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.