Thursday, May 28, 2009

She Said: Women Giving Blessings in the LDS Church

I've always wondered about that--what is the difference between a woman who holds the Priesthood with her husband as a part of being endowed in the Temple versus a woman who prays for something simply by virtue of her faith?

In a published 1845 sermon, Apostle Orson Pratt explained:
“You too, my sisters, will take a part therein, for you will hold a portion of the priesthood with your husbands, and you will thus do a work, as well as they, that will augment that glory which you will enjoy after your resurrection.” (Times and Seasons 6 [1 June 1845]: 920)

What work is it we women are to do with our portion of the priesthood? Brigham Young preached:
“Now brethren, the man that honors his Priesthood, the woman that honors her Priesthood, will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God.” (Brigham Young diary, 12 Jan. 1846, Journal of Discourses 17:119.)

And just how is it that we are to honor our Priesthood?

In the early days of the Church, women did give blessings by the laying on of hands. Although Lavina Fielding Anderson has debunked the Mary Fielding Smith and her ox story, there are numerous references to nineteenth-century Mormon women blessing their fellow sisters for illness and for childbearing, sanctioned by the Church until the early 1900's. As late as April 1896 LDS women were instructed to say these words in administering to the sick: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ & by virtue of the Holy Anointing which I have received.” Until 1900 the First Presidency also authorized women to use the word “seal” in this ordinance. (D. Michael Quinn, "Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843.")

When it became common for priesthood blessings to be performed by anointing the head rather than specific parts of the body, Church leaders began to discourage the performance of Priesthood blessings by women. However, endowed females continued for some time to join in the blessings by laying their hands upon the afflicted person with their husbands. President Joseph F. Smith instructed:
"If a woman is requested to lay hands on the sick with her husband 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, and the husband being mouth, he may properly say out of courtesy, 'By authority of the holy priesthood in us vested.'" (Prophet Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era 10 [February 1907], page 308.)

The practice gradually diminished until it was rarely seen in the wards and stakes of the Church. The only remnant of women's participation in Priesthood ordinances which survived until the 1980's was the token act of a woman holding her child during the performance of a infant's naming and blessing. By 1988 this too had been discouraged.

As Dr. B. noted in his post, I feel comfortable joining in a priesthood blessing when it is given to our children in our own home, by placing my hands on their heads with him. I feel that the current practice of limiting women's jurisdiction to perform priesthood blessings is cultural and results from a reaction to feminist tensions of the mid-20th century. This has kept us from exploring what it means to hold priesthood power through our Temple ordinances.

Now that women giving Priesthood blessings is simply not done, exactly what is the difference between a woman who prays the prayer of faith and one who has been endowed into the Melchizedek Priesthood? Do we have a gift or a power that we simply do not know how to use?


  1. Patty Bartlett Sessions's biography has a lot of this sort of thing in it, it makes for a good read (and at least one good Sunstone article). I have it on anecdotal authority that there was a robust tradition of healer-midwives, many of whom worked at and were more or less based out of one temple or another (Sister Sessions being one of these), and the last was Leah Widtsoe- John Widtsoe's wife- who died in 1945.

    For what it's worth, this information comes from Alan Parrish, BYU professor and CES instructor no less. He pretty much set me on to doing my paper on women and faith-healing, so clearly CES instructors aren't all bad. ; )

  2. These blessings were really amazing. Here is an example of one from the minute book of the Oakley Idaho Second Ward Relief Society which was written down around 1909:

    We anoint your spinal column that you might be strong and healthy no disease fasten upon it no accident belaff [befall] you, your kidneys that they might be active and health and preform [sic] their proper functions, your bladder that it might be strong and protected from accident, your Hips that your system might relax and give way for the birth of your child, your sides that your liver, your lungs, and spleen that they might be strong and preform their proper functions, . . . your breasts that your milk may come freely and you need not be afflicted with sore nipples as many are, your heart that it might be comforted.

    They continued by requesting blessings from the Lord on the unborn child's health and expressed the hope that it might not come before its "full time" and that

    the child shall present right for birth and that the afterbirth shall come at its proper time . . . and you need not flow to excess. . . . We anoint . . . your thighs that they might be healthy and strong that you might be exempt from cramps and from the bursting of veins. . .

    The blessing was sealed as follows:

    Sister ___ we unitedly lay our hands upon you to seal the washing and anointing wherewith you have been washed and anointed for your safe delivery, for the salvation of you and your child and we ask God to let his special blessings to rest upon you, that you might sleep sweet at night that your dreams might be pleasant and that the good spirit might guard and protect you from every evil influence spirit and power that you may go your full time and that every blessing that we have asked God to confer upon you and your offspring may be literally fulfilled that all fear and dread may be taken from you and that you might trust in God. All these blessings we unitedly seal upon you in the name of Jesus Christ Amen. (Linda King Newell. "A Gift Given: A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women." Sunstone Vol. 22 (1999): 30-43.)

  3. I wonder - if there is no difference between a righteous mother praying for her child, and a Priesthood holder blessing a child, is there a difference between a righteous Priesthood holder praying for his child or administering a Priesthood blessing to that child?

  4. Em, Exactly my point. If there were no difference between a righteous man's prayer, and a Priesthood holder's blessing, why even have the Priesthood to perform these administrations at all?

  5. I think the sticky wicket is that we want the gospel to be unchanging and eternal, but in truth the gospel would quickly become defunct if it didn't constantly change to meet the needs of the people it serves from generation to generation. If a new generation of feminist Mormons decides to take back this gift, they will do it. If they decide to abdicate to male authority, they will do it. Just witness the new change in BYU standards allowing gay people to express their gayness short of physical intimacy. The church is constantly changing in response to human needs.

  6. I have experienced personal physical healing by the prayer of faith from something that can normally only be healed by surgery. I have been healed of being lame by a priesthood blessing as well as other major ailments. I am a woman who has been sealed. I have given a blessing to a child when it was an emergency and nobody else was available.

    I feel that when the Bishop is present, he presides, when he is gone there is an order to follow. At home the husband presides. When he is not available, his wife stands in.

    The power of the priesthood helps men to develop their faith and do service. It helps them to come to know the Savior better. Women learn this a different way.