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The following is shared in in the Gospel Topic essays on churchofjesuschrist.org:
Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society as part of the structure of the Church, which formally defined and authorized a major aspect of women’s ministry. All this was done to prepare the Saints to participate in the ordinances of the temple, which were introduced soon after the founding of the Relief Society. At the time of his death, the revelatory vision imparted to Joseph Smith was securely in place: women and men could receive and administer sacred priesthood ordinances in holy temples, which would help prepare them to enter the presence of God one day.
The following are examples from Church history that point to the fact that women participated in the administration of the sick. From the journal of Julina Lambson Smith, February 14, 1886, we read:“Sister Coles came to be administered to. She has a large lump growing in her Opu [stomach or womb]. It pains her considerably. Sister Young anointed the affected part, and Jos. Albert with some of the other Elders administered to her.”
This entry is from the journal of Patty Bartlett Sessions: “March 17, 1847. . . . Mr. Sessions and I went and laid hands on the widow Holmans step daughter. She was healed.”
And finally, Mary Isabella Horne wrote about her daughter’s healing: “[She] was taken very ill, and her life despaired of, in fact it seemed impossible for her to get better. The mother of the Prophet, Mrs. Lucy Smith, came and blessed the child, and said she should live. This was something new in that age, for a woman to administer to the sick.”
From assisting, to anointing with consecrated oil, to serving as the mouth during an administration, women in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were active participants in the healing of the sick. As early as the Nauvoo years, Joseph Smith, and continuing to John Taylor, the first three prophets of the Church shared their sentiments pertaining to women taking part in the blessing and healing of the sick. On April 28, 1842, a little more than a month after the organization of the Relief Society (March 17, 1842), Joseph Smith stated: “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.”
I have a faint memory of waking in the morning and having one eye sealed partially closed by sleep. Because I was a little guy and not understanding why I couldn’t open my eye, of course I was panicked and ran down the hallway from my bedroom to the kitchen, calling out to my mother. In her loving, soothing way, she scooped me into her arms, took me into the bathroom, and with a warm, moist cloth gently washed my eyelashes. It wasn’t the fear of losing sight in one eye so much that I remember from this situation, but more so the gentle touch of a member of the Relief Society. This was Joseph Smith’s justification.
It was the loving, soothing, caring touch of the women of the Church. Joseph Smith shared the following:
Who are better qualified to administer than our faithful and zealous sisters, whose hearts are full of faith, tenderness, sympathy, and compassion? No one. I gave a lecture on the priesthood, showing how the sisters could come in possession of the privileges, blessings, and gifts of the priesthood, and that the signs should follow them, such as healing the sick, casting out devils, etc. And that they might attain unto these blessings by virtuous life and conversation, and diligence in keeping all the commandments.
Brigham Young taught at a Nauvoo General Conference in 1844, “I want a Wife that can take care of my chi[ldre]n when I am away— who can pray—lay on hands anoint with oil and baffle the enemy.”
Then again in 1869, Brigham Young, directing his comments to the mothers in Zion, said: “Why do you not live so as to rebuke disease? It is your privilege to do so without sending for the Elders. . . . It is the privilege of a mother to have faith and to administer to her the benefit of their faith.”
The propriety and the right bestowed on the Relief Society to perform this ordinance was never a question with the early prophets in this dispensation. A number of years ago, a newly converted couple joined my ward. Being new in the gospel, they were enthusiastic and soaking it all in. They read as much as they could and participated in the ward both socially and through callings, developing into strong advocates for genealogy and the temple. I remember the day when one of my children was sick. I contacted this brother and asked if he would assist me in giving my child a blessing. It wasn’t long before he appeared on our front doorstep with his wife. We visited and then commenced to perform the anointing. Just as we were preparing to anoint, this dear sister commented that women used to participate in blessings and felt that all the help in our home at the time, both priesthood and Relief Society, could muster the faith to have our child healed. I had never heard of this before. How could this be? They were new to the Church. I was a lifelong member, a seminary graduate, a returned missionary, and the current elders quorum president of my ward. Never once had I recalled being taught that women administered to the sick. I wasn’t quite sure what she was suggesting and was relieved when she stopped short of placing her hands on my child’s head, but rather stood beside her husband with bowed head and folded arms.
John Taylor clarified the rights that the Relief Society held regarding administrations when he taught the following in the fall of 1880:
It is the privilege of all faithful women and lay members of the Church, who believe in Christ, to administer to all the sick or afflicted in their respective families, either by the laying on of hands, or by the anointing with oil in the name of the Lord: but they should administer in these sacred ordinances, not by virtue and authority of the priesthood, but by virtue of their faith in Christ, and the promises made to believers: and thus they should do in all their ministrations.
Armed with permission from God’s spokesman on earth, the sisters didn’t disappoint. However, judging by what I’ve read through the years, the Relief Society didn’t abuse this power, either. In fact, it appears that women administered to the sick, generally in the absence of the priesthood. To be honest, how often did a mother find herself alone during the early years of the Church? Trust me, it happened more than we care to admit. There were missions, Zion’s Camp, death at the hands of mobs in both Missouri and Illinois, the Mormon Battalion, and the first vanguard company of the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley. It was essential for women to be bestowed with this right simply because a priesthood holder was not always present in the home.10 As an example, Betsy Jane Simons, a widow and resident of Quincy, Illinois, at the time, experienced frustration by the fact that a priesthood holder simply could not be found in her surrounding area. Faced with this dilemma, she records:
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.
Louisa B. Pratt’s husband, Addison, served numerous missions for the Church and was absent for extended periods of time. He was gone for almost five years to the Society Islands (1844–48). Sister Pratt tells of her young daughter, who, during the Saints’ sojourn in Nauvoo, was exposed to smallpox, which, shortly after this contact, developed into a fever. Worried for her daughter’s health, Louisa reached out to the priesthood to provide the healing administration. Try as she might, Louisa failed to succeed in convincing the “frightened elders” to administer to her sick daughter. Louisa Pratt records what happened next: “The devil shall not have power thus to afflict me. I then laid hands on my child and rebuked the fever. . . . In a few days the fever was gone.”
In conjunction with blessings of healings, women also provided blessings of comfort to each other. Many incidents have been revealed in the journals of women blessing women. Again, Patty Bartlett Sessions provides us with one such occasion:
Fair weather. We expect to start tomorrow for the mountains. I called to Sarah Anns this evening with E. R. Snow. Sisters Whitney and Kimball came in. We had a good time. Things were hearts and profit thereby. Before we went down there E. Beaman, Eliza or Emily Partridge, Zina Jacobs came here laid their hands on my head blessed me and so did E. R. Snow. Thank the Lord.
It wasn’t until the 1920s when the practice of women giving blessings of healing and comfort began to fade. In the recent Gospel Topics essays published by the Church, we learn, “Women’s participation in healing blessings gradually declined in the early 20th century as Church leaders taught that it was preferable to follow the New Testament directive to ‘call for the elders.’ By 1926, Church President Heber J. Grant affirmed that the First Presidency ‘do not encourage calling in the sisters to administer to the sick, as the scriptures tell us to call in the Elders, who hold the priesthood of God and have the power and authority to administer to the sick in the name of Jesus Christ.’”
After 1946, the practice ceased entirely when Elder Joseph Fielding Smith issued the following statement in a letter to the Relief Societies of the church: “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.”
Currently, the Church Handbook explains, “Only worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holders may administer to the sick or afflicted.”
What are your thoughts on this? Let us know in the comments!