Women Giving Blessings in the Early LDS Church
by Heather@Women in the Scriptures
This is the second in a series by our writers and guests regarding spiritual gifts. We hope you enjoy our take on giving and receiving spiritually this Christmas season.
On the first Sunday of the month there is not an assigned lesson topic for Relief Society. Instead it is up to the prayerful discretion of the Relief Society Presidency to choose a message their sisters need to hear. This month it was my turn to teach (I am the first counselor in our presidency) and as I was praying about what the Lord wanted me to teach I felt strongly that I should teach on healing. There are several women in our church who are going through hard physical challenges and it seemed like this would be a good topic to address. As I was preparing my lesson Sister Beck’s words kept coming to mind.
… the sisters of the Church should know and learn from the history of the Relief Society. Understanding the history of Relief Society strengthens the foundational identity and worth of faithful women.
I realized that in my lesson about healing I should talk about the history of women giving blessings in the Church.
I have to admit that I was nervous about talking about this part of Relief Society history. It is a topic that most women have never heard of and if they have they either feel nervous or angry about it because they don’t understand it. I was worried someone would misunderstand me and think I was teaching false doctrine. Yet as I pondered and prepared my lesson the spirit kept nudging me that the women in my ward really needed to understand this part of their heritage. So I fasted and prayed that the Lord would be able to convey my lesson so that women would feel the spirit and understand the principles behind it. I shouldn’t have been nervous; the spirit did a great job of teaching and the meeting was amazing.
I started my lesson by splitting the chalkboard in half and writing Priesthood Administration to the Sick on one side and The Gift of Healing on the other half. I then told the women that my lesson would be on these two types of healing and we would talk about how they were different and how they were similar. I wanted to make it clear that these are two different types of administrations. I started by focusing on Priesthood Administration and I invited a member of the Elder’s Quorum Presidency to come in and talk to us about priesthood blessings— how they are given, rules and procedures they follow, how it feels to give one, how they prepare for them, and some of his personal experiences giving blessings. He did a wonderful job and really taught us many things that we didn’t know about how priesthood blessings are given. He just reinforced my gratitude for the amazing power of the priesthood in my life.
After he was finished I then had the sisters turn their attention to the other type of healing, The Gift of Healing, and had them read D&C 84: 64-68 which says (emphasis added):
Therefore, as I said unto my apostles I say unto you again, that every soul who believeth on your words, and is baptized by water for the remission of sins, shall receive the Holy Ghost. And these signs shall follow them that believe. In my name they shall do many wonderful works; In my name they shall cast out devils; In my name they shall heal the sick…
The gift to heal is a gift given, at the Lord’s discretion, to ALL followers of Christ and it doesn’t matter whether they are male or female. It is a gift of the spirit, and like all gifts of the spirit, is bestowed upon whom He will, male and female. Women in the early days of the church often participated in healing as demonstrations of faith. Women most commonly administered by laying on of hands to their children but were sometimes called to administer to those outside of their families. One of the most common uses of women’s blessings was to wash, anoint, and bless a woman’s body before childbirth. Women who gave blessings never claimed priesthood power but always closed their blessings in the name of Jesus Christ. It is also important to note that these blessings were not related to temple ordinances and women were cautioned not to use language learned in the temple.
The practice of women giving blessings originated with Joseph Smith and the first Relief Society in Nauvoo. At the 6th meeting of the Relief Society on April 28th, 1843, Joseph instructed the sisters about the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 and stated that the gift to heal was a gift of the spirit, one that followed all the believers whether they were male or female. Eliza R. Snow recorded that Joseph 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 administrations. (History of the Church, volume 4, pg. 604)
It is important to note that Joseph Smith clarified that women had the gift to heal and administer because of their faith and not because of their priesthood authority. Joseph reiterated what Jesus taught in Mark 16:17 that “these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name… they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
There are several beautiful stories of women administering to each other. One of my favorites is that of Sister Persis Young, who administered to nineteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball Whitney who had recently lost her first child in death, and the birthing had left her weak with infection. Fasting, several of the sisters had met at Helen’s mother’s house to pray for her return to health, but the meeting had ended abruptly. Helen remembered:
I, being very weary and sad in spirit at the close of the day, had lain down, and I fell asleep… I was quite young, and not having been healed as I had been told I should be, my faith was considerably shaken.
Morning came, and with it, Persis Young. “She had been impressed by the Spirit to come and administer to me,” wrote Helen:
and I would be healed; that she could not sleep, and she had come there in obedience to that Spirit. She had been so long under its influence that she shook as though palsied when she laid her hands upon my head with my mother. She rebuked my weakness, and every disease that had been, or was then, afflicting me, and commanded me to be made whole, pronouncing health and many other blessings upon me… From that morning I went about to work as though nothing had been the matter. Thus did the Lord remember one if His unworthy handmaidens and fulfill the promise that had been given by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost.” Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society, (pg 67)
Betsy Jane Tenny Loose Simons, a widow living in Quincy, Illinois, once recorded how when her son was very ill she “longed for an Elder or someone holding the Priesthood, that the disease might be rebuked.” She had no one and as her son’s condition got worse and worse she recorded that,
All at once as distinct as though someone had spoken to me, [a voice said] “Why don’t you administer to him yourself?” I was anxious for my lady friend to depart that I might administer as the spirit directed. In a few moments she left… Alone I could unburden my heart and pour out my soul in earnest prayer to my Father in heaven. Kneeling by the bed on which lay my dying child, it should be an evidence to me that it was my duty to sell my home and come to the valley… I administered to him and he was healed.” (Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah, pg 23)
Blessings like these were given fairly commonly up until the 1920’s when the practice began to get confused with temple ordinances and priesthood authority. Many women felt confusion over the purpose of these blessings and so the practiced slowly started to die out. Then in 1946 Joseph Fielding Smith circulated a letter to Relief Societies which said,
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 to follow the plan the Lord has given us and send for the Elders of the Church to come and minister to the sick and afflicted. (Mormon Sisters, pg 18)
President Smith was referring to section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is where the Lord outlined the “law of the church.” In D&C 42:43 the Lord instructed Joseph Smith in the preferred way to administer to the sick, He said, “And the elders of the church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name…” Today this pattern is still followed and calling in the elders to give a blessings by the laying on of hands is still the Lord’s preferred way of blessing the sick.
While it is not encouraged today for LDS women to lay their hands on each other’s heads or give blessings that mimic priesthood administrations, we can still utilize the gift of to heal on each other’s behalf. This gift of the spirit has never been taken away from women; the only thing that has changed is the method of administration. In all three places where the gifts of the spirit are listed it is mentioned how the administration (the outward physical application) of these gifts can change over time but how the gift remains the same.
Moroni 10:8 says, “And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all…”
1 Corinthians 12:5 says, “…there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.”
D&C 46:15 says, “And again, to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know the differences of administration, as it will be pleasing unto the same Lord, according as the Lord will, suiting his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men.”
Women in the LDS church no longer administer the gift of healing by the laying on hands but instead adminster in many diverse ways. In Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society the authors explain how since the 1940’s women have still administered to one another. They said,
Individually and collectively, Latter-day Saint women…continue to draw upon other gifts of the Spirit- faith, hope, wisdom and knowledge- to provide in another form the same “blessing of one sister to another” and to extend that blessing to men, women, and children outside of their sisterhood. The greatest of these gifts, charity…endure[s] as the essence of Relief Society.”
As I discussed the gift of healing with the women in my ward we realized that women in the church are still administering to each other and to our families every day. Women administer this gift when they use their faith, prayers and fasting on someone’s behalf, when they give loving words, hugs, kisses, provide meals for a family, care for children, share their wisdom and knowledge, give healing touch, meet material needs, listen to the spirit to understand unique needs, write words of blessing and encouragement, and physically be with people through their trials. These gifts of the spirit, these methods of administration, are not any less powerful or meaningful than the washings and anointings that the women in the early church performed. It was beautiful to hear the women in my ward testify of ways in which they had ministered healing to people or ways in which they had been ministered to by other women.
The gift is the same, it is only the method of administration that is different.
- How do women in your life administer the gift of healing?
- How have you been the recipient of that gift?
Image credit: Ellis Shipp (teaching midwifery 1875-1896), Utah State Historical Society; Elder Joseph Fielding Smith (ordained 1910)