In discussing women and healing in the early church, one of the most commonly asked questions seems to be, “How could this have happened? Why did things change?” The most current podcast over at Mormon Stories offers a reason that I am not that familiar with. Linda King Newell’s “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken” is certainly one of the seminal pieces on women’s participation in LDS ritual healing, but it is the reply to her presentation that caught my attention.
In response to the paper, D. Michael Quinn states,
Like the timid woman who wrote the LDS Relief Society General President in 1938 to ask “is it orthodox and sanctioned by the Church” to exercise the gift of healing, LDS women generally have lost that gift because they have demanded the approval of a Church hierarchy to exercise something the hierarchy did not and could not give them or take away from them. In Mormon theology, faith and healing are gifts of God, not of the Church, and certainly not of a changeable administrative policy.
According to the rigors of Mormon theology, LDS women have no need to resent the Church hierarchy for denying the exercise of gifts which the Book of Mormon said “never will be done away, even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the children of men.” If Mormon women have lost the gift of healing, they have abandoned it through fearfulness, ignorance, or faithlessness; it has not been taken away. (1) emphasis mine
Ouch! Upon further reading, I discovered that laying the blame for the curtailed role of women in the Church at their own feet is not particularly new. Susa Young Gates also held women, specifically one particular woman, responsible for this their more limited participation:
We read that splendid revelation given through a prophet to a woman, recorded in the twenty-fifth section of the Doctrine and Covenants. This revelation was given only three months after the Church was organized; we read there that a woman was an elect lady, called of God! Nor was she to murmur because of the things she had not seen. And did she murmur? For it was wise that she should not see them. Why, she must not see, we vainly ask of our own willful, womanly hearts. But this woman was to be a comfort to her husband; and she was, yes, she was a comfort for many years thereafter.
And she was to be a scribe to her prophet-husband. There was only one prophet, and not even giftd, ambitious Oliver Cowdery could usurp his place. And this woman, the prophet’s wife, was permitted to be a scribe, a counselor, and a comfort to that youthful struggling leader. Ah, that she had always remained true to her calling and election! And further, she was to be ordained to expound the scripture. Not only set apart, but ordained! And if then, why not now? If you ask, you must find your answer in the history of this chosen and elect lady. Who could say that it was a woman’s act which closed the gates of paradise a second time upon women? (2) emphasis mine.
I am struck by the accusatory suggestion that Emma is a second “Eve” – that Gates invokes the imagery of Eden (minus the noble choice paradigm). It is also valuable to consider what Susa Young Gates perceives the second paradise to be.
Reproaching women for the loss of the exercise of some of their spiritual gifts just doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, it makes me sad. The answer to the question, “Why did things change?” doesn’t seem to come quite so easily or conveniently packaged, even in words like “taken” or “abandoned”. For those who do wonder about what happened and struggle to know what to do with their spiritual gifts that are now prescribed, Kathleen Flake makes some poignant observations and illustrates an uncomfortable quandary that is raised by these issues:
My great grandmother left a journal of everyday life in a Mormon town on the Arizona Frontier, where she served in a Relief Society presidency. In the same tone as we today speak of visiting teaching very matter-of-factly and with confidence that it is our responsibility and gift she writes of her many visits to heal the sick by the laying on of hands. More intriguingly, she records without fanfare the blessings of comfort and promise, again by the laying of hands, which she received from and gave to the other members of her presidency when the weight of their responsibilities became heavy to bear. One hundred years later as I serve on another Mormon frontier, the inner city, I am vaguely aware that I am imitating social norms when I limit my ministrations to praying for, presiding over, advising, and exhorting others. I can sometimes even admit to myself that I imitate the norm at the expense of what I know to be the responsibilities and gifts given to me by God. Yet, I rationalize my choice in terms of what others are doing and what they would do to me if I acted differently. Also, I confess to you that I don’t even consider it possible to do what my grandmother actually did so routinely. Hers were opportunities unknown to me and so I have trouble seeking them. Besides, everybody tells me I am doing such a great job.
What will I say when Grandmother asks me how this could have happened? Will I get away with saying, “It was what was expected of me and, besides, I didn’t know that alternatives existed”? Doubtful. The harder question, I imagine, will come when God asks me why I cared so little for these gifts or why I was so vain as to think I could “save souls” without them.(3)
(2) Susa Young Gates, “The Open Door For Women, Opened the 17th of March 1842 by the Prophet Joseph Smith” Young Woman’s Journal, March 1905, Volume 16, Issue 3, p. 116-117.