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