Mormon Women and Ritual Healing: A Gift of the Spirit That Might be Restored
Last Wednesday, I led a discussion in my local Mormon studies group on Mormon women and healing. It was fun to review and discuss one of the very first Mormon studies articles I ever read, “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women” by Linda King Newell. (This article blew my naive mind when I read it about five years ago.)
This article, as the title indicates, details record after record of LDS women laying hands on the sick, anointing, and healing their fellow humans. It also details the slow death of this gift of the spirit for Mormon women. I love how in the early days of the Church, Joseph Smith took it as a given that women should lay hands on and administer: “there is no more sin in a woman laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water” and “Who are better qualified to administer than our faithful and zealous sisters …. No one.“
Unfortunately, anointing, blessing, and healing became more and more constricted for women as people began to question whether or not it was appropriate for women to be taking part in healing rituals which used consecrated oils and set prayers. But even into the 1930’s and early 1940’s LDS women were still blessing and anointing, particularly in preparation for childbirth. Yet in 1946, the death knell really rang for women healers when Joseph Fielding Smith wrote this letter to Belle Spafford, General Relief Society President: “While the authorities of the church have ruled that it is permissible, under certain circumstances, and with the approval of the priesthood, for the sisters to wash and anoint other sisters, yet they feel it is far better for us to follow the plan the lord has given us and send for the Elders of the church to come and administer to the sick and afflicted.“
This letter marks the change in policy towards Mormon women engaging in healing rituals, and the practice began to truly be stamped out. Betina Lindsey, however, in her article “Women as Healers in the Modern Church” recounts number of anecdotes of modern Mormon women, who, usually under extreme circumstances, have laid hands on, blessed and healed.
I find this subject exciting, since I see it as an extremely realistic area for women to regain some ground in empowered spirituality. There is doctrinal/scriptural support for healing being a non-gendered gift of the spirit: (Mark 16:17-18 And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name they shall…lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.) And there is ample historical precedent for it in our LDS tradition, as is laid out in the articles mentioned above. The policy against women laying hands, blessing and healing is, in my mind, a policy that can easily be reversed. And in my opinion, that could only benefit all members, as both men and women try to develop this gift of the spirit and use it to serve those around us.
*How do you women feel about the possibility of someday, with the approval of authorities, laying hands on, anointing and blessing others? Does this possibility excite you or make you apprehensive? Why?
*Do you have any concerns with the idea of your wives, sisters, and mothers, or women friends administering to you?
*What would be the potential downside (if any) of women reclaiming this particular gift of the spirit?
*Do you know of Mormon women who currently do lay hands on and bless those around them? Under what circumstances, and using what methods, do they do it?