At the last priesthood session of General Conference (April 2007), President Monson spoke about a tender experience during his military service.
During the final phases of World War II, I turned 18 and was ordained an elder—one week before I departed for active duty with the navy. A member of my ward bishopric was at the train station to bid me farewell. Just before train time, he placed in my hand a book which I hold before you tonight. Its title: The Missionary’s Hand Book. I laughed and commented, “I’ll be in the navy—not on a mission.” He answered, “Take it anyway. It may come in handy.”
I bet he would have laughed further had he known that this book was one of the first projects of Gordon B. Hinckley’s Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee of the Church (see reviews for initial chapters here and here) and that he would later spend decades with him in Church service. He further wrote:
During basic training our company commander instructed us concerning how we might best pack our clothing in a large seabag. He then advised, “If you have a hard, rectangular object you can place in the bottom of the bag, your clothes will stay more firm.” I thought, “Where am I going to find a hard, rectangular object?” Suddenly I remembered just the right rectangular object—The Missionary’s Hand Book. And thus it served for 12 weeks at the bottom of that seabag.
The night preceding our Christmas leave, our thoughts were, as always, on home. The barracks were quiet. Suddenly I became aware that my buddy in the adjoining bunk—a member of the Church, Leland Merrill—was moaning in pain. I asked, “What’s the matter, Merrill?”
He replied, “I’m sick. I’m really sick.”
I advised him to go to the base dispensary, but he answered knowingly that such a course would prevent him from being home for Christmas. I then suggested he be quiet so that we didn’t awaken the entire barracks.
The hours lengthened; his groans grew louder. Then, in desperation, he whispered, “Monson, aren’t you an elder?” I acknowledged this to be so, whereupon he pleaded, “Give me a blessing.”
I became very much aware that I had never given a blessing. I had never received such a blessing; I had never witnessed a blessing being given. My prayer to God was a plea for help. The answer came: “Look in the bottom of the seabag.” Thus, at 2:00 a.m. I emptied on the deck the contents of the bag. I then took to the night-light that hard, rectangular object, The Missionary’s Hand Book, and read how one blesses the sick. With about 120 curious sailors looking on, I proceeded with the blessing. Before I could stow my gear, Leland Merrill was sleeping like a child.
During this time, the Church had a policy that members should not write down or disseminate patterns for ordinances. Even Melchizedek Priesthood Handbooks and General Handbooks of Instruction didn’t carry instructions on ordinances. Missionary handbooks are the exception. While The Missionary’s Hand Book was the first general handbook for missionaries, mission presidents had been publishing similar guides for decades. What is especially interesting about the patterns outlined in President Monson’s The Missionary’s Hand Book, is that the form for blessing the sick is one of the last bridges we have to the more complex rituals of the nineteenth century:
A few drops of consecrated oil should be poured upon the head of the sick person. One elder then lays his hands on the person’s head, and may say in substance: Calling the individual by name, -”In the name of Jesus Christ and in the authority of the holy priesthood I lay my hands upon your head and anoint you with this oil which has been dedicated for the blessing of the sick to the end that you may be made whole and restored to health.” To this may be added such words of blessing as the Spirit may dictate.
The missionary is then instructed that two or more elders are to seal the anointing following the same pattern. President Monson didn’t say whether he had oil on hand, and there is a provision in the handbook that if no oil is available a blessing without oil is acceptable.