as in prayer.
—State the authority (Melchizedek Priesthood) by which the oil is being consecrated.
—Consecrate the oil (not the container), and set it apart for the blessing and anointing of the sick and the afflicted.
—Close in the name of Jesus Christ.

In administrations to the sick:

This ordinance is done in two parts.
Anointing
One Melchizedek Priesthood holder anoints with oil as follows:
—Anoint the head of the sick person, using a small amount of oil.
—Lay your hands on the person’s head.
—Call the person by name.
—State the authority (Melchizedek Priesthood) by which the ordinance is performed.
—State that you are anointing with consecrated oil.
—Close in the name of Jesus Christ.

Sealing the Anointing
Two or more Melchizedek Priesthood holders lay their hands on the head of the sick person. One of them speaks as follows:
—Call the sick person by name.
—State the authority (Melchizedek Priesthood) by which the ordinance is performed.
—Seal the anointing that has already taken place.
—Add such words of blessing as the Spirit dictates.
—Close in the name of Jesus Christ.

25. McGuire, 227.

26. The power represented by this symbol, the caduceus, has endured as the logo of the medical profession.

27. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 1949), 4:4-5.

28. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 222.

29. The laying on of hands is the oldest form of ritual healing known to virtually every religion. Early rock carvings in Egypt and Chaldea and cave paintings in the Pyrenees that are 15,000 years old, portray laying on of hands. The Spanish conquerors found among Native American shamans and “brujas.” Laying on of hands was practiced in North American Pentecostal congregations as well as by our own Mormon Relief Society sisters. The contemporary value of laying on of hands was expressed in a news article: “Dr. Lynn Fraley states, ‘The more the world becomes “high tech,” the more the world needs “high touch.” I consider touch the most undervalued most effective tool we can use.’ Fraley has had many chances to use touch with her patients—to relieve pain or anxiety, and sometimes to provide something that is hard to be sure in terms that modern medicine understands.” Elaine Jarvik, “In World of High-Tech Medicine, Healing Is Still Touching”, Deseret News, 17 Apr. 1989.

30. Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit,” 130-31.

31. See Quinn, p. 380.

32. Salt Lake woman, 1989.

33. Salt Lake woman, mid-1970s.

34. A woman in Nevada, 1988.

35. Joann Condie, retelling the story of her grandmother Esther Palfreyman, 1992.

36. First story is from a woman in Nevada, 1950s. The second is from an 84-year-old woman named Lydia who lives in Utah.

37. Cindy Le Fevre, Mormon Women’s Forum Newsletter 1 (1990): 7.

38. This episode predates the policy change by two years. [In February 1988] “Lee and I had been in to see him [the stake president] just before David was born to discuss a letter I had written, asking persmision to stand in the blessing circle when Lee named and blessed our child. Pres Z, as I will call him, read to us a letter signed by Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson telling him to instruct me that I was not to participate in any way in my son’s blessing and explicitly stating that he was to read the letter to me; under no circumstances was I to have either the letter or a copy of it. President Z then defended the church’s point of view, which was also his own. He believed that the church should never have allowed nonmembers or inactive fathers to participate in blessing circles and hoped the policy would shift back to allow only Melchizedek priesthood holders.” Marilyn White, “Making Sense of Suffering,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 25 (Summer 1992): 113.

Marilyn further states that “In my letter I had mentioned that my bishop’s sister’s stake back East allowed women to stand in the blessing circle whenever women requested to. Later when I discussed my situation with my Stake President, I said ‘I hope that this decision won’t affect the women back East’ and he said that it absolutely did—’and they have already been informed to cease this practice.’” Interview with Marilyn White, July 1992.

39. 1968 entry, Utah man’s journal, copy in my possession.

40. M.P., 1978 (related in 1990).

41. Provo woman, J. E. H., 1990 (related in 1992).