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.

Some questions:
*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?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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  1. Caroline says:

    Sorry if I don’t respond to your comments in a timely fashion. I think I may be in the early stages of labor and may be heading off to the hospital in the next few hours (scary!)

  2. Tam says:

    As I see it, no person can deny another person a gift of the spirit – only God can allow or deny such a gift. Thus, if a woman chooses to claim the gift of healing (which you point out is independent of gender or priesthood ordination), no man or woman can rightly prevent her.

    My mother used to bless me and my brothers when we were young, and I had as much comfort with her blessings as I did my dad’s priesthood blessings. My sister-in-law blesses her children with the laying on of hands and saying “by my faith in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Melchizedek priesthood that my husband holds.” I bless my children with my hands on their shoulders or holding their hands and saying “by my faith in Jesus Christ.” As their mother, it feels normal and natural to do so, and I have never felt even and inkling of divine condemnation for my actions. As one who studies and uses essential oils, I often find myself “anointing” my children, though it took me awhile to see the parallel between my actions and the anointing of various healing oils spoken of in scripture.

    I rarely speak of this to others, however. While I have never felt divine disapproval for blessing my children in this manner, I rather suspect many of my fellow-saints would disapprove of my actions. I look forward to a time when we no longer live under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and women are both accepted and appreciated as spiritual healers.

    You, your husband, and sweet new baby are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope all goes well with labor and delivery…

  3. Caroline says:

    Well, maybe that was false labor…

    Anyway, Tam, thanks so much for your comment. I think you, your mother, and your sister in law are part of a great tradition of Mormon women blessing and healing. The articles I read stated that early LDS women would bless “by my faith in Jesus Christ” or “by the power of the holy Melchizedek priesthood which I hold in conjunction with my husband” or even “by the power I received through temple ordinances”

    I also know of some Mormon women who currently lay hands on to bless and heal. One in particular in her patriarchal blessing was told that she had the gift of healing.

    I myself have not yet embarked on this. (I’m not, unfortunately, the most spiritual sort when it comes to praying, so I figure it would be the same with blessing.) But perhaps I’ll feel differently when I have a child and it’s sick or something. I can imagine it might be very natural to lay hands on and bless when it’s your own child.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Hmm. While it is a great essay, Newell’s essay is also problematic. She really doesn’t do a good job at bridging the gap between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Moreover, her categorization of the Smith letter as the “death knell” isn’t particularly supportable and drawn from only a small paragraph and subsequent commentary written by a BYU prof in Messages of the First Presidency.

    As to whether ritual healing might be a “gift of the spirit that might be restored,” I think that the querry conflates the topics at hand so that an answer isn’t particularly possible. Ritual healing and the Gift of Healing are not the same thing. The Gift of healing may or may not be had by those that administer the healing rituals and it may or may not be had by those that don’t. I think you are asking whether the practice of women administering healing rituals will be institutionally restored. I don’t have an answer to that question.

  5. Not on the road to apostacy says:

    I have received several blessings from a woman friend I’ve known for many years who is like a sister to me. ON each occasion I have felt an amazing outpouring of the Spirit and have been lifted and loved in a tender, remarkable way. She and I typically both rely on and turn to the Priesthood for blessings; our experiences together are in no way a substitute for that current and wonderful order of things. It’s not about competition or “liberation” or the end of interdependence, at least not for us. It’s about the great love and unique sympathy between women who occasionally feel inspired to act as a conduit of light and comfort for one another. It’s about support. She’s never given me a “healing” blessing, per se, except in the sense that it’s healing to be reminded that you are loved and cherished by God, by angels, and by friends. She has done this for two other women that I know of, maybe three. She has received blessings in return from two of these sisters. I have been invited to take part, but as yet I have not felt compelled or perfectly comfortable doing so. I want to be careful that if I take such a step it’s because I am responding to the promptings of the Holy Ghost and not to the urgings of my own curiosity or pride. FYI, my friend’s bishop knows she gives these occasional blessings, and has said it’s okay as long as she is not attempting to assume or claim the Melchezidek priesthood.

    If you want to read about early LDS women giving blessings, I suggest you pick up a copy of Daughters of Light by Carol Lynn Pearson. It’s fascinating and inspiring and recounts stories of other kinds of spiritual gifts that are also no so prevalent now in our modern LDS culture.

  6. Caroline says:

    j. stapley,
    I can’t comment on the JFS letter as a “death knell” or not, though I found it credible that it could indeed be an important marker for the change in policy.

    You’re right that in my title I’m conflating ritual healing with the gift of the spirit of healing. I’m doing this since I realize that some women may feel that they have the gift of healing through simply praying or caring for others. I, however, am talking about a gift of healing that utilizes ritual – whether it be annointing, laying hands on, or saying set words. That is what I think has been explicitly taken away from Mormon women. (Though by extension, I think it now wouldn’t even occur to most women that they might have a gift of healing that could manifest itself simply by praying for others. The province of healing has, IMO, been so usurped by the priesthood. Sad.)

    So yes, I’m asking if institutionally healing rituals will be restored to women, and I think there’s every reason, given the scriptural and historical precedents, that they might.

    Not on the Road,
    I think it’s wonderful that your woman friend uplifts and blesses the lives of those around her by giving blessings. (Does she lay hands on to do it?)And kudos to her bishop for not being threatened by this gift she has.

    Yes, Daughters of Light is a great resource. I was thrilled when I found it in a used book store a couple of years ago.

  7. Mike says:

    I could easily envision a change in policy that allows women to participate even in p’hood blessings. They wouldn’t be allowed to voice, but they could be in the circle laying on hands. I could also envision more institutional flexibility that allowed women to give non-P’hood blessings. These could all be done without extending the P’hood to women.

  8. AmyB says:

    The province of healing has, IMO, been so usurped by the priesthood. Sad.

    I wonder if this has any parallel with the medical profession, dominated by men, taking away the rights of midwives to be the ones attending women at birth. This has been a huge battle, to the great detriment of women.

    I don’t mean to change the subject, I’m just wondering if the taking away of ritual healing from women in the church was reflective of larger social currents.

    I would love to be administered to by other women. I love hearing about mothers who bless their children. I wonder if we can start reclaiming it. The more we speak about it and quietly practice it, the more likely it is that it will enter into the group consciousness as something worth considering.

  9. Caroline says:

    AmyB, perhaps there is a parallel there with the medical profession… never thought of that one.

    But in terms of social context, 1946 does make sense in some ways. The war had just ended. Men were coming home to reclaim jobs that women had been doing. Seems like it may be part of the greater social movement of the establishment of stricter gender roles than had been practiced the previous years.

  10. Lois says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. This thread strikes at the heart of my current angst. For some time I have voiced blessings for my children and husband. I do so “by the power of my faith and according to the will of God.” I don’t feel a need to lay my hands on the receiving person’s head. Instead, I may hold a hand or take the person into my embrace. I intuitively understand that this is not something that I should reveal in Sunday School or in a bishop interview, but nevertheless it resonates with my spirit. I am saddened when I realize that I feel I shouldn’t speak of it. I find myself simply saddened at the other examples of silencing of the voices of women in the church, and this is one of the central themes in my struggle.

    Just over two years ago, I had a life altering experience. A very dear friend, who is not LDS, asked me to officiate at her wedding. It was on short notice and I didn’t have time to think about my answer. I simply responded that it would be a great honor! But in the short time I had to reflect on my commitment I must admit that I had doubts. I questioned whether to do this would be an act against God—somehow disrespectful of my own religious traditions—but I was rebellious enough to feel that it shouldn’t be and I went forward with the requested ceremony.

    My friend had written a beautiful and honoring ceremony. As I pronounced the words, my spirit was lifted in one of those rare times when you are not sure if your feet are on solid ground. I felt that I was participating in one of those instants when the veil is at its thinnest. It was much like those moments of birth or death when you are almost afraid to truly open your eyes and look because you may see beyond the veil. This feeling stayed with me for days, and it returns whenever I think about the event.

    Prior to this time, I had always dismissed any thoughts that women should have equal opportunity to participate in many of the experiences that are reserved for priesthood holders. I would just say that I was far too busy to take on any additional responsibilities and I was glad that men had something for which they could be solely responsible. Officiating in this wedding ceremony put a crack in my cosmic egg and I have not been the same since. I still have no desire to take on the hierarchal priesthood responsibilities, but I sense that we are truly missing out on something of eternal significance when we deny women (explicitly or implicitly) a supported and encouraged path on which to develop any of their innate spiritual gifts.

  11. John says:

    AmyB said:

    I wonder if this has any parallel with the medical profession, dominated by men, taking away the rights of midwives to be the ones attending women at birth.

    AmyB, I taught a lesson in our institute class a while back in which one of my main assertions was that the removal of women’s power to administer to other women (esp. in childbirth) paralleled the bureaucratization, professionalization, and masculinization of Church administration and the medical profession. Women in the church lost the power to bless as women everywhere in the U.S. lost credibility as birthing professionals. The male wielders of the Priesthood became responsible for adminsitering to women as predominantly male OB/GYNs supplanted midwives. The Church’s professionalization in the late 19th and early 20th century was strongly influenced by patterns in the world surrounding it.

    It must have been a poorly taught lesson, because Caroline was in attendance. *grin*

  12. Caroline says:

    I’m so glad this post spoke to you and that you, like others who have commented here, have found power and spirituality by blessing those around you. And I love your anecdote about officiating at the wedding ceremony. How I wish more LDS women could more often experience the spiritual empowerment of pronouncing ritual words, officiating in ceremonies, and just in general developing their innate spiritual gifts.

    Yikes. Why do I not more clearly recollect this conversation? It’s totally up my ally! Though now that I think about it, your hypothesis does sound terribly familiar. Oops. Sorry! (I think not enough blood is rushing to my head due to the huge belly.)

  13. Johnny says:

    I think that the querry conflates the topics at hand so that an answer isn’t particularly possible. Ritual healing and the Gift of Healing are not the same thing.

    I do think that we can make distinctions between the gift of healing and the ritual, i.e. some people who engage in the ritual may not have that specific gift. But such a distinction is primarily theoretical, and loses its practical value when we take away the ritual from women. It is like distinguishing between the practice of riding a bike and the ability to ride a bike. We gain the ability to ride the bike by engaging in the practice. I feel that spiritual gifts are similar. We find our gifts through exercising them. I see that as one of the primary purposes of healing rituals.

  14. J. Stapley says:

    It is like distinguishing between the practice of riding a bike and the ability to ride a bike.

    I simply and fundementally disagree. If that were so, then every blessing would result in a healing.

    I am, however, sympathetic to your feelings. Kris Wright and I are working on a project that will delineate the history of healing (with an emphasis of women) in Mormonism.

    As far as males usurping the health professions, I agree that this was a factor. At this point, I don’t see it as the ultimate factor, but one of many that contributed to our present situation.

  15. Johnny says:

    J said:If that were so, then every blessing would result in a healing.

    I don’t know if my view entails this consequence. Maybe the bike was a bad example. Let’s try another insufficient one.

    Let’s take the gift of making free throws. One cannot have the gift of making free throws without engaging in the practice. However, this doesn’t mean that all free throws are made.

    Surely, there is a distinction to be made, but we cannot really separate the practice from the gift in real life contexts.

    I guess what I am saying is that it is like a testimony, i.e. “a testimony is found in the bearing of it.” What would it mean if we talked about a group of people who had the gift of testimony, but never allowed them to bear it on any occasion. Surely, we could say they had a testimony in some sense, but not in the concrete sense that we experience on fast Sunday.

    btw, I look forward to your study.

  16. D-Train says:

    I think it would be a big mistake to underestimate the inertia present in the Church. We’re a conservative institution with conservative leaders, conservative membership, and a tendency for liberalizers to keep quiet or drift away. We don’t have to make value judgments about any of these things to see that big, sweeping changes are difficult to come by, although not impossible.

    Caroline, I think you do well to note that most women don’t even conceive of the possibility of having these gifts, which makes it pretty tough for leadership to have any pressure or encouragement to respond by expanding these rituals. Obviously, the Church has changed a lot in the past and will presumably change in the future. However, I think a combination of correlation and further institutionalization has made the Church more resistant to change than at times in the past.

  17. D-Train says:

    And, Caroline, I hope you’re feeling well and that the childbirth goes smoothly and healthily.

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