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Guest Post: Women Blessing and Healing

I am a single Mormon 21 year old in my last year of studies at Princeton University.  From Monday to Saturday I am engrossed in my anthropology major and women’s studies minor, and on Sundays I get to teach the coolest Senior Primary girls in the world.  When I’m not studying or inculcating ideals of feminism and social justice into 10 year old girls, I enjoy playing the violin, singing, and acting.

I am in the middle of writing my senior thesis, an anthropological study of female spiritual rituals in Mormonism. As a long-time Exponent reader, it was only natural to ask the amazing commenters here for help in my research!  I am particularly interested in your thoughts about women in the Church blessing or healing others, and any experiences you feel comfortable sharing about times you blessed or healed others.

I remember the first time I really heard about Mormon women’s past and present participation healing: it was four years ago and I was stuck in an airport. I had the online text of Women and Authority up on my laptop screen, and proceeded to spend the next four hours immersed in its essays. For my junior year independent work I decided to examine the historical practice of female healing rituals within Mormonism under an anthropological lens, which my advisor then wished for me to continue into the present day for my senior thesis.

The blessing and healing of others by women in the Church is a particularly ambiguous and undefined area. On one hand, the gift of healing is an un-gendered gift of the spirit, available to all, and therefore in theory a perfectly “kosher” area of participation for Mormon women. However, throughout our history healing has become so entwined with priesthood power that for many there is a knee-jerk reaction against female healing. Female healing seems to provide a way for women to become more deeply involved in the spiritual rituals of Mormonism without necessarily crossing a line that would essentially exile them from the Mormon mainstream.

In my research so far, I’ve not come across a single instance of a woman blessing and healing someone that looks exactly like any other instance. Women’s healing rituals do not have the set structure and required phrasings that priesthood blessings do; they practically require the development of new forms of female religious creativity like those Bednarowski discusses in her book, The Religious Imagination of American Women. The different forms of Mormon women’s healing rituals and the way each woman thinks about the act may be indicators of how she navigates her identity as a not-completely-traditional Mormon woman. As the study of female healing brings together many issues interesting feminists in the church today (e.g., priesthood vs. motherhood, Heavenly Mother, the “innate” spirituality of women, etc.), it is an especially rich area to study.

What are your thoughts on the roles blessing and healing might serve for Mormon women? If you have experiences in these areas, please feel free to comment. Do you agree or disagree that healing is at least semi-allowable for women in mainstream Mormonism? Do you think male and female healings should be demarcated by their priesthood/non-priesthood qualities? Do women’s healings take their efficacy from prayer and faith, or from priesthood power? Does female ritual healing in Mormonism provide a way for women to resolve frustration with gender inequity in one area of their spiritual lives, or does it merely serve to increase frustration with imposed limits?

If you are interested in participating in my research, please email me at anthro.thesis.research at gmail dot com.  Participation is very low-key; it simply consists of emailing any of your thoughts and experiences to me, or answering any of the sample questions I’ll send to you.  Your identity and any information used in my thesis will be entirely confidential, and you may withdraw your participation at any time.  Thanks so much in advance!


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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16 Responses

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Look for Kris’s and my study that dramatically updates and revises the scholarship on female ritual healing. It should be published this year, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism.”

  2. Grace says:

    (I’m the OP)

    Thanks for the comment, J.! I’ve been waiting with interest to read your study for a while now – do you know when it should be published?

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Grace, unfortunately it is not yet completely formalized; but I’m hoping for a fall issue.

  4. Grace says:

    Looking forward to it!

  5. J. Stapley says:

    …also, if you haven’t checked out our “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Ritual Healing in Mormonism to 1847,” in last summer’s JMH it would be worth it.

  6. Kaimi says:

    Didn’t Mike Quinn write about the topic in Women & Authority? (A comment just for J’s benefit, I know how much he loves Quinn’s analysis in that piece).

  7. Heather says:

    I’ve been doing some research on the early RS meetings and in one of the meetings Joseph smith addressed the topic of women giving healing blessings. He said that anyone who had the faith would be able to bless… that the power to heal was a gift of the spirit and could be given by anyone with enough faith. I thought that was really interesting, because today we seem to see it as a priesthood ordinance and not a gift of the spirit. I still know lots of women who I would consider having the gift of healing and even though they don’t use these gifts in official church business they still administer to sisters through midwifery, nursing, massage, therapy, energy work, and visiting teaching.

  8. Hillary says:

    I don’t know much about healing rituals, but I know that in my own experience, I always felt that women were marginalized and excluded from some of the greatest power and the chance to be a Godly conduit. But when I went to the temple to receive my endowment, everything changed. There was something so incredible, so special, and so sacred about the initiatory ordinance being administered to me not the way other ordinances had been–by men–but by other women. It was wonderful! It gave me hope for greater equality in the place it really counts.

  9. Grace says:

    Kaimi: The essay in Women & Authority that mainly focused on historical practices of healing and washing and anointing is Linda King Newell’s “The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood.” Quinn’s essay is the grandiose-titled “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843.” I think both contain some big assumptions and oversights, but they definitely succeeded in catching the attention of a naive 17 year old!

    Thanks so much for your comment, Heather. The way we think today about where the line falls between gifts of the spirit and priesthood ordinances is really interesting. And I’d love to hear any stories you might have about the women you know who “administer to sisters through midwifery, nursing, massage, therapy, energy work, and visiting teaching.”

    Hilary, I really appreciate your thoughts about how going to the temple changed your feelings about women’s participation in ordinances. I haven’t yet received my endowment, so I enjoy hearing about what others’ experiences meant to them.

  10. corktree says:

    I firmly believe that women are capable of healing when the opportunity arises and they are prepared and empowered. I think it would happen a lot more if we felt that it was *allowed* (which I believe it is). I think the opportunities where it would happen most commonly would be in families as mothers administer to their children, but it many of these cases, there is a father that automatically assumes the role. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but I think it would be an amazing opportunity for a mother to feel confident in blessing and healing her sick child when it is appropriate.

    Of course, I also believe that the role of “healer” in society should still be with the women. I’m unusually irked lately by the way that early Christian men ripped that role away from them – so my opinion is a bit skewed right now.

  11. jddaughter says:

    I live in new zealand, and after a long search and fight, I just got permission from a Maori single sister in my releif society to bless my greenstone necklace ( a deeply meaningful thing…usually reserved for Maori priests. Many people in the ward said I could just get the Elders to do it, but I informed them that if I wanted something blessed by two white guys in their twenties, I could do it at home. I’m pretty excited about it. She informed me that she would be blessing it as a “Sister in the Gospel.” I’ll let you know how it goes.

  12. Grace says:

    corktree, I think you’re right that most Mormons have simply never heard of women blessing and healing, or considered it to be allowed. Do you have any ideas about how women can be “prepared and empowered”?

    Wow, jddaughter, that sounds really special and amazing. I think the way the Maori sister in your ward termed it as a blessing by a “Sister in the Gospel” is fascinating. I’m very much looking forward to hearing how it goes!

  13. corktree says:

    Feeling *prepared* would come simply from acknowledging that we do have this ability as a potential gift and recognizing when it would be appropriate to use it. And, of course, being spiritually prepared and strengthened would help women to feel this was within their realm of ability. There simply needs to be more intentional dialogue about it – within the context of letting women know that it IS a gift of the spirit.

    The only experiences that I have heard of personally where a women felt it within her power – or even her “right” – to administer a blessing, was in an extreme case, and only because they felt that there was no access to a priesthood holder. AND, they believed that since they were married to a priesthood holder, that it was somehow extended to them. Even though they had an amazing experience from it, I didn’t get the impression that they felt it was given to them on their own merits or as a gift and opportunity to them because of who they were as an individual.

    I could be wrong, and these types of experiences are separate and unto themselves (do we have the ability to bless simply because we are in a temple marriage?) – but I’m not sure about that. I guess to say “empowered” would make women think that this is the only type of blessing situation that would apply to them.

  14. Deborah says:

    I’d love to read your paper when you finish! Maybe you can share excerpts with us on this blog.

    I was just reading through an old Women’s Exponent and found this gem. Seemed like a perfect place to share:

    November 15, 1881 “A Distinguished Woman: Zina D. H. Young” by Emmeline B. Wells

    The gift of healing was with her before the Gospel was restored in its fullness. This precious gift rests in a great degree upon her daughters, and Sister Zina has been one of the most powerfully gifted in faith of all the women in the Church. She seems to be specially endowed with this sacred gift, and in the exercise of it has had some wonderful manifestations of the power of God in healing the sick and afflicted. She has so distinguished herself among the sick and the sorrowing that she has gained with many the appellation of “Zina, the comforter;” her sympathies are so keen as to enter into the feelings of those who are suffering and so appreciate their condition as to render them that sympathy which is eminently helpful. She is also a natural nurse; her very touch is indicative of this quality, and her great tenderness wherever there is trouble, sorrow, or pain is thoroughly genuine. She would have been an eminent woman physician, had she studied the art, but as it is, with her superior, natural ability in this direction and the experience she has gained in her long and useful life among the sick and distressed of all classes, she has won distinction beyond many who have graduated in the science, and her advice and help are often called for by physicians of skill and learning.

  15. Kelly Ann says:

    Grace, Welcome to the Exponent. I wish you luck on your research.

    You raise a lot of interesting questions that are difficult to address.

    I’d just like to share one experience.

    On my mission, as a way to find families, the mission president encouraged us to offer a “bendicion de hogar” on the house with the whole family present before we invited them to listen to the first discussion. This way the introduction to the church included everyone in a non-threatening manner. A lot of people wanted a blessing on their home even if they didn’t want to learn about the Book of Mormon. He emphasized that it was more than a prayer, that the elders should use their priesthood to pronounce the blessing. This begged the question from the sisters (a quarter of my mission) as to what they should do. He told us that as missionaries we had the power to bless the house and families just the same. And not to worry about that we couldn’t say “by the authority of the priesthood which we hold.” I am not sure how effective these “bendiciones de hogar” were in terms of finding families to teach but the sisters were blessing many in so doing. Thinking about it now, I am grateful for the experience. I felt like I could offer them something on the principle of faith that could bless their lives and give them a good impression of the church.

    That is probably my most pronounced experience I have had (other than also loving the initiatory).

  1. March 23, 2010

    […] how a feminist feels about baby blessings, questioning authority, mormon feminist activism, and blessings administered by women, I have had several odd dreams that I still vividly recall wide […]

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