In the early days of the Church, it was not uncommon for women to participate in giving blessings of healing (see the Church's Gospel Topics essay "Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women"). In fact, by 1880, women had developed a ritual to help those who were about to give birth, often calling this a "washing and anointing previous to confinement" (The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, 539).
Naturally, many questions arose within the Church about the role of women administering these blessings. A book released by the Church, The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, details women's role in the formation of the Church and the beginning of the Relief Society. Contained within this volume are many previously unpublished and significant Church history documents that shed light on these early practices.
And though there are many new documents within the book, this is not the first time the topic has been addressed by Church leaders. Here are a few of those insights from The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society and other Church sources.
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Blessing of Healing
In a meeting with the Nauvoo Relief Society on April 28, 1842, the meeting's minutes record the prophet Joseph Smith's instruction to women regarding the priesthood and giving healing blessings: "Respecting the female laying on hands, he further remark'd, there could be no devil in it if God gave his sanction by healing—that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water—that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal'd by the administration" (The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, 55).
In the early days of the Church, many Relief Society sisters saw these blessings as an extension of their call to serve and minister to the sick and afflicted. These early Saints understood the gift of healing "primarily in terms of the New Testament’s teaching that it was one of the gifts of the Spirit available to believers through faith" ("Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women").
As a result, many women in the 1800s used their faith to bless the sick, but, as Relief Society general president Eliza R. Snow explained in 1883, “Women can administer in the name of JESUS [through faith], but not by virtue of the Priesthood" ("Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women").
Because these blessings were administered through the power of faith, not priesthood authority, sisters did not need to be set apart to participate in such practices. However, some confusion arose because women on occasion would be set apart to bless the sick, "although this setting apart was not seen as a prerequisite" (The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, 539).
Eliza R. Snow clarified this fact in a letter published in the Woman's Exponent, where she answered some of the common questions from sisters in the Church:
“Is it necessary for sisters to be set apart to officiate in the sacred ordinances of washing, anointing, and laying on of hands in administering to the sick?
"It certainly is not. Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have the right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons; and we testify that when administered and received in faith and humility they are accompanied with all mighty power.
"Inasmuch as God our Eather [Father] has revealed these sacred ordinances and committed them to His Saints, it is not only our privilege but our imperative duty to apply them for the relief of human suffering. We think we may safely say thousands can testify that God has sanctioned the administration of these ordinances by our sisters with the manifestations of His healing influence" (The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, 515-516).
Washing and Anointings
If taken out of context, Eliza R. Snow's quote above may raise some concern for Church members. It's important to note that the "washing and anointing" Sister Snow is referring to here is not the same as what now takes place within the temple, but it refers to the cultural practice of ritually washing women before giving birth. This was simply another form of ministering to those in need through faith.
In 1888, Sister Emmeline B. Wells sought further clarification from President Wilford Woodruff on this matter, and his response became a reference and guide for the Relief Society presidency and local leaders for years (The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, 540). In it, he stated:
"To begin with, I desire to say that the ordinance of washing and anointing is one that should only be administered in Temples or other holy places which are dedicated for the purpose of giving endowments to the Saints. That ordinance ought not to be administered to any one, whether she has received or has not received her endowments, in any other place or under any other circumstances.
"But I imagine from your question that you refer to a practice that has grown up among the sisters of washing and anointing sisters who are approaching their confinement. If so, this is not, strictly speaking, an ordinance, unless it be done under the direction of the priesthood and in connection with the ordinance of laying on of hands for the restoration of the sick.
"There is no impropriety in sisters washing and anointing their sisters in this way, under the circumstances you describe; but it should be understood that they do this, not as members of the priesthood, but as members of the Church, exercising faith for, and asking the blessings of the Lord upon, their sisters; just as they, and every member of the Church, might do for members of their families" (The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, 541-542).
Why Are These No Longer Practiced?
So why do women in the Church no longer practice blessings of healing and other rituals to minister to the sick?
In the early 20th century, Church members started to shift away from this practice. In 1923, President Heber J. Grant noted that many stakes began the practice of having women wash and anoint the sick with oil, then call on the Elders to confirm their anointing. "We fail to see the consistency [in this practice]," President Grant stated (The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, 540, footnote 329).
It was during this time Church leaders began encouraging members to follow the direction of the New Testament to call upon the elders. "[T]he scriptures tell us to call on 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," President Grant declared ("Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women").
These statements later influenced Joseph F. Smith to write to the Relief Society general presidency in 1946, outlining the guidelines that have since become the standard for our 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 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" (The First Fifty Years of the Relief Society, 541, footnote 329).
This collection of original documents explores the fascinating and largely unknown history of the Relief Society in the nineteenth century. The story begins with the founding of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, and the complete and unabridged minutes of that organization are reproduced in this book for the first time in print. The large majority of the volume covers the lesser-known period after the Relief Society was reestablished in territorial Utah and began to spread to areas as remote as Hawaii and England. Not only did Relief Society women care for their families and the poor, they manufactured and sold goods, went to medical school, gave healing blessings and set apart Relief Society officers, stored grain, built assembly halls, fought for women's suffrage, founded a hospital, defended the practice of plural marriage, and started the Primary and Young Women organizations. Prominent in the documents are the towering figures of Mormon women's history from this period—Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, Emmeline B. Wells, Zina D.H. Young, and many others.