The Space In-Between

One hundred and fifty eight years ago today Joseph Hovey recorded in his journal that Presendia Kimball had laid her hands upon his head and blessed him. She spoke the following words,

Inasmuch as you have comforted me when I was weighted down in the days that are past and now, I also say in the name of Jesus Christ that you shall be blessed … Yea, you shall have your exaltation, for I will see to it for your goodness towards me. Yea, I will tell Joseph Smith of your good works and you shall come on Mount Zion with the hundred and forty four thousand.

Women’s blessing meetings were not uncommon in the nineteenth century and women administered to each other and to their own children frequently. While a woman laying hands upon the head of a man was much less common, it was not unheard of. In August of 1899 John Nuttall wrote that,

Sister Woolf & councilors Hamman & June E Bates sisters Rhoda Hamman and several other Sisters called & we conversed on Relief Society matters. I explained many things to them & they were Much pleased Afterwhich Sister Elizabeth Hamman said she felt the Same spirit which was upon her at the meeting last night when she wanted to bless me — She arose & placed her hands on Bro Masers head & blessed him. Then on my head & and blessed me then on Sister Woolf & blessed her also blessed 3 other of the sisters & sister Zina Card this was done in Tongues — Sister Zina Y Card arose And laying her hands on our heads interpreted these bless[ings] a good feeling was present.

Similarly, at General Conference in October 1910, Elder Heber J. Grant stated,

I testify that the gift of tongues is in this Church, that it has been enjoyed by men and women on very many occasions. I bear witness that there have been prophecies by the voice of tongues. I stand here in humility today and acknowledge that my wife, whose body now lies in the tomb, pronounced a blessing upon my head by the spirit of tongues, all of which has been fulfilled.

I love the reverse image that these vignettes offer. When I began the study of women’s history, the idea of “separate spheres” or a separate women’s culture was the dominant paradigm of historical interpretation. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s groundbreaking article, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” set the tone for a generation of historians who focused upon the unique bonds between women and the world they created. By the end of the 1980s, historians were begining to question the notion of separate spheres. Interestingly enough, the book that shifted the historical paradigm within the field of American women’s history was written by a Mormon woman.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer prize winning book A Midwife’s Tale helped historians reconceptualize the way that gendered spheres functioned and restored cohesion to a world that seemed dominated by “fragmented fields and seemingly disjointed lives” of men and women. Perhaps the most enduring image from A Midwife’s Tale is a blue-and white checked cloth which is used as a metaphor to explain the social interplay of men and women. Ulrich challenges us to, “…think of the white threads as women’s activities, the blue as men’s, then imagine the resulting social web. Clearly, some activities in an eighteenth-century town brought men and women together. Others defined their separateness.”

I like to apply this image to charismatic gifts. Imagine the world of healing as a blue and white checked cloth — there are areas of separateness (white or dark blue) but then some areas of lighter blue where the two threads come together. Instead of having a seperate woman’s subculture of healing ie. pregnancy blessings, healing parties or temple washing and anointings as well as a separate men’s subculture of priesthood office and ordinances, we discover a more fluid light blue area where we see the ungendered gift of the spirit. This is the place where men and women worked together to heal and bless their children; where temple workers like Lucy Bigelow Young were sought out to heal those brought on their sick beds to the St. George temple or where women administered to their husbands or other men who shared their worldview.

Mormon women’s history has edged its way from the margin towards the centre, yet we still have far to go in constructing an egalitarian history. Given the hierarchical structure of the church and the strong belief in separate but equal roles for men and women, this may be a difficult process. Yet in the end, I suspect that men and women like Joseph Hovey and Presendia Kimball shared more commonalities then differences. They experienced life-changing conversions, buried children they loved and had an enduring testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith. When we remove the lens of separate spheres, we discover that the space in-between might not be so great after all.

Comments

  1. Great post, Kris. Fascinating use of polygamy by Presendia, who was a Levirate widow of Joseph Smith, and I believe she was invoking her family relationship to him in her blessing of Hovey. Perhaps we can recover from Smith’s novel family structure not just the patriarchy that Carmon Hardy calls by its ugly name (Carmon Hardy, “Lords of Creation: Polygamy, the Abrahamic Household, and Mormon Patriarchy,” Journal of Mormon History 20 (Spring 1994) 1: 119-52) and I fret over, but a grander notion of people interconnected through newly established sacerdotal associations.

  2. PS, what is the source for the Kimball blessing? I don’t see it on the boap autobiography.

  3. Sam, right now the source is Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, p. 114 and is sourced to Joseph Hovey’s journal which is in the Church Archives. I’m actually in the process of trying to get a verification from the primary source.

  4. jessawhy says:

    This post is especially timely for me. I’ve recently discovered the previous priesthood power of women in the 19th century. Today I sat in my 4 year old son’s primary class where another woman taught a lesson to 5 boys. She taught about the priesthood and said, “all of your daddy’s have this gift and you will all have it someday . . . girls can’t have it.” One little boy said, “That’s not fair.” Exactlty what I was thinking. It was very interesting since I have been struggling with why the doctrine has changed on this issue. There was even a point when the teacher showed the boys a picture of a baby blessing, pointed out that there were no mommies, and asked me why. I responded, “women used to bless their babies, but they haven’t since the handbook changed in the 1950s.” She wasn’t expecting my answer :)
    I believe the quote by John Nutall is in “In Sacred Loneliness” as well. There is also a quote about BY sending a carriage to some of his wives to call them to go heal a sick male missionary. It wasn’t uncommon for women to heal men by the priesthood. There was a quote (if anyone wants the reference, I can go find it) about how beautiful it is to have husband and wife bless each other and their children by the power of the priesthood. I like the idea that there is more overlap, like a gingham tablecloth, than we currently think about.
    I’m interested to see where this thread goes, I’m new to this site and I don’t know how people feel about these issues, I’m still working through how I feel about them.

  5. jessawhy, the Nuttal quote is from his diary, which is located in at BYU (check the link out). I also think that your use of the term “priesthood” isn’t accurate.

    Kris, I obviously love this post and am in complete agreement.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    A lovely post, Kris. Thank you.

  7. jessawhy says:

    J. Stapley,
    Are you referring to the each usage of the word “priesthood” or all of them?

  8. jessawhy says:

    I mean, one usage or all?

  9. I feel like I am being a jerk. Sorry for that. But yes, all of them.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    Forgive my two cents, which I’m afraid will seem rather tired.

    Anecdotally:

    The first person up in testimony meeting today was a woman – I’m afraid I don’t know her or her name. She had clearly been informed by the Holy Spirit. This is a common thing, I know, with women and men. I only bring it up now because I was so struck with the genuine _auhtority_ that was exhibited in what she had to say. I don’t mean here that her authority _to the ward_ was the same as the authority the Bishop and only the Bishop has, ecclesiactically – only that having put herself in a place where she could receive the spiritual gift, she was able to speak by means of that gift, and it spoke authoritatively to my heart. Why any man would want these gifts to be restricted in the lives of the women who could touch him is beyond me. May those who desire it repent or all die off so that we can get about the business of building Zion.

    ~

  11. Jessawhy says:

    J.Stapley. I don’t think you’re a jerk. I’m honestly not sure what you mean. I have read enough of your posts and other posts about you to know that you are a smart guy. Can you give me a tutorial (or point me to one) that explains the proper way to use the word “priesthood”? I guess I don’t understand what you mean.

  12. Wonderful post–

  13. Don’t we talk about “kings and queens, priests and priestesses” in the temple? My interpretation of this is that women do have priesthood authority of a kind and always will. Although they don’t use it in the same way currently, I don’t think tere is anything wrong with using the term “priesthood” with respect t women.

    Why any man would want these gifts to be restricted in the lives of the women who could touch him is beyond me.

    I have always understood that gifts of the spirit were distributed equally to everyone, and have never heard anyone express a desire for any restriction. When someone speaks by the power of the spirit in testimony meeting, that has nothing to do with priesthood or authority in my mind, it is simply the spirit bearing witness of the truthfulness of their words.

  14. Jessawhy, I think Stapley rather brusquely is trying to distinguish the healing or blessing power from priesthood per se, though I can’t speak for him. From one perspective, the reason women no longer heal or bless children is because those behaviors were taken into priesthood rather than because women had priesthood per se. The NT precedent talks about the “prayer of faith,” women were healers commonly back then, and there were uses of anointing that had more magical and medical overtones than strictly spiritual.

    You’ve touched on a complex issue in our history (and present) with a lot of people feeling pretty strongly about them. I suspect, with Thomas, that this issue will be resolved by gentle attrition in the setting of overall faithfulness.

  15. I have a saying concerning this subject:

    God has endowed each gender with a specific role that cannot be breached; while the opposite gender plays a supporting role and is blessed from the endowment of each.

    As it is clear that men cannot have children, yet play a supporting role in their pro-creation, women, likewise cannot preside over priesthood ordinances, but play a supporting role in their blessings.

  16. Jessawhy, I apologize again for my drive-by comment. Sam MB is right, the idea that healing is a “priesthood ordinance” is fairly modern conception and to project it on most instances of women healing results in anachronism that further obfuscates the issues. Healing for both men and women is deeply intertwined with the temple, and as temple practice has changed, the issues get even more complicated.

    MCQ, regarding the Temple and women, I would refer you to this post.

  17. Kris, a great post with some powerful images. There seems something very “queenly” about a majestic woman pronouncing the Lord’s blessing upon her husband’s head.

  18. Arrow (#15),

    And women who can’t have children?

    To say that men bless and heal, and women gestate children, end of story, is to deny our historical Mormon understanding of spiritual gifts and practice, as shown in the post and comments above. It also relegates women with faulty reproductive systems to the sidelines in a way that isn’t supported by revelation, nor by the scriptures.

  19. J. and Sam, the story of women, healing, and priesthood is one with many stages, and some of those stages link healing by women with the possession of temple priesthood blessings by the women doing the healing. To call those blessings priesthood ordinances is an anachronism; to claim that they weren’t priesthood ordinances may be equally anachronistic. Perhaps a better framing would be to call them temple ordinances carried out beyond the walls of the temple. This framing helps us focus simultaneously on the ways healing was and wasn’t a priesthood affair.

  20. J. I will somewhat agree. Women were healing long (upwards of 8 years) before they received an endowment. There is a reason that Willford Woodruff claimed they weren’t priesthood ordinances in the 1880′s – because he remembered the 1830′s. Of course the temple ordinances are priesthood ordinances, but the forms as adapted to healing aren’t, despite an intimate relation.

  21. Matt W. says:

    In relation to this, It would be interesting to see at what point blessings and healings began to be looked at as ordinances. Further, at what point did ordinances become priesthood ordinances? Where they always such?

    Other Questions I would attack this subject with, if I had the means or interest: What was the religious background of these women prior to their affiliation to the LDS church and what role did it play in their participation in healings and the like?

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to Kris and J.’s work at MHA. Hopefully it will be published so those of us who do not attend will have access as well…

  22. J., the claim that the “forms adapted to healing aren’t” temple or priesthood ordinances is a theological one, not a historical one. For it to be a historical claim, you’d have to identify which period’s and which people’s belief system you’re invoking; there are periods of Mormon history in which people in authority described the healing ordinances done by women as requiring temple endowment and functioning on the basis of that authority. Theology kicks in when we give priority to the 1830s worldview over the later one.

  23. Mothers blessing says:

    In my present family of active Mormons (here I’m talkin of my marriage, and my wider family of parents and siblijts), it isn’t uncommon for an adult woman to give a mother’s blessing to a child or spouse in the same circumstances where one traditionally finds father’s blessings. The mother’s blessing may be separate from or together with a father’s blessing. During the father’s or mother’s blessings, the other spouse may also participate by also laying on hands, but not necessarily.

    Where circumstances of blessings of healing are called for, it is less common for the woman to offer the blessings, but my wife does that occasionally, and one of my sisters.

  24. #18…Serenity, I apologize if my comment sounded insentitive. I assure you my intent was the opposite. I truly feel for those sisters who cannot have children. I can assure you those same feelings run through us gents as well when they find that they are the reason.

    There is no “relegating” women to the side here. Their endowment to carry the race is not only related to reproductive features, but also the nurturing characteristics in association. Sure, we blokes can learn a thing or two, but you ladies are born with it.

    Likewise, men are born to bear authority and the accountability with its association. Notice please that in my original comment I mention “preside.” This does preclude women from exercising spiritual gifts. And it some rare cases, it does not even preclude them from exercising some ordinances. However, that exercise (ordinances only) is to be accounted to God from a priesthood holder who presides.

    My point is that there are some specifics with which we each are endowed that cannot be breached. Yet we support one another in bringing about the blessings and enjoyment of those blessings from each.

  25. the claim that the “forms adapted to healing aren’t” temple or priesthood ordinances is a theological one, not a historical one. For it to be a historical claim, you’d have to identify which period’s and which people’s belief system you’re invoking.

    Fair enough.

  26. #18…Serenity, I apologize if my comment sounded insentitive. I assure you my intent was the opposite. I truly feel for those sisters who cannot have children. I can assure you those same feelings run through us gents as well when they find that they are the reason.

    Thanks – I realize you weren’t meaning to be insensitive. My real issue with this arguement isn’t actually that it’s unkind, though; rather, it just doesn’t make sense, and it’s not historically legitimate. (Our current practice is a development of the last century, and we haven’t got any scripture or revelation backing up the changes we’ve made).

    There is no “relegating” women to the side here. Their endowment to carry the race is not only related to reproductive features, but also the nurturing characteristics in association. Sure, we blokes can learn a thing or two, but you ladies are born with it.

    Evidence, please? Both that women are born with nurturing instincts and that men aren’t?

    Likewise, men are born to bear authority and the accountability with its association. Notice please that in my original comment I mention “preside.” This does preclude women from exercising spiritual gifts. And it some rare cases, it does not even preclude them from exercising some ordinances. However, that exercise (ordinances only) is to be accounted to God from a priesthood holder who presides.

    So what you’re saying is that in some cases, women can excersize spiritual gifts – even perform some ordinances, but as God sees it, it’s the supervising men who are responsible for those women’s actions? So we’re like spiritual wards, then? Where’s the evidence for this? I’ve always understood that God holds me responsible for my own actions, as I’m a mentally competent adult. If such is not the case, I can hardly expect to be credited with any righteousness, and I can’t expect to be cut off from God through sin.

    My point is that there are some specifics with which we each are endowed that cannot be breached. Yet we support one another in bringing about the blessings and enjoyment of those blessings from each.

    That may be, but it seems doubtful. Most especially, it seems doubtful that the distribution of spiritual gifts, the ability to perform blessings, or the accompanying accountability is dictated by gender or even one’s status as a member of the priesthood. As has been mentioned already, such an assertion is contradictory to our historical practice. It’s not supported by anything resembling a canonized revelation; it’s not even supported by noncanonical church statements like the family proclamation. And frankly, it flies in the face of scripture.

  27. Arrow, sorry, I’ve just reread your comment and realized that I missed the parenthetical in which you disavowed the extension of your ordinance accountability theory to non-ordinance related spiritual gifts. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

    Of course, I stand by my reasoning – if a woman can, under any circumstances, perform an ordinance, she is accountable for it. To claim otherwise is both to reduce her to the level of a spiritual child and to allow (or force) some other person to claim accountability for events which are ultimately outside his control. Unless it’s the case that man is punished for his own sin and not Adam’s transgression, but man’s wife’s transgressions are a different story? :)

  28. Jessawhy says:

    I have to admit, J Stapley, that I was rather embarassed yesterday at your comment, and almost decided not to read the rest of the thread today, but I’m glad I did. I think the points that have been made by Serenity Valley echo what I was thinking (but I’m not nearly as articulate as she is).
    As far as priesthood ordinances are concerned, I think there is definately some confusion out there. My husband tells me that a baby blessing is not a priesthood ordinance because it’s not required to achieve exaltation.
    My question is, if a woman who is not ordained to the priesthood, lays her hands on the head of her child/husband, is it any different than her offering a prayer? Does she have power to speak in the name of God for comfort, healing, etc? If so, do we attribute that to a unique woman at a unique time, or is there a pattern for women to have this power?

  29. Jessawhy, those are the right questions, I think. Though, I would disagree with your husband’s limited definition. Men typically didn’t state that they were doing blessings or healings by the authority of the priesthood until the 20th century. They simply acted in the name of Jesus Christ. The earliest ordinances reflect this as well (think of the baptismal and sacramental prayers). Historically it was considered the right of members to bless and heal in the name of Jesus Christ. Different people have varying levels of faith and consequently power. Joseph envisioned the endowment bestowing power on the saints. Hence, “the endowment of power.”

  30. Jessawhy says:

    I asked my husband if he maybe meant “saving ordinances” instead of just “ordinances” and he agreed.
    Which makes more sense in my mind.
    So, based on your comment, do you believe there is too much done in the name of the priesthood? (that which was previously done in the name of Jesus Christ?)
    It seems to me that this change is indeed what has excluded women from excercising spiritual gifts of healing, etc.
    Also, you said I was asking the right questions, but these are not questions I hear at church, much les answers.
    Why do you think that is?

  31. Jessawhy says:

    Today I read in Alma that when Alma became the High Priest (I also discovered that there is no use of the word “priesthood” in the Book of Mormon)he was not ordained or set-apart, he was “consecrated.” It struck me as an odd word considering we think of it in such a different context. (I’ve been reading the women and the priesthood Part I)
    I think this idea is interesting because maybe consecrate is not the same thing as ordain? (any thoughts?)

  32. Jessawhy, I really believe that the current Church hierarchy has the divine right/obligation to set doctrine and policy in the Church. To be fair, I was a bit over-generalizing. People definitely viewed things as priesthood ordinances in the 19th century, but there happened to be less of a focus on explicit naming of authority in those ordinances. The reality is that it is the Church’s duty to save souls and minister the basic doctrine of Christ. I think it does a pretty good job of it.

    Grappling with history and discerning the ramifications of it in our day is sometimes challenging, and I don’t think it is something that the Church is particularly required to do with what little time it has.

    These are also some of the most complicated issues in the Church. Hopefully we will have a study published this year that you may find useful, but even if we don’t, now more than ever there are resources to explore.

  33. Jessawhy says:

    Thanks

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