Conference begins tomorrow, and there has been a lot of talk about the Ordain Women movement. My intent is not to dwell on that, since I believe it has been covered better elsewhere (like HERE and HERE and of course you’ll want to check out http://ordainwomen.org/). But, it has got me thinking about the priesthood, what it means, and especially what it means for women. An argument that I keep hearing from women who are opposed to the Ordain Women movement is that women receive the full blessings of the priesthood. Evidence frequently given for this is that women have access to the priesthood through priesthood blessings.
Which leaves me wondering… how many of us even know that women of the church have a heritage of giving those blessings themselves?
Female blessings have a rich history in the Mormon Church. There are hints of it in the earliest days of the church, since Joseph Smith Sr. often named healing as a spiritual gift given to the women that he gave patriarchal blessings to. Around the time Joseph Smith Jr. had initiated temple ordinances, the idea of washing and anointing done by women became prevalent, inside and outside of the temple. Since women were called along with men as temple healers (those who gave these blessings of healings inside the temple—it’s a shame we don’t do that anymore), they often preformed those blessings outside of the temple as well.1
From the beginning, there were those who questioned the appropriateness of women giving these blessings. But, the answers from the leaders of the church were overwhelmingly affirmative. Joseph Smith said, “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.” This idea is that if a person had the faith to heal someone, and the subject was healed by the power of God, then clearly God approved of the person who was doing the healing. Otherwise He would have withheld the blessing, no? Joseph Smith took this very universal approach to the gift of healing, and encouraged the women to participate in it. “If the sisters should have faith to heal, let all hold their tongues.”2
Brigham Young also encouraged women to participate in these blessings of healing. He viewed it as an exercise in faith and self-improvement. He seemed to think that the ability to heal through blessings was a spiritual muscle that needed to be exercised as often as circumstances would allow. He called it practical religion. He said, “Why do you not live so as to rebuke disease? It is your privilege to do so with sending for the Elders.” And to mothers specifically, “It is the privilege of a mother to have faith and to administer to her child; this she can do herself, as well as sending for the Elders to have the benefit of their faith.”2 Here “sending for the Elders” in an optional support.
Thus it was, in the latter half of the 19th century, women were taught that they had the power to heal, if they had the faith to do so. And many women did, and were gifted in the practice. One
especially gifted woman was Zina Young, wife of Brigham Young. And it was her example to her daughters and others in the coming generations that kept the practice of female healing alive. These women gave blessings to their husbands, to their children, and to each other—most especially in connection with pregnancy and child birth. It was not a codified religious tradition; there was no standard for it. But women like Zina, who were seen as authorities on the matter, taught the women that came after them the way it was done. They passed on the tradition from blessing to blessing. This would prove a problem later on, when the church began to define its liturgy, and put in writing all of the ordinances, rituals, and policies that would define the LDS church for decades to come.1
But before church correlation (more on that in a minute) became a problem, there was another death knell for female blessings. Around the time that Mormons came on the scene and were performing all of these miracles of healing, other denominations started to pick up the practice. It hadn’t been an incredibly common thing until this time period, but once people realized they could access that power of God, they began to do so. Church leaders began to see this as a problem. They believed that their access to those miracles was because they belong to the one true church, and they sought to set themselves apart from the rest of Christianity. When the rest of Christianity began to experiences these miracles along with “the Saints” there was an effort to further set the Mormon miracles apart from the rest. This seemed to change the way we perceived priesthood power. God was granting these other healings, sure, but Mormons were the ones with the priesthood authority to act in the name of God.
This connection between the access to God’s power and the priesthood was, obviously, problematic for women who were not ordained to the priesthood. Female blessings of healing didn’t stop right away, but the conversation around it changed. The new notion was that women were able to perform these miracles because they had access to the priesthood through their husbands and their temple endowments. Through this loophole, women kept performing their blessings, but this was the beginning of the end for the practice.1
The next roadblock was the church’s effort to get the operations of the church (both ordinance and policy) written down in order to preserve it – the church’s correlation program. This was heavily focused on the ordinances of the priesthood, but not the Relief Society. As Relief Society, over the years, fell under the umbrella of the priesthood’s authority, the women had to turn to the men more and more for permission and clarification of their right to perform blessings of healing. We went from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young freely encouraging the practice to Joseph Fielding Smith saying, “While the authorities of the Church have ruled it 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 better for us to send for the Elders to come and administer to the sick and afflicted.”2 This quote represents several things lost to the sisters. They went from having full access to that right, to having access through husbands they’d been sealed to in the temple. They went from being encouraged to perform these blessings at will and as often as they needed, to only performing them in emergencies, when an Elder could not be called for, and done with permission from someone who holds the priesthood. They went from being able to offer their spiritual gifts to anyone who needed them (men, women and children), to only being able to offer them to other women.
And where we end up is this, “There is the prayer that is unlike the [priesthood] administration; it makes the 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. The prayer is a request for the Lord to act, whereas… the administration is given by the brethren in the name of Christ.”2 With this statement, Spencer W. Kimball equated the female blessing with any other prayer offered by a faithful soul. In effect, the laying on of hands by women became a pointless gesture, when a simple prayer offered by a woman would do.
It is no big surprise then, that, eventually, women lost complete access to giving blessings. Since it required permission from priesthood authority, and there was no codified standard for it within the church’s correlation efforts, it fell to the discretion of local leaders.1 Over time, there were none left that approved it. Now it has not only fallen out of favor, but it is seen by most members of the church as an act of apostasy when women participate in these blessings.
It is without revelation, without any doctrinal reason, and in contradiction to what the early leaders of the church said on the matter, that women have lost the right to lay their hands on those they love and to bless them with the power of God. In reference to the Relief Society, Susa Young Gates (daughter of Brigham Young) said, “The privileges and powers outlined by the Prophet [Joseph Smith] in those first meetings [of the Relief Society] have never been granted to women in full yet.”2 I would argue that not only have we not been granted those privileges and powers in full, we have regressed further from that prophetic vision.
There are many women who seem very content with their roles in the church. I don’t want to just assume it is because they don’t know the history, because it would be arrogant to assume that they see it differently than I do because they lack knowledge. But I can’t help but wonder. If more women of the church really understand that we have less privilege and power now than the early sisters of the church did… how can they be content with that? I admit that I want what my foresisters had. I want to administer to my husband and children and anyone who would have the need. Although I’m still willing to serve how and when I can, when I know the possibilities, I’m much less satisfied with only baking bread.
 Stapley J.A., & Wright, K. (2011, Winter). Female ritual healing in Mormonism. Journal of Mormon History, 37. 1-85
 Newell, L.K. (1981, September/October). A gift given: A gift taken: Washing, anointing, and blessing the sick among Mormon women. Sunstone, 6, 16-25.
I can almost guarantee that there will be someone who does not like the very last line of this post. 😉
I can relate very much to your sentiment. Even before I knew much about church history, as a young woman growing up I noticed a lot of inequities & things that just didn’t add up or make sense to me. The role between men & women has drastically shifted from the early church & with society & civilization in general.
I recently had the privilege of reading the entire text of Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism as I have longed for more information about topics like Heavenly Mother, Matriarchy, Priestesses, Prophetesses, Healing and the difference between power and authority, as well as policy/culture versus mandated doctrine, and superstition versus mysticism. I read the text and found myself grieving for the loss of many cultural rituals, which when practiced would tie our hearts together as a whole (this is done in many other cultures as rites of passage, especially with menstruation & childbearing).
In my opinion the stage was set for changing family dynamics, especially the roles of men & women, in countries where the industrial revolution took place. Men & women were no longer (transitioning as a whole as it were) working hand in hand together as figurative equals shouldering the yoke of life as one. Another huge shift occurred with westernizing of medicine & the changes in who could & could not heal (and that science was the way to do it).
I have a lot more thoughts on this, but for now, I have to go and take care of a few things. I’ll reply more later about my personal experiences with female healing.
The link to download the text can be found at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1754069
That is indeed a great paper. I relied on it heavily for this post.
I am very intuitive and enjoy developing gifts of the spirit, especially ones concerning healing: the faith to heal & the faith to be healed. There is no mention on parameters of who can do it other than it is through faith.
I love every aspect of the healing process. From a young age I have been very fascinated in the mental health/psychology field. I’ve always loved history & seeing why people do what they do & how overall cultural circumstances affected general beliefs and actions. Later on I fell in love with massage therapy and then energy work and natural health remedies. I absolutely love the western side of things with modern medicine and traditional therapies as well. Both are great compliments to each other & offer differing insights and wisdom on healing different aspects of our bodies, minds, and spirits (emotional connections).
The further along I go, the more natural-intuitive gifts keep popping up for me. I am open to those things, so now they just come along & I feel excited to continue to develop these precious gifts. I won’t say exactly what I do because those gifts are fairly special & sacred moments & not always appreciated by everyone, but I can say that I have been surprised with how things have worked out.
I have seen miracles happen & lives change. People have said, yes lots of LDS people included, that what I do is “devil work” or “evil”. I tell them that my source of power is Jesus Christ and that no credit belongs to me. Healing comes from within and through Christ, not me. I am merely facilitating the process. Laying hands on a body to help heal it is a perfect fit for me as a massage therapist.
Another example is when my ex-husband and I were separated. I had stopped by to say goodnight to our kids & my oldest son was sick. His dad was unable to give a “priesthood” blessing due to his beliefs at the time. I was nervous & remember saying a prayer in my mind. I thought, “okay, I’ve heard about how the faith of a mother’s prayer can heal (almost as much as a priesthood blessing–it seemed like that was requisite, preferred, and somehow superior or better & yet the quandary of it being “equal” to my faith didn’t match up). I knew my son would not accept anything less than having hands laid on his head & so I followed the impressions of the spirit to do so. It was amazing, beautiful, filled with love, power, and majesty. The words were not my own, but what I felt impressed to speak aloud. I did this by virtue of our mutual faith & by the power of Jesus Christ. He settled down quietly afterward and fell asleep.
These experiences of healing were prior to studying detailed knowledge about the healing rituals previously exercised among the women of the LDS faith. When reading the text I knew what those moments really were.
All good things come from God & anything that inspires or entices to do good is from Him as well. When I facilitate healing I do so with the mindset of faith in Christ and a prayer in my heart to know what it is the person needs most at that time. I also know that peace and joy are the two things that Satan does not have a counterfeit for & consequently can’t imitate. I deeply feel the spirit guiding me in questions to ask the person or to what area of the body needs releasing & I do so with a fullness of joy & peace. When I feel those two things, I know of a certainty that it is as God directs in that moment.
I have not gone out of my way to discover these gifts. They have been revealed to me over time & now they continue to come forth at a more accelerated pace. I know that there are people with whom I am to serve in the work that I can do as a co-creator with God. We all have a part to play & one of my parts is to facilitate the process of healing through the atonement by the virtue of Christ and faith in him.
I love this quote by Bruce R. McConkie. ” The book of Life is the record of the acts of man as such record is written in their own body. It is the record engraven in the very bones, sinews, and flesh of the mortal body. That is every thought, word and deed has an effect on the human body. All these leave their marks, marks which can be read by Him who is eternal, As easily as the words in a book can be read.”
(Mormon Doctrine, Bruce R. McConkie)
I would ask if there were a favorite book you loved & wanted to find an answer in, would you not go to the index or table of contents to search out the answer? Or perhaps the chapter to see if you can find the truth you forgot was already there? How about the exact page which has treasures of knowledge in store? Then why not do this with healing modalities both eastern and western and why not with our physical bodies as a sacred temple to our spirits? And why would God limit such amazing blessings to a very select few (in or out of the church, male or female)? God is within each of us. He is not a distant parent. He is an integral part of us & we can call upon our capacities to be one with him.
Thanks for sharing this Emily. You are not the only woman I know who feels called to this kind of work, so you are not alone. Hopefully we can get discussing these issues as a church membership, and revamp the status quo.
I will confess that I had never read some of the quotes you cited from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. I was aware that women have given blessings. Here are my thoughts…I believe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is in fact the church of Jesus Christ. I believe He is the one who organized it and directs it. I believe in prophets and that Christ leads the church through prophets. So, if at some point in history, the Lord directed His prophets to clarify and/or change some things in regard to the priesthood, I will trust that He has his reasons and that He knows what he’s doing. I’m sure there was some revelation involved. Just because we are not aware of all the revelation received by the prophets does not mean they are not receiving revelation. I may be totally wrong about your intentions, but your post seems to imply one of two things: 1) the practice of women giving priesthood blessings gradually died away because of cultural shifts and the church’s correlation efforts, or 2) the prophets and leaders of the church deliberately stripped women of these rights. I can’t accept either of those if I believe what I said above; that Jesus Christ is the head of this church and He directs it through His prophets. Now, believing those two things, I have to believe that if the Lord intended for women to be ordained to the priesthood at this time, that it would happen.
Prophets are in no way perfect & they are quite human just like each of us. Lots of things are policy (as directed by the governmental aspect of the church). God does not direct every single decision or command in all things (he gives us the opportunity to choose & take a different direction than previously stated). Not everything stated by Prophets are doctrine or worthy of scriptural cannon. In my mind there is big a difference between the Gospel of Jesus Christ & “The Church”. The Gospel is pure in it’s principles & practices. The “Church” is more of an administrative entity which directs the nuts & bolts of the organization and is subject to cultural influences.
One more recent example would be the change in the number of teachers required in each classroom & gender specifications. This was most likely due to “problems” with abuse or discomfort (can go from both directions on this). Hence things changed. Another example would be the whole women wearing pants thing. There is nothing that directs as commandment that pants are unacceptable to wear to church regardless of gender. Pants have a lot less to do with religion and everything to do with the culture in which we live. In other places in the world women wearing pants to church is the norm, but some would abhor jean skirts. These kinds of “rules” are all relative to experiences and subject to cultural pressures within and without the church.
Biblical scripture has also been changed based on the person(s) interpreting the information (editing to fit more with the beliefs, values, and view points of their perception of the information). History has always gone this way, because people “change” or discredit that which does not perfectly fit what they believe, thus rejecting another person’s opinions on the same matter.
I have felt growing up that the culture was very much, “if the Prophet/Church doesn’t say that it is expressly true, then it’s not “good”–the unknown then becomes dangerous and fearful”. People don’t like to challenge the expectations of status quo & learn to accept something even though it’s uncomfortable. After time that discomfort becomes the normal (homeostasis) and then when the belief that we are used to is challenged we then again struggle to see beyond the box/house/way of life we’re used to because new is scary. It becomes us (my beliefs & people who fit into that same category) verses them as a way to protect ourselves & livelihood.
I don’t know that there’s a single principle in which we are told to believe as is. The doctrinal encouragement is to pray & find out for ourselves. Nothing says believe everything you think you’re told to do.
So, do you accept the word of Joseph Smith on the matter because you agree with it, and reject Spencer W. Kimball because you disagree? That seems like a dangerous way to establish the relevance and veracity of a prophet’s counsel. The fact is that sometimes things do change in the way the Lord would have things work in the church. That is why we have a current prophet. Our living prophet’s counsel should take precedence. If not, why would we need a living prophet? We could just rely on what has already been given. From President Harold B. Lee, “There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord Himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory’ (D&C 21:6).” In conference this morning President Uchtdorf said, “God will not allow His church to drift from its appointed course.” I believe that. This is a pretty important issue. I believe that if the church was not handling it in the way the Lord would like, as the result of fallible leaders, that the Lord would make corrections. I don’t think that is blind obedience on my part, but rather faith that this is truly Christ’s church and He is in charge.
When we receive personal revelation, do we not keep with the first and original answer? When doubt creeps in, and it most certainly will at some point, we keep to the original revelation to our heartfelt prayers.
It is on this premise that I have followed the promptings of the spirit in my life. I was prompted, more so than ever before & ever since, to marry my now ex-husband (I was not at all wanting to get married at 19). I relied heavily upon that revelation & understood that I would need to hold that sacred confirmation dear to my heart in times of difficulty. The same prayerful consideration was given when bearing children (also not on “my time”) and to continue schooling. It was this same consideration that lead my to being divorced from my husband after nearly 9 years of marriage.
I absolutely do not accept the idea that the Lord would reveal His will to our prophet and then that said prophet would not let us know he had received a revelation from the Lord. That runs contrary to everything I know about how the Lord uses is voice piece.
There are a plethora of examples from church history of how culture has affected policy and the way we do things. Female blessings is just one of many. I encourage you to research just how and when Mormons stopped drinking beer (hint: it was NOT immediately after the Word of Wisdom was revealed. Think Prohibition.), or perhaps when women were and were not allowed to say prayers in sacrament meeting (hint: Equal Rights for the win), or, you know, when a woman was first allowed to pray in General Conference (hint:2013). The examples of bottom-up or grassroots changes through our church’s history are abundant.
I do not believe that the church leaders deliberately stripped women of these rights. Especially not with a malicious intent. But, the evidence that the gradual changes are based on cultural shifts and the church’s correlation efforts are overwhelming. Read the sources I sited. I think you’ll find it is hardly disputable.
Finally, this post was not about women being ordained to the priesthood. Most of the women* in the early church were not ordained to the priesthood, but still freely participated in this practice. I don’t see why it couldn’t be the same today. The current obstacle to that is that we’ve created a connection between these blessings of healing and the priesthood, and that connection is not necessarily sound.
*I say most because there is evidence that some women were ordained. It would seem that Joseph Smith ordained Emma, for example.
I think the prophet probably receives regular revelation that we are not necessarily aware of. He doesn’t have to present an official declaration every time he receives a revelation. I have been involved in a lot of church trainings lately. Most of them have been about the priesthood. I’m sure there was a large amount of revelation that went into the decisions of what to present and how to present it for those trainings.
I am aware of the examples you gave of some policy changes and the timing of those. I still believe that God is in charge of His church, and He makes the decision on timing. I can’t say whether those changes were prompted by cultural changes, or if it was just time to make those changes. I’m not sure that God is really swayed by public opinion. The culture has been shifting for a long time on the issue of gay marriage, but that hasn’t swayed God’s position.
I do not reject any prophet’s counsel, but counsel is not the same as doctrine. We are advised to counsel with our spouses and with church leaders often. We are to prayerfully consider their counsel (which does not equate to commandment nor creed) and choose for ourselves if that is in agreement with our view of the Lord and His gospel in our life. In matters of mental health, spoken about today, I have counseled with bishops who told me to pray & read the scriptures & that I would then be okay (not the case). There are often human opinions which so easily influence the way they see the Gospel. You have the Gospel’s of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (which means that it is their personal understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ). God is the same, but we as a people are very different and as a result see God from as many perspectives as there are people ever in existence.
God’s commandment for Adam & Eve were contradictory. He gave the command to multiply and replenish the earth and then commanded them not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They could not fulfill the command to have a family without breaking the the other direction. God also says, “thou shalt not kill,” yet there is contradiction in that as well. Nephi namely & all the wars that have occurred as ways of protecting the rights of our families.
I don’t think God ever changes his mind or is swayed by public opinion. I think He is unchanging. I think that we, as fallible men and women of the Church, may take centuries to figure it out and get it all right. Please check out Elder’s Uchtdorf’s talk from conference today.
Yet. The Church hasn’t changed its stance on gay marriage yet.
I love how every time I comment you assume I am missing some of the information you have. I did in fact listen to President Uchtdorf’s talk. I loved it, although I would venture to guess that you and I got different things out of it.
Check out Elder Oaks’ talk. 😉
Based on the snarky attitude you’re giving me with this last comment, I can guarantee we didn’t get the same things out of Uchtdorf’s talk. (Safe to say the same about Oaks’s. Which I hated, for the record.) I think if you’d gotten the same thing from it that I did, you’d be a bit more charitable in your comments.
I think we’re done here. (Unless you want me to do you a favor and remove that winking smiley from your comment. It makes you seem bitchy.)
If JS and BY approved of women giving blessings then why not the same today? I have been studying church history and doctrine (I have a LOT to learn). I have discovered that in some areas the modern church no longer follows certain D & C revelations. It is my understanding that the D & C is doctrine and still binding today. Yet a lot has been blatantly ignored. I believe women are more spiritually in tune and it would be a great service in the church for women to once again have the authority to give blessings as they did in the early church.
In my humble opinion the leaders are content with the status quo and unfortunately culture has become doctrine. Therefore the leaders see no need to inquire of the Lord on any matter. And it is sad to see how the attitude of the leaders toward revelation has changed as the decades have gone by.
I firmly believe we have the true Gospel of God and Christ restored. But like the early church after Christ ascended into Heaven, doctrines of men and confusion have crept into the church since the murder of Joseph Smith.
The church/members is/are still under condemnation.
You have reiterated several things that I strongly believe. Most notable the problem with culture becoming doctrine. I believe that if this problem within the church is not corrected, it will be our downfall. (And is our condemnation.)
You said “I believe women are more spiritually in tune and it would be a great service in the church for women to once again have the authority to give blessings as they did in the early church.”
As a married man in the church who can not work to disability I would absolutely love it if my wife could lay her hands on my head and bless me in my sickness. Your comment was beautiful but I must take exception to women being more in tune. I find that judgement on men just as offensive as if a man said the same thing about women. Especially in regards to women not having the right to bless and officiate in other priesthood duties. I just don’t think we as human beings really have enough knowledge to make such a big judgement that goes right to heart of an individuals. Perhaps you have run into men that just seem “out of tune” with the spirit. But this is a judgement on a persons heart in my humble opinion. I don’t believe we have the right to do that, any more than men have a right to take away from women what once clearly and rightly theirs. With all that being said I sure hope the day comes that we will have women sharing their spiritual gifts much more in the church on a truly equal footing along side men. I think we could certainly use the loving and sensitivity of women.
This is a great point.
I appreciate the post, your thoughts and researched points.
Just one question; would you really not be satisfied with this: “And so it happened that the Lord sent a virtual stranger across town to deliver NOT JUST the desired homemade bread but also a clear message of love to Tiffany. What happened to her cannot be explained in any other way. She had an urgent need to feel that she wasn’t alone—that God was aware of her and had not abandoned her. That bread—the very thing she wanted—was delivered to her by someone she barely knew, someone who had no knowledge of her need but who listened to the prompting of the Spirit and followed that prompting. It became an obvious sign to Tiffany that her Heavenly Father was aware of her needs and loved her enough to send help. He had responded to her cries for relief.”
As someone who has given many blessings, some of which seemed to come easily and be fulfilled immediately while others seem to not have made an impact, I would be most satisfied to deliver God’s love in any way possible.
Ah, but JR. That is the very thing. You can deliver God’s love in a myriad of ways, including both giving blessings and baking bread. I am more limited in my choices, and THAT is what I’m not satisfied with.
What she said.
Perhaps this is something like women praying in sacrament, just a tradition rather than something that women can’t do. In fact, easier to reclaim as blessing for the sick requires no priesthood key holder to authorize it.
I don’t think it would be a problem with the church at large, the two whom I consider the largest pillars of Mormon orthodoxy definitely seemed to approve of it:
The McConkie edited work of Joseph Fielding Smith says in Doctrines of Salvation vol 3 (still published by DB),
“If she is requested to lay hands on the sick with him, or with any other officer holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, she may do so with perfect propriety. It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children…
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, ‘Respecting females administering for the healing of the sick, … there could be no evil in it, if God gave his sanction by healing; that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on and praying for the sick, than in wetting the face with water; it is no sin for anybody to administer that has faith, or if the sick have faith to be healed by their administration.'”