Consecrated oil as medical therapy

With Sam’s recent post on alternative therapies in the Mormon corridor, I can’t help but think of our progenitors and their approach to healing. Many in the 19th century hierarchy championed Thomsonian remedies, but even with the professionalizing of Deseret’s medical arts during the latter part of that century, the Saints had great faith in the healing properties of consecrated oil.

Today, many believe that consecrated oil is in some ways a Dumbo’s feather, a tool to focus the faith of those participating in the healing ritual and one that isn’t particularly necessary for the healing ritual. However, after the Kirtland endowment when anointing the sick emerged as a standard practice, the Saints viewed consecrated oil as a true therapeutic agent. Just as in the earliest days of the Church when the healers would lay hands on the afflicted region and pray or command the sickness to depart. Oil was administered to the area of affliction and taken internally as a medicine. This perspective endured well into the 20th century.

The therapeutic virtue of oil was even adopted by outsiders. Zina Young addressed the first annual conference of the YLMIA and stated:

Take pains, mothers, to teach your children the virtue of consecrated oil. Why it has not been long since two Gentile ladies told me they had discovered that it was one of the best medicines in the world. (1)

To be sure, there were skeptics among the Saints, but the Church periodicals and Newspapers frequently promoted popular use of consecrated oil:

In talking with Dr. R. B. Pratt one day about [pin worms], she suggested that the most recent medical cure for this was the use of enemas of plenty of olive oil. She asserted that the oil would kill every parasite with which it came in contact. I wondered how many more uses the medical fraternity would find for our blessed olive oil. Every few days I find in the papers some testimony of eminent authority to the usefulness of olive oil for this or that disease. For years I have used consecrated oil in my family for burns and cuts, to the infinite amusement of some of my over practical neighbors, who think that oil is only to drop on the head in anointing, and is not for the immediate healing of any and every disease. I used the oil because of the faith I had in the blessing which had been pronounced upon it by the Priesthood…Some of my dear acquaintances who strain at a knat and swallow the camel object to my using consecrated oil for such common purposes as burns, warts, or for enemas in case of pin worms or other internal disorders. Well, if the oil is meant only to be used on the head I have never found it out. (2)

One sister wrote of an exchange she had with a skeptical mother, whose child was “ruptured, and the friction caused by his truss ha[d] chafed him badly”:

” ‘Have you any consecrated oil?’ said I.
” ‘Yes, but I would not dare use it myself; that is only for the Priesthood to use,’ said she.
” ‘What an idea!’ I replied; ‘isn’t it to be used in the household of faith? Do you think I’d let my child suffer when a few applications of healing oil would soothe and relieve? And if you would use enough faith, without doubt, it would effect a cure. But she would not be convinced, and as I left she was planning to send to the drug store for Vaseline.” (3)

The church hierarchy also supported the taking of oil internally. At a Sunday fast meeting at the Temple, Ruth May Fox recorded the preaching of President Joseph F. Smith:

Pres J. F. Smith spoke to us on the principles of Faith and Prayer. Said it was absurd for men to pour a drop of oil on the top of the head and pray that it might permeate the whole being. We should annoint the sick all over and give them oil inwardly. Pres. Cannon also spoke on the same subject. (4)

Today we have medicines that are proven to be efficacious. We understand the mechanisms of our therapies. Mortality rates are incredibly low, much better than our 19th century co-religionists. I still can’t help but admire the faith of our early Saints who took a more magical world view and in many instances were able to crystallize God’s power in the ritual forms.

The excerpts contained in this post are from the collaborative research of Kris Wright and myself on healing among Mormons.

______________

  1. “First Territorial Annual Conference of the Y. L. M. I. Association” in Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 3, no. 2 (1891) pg. 92.
  2. Anonymous, “In Woman’s Sphere,” Deseret News, March 11, 1893.
  3. Lucy May Green, “Experience,” in Relief Society Magazine, 5 (June, 1918): 331-332.
  4. Ruth May Fox, Diary 1894-1939, typescript, MS 5469, June 3, 1900, LDS Church Archives.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Ah, good old fashioned Mormonism. I love it.

    We have a cultural tendency to conceptualize the trees of the Garden as being apple trees. But according to Jewish tradition, the Tree of Life was–yes, you guessed it–an olive tree. So the olive has life-giving powers.

    In a slightly weird tangential note, I never liked olives as a boy. Yuck. Then one day I read Truman Madsen’s Ensign article on the Atonement, which was just filled with olive symbolism (such as gethsemanee being the place where the olives were pressed into oil, that sort of thing). So, inspired, I go to the fridge and give an olive a try, and this time around I decide that I like it after all. I have loved olives ever since.

    Several times as a GD teacher I have brought olives for the class to eat (either when studying the Atonement or the Allegory of the Olive Tree).

  2. That is an excellent anecdote, Kevin. My good friend recently went to Italy and brought me back some of the special, secret-double-hand-shake, olive-oil. Yum! Still, I don’t particularly love olives. Perhaps I need to study the atonement more (grin).

  3. Our keychains need to be MUCH bigger.

    Actually, this is very cool. I like the advertising-testimonial tone of the comments.

  4. Thanks for this; it’s a topic I’ve been lazily kicking around in the back of my mind.

    So when did Church leaders begin instructing us to do the “absurd” and only annoint the head?

  5. Jared, it was a slow process. Priesthood and Missionary Manuals going back to 1906 only talk about anointing the head with oil. Quinn notes that the Presiding Bishopric in 1935 instructed that the Missionaries could, contrary to the instruction of Elder Widtsoe, anoint afflicted areas and the saints could ingest it.

    In 1955 JFSII wrote in the Improvement Era:

    “Is it proper to anoint the afflicted parts of the body?”
    No. The anointing should be on the crown of the head. (It could be a matter of impropriety to anoint afflicted parts of the body.)

    “Is it permissible to administer the oil internally?”
    No. Taking the oil internally is not part of the administration. If persons who are ill wish to take oil internally, they are not forbidden, but many sicknesses will not be improved by oil in the stomach.

  6. Green Flake, one of three “colored servants” in the vanguard Mormon pioneer company, used to carry a bottle of consecrated oil with him.

  7. As a missionary, I was told by a relatively new member of the church that “I cook all my food with consecrated oil, that way I don’t have to bless it.”

  8. Marjorie Conder says:

    My MIL with her very rural Mormon Utah upbringing, used consecrated oil in the “old way” to the end of her long life. (She died in 1993 at age 95) Early on I thought it was the oddest thing I had ever heard of. Later as I learned more about Mormon faith healing practices it was intriguing. However, once my husband and I ended up taking her to the emergency room because she had aspirated some to the oil. So it didn’t always work as intended.

  9. Interesting as always J.

  10. Oil also came from christian traditions (both Catholic and early modern English) of anointing the body for burial, emphasizing the omnipresent overlap of illness and death for them.

    I love olives. I love olive oil. I love olive trees. I’m still fascinated by the image of the olive press at Gethsemane, squeezing the sacred chrism from the flesh of the fruit (I assume it’s not a vegetable?) Thanks for reminding me of that.

  11. smb, the unction extreme was extended to the dying only relatively late in Christian history, no?

  12. StillConfused says:

    When I got my last full body massage, the gal used olive oil. I wondered why. Now I know.

  13. About 10 years ago after I gave birth in a Utah hospital, some woman (not my nurse) came into my room and gave me a vial of olive oil. She suggested that I rub it on my breasts prior to nursing my baby, saying that it would prevent soreness and would also be a good source of fat for the baby. I was too loopy at the time to figure out who the woman was–I figured she was with LaLeche League or some such thing. But ever since then I’ve wondered if she wasn’t some stripe of fundamentalist Mormon who believed olive oil had some sort of magical properties.

    FWIW, I use an Olive Oil based shampoo from The Body Shop. I love the smell and the way it leaves my hair so soft.

  14. Pilgrimgirl: I think that’s more alternative/LaLeche than Mormon. Because of my wife’s readings and preference for all things natural, we use extra-virgin olive oil for all kinds of stuff, including baby oil.

  15. Pilgrim girl, I can assure you that it wasn’t a La Leche League Leader. Or if it was, she was acting in opposition to her training.

    I don’t have any better ideas of who it could have been, though!

  16. Does olive oil contradict LLL advice?

    I can’t remember much about LLL–having only attending one meeting after my first baby and being so self-conscious about my boobs (having been raised in an uber-modest LDS home) and being really freaked out by the women coming over as I was nursing to give me advice about nursing and all the while my face was turning brighter shades of red out of pure embarrassment. I soon discovered that I nursed just fine when I wasn’t surrounded by lots of other women critiquing my technique. And FWIW, I got lots less self-conscious about it as time went on, too. :)

  17. Well, I think part of the problem is some over-exuberant other mothers at meetings, not the leaders. I was at a meeting once where the moms at the meeting were jumping all over another mom who wanted advice on how to deal with a separation from her baby (her inlaws invited the adult children on a cruise for their anniversary, but not babies or kids), leaving the poor leaders to defend her. And LLL leaders are ‘just’ volunteers with families of their own, I doubt many of them take time to prowl the hospital halls and offer unsolicited ‘advice!’

    But yeah, I think OO is against LLL (and other ‘pro’) bf advice, esp. in terms of the ‘healthy fat for the baby.” Babies don’t need to be ingesting anything other than their own nother’s milk. I think tiny bits of lanolin based creams AFTER a feeding, or medicated creams to treat something specific, are the only things recommended.

    When I search the LLL site for olive oil (www.llli.org), the first two hits are recipes! and the third is suggesting a few drops of oil on the breast skin to lubricate the flanges of a breast pump, and it specifically mentions not putting it on the nipple.

  18. One of the midwives my mother-in-law used when giving birth at home (this is all very weird to me) used consecrated oil as a lubricant when the baby got stuck in the birth canal. I’ve never been sure what to make of that story. Now I know it’s not the only one out there.

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