In his address at the Priesthood session of General Conference, Elder Oaks delivered the type of sermon that historians will read one hundred years from now. His sermon, actually a liturgical treatise, frames Mormon ritual healing in some perhaps surprising ways. It is my intent to situate his discourse in the historical context of the development of Mormon ritual healing, albeit on the fly. 
Section I – Faith and Works
Latter-day Saints believe in applying the best available scientific knowledge and techniques. We use nutrition, exercise, and other practices to preserve health and we enlist the help of healing practitioners, such as physicians and surgeons, to restore health.
Early Mormons, like other evangelical populists during the Second Great Awakening, rejected standards heroic allopathic medicine and instead focused on botanic cures (pejoratively called “sectarian medicine”) popularized as Thomsonianism. A number of early Church leaders were botanic physicians and it is consequently no surprise that Brigham Young railed against traditional physicians. He once compared the remedies of the Thomsonians to the Restored Gospel and the remedies of traditional physicians to apostate Christianity (note that their therapy of choice was mercury(I) chloride). It is therefore not difficult to find statements from Young decrying the use of physicians. Yet as Oaks focuses in his sermons, Young also made the point of saying that the Saints should do all they could (i.e., employ botanic cures) as well as seek miraculous healings.
While many other nineteenth-century religious groups that rejected allopathic medicine retained their antipathies, Mormons leaders embraced modern medicine as it became clinically viable. Young famously sent men and women to eastern medical schools to thwart the inroads of gentile doctors. So while Young’s comments do apply to the “alternative therapies” of his time they are consistently construed by Oaks as applying to modern clinical medicine in the Mormonism of today.
Section II – Power by Faith
The standard Christianity of Joseph Smith’s day was cessationist. Cessationism is the view that the miracles of the bible were necessary for the confirmation of the Gospel, but that God no longer did such things. To this (and many other things) Joseph Smith was an iconoclast. As if the Book of Mormon itself were not enough, as Oaks shows, its text repeatedly states that if miracles and healing cease it is because faith has ceased.
All early church members were authorized to heal and experience the gifts of the spirit. Priesthood was a type of authorization. When Smith amplified the narrative of Enoch he described how all high priests could have power “by faith” to work many great miracles. For the early saints there was not priesthood power, but the power in the priesthood by faith. Perhaps an illustrative analogy is strength and muscles. The existence of a muscle does not necessarily mean that there is strength. One can easily have muscles and yet be weak. Moreover, Joseph Smith taught that the priesthood and then all the Saints needed to be “endowed with power,” including the power to heal. More recently, even Elder McConkie confessed that despite common usage, there really isn’t “priesthood power” only power by faith in the priesthood.
At the time of Joseph Smith and early-Utah period, Latter-day Saints were the only religious group besides the “Dunkers” that practiced divine healing. And the Saints viewed it is a sign of the Restoration. Protestant Divine Healing started up in the 1870s and grew until the popular healing movements of the Pentacostals at the turn of the Twentieth century. Latter-day Saints struggled with how to understand non-Mormon healing and it was the cause of some very significant liturgical shifts.  As did a number of church leaders during that time, Oaks recognizes non-Mormon divine healing as the fruits of belief and faith in Jesus Christ.
Section III – Priesthood Power and Authority
Here Oaks encourages the use of “priesthood power.” However, after testifying to the reality miraculous healings in the church, Oaks frames it in terms of authority:
There are five parts to the use of priesthood authority to bless the sick: (1) the anointing, (2) the sealing of the anointing, (3) faith, (4) the words of the blessing, and (5) the will of the Lord.
Oaks points to the examples of anointing the sick in the New Testament and the anointing of Kings and Priests in the Jewish Bible. He does not say it, but the anointing ritual for healing now used by the Church is and adaption of the Kirtland Temple anointing (where else do we seal anything?). He does however highlight the theological antecedents of empowerment and sanctification.
In describing the sealing of the anointing, Oaks quotes Brigham Young again relating to the ability of the Priesthood to channel the power of God to heal. The complete excerpt from Young’s sermon is intriguing:
When we are prepared, when we are holy vessels before the Lord, a stream of power from the Almighty can pass through the tabernacle of the administrator to the system of the patient, and the sick are made whole; the headache, fever or other disease has to give way. My brethren and sisters, there is virtue in us if we will do right…
In addressing the need for faith, Oaks takes a decidedly modern liturgical view. In the 1920s, the Grant administration evaluated all the Church liturgy and specifically the healing liturgy, reforming it. Activities which seemed increasingly magical in light of modern science like repeat anointing, drinking consecrated oil or applying it to the area of affliction became outmoded. Healers were removed from the temple, baptism for health was ended, and eventually church members were counseled against seeking out blessings from Patriarchs. Quoting President Kimball, Elder Oaks describes how only one anointing is necessary and how after that anointing, healing is a function of the recipients faith.
Now it is true that Joseph Smith frequently taught that failed healing could be caused by the lack of faith of the recipient, he also taught that they could fail do to the lack of power of the administrant (or due to the will of God). However, the modern tendency has been to explain failed blessings in terms of the lack of faith of the recipient and the will of God alone.  Oaks addresses the latter cause at the end of his discourse.
In discussing the content of blessings, Oaks takes the position that beyond the anointing and sealing, additional words are not necessary. He clearly values these blessings and indicates that they can be inspired prophecies, he also recognizes that not all ritual administrants are accurate in their pronouncements. He confesses his own struggles at times to access divine inspiration in the ritual moment. This conflict has been the source of great reflection among Latter-day Saints since the beginning and Oaks again takes a decidedly modern approach. Oaks quotes an excerpt of another one of Brigham Young’s sermons and relates it to priesthood administration. The complete paragraph is extraordinary:
And so you may follow on through every quorum there is in the Church, not only Seventies, High Priests, Elders and Bishops, but also the Priests, Teachers and Deacons, who administer to the people in going from house to house. It is their duty to live so that they know and understand the mind and will of the Lord concerning the people to whom they administer, as much as it is mine to know the mind and will of the Lord concerning the entire people. And it is the duty of every father and mother to live so that they may have the mind and will of the Lord concerning their duties to their families. If they are not called to exercise the priesthood which they hold, more than to administer to their children, it is their duty to live so as to know how to teach, lead and advise their children; and if they are disposed they may have the privilege, for it is God’s mind and will that they should know just what to do fur them when they are sick. Instead of calling for a doctor you should administer to them by the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, and give them mild food, and herbs, and medicines that you understand; and if you want the mind and will of God at such a time, get it, it is just as much your privilege as of any other member of the Church and kingdom of God. It is your privilege and duty to live so that you know when the word of the Lord is spoken to you and when the mind of the Lord is revealed to you. I say it is your duty to live so as to know and understand all these things. Suppose I were to teach you a false doctrine, how are you to know it if you do not possess the Spirit of God? As it is written, “The things of God knoweth no man but by the Spirit of God.” 
This excerpt has a lot more going on in it than smaller portions used in Oaks’ talk, though his usage is entirely consistent with the larger quotation. A Young sermon of which this reminds me is addressed to women:
Learn to take proper care of your children. If any of them are sick the cry now, instead of “Go and fetch the Elders to lay hands on my child!” is, “Run for a doctor.” Why do you not live so as to rebuke disease? It is your privilege to do so without sending for the Elders. You should go to work to study and see what you can do for the recovery of your children. If a child is taken sick with fever give it something to stay that fever or relieve the stomach and bowels, so that, mortification may not set in. Treat the child with prudence and care, with faith and patience, and be careful in not overcharging it with medicine. If you take too much medicine into the system, it is worse than too much food. But you will always find that an ounce of preventive is worth a pound of cure. Study and learn something for yourselves. It is the privilege of a mother to have faith and to administer to her child; this she can do herself, as well as sending for the Elders to have the benefit of their faith. 
In both of these excerpts we see Young’s disdain for gentile medicine and his desire to have the Saints be filled with the power of God by faith. As discussed above, gentile medicine has grown to be efficacious and has been promoted by the Church for 140 years or so. The aspiration for faith sufficient for miracles is still present. As Oaks outlines, however, priesthood authority is the necessary key, not charismata: “The words spoken in a healing blessing can edify and energize the faith of those who hear them, but the effect of the blessing is dependent upon faith and the Lord’s will, not upon the words spoken by the elder who officiated.”
- This is been a focus of research for a number of years now and Kris Wright and I have published a number of studies on the topic. In approaching this discourse with this perspective, no one should read this as a depreciation of Elder Oaks. The section titles are of my own creation. Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright, “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847,” Journal of Mormon History 35 (Summer 2009): 42-87; Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright, “‘They Shall Be Made Whole’: A History of Baptism for Health,” Journal of Mormon History 34 (Fall 2008): 69-112.
- See Jonathan Stapley and Kris Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History, forthcoming (Winter, 2011).
- Brigham Young, sermon, July 10, 1870, JD, 14:72.
- For a detailed study of this interaction see Jonathan Stapley, “Mormonism’s Last Rites,” forthcoming.
- Brigham Young, Sermon, August 31, 1871, JD, 18:71-2.
- Brigham Young, Sermon, November 14, 1869, JD, 38:155.