Anointing Motherhood: A glimpse

In May of 1926, Anna Lewis Evans was washed and anointed in preparation for her upcoming birth. This was the first documented time that she would receive this blessing from women in the 31st Ward, Park Stake. She would go on to experience this sacred ritual another five times — on September 13, 1927, January 9, 1930, July 12, 1931, January 16, 1936 and finally an unspecified date in 1937.

Generally, Anna was attended to by 2 or 3 women, most of whom served as Relief Society teachers or in the Relief Society presidency. One woman, Ruby Boden, was present on all of these occasions except for the last one. Her presence seems to serve as a symbol of continuity in an act that combined realistic biological matters with the more ethereal blessings of God.

There is very little physical evidence left in regards to the wording of such pregnancy blessings. One rare document from the Oakley (Idaho) Second Ward Relief Society minute books gives us a rare glimpse of what might have been said to bless and comfort women in their period of “confinement”. According to Linda King Newell, “We do not know whether they followed the text exactly or deviated from it, but its very existence bespeaks an insistence that the words be used in a certain way and that the process be linked to the Relief Society. They did follow earlier counsel to avoid the wording used in the temple ordinances and, of course, the blessing and sealing are different in concept from the temple washing and anointing.”

Perhaps Anna Lewis might have heard:

We anoint your back, your spinal column that you might be stong and healthy [that] no disease fasten upon it, no accident befall you, Your kidneys that they might be active and healthy and perform their proper functions, your bladder that it might be strong and protected from accident, your sides that your liver, your lungs, and spleen that they might be strong and perform 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.

Linda Newell notes that, “They continue by requesting blessings from the Lord on the unborn child that it might be…”

perfect in every joint and limb and muscle, that it might be beautiful to look upon … [and] happy” and that “when [its] full time shall have come that the child shall present right for birth and that the afterbirth shall come at its proper time … 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 … That you might stand upon the earth [and] go in and out of the Temples of God.

The final act of sisterhood was the sealing of the blessing:

We unitedly lay our hands upon you to seal this washing and anointing where with 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 rest upon you, that you might sleep well 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 ma 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.

Today, our ministrations to mothers have retreated from the sacred to the mundane. Instead of “warm Relief Society hands upon our bodies“, we are filled by meals that are prepared by the same type of loving hands. Husbands are now more likely to administer a blessing of comfort to their pregnant wives, an image which in and of itself is also beautiful. However, I can’t help but think of Anna Evans and feel a bit melancholy. A longing for a world where women are washed and anointed with the “balm of sisterhood”. A lost but extrordinary ritual of motherhood — where the spiritual and the visceral assemble under the hands of women.

Comments

  1. Kris – lovely post – thanks. Every time I read the section on healing in Daughters of Light, I lament that women no longer anoint or lay on hands. It feels like that would have been really something special and powerful to have been a part of.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    ‘Melancholy’ is the word for it. Thanks for this post.

  3. I will always look back at the time when we first saw that 31st ward registry of blessings and looked at the microfilm of the handwritten entries. Glorious.

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Kris, a wonderful post and a powerful, powerful topic. In many ways this is the most courageous and interesting Mothers’ Day post I’ve seen.

  5. Kris, this is so beautiful.
    I wonder if I think it so lovely because of the language that is familiar and connected to the spiritual for me and would just be wacky to others. But I love it.
    So was there ever an official ending/you can’t do that anymore of these pregnancy blessings? If we did them now, would it bc we’re acting outside of stated policy or bc it’s just culturally unacceptable now?

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I love the specificity of the wording, rather than relying on bland generalities. Now that is a blessing any pregnant sister would want to receive!

    This movement from blessings by sisters to blessings by men reminds me of the absorption of fertility rites by (the masculine) Yahweh away from the goddess Asherah in ancient Hebrew religion.

    This also reminds me of one occasion when I was just a boy and was sick. My father insisted that my mother anoint me so that he could bless me. She resisted, thinking it was not permissible for her to do so. My father insisted, and so my mother did indeed anoint me for that blessing. My dad was a pretty conservative guy, but grounded in traditional Mormonism, in which women anointing and even pronouncing blessings was perfectly appropriate.

  7. Elisabeth says:

    Thank you, Kris. I would have loved to hear this story yesterday at Church instead of recycled platitudes about how all women are mothers.

    Please share more of your research with us!

  8. Amri, there has never been an explicit ending. The last “official” proclamation was a 1914 circular letter from the first presidency (entire text) that affirmed the practice.

    As far as I can tell, there has been a subtle shift in places like the CHI, that now states that only Melchezidec Priesthood holders can anoint and bless. Basically, there has been an internal shift in policy. There is some belief that the major shift was innitiated by Joseph Fielding Smith who wrote to the RS presidency in 1946:

    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.

    This is an excerpt from Messages of the First Presidency. The entire letter isn’t available.

  9. That doesn’t mean that now that there’s a clothing change in initiatories that we’re (women as officiators)going to lose that too does it? Ugh.

    Kevin, do you remember what you thought? Did you think your mom had just as much power as your dad? Was there connection to it as power that both shared? Or was it just an awkward moment since your mom didn’t quite feel comfortable doing it?

    Do you think women will get to do these blessings again when a woman because president?
    heh, heh.

  10. and by that I mean becomes.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Amri, at the time it was just an awkward moment for the reason you state. But now that I look back on it in retrospect as an adult, I’m very glad for the experience, as it represents for me a tangible connection with an older school of practice in Mormonism, and I am pleased that I was able to have the experience of being anointed by my mother.

    And I got better, so the blessing couldn’t have been too flawed. (grin)

  12. Thanks, Kris. I had just been contemplating asking ExII readers if anybody had the text to these annointings — thanks for anticipating my desire so beautifully and thoroughly :)!

    I am struck by how many LDS women in my circle of acquaintance have chosen to work with a mid-wife — and I wonder if this is related to a certain heritage of comfort with/yearning for female ministration at birth.

  13. I want one. Any volunteers? I don’t think my RS pres. will go for it and I know my mom and sisters would think I’d gone nutty.

    Deborah, that’s an interesting thought. I’m having a midwife (a CNM at a freestanding birth center) attend my birth and I love the idea of a doula, though in our situation we probably wouldn’t _need_ one. But the appeal of having well-qualified women help me have a natural birth is very strong–perhaps part of it IS a yearning for female ministration. And validation of female strength and power (mine; the mother’s), i.e., a woman active and making her own decisions about how she wants her normal birth to progress instead of having it managed by a paternalistic figure and having her ‘rescued’ from the baby or the baby rescued from her. The whole experience so far has been very empowering and satisfying for me.

  14. Artemis: I’ve given Reiki treatments to a couple of expectant mothers. You on the east coast anywhere? :)

  15. I orchestrated my own Mother’s blessing, drawing ont his beautiful and lost tradition. I had trouble finding someone who was already a mother to participate, though. Mostly young liberal mormons, or non-mormons. It was still very special, though.

  16. mullingandmusing says:

    I find this a little disturbing, however, because it seems they violated direction about what the wording of blessings was and was not supposed to be. They were also not supposed to use the word “seal.” Because of these reasons, I am not sure this is an example of what an approved-of blessing might have looked like.

  17. mullingandmusing says:

    …not that I don’t understand the feeling of melancholy….

  18. M&M, what standard are you using to say that these sisters violated something? What makes you say that they are not “supposed” to use the word “seal”? Do you have access to some kind of standardized approved female blessings chart from 100 years ago?

    I’m actually serious here. If you have such a document, I would love to read it.

  19. mullingandmusing says:

    From the 1914 letter to local priesthood leaders referred to above. Note the instruction relative to the wording and also to the concept of sealing.

    5. Should the administering and anointing be sealed?
    Answer: It is proper for sisters to lay on hands, using a few simple words, avoiding the terms employed in the temple, and instead of using the word “seal” use the word “confirm.
    6. Have the sisters a right to seal the washing and anointing, using no authority, but doing it in the name of Jesus Christ, or should men holding the priesthood be called in?
    Answer: The sisters have the privilege of laying their hands on the head of the person for whom they are officiating, and confirming and anointing in the spirit of invocation. The Lord has heard and answered the prayers of sisters in these administrations many times. It should, however, always be remembered that the command of the Lord is to call in the elders to administer to the sick, and when they can be called in, they should be asked to anoint the sick or seal the anointing.

  20. Ahhh — thanks for pointing that out. Yes, but prior to 1914, we really don’t have much of idea of what was or wasn’t OK. I agree re: the use of “seal.” Interesting, in any event, the wording of “confirm” vs. “seal.” I am not sure what the substantive difference is between the two words.

  21. mullingandmusing says:

    20…true, but note the date of the blessing mentioned in the blog…it was post-1914…and the word “seal” was used. I just wonder if sometimes blessings took place in ways that shouldn’t have. I have no idea if this is even possible, but I also wonder if such potential for “crossing the line” as the Church grew, as feminism became more popular…whatever????…may have contributed to the cessation of female-given faith blessings as part of the norm. I suppose we may never know, but I have wondered….

    I think the word “seal” is highly tied to the concept of priesthood…think way back to NT times…whatsoever thou shalt SEAL on earth….

    As a similar but perhaps less critical example…in our stake, women have been counseled to pray with their sisters during VT visits, but have been told not to pray a “blessing on the home” because that is a priesthood action. Hard sometimes to control, cuz it sometimes just comes out, but I think the idea is to be sure to keep that line between what is priesthood jurisdiction. I imagine the same concept, esp. with the import of “sealing power” tied with priesthood (think also Elijah and all of that…this is tied with keys), applied to blessings given by women back then.

  22. to pray a “blessing on the home” because that is a priesthood action.

    Why?

  23. Elisabeth says:

    Perhaps I woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning (very possible), but the trivial semantics of defining “confirm” vs. “seal” and “praying vs. blessing” in this context are absolutely infuriating to me.

    Whether or not the church leaders recognize the prayers and blessings given by women on behalf of their loved ones as “official” prayers or blessings is absolutely irrelevant to whether or not God wishes to listen to and answer our prayers. I, for one, believe God does want to listen to and answer the prayers and blessings of women just as much as he listens to and answers the prayers and blessings of men – and no petty semantic or gender restrictions will change that simple Truth.

  24. Elisabeth,
    I agree.

  25. Elisabeth says:

    Why is it that women in this Church are now explicitly deprived of the experience to share their spiritual gifts with others through blessings and ministrations? I just don’t understand why this is acceptable to so many of us.

    A few days ago near Boston, a woman and her son were beaten to death by her husband because he resented her activity in the Mormon church. This tragedy illustrates that no matter how much women sacrifice for this Church (their very lives!), women are forbidden by our current leaders to fully participate in its spiritual and administrative mission. I find this extremely difficult to understand.

  26. Elisabeth,

    A lot of women find the exclusion neither acceptable nor doctrinal and feel that their temple covenants allow them to bless others inasmuch as they’ve been clothed in the garments of the holy priesthood. I’ve personally participated in many such women’s blessings and count those experiences among the most spiritual of my life.

  27. From “Daughters of Light”, quoting Elizabeth Whitney in The Women’s Exponent:
    “I was also ordained and set apart under the hand of Joseph Smith the Prophet to administer to the sick”

    Joseph also said when questioned on this:
    “Who are better qualified to administer than our faitful and zealous sister, whose hearts are full of faith, tenderness, sympathy and compassion. No one”

    Brigham Young said:
    “I want a wife that can take care of my children when I am away, who can pray, lay on hands, anoint with oil, and baffle the enemy, and this is a spiritual wife”

    You may not like it M&M, but in the early church, women were set apart to anoint, lay on hands and heal others. It was pretty common. And healing is NOT just reserved for the priesthood. It is a gift of the spirit that ALL are entitled to. If you have a problem with women and blessings, you probably shouldn’t visit the Temple!

  28. Elisabeth: I, for one, believe God does want to listen to and answer the prayers and blessings of women just as much as he listens to and answers the prayers and blessings of men – and no petty semantic or gender restrictions will change that simple Truth.

    Personally, I get really tired of hearing people drone on about what God wants. So tired, that I even wrote a guest post for Stephen M to that effect. In Mormonism, members are all too willing to hold leaders accountable for their own vision of what God wants. This is a pretty lame form of dissent. If you’re going to disagree with leadership, you have to be prepared to jettison the notion of what God wants. The reason? Nobody really knows for sure, and it’s time we stopped pretending.

  29. DKL, certainty surely is inaccessible to us. But come on! We’re religious people. Aren’t we allowed to have our own experience of the divine, and our own beliefs about God’s desires?

  30. m&m, ordinances change. In this area, specifically, there was a tremendous amount of flexibility and evolution. It is true that some Relief Societies ported over the term ” to seal” from their Temple work, which had been discouraged since 1888. That said, I think it is important that one look at how all the ordinances change. You inspired me to prepare a post on the matter.

    If one takes current praxis as the ultimate in administration (say using one or two drops on the top of the head for oil – or no washings associated with healing), then we profane that which is most holy and the restoration is in shambles.

    Current praxis is normative, precisely because the Church hierarchy has the God given right to prescribe praxis, there is no other reason.

  31. M&M — you may want to re-read the quote from Linda King Newell. In regards to this text she states, “We do not know whether they followed the text exactly or deviated from it” . One other note — the Oakley blessing was recorded in Relief Society Minute books from 1901-1909. We simply don’t know how the blessings in the Thirty First Ward (or most other wards) were worded. Quite frankly, after spending almost two days reading the washing and anointing book as well as other minutes from this Relief Society, I have little doubt that these sisters were doing anything “wrong”.

  32. mullingandmusing says:

    You may not like it M&M, but in the early church, women were set apart to anoint, lay on hands and heal others. It was pretty common. And healing is NOT just reserved for the priesthood. It is a gift of the spirit that ALL are entitled to. If you have a problem with women and blessings, you probably shouldn’t visit the Temple!

    I know this happened, Rebecca. I never said I didn’t like it, either.

    BTW, I love the temple, and was a temple worker for a time.

  33. mullingandmusing says:

    If one takes current praxis as the ultimate in administration (say using one or two drops on the top of the head for oil – or no washings associated with healing), then we profane that which is most holy and the restoration is in shambles.

    Current praxis is normative, precisely because the Church hierarchy has the God given right to prescribe praxis, there is no other reason.

    I don’t think I used current praxis to evaluate what had happened, or to say current practices are the only way things should have ever been done, so I’m not sure why you wanted to say this to me. I may have misjudged what happened (or maybe I didn’t…there is no way to know for sure)…like I said over at T&S, my thoughts are still a work in progress. Sorry if I pushed a button.

  34. mullingandmusing says:

    31 — Kris, perhaps I jumped the gun. Either way, we probably know too little to really understand how this all worked.

  35. M&M, we may not know too much about the specific words used in the prayers, but the historical record gives us an immense amount of information about women’s healing blessings. So it’s probably not quite right to say that we don’t really understand the topic.

  36. mullingandmusing says:

    35…yes, yes, I was referring to the wording in this specific issue. Guess I need to be more specific in my writing….

  37. SHESTALOU RIVERS says:

    That was really nice Thanks

  38. SonofElija says:

    Interesting how so many people who are stout in the LDS church or Mormonizm have yet to study the priesthoods.

    I remember my mother calling on my Father’s priesthood ass his sealed wife. I Knew a woman who did the same to release her son who was helplessly pinned by a car with no one around.

    Have people forgotten that a man or a woman with out the other can not progress to the third heaven (Celestial)?
    Please study ALL the written works that the church has, even the ones that can only be viewed in SLC.

    The Melchezidec priesthood is not a full priesthood unless both halves are sealed. A woman can call upon the Eternal priesthood correctly if there is an immediate need, no worthy priesthood holder is there and don in righteousness.

    Women who are sealed in a holy marriage have the Eternal priesthood. My mother and I have talked about this through out the years and she is a Seattle Temple worker and is saddened by the modern misconception. My Father is a 70.

    As far as the platitudinal RS meetings just keep poking for meat and not the home made jam or relish of the week.
    That crap drives my wife bonkers.

  39. Re: 21 and 22
    I also ask “why?”- specifically becasue blessing a home is not a priesthood ordinance. Even priesthood holders are instructed not to bless a home in the way you bless a person by authority of the priesthood. When blessing a home, the person addresses Heavenly Father and requests a blessing on the home.

    Thus, when a relief society sister prays a blessing on the home they claim no priesthood authority, they are asking God to bless the home. In your stake are the sisters also encouraged to pray before eating but to not “bless the food”?

    I would be very interested in whether this came from something in the handbook of instructions, or what inspired this counsel in your stake. Especially if there has been a change and priesthood holders are now supposed to change the way in which we bless our homes.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Kris W.’s Mother’s Day post at BCC covers beautifully the section on women washing and anointing other women in preparation for childbirth, so I’m going to refer you to that post. “Does a wife hold the priesthood with her husband? and may she lay hands on the sick with him, with authority?” This question was published in the Improvement Era in 1907. Joseph F. Smith answered, A wife does not hold the priesthood in connection with her husband, but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him; and if she is requested to lay hand on the sick with him . . . 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.” [...]

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