The New Mormon History
D. Michael Quinn, editor

Chapter 6
A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women
Linda King Newell

[p.101] For members of the modern LDS church, the term “washing and anointing” is synonymous with the initiatory ordinances of the temple endowment. Joseph Smith first introduced the practice to male members of the church in the Kirtland Temple; he included women when he gave the endowment and sealing ordinances to his select “Quorum of the Anointed” in Nauvoo.1 By the time Mormons had established a refuge in the Great Basin, washing and anointing had also been combined with healing. Although it grew out of the temple ordinances in Nauvoo, the practice by women was carried on outside the temple. Even after the establishment of the Endowment House in Salt Lake in 1855, the ordinance took place both within the confines of sacred structures and in the privacy of individual homes. The wording took different forms as the occasion demanded. One of the most common uses of the washing and anointing blessing came as women administered to each other prior to childbirth.

That women could and did participate in blessing and healing the sick was a clearly established and officially sanctioned fact by the time the Saints established a refuge in the Great Basin. Women such as Sarah Leavitt and Edna Roberts left records of their experiences with healings in Kirtland, Ohio.2 In Nauvoo the prophet Joseph [p. 102] Smith not only formed the Relief Society as an essential part of the church, but he also introduced the ceremony of the temple endowment, including washings and anointings. With the coming of the Relief Society, women had an organization through which they manifested the gifts of the spirit. Of this period Susa Young Gates, a daughter of Brigham Young, wrote: “The privileges and powers outlined by the Prophet in those first meetings [of the Relief Society] have never been granted to women in full even yet.” Then she asked, “Did those women, do you and I, live so well as to be worthy of them all?”3

There is considerable evidence in the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society meetings to suggest that Joseph Smith envisioned the Relief Society as an independent organization for women parallel to the priesthood organization for men.4 Yet both seemed to come under the aegis of the priesthood as a power from God, not as an administrative entity.

Women themselves saw their organization as more than a charitable society. Spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and healing the sick were not only discussed but openly practiced by the sisters. With Smith’s approval, his wife Emma and her counselors laid hands on the sick and blessed them to be healed. The fifth time the Relief Society convened, Sarah Cleveland invited the sisters to speak freely, and women stood one at a time in this testimony meeting. Sister Durfee was among those who spoke. She “bore testimony to the great blessing she received when administered to after the last meeting by Emma Smith and [her] Counselors [Sarah] Cleveland and [Elizabeth] Whitney, she said she never realized more benefit through an administration.” She added that she had been healed and “thought the sisters had more faith than the brethren.” Following the meeting Sarah Cleveland and Elizabeth Whitney administered to another Relief Society sister, Mrs. Abigail Leonard, “for the restoration of health.”5

In the intervening week someone apparently reported to Joseph Smith that 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 [p. 103] were ordained to heal the sick and that it was their privilege to do so. “If the sisters should have faith to heal,” he said, “let all hold their tongues.”6

In 1857 Mary Ellen Kimball recorded her visit to a sick woman in company with Presindia, her sister-wife. They washed and anointed Susannah, cooked her dinner, and watched her “eat pork and potatoes” with a gratifying appetite. “I felt to rejoice with her for I shall never forget the time when I was healed by the power of God through faith in him which power has again been restored with the priesthood” (a phrase which indicates a distinction in Mary Ellen’s mind): “But after I returned home I thought of the instructions I had received from time to time that the priesthood was not bestowed upon woman. I accordingly asked Mr. [Heber C.] Kimball if women had a right to wash and anoint the sick for the recovery of their health or is it mockery in them to do so. He replied inasmuch as they are obedient to their husbands, they have a right to administer in that way in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ but not by authority of the priesthood invested in them for that authority is not given to woman.” Mary Ellen then noted an argument that would calm apprehensions for the next four decades: “He also said they might administer by the authority given to their husbands in as much as they were one with their husband.”7

At the same time strong official encouragement for women to develop and use their spiritual powers is evident. Brigham Young, speaking on 14 November 1869, scolded both men and women for not improving themselves. The example he cited was of a sick child. “Why do you not live so as to rebuke disease?” he demanded. “It is your privilege to do so without sending for the Elders.” He laid down some practical advice; if the child was ill of a fever or of an upset stomach, treat those symptoms by all means, beware of too much medicine, and remember that prevention is better than cure. He ended by addressing himself specifically 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 benefit of their faith.”8 Having enough faith to heal was clearly, for Young, “practical religion” like having enough food on hand.

The year before in Cache Valley, Elder Ezra T. Benson had called on all the women who had been ordained to wash and anoint to exercise their power to rebuke an unspecified disease which so [p. 104] destructively coursed its way through the valley.9 This record neither identifies the ordained women nor who ordained them. It only said they were “ordained to wash and anoint.” Zina Huntington Young’s journal mentions several healings. On Joseph Smith’s birthday in 1881, she washed and anointed one woman “for her health” and administered to another “for her hearing.” She remembered the prophet’s birthday and reminisced about the days in Nauvoo when she was one of his plural wives: “I have practiced much with My Sister Presendia Kimball while in Nauvoo & ever since before Joseph Smiths death. He blest Sisters to bless the sick.” Three months later in March 1890: “I went to see Chariton [her son] & administered to him, felt so sad to see him suffer.” The next year she notes with satisfaction hearing an address by Bishop Whitney wherein he “blest the Sisters in having faith to administer to there own families in humble faith not saying by the Authority of the Holy priesthood but in the name of Jesus Christ.”10

Still, healing by women caused some confusion. This quiet, routine practice on the local level occasionally raised questions which, when answered publicly by church leaders or the Relief Society, seemed to start a ripple of uneasiness which sooner or later set off another inquiry. Church leaders began to issue general cautions about women blessing the sick. Angus Cannon, president of the Salt Lake Stake, included the following in his answer to a question about women holding the priesthood: “Women could only hold the priesthood in connection with their husbands; man held the priesthood independent of woman. The sisters have a right to anoint the sick, and pray the Father to heal them, and to exercise that faith that will prevail with God; but women must be careful how they use the authority of the priesthood in administering to the sick.”11 Two years later 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

A circular letter sent from Salt Lake that October “to all the authorities of the Priesthood and Latter-day Saints” described the organization of the Relief Society, its composition, its purposes, the qualifications for its officers, and their duties. The letter includes a section called “The Sick and Afflicted”: “It is the privilege of all faithful women and lay members of the Church, who believe in [p. 105] 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 It seems clear that the First Presidency was answering one question: anointing and blessing the sick is not an official function of the Relief Society since any faithful member may perform this action. However, by specifying women’s right to administer to the sick “in their respective families,” church leaders raised another question: what about administering to those outside the family? They gave no answer, although the practice of calling for the elders or calling for the sisters had certainly been established.

Another question also bears on the topic: “Is it necessary for sisters to be set apart to officiate in the sacred ordinances of washing, anointing, and laying on of hands in administering to the sick?” Eliza R. Snow used the columns of the Woman’s Exponent in 1884 to answer: “It certainly is not. Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have the right, but should feel it a duty whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons; and we testify that when administered and received in faith and humility they are accompanied with all mighty power. Inasmuch as God our Father has revealed these sacred ordinances and committed them to His Saints, it is not only our privilege but our imperative duty to apply them for the relief of human suffering.” Eliza Snow in 1884 then echoed the language of Joseph Smith in his 28 April 1842 instructions to the Relief Society: “thousands can testify that God has sanctioned the administration of these ordinances [of healing the sick] by our sisters with the manifestation of His healing influence.”14

In answering the question of who should “officiate in the sacred ordinances” Eliza Snow’s language is instructive. By limiting its performance to those who have been endowed, she definitely placed the source of their authority under the shelter of those ordinances in the temple. In other words she saw washing and anointing the sick as an ordinance that could and did take place outside the confines of the temple. Women through their endowment had both the authority and obligation to perform them.

[p. 106] Two differing points of view were now in print. Eliza Snow and the First Presidency agreed that the Relief Society had no monopoly on the ordinance of administration by and for women. The First Presidency, however, implied that the ordinance should be limited to the woman’s family without specifying any requirement but faithfulness. Eliza Snow, on the other hand, said nothing of limiting administrations to the family—indeed the implication is clear that anyone in need of a blessing should receive it—but said that only women who have been endowed may officiate.

As washings and anointings continued, women attending a Relief Society conference in 1886 heard a Sister Tenn Young urge them: “I wish to speak of the great privilege given to us to wash and to anoint the sick and suffering of our sex. I would counsel every one who expects to become a Mother to have these ordinances administered by some good faithful sister.” She later gave instructions how it should be done. Her counsel was endorsed by Mary Ann Freeze who “said she attended to this and the curse to bring forth in sorrow was almost taken away.”15

But doubts kept surfacing among women whose desire for approval from their presiding brethren inevitably led to questions of propriety. Answers varied, however, depending on who provided them.

In 1888 Emmeline B. Wells, editor of the Exponent and soon to be president of the Relief Society, sent church president Wilford Woodruff a list of questions on the topic of washing and anointings. Her questions, and his response follow:

“First: Are sisters justified in administering the ordinance of washing and anointing previous to confinements to those who have received their endowments and have married men outside of the Church?

“Second: Can anyone who has not had their endowments thus be administered to by the sisters if she is a faithful Saint in good standing and has not yet had the opportunity of going to the temple for the ordinances?”

“To begin with,” wrote Woodruff, “I desire to say that the ordinance of washing and anointing is one that should only be administered in Temples or other holy places which are dedicated for the purpose of giving endowments to the Saints. That ordinance might not be administered to any one whether she has received or [p. 107] has not received her endowments, in any other place or under any other circumstances.

“But I imagine from your questions that you refer to a practice that has grown up among the sisters of washing and anointing sisters who are approaching their confinement. If so, this is not, strictly speaking, an ordinance, unless it be done under the direction of the priesthood and in connection with the ordinance of laying on of hands for the restoration of the sick.

“There is no impropriety in sisters washing and anointing their sisters in this way, under the circumstances you describe; 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 as they and every member of the church might do in behalf of the members of their families.”16

Woodruff’s distinctions between the temple ordinance of washing and anointing, the church member’s practice of washing and anointing, and the priesthood ordinance of anointing in connection with a blessing did not directly address the position Eliza R. Snow had taken earlier that only endowed women should administer to others. But the issue became more confused. When the same act was performed and very nearly the same words used among women in the temple, among women outside the temple, and among men administering to women, the distinction—in the average mind—was shadowy indeed.

In 1889 Zina D. H. Young, addressing a general conference of the Relief Society, gave the sisters advice on a variety of topics. Between wheat storage and silk culture came this paragraph: “It is the privilege of the sisters, who are faithful in the discharge of their duties, and have received their endowments and blessings in the house of the Lord, to administer to their sisters, and to the little ones, in time of sickness, in meekness and humility, ever being careful to ask in the name of Jesus, and to give God the glory.”17 Although she does not specify whether the “privilege” refers to washing and anointing or both, she reaffirms—without saying so—that it is not a priesthood ordinance. She also reiterates Eliza’s position that it was a privilege of the endowed.

At the last decade of the nineteenth century closed, refinements were being added, both officially and in the wards and stakes. [p. 108] In 1893 the Young Women’s Journal advised girls to get enough faith to be healed since it is “much easier, … much less troublesome and expensive” than medical treatment. The writer then offered a program for increasing faith: “Do not wait until you are sick nigh unto death before making a trial of your faith and the power of God. The next time you have a headache take some oil and ask God to heal you. If you have a touch of sore throat, try the oil and a little prayer before you try a single thing besides. Go to bed and see if you are not better in the morning. If you are, then go on adding experience to experience until you have accumulated a store of faith that will all be needed when your body is weak, and you are sick unto death … and if you still feel sick ask your mother or your father to administer to you. Try that; then if that fails, and they wish to call in Elders, let them do so, and thus exhaust the ordinances of the priesthood before you take the other step [of calling a doctor].”18 This brisk matter-of-factness echoes Brigham Young’s practical heartiness—there is nothing mysterious or mystical here about faith and spiritual gifts. But perhaps most revealing is the attitude of spiritual self-sufficiency and the interchangeability of the mother and father as administrators. If this article reflects practice among the membership at large, administrations were far from being confined to men holding the priesthood.

Another revealing example occurred in 1895 when Brother Torkel Torkelson, widely in demand in his community to bless the sick, records that two sisters “came to my house to wash and anoint my wife before her confinement. Since it happened that I was at home, the sisters called upon me to bless her. After I had blessed her and then sealed the holy ordinance which the sisters had performed, … I could see the power of God come upon” her, and she prophesied in tongues upon him, his household, and the unborn child.19 It is interesting that Torkelson blessed his wife because “it happened that I was at home” and that he terms the sisters’ service a “holy ordinance.” The distinction drawn at the high levels was not so restricting at the lower.

In the twentieth century, controversy continued over the traditions and policies touching on women’s administrations to the sick in general and washing and anointing specifically. On 16 September 1901 a general board meeting of the Relief Society discussed “whether the sisters should seal the annointing after washings and annointings. Pres. [Elmina S.] Taylor said that she thought it was all [p. 109] right. She had received just as great benefit from the sealing of the sisters as from the brethren, but thought it wise to ask the Priesthood to seal the annointing when it was get-at-able.” Her own testimony that she had been as greatly benefited from the sisters as from the brothers suggests that she did not believe that a man with priesthood ordination might be more efficacious, only that she thought there was wisdom in including the priesthood holders as much as possible. This interpretation is borne out by her next statement: “And if the brethren decided that women could not seal the annointing then we should do as they say,” but she could not see any reason why women could not: “Aunt Zina did.”

Over five years earlier, Ruth Fox recorded a discussion with the same gently-redoubtable Zina Young. “When asked if women held the priesthood in connection with their husbands, [she said] that we should be thankful for the many blessings we enjoyed and say nothing about it. If you plant a grain of wheat and keep poking and looking at it to see if it was growing you would spoil the root. The answer was very satisfying to me.”20

But always someone was eager to poke and each time the spiritual roots of the women were imperiled. Some, such as Louisa Lulu Greene Richards, former editor of the Woman’s Exponent, responded indignantly. On 9 April 1901 she wrote a terse letter to church president Lorenzo Snow concerning an article she read in the Deseret News the previous day which stated: “Priest, Teacher or Deacon may administer to the sick, and so may a member, male or female, but neither of them can seal the anointing and blessing, because the authority to do that is vested in the Priesthood after the order of Melchisedek.” The question of sealing was thus added to the long list of ambiguities. Lulu said, “If the information given in the answer is absolutely correct, then myself and thousands of other members of the Church have been misinstructed and are laboring under a very serious mistake, which certainly should be authoritatively corrected.” She gives a hint of the kind of authority that would be necessary by stating firmly, “Sister Eliza R. Snow Smith, who received the instructions from the Prophet Joseph Smith, her husband, [the man to whom she is writing is Eliza’s brother] taught the sisters in her day, that a very important part of the sacred ordinance of administration to the sick was the sealing of the anointing and blessings, and should never be omitted. And we follow the pattern [p. 110] she gave us continually. We do not seal in the authority of the Priesthood, but in the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.”21

Over the next few years, however, an emerging definition of priesthood authority and an increased emphasis on its importance would remove more and more spiritual responsibilities from women and cluster them to the priesthood. The very statements authorizing the continuance of women’s blessings only signaled their dependence on that permission. One month later the general presidency of the Relief Society sent President Snow a copy of President Woodruff’s letter of 1888 to Emmeline B. Wells. This letter, discussed earlier, distinguished between washings and blessings as an ordinance (and hence confined to the temple under priesthood authority) and as a sisterly act.22 As president of the church, Snow reaffirmed this position with the exception that blessings should be “confirmed” rather than “sealed.”23

Sometime during the first decade of the new century, the Relief Society circulated a letter on Relief Society letterhead called simply “Answers to Questions.” Undated, it ended with the notation: “Approved by the First Presidency of the Church.” This two-page letter was the most complete document on the subject thus far.

Depending on the extent to which this letter was circulated, it may have been a response to an unsigned 1903 Young Woman’s Journal lesson that asserted: “Only the higher or Melchisedek Priesthood has the right to lay on hands for the healing of the sick, or to direct the administration … though to pray for the sick is the right that necessarily belongs to every member of the Church.”24 This may be the earliest published claim that only the Melchizedek priesthood had authority to heal. But the Relief Society’s approved letter directly countered that position.

This letter clarified some issues that had previously been ambiguous or contradictory. Administrations by women to the sick did not necessarily fall as a Relief Society function, but it clearly indicated that women did not need priesthood permission or participation in to perform these duties. Quoting Eliza R. Snow’s position gave any endowed woman authority to perform such services. Confining the blessings to one’s own family was not necessary. The letter also cautioned women to avoid resemblances in language to temple ceremonies, and although the blessings should be sealed, the sisters did not need a priesthood holder to do it.25

[p. 111] Nephi Pratt, LDS mission president in Portland, Oregon, wrote church president Joseph F. Smith in 1908 to inquire if in setting Relief Society sisters apart he should give them authority to wash and anoint sisters for their confinement and also whether there were any forms they should follow. President Smith answered that the washings and anointings in question was a practice that “Some of our Relief Society Sisters appear to have confounded … with one of the temple ordinances… . We desire you therefore to impress upon the sisters of your Relief Society that this practice is in no sense whatever an ordinance, and must not be regarded as such, unless it be attended to under the direction of proper authority in connection with the ordinance of laying on of hands for the healing of the sick.”

He emphasized, however, that even women who had not received their endowments could participate in these washings and anointings “as there is no impropriety whatever in their doing so, inasmuch as they do it in a proper way, that is, in the spirit of faith and prayer, and without assumption of special authority, no more in fact than members of the church generally need to be barred from receiving a blessing at the hands of faithful women… . As to the particular form of words to be used, there is none, not any more than there is for an elder to use in administering to the sick.”26

On 17 December 1909 the First Presidency, still headed by Joseph F. Smith, again endorsed President Woodruff’s 1888 letter to Emmeline B. Wells, making one correction: “namely in the clause pertaining to women administering to children, President [Anthon H.] Lund had said those 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

Apparently for the first time, directly and decisively, a president of the church enunciated a policy about who could give and receive such blessings, separating such actions from temple ceremonies and making them rites accessible to any member of the church, male or female. But the matter was not yet laid to rest. The quiet practice of washing and anointing among women went on, but it was accompanied by greater uneasiness, by more questions, and by greater uncertainty about the propriety of such actions.

The Oakley (Idaho) Second Ward Relief Society minute book contains in an undated entry rare, written-out blessings to be [p. 112] pronounced in washing, anointing, and sealing that anointing for pregnant women prior to giving birth. Even though Joseph F. Smith had said there was no special forms for such occasions, it seems that the sisters were more comfortable with ones written out. To what extent they followed the pattern or deviated from it is not known, but the very existence of such a document bespeaks an insistence that it be done, that it be done in a certain way, and that it be linked to the Relief Society. They did follow earlier counsel to avoid the wording used in the temple.

The first two blessings follow each other very closely with only minor changes in the wording. They were specific and comprehensive: “We anoint 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 preform 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.” They continued by requesting blessings from the Lord on the unborn child’s health and expressed the hope that it might not come before its “full time” and “the child shall present right for birth and that the afterbirth shall come at its proper time … and you need not flow to excess… . We anoint … your thighs that they might be healthy and strong that you might be exempt from cramps and from the bursting of veins… . That you might stand upon the earth [and] go in and out of the Temples of God.28

The document combines practical considerations, more common to women’s talk over the back fence, with the reassuring solace and compassion of being anointed with the balm of sisterhood.29 The women sealed the blessing: “Sister_______ we unitedly lay our hands upon you to seal this washing and anointing wherewith you have been washed and anointed for your safe delivery, for the salvation of you and your child and we ask God to let his special blessings to rest upon you, that you might sleep sweet at night that your dreams might be pleasant and that the good spirit might guard and protect you from every evil influence spirit and power that you may go your full time and the every blessing that we have asked God [p. 113] to confer upon you and your offspring may be litterly fulfiled that all fear and dread may be taken from you and that you might trust in God. All these blessings we unitedly seal upon you in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.”30 The attention to both the woman’s psychological and physical state is an example of loving service and gentleness.

That this widespread practice continued in similar form for several more decades is illustrated in an account written by a Canadian sister: “In the years from the early 1930s on, in the Calgary Ward R. S. under presidents—Bergeson, Maude Hayes, Lucile Ursenbach, the sisters often asked for a washing and blessing before going into the hospital for an operation or childbirth. In this ordinance two sisters washed the parts of the body, pronouncing appropriate words of prayer and blessing, being advised to avoid similarity to expressions used in a temple ordinance, and at the conclusion put their hands on the head of the recipient and, in the name of the Lord pronounced a further blessing.”31

In Cache Valley a 1910 Relief Society meeting was given over to testimonies of healing. President Lucy S. Cardon “read some instructions to the sisters on the washing and anointing the sick and how it should be done properly.” One sister then “asked a question of the subj.” of washing and anointing, and Martha Meedham, with a brisk earthiness that comes off the page, answered that “she had done as much washing and anointing as anyone in this Stake. Related an experience of a blessing which she had given while she was in Salt Lake. Said she wanted to spend the rest of her life in doing good to others and blessing and confirming them. Related of experiences where all had blessed and anointed people. Said she had written Pres. J. F. Smith on the sub. and he told her to keep on and bless & comfort as she had done in the past. It was a gift that was only given to a few, but all sisters who desired and are requested can perform this.”

Along with a number of other women the local Relief Society president, Margaret Ballard, “spoke of her exp[erience] in washing and anointing and said they had carried out these instructions given.” The next sentence speaks volumes not only for the independence of the Relief Society but perhaps also of mingled pride and trepidation: “The sisters felt that the Bishop should be acqua[i]nted with the work we do.”32 Ballard continued, telling the sisters “how she had been [p. 114] impressed to bless and administer to her father who was sick and suffering and he had been healed. Had also been impressed to bless her husband and he was healed.” The meeting closed appropriately with singing “Count Your Many Blessings.”

Two years later, in October 1914, President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors sent a letter to bishops and stake presidents, establishing official policy on “Relief Society Sisters Regarding Anointing the Sick.” For the first time such a document did not come from the Relief Society itself.33 Little of the information was new. It formalized policy that had taken shape over the years: Lorenzo Snow’s stipulation that the blessing be confirmed rather than sealed, Wilford Woodruff’s that it was not a Relief Society function and neither was it an ordinance. The only new policy seems to be that such work comes under “the direction of” the bishop.

At the 13 April 1921 general conference, Elder Charles W. Penrose reported women asking “if they did not have the right to administer to the sick” and he, quoting Jesus’ promise to his apostles of the signs that will follow believers, conceded that there might be “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 Even though he cited the authority of Joseph Smith, Penrose contradicted Smith’s ever having extended healing privileges to women. In fact 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

Throughout the 1920s church leaders drew bolder lines between spiritual gifts and priesthood powers. With the clarification of the priesthood role in healing came further restrictions of a woman’s sphere. Church leaders made it clear that women did not [p. 115] have right to priesthood power. Continuing redefinition of priesthood held that healing, anointing with oil, and so on were exclusive functions of elders.36

By 1928 President Heber J. Grant 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, and then asked 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.

The strength of that pattern can be seen through a letter from Martha A. Hickman who wrote to the Relief Society general president, Louise Yates Robison, asking:

“Is it orthodox and sanctioned by the Church today to perform `washing’ and `anointings’ for the sick (sisters) especially in preparation for confinement in childbirth?

“Some have advocated that the proper procedure would be to have a special administration by some member bearing the Priesthood for those desiring a special blessing at this time.

“Some years ago when our temples did away with this ordinance for the sick and expectant mothers, in many of our wards in this stake, as well as adjoining stakes, committees of sisters, generally two or three in each committee, were called and set apart for this work of `washing’ and `anointing,'” in their respective wards, wherever this ordinance was desired.

“I happen to be the head of this committee in the First Ward of Logan Stake. We have officiated in this capacity some ten years, have enjoyed our calling, and have been appreciated. However, since above questions have arisen we do not feel quite at ease. We would like to be in harmony, as well as being able to inform correctly those seeking information. Our Stake Relief Society President, nor our Stake President seem to have nothing definite on this matter.”38

Robison sent Hickman’s letter back to her local stake Relief Society president with an attached letter explaining:

“In reference to the question raised, may we say that this beautiful ordinance has always been with the Relief Society, and it is our earnest hope that we may continue to have that privilege, and up to the present time the Presidents of the Church have always allowed [p. 116] it to us. There are some places, however, where a definite stand against it has been taken by the Priesthood Authorities, and where such is the case we cannot do anything but accept their will in the matter. However, where the sisters are permitted to do this for expectant mothers we wish it done very quietly, and without any infringement upon the Temple service. It is in reality a mother’s blessing, and we do not advocate the appointment of any committees to have this in charge, but any worthy good sister is eligible to perform this service if she has faith, and is in good standing in the Church. It is something that should be treated very carefully, and as we have suggested, with no show or discussion made of it.

“We have written to Sister Hickman and told her to consult you in this matter, as it is always our custom to discuss matters of this kind with our Stake [Relief Society] Presidents, and have them advise the sisters in their Wards.”39

There is an air of almost wistful timidity about Robison’s letter that bespeaks near resignation toward the change that was happening, not necessarily because the policy against blessings had changed per se but because policy about the priesthood in general had changed the environment in which the blessings by women occurred. Non-priesthood blessings were now suspect. One of the last documents on the subject is a little notebook containing a record of “Washing[s] and Annointing[s] done by sisters in 31st Ward” in Salt Lake City. It begins in 1921: “Sister Dallie Watson for confinement, Dec. 1, 1921—by Emma Goodard and Mary E. Creer. 1033 Lake Street.” Every few weeks there is another entry, usually for childbirth or illness. The last entry is a 2 July 1945 washing and anointing for Jane Coulam Moore by three sisters, one of whom is the same Emma Goddard who had officiated twenty-four years earlier at the first anointing.40

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 Apostles 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 [p. 117] administer to the sick and afflicted.”41 It would certainly be difficult for a sister to say that she did not wish to follow “the plan the Lord has given us” by asking for administration from her sisters rather than from the elders. One Relief Society worker in Canada recalled: “This ordinance was a comfort and strength to many. But it was discontinued and the sisters were asked to call for administration by the Priesthood instead when necessary and desirable.”42 Elder Smith’s pronouncement ended the practice where it had not already stopped. We have no further evidence of such blessings being given by women. However, since the original publication of this essay in 1981, over a dozen women have the told the author of their experiences with blessing and healing.  One woman gathered her sister’s frail, cancer-ridden body in her arms and blessed her with one pain-free day. Two other women, in separate instances, each blessed and healed a child in her care. Neither of these women had ever discussed the blessing with anyone before for fear it would be considered “inappropriate.” Several women together blessed a close friend just prior to her having a hysterectomy. Others asked that their experience not be mentioned–again fearing that what had been personal and sacred to them would be misunderstood and viewed as inappropriate by others. Of course, the same kinds of blessings, when performed by priesthood holders, are commonly told in church meetings as faith-promoting experiences and are accepted by members of the church in that spirit.43

A 1981 article in the church’s New Era magazine, entitled “President Kimball Speaks out on Administration to the Sick,” bears on the topic at hand. Although it does not deal with the practice of washing and anointing the sick, it does state what appears to be current church policy in regard to blessing the sick: “The administration proper is an ordinance of two parts, the anointing and the sealing. An elder pours a small quantity of oil on the head of the one to be blessed, near the crown of the head if convenient, never on the other parts of the body [italics added], and in the name of the Lord and the authority of the priesthood, he anoints the person for the restoration of health.  The sealing is performed by two or more elders, one of whom, as mouth, seals the anointing and gives an appropriate blessing, also in the name of Jesus Christ and by authority of the priesthood.” Allowances can be made for unusual circumstances, for example, when only one Melchizedek Priesthood holder is present. [p. 118] In this case, the article states, a “substitute program is followed.” One elder, presumably acting alone may “give a blessing, likewise in the name of the Lord and by authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood….Only by the priesthood are results manifested.”

Nowhere does that article does it mention an instance where a mother, wife, or other female could assist the priesthood holder. It does, however, state: “Then there is the prayer that is unlike the administration; it makes request to the Lord to heal and may be offered by any soul who has a desire to do so and is not an ordinance in the same sense. The prayer is a request for the Lord to act, whereas the blessing or the administration is given by the brethren in the name of Christ.”44

Perhaps Mormon women today can gain some measure of comfort from Elder James E. Talmage, who wrote: “When the frailties and imperfections of mortality are left behind, in the glorified state of the blessed hereafter, husband and wife will administer in their respective stations, seeing and understanding alike, cooperating to the full in the government of their family kingdom. Then shall women be recompensed in rich measure for all the injustice womanhood has endured in mortality… . Mortal eye cannot see nor mind comprehend the beauty, glory, and majesty of a righteous woman made perfect in the celestial kingdom of God.”45 But President Joseph Fielding Smith spoke more to the point when he said: “There is nothing in the … gospel which declares that men are superior to women… . Women do not hold the priesthood, but if they are faithful and true, they will become priestesses and queens in the kingdom of God, and that implies that they will be given authority.”46

Susan Young Gates’s statement still rings clear, “The privileges and powers outlined by the Prophet [Joseph Smith] … have never been granted to women in full even yet.” When the lives of Latter-day Saint women—their faith, spirituality, devotion, and sacrifice—are seen across the history of the church, we find a record as venerable as that of men. We must respond to Susa’s question, “Did those women … live so well as to be worthy of them all?” in the affirmative.



1. For the most comprehensive studies to date of the history of the temple ordinance, see D. Michael Quinn, “Latter-day Saint Prayer Circles,” [p. 119] Brigham Young University Studies 19 (Fall 1978) and David John Buerger, “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Winter 1987), and Andrew F. Ehat, unpublished paper in author’s possession.

2. For examples of women participating in healing in Kirtland, see Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, “Sweet Counsel and Seas of Tribulation: The Religious Life of the Women in Kirtland,” Brigham Young University Studies 20 (Winter 1980). For additional accounts, see Carol Lynn Pearson, Daughters of Light (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973).

3. Susan Young Gates, “The Open Door for Woman,” Young Women’s Journal 16 (1905): 117.

4. See Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share,” Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 114-16, for a more detailed discussion of this issue.

5. “A Record of the Organization, and Proceedings of The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” 18 Apr. 1842, microfilm of original, Joseph Smith collection, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; hereafter cited as LDS archives; also microfilm and typescript, Library and Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Indepencence, Missouri.

6. Ibid., 28 Apr. 1842.

7. Mary Ellen Kimball Journal, 2 March 1856, LDS archives (italics added).

8. Journal of Discourses (Liverpool and London, 1856), 13: 155; hereafter cited as JD.

9. Cache Valley Stake Relief Society Minute Book A, 1869-81, 18 June 1868, LDS archives.

10. Zina Diantha Huntington Smith Young Diary, Vol. 13, Aug.-Dec. 1881, LDS archives.

11. Woman’s Exponent 7 (1 Nov. 1878): 86.

12. JD 21:367-68.

13. Circular Letter, Salt Lake City, Utah, 6 Oct. 1880, LDS archives.

14. Woman’s Exponent 13 (15 Sept. 1884): 61.

15. Cache Valley Stake Relief Society Minute Book B, 46-48, 11 Sept. 1886, LDS archives.

16. Wilford Woodruff to Emmeline B. Wells, editor, Woman’s Exponent, 27 Apr. 1881, Correspondence of the First Presidency, LDS archives.

17. Woman’s Exponent 17 (15 Aug. 1889): 172.

18. Young Woman’s Journal 4 (4 Jan. 1893): 176-77.

19. Diary of Torkel Torkelson, 7 Nov. 1895, LDS archives; translated by Richard Jensen.

[p. 120] 20. Diary of Ruth May Fox, 8 Mar. 1896.

21. Louisa L. G. Richards to President Lorenzo Snow, 9 Apr. 1901, LDS archives.

22. Relief Society Minutes, 1901, LDS archives.

23. Relief Society Minutes, special meeting of officers of the general board, 2 May 1901, 1:352, LDS archives.

24. Young Woman’s Journal 14 (8 Aug. 1903): 384.

25. James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75), 4:314-15.

26. Joseph F. Smith to Nephi Pratt, 18-21 Dec. 1908, Correspondence of the First Presidency, LDS archives.

27. Relief Society Minutes, 17 Dec. 1909, 136.

28. Oakley [Idaho] 2nd Ward Relief Society Minutes, LDS archives.

29. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Comments, n.d., 1-2, in my possession.

30. Oakley [Idaho] 2nd Ward Relief Society Minutes, LDS archives.

31. Lucile H. Ursenbach statement, 14 Aug. 1980, in possession of Maureen Ursenbach Beecher.

32. For this and other testimonies born that day, see Cache Valley Stake Relief Society Minute Book B, 1881-1914, 5 Mar. 1910, 2:438-40, LDS Archives.

33. Messages of the First Presidency 4:314-15.

34. Conference Reports, 3 Apr. 1921, 190-91.

35. Relief Society Minutes of Nauvoo, 12 Apr. 1842.

36. For a more detailed discussion, see Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit,” 136.

37. Conference Reports, 5 Oct. 1928, 8-9.

38. Martha A. Hickman to Pres. Louise Y. Robison, 28 Nov. 1935, LDS archives.

39. Louise Y. Robison, 5 Dec. 1935, copy in author’s possession.

40. Photocopy of holograph, courtesy Charlott Boden Erickson, LDS archives.

41. Quoted in Messages of the First Presidency, 4:314.

42. Ursenbach, statement.

43.Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share,” 149 n115.

44. “President Kimball Speaks out on Administration to the Sick,” New Era, Oct. 1981, 46, 50.

45. James E. Talmage, “The Eternity of Sex,” Young Women’s Journal, 25 (Oct. 1914): 602-603.

46. Doctrines of Salvation, 3:178 as quoted in Choose You This Day, Melchizedek Priesthood Personal Study Guide, 1980-81 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 1979), 200.